It was 8 AM on the last Tuesday in June 1986. Squeezed inside the D train for the ride in from Flatbush, gripping a pole slick with sweat, I held the New York Times in my other hand. I had just caught sight of the lead story.
The Supreme Court had upheld "sodomy" laws. They had issued the decision yesterday -- the day after the Lesbian and Gay Pride march.
We could parade all we liked. We were criminals still.
Cowards. They hadn't dared to do it on Friday. They delayed. Until we'd marched, hundreds of thousands of us, in city after city. Until we'd dispersed. Then, the next day, yesterday -- as I waded through eight hours of work, typing, filing, wallowing in my annual post-Pride depression, pondering the irony of demanding my right to kiss women when I hadn't kissed a woman in a very long time, wondering how many more years I'd leave the march alone -- they, the black-robed arbiters of decency, stepped up to the bench and intoned their verdict.
Guilty. Every pussy-eating girl of us, every cocksucking boy.
I fumed as the train rattled along. Sweat trickled down my back. My shirt stuck to my skin. We were packed tight, and the air conditioning had broken down, as usual. The train was starting to stink. A blinding pain behind my eye told me I was grinding my teeth. The ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan seemed to never end.
I stared at the Times. Bowers versus Hardwick. Bowers was the attorney general of Georgia. And Michael Hardwick? One night, he was in bed with his boyfriend. Or his husband, or maybe it was a one-night stand. Whoever it was, it was a man, and he was in Michael's bed, in Michael's bedroom, in Michael's home. In Atlanta, Georgia. Where a pair of police officers proceeded to enter Michael Hardwick's apartment, and then enter Michael Hardwick's bedroom, and then arrest Michael Hardwick for the crime of entering his boyfriend, or his husband, or letting his man enter him, or maybe not, maybe it was a manual affair, oral, anal, we don't know the details, but the police put a stop to it. For that night, anyway. Once Michael Hardwick got himself bailed out of jail who knows how long it took him to head right back to criminal conduct? Not long, I was sure. Funny thing about sex. Love. You just can't legislate it away.
The train emerged from under the ground and swung out over the East River. Flexing my knees to keep my balance as we lurched across the Manhattan Bridge, I glared out the window. Usually I loved this part of the ride with its magnificent view. My beautiful Brooklyn Bridge off to our left. Beyond it, the harbor, Statue of Liberty to one side, to the other the waters of the Verrazzano Narrows heading out for their rendezvous with the open ocean. Usually I gloried in it. This morning I couldn't stand the sight.
The summer heat was already thickening the morning air into a gloppy soup. The Statue of Liberty shimmered in the steamy haze, grim green giant glimmering like a monstrous mocking mirage. My grandparents must have passed that statue when they arrived in this country. I pictured them on the boat. Children. Pale, rail-thin after a crossing spent puking into buckets, miserable, scared, the voyage in the packed unventilated poverty-class quarters seeming never to end. Then, at last, the statue! Come, you must not miss this sight! They rush onto the deck. They stand there staring, subdued, awestruck as much at the prattle of Yiddish, Italian, Romanian, Greek subsiding to silence as at the icon itself. The sight swiftly recedes. In moments the ship starts to dock at Ellis Island. Everyone dashes below decks to gather their belongings and prepare to disembark. After that it's a rush of movement, bewildering to the children.
I found it impossible to picture Bubbie Gussie or my other grandmother, Vera, at that age -- what age? I realized I didn't know any of the details, when they came, how they were treated. Had they remembered it all to their dying day? Or had it blurred to a jumble of confused images, a sepia-toned set piece culled from books and film, even the emotional memory inauthentic, the authorized feelings -- awe, hope, love for the new land of freedom -- superimposed on the actual experience, itself inaccessible beneath the official version?
I know one thing, I thought, as the train rolled off the bridge. That statue is a goddamn lie. Ask the descendants of slaves. Ask Native people, or the Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps, or Puerto Ricans who don't even get to have their own country.
Ask Michael Hardwick.
