The Gay '40s

A man named Flaming Youth cruised the tearooms, drag weddings hit Lake Minnetonka--and everyone remained cloistered in the closet: An excerpt from Ricardo J. Brown's memoir of gay life in old St. Paul

Lucky could have stepped right out of the pages of that catalog. He was good stuff: presentable, reliable, and of good value. It was almost as if he came with a lifetime guarantee.

Lucky and I had paired up for good shortly after Bud York had come and gone. Lucky was 29 years old, nice-looking, kind, well liked by everyone in Kirmser's, thrifty, honest, and good to his mother. He was fresh out of the army and back at his old job in the warehouse. I was lucky to have him and I hung on for dear life.

I'd thought he was more or less a newcomer to Kirmser's because he seemed such a regular guy--like fellows I grew up with--so I was surprised to learn that he had been among the first customers when Kirmser's turned queer. He was a friend of the choir director from his church, the man credited with "discovering" Kirmser's when the director and a couple of his friends, including Lucky, used to stop downtown after choir rehearsal for a discreet beer at Kirmser's between streetcar transfers. Kirmser's was a perfect little hideaway: unattractive, quiet, the drabbest place on the block. A bar struggling to make ends meet so it didn't take too many people too long to take over the place.

The choir director, meanwhile, after bringing Lucky out one afternoon when they'd stayed behind after choir rehearsal to straighten things up, had gone on to bigger and better things in Duluth, leaving Kirmser's to Lucky and a couple of other customers who were "in the know."

Over the years, Mrs. Kirmser had developed a code of operation, almost an Italian omertà, for dealing with this strange new clientele. She never used any names, first or last. Her customers were careful, even in introductions, never to give out a last name. It was considered bad business to even mention anyone's last name. It was first names only, and you would never tell a stranger where you worked.

Mrs. Kirmser carried this code one step further. If she was asked a direct question, even by a regular customer, about another customer--like "Has Joe been in yet tonight?"--she would invariably reply, "I didn't nodiss." She was a model of discretion. She didn't know names and she never "nodissed" anything.

Most of us appreciated this discretion, even though it was annoying at times. After Lucky and I began going together, if I asked her, "Has Lucky been in yet?" I'd get that bland, blank reply, "I didn't nodiss."

Lucky lived with his mother in a small, dull, gray, two-bedroom stucco bungalow. He had been born and raised in the house, leaving it to go into the army and returning to it after the war. Maw, as he called his mother, was a widow, a good-looker when she was young, judging from the old photos she kept on her bedroom dresser and on top of the radio in the living room. Having been widowed for a few years, and grown plump in her widowhood, she had developed a small network of "girlfriends," available companions for forays to the movies, free band concerts, shopping excursions, and "bumming around." It was a small but comfortable world, made up of her girlfriends, Lucky, her church, and the telephone.

She always primped to go out, even with the girls, and she'd check herself in the long mirror that hung in the tiny hall between the two bedrooms, making sure she looked as good as she could. I wondered if she, like Dickie Grant, secretly dreamed of being carried off by some shining knight on a big, white horse.

"I'm no chicken, but I'm a damn fine bird," she once cackled in coy good humor, partly for my amusement, I suppose, as she stood in front of the mirror. She was rouged, powdered, and perfumed, done up in purple finery, and as round, soft, and obvious as a plum.

"Maw," Lucky assured her, "you look great."

 

One afternoon when I was there, she was getting dressed in her bedroom, one of her girlfriends with her, and her friend was telling her how lucky she was to still have a son at home, helping out.

"Yes, but Mama still buys the coal," Gertie announced in a peevish voice, loud enough for Lucky and me to hear in the kitchen.

Embarrassed at this unexpected criticism, I glanced at Lucky. He wasn't disturbed at all.

"I pay my share," he told me matter-
of-factly.

I'm sure that when I stayed for supper, or spent the night and had breakfast, arrangements had been made for Lucky to pay extra for his guest. This was simply the way they managed. Money was something to be cared for and tended to with a necessary vigilance, like brushing your teeth or trimming your toenails.

His mother always ordered her groceries by phone from the neighborhood grocer when I stayed for supper. The telephone, a tall, candlelike black presence, as mysterious and ugly as a primitive, one-armed voodoo doll, stood on a little corner table, as solemn as a shrine. The only other object allowed on the telephone stand was a cheap, cherished souvenir from the 1939 New York World's Fair, a small ball and attached elongated pyramid, symbolizing progress, that stood guard before the telephone like a votive candle.

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