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Albert Johnson

Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto

October 22, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.1.26

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KITTO: Today is October 22nd, 2017. I'm Svetlana Kitto from the Brooklyn Historical Society. I'm here with Albert Johnson, one-time bartender of the Starlite Lounge at his apartment on South Oxford Street in Fort Greene. And this is our second session for the Voices of Crown Heights Oral History Project for the Brooklyn Historical Society. And so, we had left off with you telling me a lot about your family and the attitudes your grandparents had towards life. And, I wondered if we could then transition into how all that intersected with you growing up gay.

JOHNSON: Okay. Well, it had a lot to do with it because when it finally and absolutely came out, I was about 17. My mother was not very happy about the whole situation. She tried to, like, scare me straight. That was not the best 1:00thing in the world to do because she found a friend of hers who had been in jail. And this person was supposed to give me the evils of being a gay man. And it just -- I'm going, "Where the hell did you come from? You're not even my father. You're not even my family member." So, that kind of like turned me around. My saving grace came from my grandparents. My grandfather just basically said, you know, "As long as you don't do anything that will embarrass you or your family, you're fine." My grandmother didn't say anything. She just, kind of like, kept me close. So, it wasn't a big deal with my grandparents. But my parents and their siblings, which were my aunts and uncles, they were the ones that ran completely nuts over the whole situation.

KITTO: What were some examples of that?

JOHNSON: Well, everybody was trying to get me to do things that I really didn't 2:00want to do. Like, my uncle would go out and try to pick a fight with me. So, I would fight back with him. He was my mother's younger brother. I just couldn't understand; what was this whole thing going on? Because I'm still me. They just didn't know who the "me" was. In fact, I didn't know who the "me" was. I was very, very confused. You've got to remember: In the 1950s and the early 1960s, you didn't discuss certain things. It just didn't -- you just didn't walk out and go, "Hey, everybody. I'm having a coming-out party." That was not the thing to be doing because you had social things to do. Like in school; what do you do with yourself in school, you know? You're around a bunch of people. You can't tell anybody. So, that's why they talk about living in this closet. I met other people who, we were in classes together. And we'd kind of like played around and this kind of thing. But everybody was still -- I don't know 3:00whether you'd call it heterosexual or trying to fool anybody. It's just that these were rules. You just didn't break the rules. Now, there were some people who did, and they were totally ostracized. I mean, kids picked on them and chased them home and the whole thing. We had our own little group. We didn't mess with them. But, we kind of like kept it a secret. And it was just, that was part of our norm, you know? We had girlfriends, and since sex wasn't the biggest thing going on because there was always this fear of pregnancy. There-- you know, there wasn't the case of the pill and the whole business. So, I think sometimes people did things just to, kind of like, keep it under wraps. The strange thing about it is, by the time I am almost 30, which is about 12 years after high school, I moved to New York. And I start running into these same people that we used to mess around with, or we thought we were gay or this stuff, here in New York. And it was like this same attitude. We were still 4:00like, "Hey, how are you doing?" But, my family doesn't know. And we all understood it. We didn't go out and blab it and the whole business. So, like, when we go back for class reunions, there's this one girl -- woman. She always wanted me to just go up and just tell her that I'm gay. And I'm going, what the hell was the purpose? What purpose was it going to serve? You married a wonderful man. You have great children, all this other stuff. So, why is it so important that you know or that I have to tell you? There were other members that you ran around with that were gay, and they never said a word to you, okay? And we-- that was just our thing. Either we respected our situation, and you should respect ours. Now, there are kids now that say, well, we sold out, that we didn't go ahead and express ourselves and this, that and the other. But, that was part of our norm. We l-- led those duplicitous kinds of lives. I 5:00can't tell you how many people I went to school with who had -- they married their high school sweethearts. They were gay. They had children behind them. And, somewhere when they were about 45, then they finally come out. And I'm going, yeah, and we already knew that. So, what the hell was the purpose?

KITTO: But you did come out to your family? Or, you told them, when you were 17?

JOHNSON: Well, my mother caught me messing around with somebody. So it wasn't, it wasn't an issue of telling them. It was, I got caught with my pants down, ahh! So that kind of situation. It was always -- now, there was a different kind of code in Cleveland. If you presented yourself very manly and the whole thing, they don't care what you did behind closed doors. If you had a decent job and the whole thing, then you could kind of, like, get away with it. Those persons who were very outgoing, they were-- I mean they were really out there. 6:00There were situations where there were -- growing up in Cleveland and being gay; by the time I'm 20, 21, I had been around. I had had a lover at that time, which was not the easiest thing in the world to do. But how we got away with it was: We both presented ourselves as being very manly. We had jobs.

KITTO: Is this in Cleveland?

JOHNSON: Mm-hmm. We had jobs. We had a nice apartment. There were certain things that we could get away with because as far as society was concerned we weren't a threat to them. But now we had other things we had to deal with. There were certain laws that you had to be very careful with. All right, say for instance, on Sunday afternoon if we wanted to have a cocktail party or something like that. Women had to be present because if a neighbor didn't like you and they saw a bunch of men coming out there, they'd call the police on you. And if the police came in and saw a bunch of men in there, they could find anything in the world to harass you or even arrest you. So, there was all these 7:00little social little things that you had to deal with. Was it complicated? No, because we kind of, like, knew the rules, and we grew up with it, because there were other people. There were people who were lovers almost 20 years by the time I'm seeing it in my mid-20s. They had been lovers. So I'm going, how did you make it from the 40s to here, you know? That must have been really rough. And they did the same thing. There were people on our side who kind of figured it out; that these two men never got married. You always see the two of them together. A lot of them didn't live with each other. They kind of, like, would spend weekends or whatever it was. So, there was no real -- you couldn't go on vacations together because there was no -- you couldn't check into a hotel and be in the same room. People did, but it was -- a lot of people would come to New York. So, it was really kind of complicated. But if you understood where the system went, it was fine, you know?

8:00

KITTO: Yeah. You weren't like, oh, I'm oppressed. I can't come out. I can't--

JOHNSON: Yeah, because there was really no need, you know? This whole declaration -- and some people, like I said, now -- we did have to go through a whole bunch of stuff. You could be arrested very easily.

KITTO: Were you ever?

JOHNSON: No. I, I escaped arrest because I was skinny and I could run pretty fast. But, being in after-hour joints in Cleveland, yes--

KITTO: In Cleveland? Will you tell me about those, please?

JOHNSON: Oh, yes.

KITTO: Okay.

JOHNSON: There were several. And, one of them was a place called Ruby Duke's. Ruby Duke's was owned by a lesbian. And, she only opened up on Friday nights. And it was a house. The bars close in Cleveland at around 2:30 -- not around 2:30. They closed -- you had to be -- the gates had to be down, lights out and people gone at 2:30. So, it wasn't a question of: You were closing up. You had 9:00to be literally closed at 2:30. So, everybody headed to Ruby Duke's which is on about 76th between Quincy and Central, which was near the house, the area I grew up in. And, she had her -- and, like I said, it was a little small place. She sold liquor. You get three shots for a dollar. I don't know if it was real liquor or not, but that was one of the few places you could go dance and this kind of stuff. There were lots of gay bars in Cleveland during the '60s. There was the Coral Bar, the most notorious place in the world. The Coral Bar was on 105 and Euclid. And it was behin-- it was behind a gigantic bank. But it was across the street from the fire station and the police station. So, they used to watch these queens go nuts in the summertime. [laughter] And the firemen would just sit there and just laugh. One time they had -- the firemen were sitting out in front of the fire station and the whole thing. And, the little 10:00Volkswagens, that was the vehicle of choice at the time. And this one puttered out. And for some reason it stopped in front of the Coral Bar, and it wouldn't move. And it was blocking traffic. So, a bunch of these queens came out, big muscle queens. And they picked this car up and just moved it to the side.

KITTO: Were there flamboyant, like, not muscle queens but, like, other kinds?

JOHNSON: Yes. [laughter] Oh, they were all over the place. And, I mean, and some, they were, like, former football players. And you could see them in girdles, and carrying on. It was not a pretty sight, but it was fun. I mean, there was another notorious bar downtown called Flare. The Flare was a little tiny place. It was in -- you know how there's buildings like the Flat Iron Building? It becomes-- The building is made where two streets come out and they become one? Well, this bar was in one of those kinds of buildings. But it was in the back half of the building. So, you could go in the front door. And if you weren't careful and opened the back door, you could go right out the back 11:00door. It was hilarious going in there on a Friday or Saturday night. It was small. You had female impersonators. And they had to be really careful because they had what you'd call an entertainer's license. So, if you got caught in drag, you had to have one of these licenses, which they would issue at city hall, sort of saying that you were an entertainer. And you were on your way to or from work. So, therefore you could get away with it. So, all of them had the entertainer's license. Or, you saw people in half-drag. This was hysterical because they looked like these incredible vogue layouts from the neck up. But they had on tailored suits from the neck down. It was the most hilarious situation because you had to have some prevalence of a man if you happen to have gotten arrested. So, that's one of the complications of, of 12:00living in -- it was fun. It was absolute fun. Most people would find it very complicated. But if you grew up in it, you knew what it was. Now, some of these people you didn't hang out with, and some of them you did. So, these were all your choices. So, you had a choice of a whole plethora of where you wanted to fit in life, you know? And most of the time you had to just stand up to other people. No, this is what I do, and just-- and they left you alone.

KITTO: So, during that time you had a lover?

JOHNSON: I had several at that time.

KITTO: You had several?

JOHNSON: Yeah, and that was not a healthy situation for me, nah. No, it was not a healthy situation because, when the first person I had had an attraction to-- and my mom and her trying to scare me straight-- it was the Thanksgiving of 1964. And I came -- that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I came home. And she 13:00had had enough of me. She packed my bags, and she said, "This is what you want to be, you go live with him." And I had to leave the house. And that's how I ended up living with this guy, because I had no place else to go. That was not a healthy situation. No, that was not a healthy situation. So, yeah, there's some people, yeah, we had role models. I actually had people that I saw. They were, they were educated. One of my greatest attractions was a guy who was a marine captain. If you could have seen this man, he was unbelievably handsome. And you saw him one way when he was around his peers and this kind of thing. But you also knew him when he was around his friends. And you also knew what he was like when he was around you. I remember, on my 21st birthday I had an 14:00argument with my lover in the bar, and we split. And I'm walking home in the rain and the whole business, and this car pulls up. And it's this marine captain that I met years ago. And, he just said, "Get in the car." And I got in the car. And he said, "Why are you walking around in the rain?" So, I explained to him what happened. And it dawned on him. He said, "This is your 21st birthday." And I went, yeah. He says, "Okay, fine." So he took me back to his apartment. And he literally took these wet clothes off me, and he said, "Now I can serve you a drink legally." And, he wrapped me up in this bathroom. And, he stayed gone for, like, a half hour or so. But he's coming back and forth in and out of the room. And he came in, and he says, "Happy birthday." He put me, brought me to his bathroom. There was this candlelit room, bathroom, with suds and stuff in this tub. I've never experienced this. And then for the first time in my life this man gets, he puts me in this tub. And he gets undressed. And he gets in the tub with me. And we celebrate my 21st birthday 15:00with champagne and the whole-- That's when I knew the difference between sex and love. That's when I knew what this was all about. And that's what I wanted from that point on.

KITTO: Were you with him?

