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Rendezvous in the Ramble

Why didn't Paul go to the police? "My business, my reputation. My family. God, are you crazy?" Paul ran away, tears streaming down his face. The terrors of leaving his closet were more real to him than the terrors of the night.

The Ramble is a beautiful setting for such horrors. The invitingly open lawn at the northern end of the Ramble— noted for its magnificent tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica)—was called "the Fruited Plain" back in the twenties by those who frequented it and by those who lived near it.

Just south of the famous tupelo is an intimate, secluded maze defined by other unusual trees—the ginkgo, the ailanthus, the rare cork—grown tall now with age, their intermingled branches shielding those who wander there from the view of even the highest buildings along Central Park West. Around these sheltering trees, around the asphalt walkways that wind through the Ramble, are man-tall thickets of bushes. And leading into those verdurous tangles are man-made trails—cleared not by the Parks Department but by the feet of decades of men, seeking to meet other men in a gay cloister away from the city's disdainful eyes. There have always been parts of our city that have served as gay cruising areas: Washington Square Park in the 1940s, Third Avenue near the Queensboro Bridge in the 1950s, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive in the sixties, piers at the end of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in the seventies. But Central Park West, and particularly the Ramble, has retained its popularity for 50 years.

The afternoon after I talked to Paul, I met Jerry, an attractive man of medium build in his mid-thirties, sitting on top of a large outcropping of rock in the middle of the Ramble. His T-shirt hanging out of his back pocket and his tanned runner's legs dangling his Adidas over the edge of the rock, Jerry tells of the first time he heard about the Ramble. "It was when I read John Rechy's novel City of Night," Jerry recalls. "I was living abroad with a woman at that time, but I had begun to figure out that I was gay. It was the only place I had heard of where I could find someone who was like me. So, the second night after I got back to New York, in 1970, I went there in the early evening, right after work. My God, I never knew there were so many gay people! For the first time I didn't feel like a freak. I was shy but people were so open I soon got over that."

The Tunnel is the most active group-sex scene in that area of the park. Some nights it will be crowded wall to wall with men until four in the morning.

From his rock perch, Jerry has a clear view below of the Ramble's main "meat rack"—a cruising area for men who are there for sex. As we chat, two men—a blond, athletic, bearded young fellow and a dark and handsome forty-ish man—emerge from an almost unnoticed indentation in the tent of bushes. It is nearly 6:30 on a Friday night, and both men are carrying their suit jackets and briefcases. Their shirts open to the waist, their ties loose around their necks, they grin, shake hands, and stroll lazily off in opposite directions.

Other businessmen on their way home mingle with hundreds of balding cyclists, long-haired students, tight-clothed young Hispanics wearing gold crosses, clean-cut preppies, middle-aged dog walkers, and the most ordinary-looking of men as they wander, quietly, stopping occasionally to chat, to greet old friends, to make new ones, or to sit contemplatively with a book or a joint. Some take a partner home. Others find a niche in the bushes.

As the light fades, the after-work crowd vanishes. Much later, usually around midnight on a weekday, the Ramble's nighttime regulars begin to trickle into the park. The daytime socializing is casual, friendly, chat-filled. The nighttime sex scene in the Ramble is conducted in silence, lest the voice dissipate the mutual fantasy evoked by the look, the pose, the costume, the attitude. Body language is the only language needed for success here. Some night people prefer a particular quiet corner, for one-on-one encounters. Others gravitate toward the Tunnel, that part of the Bridle Path which runs under the 77th Street overpass. The Tunnel is the most active group-sex scene in that area of the park. Some nights it will be crowded wall to wall with men until four in the morning. Some nights, too, the cops decide to come full speed down the Bridle Path in their squad cars, headlights and spotlights blazing, barely giving the preoccupants in those close encounters time to pick up their pants and run—before being run over. "For their own protection," say the cops.