Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
3635 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Poughkeepsie, 1962

Thomas E. Kennedy

You are 18 years old and have rarely been out of Queens. Your older brother works for Pan American World Airways, the only one in your family who has traveled, and tells you tales of trips to Europe and meeting beautiful women. You’d like to travel and meet such women. But you have no money to go very far.

Then you remember the girl you know in Poughkeepsie. Jeannie. You met her at a resort in Wappinger Falls where a friend invited you three years ago when you were fifteen. Jeannie was not a guest at the resort, but her mother, a professional dancer, frequented the bar. Jeannie had a white toy poodle that she dusted with pink face powder which you thought was awfully cute as were her peroxide blond pigtails and the juicy ’50s pudginess of her curves. In the evenings, you and Jeannie used to kiss in the dim light at the far end of the swimming pool. Once, she jumped into the pool to stand next to you in the water, and her foot plunged down inside your bathing suit and through the leg opening—a piquant bonding experience.

The two of you still exchange letters, and she visited you last year. You went to Greenwich Village, to the Café Bizarre and heard Ted Joans recite poetry about sex after which you exchanged a full frontal kiss that left you steamy. In her last letter she told that her mother had been killed in an automobile accident and with the insurance money, Jeannie moved into her own apartment and bought a ’62 Impala convertible. She is on her own—she has no siblings and her father disappeared years ago. You like her. You still want to kiss her.

You decide to surprise her with a visit.

You take the train from Penn Station to Poughkeepsie. You are thrilled to be going to a new place through cities with exotic names like Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Spuyten Duyvil, Scarborough, Peekskill, Breakneck Ridge, Beacon... Then, out the train window, you see a sign that says, Welcome to Poughkeepsie, Duchess County, Queen City of the Hudson, Founded 1687, Population 25,861. Home of Vassar College. Birthplace of Scrabble.

When the train pulls into the Poughkeepsie Main Street station, you lift from the luggage rack your small leather suitcase—your grandfather’s, retrieved from the attic—and walk up Main Street to South Road. The city is small and you find a hotel easily and are shown to a room. It looks out onto South Road. There is a movie house across the street. You open a window and pull over a chair and prop your feet on the windowsill and look down at the street.


Jeannie’s phone number is GR 1 2474. You dial it from the hotel phone, but there is no answer. You ask at the desk for directions to her apartment on Canon Street. It is only a short walk through the late June afternoon. The streets are full of exciting strangers. Strangers live in the houses, peeking out the windows. Jeannie’s house is a broad-faced duplex. There are two names on the bell for Jeannie’s half, but you are relieved that the other name is a girl’s, Judi Grubel. You press the bell, but there is no answer. Two old guys are sitting on chairs on the front porch of the other half of the duplex.

“You lookin’ for them two girls who live together there?” They cackle in a manner you don’t care for. Do they think you’re not good enough for her? In all these years you’ve only kissed her a couple of times—held her hand—and there was that one time she jumped into the swimming pool and her foot went down the front of your swim suit . Embarrassing, but you felt so much closer to her after that. And you do like her. You could like her. She’s cute and sexy and nice and smart even if she hasn’t even finished high school. In fact, maybe you could marry her and live in Poughkeepsie with her. Why not?

On the way back to the hotel, you stop at a grocery store to buy a six-pack of half-quarts of Knickerbocker. Being baby-faced, you are challenged to produce ID proving that you are eighteen, the legal age in the only civilized state in the Union, and with triumphant pride you whip out your draft card to the middle-aged woman who is clearly disappointed that she was not able to deny you the right to pickle your brains.

Back in your room, you pull the armchair to the window, punch two triangles in a half quart can of Knickerbocker, put your feet on the windowsill and watch the world on Main Street, Poughkeepsie, walk past during the first sunset of your first day in a strange and exotic city.


You spend that evening in the movie palace across the street, eating chocolate-covered ice cream bon bons and watching John Wayne and the beautiful Elsa Martinelli in Hatari, a movie about tough men in Africa capturing animals for sale to zoos. You have a love-hate relationship with the Duke. Once, when you were a child, you came home from a John Wayne movie and asked your mother, in your father’s presence, why she hadn’t married John Wayne instead of Dad. To your father’s credit, he sniggered. In fact, when Dad was drunk, he looked like John Wayne when he was drunk in a movie. Of late, however, your feelings are veering away from the Duke as hero toward the Duke as bully and animal poacher. He’s always punching other men who annoy him and turning women whose behavior he doesn’t approve of over his knee. Also, as someone pointed out to you, he walks with tiny mincing steps which are kind of grotesque.

