The USS Lexington disembarked in Bremerton and already the mission had been decided: Ed McDonald’s shipmates would march him to a cat house — his words — and the baby-faced Irish Catholic boy from Sunnyside, Queens, rosary beads clacking under his uniform, would meet a Real Woman and then become a Real Man. It was 1955 and Ed was turning 18, though he could have passed for 12. In those days he wore his rosary around his neck, “To protect me from me.”
They all called him Cherry Boy, but there are worse things to be called aboard a warship. It is fine to be called Cherry Boy when your shipmates reckon you just haven’t had the right opportunities.
Bremerton was a land of opportunities, but with more profanity than providence. The way it struck Ed the first time he stepped ashore in Kitsap County, Bremerton was open for business and existed only to challenge the upbringing of souls cursed with cash.
“You should have seen it. This place was wild.”
His buddies take him to a red brick building on Fourth Street, maybe Fifth Street, though he remembers a sci-fi black and white movie was playing at the Roxy. His buddies say to him, “OK, Cherry Boy, it’s time.” Ed figures out what is happening and becomes very terrified.
Then he sees her. She is very Real, and very beautiful, Ava Gardner with dark skin and eyes. Young Ed was introduced as Cherry Boy.
“She grabbed me by the belt buckle and led me around like a dog on a leash.”
“Ah,” she purred. “I love cherry boys.”
The room was red with lots of silk. There was a bed.
Let it never be said that Bremerton doesn’t take pride in its work. It’s written on the shipyard for all to see, “Building on a proud tradition.” The Real Woman hired to make a Real Man out of Ed was no less determined. She tried.
“She was really pretty, I just didn’t know what to do with it.”
Ed could fool most. He could fool his shipmates, officers, maybe even the whole neighborhood back home in Queens. Maybe he just led them to believe what they wanted to believe. But he couldn’t fool her. For Ed, it wasn’t a matter of opportunity or luck.
She took his face in the palm of her hands.
“Cherry Boy, you’re leaving here a cherry, too,” she said. “You are on the wrong side of the tracks.”
“Is there a right side of the tracks?”
“Not in this town.”
Ed’s shipmates were waiting. Now what? What about the congratulations? The braying and back slapping? What about his soul? At 7 Ed knew he liked boys. “They were prettier than the girls.” He joined the Navy to escape a cold home life, to see the world, to live and wear those hot white uniforms. Now what? What will become of him?
There were two kinds of people the Navy didn’t abide: communists and homosexuals. “Better dead than red” was a popular slogan. No slogan for killing homosexuals became as memorable.
“By the way,” she said, “my brother is gay too.”
It was the first time he had ever heard the word used like that.
Her name was Anne. She promised to keep his secret.
“A story like that spreads like wildfire.” He was terrified by nightmare visions of prison or mental hospitals, of a dishonorable discharge. “It only takes a rumor, just a rumor.”
Keeping his secret wasn’t enough. He needed something else from her. Anne didn’t protest. When she presented the Real Man formally known as Cherry Boy to his waiting comrades, she called him a miracle of procreative genius, she raved about his abilities, ranked him among the celebrities of virility and swore that he showed considerable potential as a stud if the Navy didn’t work out.
“She was great,” Ed said. “Oh, they were patting me on the back, all those alpha males!”
Then it was back to the rosary. “I was sure I was doomed to hell.”
Ed got tired of secrets. Parting with the Navy had been more sweet than sorrow, and after a youth of acting and traveling, he returned to New York and got a start as a restaurateur. He opened a bistro in Greenwich Village called the Omnibus. He lived openly gay, cooked and ran his business, mingled with artists and activists, traveled, smoked a lot of pot and cigarettes — too much pot and cigarettes — and fell in love. The highlight of his travels might have been Bali, where a spider monkey bit him.
He kicks himself now for not planning for his future, or jumping at the chance to buy the building that housed his restaurant. The price was $200,000. Now it is worth many millions. At the time he didn’t want to trouble himself with material things.
“I saw myself as this spiritual thinker and here I was dripping in leather and chains.”
On the night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Ed was at his restaurant, not too far from the action, but without a clue the gay rights movement was being born down the street. He cleaned up, counted the till, jotted in the books and then smoked a joint. He locked the door and walked home. By the time he noticed the commotion and looked over this shoulder, all he could see was a wall of 2,000 rioting people.
“Oh my god,” he thought, his mind clouded by weed paranoia. “Was my cooking that bad?”
