Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I was minding my own business, emerging from my apartment in St. Louis’s hip Central West End, when, just as I was stepping off the curb to jaywalk over to my car, a pick-up truck sped in front of me and the passenger stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Faggot!”
It got under my skin. I don’t know why. Maybe just the guy’s rank assumption that because I was a slim young lad walking alone in the ever-so-gay Central West End I must be “wunna them goddamn faggots.” Every so often you’d hear of an assault on the slim young men of the Central West End, where a pick-up truck or some kind of muscle car would slow down and stop, and two or three white guys from some other, non-gay, part of town would jump out and beat the shit out of them.
This was in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Gayness, at least in most of the country, wasn’t yet accepted as pretty normal. That was going to take a long time.
But I guess I was affronted because I wasn’t gay but these mofos thought I was just because of where they saw me and how I looked, to them. Slim, that is. I was slim and I was tidy, a joke that Seinfeld would make on the show many years later, and I wasn’t wearing a seed cap or carrying a two-foot pipe wrench or leering at the nearest woman. To them, any slim young man walking alone in the Central West End was a faggot who needed the shit beat out of him. I guess I should have considered myself lucky that they had someplace else to be and couldn’t take the time to do that to me.
At the time, I had some gay friends, so I wasn’t naïve about any of this. One of my gay pals was so gay that he got arrested once for wearing shocking pink hot pants in public. He turned us all on to the hottest gay nightclub in town, Herbie’s, at the corner of Euclid and Maryland, which later became a Chinese restaurant. Herbie’s had seen its day. But at the time, it was ground zero for St. Louis gayness, and partly because of that the hetero yahoos with their pick-up trucks and two-foot pipe wrenches thought of my neighborhood as a rat’s nest that they were responsible for clearing out. I guess.
The Central West End had been gentrified by gay people in the ’70s and was a gorgeous enclave in the middle of a city that was, I hate to say, deteriorating. In the blocks that surrounded Euclid and Maryland were beautiful old houses and apartment buildings, lots of mature trees, the stately St. Louis Cathedral on Lindell, with its spectacular green mosaic dome, and all of the best bars, restaurants, and shops in town. The place to be, and I got myself there as soon as I was able to. I lived in three different apartments there, including the third floor of that mansion I told you about before.
And I can still remember luminous fall days with yellow and orange leaves on the many trees and all over the sidewalks, when I’d cut through some residential blocks with ivy-covered homes that looked like they belonged in Georgetown, homes owned by doctors and lawyers, one even owned by a professor of mine at college (who also owned a local pub I patronized). I imagined playing my cards right so I could have one of them one day myself, say on Walton Row. My gay buddy with the shocking pink hot pants lived in a building I’d have died to get into called The Knickerbocker. His place had dark exposed beams, beautiful tall windows, and a butler’s pantry, and it looked out onto a private, wooded yard. I’d have felt like a young Evelyn Waugh or someone like that, living there, writing my books.
I guess I understood, in a kind of subconscious way, that if I was going to live in what I thought was the best neighborhood St. Louis had to offer, I was going to have to accept being thought of as gay from time to time. If some hetero yahoo ever tried to beat the shit out of me, I’d hope to have enough time to explain to him that I wasn’t gay at all – I just liked the architecture.
The Central West End maintains its character today, and the trees are thirty-five years taller and fuller. One of my old buildings has lost the bars on its windows, my professor’s old pub is still there, Herbie’s is no longer a Chinese place but a Japanese place, and the venerable Left Bank Books abides. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that I once lived in an area with such good urban genes, that it had legs.
But it still bugs me that some yahoo in a seed cap assumed I was gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) just because I lived there.