JOHNSON: No, no. He wasn't the one I had the argument with. But, it was that whole experience of that romance and, and being-- that was my thing. That was absolutely mine. I didn't-- I did have it on several occasions. I think we all have these different types of love that you encounter in your lifetime. Some you become enthralled with, and you've got to have them. It's like you can't get enough of Sugar Crisp. And you just keep running after them. And that's not a healthy situation. But you do it. Then sometimes somebody's after you, 16:00and they do the same thing. So, that's not a healthy situation. But every now and then you get that one that stands out amongst them all. And, that's what I enjoyed. And I remember those ones. Even if they were short-lived, they were powerful in that short-lived. And those are the ones that have the greatest impact on you. And I try to impart that with everybody else. So, you say, "Why are you single?" Because that's just me. There's some people who are great romantics, and th--they don't get it. They get it one way. They understand what it's all about. But they couldn't digest it and have it every day. It would become boring to somebody else. It also becomes boring to you. But when you have those impacting moments of, where it hits you like a ton of bricks, oh, that is the greatest rush in the world. And when it comes along, it comes along. And it's there to help you through the rest of the time.

17:00

KITTO: Would this be a good time to talk about your lover in New York?

JOHNSON: Yeah.

KITTO: Because you were with someone for a long time?

JOHNSON: Yes. Actually, he was -- I met him as a medical student in Buffalo. I literally left Cleveland, and I moved to Buffalo in 1972. I got a job in a hospital. And, I met some great people at that hospital. It was funny as hell.

KITTO: Who were they? Or what are you thinking of?

JOHNSON: Well, like I said -- well, my roommate later on, he worked in a urology lab. He was a lab technician. So, we became roommates. And we lived in the same apartment complex that O.J. Simpson lived in, in Cheektowaga, New York. Yes, [laughter] right. But he lived on the other side of the complex, and 18:00we were on this side; on the opposite side. So, no, I never saw him. I never met the man. I just know that he lived over on that side. But I did meet some members from the Buffalo Bills quite by accident. I was going to go see Patti LaBelle one night, and I wanted to get me some reefer, right? So, I had a contact. And there was this woman who lived in the apartment building behind me. So, I went over there that afternoon to go pick it up, and it was some good shit. So, we were sitting there, and we were smoking it. I got good and high. And these two massive men came in the doorway. And for some reason, I got on this thing about how absurd I thought football was. Had no clue that these were people who played for the Buffalo Bills. And I'm just running off at the mouth. And then when she finally tells me who these two people are, I'm going, "Oh, shit," you know, like, bye. But then after I thought about it, what the hell are they going to do to me, you know? What the hell are they going to do, because I'm totally stoned. And that's why they came over to get their stuff, so they could get stoned. So, that was my little -- that kind of little run-in.

19:00

So, I met John in the hospital. We had been scoping each other out, because I saw him, and I thought this was a very unique-looking man. I didn't know what nationality he was because he had this thick, wavy hair that was down on his shoulders and a full beard. You couldn't see anything but his eyes. And, you looked at him and you go, "Damn, that's a good-looking man. But I wonder what the rest of him looks like." [laughter] So, I was in the transportation department where we took patients from one, you know, part of the hospital to the next. I was given a call to go pick up a patient. And when I realized one of two things was going to happen when I get up there. Either this patient is about a half a second from dying, or they can get up and walk around. I didn't know what kind of equipment to bring up because they didn't tell me. So, I 20:00decided to go for the first part. I'm going to take everything up. Good thing I did. Well, when I got there, this person had a chest tube in. And I couldn't move this person unless there was a doctor present. And the doctor had to go with me. So, when I went into the-- where the doctor's lounge was and I said, "Okay, who called downstairs for me to come pick this patient up?" Well, it was John. He said, "I did." So, I explained to him my situation; that I was the last one on duty, and I would go down here with him. But he had to make sure that that patient got back because they wouldn't sign for my overtime. Well, with all this thing going out, that's how we met initially. But we had seen each other in the hospital. About two weeks later, a patient hit me in the eye. And I had to go down to the eye clinic. And John took care of me. And that's how we started having a conversation back and forth. We met, and it was an incredible situation when I met him. My thing of it was, he was -- you ever put 21:00somebody up on a pedestal? And, there he was. And I knew I could never reach him. I couldn't reach him financially, education-wise. But, as long as I was just being me, we were fine. Well, that wasn't always too stable, just being me. That was kind of weird because I was about -- when we met, we were both 28 years old. He had a career. He had a life ahead of him. And I knew what this was going to be all about. When he got his internship, it was going to be here in New York area, the five boroughs. That's how I ended up getting here.

I didn't want to come down here originally. But, because I was sewing and this kind of stuff -- see, sewing, sometimes people do things as a hobby to take them away from what they do every day. From being around people who were ill, some 22:00of them you saw get better. And some of them you saw die. That was something that I could do for eight hours. But I needed something to take me away. So, I started sewing. I had already been sewing before. There were people in Cleveland that taught me the factory ways of putting stuff together. And that was my introduction to it. That was something that I really enjoyed doing. Well, he was encouraging me. Well, you need to go to school. You can do this, that and the other. I'm going, no, I don't want to do this. This is my hobby. I want to be taken away from this so I can do the whole thing. Well, any rate, he got his internship. And we were goin-- he was going to move to The Bronx. My condition was, "When you've got the time, I will keep my job and stay here. And I'll come to New York. And when I can find a job, I will -- if I decide I like it, I'll stay." Well, this guilt trip was put on me, "Don't you owe something to the relationship?" And so, reluctantly I said, "Yes." And I came 23:00here, and it was not the thing that I expected it to be. That's what destroyed us because I en-- I ended up going to FIT. I was a part-time student. Finding work, especially when you don't know where work is, the only thing I'd done was worked in a hospital. I couldn't get any help from him working in a hospital. So, eventually I did get a job working in the industry, because I got it through school, which was fortunate for me. I was one of th-- Within about two months of being in school I ended up getting a job. But that was in the '70s, when the garment district was really the garment district in New York. It was the best place -- well, not the best, but it was the place to be. It was vast. You had the richest of the rich at that time. There was Halston, Bill Blass, Pierre 24:00Cardin. All these things were up and down 7th Avenue. I ended up working for Diane von Furstenberg. That was later on, but one of my first design jobs. And it really -- I was an assistant designer. And it was a guy named Tom Bramble, who was her designer. But she was owned by that time by Puritan Industries. And Puritan Industries owned Calvin Klein, the name of Calvin Klein and his designs, and Diane von Furstenberg. We were on the 7th floor at 1370 Broadway. And, it was kind of weird. I couldn't understand. To show you the hypocrisy about it, we had one floor. One half of the floor was Calvin Klein. The other half of the floor was Diane von Furstenberg. So, we were locked behind closed doors. But the samples were sewn by the same people. So, I couldn't understand, "Why are we locked behind closed doors when the same people are 25:00sewing our garments?" And the guy, Tom, looked at me and he said, "I've never been able to figure that out." But that's the way that circumstance was. But later on Calvin Klein bought out Puritan Industries. And then he had his own production line coming in from that. So, that's why, when, people have to understand. I did not see Diane von Furstenberg. We were a division that had her name and her sportswear line. The only time I did see her was that one fashion show. And she happened-- she didn't even know who we were, you know? So, that was how it worked at that time. It's totally different now.

KITTO: So, your first design job--

JOHNSON: Yes, I was an assistant d-- And I didn't like it at all. I hated it. I absolutely hated it.

KITTO: Why?

JOHNSON: Because most people have this impression that designers are free. No. You have to remember: These people have to create a story every season, a 26:00spring line, a fall line, a winter line, and a summer line. They have to create something. And after a certain length of time you burn out. There's a silhouette that's them and becomes their signature. And sometimes they're up here one minute, and then the next, no, no. And I had seen people who were designers for these people's name. And they would go into meetings, and they'd be treated like crap. And I'm going, "No, that is not me. I don't like this." But I did have one thing that was good about me. I was always technically very good. I liked accounting, so I ended up working in production. That's what I enjoyed because everything I learned as a designer I got a chance to practice in production. I had to go to factories and knew how the line was being manufactured. Pricing out a garment, a designer couldn't get his stuff in to a salesperson unless they came to me. I had power. So you, you were able to be 27:00creative. But you didn't have to be creative. But that took a long while.

KITTO: Yeah. Like, it's not like the pressure's on to be creative. Like, that's a hard thing to have pressure.

JOHNSON: Yes. And that's why they would burn out very quickly. And designers were being, turning like a revolving door. I've seen people that came to work that morning. And by the time they went to lunch they were replaced when they came back. And they had just cleaned their desk out because a new designer was sitting there. And I remember getting fired one morning and having a job that afternoon. So, that was [laughter] kind of, like, weird. It was really kind of strange. But that was part of the garment district at the time. Toward-- That was near the end of it. Now it is nowhere near what it used to be, nowhere near.

KITTO: So, you said -- so, with John--

JOHNSON: Yes. We ended up coming here, and it was really strange. Like I 28:00said, he had a full beard and long hair. I came home from work [laughter] one day, and he went and shaved. And I couldn't-- I didn't even know who this man was who had shaved and cut his hair because he was not anyone I looked at. And then I realized how really handsome he really was. And, like I said, when you saw him first and didn't know his last name, he looked Hispanic. He looked Arabic. You never thought he was an Italian, but he was, ok. All those other nationalities, when you saw him, he had this incredibly dark skin, pronounced features. His eyes were intense. But they were absolutely stunning. They were dark. And he had these long eyelashes. You just stand there and just look at him -- unbelievable. But, with all that stuff going on, we were the greatest destroyers of each other. Yeah, and, it didn't -- we stayed together about 29:00eight years. One time, the most -- the tragic thing about it was, we had a friend named Randy. And Randy and his girlfriend we knew from Buffalo. He came over one night when we lived in The Bronx. And he had a friend here in Brooklyn. So, he brought him up to The Bronx. And so, we were sitting there having dinner. And Randy said, "Oh, this guy is a reader." And so, John said, "Reader?" He said, "Yeah, he tells fortunes." And he said, "Oh, come on. Do us." And so the guy looked at-- and he said, "I don't want to do this." He said "Oh, no, come on." And by the time we're getting curious. "Well, why don't you -- if you're such a great reader, why don't you want to do this?" He says, "No, I don't want to do this." He was emphatic about it. So, we insisted on this man doing it, and he did. And he said that within the next three years we were going to split. One of us was going to survive, and the other one 30:00wouldn't. It was like a car accident or something tragic is going to take one suddenly. And the other one wasn't going to -- he was going to maintain himself and come to his greatest thing when they turned 50. Well, John and I were only three months apart in age. We couldn't figure out what this was all about. Well, as it turned out, John died from AIDS. We did split within those three years. I moved; not into this apartment, but if you knock a hole in that-- where my refrigerator is-- that used to be my old apartment. And this building-- these two buildings were owned by the same person. When I knew that I was going to be positive, I didn't have AIDS because everybody that I had known from the time I got to Buffalo had died. John had died. And I'm waiting for the shoe to drop on me. Well, it turns out that I carried this guilt -- 31:00this is how I ended up getting on drugs -- because, like, you have that survivor's guilt. John met an incredible human being after he and I split. And, we don't speak to this day. But I still have the highest respect for him because all the things that I didn't do, he did very well. And he still does to this day. The house that they bought, which is not too far away from here, he maintains. He keeps it that way. I'm not jealous of him. I'm just glad that John did meet someone who was his equal, that could do all the things that he wanted to be able to do and that, it wasn't going to destroy or hurt him. I'm just sorry that they didn't live a long life-- I mean, he, didn't live a long life. So they could have enjoyed it. That was my greatest disappointment. The only thing I didn't like about him was the fact that when John got really sick I 32:00wasn't allowed to see him. That was the most horrendous part about it. And then when the AIDS crisis first hit, people -- that's why I don't understand why people can go out and be so promiscuous and not even think about -- this is the one thing that you can control. All it takes is putting on a damn condom. It's not going to ruin your life. It's not going to stop anything. In fact, it can save your life. But when people are very haphazard about it and treat it like it's not going to happen to them, and I'm going, "No, you have no idea," because some of these people have never seen the wasting syndrome. Some of these people have never seen people who have the Kaposi, where they have these purple and black spots all over them. They've never seen the factor where they lose their hair, they can't-- the dementia sets in. They never saw the horr-- and then afterwards, when funeral homes at one point wouldn't even handle the bodies, 33:00people had to be cremated. And they were treated -- even when they would be in the hospital, a lot of nurses didn't want to take care. So, our friends and relatives, we would take the places of what nurses wouldn't do, like pass out medicine. They had to go in and clean the beds. We'd come in in shifts. We'd take care of them and this kind of stuff. So, we had a whole different respect for them. But now, yes, you've got Truvada, which is supposedly this wonder thing that's going to prevent you from getting it. That's no guarantee. And why would you want to put yourself into this situation? So, you go out and have these multiple partners, and nobody's really protecting themselves like they should, because they have never seen the prospects. Or, they have this other thing, "Well, there's pills now." Whereas, when you were going through it and going no -- yeah, but some of those pills at the very beginning, a lot of people 34:00when the cocktail first came out, they died from the, from the treatment, you know, the medication. That AZT, I was on that stuff. I can't tell you the headache that I had behind it, of people that had peripheral neuropathy that lost their eyesight, all this other stuff, because of the medications. So that by the time they get to the treatments now where you just have a pill, we weren't -- I mean, they don't understand. Where you were popping somewhere, like, anywhere from 16 to 30 pills a day, and you had to take them in cycles, and some things you could take it with food. Some you had to take it without. You had to do this. It was a mess.

