Life

“I’ve Gotten Into the Gay Life, and I’m More Comfortable”

Meet Evelyn Hill, age 82, from Brooklyn.

Evelyn Hill with a map of Manhattan and the Manhattan Bridge behind her.
Evelyn Hill.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Evelyn Hill.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person“—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Rachelle Hampton: What’s your very first memory?

Evelyn Hill: Oh boy. Being with my grandmother and not knowing where my mother was. I was like 5, 6 years old when she died. My grandmother raised me and my sister, then she passed. I had kids—six.

That’s beautiful.

They’re all grown, thank the Lord for that. They all got a job, thank the Lord for that.

One, for 35 years with the police department. The other one has been with aviation for 30 years. I have a son who’s been in the Navy for 20 years, and everybody got children. Everybody’s spread out because they don’t like New York so it’s hard seeing them, so we keep in contact on the telephone and hope to God they don’t come to my house for stay overs. This [room] is my whole apartment, so I told them next time they come to bring their sleeping bags.

What do you remember about your mother?

I don’t remember my mother at all. From what I hear, I think she was in the hospital, but for what I don’t know, and next thing I know I’m sitting in front of a casket not knowing what it is. All I saw was baby angels on the casket, and then I’m with my grandmother, and she raised us from 5 until she passed. I was 17. And by that time I’m on my own because nobody took care of us, me and my sister.

My grandmother didn’t prepare us for growing up because everything was hush-hush, get out of the room, don’t listen to grown folks’ conversation. So I don’t even know where she was buried at. And my uncles and my cousins passed on, so me and my sister were walking the earth by ourselves.

Did you try to do that differently when you were raising your kids, to prepare them more?

Well, [I had my first kid] at the age of 17. I was growing up and trying to take care of them, trying to know what I’m supposed to do. I knew how to cook and I knew how to clean, that’s about it. As for looking for a job, it never came across my mind because that wasn’t what I was prepared for. Coming out of high school I wanted to be a seamstress, but I did sewing in my house. I tried, for this factory job, and then they told me I needed experience. Oh, really? How am I going to get that if you don’t start me on?

I guess I coped with what I had and didn’t worry about what was coming next. Sometimes the lights went out, the kids’ father couldn’t work because he got arthritis of the feet so he was in bad trouble. We had peanut butter, cheese, and butter from the welfare people. Hey, we made it.

Do you have any grandchildren?

Oh, yep. About nine grands and two great-grands. My daughter used to travel to Egypt and all them places so by the time she decided to get married she was like 25. She had one kid. Then my daughter got married, and she’s got two. My son got four or five, who counts? He didn’t have his kids until he came out of the Navy, then he started piling up the kids.

How many times would you say you’ve been in love?

Oh my God, OK, let me count them all. Elementary, junior high. Donald Tyson, junior high and elementary. He took me to the prom. Oh Lord, 20 times I’m gonna say.

Evelyn Hill at two others at an event.
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Hill

Twenty times, that’s a great life. What would you say was the most important one, or the most important ones?

That would have been Jimmy, the one I met after the kids’ father died, because he was well-educated. He taught me a lot of things about how to even do a checkbook, taught me a bit about reading.

How long were you together?

From ’65 until ’73, when he got sick. We had an explosion in the factory behind my building that was empty, and you know how the fellows go in and are stripping the copper from the pipes and things. … One of them hit the gas thing, and we had an explosion. My apartment caught on fire, and Jimmy got hit in the head with plaster or something. And he got a concussion, and he found out then he had colon [cancer]. That was the end of that life because he died from colon complications.

Men are funny. They hate going to the doctor, they wait until the last minute, and I’m saying let’s go until I saw blood in the toilet and I called an ambulance immediately. By this time it’s too late because he let it go on and on. And I’m noticing, but I’m not noticing, I’m messing with the kids and messing with him, and he’s going to work still, but you see how his clothes are hanging on him until finally I said, let’s go to the hospital. And he died, I think, that same night.

Do you currently have a partner?

No, not right now because they died. I usually hook up with older people, I mean 24 years older, and everybody I’ve been with is gone. Maybe it’s something with me, something in me that make them die and I’m still here.