The ’70s were good to Ed. He was handsome, fit and had a head of hair and money in his pocket. Climbing stairs was no trouble. His restaurant did well, catered to everybody and anybody but attracted big names in the world of the gay community, literature and entertainment. The legendary Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs lived in the neighborhood and were known to stop by. Anne Bancroft might be sitting at a table with Mel Brooks. One of his long-time waiters, Vito Russo, would go on to became an influential gay rights activist and film historian.*
In the ’80s a pall fell over New York. Cocaine replaced pot as the drug du jour. Tastes changed, leaving his funky stoner-friendly restaurant in the dust. AIDS struck and Ed lost too many friends to count. The love of his life, David, he lost to schizophrenia. That was 33 years ago, he has been single since. Rather than walk the same streets and see none of the same people, he moved away.
He picked Seattle, arriving in 1983, and found an apartment on Capital Hill for $175 a month. The University of Washington hired him, and for his life’s third or fourth act, he worked in food service at the medical center’s cancer and psychiatry departments.
Before he served people looking for a good time, now he served the afflicted. The work was not so challenging, but chatting up the patients was its own reward. He still feels pangs thinking about them, some of them were so lonely. Some became friends. He mentions their names to this day.
About seven years ago he tried to walk up the hill to Broadway and realized he was gasping for air. Too many cigarettes, too much pot. He had always walked or taken the bus. He’s never had a driver’s license or owned a car. At the same time the COPD came, the once modest apartment was bleeding him dry. Rent climbed up to $800 when he moved out. Now he hears it is getting close to twice that.
He got word of affordable housing in Bremerton. He hadn’t spent any real time here, but it sounded promising. Moving to Bremerton could be a way to get back on his feet.
He regretted the decision almost immediately. Bremerton was not the same wild and wooly port-of-call of his youth. Far from it. The buses don’t even run on Sundays. The only thing that might make it a bit more bearable, the one thing that might help: a gay bar. He doesn’t know of any. “It would be nice to have a drink among my own tribe.” But like the baby-faced Cherry Boy in 1955, he finds himself on the wrong side of the tracks.
Ed rates his health five out of 10. He’s still got his laugh. He has retained his New York swagger, but his knees are wobbly. Mouth cancer took his teeth, and his dentures are hell. He’s frank about what kind of health-imposed limitations he will endure and where he is at in life. For Ed, it’s bleak. “Everybody I have ever loved is dead.” Although he is addicted to Netflix – and is about ready to lead an uprising against CenturyLink and Comcast for their anti-consumer practices – things like Facebook hold no interest for him.
“There’s nobody out there for me to look up, not unless it can connect with the afterlife.”
He has good days and bad. On this day, a few years after he arrived in town, he was walking along Wheaton Way in Manette, on his way to the Boat Shed to have a drink. On the sidewalk, he crossed paths with a woman. She was old, like him, hunched over, had to use a walker to inch her way on the sidewalk. They nodded, said hello and went on their way.
He saw her again in the neighborhood. Nod. Hello. Maybe a “How are ya?” He ran into her a few more times.
On this day, the woman stopped him.
“Have you always lived in Bremerton?”
No, Ed explained, but he was stationed here in the ’50s for a period.
She looked him in the eye.
“I never forget eyes,” she said. “Did you ever go by the name Cherry Boy?”
Anne and Ed walked together, slowly, and sat on bench overlooking the water. They talked about how they first met, giggling.
They became friends, but not close. “What we did as kids wasn’t exactly meaningful.” When they saw each other on the street, they waved, and giggled.
A few years passed and Ed realized he had not seen Anne in a while. He saw a friend of hers on the bus one day. She said Anne had died.
“And she told me about you,” the friend said.
After they discovered each other, and sat overlooking the Port Washington Narrows, he had asked about her memory. It was amazing, he remarked, to remember somebody from so long ago, somebody with whom she had an even more meaningless encounter than usual, after so much had changed.
Anne said it was hard to forget the first-timers, especially the one they called Cherry Boy. Ed was pretty, but it was more than that.
“You were so utterly innocent.”
“Well, Anne,” Ed said. “I got over it.”
*Ed disputes an account of the Stonewall Riots in a book about Russo, where he is said to have warned his waiter to stay away from the angry crowd outside the Christopher Street bar. “Never happened,” he said. Ed maintains he had no idea what was happening at the Stonewall until after he closed the Omnibus for the night. He doesn’t dispute, however, that he butted heads with Russo, though he considered him a friend. Ed is a proponent of gay rights, but he is, in general, a proud liberal who literally carries his ACLU membership card in his wallet and was not, and is not, hostile to straights.