Cissy Partridge of Oronoco, Maine favors us with these embarrassing memories of a childhood in the 50s and 60s:
When I was little most people didn’t have television sets, so got I dragged around to bars a lot. There wasn’t much to see except Milton Berle or maybe a prizefight, but it was good to get out of the house.
In those days you could walk up Third Avenue for blocks and blocks, and never miss a word of Uncle Miltie. The whole avenue was bars. This changed when the Third Avenue El came down in May 1955. The neighborhood improved somewhat, and pretty soon all you had left were P. J. Clarke’s, a couple of Italian restaurants, and some bird bars around East 53rd St.
The bird bars were populated mostly by homosexuals. They were called bird bars because they usually had a bird in their name: The Pink Cockatoo, The Blue Budgerigar, etc. I used to sneak in there dressed as a boy just to see what was going on. Homosexuals aren’t interested in kids, so they didn’t molest me. They bought me drinks though. The drinking age in New York was about fourteen then, but you could get served if you passed for twelve. By the time I could drink legally I had a real alcohol problem.
“The year after my father shot himself and we went to Disneyland, my mother went hopelessly insane.
She probably always was, but the booze hid it.”
I was a hermaphrodite, and in those days they used to pressure you to declare for one sex or another by the time you entered your teens. They’d tell you, if you don’t decide what sex you are pretty soon, you’ll end up a weird-looking adult, and you won’t get married and have kids. I looked at my mother and my stepdad Dan, and wasn’t sure I wanted to grow up at all.
I spent part of every year with my real father in California. He had a ranch in Montecito, and I’d be a boy when I was with him. This was my “Spin and Marty” period. I told people I’d be Tim Considine when I grew up. One day my father shot himself. I don’t know why, he was just drunk. My mother had to fly out and get me. We drove down to Disneyland before we flew back.
Back in New York my mother took me to Dr. Max Josephson, a gland specialist on Park Avenue. He treated old people who didn’t want to be old, and also people who didn’t know what sex they were. Dr. Max was half-Jewish but also a Nazi. His best friend was G. Sylvester Viereck, a poet who was in prison during the war for being a Nazi. They’d both been in America most of their lives but talked in thick German accents, just to show off.
Dr. Max and Sylvester would take me out to a hotel bar around the corner and drink schnapps. The bar was so dark Dr. Max had to take out his pocket flashlight just to read the menu.
“Zo! De cherrystone clams, dey are fresh today!” said Dr. Max. “Ve vill all haff cherrystone clams!”
“Dat zounds wunderschoen!” said Sylvester.
They’d pretend to discuss world events, and then suddenly start selling me on the various advantages of being male or female. “If you don’t decide now, you vill grow up to be ein veirdo,” Sylvester would say.
“Na, ve giff her anudder year,” said Dr. Max. They were like the Katzenjammer kids when they talked.
They’d get me very drunk on liqueurs, which I think they sometimes spiked with truth serum, but I was very stubborn and refused to talk. They told me it was important to choose a sex, because most good colleges were single-sex. In other words, here I was, maybe eleven, twelve years old, and already they were riding me to figure out whether I wanted to go to Yale or Vassar. As things turned out, the colleges all went coed a few years later, so in the end the issue was moot.
Anyway, my attention was on other things. The year after my father shot himself and we went to Disneyland, my mother went hopelessly insane. She probably always was, but the booze hid it. She went to AA meetings for a few months and then the craziness came out. We didn’t have the money for a good private sanitarium, so she ended up being put away in one of the state insane asylums, way upstate in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think she died there.
Then my stepdad Dan left. He took a job building prefab houses on Guam. At least that’s what he said. I moved in with my Aunt Pudge who lived on Perry Street in the Village. I was always just a girl with Aunt Pudge because she did not like weirdness in any way. I went to an all-girls school in the East 80s, and she worked long hours at Time-Life Books, then went out drinking with friends, so we hardly ever saw each other.
On my own in the evening, I would check out the queer bars in the Village sometimes, dressing appropriately. They weren’t as nice as the bird bars uptown. They were mostly patronized by old people. I had to pretend to be looking for my father or mother when I was in there, and nobody ever bought me a drink. A nameless lesbian place under the West Side Highway wouldn’t even let me in. I think you had to be about 40 years old to enter. Julius’ at Waverly Place and 10th wouldn’t serve me liquor but they did have good hamburgers on toast.
One of my Aunt’s boyfriends gave her a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for Christmas, but as she was not a Scotch drinker, it just sat on the shelf, collecting dust. I thought, “What a waste.” I broke the seal and started to take nips from it. Within a week it was gone. I filled the bottle up with tea and put it back up on the shelf.
Wouldn’t you know it though, right after that Aunt Pudge woke one morning with a terrific hangover and decided she needed some “hair of the dog.” She immediately figured out what I had done, and smashed my head through the window. The authorities came by and tried to put me in a home for delinquents, but then they found out my special condition and sent me back to Aunt Pudge instead. Of course it was all news to her too.
She was mad, but then she calmed down and took me out to the Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue for a late sundae, only we stayed all night and got completely plastered instead. Schrafft’s closed up and threw us out.
Was our face red!
Note: This originally appeared in SpliceToday on January 1, 2019.