I didn't get much work done that day. The phone rang and rang. Elena Rojas, Nathan Lowenstein, my best friend Babe. Other activists, old friends, folks from my union. Everyone talking about how to respond to the court ruling. Good thing my boss wasn't in. He'd left me a ton of tasks -- typing, calls, photocopying -- but I couldn't concentrate. His trivia would have to wait for another day.
A new group, Lesbians and Gays Against Discrimination -- LGAD -- had called for a protest at Sheridan Square, traditional gathering point in gay Greenwich Village. I got there about 5:30. By 6:00 the postage-stamp park, and the sidewalk in front of it, was packed.
The crowd spilled into the street. We numbered about a thousand when the cops showed up. They started directing traffic around the congested intersection of West Fourth Street, Christopher Street, and Seventh Avenue. They didn't make a move to force the swarm to back off.
That was smart. People were pissed. One touch from a nightstick, one shout of "remember Stonewall" and it would have been 1969 all over again.
While the sound system was being set up, I walked onto Christopher Street. I looked at the bagel place. Where it all began. Of course, it wasn't a bagel place back then. It was a bar. The Stonewall Inn. And of course, I knew the rebellion that took place 17 years ago wasn't the literal beginning; that was in the 50s, with the Mattachines and Bilitis. But Stonewall was where the drag queens and bull dykes, sissy boys and bar butches took it to the next level. They voiced a new battle cry: "Gay power!" Soon a group would spring up, named after Vietnam's freedom fighters: Gay Liberation Front. Soon a movement.
Seventeen years ago. Now here we were again. Time to fight again. And it wasn't just the court. Reagan and Congress were trying to set back what gains we'd won. There was the religious right. And AIDS. A virus was mowing my brothers down. We had to win funds for research and care. We had to stop the church's campaign against condoms. I ground my teeth. Once again, I felt, we needed a new movement.
"Testing one two three." The sound check broke through my musings. There'll be plenty of chances, I told myself. Today's today. Michael Hardwick, here I come. I jumped off the bench and pushed my way back through the crowd.
Dozens were lining up to speak. One of the Gay Rights Council folks had been holding forth for five minutes. A big, middle-aged, crew cut dyke pressed up against him waiting to speak. He wrapped up, saying, "Please limit yourselves to two minutes, and tell us who you are and what group you're with."
The woman grabbed the mike out of his hand and bellowed, "My name is Every Dyke and I represent the lesbian nation!" A great roar rose. "I only have one thing to say to the judges. You may think we're a bunch of sissies and perverts that you can roll right over, but we are more than that. We are an army of lovers, and an army of lovers cannot fail!"
A soft-spoken young guy from Black Men United stepped up next. "Sisters and brothers," he began. He looked at the people, and at the traffic backing up on Seventh Avenue. "Sisters and brothers," he tried again, louder, competing unsuccessfully with the taxicabs' honking horns. He turned to his side and crooked his finger, summoning two tall, lean men in leather vests. They bent, interlocking their fingers to create a sturdy platform, and boosted him up so he towered above everyone. "Sisters and brothers," he said again, and now, as if his voice were a siren, the crowd grew silent, heads upturned, struck by the heroic figure he cut up there. Stillness came over us, as though we were supplicants and he an oracle about to tell us how to proceed. "The supremes want to push us back into the closet? Jerry Falwell? Ronald Reagan? Pope John Paul George Ringo? Well, we have got news for all of them; the whole tired right wing, bigoted, backward crowd. We have got news, don't we?"
"Yes!" shouted hundreds of voices.
"And here's our news: They say get back --"
"We say fight back!" came the answering call, swelling up from what suddenly seemed like thousands of throats, tens of thousands, millions of suffering people exploding into action, silent no more.
The "fight back" chant continued for several minutes. Finally it started to fade. Several more speakers took their turn. Babe was next in line. As she was handed the mike, she pulled me to her side. "Will you hold it for me, Randy? My hands are shaking."
