1950s: Experience During Naptime: “It Was An Inkling Of A Difference.”
So being a native New Yorker, I started my early childhood education on the Lower East Side. I was four and a half, five year old. Started nursery school. I remember – very vividly remember one day at night – at naptime, rather – usually the cots, everyone had cots and they brought in their own, you brought in your own blankeys and sheets and all that nonsense. And we would – they would line the cots up in rows.
And I remember lying down next to – don’t remember the young lady’s name. They always turn the lights out, so the teachers I guess were up front or in back watching us or talking amongst themselves. Anyway, I remember just reaching over and touching this young lady and, you know, just touching her underneath her – I don’t, well at that time, it was probably dresses. We weren’t big into slacks at the time. So going in her underpants and it just happened and that was it.
That was my first exposure to women and never, and never feeling any kind of way. Never feeling right, never feeling wrong, just felt that that was something that I did and was okay to do.
People usually ask, like, when was your first inkling that you were gay. Now, clearly that was not my first inkling of being gay but it was an inkling of a difference. But at five years old, you don’t know. You don’t know about boys and I mean, you know, that boys go the boys’ bathroom, you know girls go to the girls’ bathroom, so you do know that there’s a hint of a difference there. But I don’t know that girls shouldn’t be with girls. I don’t know that that’s not the norm. I don’t know that boys shouldn’t be with boys. I don’t know that.
But it – I don’t know – that always the story just pops into my mind when I hear that question – what was your first inkling? This is like a, I guess, a coming out kind of a story to me so it makes me smile and it just makes me smile. And it makes me wonder, where are these teachers that they weren’t watching us? Because even if it was a boy and a girl, nothing like that should have happened. So it’s like they really weren’t paying attention or they didn’t know how to address it.
Late 1950s: Neighborhood Crush: “She Was The Sexiest Thing I Had Ever Seen.”
Okay, so in the late fifties, we – the big migration – so we moved from the Lower East Side to Spanish Harlem. Various reasons why we had to do that, but anyway, moved to Spanish Harlem. And we moved into a tenement building. Tenement buildings are very close together, you know, it’s side-by-side, block-long pretty much. Every building, every address, building has a stoop that we used to hang out on and whatever. And the sidewalk was right there and it was easy to look up in someone’s house. And if you cross the street, literally, you can look into the railroad apartment. If you actually move further back, you could really look into someone’s apartment.
So we’re out on the sidewalk as usual, doing jump rope, whatever it is that we’re doing. I just looked up one day and I saw Elisabeth. She had the most beautiful eyes. Brown eyes, but the shape of them… and if she smiled, they would – they came ever so slight. And I knew she was sexy. At this age, I knew she was the sexiest thing I had ever seen.
She never came out to play with us for whatever the reasons. She would always be looking out of the window with a safety – wrought iron safety device on it so I guess you don’t fall out a window or whatever. And that’s short life of Elizabeth, but she left a kinda mark on me. But it’s funny how you – I knew she was sexy. I don’t know – she was just beautiful. She was, she was just beautiful.
That situation I had with Elizabeth, I think that’s quite normal. As youngsters, you see pretty things. You feel some sort of way. Boys, girls, every – I think everyone does. And yeah, that’s normal to think, you know, she’s got pretty pigtails or whatever it is that that person – and to make you feel warm and fuzzy and comfortable. I think those are normal feelings.
If I ever ran across Elizabeth, I am 100 percent sure that I would recognize her. I’m 100 percent sure. I would approach her. I would definitely approach her and I would explain to her how she made me feel at 8 years old. I would just – I would tell her now because, you know, she could take it now. She’s a big girl. I would definitely, definitely describe how she made me feel. I would let her know. I would definitely let her know. Definitely. I would not let her go without telling her.
1960s: First Kiss With Another Girl Was “The Kiss Of Life.”
So I’m 17. I’m living in Spanish Harlem and I’m venturing out to Harlem at this point.
So Diane becomes one of my good friends. Diane and Yvonne. And every Friday, we’re hanging out at Diane’s house and getting ourselves groomed up, whatever. And Sandra, who lives in the building and knows everyone, Sandra has been gay ever since we knew her. Always had a girlfriend. Out with it. Out and about. Whatever.
Sandra invites us downstairs in Diane’s building, the same building, she invites us to a party. She’s having a – they’re having a party for one of Sandra’s friends who’s going into the army. And we said okay, we’ll stop down before we hang out at the club.
