New York Gay Pride Road Race 1995


I recently spent a day in the Big Apple. Not your average day...a New York Day. We all have all sorts of days, but this one will stand out for awhile. There are lots of ways to spend a day in a large metropolis. Thousands of people were doing just what I was doing at any one time, but the cumulative day was mine alone. And some of the events were quite peculiar to New York.

To set the tone for the day, it was Gay Pride Weekend and I was there to run in the 5 miler held in Central Park. I was involved in a mugging, did some fine shopping, ate some great food, ran into some very vocal, very militant anti-gay protesters, saw some outstanding live jazz, participated, however lightly, in an illegal Dyke Rights Parade on 5th Avenue, got real close to Bill Cosby, walked around with beer in a paper bag, hung out in Times Square, and finished the day with a subway ride out to Queens to get a falafel, one of my favorite ethnic foods.

For those of you who watch this space, you may remember my last field report, when I ran the 1987 Gay Pride Race, again in Central Park. I had lived in New York before, had some gay friends, but was still shocked at this event. Lots and lots of same-sex affection, a few people of both persuasions running topless and basically, just a foreign reality for me. There was news coverage, and it came at the race the same way I viewed it, as some sort of sideshow.

Now I'm not gay, nor am I particularly political. I ran the first race since it met my vacation schedule. I ran this one for a number of reasons. Although the timing didn't fit my vacation, it was fun maneuvering in order to match up with the race. Like a lot of people, I like tradition, or repetition. The running club involved (Front Runners) had put on a quality race in 1987, and had sent me pictures and a race form every year since. And as it turns out, a number of my friends have come out in the intervening years. So, my support in this area is really selfish, but support nonetheless.

It took a bit of work to get to this race on time. We left Halifax after my oldest daughter's last exam, drove 2 days and arrived in Queens on Friday evening. Saturday morning, while the rest of the family was doing relatives, I zipped off to Manhattan with a race to run, money in my pocket and time on my hands. We were staying out past the subway lines, so I had to flag either a bus or a gypsy cab. These crazy bunch of Israelis run an illegal car route that matches the bus line, for the same price. I'm out there at 6:00 AM on a Saturday morning, and 30 seconds later, I'm in some sort of car, headed to the subway.

First stop in Manhattan is a StarBucks coffee shop. They are one of the sponsors of the race, and I always support sponsors. Both sides get what they want. Off to the RoadRunners Club on 89th to pick up my race packet. Nice t-shirt and lots of ads, magazines and listings for weekend events. The race is setup right in the park, along a very busy bike, run, rollerbade route. Everything is calm efficiency. There is actually a bike race on while we warm up. There are thousands of people zipping by the entire time. The bikers are screaming by within feet of people milling about. The race has to merge into this live theatre just like a cabbie forcing its way into Manhattan traffic. It is impressive. Lots of amenities like toilets, loudspeakers, barriers, bag check, a stage, separated finish lines, starting seedings, etc.

The sights are the same as the race in 1987, but a number of things have changed. There is a bit of media, but it's very friendly. I see a lot of affection, but I take it for what it is, affection for those close to you. Something else, too. I may have missed it the first time, but this time it is very distinct. This is a close crowd. Lots of people know lots of people. A very social gathering. Even more so than a Run Nova Scotia crowd. It makes sense, given the demographics, but I'm pleased with my reaction to the event. I don't feel like I belong, but I also don't feel like I'm an outsider either. Cool.

The race, as it happens, is uneventful. I'm only a social racer these days, with 2-3 mile runs being the norm, so a 5 miler is going to hurt a bit, and it does. It's a great day, and I'm am very happy to be here, so I enjoy the race for what it is, an event. Not having anyone to pace myself against, I just run and enjoy that feeling of pushing my body past its preset limits. That's what I love and miss about racing: balls out, focussed effort. My time is instantly forgettable, but the pain in my legs and hip take awhile longer. I warm down a bit and decide to hang out for the award ceremony. Being a very friendly crowd, there is a lot of razzing going on as people go up for a variety of awards. Also, this race is not taking place in a vacuum. Being publically gay has its costs, and the sense of comraderie in the crowd is quite evident. Some of the people on stage are making little political, or personal speeches, to the enjoyment of all involved. There is a nice mix of draw prizes, with better ones as the ceremony goes on, and they are interlaced with race awards, so the thing moves well, and keeps people there to the bitter end, since they are giving away plane tickets. I am glad that I decided to stay. It's a nice start to a day full of promise.