KITTO: So, when did you get--? When did you--

JOHNSON: --Get diagnosed?

KITTO: -- diagnosed, yeah.

JOHNSON: It was on my 50th birthday. Remember that 50th I told you about? Yes, I-- It was August of 1996, I got the diagnosis. And, I knew I had it, but by 35:00this time there was a treatment. I remember it was the weekend before Labor Day. And I was waiting for them to deliver my medications because I was, I was determined that I was going to take this stuff on schedule. I was going to survive this whole madness because, this is because what happened with my friends who didn't. I am not going to let them down by not doing what it was. Well, I was all enthusiastic. I remember when that box came, and I ran and opened up the door. I got them upstairs. And I opened that box, and I lost it. I lost it because they basically said, in 1996, your life expectancy is five years. So, I'm going, I'm putting off the inevitable. I'm going to pop these pills, and I don't know what's going to happen. Well, sure, a lot of people were popping these pills and didn't know what was happening.

KITTO: Did you have friends? Did you have a community?

36:00

JOHNSON: Well, I had to-- I started to build one. There were all kinds of doctors running around. Some of them were good, and some of them weren't good. There were clinics that were around. And some of them were good, and some of them weren't good. You had to figure out -- and you literally, just trial and error. You had to see people. Or you saw your friends, "Oh, I'm going here. I'm going there." And you're going, "Okay." I remember I went to this one place, and it was the only place I could -- you know, I trusted the person. I remember my first set of lab results came back. And the only thing that everybody was concerned about with was your T-cell count. Well, the T-cell count is one thing. But then there was that viral load. That was the one that was most important. This man looked at me. He said, "Well, your T-cell count is this, that, and the other. So, you don't have full-blown AIDS and blah blah, this, that, and the other." He said, "But I don't know what this viral load means." "What? You gave me a test, and you don't know what it means? Okay." 37:00Well, I was popping these pills, and I started to have headaches and the diarrhea. I couldn't function. I ended up with numbness in my fingers, which is that beginning of the peripheral neuropathy. I couldn't walk in my house shoes and this kind of stuff. And bare feet was worse. I found a group, the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. And he got me to -- the guy's name was Michael Goodhope. And he guided me around. And he got me to a point of where I was going to go to this clinic for nutritional evaluation. I was sick. I mean, I couldn't even put my shoes on, let alone go out in the wintertime. It was unbelievably painful. So, eventually I had one of these days where it was good. And I made it over to this clinic. It was called Betances Health Center. And 38:00I got in there. It was a long walk. I made it inside. And I sat there. And they called my name to go to the lab. And the lab technician, she looked at me. She said, "Mr. Johnson, do you always walk like this?" I said, "Lady, my feet hurt so damn bad." She said, "Do me a favor. Just sit right here." And she went and got the doctor, Dr. Santos. Dr. Santos came back, and he talked to me for a few minutes. He said, "Do you have any place you have to go?" I went, "No." He says, "Here. I want you to get in this gurney. I want you to stay here. And I'm coming back." And he said, "Don't go anywhere." I said, "Well, I can't leave now, man. Trust me." He stayed gone. And he came back in. And he started asking me questions about the medication and how I was feeling and the whole thing. This is the first time somebody's actually talking with me and not to me. He's asking me questions. And, at one point I'm feeling -- I said, "Don't you have to go to see other patients?" He says, "No. I've got other 39:00people taking care of these other folks. I need to see you now." And I went, "Okay." So, as he's talking with me and the whole thing, I'm now starting to feel very comfortable because this other person had told me, "Oh, these headaches are just something. Just take a couple of aspirin." I said, "But it doesn't help." He said, "Well, you're not taking the stuff wrong. But as long as your T-cell count is improving, you're doing all right." So, I told him this. He says, "No, you're not doing all right. What you have now is the beginnings of peripheral neuropathy. You could end up in a wheelchair." Okay. And he says, "What's causing you to have these things is your treatment." He says, "What he's treating you with now, there's these two things, and this, that, and the other." He says, "Now I'm going to tell you one thing. You don't have to come back here. But I'm saying to you, don't go back to him." And I went, "Oh, okay." So I ended up going back to Betances. And within six weeks I 40:00was able to walk and put my shoes and stuff on and sleep at night. That's when I was introduced to nutritional things. They changed my medications around. I was introduced to acupuncture. I was introduced to all these other things because they treated me as: That was the whole body. He says we don't even know -- and he's very honest about it. He said, "We don't even know whether this is going to help you. But I can tell you one thing. It's not going to harm you." And so, from that point on, and, I started to see progress. Physically, I started to see progress. It was an amazing situation because you went from one place to the next. There were people who saw me about a year after I had started to go there. And they said, "Wow, you look different. You don't look like so-and-so," because people were getting those humps on their backs from the medication. And the disease itself, there was all kinds of conflicts that was happening from that early treatment. And I was fortunate because I ended up 41:00finding a new path. And it was by accident. A lot of things, I don't know whether you want to call it -- you were guided to it or whatever it was. But, this is what happened. And this is why I'm here now. I've been doing well for the last 21 years. When, at one point, when I first got diagnosed I had a five-year life expectancy.

So, it was -- yeah, it was kind of scary. And I wish that all of my friends could have lived long enough to be-- expect it. But John told me when -- he says, "They're going to -- you're going to end up -- they're going to find a treatment." They're not going to find a cure because-- If you cured AIDS, you would find the key to the common cold. You would find the key to things like MS, yes, pneumonia, this kind of stuff. You will find the key to it. But 42:00actually they do use those treatments, those kinds of lab reports, even for cancers, because there were some similarities in the HIV and cancers because of replication factors. So, this foundation leads to other treatments, to other places. But he said, "They're never going to really cure this. But you will have a treatment. And it's going to get better and better and better because--" But he said, "The financial end of it is what's going to make a cure impossible. You're not going to put all this investment into something and not get your return." And your return is keeping a person -- he said, "They, actually, if they wanted to, they could cure diabetes if they really wanted to. But look at what would happen. You've got insulin patients. You've got all these other things that you would need, that you could wipe out a whole industry. And when he died it was an amazing situation. I had a dream one night. And in this dream I was in -- You ever see those 1940s movies where they 43:00had these doctor's offices with these gigantic bookshelves, and they were always in black and white? And I had this nurse came out, and these over-tufted leather seats and stuff. It was very uncomfortable, very dank-looking place. Well, in this dream, this woman came out and had these gigantic files. And she dropped them on the desk and dust was flying all over the place. John was sitting next to me. I never turned around to look at him. But I knew his presence was there. And she says, "And you're going, too." And he says to me in this dream, "Don't believe. This is not happening to you," because by this time I had been doing good for about eight years. So it was, it was a unique situation. So, in my trying to make sure that nobody else dies from it, I became part of groups that -- I became a peer counselor to help folks; try to 44:00direct them. When they get that first medication and they say, "What would you do if you had someone you had to counsel?" And I said one of the things, you've never had to experience what that's like: When you tell them that you now have this. There's a vacancy that happens in your head. It's at that point where you have to get that person back to reality again. They have to let -- whatever their feelings, their anger, whatever, they have to get it all out there. And then you have to be there and stop them and let them know, "Okay, fine. Look at me. I've lasted this long. It's not a crapshoot. There's some stuff that you can do that you can do this with." And that was my whole thing. I tried my best to make sure that anybody I know does not die from this because you don't have to. Yeah, there's other stuff, the complications that come along, finding 45:00the right thing and just taking it easy, just taking it easy. Being HIV positive is no badge of courage. But it's also no damnation of Faust either. I had-- [laughter] I've had stuff happen to me that -- some of the most embarrassing moments in the world. Because we used to always have backpacks with a change of clothes in them, because diarrhea would hit and we would be out in public. And we had to change clothes. It was, it was a mess. To put it [inaudible]. But now it's a lot simpler. I teach people how to read their labs and watch certain things. And doctors now are a lot more-- easy. The situations around it, I'd say within '96, somewhere around 2000, 2001 there was a little bit more -- you were a little more hopeful because things were 46:00changing. There were new medications on the horizon. They got rid of certain things that were causing people -- they knew that this is what was happening to you. You could see there were people, actually, who really were living life and living it stronger and longer. But then, the towers fell. That was a rude awakening because Betances was down Henry Street. And if you turned around and looked downtown, the end of-- at the end of Henry Street, looking towards where the towers were, there was a big space. And you could see -- that's all you saw. That day, when that happened, it's a whole combination of things. I started my job at the Starlite Lounge September 10th, 2001. That was the night before the towers fell. The manager had to go down to the liquor board, which 47:00was in the, in the Twin Towers. I forgot which building it was in. He had to go down there. But Bob was always late, so he never made it. And that's what saved his life. That was my first night there. And, I was meeting new people for the first time. And, at the Starlite either they-- you had to earn their respect and the whole thing, because if not they were going to eat you alive. I didn't notice until later on. But anyway, that was my first night.

KITTO: But it wasn't your first night there.

JOHNSON: No, it wasn't my first night there. It was my first night as a bartender.

KITTO: Yeah. You knew people, all the people, already?

JOHNSON: No. I just knew the person that -- my good friend, Butch.

KITTO: Butch, yeah.

