I met A there, and H, and L, and I met N and V and a guy called Jean-Luc. Most of the men I knew back then, back in the 1980s when I lived in Tel Aviv, I met in Independence Park. By men I mean gay men, and by met I mean had sex with or fell in love with or had relationships with. That’s where we used to meet men in Tel Aviv of the 1980s, in the days before the internet, before Grindr and Manhunt and Gaydar, before chat-rooms and apps. Back then, you had to leave the house if you wanted to meet anyone. From sunset to sunrise, and even sometimes during the day – in broad daylight! – there were men cruising Independence Park. There was the occasional prostitute, too, servicing some guy who was too poor or too cheap to get a room in a hotel.
The Park was a mix of quiet nature, calm, and an edge of seediness, with the potential for romance.
Tel Aviv’s Independence Park is sandwiched between the beach and Ha’Yarkon Street, a long road that runs from the old port in North Tel Aviv to Jaffa in the South, more or less in a straight line along the seafront. On the south side of the Park is the Hilton, and the beach beneath it, the gay beach, is called Hof Hilton (Hilton Beach); to the north, although it has been demolished since then, since the 1980s, there was another hotel. The Park itself has recently been renovated, some trees and bushes cut down, brighter lights put in; some say, it’s to deter men from coming to cruise at night.
The Park itself – and I’m talking about how it was in the 80s, because I haven’t lived in Tel Aviv for almost twenty years – was a kind of oasis in the city, especially at night, especially in the summer when the heat was so intense you didn’t really want to sleep. There were benches on all the paths, and to vary your vantage point, you could sit close to the cliff overlooking the sea, or further back, near the road, or in the darker areas like the playground with its two or three swings, a slide, a see-saw and a climbing frame. The playground is more elaborate now, but it’s still shaded by big trees, still a wooded haven.
In the middle of the park is a wide open lawn, a bit like a football pitch, though not as big, and floodlights stand around it at regular intervals – the umpires. In the 1980s the lights were there but they were more like street-lamps, if I remember correctly, and maybe there was a point in the early hours when they were switched off. The skies were always bright enough to see where you were going. Tel Aviv is a restless city; you never felt like the only one awake, no matter how late it was.
I don’t think I ever had sex in the Park; it always surprised me when people said they did. The city is small enough to be able to walk back to his place or yours, and that’s what I did. When I met A just before the first Iraq War, just before Tel Aviv was bombed (and Baghdad, relentlessly, a thousand times more), I’d gone out for an evening walk after preparing dinner for my brother and a friend, and I brought A back to eat with us. We became friends, lovers, and when the bombing started we got on a bus a few days into the War and went to stay with cousins of mine in Eilat. But that really is another story. I don’t think A and I ever met or spoke again after that time.
V was still living with his wife when we met in the Park and went back to my place at the top end of Nordau Street in North Tel Aviv. L and I went for a swim on the night we met in the Park, and I did the same with H. When I met L, I was still living in the flat on Sheinkin Street, as I was when I met G, and Z. I wrote about that time in a story called “Frozen Years”; it’s fiction, but it’s basically the way it was back then.
The Park wasn’t big enough to jog in, but it was nice to pass through it, like on some victory lap. I liked the steep climb to the park, very steep if you were coming up from the promenade, or a gradual climb if you were coming from the direction of the Muslim cemetery on the other side of the Hilton Hotel, closer to Atarim Square.
My twenties are bound up with those nights in Independence Park. The tranquility that the sea brought, the warm air, the cool breezes, the sense of adventure, the promise of love, the sense of community. More than once I was approached by guys who had a spare ticket for a movie or a concert and they were looking for someone to go with them. The Park was Facebook and Grindr and twitter. It was a walk in nature and an urban adventure. It was a place to meet people and a place to be alone, contemplative, melancholy. In a city made up of blocks of flats that sit so closely together you can hardly breathe, or have privacy, Independence Park was our Big Gay Back Garden.