1980 Shooting At A Gay Bar Leads Gay Man To Learn Resiliency at the Onset of the AIDS Epidemic.

by Kevin Usher

But then we kind of realized that no, they weren’t fireworks. The floor of the bar was cement. We realized that these were bullets hitting the floor and that there were gunshots and somebody shooting from the street into the bar.

My name is Kevin Usher. I grew up in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

November 19th, 1980, me, a recent graduate from Boston Conservatory, living in Greenwich Village. I had a good friend, Scott, who I went to high school with who also was living in New York. So we would go out and it was just, I don’t know, whatever night of the week that happened to be. And whether we started there or not, we ended up at the Ramrod. Now the Ramrod was right along the West Side Highway. Back in 1980, as opposed to now, the West Side Highway was not such a pretty little spot. We had just decided to go.

We were inside having just drinks at the bar, which was straight ahead in front of you when you walked in the bar. And there was always a nice guy at the door. We were having drinks and just chatting away and looking around, see who’s there, whatever. In the midst of a bar with music and conversation and guys playing pool around the corner, we started to hear, I don’t know, it kind of sounded like popcorn or a popping sound. Didn’t really know. I thought, me, I thought, Man, maybe fireworks. I couldn’t figure out why in November.

But then we kind of realized that no, they weren’t fireworks. The floor of the bar was cement. We realized that these were bullets hitting the floor and that there were gunshots and somebody shooting from the street into the bar. And the glass started to shatter and it’s, “Oh, hell, somebody is shooting at us.” My friend Scott, a little more savvy than me, realized that Oh, I guess one should duck to the floor and maybe run maybe to the other side of the room or whatever. No, me, I’m in theater. I have to stand up and kind of say, “What is going on?” So yeah, it took me much longer than it should to actually duck and cover and get down on the floor. And I don’t know, you know, the bullets… there were a lot.

So the guy at the door, he usually sat, and I don’t know if it was from maybe the shots before the machine-gun fire, but after the melee of it all calmed down, that’s when I noticed that from where he would’ve been at the door in the chair, he was now on the floor and obviously took a hit.

So in the aftermath of it, I’m like, “Where’s Scott?” because he wasn’t anywhere near me. So he had run – he had gotten down and run over to a far corner in the bar. So I kind of stood up. We found each other and we left before any… any type of law enforcement really even had an idea of what was going on. I mean, they got the guy after the first part of it had happened and he trying to get himself back out of the Village, they caught up with him.

So Scott went home and then I went home. And I was living with kind of my boyfriend and his best friend and nobody was home. So I was there by myself and I just kind of started to let a little bit of what had happened sink in. I guess I should have been maybe more terrified. I wasn’t in shock or anything. I just kind of realized that, Okay, this is an experience that could bother me for a long time, or, I deal with it right here and now and make sure that it doesn’t so that talking about it or retelling it is not a big traumatic experience. It just is what happened.

So I sat there and I said, I don’t know, in my 23-year-old wisdom said, “I need to go back out. I need to get out of this apartment and go back out and have a drink or two and just know that this was a tragic thing that happened. But if I don’t go, I will give in to all of that other stuff and maybe never want to leave the apartment again.”

So I did. So I went out and then just kind of gradually found out other information. And of course, I checked in on Scott to make sure he was doing okay. Those bars on that block from Badlands and Peter Rabbit and then Ramrod, and actually think there was another one, they all closed because of that.

But six months later, the gay cancer arrived in the news and in New York. And I guess a lot of people, maybe saw the closure of that little segment of the bars because of that. But it didn’t have anything to do with that.

But again, here I am hearing kind of what little there is. Other than that men in New York, San Francisco, are sick with something that they can’t figure out anything of what it is. And it’s like, again, it’s Okay, so what do I do now? Now we just had getting shot at and now we have this. So again, I thought, well, what are you going to do? You can roll up the rug and live in fear or you go and live your life and see what develops and what happens.

I’m probably, in the end, have been pretty strong about all the ups and downs. If I gave in to either the risk, and we’re experiencing some of it now in New York, that I was going to go out and I was going to be afraid of getting shot every day or whenever I went out, then I was never going to walk out of the house. If I was going to give in to the fact that every time I went out and had a drink and met a guy or had some fun having sex that I was going to die from it,  then I would never walk out of the house.

You never really know when your time is up and, in the meantime, I might as well just be out there doing what I like to do and what I want to do. You just have to take whatever comes along with it. To kind of wrap it up. I go to my music theater roots and thank dear Stephen Sondheim, for one of his great songs is “I’m still here.”

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