In the morning, after a cholesterol-rich breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, and toast afloat with butter, you call Jeannie again, and a woman’s voice answers. You ask to speak to Jeannie, and there is a pause, muttering voices, before Jeannie comes on. Her voice sounds less enthusiastic than you recall it, but she agrees to meet you outside the hotel at lunchtime.


She looks startlingly different. Her hair is short, dyed black. She is no longer pudgy but angular and very thin. She looks like a boy, like a cute boy. But she is not a boy, she is a girl, and you would not hesitate to kiss her. However, after you hug her hello, she wastes no time before saying, “I have to tell you something about me. I’m gay. And all my friends are gay. You have to accipt that if you’re going to stay.”

“I accipt that,” you say, admiring the sound of her vowels, because she looks, in fact, great. She looks like a cool beatnik chick. “What’s gay?” you ask. The only gay you are familiar with is the Gay Nineties. You purchased a striped orange, collarless shirt a couple of weeks before that was identified on the label as a “Gay ’90s” shirt, but Jeannie makes you understand that this is something else entirely. Something that has to do with words like queer, fag, lezzy, three-dollar bill.

More than anything else, you are intrigued. And you find it difficult to believe that the girl whose foot had been piquantly down your bathing briefs and gave you a full frontal kiss last year kisses other girls. But you certainly do not mind if she wants to kiss other girls—in fact, you understand it profoundly.


She invites you home for lunch. Her roommate Judi Grubel is not home, but the two old duffers are sitting on the opposite porch watching with interest as Jeannie lets you into her apartment. You are thinking that this is her own apartment. You never knew a girl who had an apartment before. Now you are alone with a cute girl in her own apartment.

She makes tuna fish salad sandwiches and puts on a pot of coffee and a Harry Belafonte Midnight Special LP, and the two of you sit on the floor of her living room at opposite walls, drinking coffee and talking while Belafonte sings about a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee—with the blues and a girl named Tess, with a double “s” and a double “e.” She makes another pot of coffee and turns the album over, and the sun goes down so you are sitting in the dark with only slits of the porch light slipping through the slats of the Venetian blinds as you talk, and at some point she tells you she is in love with Judi Grubel and that you have to accipt that.

“I accipt that,” you say.

Jeannie tells you that Judi is very jealous about your sudden appearance. They had, she tells you, a knock-down drag-out fight earlier that day. You ask if she wants you to leave, and she says that she would really like you to stay. “Long as you accipt that Judi and me are togither.”

“I can accipt that,” you say.


Judi Grubel lets herself into the apartment and snaps on the light as Belafonte is in the midst of “Memphis Tennessee” one more time. Jeannie and you are sitting on the floor, fondling your coffee mugs, but far enough away from one another to be above suspicion for the moment. Still, Judi looks at you with mistrust, a short dark blocky older woman of twenty-one, a lab technician. Jeannie rises quickly and goes to her, kisses her on the lips and asks if she would like a cup of coffee. Judi says she would prefer a beer. You would, in fact, prefer a beer as well, but decide not to say so. Then, after giving a bottle of beer to Judi, Jeannie introduces you. You rise and offer your hand. She looks at it for a moment before taking a couple of its fingers, then you sit on the floor again, while Judi takes off the Belafonte and puts on another LP, sits on the floor close to Jeannie, who snuggles up to her.

You reach across for the LP jacket as you hear a familiar British voice come on—Laurence Harvey. The jacket says he is reading Walter Benton’s “This Is My Beloved.” You hear Harvey say, “Your eyes are luminous and soft as the velvet of pansies. Darling, good morning.” And you hear the sound of kissing, but don’t want to look at them. You lean your head back against the wall and close your eyes and wish you were back in Queens, hear Harvey’s silly self-important voice saying, “...oh the toothpaste kisses, darling...” and Jeannie sighing before you blank it out.