"Sure. It'd be an honor." I held the microphone before her, putting my other arm around her waist to bolster her. I couldn't tell if her trembling was nervousness or anger. As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew.
"I'm Babette Poole and I'm from the gay caucus of People Against Intervention in El Salvador -- and you are beautiful!" Her voice boomed out, confident, powerful. "Do you know how beautiful you are?" Clapping, shouting, hooting. One voice called out, "How beautiful, honey?" Babe smiled, looked in that voice's direction, and said, "You are exquisite, my sisters and brothers. You are gorgeous, you are stunning." More applause and shouts of affirmation. "But I'm not talking about how good looking you are. I'm talking about your spirit. Our spirit! They can't beat us down, and that's a beautiful thing." Babe raised her hand to quell the noise. People quieted. When she spoke again, it was in a different tone. "You know, they will always try. The harder we fight the harder they'll try to push us back. That's what's behind the Hardwick decision. The Supreme Court is their ace in the hole. That's where they go when they're scared of the people's struggle. Remember the Dred Scott decision? That was because slaves were rebelling. Refusing to be enslaved. And you know what?" Her voice was slowly rising in volume. "The Supreme Court -- the racist, slavery-upholding highest court in the land -- couldn't save slavery. Do you remember how we ended slavery?"
People were listening, nodding, looking serious. God, she was something. God, I loved her. A little shiver danced down my spine as Babe orated. God, I was lucky. We'd been thrown together as college roommates in Ann Arbor -- pure chance, yet here we were, 15 years later, still stuck like glue. The only glitch in all these years was an early, misguided attempt at a sexual relationship that we quickly recognized was wrong for both of us. We'd survived. Fast friends, for life. As I held the mike and looked up at her working the crowd with her fist raised, angry eloquence flowing, she appeared to me to have barely aged. She'd changed her style a bit -- cornrows had replaced the Afro of 1971 -- but her substance? Not at all. Babe was the same firebrand she'd been at 18. "It took a war, sisters and brothers!" she shouted. "It took a bloody civil war to free my people!" That's right, people yelled. War! "Well, we've still got that racist, bigoted, slavery-loving Supreme Court down there in Washington, thinking they can rule over us, thinking they can hold us down, only this time they think they can drive us back into the goddamned closet! Can they?"
"No! No! No!" It was as if a thousand people were one.
"So what are we going to do?"
"Yes, we are going to fight back. We are going to fight so hard that if they don't give us our civil rights we are going to give them another goddamned civil war! Am I right? Are you ready?" Babe looked at me, mouthed the words, "Help me chant," and pulled my head so we were cheek to cheek over the mike.
"Civil rights or civil war!"
The crowd picked it up instantly. "Civil rights or civil war! Civil rights or civil war! Civil rights or civil war!" I glanced around, noticed the frightened eyes of one of the cops on the periphery, and grinned.
The chanting grew louder and louder. As it continued, a young guy I'd never seen before came up to Babe and said, "I'm David Yancy, from LGAD." They shook hands. "You were great."
"We should probably wrap up now."
"I don't think so."
" -- There's too much energy still. We should march. But we've got to announce what's next."
The "civil war" chant was dying down. People were watching Babe confer with David. Someone shouted, "Let's go." Others picked that up. Someone else shouted, "Boycott the Fourth!"
Babe's head shot up. "That's it," she said. "David, that's it -- the Fourth." She leaned over the mike again. "Boycott the Fourth! Boycott the Fourth!"
A new wave of energy rolled over everyone. I was jazzed. This thing wasn't over yet, not by a long shot.
In three days, New York was slated to host what was being touted as the biggest Fourth of July celebration ever. It was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and the city was pulling out all the stops. Diplomatic ceremonies with dignitaries from France. A show of military might, warships steaming into New York harbor, fighter jets zooming overhead. Reagan was going to make a grand entrance on the battleship USS Iowa.
The hoopla for the Statue of Liberty Centennial Fourth of July would fall on a Saturday. Newspapers were predicting that a million New Yorkers and tourists would go down to Battery Park for the festivities.
