New Jersey turnpike

exit 9 approach

we ain’t outa jersey yet

 

 

What a sight we must have been, the four of us, talking loudly and smoking weed in an old beat-up car with the radio blasting at full volume and the windows rolled down so that the sound trailed behind us for miles around. Speeding up the New Jersey Turnpike on a sweltering hot Saturday night in late August as if we were on the Autobahn. 

We were on our way to the Firehouse, New York’s first-ever gay community center in the heart of Greenwich Village. On the radio, the Jefferson Airplane sang lyrics that could have been our anthem: “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America.”

I was truly an outlaw. Dressed like a cross between Boy George and Ziggy Stardust: tight pink hip huggers, my sister’s green halter top, bright yellow platform shoes with red hearts on the front, long dangling earrings that could seriously injure me if they swung too hard, long dark curly kinky hair that resisted straightening no matter what I did to it (and believe me, I tortured it every way I could to make it hang straight), and tons of cheap makeup from the local five-and-dime store where the saleswomen had thick South Philly accents and still wore beehive hairdos and snapped their gum with a vengeance. 

I was sitting in the back seat necking with my boyfriend, Arnold, a black singer and actor who performed in musicals at a local theatre. In the front seat Gemini, in a multi-colored dashiki, was at the steering wheel next to Marvin, his Jewish ex, who sported the world’s worst frizz. Sometimes, when the air sizzled and I didn’t take proper precautions, my hair, too, looked like I had stuck a wet finger in a wall socket. 

Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike was risky business. New Jersey state troopers tossed you in jail and threw away the key, just for looking at them the wrong way. We weren’t thinking of that. We had only one thing on our minds that night: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the city that didn’t sleep. I guess that’s three things, but they’re all related. We were already stoned, as we usually were on a Saturday night. We intended to stay that way, too. Gemini had brought enough of the green stuff to keep us happy for a long time. 

Gemini, Marvin and Arnold lived together in a very gay commune. Marvin owned the house, having inherited it after his father died. His elderly mother also lived there. She tried her best to ignore the goings-on. It was difficult. She was always walking in on someone having sex in the living room or drugged out and asleep at the kitchen table in his birthday suit. As much as she complained, she loved her son’s gay friends. 

I had only been to the Firehouse a couple times. The local Gay Activists Alliance purchased it from the city for next to nothing. It was, as its name implied, an old fire station. The group used it mostly for office space and meetings. I wondered if the firefighters who once slept there knew about the hundreds of sweaty male bodies gyrating to psychedelic music under strobe lights–and the influence of all sorts of mind-altering substances. Not to mention what no doubt went on in the darker nooks and crannies of the building. 

Since New York wasn’t that far from Philly, the ride took a little under an hour, especially at the speed we were going. Being stoned helped. I wasn’t fond of traveling. I got fidgety after about ten minutes. I used to drive Mama crazy when the family went on day trips to Atlantic City, which was the same distance from Philly, but going East rather than North. “When’re we gonna get there?” I’d say over and over like some bratty kid on a TV sitcom. “Just shut the hell up and enjoy the damn ride,” she’d tell me.

Of course, there was something to be said for being in the back seat with a hot man who couldn’t take his hands off my body. I used to dream about that on those trips to Atlantic City while staring out the window at the endless flat fields with cows and horses and row after row of New Jersey corn that whizzed by like the frames of some boring black and white agricultural news reel in Catholic grade school.

We weren’t that far from the Big Apple when fate threw a huge wrench in our plans. Without warning, a car pulled out from the thick bushes behind us. A siren sounded.  

“Uh-oh,” Gemini said, turning down the music. 

“What?” I asked. Arnold was lying with his head on my shoulder and his eyes shut. I didn’t think he was asleep. Just wasted. Marvin was in a similar state. He was staring out at the road.

“State trooper.”

I turned to look. “You sure he’s after us?” 

“He ain’t after Mary Poppins.”

My heart started racing. I hated cops. Not only because my uncle, one of Philly’s Finest, always bragged at family gatherings about beating up drag queens in the gay ghetto area of town where his beat was, but because in the neighborhood where I grew up young males with certain features sometimes got stopped late at night on suspicion of looking like someone who had just committed a crime. In other words, Italian, as in Mafia.  

I felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped 50 degrees. In the middle of a heat wave, I was shaking like it was minus 15 degrees. On top of that, everything I had eaten was ready to shoot up onto the seat. Move over, Linda Blair. An exorcism wouldn’t help in my case. 

