SAGE is a social welfare organization that looks after the needs of elderly gay men and lesbians. In the summer of 1985, when I was 28, I volunteered for its Friendly Visitor program, which matches volunteers with a SAGE client for weekly visits - to talk, do light errands or have a meal together. My client was 75-year-old Jim Chesbro, who lived on East 21st St. He grew up in Albany and was in the Merchant Marines where he was involved in resettling European refugees after World War II. Like Sammy Davis Jr., he lost an eye in a car accident when he was in his 20s. His voice reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote's. Every other week I'd visit with Jim after work for an hour or so. Besides being gay we were also both Mets fans.
My visits proved beneficial for both of us. Over a cocktail or a glass of wine he'd tell me stories about his life in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and I enjoyed getting a first-hand history lesson about what gay life was like back then. In some respects Jim was the grandfather (s) I never had. He told me that in Albany everyone in his gay circle had an assigned woman's name (his was Laura) and he'd go to house parties where everyone changed into drag upon arriving. And in Cherry Grove of the 1950s there was no electricity so dinner parties were held by candlelight and guests often wore tuxes.
Occasionally we'd eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant, and he insisted on paying. He also gave me cash gifts at Christmas, Easter and on my birthday - which was against SAGE regulations. For Thanksgiving 1985 I made a pumpkin pie for him and we went to dinner at The Old Forge on 3rd Ave. and 17th Street. And while Jim was always a gentleman, during one visit he said that he'd like to see me in a sailor's suit and have me pretend that I was "rough trade"!
It seemed that most of Jim's gay experiences were with hustlers or furtive moments with straight sailors. However, he did tell me of one long-term romance. In the 1930s, before joining the Merchant Marine, he was a teacher and librarian at a prison near Albany, where he carried on a 7-year relationship with a prisoner. He was able to pull some strings and get him an early parole and they moved to Jacksonville, Florida. However, it turned out the fellow was more or less straight, so Jim moved out after five months.
Jim's mobility was severely impaired by arthritis, which forced him to curtail traveling, something he used to love to do. The few times we ventured out he'd use a cane and hold on to me. It was quite a challenge crossing the street with him before the light changed. Because of his frail condition Jim wanted me to accompany him to the Jersey shore for a vacation and to Fire Island, where a friend owned a home. In fact, a weekend visit out to the Pines was planned during the summer of 1986, but Jim took ill and it was postponed.
Jim was a client for little more than a year when he died of a heart attack at the end of July 1986. I got a call at work from one of the friends he often spoke about, Bill Funck. Later that day I went down to Jim's apartment and met Bill and a few of the friends he mentioned as well as his sister, Mae, who still lived in Albany. Bill was the friend of Jim's with the house in the Pines and he invited me out a few weekends later. (He also owned one of the liquor stores in the harbor.) His house was on Driftwood Walk, and when I took a share in the Pines ten years later my house was on the same walk.
After Jim's death, Arlene, the manager of the Friendly Visitor program sent me a note expressing her condolences and encouraging me to call her if I needed to talk. She also hoped I would continue with the program, but I didn't because I didn't want to experience another client's decline and death. Also, I had heard from other Friendly Visitors how high maintenance some of the clients could be and I realized how easy I had it with Jim.
What struck me as I listened to Jim's stories was that despite the homophobic times Jim lived in he had fun and interesting experiences, even while living a closeted life. Nowadays I wonder if gay men in their 20s and 30s think living in the 1970s and '80s was also somewhat of a Dark Ages for acceptance for gay men of my generation.