Babe and David came out of their huddle. As she lifted the mike again, my old friend winked at me.
We were going to crash the party.
Saturday, July 4, 1986. Noon. Sheridan Square, again. Five thousand this time. Bursting with so much angry energy it felt as though we were collectively plugged into an invisible power source, overloaded. About to explode.
I helped Nathan Lowenstein set up the speakers, turn on the portable generator, hook up the microphones. Nathan was straight. He'd been an activist since the Columbia University sit-in of '68. Watching him load batteries, twist wires, plug in mikes, fiddle with the volume settings, I thought he could never have known back then that he'd be here today. Nathan wasn't my only straight friend who'd come. He'd brought at least a dozen others. They checked in with Elena Rojas, who was coordinating volunteers to carry out the day's tasks. Once she gave them their assignments they fanned out to assist with security, hold signs, quietly do whatever was asked.
I was glad they were here. If anyone ever again tried to say the gay movement had no support, I'd point to this day. We have friends, I'd say. We're not alone.
A sea of handmade signs filled West Fourth Street. The best, clearly the work of an artist, featured a caricature of the statue, lips curled in an ugly snarl, and the words "Miss Liberty? You Bet I Do."
The rally began. It was clear from the start that the crowd was edgy, more interested in action than words. Willing to sizzle under the blazing July sun, but not to stand still. By the time the fourth or fifth speaker started, people were calling out that it was time to march. Everyone was itching to get down to Battery Park.
We moved onto Seventh Avenue. In a single mass wave, the marchers took over the street. Cops in riot gear surrounded us. Helmets on their heads, nightsticks at the ready. Would they try to block us? Attempt to force us uptown, away from Battery Park? I exchanged a tense glance with Babe and Elena. No one had applied for a sound permit. No one had told the police which way we planned to go. We had known we might have to face them down. If the time was now, if they were trying to stop us before we'd even begun, so be it.
I watched a group of "community affairs" police officers in light blue jackets arguing heatedly with the uniformed lieutenants. Then one of the blue jackets shook a lieutenant's hand. Word went down the ranks. Dozens of cops on motorcycles revved up in front of us. The rest lined up along our sides. They were letting us start. We headed downtown.
"The Fourth of July is a lie! The Fourth of July is a lie!"
Our ranks swelled as we snaked our way south, people joining in from the busy sidewalks of Bleecker, Sixth Avenue, Canal Street. Marching down the canyon of lower Broadway, our chants echoed off the old buildings looming on either side.
"Hi there, girlie-q." Someone tugged at my hand.
I looked down. A wheelchair had pulled up alongside me. "Hey -- Ronny. I didn't see you before."
"I was running late, missed you at Sheridan Square."
"How you feeling?"
He smiled and shrugged. "Better now that I'm here." A feather of guilt tickled my scalp as I realized I hadn't seen Ronny for several months. In fact, the last time I saw him was when he was in the hospital with PCP. Today he seemed better -- he had some color in his cheeks, he wasn't coughing -- but he was drawn and awfully skinny. And the wheelchair was new. Couldn't he walk anymore?
"Wondering about my wheels?" Ronny asked.
"You're a mind reader now?"
"You haven't exactly got a poker face, Randy." Thought I did. Thought I played my feelings close to the chest. He smiled. "Don't worry, I'm not as weak as all that. I just figured this might be a long day and we might walk a long time, and --"
" -- And I wouldn't let him come unless it was in this chair." A tall drag queen decked out in a slinky, shiny red number and pushing Ronny's wheelchair turned toward me, holding out a bejeweled hand. "Since Miss Thing here is too rude to introduce us --"
" -- Sorry, hon'," Ronny said.
"Whatever. I take it you're Randy?" I nodded, and we shook hands. "Bess Truwoman."
"Bess -- what's with the name change?" Ronny hooted. "Yesterday you were Sally Forth."