JOHNSON: He was the one that -- it took him two years. He did everything. He took me out to lunch. He took me to the theater, anything. He would always ask me, "Do you want to come work in the Starlite and be a bartender?" I went, "No, no. I don't want to do that." So, one time--

48:00

KITTO: Why did he want you to so bad?

JOHNSON: Well, his thing of it was: He wanted to make sure that his closest friends always had some kind of income, because you never had enough money when you were on this thing. So, it was, he wanted to make sure that his closest friends had a job. So, when we went to -- one day he called me up. And he says, "I'm going to ask you again. Do you want to go down there and work as a bartender?" And I went, "Yes." And it stunned him. He went, "Wait a minute. Did you just say yes?" I went, "Yeah, I'll go down there." He said, "When can you go?" I said I can go now because the meeting is fine. So, I went there, and I met Bob. And, he hired me. I hadn't--

KITTO: Bob?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Mack.

KITTO: Mack?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Bob Mack.

KITTO: Oh, the person who started it, the person who opened it?

JOHNSON: No, his name was Robert-- his name was Mackie. There's a difference between -- there was a Bob Mack, and then there was a Mackie who was there. His 49:00last name was Mackie. It was, it was kind of weird.

KITTO: Did you know -- Mackie was dead?

JOHNSON: He had died, yeah. He'd already died by that time. I met him one time.

KITTO: Oh, you did?

JOHNSON: Yes. It was very brief. There was people like Stanley. I met Stanley-- I knew Stanley a little bit better-- Willie. There was Dot.

KITTO: Mama Dot, yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Mama Dot, and this other woman. She and I didn't get along real well at all -- excuse me. But, I knew some of these people before I had started to work there. So, when I started to work, my-- because he wanted me to start that next-- after the interview was. But that would have been Labor Day. Labor Day would have involved the West Indian Day parade. And they would come to that bar afterwards all over it. And he says, "No, not your first night." He says, "You haven't been behind a bar in a long time." I went, "Yeah." So, he says, "No, not your first night. But we'll start the next week." So, I came home from my first night, and I was still partying. People don't realize when you 50:00come from a night job like that with all that music and stuff, it's like you've been to a party. So, I went over to the supermarket. And I got some groceries, and I came home. I'm still not ready to go to sleep. It's about 20 minutes after 8:00.

KITTO: In the morning?

JOHNSON: In the morning, September 11th, about 20 minutes after 8:00. And I, I'm getting ready to get in the shower. And I've been puttering around. I had my coffee. So I can't tell the exact time. But I hear this boom. And it shook, because you have to remember: Where we're sitting now, if you looked out my windows where these tall buildings are, you could see the World Trade Center. You could look out my windows and see it. So, at that time I had some shutters. So, I took the shutters and I closed them up, because I really wanted to go to sleep. And I get into the shower. And, just as I'm about ready to get into the shower I hear the second explosion. And I'm going, "Oh, that must be 51:00the gas tanks blowing up in New Jersey again." By this time, I'm in the shower. The phone rings. It's about a quarter after 9:00, 9-- something like that. And it's my sister on the phone. Albert, please pick up the phone. Please pick up the phone. And I get out of the shower, I said, "What are you doing?" She said, "Where are you?" I said, "I'm in the shower. What do you think?" So she said, "You don't have your TV on." I said, "No, I don't. I'm listening to music." She said, "Obviously your shutters are closed, too." I said, "Yeah, because I want to go to sleep. She says, "Albert, there are planes flying into the World Trade Center." That's when I turned the TV on, and I hang the phone up. And I see the aftermath of this. And now, when I do open up the shutters, the smoke is heading towards Brooklyn. And you could see this, the, the top of it. So, I closed the shutters back up, and I'm watching the stuff on TV. And 52:00it's be-- it's terrifying to me. So, I turned the sound off. And as I'm watching this in complete, I see the building fall. They just settle down. They don't do this, go from side to side. They just fall right down just like somebody had opened them up. And they just sank. And I lose it because I said there's no screaming. And then the ambulance start and the whole thing. And I refuse to open up my shutters because I'm absolutely terrified. I'm watching people die, and this is no movie. This is no movie. So, I try to go to sleep, and in trying to go to sleep there's this -- now, because I live about two blocks away from Brooklyn Hospital; the only way you can get to Brooklyn Hospital is come down up this street to South Oxford off Fulton Street. And you 53:00come down. And so, I'm hearing these ambulances going down the street. I'm really terrified. I don't want to hear any more because I know people have died. Little by little -- now, this is on a Tuesday. I'm getting news the subways had stopped and all this other stuff. We have to get around and do this, that, and the other. I'm hearing people. This whole thing is going -- it's losing it. So, that Friday night -- now, Fort Greene Park: Like I said, before those tall buildings, you could actually look and see the World Trade Center from the top of Fort Greene Park. The Lafayette Presbyterian Church was having a vigil that Friday night. So, I go and participate in part of that. And I'm sitting there. But there was this very strange glow that you could see coming from lower Manhattan. It was not a healthy situation to see. It was a glow. And you knew that it, that the fires had not gone out. This was still 54:00there. After everybody had left, and I'm standing there, and I'm looking over the things, I see this young man not too far away. And he's standing in the middle of -- if you know about Fort Greene Park, there's a set of stairs that lead down to -- you can go out in another direction, but there's these wide steps. He's standing there, and he's just staring at this glow. And I looked at him. I said, "Are you okay?" And he doesn't say anything, so I walk away. I go back about an hour later, and he's still standing there. So, I asked him what was the matter and he said, "He's coming home." I said, "Who's coming home?" He says, "They're going to find him. They're going to find him. He's right there. They're going to find him, and he's going to come home." Well, I eventually asked the guy had he eaten. He said, "No," because he didn't want to leave, because they were going to find him. I said, "Who are they going to find?" He said, "They're going to find him." He kept saying they're going to 55:00find him. So, I thought maybe it was a brother or something. I said, "Listen, I don't live too far away, but you can come and I'll give you some food." So he came here, and we're sitting there. And that's when he starts to tell me: He and his lover had left to go to work that morning. He worked in Jersey City. He taught school. And his lover worked in the World Trade Center. So, they would take the train over. And, he got off, and he went and he took the PATH train over to Jersey City. While he was standing there talking to his students -- class hadn't started yet -- the students said, "Look at that plane. It's getting ready to hit the World Trade Center." And he saw it hit. He saw both of them hit. He saw the stuff. But he couldn't tell anybody that his lover was in that building.

KITTO: Because he was a teacher?

JOHNSON: He was a teacher. He couldn't tell anybody. So he had to suck it all up and not say anything and not be -- he just had to just do it. Now, he's 56:00coming back to Brooklyn. And how he gets back he never said anything. But the man, he kept saying, "They're going to find him. They're going to find him." This was the third day. They weren't going to find him. So when they, they make all these -- I don't know what this man's name was. And to this day I still don't know what it was. I only know -- but, to think that we did not have a tragedy -- it didn't happen to me personally. But I saw somebody where it did happen to them. And that really bothers me when people make those kinds of statements. Since that day -- and, like I said, my great achievement was I worked at the Starlite.

KITTO: Tell me all about it.

JOHNSON: Well, the next Monday, everybody was talking about the fall of the towers. Well, there was a guy that came in there who was a fire chief, one of the few Black ones that was in there. And he explained how these floors were 57:00made with hangers. And they put the stuff in there, so-- And that was to keep the building stable. But he said it was also unstable because once it got heated up, these things would buckle. And that's what caused them to fall. So, he used the physics behind it. And so, there was, like, three Georges. And we gave them all initials. So, there was Fireman George. There was Undertaker George. And then there was just George. That's how we could distinguish which ones was which. And I started to meet people. Then, there was this one lady. I was talking with her one day. And I didn't realize that my best friend Ron was her uncle. And so, we started talking. And so, I met her. And I started to meet people. One day, Butch came in there. He said, "Let me ask you something." We got a bunch of glasses, because most of the time we served things out of paper cups. It was a shot and a chaser. There was no cocktail mixing at all. He says, "Can you do anything with these glasses?" I went, 58:00"Yeah, why didn't you tell me you had cocktail glasses back th--?" He said, "Well, they're just here. I'll just wash them. I'll use them."

KITTO: You worked at a place?

JOHNSON: Hmm?

KITTO: You worked at a bar?

JOHNSON: Yes.

KITTO: When you had your first job?

JOHNSON: Yes. I worked in a restaurant.

KITTO: Restaurant, yeah.

JOHNSON: Yes. And there were times when I would help the bartender. And I was watching him make drinks. But I couldn't help him do anything else behind that bar because I was underage. I would bring him ice. And sometimes he'd have me washing glasses. Or he'd have me fill up glasses and stuff. So, I was watching him. And I thought it was absolutely amazing. Later on I started to -- when we'd have parties and stuff, I would bartend there. But that was still more pouring a shot than this. But I enjoyed it. So, when Butch gives me these glasses and stuff, he says, "Can you make a martini?" I went, "Yeah." So, I proceeded to make a martini. He said, "Damn, that was pretty good." He says, "Why don't you make some more?" So, I started doing that. And all I remembered 59:00at that time were the old-fashioned drinks, which was the Manhattans, the martinis; either gin or vodka. There was the zombies. There were a few other ones that was in there. Those were the old classic drinks, that was-- So, I started doing that. Well, people started to come in for it. So, Butch went in there. And one day he came back with a recipe. He said, "I don't know whether or not if we have these ingredients about it. But I want to taste this drink." So, I looked at the recipe, and I said, "Yeah, we've got all this stuff back here." You know what the name of the drink was? A jealous bitch. So, I proceeded to make the cocktail up, and I gave it to him. And, he enjoyed it. So, we started -- so, that was my whole shtick. Monday nights was cocktail nights because I was the only one -- now, the rest of them probably could do it. But they just didn't do it because they wanted to make a faster sale. So, that was how I started to make my business on Monday nights, which expanded over to Tuesday nights. So, since I had a smaller group of people, and they would come 60:00in. Now they were coming in because of the fact that they could get a cocktail in this little tiny bar. And so, word spread, and then it got bigger and bigger. The first time this same woman, Vanessa, who-- my best friend was her uncle-- she had a birthday party. And, she worked for the post office. So, all of her friends came into the bar that night to celebrate her birthday. And, there was these ladies that came in and said, "She tells us that you make a mean apple martini." I said, which one? She said, "You make one called a New York apple martini." Yeah, I can do that one. So, I said how many do you want? So, there was five of them. They said, "I want five." I decided to do -- bartending sometimes can be a show. And, the more you can do this thing out, the better-- the bigger your tips are. So, I set up five glasses. And this one lady says, "I didn't want all that ice in my drink." She says, "No, the man knows what he's doing. He's chilling the glasses." Well, Bob saw me grab the 61:00stuff. And I'm pouring vast amounts. And he says, "What the hell is he doing?" And Butch looked at him and says, "Let him go, let him. I think he knows what he's doing." So, I got all the glasses set up, and I grabbed all five of them, tossed them out, this, that, and the other. I had them all set up and had all the trimmings inside of it. And I started pouring them. The trick behind of it is: To make sure you have them all even and you don't have anything left in the-- at the end of the shaker when you get through. So, you start from the middle, the outside, then this one, this one, then this one, and you go one-two-three. And when you did it, it was-- they were all there. And, I got a $20 tip from those ladies. It was the weirdest thing. So, Butch looked at me and said, "Damn, you ain't half bad." So then he wanted me to start working Saturday nights. And I went, "No, no, let me stay here on Mondays and Tuesdays. And I will make your Mondays and Tuesdays profitable.

62:00

KITTO: Was it called something; your nights, or anything?

JOHNSON: No.

KITTO: No? It was just Albert's?

JOHNSON: Yeah, they just knew I was going to be there that night. And that was my whole thing. Every bar has a night or something. But this was the only one at that time that I could do that with. And I built up my clientele on Mondays and Tuesdays.

KITTO: So, what was your clientele like as opposed to that clientele from the other nights?

JOHNSON: Well, primarily they would come in because now they could have a drink. And all they wanted was one or two. So, let's put it to you this way. There's a, there's a financial thing behind it. I can take a $5 drink and put it in the right glass and turn it into an $8 to a $10 drink; the same ingredients, maybe one or two changes in there. But because I've done this other st-- and it's all show. I had enough time to do it because I didn't have a whole lot of people. So, he would ask me, "How did you manage to make this amount of money with a few people?" I said, "Very simple." I said, "It's 63:00called marketing." That's what I did in the garment district. So, I took that whole percentage. Because, one day he was sitting there, he was looking. He said, "Why are you staring out this window?" I said, "I'm counting all these people that are coming from the A train walking down Ocean Avenue. And I should be able to get at least -- out of every three that pass, I should be able to get at least one, one and a half of them to come in here and have one drink. If they have one good drink, maybe two, and go home, I can make a fortune."

KITTO: Amazing.

JOHNSON: It's just marketing. And he understood marketing because he worked on Wall Street.

KITTO: Right.

JOHNSON: Yes. So, when you can explain to him the prospects of doing this -- and I said yeah. So, if I'm going to take a shot of vodka that's $5, but if I do the right thing, and I can get $8 to $10 with that shot of vodka, and all I have to do is make a -- then, when you start doing these little -- you start selling stuff, it's all a marketing ploy, all a--

64:00

KITTO: So, you made a lot of money doing it?

JOHNSON: Not a lot of money. I made -- on a Monday or Tuesday, which is any bar's slow night, I made mine worth being open. Because a lot of bars, neighborhood bars, aren't open on Monday or Tuesday, because it wasn't profitable. So, that's what I ended up doing. Then other bartenders came through, and they started to do it. And at one point, we, then every bartender did it. And the whole flavor of the Starlite had changed.

KITTO: Okay, first tell me more about the flavor of it at first. So, what else, like music?

JOHNSON: Yes, yes.

KITTO: People who came in, the kind of people?

JOHNSON: Okay, since I was not there on a Friday or Saturday, that weekend crowd is different, I got a chance to know the people in the neighborhood; the old timers who had come, from, there from the time of the '60s, you know? They would be retiring by this time. They were in their 60s now. So, they had been 65:00there; coming into the Starlite, and I would hear stories from them. Some of them you go, "No, that didn't happen." But then yet-- and still, when you'd see these people, they had lived in the neighborhood. They could tell you what was going on. So, this was a change from it. The Starlite was known for -- they had this infamous jukebox. That jukebox in the back, on a Monday through Thursday -- because Butch would come in on Fridays and Saturdays. That's when the DJ thing came along. And that's how he made his money, because there wasn't a DJ in, in there. So, he started mixing his own music. And they ended up building him a booth. And so, that's how they ended up making more money on a Friday and Saturday. These little innovations, one behind the other, changed the flavor of the Starlite: To when the last ten years of that place was totally 66:00different than what it was before I got there and before Butch got there. There was that infamous jukebox. There were these people there that would come in, and they knew that jukebox from one end to the other. And they could -- you would have thought there was a DJ in there. You would have thought that there was one. But it was a dance place. And the reason why it was a dance place -- and they had a cabaret license. In order to have a cabaret license, which is a license so a person in a place can dance, you must have a separate facility away from the bar and patronage that you could have a separate room to dance in. That's why they were able to do it because the original Starlite was the front half of that bar, just where the bar was. And when you-- those little steps, I don't know whether you were ever in there--

KITTO: I went once.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Those little steps, that's where the Starlite stopped. That little spot in the back was where the bathrooms were. So, that's how small that 67:00place was. The original door was not on Bergen Street. It was on Nostrand Avenue. Right from--

KITTO: Where Donna snuck in, right?

JOHNSON: No, no, up under the air conditioner. You know when you came in that little doorway that you first came in there when you had--? Right up under that air conditioner; that was the original door. And that's why the address was whatever-it-was Nostrand Avenue. It was-- that bar was originally owned, from what I heard, by two White policemen. And that church, which was diagonally across the street, used to complain about the patrons would come in there and get drunk and would come back to church. So, they had a complaint about it. And there was another church across the street from the Starlite. There was, there was a whole bunch of little bars in that corner. Bars and churches was that corner; [laughter] always in conflict. So, what they did was, by the time the complaint came around that they had to go to court, they changed the address 68:00by blocking off the front half, opening up the door on Bergen Street, and that's why it had that address of whatever-it-was Bergen Street. But the actual -- it was still the same bar. So, when they got down there for the complaint, the complaint had the wrong address on it. And that's why they -- now, that was a rumor I was told. That was how. And then they decided that -- because the back half of that used to be -- where the dance floor was; that was a restaurant, and at one time, it was a beauty shop. So, the guy that owned the -- his family owned the funeral home, Brown Funeral Home. He actually owned that building that the Starlite was in. So, Mr. Brown rented out that back half. They knocked a hole, knocked a wall out. And that became the new dance floor and the whole thing. And that's why they ended up having that dance floor.

KITTO: To Mackie, right?

JOHNSON: I think it was, yeah.

KITTO: He was the first owner?

JOHNSON: The Black one?

KITTO: Yeah.

69:00

JOHNSON: Yeah, the first Black one.

KITTO: Yeah, but he was -- of the Starlite. It wasn't the Starlite until he was there.

JOHNSON: Yes it was.

KITTO: Oh, it was?

JOHNSON: Yeah, that place was--

KITTO: So, when the police owners owned it, police officers owned it, it was the Starlite? But it wasn't a gay bar?

JOHNSON: No. But just anybody-- See, that was the other misconception about the Starlite, too. The Starlite [laughter] had waves of people that would come in. And they could be anything from politicians to preachers to female impersonators to prostitutes. You name it, they came in there. And so, you couldn't pigeonhole any one thing because everybody was-- felt welcomed to be in there.

KITTO: Once Mackie came in or always?

JOHNSON: No, always. From what I understand, that was always the case.

KITTO: So, that's the non-discriminating part?

JOHNSON: Yes, that was the non-- the, why they said the most non-discri-- because it was a neighborhood bar. It-- When Donna said she was 12, okay, that 70:00was truly a neighborhood bar. And their parents would come in there. So, it was not a question of you not knowing where you were. By the time it had expanded to those -- this was after the -- because Mackie worked for those two guys who owned the bar first. He--

KITTO: The police officers?

JOHNSON: Yes. He ended up buying it, or they sold it to him. That's how he got it.

KITTO: Okay. Was he gay?

JOHNSON: Yes, I think so, yeah. So, that's how he -- the thing just changed hands. But it was still owned by the funeral home behind it, yes. [laughter] It was--

KITTO: Amazing.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And even in my -- like I said, I was there from 2001 until 2010. It was the weirdest thing because you never could actually figure out 71:00where everything -- you just knew that it happened. You just knew that it happened. It was amazing.

KITTO: Where what? What are you saying?

JOHNSON: In other words, the whole aspect of the Starlite, you couldn't -- there's a chronicle that you could put behind it if you wanted to. There were people that came in there. The-- They were young people at the time. Now their children are coming in there. Some of these children are gay, and some of them are not. So their kids are coming in there. There were some people I used to call "the ladies." That was Miss Sadie, and Miss Pauline, and stuff. And they were the older ones in there, because when I first started working there, they must have been about in their early 70s. Yeah, they must have been in about their early 70s because the place has been closed now seven years. And they were in their mid-80s. Yeah, so they were in their early 70s when I first -- and they commanded that kind of respect when you came in there. I tried to be a 72:00little flirtatious. She said, "Oh, no, darling. You don't do that to me. I am Miss Sadie. That's how you will always address me. This is Miss Pauline. This is how you will always address us. And you do this, that, and the other." And she made sure you stayed in your proper place. In other words, know your place, son. So, it was -- yeah, you had that kind of respect that you had to give them. And they treated you, they treated you well. Once I finally became likeable and they liked me in there, when my birthday party came around, those people at the Starlite threw me a birthday party that was second to none. Hold on one second.

KITTO: Okay. [Interview interrupted.]

JOHNSON: I've got to find something for you, but I'll show you before you go.

KITTO: Okay.

JOHNSON: --would throw y-- If you were liked by them, you were liked by everybody in t--

73:00

KITTO: The ladies?

JOHNSON: The ladies, any of the patrons: If you had a clientele and they liked you, the bartenders, you name it, you were treated like royalty. If a family member passed away, they were there to make sure to support you through it. Your birthday came around, fine, they would help make sure that your birthday was celebrated in that place. If you're--

KITTO: Are you talking about the Starlite? Yeah.

JOHNSON: The Starlite, yes: Those people in the Starlite, once you became part of that Starlite-- when they say this was a family-- once you became part of that group, you were a part of that group. You were definitely a part of that group. It was amazing, the connection that was between them. The saddest day to happen was the day when Butch died. I came to work, and I was getting ready to lift the gates up. And I noticed that everybody was sad. And they said, 74:00"Butch died last night, so what are you going to do?" I said I'm going to do what Butch wanted me to do. I'm going to open up this bar, and I'm going to sell some liquor tonight. And through all that sadness going on -- and the weird thing about it was about six months or so before Butch died, we were coming from the office. And I had bottles of liquor. I was going to be setting the bar up and the whole thing. And he looked at me and he says to me, "These people are going to talk -- they talk about me now in negative terms. But watch how they change once I've died." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "They're all going to be my friends. Watch it. They don't like me now because I tell them to get the hell out of there if they don't know how to behave," because he had a strict code about that. You didn't use that place as your soapbox. That was not going to happen. And when he did -- and I watched it. One day I came 75:00back. I said he told the truth. What I always wanted to do, I wanted to write a TV series. And what it was going to be, my version of the Starlite from his perspective. And what I wanted to do was to have it at his funeral. And it was going to open up this way. You're going to hear this voice. And you're going to see this funeral and the whole business. And he's going, "Okay, folks. Yes, that's me down there in the casket. And I'm dead, and the whole thing. But, you see these folks down there? They have no idea what I've just done to them. And that is, I left my straight brother-in-law and sister a gay bar." [laughter] And that was going to be my opening line to the "Welcome to the Starlite" because it was going to have to start there. It was going to have to start there, because that was another era that happened after Butch passed away. That was another era. It didn't close the Starlite because it was the 76:00re-gentrification that closed the Starlite. But that was a whole new era that was going to be the end of it because now you've got things. They bring in karaoke. I worked the first karaoke, and I worked the last one. That was-- and when I worked that last one and I pulled the gates down, I saw the Starlite for the last time, and I never went back because I knew that that was the end of an era. There are eras like -- and there was an era that happened in Manhattan. There was Better Days. Once the Better Days closed, there will never be another one. Peter Rabbit's, there will never be another one. Keller's, the building is still there, but there will never be another one because you have to have the people to come in there. The Starlite, even though the building is still there, there will never be another one. I don't care if you brought -- you couldn't 77:00bring everybody back in there. It wouldn't work because there were some things that had to be at that particular time. But the Starlite still lives. If you ever see that movie with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn -- The Interpreter, okay? There's a sequence of scenes where they're on this bus, and they're going down Nostrand Avenue. And there's a bomb that goes-- blow off-- blows up. Well, what they do is, this bus trip, they keep showing sequences. And if you look out the window over Nicole Kidman's shoulder, you keep seeing the Starlite over and over and over again because it seems like this bus never gets past, past the Starlite. Well, they actually did have a bus, and it'd start out at a certain point. And it would just keep filming it over so it would make it look like it was going a farther distance. But if you look closely in the background, you keep seeing it going past the same corner each time. That's how it's being done. Oprah did a thing on gay people around the United States. And one of 78:00them was a woman who wrote poetry. And she lived in Bed-Stuy -- no, Crown Heights. She lived in Crown Heights. And guess where she was interviewed? She was interviewed right there in front of the Starlite. So, the mailbox and the whole thing -- and periodically, if you could find it, I think it's on YouTube. If you still find it, you look back, and you'll keep seeing the Starlite behind it. You can see the windows. And in fact you can even see people in it. So, it's not going to die because we left an imprint in those two episodes. Oprah did us, and we're in a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Go for it.

KITTO: So, you said the karaoke thing, like, did you really stop working there at that point? Didn't you work there--?

JOHNSON: No, that was the last night.

KITTO: Oh, that was the last night?

JOHNSON: Yes. That was Sept-- August the 8th was the last karaoke at the Starlite because it closed August the 10th. So, my last karaoke was the last 79:00one that was done, which was done August the 8th. And it was, it was daybreak when I left there. It was about 7:30, 8:00 in the morning when I got through cleaning up and the whole thing. And we pulled the gates down. And I turned around and looked, because they kept saying, "You coming back to the party?" I said, "Nope." That was the end. That was the end. And I don't mean the end in sadness. That era had to be chopped off like a guillotine. It's over. It's done. You cannot -- because that last night, the last two nights, that was an ending that once it ended, once that Friday night ended, that Friday night ended. Once that sadness and the thing from that Saturday night and going into that Sunday morning where they were cleaning everything all out; that was it. You have to -- like I said, now I can tell my children.

80:00

KITTO: Like you have to let things die or something?

JOHNSON: No. Now I'm a part of history. History has to start. There's a point where something ends. And once that ends, then history starts. Anything that happens, even when-- from the time when, like, my friends took their last breath, history started after that because they left something that had to be told. They left an impact that had to be felt. So, history starts. That epitaph starts. This starts. But it has to have an end first. And then the next phase starts. They will probably be talking about this for probably the next hundred years. I'm almost willing to bet it because it was for years, from what I've heard from other people. I have a friend who lives down the street. His brothers used to go hang out in there. And it was all kinds of little weird things. It was just that the Starlite was just that. Like I said, Cleveland 81:00had its own. There was the Coral Bar. Once that building was gone, there's only memories and those people who remember where that place was. Ruby Duke's, that after-hour place: That was a memory that just -- that somebody's going to remember. Honestly, I have to jump back to something that was really weird.

KITTO: Do it.

JOHNSON: There was a place in Cleveland. Let's go back to Cleveland. This is the 1960s, let's say 19-- from 1965 on. By the time I'm 18, I'm getting older. There was, like I said, the Coral Bar. And there was another place called the Razell Club. The Razell Club was owned by another lesbian, and her name, oh, was Jodi Ann. Jodi Ann had a brother named Chester. They had this little club, and it was a little house. Everything was a house. And how she made her money 82:00was she sold soul food lunches -- not dinners, just lunches -- during the -- from about 11:00 in the morning until about 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon; the best soul food in the world. And people would come from all over Cleveland and come to this little tiny res-- and she made a fortune. So at night she had this bar. And it was called the Razell Club. I don't know whether that was their last name. But anyway, that's what-- and it was owned by this-- well, Jodi Ann had, her rival was Ruby Duke. These two people nodded. They respected each other. But they never spoke. So, Jodi Ann -- Ruby Duke's would comment on her bevy of beauties. And she would set the bar up. And she'd spend all of this money and stuff. And, she'd tip Jodi Ann. And Jodi Ann would never acknowledge the fact. But she'd just take her money, stack it up and put it in the cash register, didn't say anything. And her bevy of beauties would leave, and they 83:00would go down about five blocks to open up her after-hours joint. After the Razell Club closed, Ruby Duke's opened up. Well, Jodi Ann wasn't going to be outdone. She would get her bevy of beauties. And she'd wait until it was just an optimum time. And she'd stroll in to Ruby Duke's. And she'd support. I don't know whether these two women disliked each other or they felt they were rivals. But the idea that they did this and they never spoke to one another -- and it was quite obvious to everybody that was there. Oh Lord, here they go. Are they going to shoot each other this time? They never did. It was just this one obvious situation that you always knew was going to happen. It was great. It was wonderful to know that these things was going to happen. These were people -- like I said, I'm 18 to 20. They're in their 50s and 60s. So, they had been gay from the time of the Depression. And they have survived. Jodi Ann 84:00and Ruby Dukes wore men's clothes. And, I mean, when I say they wore men's clothes, they wore men's clothes.

KITTO: Which in those days were men's clothes.

JOHNSON: Men's clothes, yeah.

KITTO: Right, they weren't like, oh, you're wearing a cute androgynous suit.

JOHNSON: No, no, there was no androgyny. You were this.

KITTO: Yeah, it was like big, yeah.

JOHNSON: Yes, yes. They knew famous people because her brother was into the theater of some sort. I don't know what he did. But Chester was known. And, like I said, the bar was no wider than a utility table. Like, you see this cocktail table? That was the length of the bar in the Razell Club because it was the only thing you could fit in there. And you had two tables, and that was it, and a jukebox. But, like I said, she made her money selling lunches. So, you had a weird bevy. Growing up with these kinds of people, like I said, they had done the suffering from -- I'd say they probably came up to Harlem during 85:00the Harlem Renaissance. And they probably knew -- because, you've got to remember, this was a tight-knit community. So, to have known, probably, Bessie Smith; they may have. Because, like I said, if I'm 18 at that time and they were in their 50s and 60s, that meant -- because they would be as old as my grandparents. So, they would have been around at these places. And to see how they survived, I'm going, whoa. I had to give them their props. To be that open and the whole thing, and--

KITTO: They're brave.

JOHNSON: Yes. They were really brazen. But they were brazen in the sense of if you've got it, flaunt it. I remember there was this one person; the first one I'd ever known to have an attempt to have the transgender operation. It didn't work too well on her, because you've got to remember Christine Jorgensen 86:00was the first one. And that was done in Denmark. So, they tried to do it here in the United States, and it was a botched-up thing here. And, she carried right on. She carried right on. Botched operation, and I don't know how they made these breast implants. But that was, that was it. So, to come around at the end -- now, that was the end of an era, okay? But I'm starting a beginning of a new era of my own because at this particular time-- by the time I'm 21, about to be 21-- you had the Stonewall Riots here in New York. We had a similar thing that happened in Cleveland. And it was in a--

KITTO: Tell me.

JOHNSON: Yeah, this similar thing that happened in Cleveland was a place called the Majestic Hotel. The Majestic Hotel was not like a big, oversized, downtown 87:00gigantic hotel. It was a small -- it was like a big mansion. But it had two dining room or entertainment rooms. One was called The Trumpet Room. The other one was called The Rose Room. That's where Black entertainers in the '50s and stuff like that -- Sarah Vaughn and the rest of them -- would come and perform for Black audiences. Well, a bunch of them were trying to -- very obvious gay men dressed in women's clothes wanted to come in to see one of the entertainers that night. And they weren't allowed in. Well, they called -- now, this was on 55th and Central. They called up to the Coral Bar, which was on 105 and Euclid, a long distance away. And they said, "Girls, they're not letting us in there tonight," and the whole business. They got in their little Volkswagens. They chugged on down the street. And they called those pimps out by their names and let them know, oh, no, you don't bar us out of there. You don't stop us. And 88:00they caused their own personal little riots. And when they did, from that point on, gay people were allowed in there. But it was on a Sunday night, after 12:00. So, it was actually Monday morning. So, you could sit there at 11:00 in the Trumpet Room. Now, you still weren't allowed -- now, you'd come in there as long as you were dressed in men's clothes. They didn't stop you from -- it's just the way you had to present yourself. But now Sunday night after 12:01, which was Monday morning, that was a whole new ballgame. But you had from 12:01 until 20 minutes after 2:00 to get your shit on. And you had to leave because the bars had to be -- now, when I say it was closing, it had to be closed at 2:30. No locking the doors up. It had to be locked, and everybody had to be gone, at 2:30. So we, yeah, everybody had their waking period, and you came out. You had to fight for it. You did certain things because you could be 89:00molested, beat up by the police, held. It was not a pretty sight. Your private parties could be invaded because, here, if a neighbor didn't like the fact that, oh, there's too many men coming in there, or too many women coming in there -- not only that, too many women coming in there and not enough men, they-- Yeah, people just all up in your business.

KITTO: What about the Starlite's relationship to the neighborhood and also the police when you were there?

JOHNSON: When I was there, Butch's -- well, the police was, was never a problem as far as I was concerned.

KITTO: Was it because the police had owned it at first?

JOHNSON: And, one of the managers was a policeman. And one night when I thought I was going to be robbed I had no idea that the police was already in there. So, it-- the Starlite had a weird reputation. They were trying to catch drug trafficking in the Starlite. So, they would set up traps. And sometimes the traps were so spring-able, you go, "No, man, you're not doing this. This is 90:00not-- this is stupid." [laughter] One day this dude was sitting in the bar. It was like August. And he was a white -- and they said, [laughter] "Out of all the things in the world, they sent a White man looking very Abercrombie and Fitch into a Black gay bar. And he's sitting in the middle of this thing. And he ordered a beer. And I went, "Oh man. They-- Y'all don't know how to disguise this dude at all." So, he's sitting there. Well, the pride flag was slightly obscured by some bottles and some other stuff. But it was still back there. And if you looked hard enough, you could see the pride flag. And he-- and I noticed that he was in the middle of the bar. He was sipping on this one beer forever. And I'm going, "Don't you want another one, because that thing has got to be hot?" He said, "No, no, I'm fine." And he kept looking up and down the side of the bar to see if there was anything going on in there. So, he 91:00happened to look up, and it dawned on him. He said, "Wait a minute. Is this a gay bar, by any chance?" I said, "Duck, everybody. The police just found us." [laughter] Well, he didn't like me from that point. And he just happened to -- he got up and he left. Butch's nephew was a policeman. And he was a manager at one point. But one night I had been in the Starlite maybe about a year, and I was getting ready to close up. So, what I would do is there would -- like, these guys that was in there, they were older. They were my age and older. So, I said, "Listen, would you hang with me until I get this place closed up?" Because that was kind of -- that was a scary thing to do, especially when I had to go outside and pull those gates down and then come back in and count the-- No, that was a scary thing to do. Well, I went to make my drop-off. And just 92:00as I got ready to do it, there was somebody standing by the door where I had to drop my money off. And he said, "Yo, man, you know, you can drop this off if you want to." And I said, no, I've already done that. Then I ran out. I was being set up to be robbed because he thought everybody was going to be leaving when I got ready to close up. He said, "Yeah, I'll help you close." I went, okay, fine. But I got all the other stuff done. So, when I left him in the back of the bar, I came down. And there was like six guys that was in there. Like I said, they were older and they looked more settled. I said I don't know who you are, but please stick with me because I think I'm about to be robbed. And, without saying it, one went to the back door. One moved up to the front. And there was two sitting there. So, he said, "Yo, man, come on. I'll walk you down to the subway station." And the biggest one out of them, he says, "No, we got him. We're going to take him home. In fact, we're going to go out and have some breakfast." I had no idea that he was chief of security at Bellevue Hospital. And a friend of his was a detective. So, when I made that statement, 93:00they just went right into protective mode. And, when I got outside and I pulled the gates down and I said, "I can go home from here, thank you. I just wanted to--" he says, "No, we're going to take you home," because I had the money on me. I said-- He said, "No, we're going to take you home." And that's when I found out in the car what they did for a living. And they were married with children and the whole thing. So, they took me home. And I had the money with me. And I called Bob, and I said I almost got robbed tonight. And he said, "What do you mean you almost got robbed? Either you were robbed or you didn't. And why are you calling me at this time?" I said, "Because I have the money with me." "Albert, why did you bring the money with you?" And I'm going, "Okay, what is Lorraine going to do in the morning?" I said, "Don't worry about it." So, that morning I called Lorraine, and I told her what was happening. So she says, "Albert, just get in a cab, come over here and bring me the money. That's all you have to do." Well, I took the subway over, and guess who was 94:00standing in the store across the street? That same dude who was going to rob me the night before. He was across the street. So, I went in, and I explained to her, to Lorraine, what happened. She owned the bar at one point. There's another case of -- there's the Lorraine era. There's the Stanley era. There was the Bob Mack era, the Mackie era. Then there was the Bob Mack era.

KITTO: What about the Butchie era?

JOHNSON: Butchie was the one that was between -- he was the one that got -- when Lorraine started screwing up the money -- this is what I was told, was screwing up the money. And the place almost closed and went into bankr--

KITTO: What year was that?

JOHNSON: When I first started. This was, like, 2001.

KITTO: Uh-huh. But, Butchie got you -- so, Butchie didn't own it when you started. He was a manager.

JOHNSON: He wasn't even a manager. He was just a DJ who knew the manager. And so, he had -- I guess they had planned on having this coup; where they were going to get rid of Lorraine because she was sending that place down to ruin because she didn't pay bills. It was a big mess. So, when that-- when I took 95:00the money, it was the only time I ever saw that woman.

KITTO: Were they gay, Lorraine? Was Lorraine gay?

JOHNSON: I don't think so.

KITTO: Or Bob?

JOHNSON: Bob was. And so, when I took the money in to her and I explained to her what happened, she said, "Albert, don't pay any attention." She said, "You did the right thing. I'm just glad that you're okay." She said, "How did you manage to get out of it?" I explained to her what happened. She said, "That's what I'm saying. There's some wonderful people who come in this place. You never know who, who you-- don't be insulting. You have to be welcoming and the whole thing." There were times when -- now, when the neighborhood started to turn around and more and more Whites were coming into the place, there were some people that got very angry behind that. They got really angry. It wasn't so much -- because some of them had been put out of their apartments because of this re-gentrification in the neighborhood. My thing of it was: I'm just going 96:00to make me some money, [laughter] you know? I didn't mind telling anybody that this is what I do. I'm the whore. This is my neighb-- and I'm working this corner. When I'm here, I'm going to work this corner. It was amazing because there was, one time, a group came in because they had heard a reputation that, well, this is a gay bar, and the whole thing. So, they came in around 7:30, 8:00. I had some old-timers who had been there. And one of them said, "What are you going to do about it?" I said, "Well, first thing I can't do about it is discriminate. I can't do to them what they do to us." So, and they got really -- they said, "Well, I'm going to take my business elsewhere." I said that's a choice that you have to make. But meanwhile, I'm going to make me some money down at the other end of the bar. There were times when I was welcoming because you have to change the minds of certain people. You change their 97:00behavior by not doing what they think you're supposed to do. But every now and then you would get some little assholes that would come in there that would piss you off. One night a pair came in to the bar. It was about 1:30 in the morning. And they wanted martinis, but they wanted doubles. And I fixed them the martinis and the whole thing. Now, if, my regular martini was like $6 because I was using well liquor. No, they wanted me to fix them double martinis. But they wanted me to use an upper-shelf thing in there. So now, I told them, I said, "Now this is not this $5 price. This is now going to be an $8 drink." And they said, "Okay, fine." I don't know whether -- because they said, "And we want doubles." Well, now you've got $8. Two times eight is, 98:00what, 16. So now you've got $16. So, I come back in, and I got them a bigger glass because they asked for doubles. When I got through, their bill was -- let's see, three times 18 -- was like $92. And I told them, and they said, "What do you mean $92?" I said you asked for that type of vodka, which is higher priced than what I would normally sell, because that's what you -- and I said yes. And then you asked for doubles. And I said, "So you went from an $8 drink to a $16 drink." He said, "Well, you didn't tell us." I said, "No, you asked for it." So, they got all huffy and puffy and the whole thing. So, when he went back he said, "So, aren't we going to get a free one?" I said, "I was going to give you one because you had spent this amount of money. But because you asked and made me feel like I had to demand it to you, hell no." I said, "What I will do is I'll give you these vouchers, and you can get them from somebody else. But I'm not serving you."

99:00

KITTO: Did they pay?

JOHNSON: Oh yeah, they paid. They paid. They didn't want to give me a tip either. I said, "No, no. I would have gladly given it to you," because that was like almost $100. Yeah, you give somebody a drink. In fact, you give them a little bit more. But then there were these orders: "And I want it up to here," and this, that, and the other. You don't fill a cocktail glass to the point where it's about to fall over because -- I'm going, "You didn't even get that when you were in Manhattan where you just came from. You didn't get it there. So now because I'm serving you the same liquor, which was even cheaper here than it was when you were up there, you didn't ask for a double. That was the kind of connotation I had to deal with.

KITTO: Yeah, when the neighborhood was changing?

JOHNSON: Yes. And one guy came in. He said, "We're like pioneers." I said, "No. Yeah, you are like pioneers. You remember what y'all did to the Indians?" And he was like, "Ohh." Yeah, think about it. And so [laughter] sometimes, you know, you don't want to get -- it's just when people just themselves, they 100:00don't think. They don't think. They're caught up in their head.

KITTO: They don't know.

JOHNSON: Oh, they know.

KITTO: You think they know?

JOHNSON: They know, because living on this block, in this neighborhood, when I moved over here in '81, this neighborhood did not look like this. There were a bunch of people who were families. They were saving this neighborhood. They were literally saving--

KITTO: Was it largely a Black neighborhood at the time?

JOHNSON: No. It was, like, there were young families. They were professional people. So, their kids grew up on this neighborhood. So they were, they were having property, because they started, this started happening around the early '70s, this neighborhood. And they were trying to preserve this neighborhood. So, what do you do? You get families to move in. You give them a good price on a brownstone, which can become an income property. And you give it to the right people, which they did. Now, then around '95, '96, when the neighborhood -- 101:00now, these people have been here 20 years. That's when the folks have now started to come in trying to buy these places up. Well, they sold them up because of the fact that they could now sell them because you don't have to go through that tax deal. If you sell it too early, yeah, you can get the profit that you make on the building. So, the neighborhood basically turned around. And, there were some people in the neighborhood who landlords wouldn't fix anything because they wanted you to move. They did a whole bunch of little odds and ends. There were families whose parents moved here so that they could have an income in their later life, had to leave because the taxes went up so high until they couldn't afford to keep it on their fixed income. So, there were all kinds of little snide ways of getting you to sell. And some places would even threaten you to sell. So, when you see the underhandedness behind business -- and, hey, this is just business. That's what my attitude was when I had to do 102:00certain things. "Well, it's just business. I have nothing against you. It's just business." Now, that's how I felt about those two guys that was there: "I would have gladly given it to you. But you made it to the point where I have to do it." Hell no.

KITTO: Yeah. I'm going to ask you a couple more questions about the Starlite, if that's okay.

JOHNSON: Sure.

KITTO: Okay. I mean you, you've answered a lot of this. What-- Are there any other, like, characters that come to mind? It could be employees if you want to tell me.

JOHNSON: Everything-- Everybody that came in there was a character. I mean, you had -- okay, Willie was a character. He had been there--

103:00

KITTO: But Willie's alive.

JOHNSON: Yes. Yeah, Willie's alive. And he had been there -- he'd worked there for almost 35 years at some point or another. He worked there. And he would, he enjoyed coming to the Starlite to go to work. He knew the people that came in there and the whole thing. Mama Dot; Mama Dot--

KITTO: Who's also alive?

JOHNSON: Yes. She had her, her little escapade of people that she knew. There was a barmaid named Teri. Teri's still alive. And I used to change shifts with her. And so, when I would come on at 8:00, Teri was getting off. So, we had to clear out registers. So, we had this little camaraderie at one time. Teri had enormous breasts. And one time I closed them up in the ice machine. [laughter] Okay it was, it was really kind of weird how it happened. It was, like, we had 104:00an ice machine that really it wasn't a machine. It just opened up, and you just kept bags of ice. That's a whole other story. We won't go into that. So, we had to store ice in this thing. And so, when I lifted the thing up, she had her back turned. And just as I was to close it, she turned around. And her breasts got in the way. And I slammed the lid on them. That was -- you know, one time Teri missed -- she was getting ready to sit down on a barstool. And she tried to hop up on the barstool. And she had had too many to drink and missed. And she ended up on the other side. I remember a fight broke out between these two women that didn't like each other. And I had no idea that they didn't like each other. So, one came in. And we'd had a nice conversation. She saw the other one coming. She went to the back of the bar to play the machines. She left her 105:00coat up in the front. And as she went to get to the front to go get her coat, the person, the two that didn't, she had to go past them. And the lady cold-cocked her. And the next thing I know, jewelry is flying and the whole thing. And she said, "Let the bitch go," because it has nothing to do with -- she's just made because of whatever this reason was. And she said, "Come on. Let's take it outside." And I was like, "Ooh." So, you never knew when things were going to erupt. When they were cleaning out the -- these are some of the stories that are really funny. When they cleaned out the back office, they found the remains of a, of a person who had been cremated. They had the-- The family had a wake, and they brought the ashes into the -- and they told them, "Well, put these back here, and we're going to take--" and they got drunk and left them. And he'd been back there for years. And he'd been up on a shelf. If you ever see Willie, ask him about they found this guy. They said, "Who is 106:00it?" They said, "Well, this is so-and-so. Oh, shit. Didn't they realize they were supposed to take him home?" I said, "They didn't know."

KITTO: Because there's a funeral home.

JOHNSON: The funeral home [laughter] was right behind on the other side. It was unbelievably weird. One time there was a guy who was really pissed. He was the coat check person. And they had been giving him hell. I said, "Let me-- You want to stop these people?" I said, "I'm going to show you something." And I pulled this curtain back. I said, "You see that door right there?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "That door leads to the funeral home. Use this wisely." He said, "Oh, okay." "So, the next time anybody tells you then--" He says, "I got you, man. I got you." So, he said, "Let me show you something. I can send you straight to hell. Do you understand this?" He said, "Wait a minute." He pulled this curtain back. He said, "This leads to the funeral home." And it did. [laughter]

KITTO: It literally did.

