At 73, Kate Walter reconnects with a long lost friend—someone she brought to his first gay bar, in 1975.
“Are you Kate?” asked a man who rode up on a bike and stopped in front of our family beach bungalow at the Jersey Shore. I was sitting in the yard drinking a beer. When I replied yes, he asked, “Do you know who I am?” I shook my head no.
“I was with you in your Volkswagen beetle that night you hit a deer that darted in front of your car on the lake road,” he said.
Wow. That was very specific. I never forgot that accident, but I still didn’t recognize this handsome man. Who was he?
“Want another clue?” he continued. “You took me to my first gay bar, the M&K in Asbury Park. I’m Ian,” he said.
“Oh my God,” I said jumping up from my chair to give him a hug. We had not seen each other since 1975.
Ian and I had hung out together a lot during the 70s. He visited me at the hippie lake house in North Jersey, where I lived at the time. We sat in front of the fireplace playing guitar and harmonizing on Grateful Dead songs. He went to our legendary parties, infused with weed and psychedelics.
I invited him inside the little house and Ian got teary-eyed when he saw the interior of our beach bungalow had barely changed. Unlike many neighbors who tore down their cottages and built jacked up monstrosities on tiny lots after Hurricane Sandy had flooded our barrier island, my mother restored our house as close as possible to how it had been originally, in memory of my father. The warm knotty pine always reminded me of my Dad who’d installed it.
Ian told me he’d read my piece about the restoration in the Asbury Park Press and he was so happy we were still there. “Your mother was a powerhouse,” he said.
At first, I thought Ian’s emotional reaction was just nostalgic, but later I learned he’d spent his career doing home restoration and had an attachment to the original beach architecture. Like my mother, he was a preservationist. A native of the Jersey Shore, Ian grew up living there year-round. My family have been summer residents since 1949. We originally met through my brother, John, when the two young men had summer jobs on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights.
Ian told me he’d ridden past the bungalow another time, but no one was there. I was so happy I was sitting outside when he came by that afternoon last June. It felt like synchronicity. Turned out he lives a few blocks away in Lavallette. “I rode past,” he later explained, “because I was feeling sad so much of our simple beach lifestyle has vanished. But your house remains. Like a touchstone.”
I wanted a summer playmate and Ian’s reappearance was perfect timing. I missed Sue, my lifelong friend, who lived across the street and died three summers prior. We exchanged novels, chatted every morning and played scrabble at night.
My other beach pals were unavailable last summer. Mary was doing rehab after a knee replacement. Carol was taking care of her dying mother. Pete was helping his sister as she recovered from brain surgery. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that we need to replenish our friends.
But could we reel in the years and resume where left off? Or had we changed too much? Ian was now 65 and I was 73. We were both single. (And also both gay.) The last time we saw each other I was 26 and he was 18. I was shocked when he texted me a page from his high school year book and under his photo it listed activities: “Weekends with John and Kate in North Jersey.”
“You were this ‘inspiring’ older person who had a big influence on me during my formative years,” he said over a delicious dinner of cod puttanesca at his well-appointed apartment. When Ian told me I’d been a big influence on him, it made me realize I must have influenced many others. After all, I was a teacher for 50 years.
And then we had a beach date. He joked about his “old man” beach chair. (No more low sand chairs for either of us.) He showed me the scar from his open heart surgery. His gorgeous head of hair was gone, but he still looked cute wearing his baseball cap and hip white sunglasses.
My bikini wearing days were over. I was no longer skinny with a flat stomach, but I still had nice legs. I wore a black Speedo swim suit. We sat surrounded by young women wearing thongs. My friend Sue and I used to be “hot chicks” on this same beach working on our tans. Now I slathered on the sun block, cautious because I’d recently had skin cancer on my face.
On our second beach date I wore a different one-piece suit. It was turquoise and more low-cut. It had been in my dresser drawer since I’d bought it, but now I felt youthful and bolder. “Girl, you look great,” he said when we walked towards the water.
As we chatted on the beach, I wondered what year we’d gone to the M&K bar together. Ian said it was 1975. (He’d pulled out his old journals.) We went there with Joe, my old boyfriend, who came out before me and acted as my queer wing man when I came out later. I told Ian that Joe had died of AIDS in 1989. I was glad Ian had escaped the plague.
Even though Ian is eight years younger than me, he noted, “Our sexual awakening happened around the same years: 74-75.”
The M& K was a big disco with three dance floors: men, women, and mixed. It was also a hotel with a pool. (My first experience with woman took place in a room there with a cute blonde who picked me up.) Ian said when they demolished the building, he thought of me and Joe. I did too. It felt as if Ian and I had been on the same wave length, all those years.
Both of us belonged to a community chorus. He’d worked part time as a choir director. We are both spiritual people, raised Catholic in New Jersey, but we both found different paths. He helped rebuild an orphanage in Honduras. I joined a radical church in New York City.
I wondered how we lost touch, but realize there was no specific factor. After we reconnected in June, I went back to my home in Greenwich Village and sent Ian copies of the two memoirs I had published. (A quick way to fill in my story.) When we got together again in July, he was eager to quiz me about my memoir of my relationship with a woman who dumped me after 26 years with little explanation. Ian said he was glad she and I were no longer together.
Unlike me, he’d never been in a long-term relationship, but had his heart broken a couple of times. He loved kids and was a devoted uncle in his big Italian family. I’d put emotional energy into my students.
When I first met Ian, I was a music writer for The Aquarian Weekly and reviewed albums and shows. Today I interview authors for senior publications. We were now officially old, yet hanging out together made me feel young. I’ve started streaming rock music from our heyday—Steely Dan, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac.
Reconnecting with Ian was the highlight of last summer. I know he will remain in my life. The qualities that attracted us to each other are still there and we have lots to talk about. My old friend is back. And he still thinks I’m cool.