Maybe they just think: OK, I’ve peaked, I’m good. This is as good as I’m going to get. 

And my health is good so I don’t know why they want to leave. Oh but other than that, I can’t count. Half of the relationships I had before were summer things, summer vacation and that’s about it. From ’73, I got into the life, so.

What do you mean by that?

I joined a gay organization and started meeting up with people. So I met like three in this life and one is still alive, but she’s senile so her kids took her to Georgia.

So you call it “this life”; do you consider it different from the other part of your life?

The straight life of husbands? Yeah, yeah. It’s almost the same, I cook, do the washing, you know whatever. But I say this life because it’s the gay life I’ve gotten into and I’m more comfortable.

How did you meet your partner who you said is now in Georgia?

[After Jimmy,] I stayed free for three, four years until I met a girl in the welfare office. We were talking, I had just moved in and she had talked about how she had done her bathroom in velvet wallpaper, and her and I hit it off. We used to go to the different dances and things. She was gay, but I didn’t know that at first. She got killed. Somebody hit her in the head coming out of the check cashing place.

Oh my God.

A man followed this old lady in a wheelchair and saw her put her money [in her bra], and then when she got out into the street, he went in her bra and took her money out. I said now you know that’s brazen. I said uh-oh, money ain’t safe in the titties no more. Might as well put it in your pocket. So she got killed coming out of the check cashing place.

I was single [about three years], and then I met someone at a wedding where I’d made the gown for this girl. And we hit it off pretty nice, that’s when I told the kids, I think a lady’s coming here to see me. So my daughter, Pattycake, she said, “So? What’s the big deal? A whole lot of girls come to our house.” I didn’t go no further with that. I said, let them see, at least I told them that she was coming. But then I found out my son is gay, so he knew what I was talking about, ’cause by this time I think he was 20, maybe 21, but he had been in the life long before I knew it.

I had quite a few good friends who have passed on, too. I got a wall full of pictures of all the people I was close to. We all used to pile in a cab together. At that time it was only $7 for a cab going from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but we all piled in and all of them are gone. Gone—Pat, Dee, so many.

What was your favorite age?

My favorite age? Oh, when I passed 30, because I figured I would die before 30.

Why?

My mother and grandmother. I figured I’d be dead. That was my scariest age.

What advice would you give your younger self now?

Oh, save that money you spent! Save it! I spent it foolishly.

What would you say was the happiest day of your life?

When my kids left my house. And they left in dribs and drabs, they didn’t all leave at the same time. When my girls got married. The fellows they were going with, they been with since like high school up until the time they got married. And my son got married, so those were happy days because they did something. They didn’t smoke, they didn’t drink. To this day they don’t smoke and they don’t drink. I can’t say they were goody-two shoes, but I mean they were pretty OK.

You said your son was gay. When did he tell you?

He didn’t actually tell me. I don’t know how I found out, not when he brought Joey by. It just walked on in slowly. I think it was before I got into the gay life that I knew, that I found out.

He makes flowers, birds, rings out of paper. Origami. He sells them out there on Columbus Circle. The police have taken so many of his cases of stuff because he didn’t have a license, and when he went to get a license, they said it’ll take three years. Now what is he supposed to do? Don’t eat for three years? Because he wasn’t living with me and that was his job and his life.
He must be doing all right because he’s still doing it. But he don’t give me no money. He always looks like he broke, [so when I see him] I give him something to eat and send him home.

What would you say was the saddest day of your life?

When Jimmy died, because he seemed like he was the strongest person. We had just moved into our apartment, too. It seems as though I went blank for about six months, but I’m cooking, cleaning. I woke up one day, and I had this chopping block table in my kitchen, and I didn’t know how I got it there, where did the money come from? I’m walking around with money buying things. I woke up, and I found this kitchen table with these six chrome chairs, and I didn’t want to ask the kids how I got it. Through his death I blanked out. Rent was paid on time, furniture is in the house. Who did this? I think that was about the saddest time in my life.