JOHNSON: It literally did lead to the funeral home. There were some -- you had some funny times in that place. It was unbelievable. I could be here for the 107:00next almost ten years and still wouldn't equate all the stuff that I would know, because there was other stuff that happened to people who they experienced, and they would tell you about it. It was amazing. It was absolutely and totally amazing.

KITTO: Well, why don't you tell me a couple more things for this? For your nights, what was -- like, so for the Monday and Tuesday nights, what was the general, like, age group, ethnic background? Like, what kind, what--?

JOHNSON: Okay. My age group--

KITTO: And, like, were they all gay? Or what was going on?

JOHNSON: Okay. On Mondays and Tuesdays, like I said, these were working people.

KITTO: Yeah, in the neighborhood.

JOHNSON: In the neighborhood. I mean, some people, once the cocktail thing got out, they would come in because they would have to be home or whatever it is. They would leave there by midnight, 1:00. So they weren't long timers because 108:00they had to go to work the next day. So, I had a different type of clientele. These were working people or some people who were just getting off from work. They wanted to be someplace where there was a little life, but they didn't want too much liveliness in it. Some people, like I said, those guys that saved me from getting robbed that night, they got out from work at 12:00. So, that's when they would come in. When the Empire Skating Rink was open, Tuesday nights was skating night in Brooklyn. So, they would need a place to come. And they would come to the Starlite after skating. And they would get out of there around 11:00. So, it was -- I had a different kind of clientele. You didn't have to worry about dancing because these people just came and they wanted to have one or two drinks to go home. And that was my business. Most of the time I made most of my money between the hours of 8:00 and 12:00. If I made any money -- if I didn't make any money between 8:00 and 12:00, I wasn't going to make any money at all that night. So, that was my, my thing; between 8:00 and 12:00.

109:00

KITTO: Your show?

JOHNSON: Yes. Yes, that was my show time. And I'd come in. And then another thing -- on Tuesday nights, I would have my little guinea pigs. Yes, I would try out cocktails. And, one of-- there was a guy who came in one night. And there was a woman who used to be in the neighborhood, Mildred. Mildred was the staple of the Starlite. She'll tell you, "I put the first brick in this motherfucker by that door." And that was Mildred. So, he came in, and he said, "Oh my God, it's Miss Mildreadful." I said, "What did you call her?" He said, "Miss Mildreadful." I said, "Ooh, that calls for a cocktail." So, what I did was I modified a Manhattan. And I said, "Taste this!" And he tasted it. He said, "Ooh." I said, "What do you mean, ooh?" He said, "It's just like her." I said, "What do you mean it's like her?" He said, "Well, when you first see it, it looks delightful. Then when you taste it, you don't know whether you like it 110:00or not. And then you swallow it and you go, hmm, do I want another one of these?" He said, "That's just, that's how you treat her." So, it became -- I had a night where I just tried out cocktails. And they were my little lab rats. And they enjoyed it, you know? So, I'd tell them, "Okay, fine. I'm going to try out a cocktail. And, if you like it, I'll give it to you for such-and-such a price." And I would try to mix up one that didn't require a bunch of expensive ingredients or something like that and just flipping a few things around. Some were successes, and some weren't. But the thing of it was, they came in just to be a little lab rat that night. That was my little gimmick to get them to do that. So, I tried anything except for taking off my clothes in order to make, make a little bit of money. It was fun. It was absolute fun.

111:00

KITTO: Did you drink while you were there?

JOHNSON: No. I had -- they would ask me, they said, "Do you drink?" I went, "No," because I had a bad liver. I had the hepatitis C. So, I couldn't drink. And they said, "Well, so, since you don't drink, you don't know what we're tasting." I said, "You're right. I don't know what you're tasting." [laughter]

KITTO: So, you wouldn't taste it even?

JOHNSON: Mm-mm, mm-mm. I remember one of my best cocktails from the night that Barack Obama was elected President.

KITTO: Tell me about that.

JOHNSON: I had come up with a drink that was either going to be the Barack Obama/Joe Biden, or it was going to be the Sarah Palin/I can't think of the man's name now.

KITTO: John McCain.

JOHNSON: John McCain. And I was hoping that Barack Obama was going to win.

KITTO: Really? [laughter]

JOHNSON: Yes. So we were-- it was like 9:00 at night. The vote was coming in. Miss Sadie and, and the ladies were there, because you've got to remember, 112:00these people are getting ready to see history being made. And, so was I, because that morning, that picture I showed you of my family, I was like number 13 in line. My mom in Cleveland, she was number three. Her sisters and them, I think one was number one. And we, I took my grandparents to go vote for Barack Obama that morning. I literally took them there. And I remember going in there nervous and the whole thing. And I came back out, and I called my mom. It was about maybe quarter to seven. I said, "Did you go vote?" She said, "Baby, I've been home." She said, "Did you go vote?" I said, "Yeah, I took Grandma." I said, "I took Mama and Honey Daddy with me." She said, "I'm glad that you did," because I took them with me because we pulled the lever for them. And I went, "Yes we did. We pulled the lever for them." So now, that night, I'm sitting 113:00there. And I'm serving them. And the bar is packed.

KITTO: Because of that?

JOHNSON: Because of the election that night.

KITTO: Yeah. Did you have a TV in there?

JOHNSON: Yes, we had a TV in there. We had two televisions in there. Mildred was working the polls. And the polls closed. And she came in about quarter to 10:00. And we, we were watching TV and the whole thing. And we looked up, and there was a hush that fell over that room. And I saw oppression walk out that door. When Miss Sadie stood up and she said, "My God, they did it," we finally got -- they elected a Black man. That silence, we didn't know whether to 114:00scream, shout. It was just silence. And then all hell broke loose. I said, "Listen, folks. I have a cocktail for this man. Anybody wants to try, the first one is free." And, I made the drink. And what it was, it was Myers's Rum, Bailey's, creme de cacao and creme de banana. So, when you mixed it up, it was his complexion. And I poured it. And, when they had it, she said, "Damn right." That's all I sold that night was that cocktail from there. It was something that I -- like I said, if you could have been there with those older people who had come from the South, they're sitting there. And I heard people 115:00say, "Oh, it's not his time. We're not going to vote for him." And they went, "Okay, fine." But when I sat there and I watched Miss Sadie and the rest of them, and she just got filled. And you could see this. You couldn't say it was -- there was just this shock, this whole thing. And it, and it just permeated up and down Brooklyn. All night long, as I was -- and when I closed the bar and I was coming home and I was coming down, people were still celebrating. It was unbelievable. The first time I ever voted in my life -- I don't know whether I told you this before -- I voted for Carl Stokes. He was the first Black man mayor of a major city. Cleveland was a major city during the '60s. I think it was maybe, like, the sixth-largest city in the United States at that time when I 116:00voted for him. To do it this time and voting for this man and seeing the impact and what happened -- and it was not just people of color. This was all these people. They said, "We've got a chance now." It was amazing, that whole thing. And, there's two things that I just get passionate about. That was one, what you just -- and the first time I did the AIDS Walk. When I saw -- the AIDS Walk used to -- you'd come in through 72nd Street. And you'd go down the Strawberry Fields. And that's where it ended. That walk through -- it was about maybe, I think, seven miles that you have to walk. When you go through Central Park, up 110th Street to Riverside Drive, across Riverside Drive to 70 -- I think it's 117:0074th Street. And then you come down. Then they used to end it through there. When I saw people had been pushed in wheelchairs, and they got to the point where you turn to go into Central Park, and they would go, "Let me stand. I'm going to walk to-- I'm going to walk the last. I'm not going to sit in this wheelchair." And I saw them get up out of their wheelchairs and walk across that finish line. Some of them never made it. That was their last walk. But they got out that wheelchair. And they would walk as far as -- Have I seen a lot in my lifetime? Hell yes. When I was born, World War II stopped. I'm watching the sound barrier break. I remember my grandmother being concerned when Rosa Parks said no about sitting in the back of the bus. I remember 118:00opening up Jet Magazine and seeing Emmett Till, his remains being displayed. I remember seeing in the Call & Post; how they hung and burned Black people in trees. And I'm not even ten years old. I'm living through this. When my grandmother takes us to Euclid Beach one afternoon, and you know who we're going to see? We're going to see John F. Kennedy. And she -- we're going to watch his motorcade. All we could just see, the top of him as he went past, the motorcade. Three years later, I'm holding my little brother, and we watch him get shot. I survived the AIDS crisis. I'm surviving the AIDS crisis. I got 119:00cured from hepatitis C. I've seen some wonderful people come into this world and leave out of here. They're all a part of what I am or have been a part of who I am now. It's amazing. Life is truly amazing. It's, it's a crapshoot. Some people are going to win. Some people are going to lose. So, if anybody tells you that, "All you have to do--" this, that and the other-- no, not always. But at least it's a leg up. You can survive. And this, too, shall pass. I remember not wanting to ever be here because people kept telling me that because I'm this or I'm not that or this is going to happen because of this or whatever it was, most of the time it's always in the negative. I had to prove them wrong. Sometimes I did prove them wrong. In fact, a lot of times I 120:00proved them wrong because I'm still here. That's basically about it.

KITTO: Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

KITTO: I'm going to end this.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Albert Johnson

Albert Johnson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where his mother worked for a major newspaper. Johnson attended Cleveland public schools, graduating from Glendale High School in 1965. He moved to New York in the late sixties, where he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, and went on to work as a designer in production in the Garment District. In 1996, he was diagnosed with HIV and became sick, spending the next few years trying several treatments. He began working at the Starlite Lounge as a bartender on September the 10th, 2001, a day before the attack on the Twin Towers. The Starlite was one of the oldest city bars to welcome gay, as well as heterosexual, patrons. He worked at the bar in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn until it closed, August 9th, 2010.

In the second session of a two session interview, Albert Johnson intersects his childhood story with another layer of complexity: growing up gay. He tells stories about his family's reactions to his sexuality, both surprising and sad. He enumerates and describes in detail all the gay clubs in Cleveland he went to as a young adult, including two different bars run by lesbians. He moves onto talk about his move to Buffalo, New York, where he worked at a hospital and met his first true love; John, a doctor. Together, they moved to New York City, where Johnson attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, then worked in the Garment District. He tells stories about the clubs he went to, the people he loved, and the fashion business circa the 1980s. He tells of the losses to AIDS in its early years in New York, including John. Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1996 and relates those early experiences of trying to get medical care and treatment.
He talks about meeting "Butchie" King, who was a DJ at the Starlite Lounge in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and how it took some convincing for Johnson to come bartend there in 2001. He talks about attracting a regular clientele by being the first to make fancy mixed drinks at the bar; describing some drinks and some patrons. He compares various eras of ownership of the Starlite, and tells stories about the place and what it meant to the community. He reflects on the ways the Starlite Lounge changed his life and the meaning of it, and how once the people who made the Starlite what it was were dead and/or gone, it was time for it to end. Interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.

Citation

Johnson, Albert, Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto, October 22, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.26; Brooklyn Historical Society.

People

  • Johnson, Albert
  • King, William (William "Butch" King)
  • Obama, Barack
  • Starlite Lounge (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)

Topics

  • African Americans
  • AIDS (Disease)
  • Bars (Drinking establishments)
  • Business enterprises
  • Community identity
  • Gay culture
  • Gays
  • HIV-positive persons
  • Lesbians
  • Multiculturalism
  • September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
  • Transgender people

Places

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Buffalo (N.Y.)
  • Cleveland (Ohio)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Fort Greene (New York, N.Y.)
  • New York (N.Y.)

Transcript

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Finding Aid

Voices of Crown Heights oral histories