Finally the record ends, and you don’t want to look up for fear of what they might be doing, but Judi says flatly, “We have to go soon.”

“Tommy’s goin’ with us,” Jeannie says, and you glance at them to see Judi looking hard at her. “I told him all about us,” Jeannie says. “He accipts the whole situation.”

“I do,” you say to Judi. “I really accipt it.”

Jeannie tells you they are going to a get-togither of all her gay friends—you now fully understand what gay means—at a place named Steve’s Amber Lantern, on the edge of town. Steve’s Amber Lantern is owned by a couple named Steve and Amber. They are in their sixties, and they like the fact that their regulars dance boys with boys and girls with girls. Steve and Amber think that is much less trouble. No sex stuff.

Jeannie chuckles, and you laugh, and Judi looks at you for the first time without animosity.

It is decided that you will drive the Chevy Impala convertible even though you only have a learner’s permit. Judi, who has a license, sits beside you and directs you to the Amber Lantern through the cool country air and night green trees of the outer Poughkeepsie side roads, while Jeannie sits in the back seat and gabs about the people that will be there. You turn the Impala onto a long road, and Judi says, “Just go straight from here.”

Jeannie pipes up from the back, “Don’t go straight!” and the two of them crack up, and you pick up yet another piece of the terminology of the day.


You are amazed at the number of attractive women at Steve’s Amber Lantern. You find it hard to believe they’re all gay. They are all older than you—in their twenties. The juke box is blaring as the three of you enter—Lou Christie doing, “Two Faces Have I.” A long line of tables is shoved together alongside the dance floor, across from the woody bar, adorned with amber lanterns. You are introduced to more people than you can remember. They seem all to be lab technicians—Timmie and Albert and Ginny and Martha and Vinnie... Timmie, a tall friendly guy wearing tight white ducks and a tight white T-shirt, seems to be good friends with Jeannie and Judi, but you wind up seated with some people you don’t know down the table from Jeannie. You have no problem with that because a pitcher of beer is within reach, and after half of it is emptied, the music is sounding very good, and you yourself feel like a sterling lad. Now it’s Dionne Warwick doing “Don’t Make Me Over,” and you are seated next to a great-looking older woman named Karen who is about twenty-three and keeps touching you—touches your knee, touches your arm, touches your shoulder—to emphasize the point of whatever she is saying.

In the silence right after the record ends, Timmie the lab technician in white calls down the table to you, “So, Tommy, how does it feel to be the queer for a change?”

Everyone giggles, and Jeannie calls out, “I told you not to go straight, Tommy,” and everyone giggles again, and Martha and the Vandellas are doing “Come and Get These Memories,” and Karen, looking alarmed, asks what Timmie and Jeannie meant by that?

Having learned the lingo by now, you say, “Well, they know I’m straight. Not gay.”

With concern in her eyes, she asks, “You’re straight?” She glances at her girlfriend Louise who is sitting several places over and lowers her voice. “Well, stay that way, Tommy. If someone comes over to you and tries anything on you, punch him in the stomach. Don’t get into this.”

You wonder if she is involuntarily gay. You would love to kiss her sweet mouth and wonder if you dare. “Would you like to dance?”

Her eyes, as she stares at you, are frightened. “Louise would kill me if I danced with a straight boy. When Louise met me she told me I was a diamond in the rough, and she proceeded to polish me.”

You look down the table at Louise, a long-faced, large-nosed woman who is a lot older than anybody else, mid-thirties at least, and who is gazing at you with challenge in her eye.

Neil Sedaka is singing “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” and you glance the other way along the table and see Jeannie and Judi in a lip lock, and you are a little jealous and realize you are pretty high and feeling good to be here, and you see people dancing slow to Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity”—two bald guys in tight T-shirts who are dancing apart but touching one another’s chests with their fingertips from time to time in an enchanting manner that you wish you could learn how to do but with a girl, and two women are dancing slow with their arms around each other and faces in each other’s necks, and it occurs to you that their breasts are touching, maybe right on the nipples, and you get dizzy.

Just as the Gene Pitney ends, the door of the tavern slams open, and two beefy women with duck-tail haircuts, wearing leather motorcycle jackets, step in. Their DA haircuts are greasy and their bodies are square and their faces gruff, and one of them, hands stuffed into open-zippered slash pockets, shouts out in a hard voice, “No one’s money is good while we’re here! Drinks’re on us!”

