Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, April 2019 Issue.

Your city sure has changed.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan
c.2019,   St. Martin’s Press   $29.99 / $38.99 Canada   308 pages

Landmarks were destroyed, the skyline is different, and streets are shifted in a way that feels same-not-same. It’s like having dinner with a relative you met once, when you were nine: as in When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan, everything and nothing is familiar.

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was little more than farms and fields.

That’s the vista Walt Whitman saw when he stepped beyond the boundaries of the city where he’d been creating his Leaves of Grass. He loved the area, a love he shared with laborers, prostitutes, and the rest of the crime-ridden, mostly-white population of Brooklyn in the mid-1800s.

As a gay man, Whitman would have noted upcoming changes.

In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, making it easy for residents to reach New York City. There, male and female impersonators found work at live entertainment venues, where race mattered little; and sexes and social classes mixed freely at saloons, concert halls, dancehalls, and theatres. For African American actors, that relative permissiveness led to more acceptance and sometimes, fame.

By the time Brooklyn merged with The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island in January 1898, a new word had emerged. “Homosexuals” had been targeted by obscenity charges for quite some time then but, though laws were created against them, they had a solid presence in mainstream society. Even so, says Ryan, most people didn’t learn much about homosexuals until World War I.

And yet – people couldn’t get enough of “queer” folk, especially with cabaret shows, vaudeville, and “freak shows” so wildly popular and a subway ride to Coney Island costing just a nickel. New Yorkers flocked to the boardwalk, perhaps titillated by the idea that the performers were “gay.”

But “things started to go off the rails” for the LGBT community at the end of World War II. Being gay was perceptually equal to a crime. Starting then, says Ryan, “… the vibrant queer histories of places outside Manhattan would soon be forgotten.”

Reading When Brooklyn Was Gay is something like frosting a cake.

From the starting point of a poet and a wharf full of sailors, readers glide smoothly to wood-floor dancehalls; sweeping near audacious lesbian actors, scandal rags, legal fights, burly-Q stages, then to the Jazz Age and beyond. Each spot is covered, sprinkled with asides, personal anecdotes from author Hugh Ryan, and modern references to create connections, then gently folded into the next subject.

What may delight readers the most, though, is in the details.

While this is a history of Brooklyn, specifically, and New York, in general, we’re taken to other cities and cultures to see how worldwide changes impacted Brooklyn’s residents. Like the inner workings of a clock, tiny facts turn larger events that become part of a big picture for readers to see.

Unlike many books, this one doesn’t ignore anyone in the LGBT initialism; all are mentioned here and given due diligence. For readers searching for a fun, fascinating, all-encompassing history, When Brooklyn Was Queer is a nice change.

“Jimmy Neurosis” by James Oseland
c.2019,   Ecco   $27.99 / $34.99
Canada   305 pages

Back then, you were a chameleon.

Like most teens, you spent time blending in through different personas. One day, you were this kind of kid; another day, you were that kind; next week one, then another, as if you had a rack full of roles to try on and years to do it. In the new memoir Jimmy Neurosis by James Oseland, punk rock helped.

Moving again should have been no surprise for young Jim Oseland.

His father had always been somewhat of a nomad; in each new town, just as the family got settled, it seemed as though the first plan was to move again — although this time was different. This move was to California, and Oseland’s dad said he no longer wanted a family. Dad was staying in Minnesota.

Just 13, Oseland hoped to fit in with his new ninth-grade California classmates at San Carlos High, but he realized on the first day that it wouldn’t happen. Still, over time, he managed to make friends with a boy who dealt weed; and with a tall Marilyn-Monroe-ish exchange student who invited Oseland to explore the world of punk rock.

The music, the moshing, and the clothing were all things he’d seen on TV in Minnesota, but the culture was attainable in California. In club after club, 15-year-old Oseland was welcomed for his uniqueness; not fitting in seemed to be the whole point. He even felt comfortable enough to admit, out loud, that he was gay.

It was something Oseland had known since he was very small, but he couldn’t articulate it until he was welcomed into the world of punk rock. And he blossomed.

“Gone,” he says, “was the shy, awkward boy, to be replaced by someone with sharper edges.”

He gained a boyfriend who was more than twice his age and, after the boyfriend moved to New York, Oseland followed. When that relationship soured, the 17-year-old returned to California, with a germ of an idea.

California had changed. Punk rock had changed. And so, again, did Oseland.

Though it may at first seem like just another memoir, Jimmy Neurosis has three things that set it apart, the most obvious being that it’s a look at punk rock. That’s a story told not merely from its beginning but also from the perspective of two coasts. The author was there to see both.

The second and third things go together: told from the point-of-view of an awkward, desperately-wanna-be-worldly teenager, this memoir is mostly set in a time before the AIDS crisis, but only just. Oseland was highly promiscuous in those days and he’s very open in his recollections; AIDS is never mentioned but readers still may not be able to avoid feeling an edge-of-your-seat fear, not because of what’s written but because we know too much.

For that, and for readers who like memoirs of the coming-of-age type, this book is an easy choice. It’s also a great memory trip for old punk rockers. For fans of both, this book is the perfect blend.


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