I was mostly miserable when I was 11 and 12 years old. I was miserable before that (I think I started to feel really badly about life’s possibilities when I seven or eight) but the onset of puberty seemed to make things worse in so many ways. My only encounters with happiness, however brief, came from hanging with certain friends and catching new films at my local theatre (the Westfield Rialto) and on WOR’s Million Dollar Movie or the CBS Late Show when I visited my grandmother, who would always let me stay up as late as I wanted.
My childhood was a gulag experience. So were my teens. Things started to get a little better when I began as a film journalist but my life didn’t really pick up until ’80 or thereabouts. And even then it was constant struggle, struggle, toil and trouble.
My home town of Westfield, New Jersey, was a pleasant enough place, but the social aggression and general bullshit in junior high school meant there was always a taunt and a challenge and some kind of shit going on being your back. A fairly rancid atmosphere. Everything was awkward or tortured or tedious.
So I got into the habit when I hit 13 or 14 of taking the bus into Manhattan (a secret mission as my parents wouldn’t let me go alone) and just roaming around Times Square and looking at the various marquees and just soaking it all in. It was a mild little weekend adventure. I’d take the bus in the late morning, visit Mecca for three or four hours and get back for dinner by 5 or 6 pm. I paid for these trips with my modest weekly allowance plus a little extra lawn-mowing money.
I used to love the smell of bus exhaust inside those Port Authority parking areas. To me those fumes were the city itself — they smelled like oxygen.
During one of my Saturday visits I got hit on by a middle-aged gay guy. I was walking up 42nd Street and this pudgy, poorly dressed twerp bumped into me (I didn’t realize what was happening at first) and copped a super-quick feel. Then it happened again. Wait…was that the same guy? Then I stopped to look at some posters under a theatre marquee and there he was again, smiling sheepishly. I gave him my best “go fuck yourself” look and bolted on down the street…asshole.
I got hit on by at least five or six gay predators over the next six or seven years. It turned me into a homophobe for a while, but then I decided that I identified with gay guys more than my own middle-class whitebread kin because they were outsider types with non-mainstream ways of thinking and living. I identified with their alienation. Same thing with urban Phillip Roth or Lenny Bruce-styled Jews — their anxious, unsettled attitudes were in synch with my own and vice versa.