The others at the table lower their eyes and are clearly disturbed, but you don’t see the problem. You’re drunk enough to call out, “Fine! I’ll have a pitcher of beer!” And by god, one of them orders a pitcher and brings it over to you and smacks it down on your table top so the foam spills over the edge, and she smooches her lips at you and growls, “Have a good time, junior!”

You say, “Thank you, ma’am. Er, sir. Er...” And she seems to find that amusing, grumbling with laughter, but puts her face close to yours and mutters through clenched teeth, “Get wise with me, junior, and I’ll cut off your cock.” You swallow and say nothing as she pinches your cheek hard and says, “Just tell me when you’re ready for another, junior.” And then she grabs Karen’s hand and jerks her up and starts dancing slow with her to “Don’t Make Me Over” which is playing again, mouth pressed against Karen’s neck, Karen’s two hands trapped at the small of her back in one of the hands of the gruff woman. You glance at Louise, but her eyes are fixed on the table top. You are wondering if you ought to do something, but the other duck-tailed woman buys you another pitcher before you’re even done with the first, and you figure what the hell and pour another glass. Now Gene Pitney is on again with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” and you are happily listening to the music, no longer worried about the amputation of your what’s-it, when Jeannie and Judi and Timmie come over to you, and Jeannie mutters, “That bull dyke bit Karen on the nick and broke skin.”

“Want me to fight ’em?” you ask, feeling your beer muscles, yet wondering if the bull dykes have knives. But Timmie and Jeannie and Judi get you out to the Impala where you collapse in the back seat and are delivered to your hotel. Swaying on the pavement alongside the convertible, you hug Jeannie and Timmie goodnight; then you get to Judi Grubel and hesitate, but she squeezes your arm gently and smiles at you. She looks nice when she smiles.


Next day, you invite Jeannie to lunch at a diner. Over cheeseburgers and malteds, she tells a joke about a Jewish woman who goes into a drug store and asks the pharmacist if he does urinalyses, and the pharmacist says yes, then the Jewish woman says, “So vash your hands and make me a malted!” Then Jeannie says, “Judi thinks you’re gay.”

“Well I’m not gay,” you tell her.

“Judi says you don’t know it yet.”

“I know I’m attracted to girls,” you say. “I’m not interested in being gay.”

“Don’t knock it until you try it,” Jeannie says.

You look at Jeannie’s blue eyes and her lips and her angular face and short black hair and sexy shoulders, and you hear yourself ask, “Is it possible for a woman to be so gay that she thinks she’s a guy and gets attracted to another guy?” You realize it doesn’t make any sense and is a desperate attempt.

She returns your gaze, then lowers hers. “That would be pretty twisted,” she says, and your heart sinks.


Timmie the lab technician is driving his bright red Ford convertible back to Manhattan and offers you a lift. You wonder why you accept, but you like him. You like his company. You like the attentive way he looks at you. It’s flattering. And when he drops you at Grand Central Station, he gives you his card and says, “You know, Tom, I like you. If you ever want to try it, give me a call.”

You say, “The only kind of body that appeals to me in that way is a girl’s.”

He says, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

“I just never could,” you say.

He smiles. “Never is a long time.”

In a sense you wish that you did want to try. Somehow the gay people seem to be so sure about their identity and that attracts you, it seems in some way stronger than your own. But in truth, there is nothing about a man’s body that attracts you in an erotic way. You are no macho guy, and you can see the beauty in a man’s body, but the only body you want to be with in that way is a woman’s.

When you get home, you tell your older brother all about it. He is by now working as a salesman—he calls himself “one of the soldiers of Madison Avenue”—and he says, “Jesus, man! Do you realize that those cute so-called lesbians were just waiting to be saved by a knight in shining armor on a white charger with a lance? That was you!

You wish that you could see it that way but it really doesn’t make any sense to you. And as things happen, three years later, you are staying with Jeannie in Long Beach, California, and it is very good sex. One night in bed in the dark, holding her, you ask about her time with Judi Grubel. She is silent for a while. Then she says, “You can only pretend to be something that you’re not for so long.”

Neither could you and she pretend to be in love with one another for more than a few weeks.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury