The street has shops with names like "The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop" and "All-American Boy" and, near the dangerous waterfront, names too risque to print. The card shops feature beefcake, not cheesecake, and, should you be searching for the one as metaphor, a poster after "The Wizard of Oz" that shows Dorothy and her dog, Toto, happening into a gay bar, Dorothy's mouth agape, with the adage so beloved by Greenwich Villagers:
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
One is not. One is on Christopher Street, a street which, though only seven blocks long, is one of the most famous gathering places for homosexuals in the United States.
To some, with the street's preponderance of male homosexuals, freely walking hand in hand, brunching in their special restaurants, it is a mecca. To others, with its pornographic bookstores and random sex for sale, it's a tawdry embarrassment, likened to Broadway and 42nd Street, midtown.
To some, with its reputation for pickups, for quick love quickly discarded, it's a boulevard of broken dreams. To others, it's a place to watch the passing show, to see and be seen.
It's a crazy street, Christopher, rich in dialogue, rich in theater, rich in color. If it were a bird it would be a parrot, but a city parrot, tatty around the orange and the yellow, and having picked up its language in a not very nice bar.
The drug dealers hang out at Sheridan Square; the noisy boys cruising the strip are often on the sidewalk in front of Ty's, one of the older bars. The dialogue, often impossible not to overhear, is frequently naughty.
The street is not, of course, exclusively homosexual. A main commercial thoroughfare in the Village, it is used by all the residents. There's a fine off-Broadway theater here, restaurants and clothing shops, even a legendary straight bar or two.
But it is as a homosexual gathering place, and historically the birthplace of the gay rights movement in this country, that the neighborhood is known.
The beginning of the movement, a moment as significant to gay activists here as the battles of Lexington and Concord, is considered to have taken place at a now-defunct bar called The Stonewall, on June 27, 1969, when police raided the bar. Three days of rioting ensued. The annual Gay Pride Day parade, held the last Sunday in June, begins here, including, this year, some Gay Mummers from Philadelphia, the entire affair led proudly by the Gay Marching Band.
Christopher Street is also the meeting point when the more serious problems of the community arise: harassment, 'fag-bashing,' pending legislation and how to deal with it. When a former transit police officer, in November of 1980, opened fire with a machine gun on a Village bar called The Ramrod, the marchers gathered on Christopher Street. When the movie "Cruising," which many in the movement felt to be offensive, opened, marchers also gathered here to protest. Letter From Greenwich Village
Craig Rodwell, owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, has been in the Village over 20 years. He was there for the three days of rioting at the Stonewall, there for the first "Gay Power" chants that broke out after the police raided the bar.
"You knew from the very first minutes nothing would be the same," he said. And yet, some things did not change. Rodwell finally replaced his store windows with shatterproof glass after they had been smashed for the third time, and he said it is not uncommon to arrive at the shop and find that someone has defaced the building with a swastika, or "Kill Fags."
"The worst thing I can remember, happening to me personally, is three years ago, the day before Christopher Street Liberation Day Gay Pride Day , a guy, very calmly, threw a piece of granite through the wall. Three months later, the same guy came back, walked into the store muttering, 'I'm gonna kill all you faggots.' A plainclothes cop who'd been following him arrested him . . . . He'd been walking blocks, talking to himself.
"There's also just the problem of harassment; the kids, usually white teen-age punks, who come to the neighborhood. They'll stop in the street, ask somebody over for directions and then grab the front of their shirt and drag them along in the car . . . ."
Nor is the attitude of the police, according to Rodwell, what it should be, nor the attitude of the community, toward reporting crimes.
"The last rock that came through the window, when the cops came, I remember one cop saying to me, 'If you didn't have all those gay books in the window, this wouldn't happen.' Like it was our fault. Like what they used to tell women about rape: that it was their own fault, say, for wearing a tight dress."
The commanding officer at the local precinct, the 6th, disputes that.
"If a cop ever did that it would be inappropriate," said Capt. William Mollinari, who speaks Socially Enlightened Cop with a Brooklyn accent. "We've come to a point in society where various types of life styles have come to be accepted."
All New York City rookies, Mollinari said, are now shown a film on the gay life style. The movie was created with the help of two of his officers. And, he said, he personally takes care in attempts to raise consciousness.
"When I get new people, I sit them down and have a personal discussion with them, particularly as relates to the gay community," he said. "I tell them a big part of Greenwich Village is made up of gay people. I tell them the more they work here the more they're going to find they have the same hurts and needs other people have, the only thing is, when they go out, say, on a family dispute in Greenwich Village, instead of a husband and wife, they might find a family dispute with two men, or two women, but it should be handled in exactly the same way . . . ."
A big part of Greenwich Village, of course, is also made up of heterosexual people, and occasionally, between the gays and the straights, there have been problems.
The gay regulars of Christopher Street say that sometimes straight men, walking with their dates, make insulting remarks. The straights claim the same. One former resident of the street recalled a time when hostilities between the sexes ran very high. "Think she's a model. Ski mask," a man on the street once said about her, while a transvestite, sitting on the stoop, in heavy makeup, tried another tack. "Too bad you're not a real woman," he said.
That was five years ago, when tensions on the street were considerably higher. The motif then, on Christopher, was black leather, the style was macho, a favored bar was Ty's. Directly beside Ty's was a private sanitation company, where macho was also the style.
At about 4:30 in the morning, when the sanitation workers arrived for work and a few of Ty's regulars, melancholy, were singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "The Man I Love" out in the street, there was often what Capt. Mollinari might call a clash in life styles. Bottles flew, garbage flew, there was a frank and open exchange of views.
Now, on Christopher, it has mellowed. The rough trade look, as Arthur Bell, a columnist who often writes about homosexual life, pointed out in a recent Village Voice story, has given way to more clean-cut look, somewhat, in part, because of a growing concern over the hazards dotting the rough way of life.
The dress style, this season, is sort of a snazzy nautical prep; bright summer shorts and pullovers. Only one man was seen on the street, recently, with a studded black leather jacket, and he, a New Yorker sniffed, was most likely from out of town.
The feelings among the sexes are mellowed also. There is, often, from the straights, a certain pride in the neighborhood, a kind of affection.
"I figure Martin and I are known as 'That straight couple,' " laughed Sybil Adelman, a comedy writer, who lives with her husband on Christopher Street. "The serious part, though, is that it makes you feel that you're being part of their movement, as opposed to living on the upper East Side, where all they're concerned about is cleaning up after their Afghans."