Pre-AIDS Greenwich Village: A Time Of “Free Love, Open Sex And Tolerance.”

by Richard Eric Weigle

Pre-AIDS Greenwich Village: A Time Of “Free Love, Open Sex And Tolerance.”

“What Was It Like? Stories by LGBTQ Elders” is a new program by I’m From Driftwood, in partnership with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, and SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older adults. Learn more about the program here.

Richard Eric Weigle’s 7 Video Stories and transcripts can be seen below.

1967: “From That Moment On, I Never Had One Moment Of Guilt About Being Gay.”

The year was 1967. The war in Vietnam was raging. I just graduated from college and I was lucky enough to get accepted into the Peace Corps. My assignment was to go to the Philippines. I was assigned to the Mindanao, which is them southernmost island. I did 3 months of training in Hawaii and I was on my way.

I was really looking forward to some adventures and I had had some experience with men, but when I got there was really looking forward to, you know, having sex with a guy. But it was such a small village, I couldn’t do anything. And you’re really told that you’re an ambassador, you know, to the United States and you’re gonna be hobnobbing with everyone from governors to people who grew rice, and so you really had to be on your best behavior. So I said, well I’ll wait till I get to Manila and that’s when I will really let loose and I will, you know, come out and just really have a great experience.

Well, in Manila, it didn’t happen. But I had this dream that I wanted to go to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

So at 22, 23, whatever I was, I guess. It was 1968 at that point. I just knew I had to go. So I went there, I saw the ruins, it was amazing. Phnom Penh at that time was the most peaceful, incredible country. I mean, there were times where you could hear the bombs in the distance from Vietnam, but it was – I remember writing home and saying this is the most peaceful eastern country. There was no western dress, no western music. It was just a little kingdom that was incredible.

And as gay men do, you go out one night, you don’t know what you’re looking for. But I guess I was looking for trouble. I met a beautiful Cambodian boy in the park. I knew there was some connection with this boy and he didn’t even really speak English that well, but there was definitely a connection and the way he looked at me and the way I look to him, I knew something was gonna happen.

I made sure – I put my passport in a safe place. I made sure that when I came in, I put my wallet somewhere where he didn’t see it. So I was, you know, being cautious, but I really don’t have to because he was just a beautiful, beautiful guy.

It was an incredible experience. It was the first time I ever really had sex with a man in bed that was reciprocal, relaxed, and it really exceeded all my expectations.

After the boy left, first of all, I was euphoric and very satisfied in many ways. But I also had an epiphany and I really believed that, you know, with all the atrocities going on in the world with the war raging right in Vietnam, right over the border, terrible things going on in the United States with protests and, you know, I had heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King, I had heard about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the riots in Newark. And I was thousands of miles away. I was in the jungles of the Philippines, but you know, we heard about all those things. And I just thought, you know, no parent, no government, no legislation, no priest, no minister is ever gonna tell me or convince me that what I just did in this room with another consenting adults was wrong.

And it was really was a significant moment in my life because from that moment on I never had one moment of guilt about being gay. I was happy I was gay. I was excited because I knew I was going to be traveling to more countries and I was going to be meeting more men of every ethnic persuasion. And I was really on my way to an incredible gay life.

1970 Greenwich Village: “I Felt Like I Had Really Found Heaven.”

In 1970, after a long stint in the Peace Corps and traveling back through many, many countries, I arrived back and I moved in with my parents for a short time in New Jersey, got a teaching job, but, of course, wanted to find my way into New York City to go to gay bars. And I did.

I ended up on the east side. I didn’t really know New York that well. And so, but it was a wonderful time because there was a time when gay bars were on every corner, it seemed. There was slow dancing, which was very sexy and and very romantic, and you really got to, kind of, know the person before you even went home with them, which was really wonderful. And I remember talking to someone and he asked me where I lived and I said New Jersey.

And he said, “Why do you come all the way to the east side? Why don’t you go to Greenwich Village? It’s all gay.” Wow, when I heard that, some place that’s all gay! And I’d heard about Greenwich Village but, you know, I’d been away for so many years and a lot happened – Stonewall and everything. So Greenwich Village was one of the gay meccas of the world, especially in the United States. I guess it was Greenwich Village and San Francisco.

