One night in the mid-1970s my parents came home from the theater in Manhattan and told us all about their night on the town. We were living on Long Island, Baldwin to be exact. I was 16 or 17 years old, still in high school. They said they had been out to Greenwich Village, and found a strange bar. It was called the Ninth Circle, and it was filled with homosexuals, they said. Oh, it was just fine, they had fun; my family was always gay friendly. It was on 10th Street, they helpfully provided. I had never been to a gay bar, but the idea sounded good to me. Filed under: “information to use.” After high school I got a job at the local supermarket, and made good money, so one night I took the train into Manhattan, found the bar, walked in, and a magical world opened.
Ah, the Ninth Circle. What a bar. I don’t think my parents ever knew they introduced me to my first gay bar. They were aware, I’d guess, that I was gay, even if it wasn’t exactly discussed. But well, they were recounting a fun time in the City, and I was just following their recommendation.
The bar was busy that first night in 1976; a year of liberty indeed. It was always busy. I became a regular on Tuesdays and Saturdays, because I still lived in Long Island. In 1978 I moved into the city and became a bit more of a regular. A denizen or habitue, even, but no, not an alcoholic. They joked I was a Christian Sobriety crusader. It was a bar that an American would be comfortable in. It had dark wood paneling, and stuffed animals like a raccoon and deer heads, and big picture posters of Janis Joplin and John Lennon, signed by them. The building and wooden bar are still there, and the patio and the basement. You can go see the location today, walk inside, even eat at the restaurant it has become. The bar itself closed in 1990. There should be a plaque: “Here was the greatest gay bar on earth.”
The people who came through, they were wonders. John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Andy Warhol, and many others. And Rock Hudson. Not regulars, no, that was for guys like me. But they came in once or twice a year, just zipped through, often with entourages, then they zipped out. But they electrified the place, for sure. These were important folks, after all. But not Rock. No, he came in quietly. I know this to be true, for I have my story about him.
One night, in the winter of ’78 or ’79 – I couldn’t tell you the day or month, it was long ago, but I remember the striking cold – I walked into the bar at about 2 AM. Bars are open until 4am in NYC, so it was still “early.” It was mid-week, because I was working close by, on Bleecker Street, at the Pioneer Supermarket – a mere 6 blocks away. I went downstairs to the basement bar. There was the bartender talking to an old man sitting in the corner. I went to the other end of the bar, away from the two of them. The bartender brought me the usual. There were just the three of us. The bartender invited me over to join them. I say old because, well, I was 20, and he was, egad, 50 or 60 or something; can you imagine? Yes, old to me, at the time. I joined them. The chit chat started. The pleasantries. Who can remember? The words I quote are the gist of things, close, but not the actual; still, the images are clear as a bell.
After a while the man looked at me and said, “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
“No, I don’t. You’re some guy named Rock.”
For that’s the way I was introduced to him. “Jim, meet Rock.”
So, he looked at the bartender and asked him, “He has no idea who I am, does he?” It seemed a surprise to this man named Rock. I didn’t think a thing of it, for I knew people named “Brute” and “Shadow” and “Cloud” already. Who was I to question what some guy wanted to call himself?
The bartender said, “Nope, and not only doesn’t he know who you are, but doesn’t care.” He smiled. He knew me. “That’s why I invited him to join us.”
And then, the conversation drifted to who he really was, this enigma – and why I should care. It was a game, hints were given, I was supposed to guess. It passed the time, it was fun, we were jolly. And then I got it – Pillow Talk! That’s what did me in – that scene in the elevator, leading to the bar, Rock and his maid, that short actress, craggy character stuff, I don’t know her name.
“I don’t really drink,” she says to Rock in the elevator. She’s all grandmotherly, looking up at him innocently. A scene or two later they’re in the bar, sitting at a table, and she says deadpan, with a clipped cadence, to the waitress: “I’ll have a double zombie, heavy on the booze.”
That’s the scene that finally clicked his identity for me. So, I was talking to Rock Hudson, eh? “You’re that guy in Pillow Talk, you’re a famous actor! Pleased to meet you. I’m Jim Hlavac, I work in a supermarket over on Bleecker Street.” We became bar buddies. Shortly afterward, not more than 10 minutes, he left. I figured, well, so I met the man, and that’s that. A once in a lifetime thing. I didn’t even get his autograph; I never did.
Then, over the next two or two and a half years I met Rock, always late at night, midweek. 9 or 10 times, no more than that, maybe 1 or 2 less. I didn’t keep track, and well, we were drinking late at night, after all. It wasn’t arranged. He didn’t call me. I wasn’t in his circle. I didn’t have his number. It was happenstance, that’s all. I still was a schnook, now in printing instead of supermarkets, on 19th Street instead of Bleecker. The Ninth Circle was my neighborhood bar; technically, he was in my space. We’d chat for a half hour, maybe an hour. I was not the only one who ever spoke to him. But he did stick to himself, and sat in the same corner He always left before me, that I can recall. And left alone. He never tried to speak to anyone, they came to him. But, I can recall him perking up on seeing me and motioning me over. Yep, bar buddies.
All the other nights other people would come in, for it was a busy bar. But that first night no one did; maybe that too helped us click. At that second time, there was a guy who knew me, and he called me over to him, and said something like, “Are you talking to Rock Hudson?” And he was all excited, and the exuberance was too giddy, and I looked at Rock, and had a ping for the man’s desire to be left alone, and turned to my friend and said, “No, that’s Charlie from Brooklyn, he just looks like Rock Hudson. It bugs him.” So I went back to Rock, and told him what happened, and what I had said. And he looked at me, and arched an eyebrow, and scrunched the face, dramatically even, and said, “Charlie from Brooklyn?”
I said to him, “Do you want the autograph hounds, or do you want the anonymity?” And I arched an eyebrow right on back at him.
And that became our joke there. For when in those few times I chatted with Rock, someone who would know me would come up to ask me for help to get a greeting or autograph. Sometimes they even would come up to me, ignore Rock by freezing, and asking me, “Is that Rock Hudson?” Like the man was a statue or an idiot. I’d counter with, “It’s not Rock Hudson, he just looks like him, it’s Charlie, from Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay, do you want to meet him?” And I’d say, “Charlie, this is Kevin” … or whoever it was speaking to me.
And Rock would extend his hand to the guy and say, “Hi, I’m Charlie.” The guy would get a bit miffed, or just harrumph and walk away. We’d giggle and get back to our chat.
Yep, Rock Hudson, he was just my bar buddy for those few nights. And yes, he was quite the actor.