Having lived, worked and vacationed in New York quite a bit, I have a loose list of things I want to do for the day, not really caring what I get done as long as there is some food involved, and the freedom to let the day happen. I start to walk downtown, and right away, the city shows me a quick, clear view of its ever present underside. I find myself in the middle of a mugging. Not an unusual event. Has happened numerous times, and has always left me with confused thoughts. Should I be involved, isn't this exciting...disgusting? Always that guilt that I watched rather than acted. Anyway, this time, events conspire to put me in a situation where action is easy, avoidance a forced decision. The mugger is running on an angle, and must pass between me and a wall to continue. With no time to think, my basic instinct is the course of action taken. I lean in and thump the SOB right into the wall, just like a good body check in hockey. To say that the mugger is surprised would be an understatement. He is running for all he's worth, trying to cut through traffic, and suddenly, he is off his feet, and not moving forward at all. Everything happens very fast. The purse drops from his hand, he lands on his feet and is off like a shot. Another person is chasing him, and I have recovered my wits enough to start moving quickly towards the nearest subway stop. I don't even want anyone to look at me. I must be out of my mind. But there it is, my mind can see that guy, back flat to the wall, no breath in his lungs, and my shoulder is telling me that I really thumped him. Hell of a day, and it's barely mid-morning. You pays your money and takes your chances.

I decide to take the train all the way downtown, rather than stop in midtown and hit a museum. I'm a little pumped up and buzzed out. I need food. I go to my number one pizza place just north of the Village, and then drop into a small bar for a beer, after picking up the Village Voice. If this was but one day of many, I would really have enjoyed sitting outside in a little cafe, reading the paper, perusing the moving crowd and snacking on cafe fare for the day. But I wanted to shop, so I moved on. I walk by a group of people spouting all sorts of hate against gays, and the sentiment is very violent. They have a little stage and microphone, with guards around the speaker, and people handing out literature. I had decided earlier not to wear my Gay Pride t-shirt from the race. No sense sticking my nose out too far, and after passing through this scene, two thoughts enter my head. There is a real, ongoing cost to coming out, even in a big metropolis, and thank goodness I am only watching this scene, like the tourist I am.

I pass the Waverly Theatre, the original home base for the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult phenom of the middle seventies. It's 20 years already, and that's a chunk of time in anyone's world. We were heavy into it back then, and turned on a fair number of "Rocky Horror Virgins" in our time. Was I really so young, or am I really so old? Anyway, I continue to a sporting goods store the size of a Wal-Mart, and browse gear that any serious city dweller must have, like mountain climbing pitons and water purifiers. It's raining outside, so it's easy to justify all the time spent drooling over sports techy stuff.

Next on my list is a stroll up towards Bryant Park, which is off 5th Avenue, and one of my favorite places in New York. Sort of like Washington Sqaure, but all cleaned up and gentrified, being beside the main public library. There is always something going on, like craft fairs and busker shows and music. True to form, when I get there, I find out that there is a day-long jazz festival. I watch a few acts and the quality is really high. I love live jazz as much as anything, but something is bothering the back of my mind. As I entered the park, I noticed a few dozen cops and quite a lively crowd of people milling on the street around the park. A quick look during a break uncovers a crowd of maybe 100 cops and all sorts for freaky people, most of them women. It's the 3rd Annual Dyke Parade, sort of an off-shoot of the prime-time Gay Pride Parade scheduled for 5th Avenue the following day, the one that makes news outside New York. Anyway, this crowd is a little more militant. The slogan signs say things like "We're here, we're queer, don't f^&k with us", and there are really a lot of cops. The crowd wants to march 5th Avenue without a permit, 200+ cops say no, 1000+ women say yes.

