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My First Trip to Fire Island

STORY: 1980—I started going to Fire Island in the summer of 1980. My first time, I was invited by friends who’d rented a house on the island that weekend. All I knew about it was that gays had been going there for decades, creating their own little populace that, by that point, had developed into two thriving gay communities, The Pines and Cherry Grove.

My friends had traveled there on Friday night. I couldn’t get off work until Saturday afternoon, so they instructed me to take the Islanders Bus from midtown Manhattan to Sayville and then hop on the ferry to Cherry Grove. They promised to meet me there on the dock. But, just before I left, they called with a change of plans. They had found a better place to stay in The Pines, the other primarily gay community, a mile further down the beach. So, I should take the ferry there instead. Both ferries left from the same dock in Sayville. Having never been to either community, I was a bit confused, but I faithfully memorized the directions of where they said I should go.

I made it onto the Islanders bus in Manhattan with no problem. It was a fun atmosphere and they served alcohol, so I indulged myself with a couple of morning cocktails.

I was a tad nervous about arriving on an island filled with hot gay men but found my “What the hell! It’s the weekend!” spirit and decided to take half a quaalude, a tranquilizer, and the fashionable drug at the time. I figured it would take the edge off the long morning schlep out to the beach.

When I got to the ferry dock, I was a little looped from the mix of drugs and drink, and I couldn’t remember which ferry I was supposed to catch. This was before cell phones, so there was no way to call and ask for further instructions. I flipped a coin and decided to take the ferry to Cherry Grove.

Of course, my friends were nowhere to be found when I arrived. Uncertain about what to do next, I called a friend from a nearby payphone and asked his advice, given the situation. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much help, but a young cute guy standing next to me overheard my conversation.

“You probably should have taken the boat to the Pines.” He blurted out, as I hung up the phone.

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“But, you can take a water taxi there for three dollars or walk through the forest. That way takes about twenty minutes.”

“I’ll walk then, I guess,” I said, wanting to save money.

“I’ll go with you!” he offered, and down the boardwalk we went.

Once we were in the forest, which separates Cherry Grove from the Pines, I started feeling uncomfortable. There were a bunch of men darting around in the woods and I quickly got the feeling this was more than your average nature walk.

“This is called the Meat Rack,” my guide announced, eyeing me up and down and grinning at me lasciviously.

“Um, great,” I responded, speeding up my pace, trying to avoid his overt attempts to interest me in a back backwoodswoods sex romp. I just wanted to get to where I was going.

Eventually, we made it to the Pines. And, it was magical! There was a small harbor, surrounded by little lights hung in all the trees. Large cabin cruisers and small yachts were docked everywhere. Along one side of the harbor, there was a row of stores and restaurants.

My guide offered to take me to dinner, still trying to get a “rise” out of me. About halfway through dinner, I spotted my three friends walking by.

“I see my friends!” I said, relieved and anxious to get out of the uncomfortable situation. I hurriedly picked up my backpack and ran out the door.

“See you later!” I called back, leaving the poor guy to pick up the bill for my half-eaten dinner.

After I had reunited with my friends and settled into their place, we decided to go dancing at the Ice Palace, the popular disco back in Cherry Grove. I donned a pair of sheer gauze white pants without any underwear and with no shirt, using just a safety pin to secure them around my waist, and off we went!

The club was so cool! It was packed with half-dressed hot gay men, lesbians, and drag queens. And, it was rocking! We were all drinking and dancing and getting wild on the dance floor. All of a sudden, the safety pin popped off and my pants fell to the floor. Nobody seemed to notice, except the guy I was dancing with. And he just smiled.

“What do you do for an encore?” he shouted above the music, as I slid my pants back up around my waist and attempted to hold them there.

—Mark Okun


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