"Yesterday our esteemed president wasn't in town. Today I'm in a rather first-lady-like frame of mind, if you'll allow me. Now, as I was saying before this boor here interrupted, I'm very pleased to meet you, Randy."
"Me too. You -- what?" Babe was grabbing me, pulling me forward. "I -- nice to meet you, Bess, sorry, guess I'm needed up front."
White marble pillars loomed ahead. Court buildings. A line of police barricades and blue wooden sawhorses blocked the steps to the federal courthouse.
As the front line reached them, David from LGAD stopped. He looked around uncertainly. Nathan nudged Babe to join him. "Tell him we can take these steps," he said. Oh shit, I thought. Here we go. David's going to think Babe's an irresponsible radical. But when she walked over, he greeted her and appeared to ask eagerly for her opinion. They talked, animated, nodding, arms around each other's shoulders.
Meanwhile, behind us, there was physical as well as political pressure to climb the steps and claim the courthouse. People were jostling, pressing up against our backs. There was no choice but to go forward.
And then, in a flash, it was done. In what seemed like magic, barricades were dismantled, flung to the sides, and everyone surged up the steps. I felt a sting in my palm and found a blue wooden splinter. There was no time to pull it out.
"Give me a hand," Nathan shouted. He hefted the generator and PA system while I grabbed the big speaker. Grimacing as metal brushed against the splinter and pushed it deeper into my skin, I hustled to help Nathan get the sound up to the front before the crowd overwhelmed us.
I glanced at the cops. Gripping their nightsticks tight but standing still. Holding back, as they had the other night. Recognizing that they couldn't win this fight.
We rallied at the courthouse for 15 minutes or so. There was no way anyone would listen to more speeches than that. "March! March! March!" The crowd was psyched. Hot and antsy. "Let's go!" people yelled. "Take it to the statue!"
We hurried once again to get the sound system in place. We waited while David and Babe, eager new militant and veteran rebel, the day's ad-hoc leadership team, moved to the front. Then we went on.
"Gay, straight, Black, white, together we struggle, together we fight!" That one picked up steam as we rolled down lower Broadway. I'd never been on a march that moved so fast. The pace was bruising. At times I was trotting. Christ, I've got to start working out, I thought, huffing and puffing and hoping to heaven that we wouldn't break into a run the way anti-apartheid marchers in South Africa did. I'd thrilled to pictures of their demonstrations but I was in no shape to emulate them.
"What the fuck --" Someone slammed into my back. I'd stopped short along with the others in the front line but the force of inertia drove everyone else forward, a ripple effect that lasted several minutes, people stumbling, grabbing onto each other until finally the whole march halted. "What's happening?" people asked. "Can you see what's going on up there?"
Babe took the mike. "Sisters and brothers, we are at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. Wall Street -- that's who the Supreme Court serves. Why do you think they want to keep us down? Why do they uphold anti-gay laws? To keep the people divided, that's why. Keep the workers from uniting to fight back -- against Wall Street!" People cheered like crazy. "So sisters and brothers, we shouldn't be surprised to find that there is a wall of police officers greeting us here at Wall Street. That's why we're stopped. They say we can't proceed. We've come as far as we can go."
"No! No!" lots of voices yelled. "March! March!" Someone shouted, "Mow 'em down!" and there was laughter and applause.
"That's right!" Babe continued. "We have the right to march. But the cops say otherwise. Apparently this bash they're giving in Battery Park isn't open to the likes of us. Liberty! It's a sham!"
"Liberty's a sham! Liberty's a sham!" This new chant rolled from the lead of the march to the back like thunder, and came crashing up again like a tidal wave.
People started pushing forward. Jesus. Behind me, someone's hot breath on my neck. Not 10 feet in front of me, cops arrayed in riot formation.
Hundreds of them. Reinforcements had just arrived, speeding up from lower Broadway in vans and jumping out to block our path. They lowered the visors on their helmets, spread their feet in the ready stance, thrust nightsticks up. I heard a whinny, smelled something pungent, turned to see mounted police lining up. On the other side motors revved: a line of motorcycle cops.
