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Rendezvous in the Ramble

From the July 24, 1978 issue of New York Magazine.

Picture Central Park—without a sailor, Picture Mister Lord, minus Mister Taylor.
—Cole Porter's "A Picture of Me Without You," 1935.

The west side of that 30-acre section of Central Park known as the Ramble had a reputation as a homosexual meeting ground long before Cole teased his friends at private parties with this suggestive lyric. But though Central Park at night—any part of the park—is dangerous, the gay ghetto that is the Ramble is perhaps the section most fear-ridden. Gangs of toughs—teenagers and the macho middle-aged, usually drunk, occasionally including a couple of off-duty cops—roam the Ramble at night, engaging in an old American pastime: fag bashing.

You don't have to be gay. You don't have to be exposing yourself. You don't have to be doing anything except walking through the tangled darkness to be abused, shoved, threatened at knifepoint, kicked, and beaten.

But these shadowy dangers are in sharp contrast to the serenity of the sun-flecked arboreal mecca the Ramble becomes for thousands of gay men throughout each day. The sun, the strolling, even the solitude, and the natural beauty of the park's most bucolic copse—more than the opportunity for a casual sexual encounter in the bushes—are the magnets that for much of this century have made the Ramble the city's best-known outdoor gathering place for gays.

The Ramble has been in the public eye ever since the assault July 5 by a gang of anti-gay toughs who, at 9:30, just a little after dusk that Wednesday, went wading in with baseball bats, bashing any men they thought were gay. The dull thwack of bats hitting flesh and bone accompanied shouts of "faggot" from the all-white band of defenders of decency. Five men were hospitalized with serious injuries—including Dick Button, a former ice-skating star and now sportscaster.

Just two nights after this latest act of human vandalism, I made my way into the Ramble at midnight. Much to my surprise, there were actually people there. Not many, perhaps twenty men, but still, there they were. I found, too, that the isolation from city street life which gives the Ramble its idyllic quality by day transforms it into a labyrinth of nameless terrors by night.

Without a moon, the unaccustomed eye turns every figure in those blackened byways into a potential assassin. Without police protection, those shadowy fears can transform themselves into cold, clinical words that march across the admissions records of hospital emergency rooms.

Most of the men I encountered that night wouldn't talk. Of course, one doesn't go to the Ramble at midnight for conversation. At that hour on that night most of the men appeared to be over 35, but what disturbed me was the smell of fear on these men. It was not fear of being beaten. These men are there looking not for danger but for a point of contact, a moment of warmth and touching and comfort. Theirs is a more terrible fear—fear of discovery.

It was in the Ramble one night last week that I encountered Paul, a man of 56, successful in his Seventh Avenue garment business (he's the owner, not the designer), who occupies a lovely duplex apartment on Central Park West with his wife of twenty years and their two sons. Yet, several times a month, Paul goes out into the dark of night, walks a few blocks from his home to the 81st Street entrance to Central Park. Just a few feet beyond the stone wall that separates park from street, there is a break in the iron fence that seals off the bushes and trees from the roadway into the park. The iron bars have been bent back to allow easy access to a well-worn; narrow dirt path among the bushes. Paul follows that path until he comes to a series of turnings. Choosing one, he enters a grotto within a grotto. There, around a large, gnarled old tree—the "orgy tree"—there are little confessional-like spaces created by the untrimmed flora. There, in the darkness of the night, Paul finds a few moments of release with his own kind. Then he returns to his home, his wife, his children.

Except one night, about six months ago. That night, Paul left the park and went instead to Bellevue's emergency room to have sixteen stitches taken in his head. "I fell down an embankment," he told his wife.

"They jumped me, three kids," he told me. "Twenty, twenty-five, maybe, not older. I couldn't tell, they jumped me as I was just stepping out on the Bridle Path. I offered money. Just don't hurt me, I said. 'Man, we don't want your money, you faggot,' they said. 'It's probably just as queer as you are.' Then they started kicking me. I passed out for a minute. When I came to, they were prancing arm in arm down the road, singing: 'We killed a faggot, we killed a faggot.' They were laughing."


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