So all of us go – the three of us – myself, Diane, and Yvonne, we go down to the party. We dance. We’re eating. I guess we had some wine, beer, you know. So now it’s time to go because we’re going. They’re doing their thing and we’re going to somewhere else. So we say we’re leaving, whatever.
So, you know, we’re moving to the door in the hallway. This young lady stops me and she gives me the kiss of life. And she did not ask. She just went in and I went in with her. And we go and this, you know, this sensation is lingering there. And I’m like, oh my goodness. So we go on about our business and the – it’s gone.
That was my very first kiss, real kiss, and as the song goes, I kissed a girl and I liked it. And it was the best. It was the, you know, I’ve had good kisses but that one was, like, the best. And like I said, every time I think about it, my hair stands up on my arm. It really does.
I never knew her name. I don’t remember what she looked like. Nothing. All I know, she went in, I went in, and I’ve never seen her again. Never. Would have loved to kissed her again, even today! So after that kiss, enjoying it, that said I could kiss many other girls and possibly like it even more.
“I Learned How A Broken Heart Actually Feels.”
So now I’m 17. I’m a senior in high school. I start to venture out. So I’ve become friends with Diane. Her house was a comfortable house. Every Friday night, there was company there. And her mom, her mom was named Miss Dot. And always company, so it was just the place to meet.
So Diane had older sisters, two older sisters, another sister named Diane and Barbara. Okay. And they always had company. Now Frankie was clearly, clearly a gay guy.
Moving on, I find out that Katherine lives there. Katherine is the ex-lover of Diane’s sister, but she had – I guess it was just comfortable for her to live there after they broke up, still live there. And Miss Dot was a welcoming person. Anybody needed a place to stay could stay there.
So one Friday, you know, in small talk, Katherine and I started talking and Katherine says to me that she would like to take me somewhere. I’m like, yeah, okay. But she did say that I was not to say anything to Diane and Yvonne. I said, okay.
So I said, “Okay, when is this going to happen?” Whatever, I don’t – I’m assuming the next week.
So I said, “Where are we going?” I just said, “What should I wear?”
She says, “Wear anything you wear because, you know, you look nice.” Whatever. Okay. So this Friday comes. She and I and Frankie, they take me to this club – a gay club and there’s wall-to – a cast of thousands of gay women, men, whatever. The place was huge. I was like in awe. So we go, we get a table, we have – I just fell right into it. I mean, I dance like, you know, it was 1999. I mean, I had a ball. I really I had a ball. We had so much fun.
So we continue to see each other. Not even 6 months into the relationship, Katherine A.K.A. Pudding got her own apartment and invited me to come stay with her. And I did. So I moved in with Katherine and this goes – I’m with Katherine for approximately three years. And then I, you know, I guess – and I’m in school. I’m still – I didn’t drop out of school. I’m still going to school. I even had a part time job, but all the weight was on her, you know, gas, electric, you know, TV – everything was on her.
I had met some women from Katherine’s job who was her age level and clearly I could see that one of them liked Katherine. I could see it. I wasn’t – yeah, I could see that there was something there. I believe this young lady pressured Katherine by saying you know, “That’s too big of a com- you know, you shouldn’t be with a young girl like that. You should have somebody your own age.”
I remember the conversation Katherine sorta kinda saying, you know, “You know, you might want to build a life. You might want to have children. You know, you should go back home.” That – you know, that kind of conversation. So I couldn’t keep what – I didn’t know anything about an apartment and all that kind of stuff. So that was that break up and it broke my heart.
And in the interim, Diane – my friend Diane – her mom dies a few years later. I don’t remember how much later after we broke up. And I said, oh, I’m going to see Katherine. This is a sin. So I go to the funeral only because I think I’m going to see Katherine.
So I put on my best outfit. I look my finest. She didn’t come! So that, you know, and I remember asking people about her like, Brenda – Brenda was her best friend – and Frankie. And I said, you know, “Where’s Katherine?” They lost contact with her so we never knew – you know, no one ever knew what happened to Katherine.
I didn’t go into this relationship thinking I’m a gay woman. I just went just to see what it would be like. Just to see what what that experience with a woman was. That’s how I got into that relationship. And I wanted to see. But then, you know, feelings get into the way. I learned how of a broken heart actually feels, like your heart is really breaking. So yeah, yeah, I think she learned something, too. You know, leave the young girls alone. Let them stay – if they’re home with their parents let them stay home with their parents until we can make it on their own kind of a thing. I don’t know.