Horses. Harleys. Guns. Nightsticks. I ground my heels against the pavement to hold steady as thousands pushed behind me.
The standoff went on. I was soaked with sweat. Each time the person behind me chanted his hot breath raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
"This is Captain Amione. You are ordered to disperse." The jerk was standing right in front of David, Babe, Elena and Nathan, who'd all been talking to him, trying to negotiate an acceptable route so we could continue. He aimed the bullhorn at their faces. They backed off a bit as his voice blasted into them. "I repeat. This is an illegal assembly. You must disperse, by order of the New York Police Department."
"What ever happened to the First Amendment?" someone yelled. "Oh, I forgot -- no faggots need apply."
Amione again: "You must disperse. This march is over. If you remain in the street you will be arrested. This is your second warning."
David and Babe put their heads together for an instant. David walked into the crowd and started talking to people in twos and threes. Babe grabbed Nathan, Elena and me.
"Listen, here's the deal," she said. "The relationship of forces is too uneven." We nodded. There were thousands of us, but there were hundreds of police, and they were armed. "We just can't get through."
"So?" Nathan asked.
"So we go around them."
At this moment, she said, David and others from LGAD were spreading the word. We would disband -- or appear to. In reality, everyone would keep moving, find their clandestine way to Battery Park, where we'd reassemble and rally. Take side streets, stay together but in small groups. We'll see you in a half hour, they were telling everyone. Meet at the northeast entrance to the park.
"Perfect," Nathan said. I was impressed. He had nearly 20 years of experience with street tactics, and Babe had won his seal of approval. "Let's get the sound to the park."
"Good," Babe said.
We turned around. The street was emptying fast. Babe, Elena, Nathan and I started walking north. I looked behind, at the cops. They were taking off their helmets, wiping sweat from their faces, shaking hands. They thought they'd won. They thought the day was done.
We crossed Pine Street, kept walking up Broadway. I turned back one more time. The cops were heading downtown. Not a single one was looking up our way. "Let's do it," I said.
We slipped left, onto Cedar Street. The next left was onto Trinity Place, and then we were walking south again. Down to Battery Park.
Thick crowds filled the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration -- but not so thick that they didn't part when several thousand people stormed in chanting, "We're gonna beat back the Reagan attack!" My heart was pumping. We did it! We were here, protesting right in the heart of the hypocritical celebration of "liberty."
We had reassembled smoothly. The police never saw us coming. Thousands of them were deployed for the festivities, but most were concentrated at the southwest end for the official ceremonies. Others roamed the crowd, but they were oriented to protect rich VIPs, not to block a march they believed had been broken up a half-hour ago. So we had no trouble gathering, forming ourselves into a tight, cohesive bloc, and stepping lively into the park in cadence to "Beat back the Reagan attack!"
We swept through, voices raised, signs and banners held high. The column of protesters crackled with renewed energy. We were making ourselves heard, and we were as hopped-up and loud as if we'd begun minutes before, not several hours ago.
Once or twice as we topped a rise in the grass we'd get a glimpse of the harbor. The Statue of Liberty, surrounded by warships.
"The Fourth of July is a lie! The Fourth of July is a lie!"
Startled looks from some of the tourists, scared, shrinking away as we plowed through. Others, New Yorkers, I suspected, nodded as we passed. "Gay, straight, Black, white, same struggle, same fight!" That one drew more nods, smiles, raised fists, applause. As we passed swiftly through the throngs, a few folks stepped in to join us. I had no idea if they were straight or gay, but I was gripped, again, by the certainty that we were not alone.
New York, I thought. A rush of love for my adopted hometown gushed up my gullet. Some people came here from other countries hoping to escape poverty; some from small-town America fleeing homegrown bigotry. One way or another, immigrants, so many of us. Struggling our way forward. No thanks to that statue.
Eventually the cops got it together and regrouped. Someone ran up to say she'd seen them forming into lines, donning riot helmets again.
