When Gay tried to fit in, however, he was usually disappointed. He became an altar boy in the church, but the Irish priests gave him the worst Mass, 6 a.m., leaving him feeling betrayed. Gay says, "The Catholic Church was foreign to me because it was Irish." Still, the son was embarrassed when his father would stalk out of Mass because he did not like something an Irish priest said. It would also embarrass Gay when he would discover his father down on his knees in the hallway at home. Gay says, "Other children caught their parents screwing. I caught my father praying."
Joe Talese often made Gay uncomfortable, but the father was also his son's greatest strength and perhaps the single largest influence on his life. Gay did poorly in parochial school, but the father did not blame his son, he blamed the school. As the owner of a dry-cleaning business, Gay's father and the fathers of the church had an understanding: so long as Joe Talese's son was passed from grade to grade, there would be no charge for cleaning the priests' dirty linen. The church was willing to be bribed but it was not willing to enjoy it. Six out of eight years, Gay was promoted to the next "on trial."
The message that came through to Gay as he was growing up in Ocean City was, as he says, "The rules weren't for me." The town's blue laws were made by the Methodists and therefore were not for him; the Catholic Church's commandments were enforced by dictatorial Irish priests and nuns and so were not for him; later on, the rules of fidelity would not be for him, nor the New York laws which rapped the knuckles of massage parlor managers.
After he finished parochial school, Gay entered the public high school, where he continued to do poorly. The summer before his senior year, Gay met a girl from Penn State University who had come to Ocean City to spend her vacation working as a waitress in one of the resort town's restaurants. She was much like the girls he would later know who would come to New York to spend their college vacations working in massage parlors. The year was 1948. Gay borrowed a 1946 Ford and drove the Penn State girl to the beach. The decade was the fumbling forties and Gay did fumble, but by the time he got home he was no longer a virgin.
The high school principal tried to convince Joe Talese that his son was not college material, but the father would not listen. When Gay was turned down by Rutgers and many other nearby schools, the Talese family doctor, who had attended the University of Alabama, helped the uncertain student get into his alma mater. In the fall of 1949, Gay Talese entered Alabama, where he was once again an outsider—a Northerner in a Southern school.
Gay liked Alabama. He majored in journalism and his grades improved. He also fell in love for the first time. Gay had a Chrysler which was big enough for him and his girl to make love in the front seat. Later they registered under pseudonyms in motels.
In the spring of 1950, Gay made love for the first time to an absolute stranger. He was in St. Petersburg, where had gone to watch the Yankees in spring training. A pretty girl came up to him on the street and said, "Jerry—Jerry Coleman—I saw you play yesterday." Gay decided to be the Yankee star for the girl. That night they slept together. (Years later, when Gary told Jerry Coleman the story, the player was furious.)
After blue-law Ocean City, Gay found the South both sensuous and liberating. In the Confederacy, he enjoyed the beginnings of a sexual emancipation. And he stopped going to Mass forever.
When Gay graduated from the University of Alabama, he reluctantly left his girlfriend and came to New York hoping to land a job on The New York Herald Tribune. He had to settle for a job as a copy boy at The Times. His girlfriend in Alabama though that he was a reporter. One night, when Gay came in carrying a stack of newspapers which he was supposed to distribute around the city room, he saw his Alabama girlfriend sitting on a couch waiting for him. He dropped his papers. The love affair ended with a thud.