So I decided, okay, heck with the east side. I’m gonna start finding bars in Greenwich Village and of course, I found my way to Christopher Street. And I met a wonderful African-American guy who worked for Eastern Airlines and he lived on Perry street. And his name was George. And he was a wonderful, handsome, smart, incredible human being. And we dated, and we dated for about six months before we decided to move in together. And so we looked and we looked and we finally found a fantastic apartment on Grove Street.

Now, you can imagine, I’m calling my mother and father in Florida, telling them, not, in fact, that I’m gay, but that I’m moving in with a man, a black, and a Catholic. Now I joke because my mother being Protestant, I was raised Protestant, had three reasons to jump off the balcony – the man, the black, and the Catholic. Probably the Catholic part was the worst. But she got over it.

Months later, she did actually come in with my father to meet George and to see the apartment. Of course, I think she cried when she saw the outside of the building. To her, it looked like the slums when it was really one of the nicest streets in all of Greenwich Village. But when you live in Florida, when you live in the suburbs, that the perspective you have. And it was funny because we made a particular effort to take my mother down the most beautiful streets in Greenwich Village to go for lunch. And as we’re going, everything was perfect. She was getting along with – they liked George, she was getting along with my father. We were walking down beautiful streets. We had a lovely lunch in a beautiful little restaurant. We’re very careful, again, coming back to not pass anything that would upset her. We turned a corner abruptly and we come across a homeless man that was urinating. We scared him, he turned around and peed on my mother’s shoe. Well, so that was pretty much the last time she ever came back, came to New York.

But getting back to Greenwich Village, you know, I didn’t know what it would be like, really, myself moving in with a man, a black, a Catholic, to Greenwich Village. I didn’t know what we would expect. And from the moment we arrived, no one cared about your race, your religion, your sexuality. It’s like, tell me about yourself right now. Not what you did last year. They don’t care that I was in the Peace Corps, where I went to college. What do you about right now? What are you doing now? And for me that’s the way Greenwich Village has always been. I felt like I had really found Heaven. It was a place we could walk hand-in-hand. Being an interracial couple, being a gay couple, we went to gay owned restaurants, gay bars. I really had found nirvana. And to this day, Greenwich Village represents that to me.

Pre-AIDS Greenwich Village: A Time Of “Free Love, Open Sex And Tolerance.”

I feel very fortunate to have lived in Greenwich Village in the 70s, pre-AIDS. t was a wonderful time. It was a time where you could walk out of your apartment, meet somebody on the street, bring them home, finished with them, go back out and meet someone else. It was a time of free love, the gay bars were prevalent, people were holding hands in the streets. It was just an incredibly wonderful time.

And there was a no man’s land on the other side of Hudson Street. On the other side of Hudson Street, which today is so built up with highrises, in the 70s was almost, there was almost nothing there. There were trucks there at night that would park that were empty and they were meeting places for for men to go. Now, I never liked the trucks for sex because I like to see what I’m doing. And they were dark and they were scary and once in awhile you would hear stories about someone getting pickpocketed or someone, you know, doing some harm to someone, and I, so the trucks weren’t really my thing.

During this time in the 70s, you have to remember or if you look up, you can see photos, that the West Side Highway was elevated. And so people that were riding from the Holland Tunnel or southern Manhattan to the north, they were bypassing Greenwich Village. They were above on this highway. And so that area of the river was really secretive. It was almost like it was our place because no one went down that far unless you were gay. As I said, there wasn’t very much there. There were the West Side Houses with some families, but mostly gay guys. There was Christopher Street but there were no restaurants the other side of Hudson, or very few that I can remember. So you went down there to be gay, and when you were standing in those gay bars along the West Side Highway, it was very private because you knew that the families and everybody else riding in the cars were above you. They really – if they saw you, it was just for a glance and they were on their way.