We had already marched all around the park. Not a soul there could have missed us. I wondered what the tourists would tell the folks back home about the hot, sunny July 4 when what must have seemed like a million enraged homosexuals rained on Miss Liberty's parade.
The cops were still some distance away. We stopped to consider what to do. I leaned against a monument of some sort, a tall stone pedestal topped by a great bronze eagle with a 15-foot wingspread. I glanced up at it. One more stupid symbol, I thought. What this country needs is more freedom and fewer statues.
"Randy, give me a hand." Babe interrupted my reverie. "Help me get David up there." At my puzzled expression, she said, "We can rally one more time, use this bird as the stage. It'll draw a lot of attention. Plus, we'll be able to see if the cops start to move in, and then we can shut down and get away. It'd be nice not to end the day in jail."
Babe and I scooped our hands to give David a boost while Nathan grabbed him under the arms and pushed him up. He got his knee onto the pedestal, then pulled himself up to stand, then climbed another 10 feet up onto the sculpture itself.
Babe grabbed my arm. "Now you, Randy." What? Me? "Get up there, and I'll throw you the mike."
"No, you go, Babe."
"I can't, hon' -- my knee won't make it. Just go ahead. You'll know what to say."
"No I won't -- hey, Elena! You go!"
"She's right," Babe said, turning to Elena. "We need to hear from a Latina sister."
We gave Elena a boost, Nathan pushed, and David reached down from his roost atop the eagle, holding on to a wing with his other hand. Once she was up, I threw the microphone to her. She started rapping, and soon had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand. She had a way of linking everything together -- Central America, racism, police brutality, the Hardwick decision. She talked about her own family, and how her grandparents had been pushed off their farm during the Depression, and how outrageous that was since Texas was really Mexico's land. And -- I'm not sure what else she said because, well, maybe it was the heat or my creeping fatigue, but the truth is I started zoning out a little, no longer catching her specific words, starting to just groove on her speech. On her, actually. Somehow I'd never noticed before that Elena was beautiful. Not movie star pretty; her face had too much character for that. Dark eyes seethed. Short black hair shone, glinting beneath each fiery sunbeam. She was beautiful because she was where she belonged, up there on the eagle. A leader. A fighter. Something swelled in my chest. She threw her fist into the air and I clapped, even though I hadn't heard her precise words.
"Now you." Babe tapped my ass. She and Nathan lifted my left foot.
Elena was leading a new chant --"Money for AIDS, not for war! U.S. out of El Salvador!" -- and it was hard to hear over it.
Babe leaned in to my ear. "You get up there now, Randy. David's doing fine, but I want you up there with Elena too."
"Shit. OK." I reached for the top of the pedestal. Standing on the platform of Babe's and Nathan's hands, I pulled myself up. I reminded myself again to get to a gym. My biceps strained. The muscles in my thighs quivered. 99-pound weakling. I wasn't going to make it. Then Elena was bending over, hooking her elbows under my shoulders and pulling me the rest of the way. I leaned against her, wobbly but safe, high above the pavement. David was on her other side, holding onto the eagle's right wing and speaking to the crowd. I grabbed the burnished, hot metal of the left wing with one hand and with the other steadied myself on the cooler stone of the narrow perch I shared with Elena. She held the wing too, her fingers wedged against mine. She put her other hand on my shoulder to steady me.
"Scared of heights?"
"Worth it, though. Right?" She squeezed my shoulder.
I nodded. Definitely.
After David spoke, a line of police moved ominously close. Time to move on. I'd been petrified that Babe expected me to speak. But all I had to do was shout, "Let's go!" I threw the mike down to Nathan, who hastened to set up the sound, and we set off again.
Not all the thousands stayed all the way. Not everyone can spend an entire long, hot day that way. Enough did, though. It was amazing. We marched along South Street past the Fulton Fish Market. We even stopped for another rally. On the waterfront across from Brooklyn, we paused at the offices of the New York Post and let the editors have it for every anti-gay, racist, right wing lie their rag printed every day. Then we headed back uptown.