Jimmy helped me a lot and he helped the kids a lot. Oh, he dressed them up fancy. The boys loved him cause he used to take them to Ripley’s Men’s Store, bought my kids pinstriped suits, silk suits for Easter.

How’d you get through it?

I was asleep for six months, I think.

What makes you the happiest right now?

The grands, the great-grands. I see how well they’re doing. My granddaughter and her husband, they got a home out in Pennsylvania, she helps me whenever she comes into town. And my great-granddaughter, oh! One is a ballerina. She’s in a dance thing; they travel. And she’s the only black child in the whole company. When she was born, she had the most beautiful lips, and when she smiled, oh!

Who was the first person you voted for?

How far back are we going? Where was I at? The Bronx? So who was president in 1960? Well that was the first and last because things weren’t going well with the things I needed and it looked like they weren’t helping to get it. To hell with them. Who was it?

Would that be JFK?

Oh, it had to be. Yeah, yeah because he seemed to want to do things and change things. Then I stopped voting. Even for Obama.

Did you think you would see the first black president?

No because it kinda scared me, No. 1 because I thought someone might shoot him like they did Martin and Malcolm X and things. You know, sneaky people. But I never thought about seeing a black president, I think if Martin had run for president, I might’ve voted for him, you know. But hey, things didn’t work out that way.

What was it like being in New York during the civil rights movement?

To have the government let it go on so long without helping—you got the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists. I thought about taking a hand grenade and throwing it. But it didn’t affect me at home because people were doing normal things, you know. We didn’t have riots here in New York, like people had in those little towns and counties. It affected us in our hearts, in our minds. We hoped things would change but you know it did and it didn’t.

Do you use the internet?

No, I don’t because I could hardly do my cellphone. I got a new one now like this little bit [pointing to reporter’s iPhone]. My daughter said touch it. I touched it, and she said, “That’s too hard! Touch it light.” It’s still laying on the table waiting to get activated because she went away last night.

How would you say you’re different from other people your age?

Only 80-year-olds I know, there are two: Barbie and Jerry. And the other ones here keep their age a secret and if it ain’t 80, then it ought to be 80 because that’s the way they act.

What do you mean by that?

Because they’re hard, they look like they had a rough life. I don’t know anyone who is ever dressed up now, never! We used to dress up just to go to the grocery store, you know. And now they got raggedy hair. They just look mean, like they mad all the time. I [like to] laugh, but no one’s doing that, not even in here. I keep trying to keep myself lifted, straighten my back out even though it’s hurting. I don’t want to walk over like I need a cane to lean on.

Evelyn Hill and an unidentified woman at an event.
Photos courtesy of Evelyn Hill

What advice would you give me so I can live to be 82?

You feel your gums hurting, check it out. Your ear hurt, check it out. Don’t let it lag, like my Jimmy.

Young girls nowadays look [different] than when I was their age. When I was 16, I looked like I was 14. I’m round-butted, long hair. But these 16-year-olds look like they 20, half of them. Hey, just take care of yourself.

Do you have any advice for young gay people?

Well I don’t know any young gay people, and from what I hear they have problems, they have troubles. Their parents throw them out the house. Only time I threw mine out of the house, they were old. It was time for them to leave.

Life to me has been good. Poor but good. My boss gave me two mink coats.

Oh wow.

I worked for that lady for almost 10 years ’til my back started bothering me and I had to stop. We didn’t always get along, but we got along. The good part is we’re the same size.

What were you doing for her?

I was a housekeeper, and I think she and her mother were millionaires. Had a home in the East Hamptons and the mother was 70—oh, she was a fashion plate.

What are you most looking forward to right now?

Hitting the lotto. When I was younger, I thought about a house or a nice condo. Now I just want some money to say I got it. I’d give the kids a little and say don’t bother me no more because when I die you’ll get the rest.

I’ll be crossing my fingers for you.

I know that’s the truth. I’ll be doing the same thing, oh Lord.

Read more from Slate’s Interview With an Old Person series. 

Robert Carlson, Age 87, From Pasadena, California

Gertrude Johnson Howard, 82, From Phoenix

Elva P. Higgins, Age 96, From Eastern Kansas