Falling In Love, Breaking Up, And Reuniting: “Every Day Was The Best, Best, Best, Best Day Ever.”
From my twenties into my thirties, I’m dealing with men and I’m living my life and during that time I bore 2 children – a girl and a boy. And life goes on. And then I make a decision that this is not what I want to do. So I decided I’m going to seek out women.
So I used to love this detergent, Amway. You’ve probably heard of Amway distributors, whatever, and I’ve always liked their stuff. And I just needed – I wanted some. And I wanted something that I could – they didn’t have to come to my house to deliver; I could get it at work, whatever. I figured I knew somebody in the phone company was selling it.
So I, you know, I’m just at work and I’m doing what I do at work and I mentioned to a co-worker of mine that I wanted to buy some detergent.
And she said to me, “Oh, my friend upstairs, Barbara, sells it. I’ll introduce you.” And I said, okay, fine. And so when Carol takes me upstairs and she introduced us I said, in my head, I said, “Oh. That’s Barbara. Okay.”
Another incident happened at work. Someone had tickets for a show and she couldn’t use them. So she asks Barbara. Barbara says, “Sure. I’ll use them.” They recommended that Barbara ask me to go with her.
She did ask and I said, “Sure, okay.” We started hanging out every Friday after work. Summer was coming. My son was going away to summer camp for the entire summer.
In the interim, I had been looking for an apartment and with that, Barbara invited me to move in with her. I did. And we went to some struggles with my son, but we got – we worked through that. He, you know, he eventually went to – we decided living with his father would be the better deal. And we go on what our lives and we really have a good life. We have a good life but of course there’s issues.
After fifteen years, I started feeling a certain kind of way. We had a small business together and I didn’t like the way it was being run. Business has to be handled a certain way. And yes, no one can count your money better than you can count your own money. I agree with that. But to work seven days a week, twelve hours every day, by 4 years, I couldn’t.
I said, “Barbara, I can’t do this anymore.” I said, “We have to get someone in here.” So that was a big – you know, that came a big deal. Also a lack of communication and I, one day, I decided I can’t do this. And I didn’t want to rectify it there. I wanted to leave so I chose to leave. And I did. And after I left, I realize I have made a big mistake. I should have stayed there. I should have been confrontational. I shoulda shoulda shoulda.
I tried to reach out to Barbara. I reached out to her once. I reached out to her twice. I said, okay, three strikes, you’re out so I reached a third time and I said okay, I’m going on my life. And I did.
After the first year of cleansing, I called myself – called it, I said I’m going to go back out here. Because I – the personality she had, I never thought she would change. I just never thought she would change.
July 4th, the phone rings and I know it’s her. And I said I’m not answering. I’m gonna go out and hang out, you know, hang – be by myself and I did. When I came back, you know, I looked on my phone for the messages. And there’s a message from Barbara. I’m like, Oh shit. I immediately call.
I said – I called. I said, “Are you okay?” That was my first big – are you okay?
She said, “Yeah. I just called you because I was wondering if you would make me some shrimp salad.” I make really good shrimp salad, but – so anyway, I’m like, “Okay.”
So she said, “Well, what are you doing this afternoon?”
I’m like, “Nothing.” So I run, I shower, put on my cutest outfit. I meet her up at Columbus Circle. And it was on from there. And she – she was a different person. When I tell you, I could not believe. And she was like easy going and mellow. That day, the 4th of July, she stays over. She comes back to the apartment. We stay over and we have a good – we have a good time.
So now we’re getting back together. We’re seeing each other really every day since then. Either she’s here. I’m in Brooklyn. Whatever. She decides she wants to get married, so I said okay. I have nothing to lose. We get married and that the – okay, we meet up again July 4th, we get married October, but she wanted to do it sooner.
And I said, “No. I need a date I can remember because I don’t remember shit.” So I said, “I need to find a date that I can remember. It’s going to be our anniversary.” So like I said, I noticed a difference in her and I noticed a difference in her physical, meaning that I noticed she didn’t walk as much. I noticed it was wearing her as far as respiratory issues and all that. And she wouldn’t go see a doctor. And her belief was – and I do to a degree – we all come into the world the same way: we all take a breath. And we all leave the same way: we lose a – we don’t take a breath anymore.
