Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hello, Yellow Brick Road

You know you can't hold me forever
I didn't sign up with you
I'm not a present for your friends to open
This boy's too young to be singing the blues.

The Yellow Brick Road. The problem wasn't following it - the problem was just FINDING it back when I was a kid. By the time I hit high school, I knew that I was to travel a different road then most of my classmates. I just had to figure out how to get to it. The year is 1977.

I was a sophmore in high school and I was beginning to understand that things weren't quite "normal" for me. I realized that I had a unique attraction to men and felt very isolated. The only representation of a gay man I saw were the limp-wrist faggy types that I stumbled across in movies or even on TV that year, with Billy Crystal playing "Joey" on the ABC sitcom "Soap". That wasn't me. But it was. Frustration, followed by depression settled in nicely.

Sometime in the summer of 1977, I discovered something called The Lines. Now, you have to go back to a time before the Internet, before 976 numbers, before personal ads in gay papers. In fact, the Philadelphia Gay News was just one year old at the time. Everything was new. There was no way for a gay teen to network, with exception of just going to a gay bar (if you could get in).

So, The Lines. Bell of Pennsylvania had test lines that their workers used when installing a new line for a customer. It was a series of two lines on every local exchage. For example there was 637-0094 and 637-0095. Each line, when called, gave off a loud continous tone and the tone only stopped when the partnered line was called - thus the two lines were 'connected'. I don't quite know how they worked in regards to installing new lines - but what some creative folk quickly learned was that when these two lines were called - those two people were connected and could chat.

Quickly this began to spread through the underground, especially the gay underground. So, I heard about it and spent the summer of 1977 addicted to The Lines. I would sneak downstairs into the rec-room and call the lines all through the night to see who I could talk to. I met some interesting people that way - my first gay person by the name of Brian, and his friend Sandy and her husband - who in hindsight I realize now were 'swingers'. In fact the four of us went to dinner once - I guess it was winter of 1978 - they took me to this cool restaurant (yes, i was just 15 - but as always, way more mature etc) and I remember it being almost all men. It was full of twinkle lights and candles and such and I was amazed that all these gay men were in one place at once. Just eating dinner (and not babies, like everyone spun it!). Turns out the place they took me was the Venture Inn - which seems to have been a gay bar/restaurant forever in Philly (it's been called the Denture Inn since I was a kid, due to the fact that it attracts an older clientele!)

Once I went there, I discovered the Philadelphia Gay News - they had personal ads in the back. Since they were a new paper for a new underground market, no one was really paying any attention to the law - so there were no bounderies with the content of the ads. Old men looking for boys 13-18, boys looking for older men - whatever. Everything was in the old editions of the PGN.

As a resolution to myself for 1979, I paid for and had installed my own phoneline in my bedroom and put a personal ad in the PGN, with the header 19 And Under. This one act was the beginning of it all. I kept a spiral book journal of everyone who answered my ad - which I still have here at my house. I heard from over 200 people in just 6 months ... most 15-18 years of age, just like myself. I spent hours talking on the phone - learning, listening, and helping others feel less alone (in turn helping myself feel less alone as well).

As you know from reading earlier posts, I was already a regular on South Stret by this point - that one visit to the Venture in Christmas of 1978 totally changed my direction. I had found the Yellow Brick Road and ran down that path with a vengence. By 1979 I got a part-time job at Hickory Farms in the newly opened Gallery Mall in Center City- so between that and high school and discovering the new punk/new wave scene on South Street - I rarely was home, and when i was, i was in my room on the phone!

While hanging on South Street, I went to a meeting at the new gay community center - which was located in some old garage/barn behind the TLA on Kater Street. The place smelled like dirt! I never went back - but when the Center moved to a new location at Camac and Locust, in the basement of a fleabag apartment building called the Lincoln, I went along for the ride.

I was working full time at a discount drug store at 21/Chestnut and traveling back and forth from my family's house in NE Philly to Center City daily. Every day I took the Route 66 trackless trolley down the length of Frankford Avenue to the Bridge/Pratt terminal, then grab the El to Center City. The image above is exactly what I saw day after day after day back in 1979-1981.

As soon as the new Center opened in 1981, my friend Robin and I proposed to start a youth group. They agreed (fact is, the room we met in had discarded furniture, roaches crawling on the wall and bad lighting - - but you take what you have!) and Philly's first organized gay youth group was off and running.

We spent the spring and summer of 1981 coming up with creative ways to market the group - from using The Lines I described above, all the punk shows we attended and also - taking my role as a member of the Poster Army - we created small posters (like 3x5 cards) and stuck em to phone booths at places like the Roosevelt Mall in Northeast Philly. Back then, a lot of gay teens hung at area malls and such - near payphones that would randomly ring with men looking for men to hook up with. A different era, for sure.

By the summer of 1981, the Philly Youth Group had close to 60 kids meeting every Saturday at 1pm. Afterwards, we'd all go hang at The Gallery or we'd walk over to South Street and hang out there. Things for me were in a groove, but I needed to get out of Northeast Philadelphia. In fall 1981 I had a response to my personal ad from another teen - who was living downtown. I went to meet him and he was hanging out in his room with some other friends (all teens) and we developed good friendships etc. But what was really interesting were his roomates - a gay couple that at first I didn't really talk to - but by December of 1981, my friend moved out and I moved in and my world was about ready to change again.

More on that later.


Liz said...

You know Robert, I correlate everything in life to the Wizard of OZ. Example- everything you want, you already have. SURRENDER DOROTHY written across the sky- that life's largest problems always have the simplist answers once we surrender to that answer.

Robert Drake said...

how true, liz... how true :)

Divine Ms. Jimmi said...

The Lines! Oh, how I remember them!! I would grab the phone, hide in a closet, literally, and call them! My griend G___ at the time would come over and we would listen in together. We also used to call the gay hotline. I almost went to a Youth Meeting but was afraid someone would see me and know. Meanwhile, I was fooling around with some neighborhood boys on the sly.