But if you walked further down towards the river then, of course, were the piers. And these were covered piers left over from bygone days of cruise ships or shipping or whatever. Abandoned piers that, of course, were a prime place for sexual encounters. I went there a few times and although it was scary, you went in. Some of the floors had just given way, so you could actually look down into and see the river. You could hear the lapping of the river against the pilings. There were many floors. There were like a maze. And on any given night, there were hundreds of gay men in these piers. Now, again, I do like to see what I’m doing. It was certainly wasn’t as dark as the trucks, so I did, I must admit, I did have some fun.

But one night, I was with someone and they had me by the hand and he was taking me somewhere in the pier and his leg went through one of the pilings down through the floor. Now, he didn’t fall into the water. We had heard stories that people had fallen through the floors into the river – maybe never heard from again, I don’t know. But once that happened and his leg went through – and, I mean, I remember seeing his leg down through the floor, I said this is not for me. You know, I said, okay, we’re going back to whom my apartment. And it’s funny, I never went back to the piers again. I had had enough, I had experienced it, it was incredible, but it wasn’t for me. I was more pick somebody up in a bar, take them home to a nice bed, and that was more my style.

From a historical standpoint, it was just this time when it was our place. The West Side, the piers, the trucks, even the bars, I mean there were bars with every label to it. There was a bar where – called “Colors,” where people would go if they wanted to meet someone of different race. Black guys went to meet white guys, white guys went to meet black guys. That’s where I saw Robert Mapplethorpe. That’s where I saw many, many people that were, that had the same persuasion as I did, that they were attracted to someone of a different race. There were leather bars, there were twinky bars, there was – every bar had its own kind of following. And it was, it was just, from a historical perspective, an incredible, incredible time of free love, open sex and tolerance.

9th Grade English Teacher Rescues Former Student From Sexual Mishap.

In the 1980s, I was teaching in New Jersey, commuting out from Grove Street, from Greenwich Village, and I had two beautiful Akita dogs. Those dogs were so wonderful and they would go with me everywhere. And every morning, I would leave the building, usually in a suit, and I would walk the dogs up to where the Gansevoort Hotel is now – that was the cheapest place to park your car, it was an outdoor lot, put the dogs in the jeep, drive out to New Jersey, teach at Plainfield and then Rutgers or wherever I was teaching at night, and as I came back, I would pick the dogs up, go up to the parking space, park the jeep, and walk the dog back.

So one morning, I’m coming out of the building with my two dogs, Thorn and Shadow. And I’m wearing a suit as I usually did and I’m coming down the steps. I hear all this commotion under the stoop. And out from under the stoop come two young guys. And I look at them and I recognize one.

And I said his name and he looked up at me and he said “Mr. Weigle!”

“Yes…” I had taught him about ten years ago in the ninth grade, hadn’t seen him since. He obviously hadn’t seen me since.

I said, “What’s the matter?”

He said, “Well, I was just having sex under your stoop and he wants money and I don’t have any money and what should I do?” And blah blah blah and he’s all nervous. And of course, with two big Akitas, I’m this brave guy, you know.

I come down the steps with with the two dogs, and I kind of get between them and I said, “Just get going. Run for the PATH or wherever you’re going.” And, of course, here’s this boy running for the PATH, looking back over his shoulder, waving, running for the PATH. And the other guy’s snarling at me. And the funny thing is he never wrote me a thank you note, and I taught him how to write thank you notes, because I taught English. But he never reciprocated and wrote me that note. But, to this day, can you imagine having sex in Greenwich Village at five o’clock in the morning and being rescued by your ninth grade English teacher, whom you haven’t seen in 10 years. That’s karma. He was a lucky boy that day.

You should always respect your teachers and thank you notes are always appropriate.

1985: Rock Hudson’s Death Hurls AIDS Into Public Consciousness.

In the early 80s, it was still a wonderful time because it seemed like everybody was curious about gay life. People wanted to hang out with gays and my co-workers where I was teaching were just fascinated that I was going to Studio 54 and I was going to all these clubs and they were very, very curious about my life. I was out. I was out to all my fellow teachers.