We had gone to a club to see a show and she put her head down on the table! I was like, “Barbara, are you all right?” I said, “Let’s leave. We can leave.”
“No, I’ll be all right.” The show was on 42nd Street. You know, what’s that – whatever – B.B. King’s. It was right there. So you just have to walk here, which is nothing. Literally, I swear it took over two hours because she had to stop. So I’m, like, scared and I don’t know what to do.
And she said, “I’m not going – if you call 911, I won’t go.” Da-da-da-da-da. She went the whole spiel.
I had made a promise. “You know, whatever you want to do, I will respect it.”
We’re here for a few days and she got better. She wanted to go to Brooklyn, so I understand you want to be in your – so we go to Brooklyn. It took us awhile to get to Brooklyn.
So we’re watching a movie and whatever so I said, “Listen, I’m going to go upstairs.”
So she said, “I’m gonna watch the movie.” Okay, so I go upstairs.
In the middle of the night I come down, and she’s watching – I said, “You all right?”
She said, “Yeah, I’m watching the movie.” Had the same clothing on. So she’s watching the movie.
In the morning, I come down. She looks – I said, Barbara, I can’t do this. I cannot do this. I’m calling 911.” I said, “I’m going to the bathroom. I’m gonna do a quickie quickie, wash up, throw something on. I’m calling 911.” She didn’t respond. She didn’t say no. She didn’t respond. By the time I had come out the bathroom to the living room, she had changed again, drastically changed. So I do call 911. They come, you know, they do the whole spiel. It just didn’t work for her. So she died. She died at the hospital.
When they announced and they asked, would you want to see her, and I said, I didn’t think I would and I was surprised. I said yes. And I remember going back three times and I was like, oh, I just wanna feel her hands one more time. It was a big – a big adjustment and you know, of course, you miss her and all of that. But I’m in a good place with that because I know, one thing I am clear on is how I felt about her and how she felt about me, so that makes – that really means everything to me that she knew how I felt about her.
Every day was the best, best, best, best day ever. How many people get a second chance like that? I’ve had two lives with Barbara. I had a 15 year life, approximately, which, most of – at least 10 years of it was like, I would say, almost perfect. The last four, five – a little decline. But then I got a second opportunity to make it the best – put in everything I had. I got that opportunity to do that and I did. I put in everything and some. So – and that gives me a lot of peace. That brings me a lot of peace.
On Being Called An “Elder”: “I’m A Human Being. I’m Sheila. End Of Story.”
I’m 67. And if I have to be put in put in a box, I embrace the term queer. But, I don’t – it’s interesting. I don’t – I don’t think – I don’t know what 67 is.
I had an incident. There was a trans social at Griot Circle. So I attended. And it was intergenerational, high school kids. So I’m talking with the kids and whatever.
A young lady – I stopped to ask something. And she’s calls me Miss Sheila. Now I know she meant it out of respect, because that’s what we do out of respect. We give a you title.
I said, “I’m not Miss Sheila! I’m Sheila!” I know I kinda startled her. I could tell that.
I said, “I’m only joking. But I am. I’m just Sheila.”
She said, “Oh I’m so -” she apologized – “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
And I said, “No, it’s -” I said it’s okay but it really wasn’t okay, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I said, “Oh, it’s okay.” You know, because I could tell that’s what she was taught to do, you know. But it just, you know, just rubs me the wrong way. Just call me Sheila. That’s all I want. Sheila. And I look forward to being an elder one day. Whatever that means, I look forward to it.
So I don’t feel like I have arrived for that title of elder yet. I’m not – it’s not there yet. I don’t take a pill, I’m not on any medication, I don’t – I’m not there yet. I use a knapsack and, you know, I swim and I’ll carry stuff and people will say, oh you need a pulley. I say, nope I’m not ready for that. Because the day I get a pulley then I’m admitting I’m an elder. Not yet. Not yet.
I just don’t – I don’t like to be labeled because I feel when you label me you just put me in this box. You’re saying that I’m L, I’m a G. I’m the T. And that’s all I can be. Like, pick a side. I don’t have to pick a side. I can be every letter in there. I just don’t – I just don’t like that. Why can’t I just be Sheila? My name is Sheila, call me Sheila. And I’m gonna call you what you want to be called. Because I feel connected to – I feel personally connected to every living thing, every living being I am a part of. I am. I’m a part of every living thing. So there’s no box for that. You know, I’m a human being. I’m Sheila. End of story.