People were pretty tired by now. As we trudged along, there were stretches when we didn't chant. At one point Bess Truwoman walked through offering drinks from a gallon water jug.
I took a slug and handed the water to Babe. "Where's Ronny?" I asked.
"He's wiped out," Bess said. "I wasn't ready to leave, so I got somebody to take him home."
"How's he been doing?"
"It's up and down. He's got a while left, I think."
We walked in silence side by side for a bit, then Bess pecked me on the cheek and moved on.
Elena nudged me. "Look at those heels," she said. "The whole way. That's got to hurt."
Bess's head tossed back toward us. "Piece of cake."
We made it back to Sheridan Square at about 6:30. After a few wrap-up words from David and Babe, people patted each other's backs, kissed, hugged, and drifted away.
As he disassembled the sound system, I stepped over to Nathan. "Thanks," I said, and reached out to shake his hand.
The straight boy surprised me -- stepped forward and engulfed me in a big hug. His beard scratched against my cheek. As he pulled away I saw tears in his eyes. "It was a very good day," he said quietly. He embraced Babe and Elena, then he waved and walked away, pushing the sound cart up Seventh Avenue.
Babe, Elena and I wearily crossed the street to Tiffany's diner for dinner. We chewed, too pooped to talk much. Elena drank glass after glass of iced tea. She caught me looking and smiled softly at me.
Full, thirst quenched, eager to doff clothes stiff with dried sweat, the three of us descended into the West Fourth Street subway station. Babe boarded the F to Park Slope. Elena and I got onto the D train to Flatbush. She lived a couple stops past me.
As the train approached my station, I stood.
"Where you going?" she asked.
"This is my stop."
"Stay on till mine."
Elena laughed. "I hope it's only because your brain's broiled that you have to ask me that."
She was no longer laughing, but she smiled still, and as she tilted her head to look up at me those dark eyes seemed lit from somewhere deep within. She shook her head. "Randy. I'm asking you to --"
"Oh, OK. Yeah." I was sweating again, although for once it was an air-conditioned train. I felt a pain behind my eyes and tried to stop grinding my teeth.
"OK? Yeah? What does that mean?"
"Sorry. Sorry I'm such an idiot. I just wasn't expecting --"
"Why not?" She crossed her arms and stared me in the face, a small smile still lifting her lips.
I looked away. How could this be? Someone like her? Beautiful, bold, strong, someone who'd climb onto an eagle and inspire thousands. Wanted someone like me?
Then the paradox hit me. All day I'd marched, demonstrated, and risked arrest. Why, I'd been in the lead of a protest that defied the police and disrupted the president's patriotic party. Yet this moment was scaring me more than any of that. Get a grip, I told myself. Don't blow this.
I opened my mouth to speak, but Elena jumped up and covered it with her hand. With her other hand she pulled me back down onto the subway seat.
We sat for a beat, her hand still holding mine. "I won't beg, you know," Elena said.
"Are you kidding? Beg? God, it's just that I can't believe it, I'm so -- you're so --"
My fingers went all tingly as she entwined them in hers. "I'll show you what I'm so and you can show me what you're so. We've already passed your stop. You're coming home with me, Randy." She lifted her free hand and put a finger to my cheek. She wasn't smiling anymore. "We put in a good day's work today, didn't we?" I watched her eyes. I wondered how far into them she'd let me see. "And guess what? Tomorrow's Sunday. We can sleep in." The train pulled into the Church Street station. "Coming?"
I nodded. I stood. Pulled her up. We leaned against each other and the door until it opened.
We walked up Flatbush hand in hand. Elena squeezed. I winced. She looked at me quizzically.
"Splinter," I said.
"I'll take it out."
We climbed the steps of her building. She let go of my hand and dug in her pocket for her keys. She opened the door. She let me in. I imagined thousands of voices cheering. I felt an impulse to turn and wave. Maybe next year, I thought, maybe next Pride parade, I won't be alone. We stepped into the elevator. We ascended. We kissed. Maybe I never was.