Not only was I going to be arrested and thrown into jail, but Papa would have to come and bail me out, looking like Bette Midler on a bad hair day. Believe it or not, there was actually a state law in most places, including New Jersey of course, against being in drag, unless you wore two pieces of identifiable male clothing. At least I was wearing my white Fruit of the Looms, the kind Mama bought me when I was a kid. It wasn’t enough. Start spreading the news: I’m leaving for jail tonight.

“What’re we gonna do?” I asked, starting to panic.

“Keep cool,” Gemini said, slowing down and pulling over. The tires made loud crunching sounds as they rode over the small stones by the side of the road. Marvin and Arnold were still in coma city.

I thought: maybe I could have an asthma attack and be rushed off in an ambulance. Having Papa find me on oxygen in the ER was preferable to him retrieving my beaten and half-dead body from some god-forsaken jail cell in Northern New Jersey. Any way I looked at this I was doomed. 

“Listen carefully,” Gemini said, poking Marvin with his hand. I did the same thing to Arnold. Both guys stirred at the same time.

“I can hear every word you say,” Marvin murmured, ready to nod off again. 

Gemini had been in a lot of sticky situations. Even stoned, his brain worked better than most people’s did on a good day. “Everybody, pull your head together and act like nothing’s wrong. Whatever happens, just be cool, real cool. Let me do all the talking.” He picked up the bag of grass from the front seat. “Okay, we gotta get rid of this or our goose is cooked…” I wasn’t exactly thrilled with what he said next, but there was no time to argue. We all had to trust him.

When the state trooper got to Gemini’s window, he ordered us to get out of the car. We complied without saying a word, as Gemini had instructed. He had a booming baritone that matched his young, square-jawed, well-built, all-American white bread look. He shone his flash light into the front seat of the emptied car, examining every inch of the interior. He did the same to the back of the car. He even opened the glove compartment. I held my breath: please, Gemini, no surprises in there. When he was satisfied with what he saw, he used the light to examine Gemini’s driver’s license and car registration. He studied them both for what seemed like an eternity. He slipped the flashlight into his back pocket, then frisked Gemini, Marvin and Arnold, taking extra time with Gemini and Arnold. He stared at me for a moment. I was shaking so badly I thought I’d go into convulsions. I kept my eyes to the ground. Another eternity passed. 

He cleared his throat. I was expecting the worst: “You’re under arrest for impersonating a female…” Instead, he motioned with his hand: “Miss, you can get back in the car now.”

My mouth opened. “Hey, I’m a guy!” I almost said. It was a reflex. I did a lot of radical drag. I loved that moment when someone realized I wasn’t who or what I seemed to be. I could feel Gemini’s eyes drilling into the back of my head. Before my brains spilled out, I got back into the car, making sure to walk as femininely as I could. 

“You were driving a little fast there buddy,” the trooper told Gemini, pulling out the pad from his back pocket and writing up a ticket. I was glad I could hear everything from the back seat. The trooper sounded disappointed, he was sure he was going to find something illegal in the car. Something more to pin us on than a ticket for speeding. Something that would keep us behind bars for a long time.

“You’re right, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again,” Gemini said, using just the right tone to convince the cop he was truly contrite.

I couldn’t see from where I sat in the car, but I’m sure the trooper took one last hard look at the three of them before he walked off, his shoes making crunching sounds against the small pebbles. Everybody got back into the car, and we drove off in silence. We must have gone a couple miles when Arnold suddenly started laughing.

“Gemini, you saved our asses, you’re a fucking genius,” he said.

“The dark helped. No offense, but you’re not exactly Miss America,” he added, glancing back at me in the rear view mirror.

“None taken,” I said. It was going to take a while for me to breathe normally again or to stop shaking. 

“I thought Miss Thing back there was gonna get us all busted,” Marvin said. 

“I didn’t say nothing!”

“You were gonna.”

“You think I’m that stupid? It’s thanks to me that we didn’t get busted,” I said. 

“He’s got you there,” Arnold said, reaching over and groping my crotch. “It’s a good thing he didn’t check you out or we’d be in big trouble.” Trying to imitate the state trooper he said, “Why, ma’am, that’s a mighty big package ya got there. I’m gonna hafta do some investigating.” He laughed.

“The accent’s all wrong,” Marvin murmured as he put his head back and shut his eyes.

“He might’ve liked what he found,” I remarked. 

“He sure would’ve,” he said, unzipping and unsnapping my pants. He reached into my briefs and pulled out the plastic bag of weed. “Should taste real good now.”

“Hey, leave that where it is,” Gemini warned. “We ain’t outa Jersey yet.”

Scarier words were never spoken.   

 

 

originally featured in several theatre productions by Avalanche, a multi-racial LGBT troupe, in the late 80s and then again in a different form in the play Esther’s Boys at the Jon Sims Center in SF in 1998.