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Al Baltrop aiming for the corner pocket.

Another Black Experience: Gay Daddy

by Kelly Cogswell

JUNE 6, 2001. I met Al at a laundromat in the East Village. He's a tall funky, elegant mix of Africana and military, with a little goatee, close cropped hair, and a brutal cane. Cancer and diabetes have shrunk his former bulk into a fashionable thinness. He is a photographer, and, for the young neighborhood queers, an unofficial AIDS educator and Gay Daddy.

A Latino kid gets kicked out of the house for being a faggot with HIV, Al gets him a room so he won't have to turn tricks. A West Indian preacher father throws out his daughter for being a dyke, Al combs the shelters and streets looking for her. He'll hand out condoms, treat crabs, and provide comfort if you get a gun put to your head during a night on the stroll. He's been there, done that, and like the narrator of Moby Dick, lived to tell the tale.

Al Alvin Jerome Baltrop was born 52 years ago in the old Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx to a mother who had left Virginia after man trouble. He had one brother, James, thirteen years older than him. They lived up at Concourse View, at 165th Street in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium, and as a kid, he and his pals would steal some Twinkies from a bodega, go up on the roof with a transistor radio, and watch the Bombers.

His mother was a domestic. In the mornings, she would join other local women at 161st and Grand Concourse, and old white women who wanted day workers would point and say 'you, and you, and you' to scrub floors, and do windows. Her social life revolved around the church. She was a Baptist down south, then a Jehovah's Witness up north. Unless you're a carouser, Al told me, the church is how you find a community when you move. The religious life didn't take root in him, but the recipes of the church kitchen did, where he was drafted to work on special occasions.

His only real experience of his mother's South was when, at twelve or thirteen, he got sent to her folks for a long visit. One of Al's favorite stories is how he disappeared one afternoon. They looked everywhere for him until his aunt said, 'Look over at the white folks,' and that's where he was, playing in the backyard with the white neighbors, where his own cousins had never dared go. They couldn't keep him indoors. At night, he would take long walks down country roads, unaware a black male abroad at night conjured the fear and hate of whites. In no time, his uncles sent him packing back to New York, afraid the ignorant, northern boy would be lynched.

The other important time he was down South was when his New York relatives all stuffed themselves into a station wagon, kids, aunts, fried chicken and everything, for the 1961 March on Washington. They were part of the tent city. What he remembers is unrelenting rain and mud. But the same uncle who sent him back north said, 'Don't forget this, Al. This is history.' "And it was," he told me.

Al realized he was gay a couple of years later, when he was fourteen or so. The revelation was helped along by kids at school who called him a faggot. He'd kick their asses, and say "If I'm gay, what are you after I sucked your dick?" No information, no role models, no nothing, he and a pal would travel down from the Bronx, getting out every few stops below 110th street to see who was hanging out, sometimes hooking up with someone. That's how they learned how to be gay men—cruising from Central Park to Riverside Drive.

A decade and a half later, he used some of the same lines he'd heard then when he stopped his van to pick up a young black teenager, "Want to go for a hot chocolate?" The boy checked in back to see if it was an ambush. Seeing no one else, the boy got in, and stayed for sixteen years. Mark was the love of Al's life. Al worked as a lithographer during the week, Mark as a civil servant, but when Saturday rolled around Al would pamper the younger man, going uptown to Macy's and buying him cinnamon rolls. Or he would cook biscuits with gravy and eggs, pork chops, greens, you name it. Mark died of AIDS in 1996.

But that was much later. Al was in the Navy from April 20, 1969 to April 22, 1971, during the Vietnam War. He lucked out because his captain was a Mormon with two wives who somehow conspired together to pull the right strings and keep him circling from Israel to the Mediterranean, anywhere but Asia. In the service, Al had a white lover from Alabama, William Lee Watson, whose family was in the Klan. After the war, when they went their separate ways, a family Klan friend raped Watson, and later killed him.

Al passed the seventies in the West Side piers. It was the euphoric, pre-AIDS decade of disco, bathhouses, and gay bars. He bought a Dodge van, and made a good tax-free living as a mover, advertising himself as "1 Man and a Van." He'd do five, six jobs a day, then drive his van over to the piers, park right there, open the doors, throw out a bean bag, bring out the wine, set up his camera on a tripod and watch the world go by.

He had been taking pictures since he was a teenager, partly to compete with his older brother, an artist who designed the first line of Black greeting cards. Al also did one year at the School for Visual Arts, but didn't like it, especially the faculty. One teacher would walk into the classroom, and ask, "Who brought my brandy this morning? I need a drink." And who ever brought it, would hand it over and that was it for her. Students, he said, learned from each other.

Many of his photos from the 70's are graceful studies of beautiful young men in the deteriorating surroundings of the piers. There were gay men, artists, voyeurs, young homeless boys and girls kicked out by their families. Older homeless queens would show them the ropes, tell them where they could bathe, sometimes even sell their own bodies so the young ones wouldn't have to.

There was great generosity, and love, and horrifying violence. Al photographed that too: the corpses of queers pulled all too often from the river, the swollen feet emerging from the sheet, the cops bending over them.

The piers are gone now. AIDS decimated a generation, and is now hitting another hard, particularly young gay black men, who are being infected at the same epidemic rate as Africans. I asked Al if he thought more funding would help, and he sneered, "Not until the black community confronts homophobia head on. Not as long as parents throw their kids away." Al tries to redeem them, but for young gay black and Latino kids, not enough has changed.

For Al Baltrop's photos

Related links:

For AIDS Comes on Strong, So Must Response. The need to address homophobia, misogyny, and anti-condom machismo.

For Swift Rise in H.I.V. of Gay U.S. Blacks. New infections at the rate of almost 15 percent a year. New York Times (reg. req.)

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Race and Class

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

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race and classThe Gully's complete coverage of race and class, two intertwined pillars of American society. Includes their double-barrelled global impact.

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News, opinion, and weekly headline review of New York City.

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