Many had asked me if they could come and see where I lived in Greenwich Village. They had heard I have triplex on a beautiful street in Greenwich Village and they wanted to see it. I said sure, so we got together a group and it was all planned. I had done some real preparations. I had contacted a friend who had a loft, I contacted a friend who had a brownstone, and I contacted a friend who lived in a high rise. And I thought that I would show this group – they were all women, they were all women who adored me – and I would show these women about four or five different types of living spaces in Greenwich Village. They were ecstatic – they were so excited and I was excited.

Well, that weekend before they were, the weekend before they were going to come in, Rock Hudson died. 1985. And before that, AIDS was in swing, but it wasn’t in the public consciousness that much. And that death and those headlines in the paper of Rock Hudson really was a milestone in gay history, really, and in the history of of AIDS and HIV in this country because one by one these women called me to cancel. They made all kinds of excuses why next weekend wasn’t going to work for them. A wedding. This. That. One of them was totally honest.

And she said, “Richard, I’m scared.” You know, what can you say when someone is that honest to you? I understand. You know, I don’t like it. I’m scared, too. And I think that I respected her the most of all the others that made these silly excuses. Nobody knew and so at least she was honest. But of course, it was devastating to me, you know, that all of these women would cancel. They were my friends. And I was scared. I didn’t know. Maybe they were right. Maybe they were right to cancel. Was my apartment infected? Were my glasses infected? Was my silverware infected? Nobody knew there were no tests at that point to to figure out what it was coming from.

For me, because it was now in the forefront and straight people were aware of it and I was working with mostly straight people, it really impacted how I interacted with other people and I knew that they didn’t know whether I was infected or not, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t feel any rejection from them. So when hugging became – that was okay, but kissing – I was really afraid to kiss people on the lips because I didn’t want to experience them turning away from me. And believe me, I’ve heard many horror stories about people’s own family that would not kiss them even on the cheek, much less the lips. And so I remember making a conscious effort to turn away from almost everyone.

In fact, one time, my favorite actress Eva Marie Saint was in town and she was doing a play. And when we went out afterwards, she kissed me on the lips and I was taken aback a little bit and of course I should’ve enjoyed that kiss because she was my favorite actress and someone who I revered. But I was almost mortified because I know that I kind of turned away from her, and what she must of thought? And I never was able to really explain that to her that you know, of course, it was my own insecurity that made me do that. But it impacted me for many years and to this day all when I kiss someone on the lips, I am reminded that this is a recent thing and this is something that I have only recently been comfortable with. It many years to get over that.

“It’s Just Incredible To Think Of What We Lost [To AIDS].”

The late 80s and early 90s was a sad time for many gay men. There was, there were a lot of people dying. I lost my two neighbors right next door, with whom I was very close. My upstairs neighbor was a very hot guy who I kinda had lusted after for years, always fantasized having sex with him. But somehow it was a little too close and maybe we both made that decision that maybe if things had gone awry, it wouldn’t be too good to live right above or below one another after things had gone badly. So I guess we just never went that that route. But I always had in the back of my mind, and I’ll never forget seeing him one day out on the street with a cane, looking like he was in his seventies or eighties when in reality he was in his thirties or forties. I’ll never forget that day. I felt so badly because I really didn’t know that he was sick. And that’s the way it was. You know, some people were very private, some people you didn’t see for months, and it was just naturally, maybe you didn’t see them and then you found out.

One day, when I was walking the dogs, I ran into a guy who was moving out of Bedford Street.

I said, “Where’re you going?”

He said, “I’m moving to Key West.”

And I said, “Why?”

He said, “Why do you think? I’m going to die.” And that just hit me like a brick. You know, you’re going somewhere to die. A beautiful young man who I had seen on the streets for many years was going to – and he wasn’t alone, there were many that did that.

And I’ll never forget his parting words to me were, “Eric, if I were you, I would never touch another man.” And again, it was another brick, and it was just such a – I felt such a sadness because I knew that I wasn’t going to follow his advice. I was going to continue to be careful and prudent in what I did. But I felt so terrible that another young, gay man would be giving me that advice. But it was a time when you would see people on the streets with the cancerous sores, covering their faces with jackets, and you can imagine the pain they felt having to go into stores, having to go into grocery stores, having to maybe get on planes, having to interact with people in the Village. It was a terrible time.