All hell breaks out, lots of singing, dancing, pushing road barriers, megaphone yelling, drums booming. The crowd takes over the street in front of the library, forcing some heated discussions, and a wise decision by the police to give up 2/3 of the street. It's a good idea, because as the crowd throngs down the wide street, it grows to about 3000+. It is a spectacle. I join in for a bit just because the whole thing is so intense. You don't mess up 4 lanes of downtown Manhattan traffic and 200 cops without a bit of chutzspa. As it turns out, 2 friends of ours who have visited us in Canada are there, but unfortunately, we don't run into each other. There are some sights in the crowd that shock me as I think of them, so I don't think I'll put them on paper. I'm glad I didn't have a camera. I wanted to be a small part of this event, not a gawker. Again, I'm not that political, but I always support groups struggling for power denied.

I'm in a quandry. The parade is moving away from my jazz. I decide to buy a beer and head back to the park, as I know that a great trumpeteer is the main act, and he will have a special guest. The star is Arturo Sandovar and the guest is Bill Cosby. I am transported because the music is so alive that basically Bill is a stage ornament, although an inspired one. I have some great jazz vocals by Mr. Cosby, and would love to have heard him sing, but that man on the trumpet was outstanding. He danced, he sang, he played concert piano and he made that trumpet scream and sigh at will. Being a loner, I moved myself until I was sitting but 10 meters from the stage. I had my beer and I was ecstatic. Of all the images and sensations of the day, or any particular day, that trumpet playing in that setting will stay with me a long time. Of course, I lined up and bought the CD, which I love, and a t-shirt to commemerate the event.

Well, the day is moving on. It's getting dark, and I need supper and then a decision as to what to do with the rest of the evening. The day started at 5:30 and has been quite physical. I wander up over to Grand Central Station where there is more live music and a big sense of metropolis. I'm using the Village Voice to search out even more music and I find a blues bar called..Jane's Cactus bar?... It is is up off Broadway, which sounds like a good place to eat. Boy, am I shocked. I probably haven't spent $10 all day, and all these little places within a small rocket launcher of Broadway are charging $9 for a sandwich. The blues bar has food, but the cost is dear, and the music starts late.

I'm flagging. It has been a long day, I didn't setup a place to stay, and I don't feel like dropping in on relatives. So. it's back out to Queen's with a train and gypsy cab, but I still need to eat. I stop in at the local Israeli falafel shop, which is just opening after Saturday Sabbath. I love falafels like I love N.Y. pizza, so I order both. It's a glorious meal, a combination of foods only available in very few places.

I'm tired, happy and full. I head back to the mother-in-law's, a place I am as comfortable as anywhere in the world, but was once banned from for having 3 strikes against me (not Jewish, not a professional, too short). New York has a way of forcing even the most polarized groups to assimilate or wither away. My mother-in-law fought change for many years, and then gave into it, and seems happier for it. It always amazes me when I compare her religion-oriented life in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war with her daughter's scattered upbringing in Poland, Israel and New York and now my daughter's sheltered, non-religious upbringing in a haven such as Canada. We are the product of our experiences and I am thankful every day that my daughter has the luxury of sampling life at her own speed in a society that will allow her to define herself basically as she wishes.

Unfortunately, I don't feel this way about New York. The scale and violence inherent in such a big city forces its inhabitants to adjust or crack up. Personally, I consider New Yorkers all neurotic. It's the only way to survive under the ongoing onslaught. But I am tied to that city in a number of ways. It has amazed me, sickened me, frightened me and shocked me both pleasantly and disgustingly. I don't want to live there, and I sure as hell don't want to raise a family there. The level of random violence is palpable every time I visit. But visit I must, and luckily, I have been able to sample some of its fruit without the city exacting too high of a price, yet. Like I stated earlier, I had a New York day, not your average day. It was a "Slice of the Big Apple, hold the Mayo"