In fact, my ex with whom I moved onto Grove Street, we had remained friends. We didn’t see each other that often but he was a wonderful, wonderful guy. One day, I called his mother – he had moved into an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with his mom.

And I said – because I called her “Mom,” too, I said, “Hi Mom, can I speak to George?”

She said, “George is dead.” I asked her, of course, what happened and she said, I think her words were, “the AIDS.” That’s what she said. The AIDS. And then I found out that it also taken, within that year, it’d taken two of his other brothers and a sister through intravenous drug use. And the next thing I knew, I was speaking at his funeral. And this was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful guy.

And to think that so many of those incredible human beings are lost. These – who knows what plays would have been written, what paintings would have been painted, what buildings would have been designed? It’s just incredible to think of what we lost with those hundreds of thousands of young men. Elections would’ve been changed. The directions of countries would have been different. It’s incredible to think of all that.

Life After Fifty As A Gay Man.

Life after 50 as a gay man. Well… you know, I have always been lucky in meeting people on the street. Whether I had my dogs or a grocery bag or a pizza under my arm, I’ve always found that meeting people on the street is the most wonderful way because no one’s drunk. There’s no fake lighting. You’re not looking for acceptance from someone’s friends. It’s just chemistry between two people and that’s what happened one summer night and I met the love of my life, Michael. It was his smile coming up the street. I saw this beautiful salt-and-pepper haired man. And he saw something in me and there was this chemistry. So we have gone on to have an incredible life together.

But also one life-altering thing for both of us, I think, was going on our first gay cruise. Now, I was more reticent about this than Michael. We both liked to dance, we both like to party, but I was a little afraid that – how were people going to accept people – and Michael was, I think, in his fifties. I was in my early sixties at this point. What is it gonna be like?

Our first cruise was from Buenos Aires to Rio. And we got on the boat and there’s these muscle-bound guys, there’s professors, there’s the whole gamut of gay men. We met the most incredible men on that cruise and I must say that really opened up our life to a whole group of international gay men. I say the best from every country. Because I always say that we belong to the best fraternity in the world. Why not meet the best men from every country.

From that cruise, we met two incredible Dutch men from Amsterdam. From them, we met all their friends in Amsterdam, and now Amsterdam’s our second home and we’ve been going on gay cruises ever since and it’s been incredible.

A lot of people, you know, pooh-pooh gay cruises and they say “Oh, it’s just a sex boat or it’s just this.” And what I’ve learned is that gay cruises are whatever you make of them. We have seen incredible destinations on gay cruises. St. Petersburg, sailing into Istanbul, sailing into Venice, small islands in the Mediterranean. We have seen incredible destinations along with meeting the most wonderful men.

You know, for those of us who lost so many people during the AIDS crisis, having this type of family again is just incredible for us because we lost a whole generation. And now we’re surrounded by this wonderful group of gay men from Amsterdam, from Paris, from Mexico, from Nicaragua that we just adore and they seem to adore us. So it’s truly, I would say, one of the best times of our life, or I will say the best time of my life, so I’m very grateful.

I’ve heard from many people about getting older that you feel begin to feel invisible. I’ve been lucky enough that I never really felt that. Of course, I probably feared a little bit but, you know, there’s always people that like older gay guys, and everybody has their taste, and there’s older men that like younger men and younger men that like older men. And there – and I feel that it’s about what you give out, too. If you think that no one’s going to like you, or you think you’re going to be invisible, you’re going to get that reality. That’s going to become your reality. But if you go out knowing that, hey, any young person who does want to be my friend, it’s their loss.

You know, I feel that I have a lot to give. I feel like I’m an interesting guy. I have a lot to show them, teach them. Now, if they’re into young men, they’re not to me. If they’re into black men, they’re not into me. That has nothing to do with me and I’ve always kind of known that. So that’s been something that I’ve been really lucky about, that I’ve never had that kind of fear of rejection to just go up to somebody and introduce myself, smile, and talk to them. And so I really am thankful for that, that I’ve always had that ability to do that, and it’s reaped incredible friendships and wonderful relationships. So, I’m very, very lucky.

Sharing your story can change someone's life. Interested in learning more?