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

 

The one risk we all took was going to Kirmser's. It was a close call for some of us. Aunt Mary worked only a block away, at Field's. Mick Flaherty's mother was a night waitress at Matt Weber's. The jewelry wholesaler that Mother Jerusalem's uncle did business with had his headquarters downtown. Any neighbor or relative shopping downtown might see us going into or coming out of Kirmser's.

One quiet night in the middle of the week, one of the dangers of going to Kirmser's caught up with us. Our worst fear was realized. A fight broke out in Kirmser's, a disturbance that could bring the police or, worse, public exposure in the newspaper.

Lucky, Haupers, Ned, and I were sitting in a booth. Tony and Tom Clark were talking to each other at the far end of the bar, and Flaming Youth was sitting by himself in his usual place at the front end of the bar, reading the paper, his back to the door.

Two strangers came in, a couple of guys in their 20s, still in their work clothes--dungarees and jackets--and stood up front near Flaming Youth. We had all turned when the door opened, and we checked out the newcomers as they came in and crossed over to the bar. Then we went back to our conversation, dismissing them as nothing special, a couple of laborers who had accidentally wandered in.

Suddenly, one of the newcomers turned to Flaming Youth and asked loudly, "Are you a queer?"

We could hardly believe our ears.

Before he had a chance to say anything, one of the men hit Flaming Youth, knocking him off his stool. His newspaper flying apart, he sprawled on the floor, where both men kicked at him, rolling him up against the front wall. When he brought up his arms crisscrossed, elbows out, to protect his head, they kicked him in the stomach.

Flaming Youth kicked out his feet to try to ward them off, but one foot got caught behind the steam radiator on the front wall. He was on his side, facing them, awkwardly trying to wrench his foot loose from the radiator. As he twisted and turned, his arms held up to protect his head, the two men continued to kick him in the stomach.

Before I knew what I was doing, I was up, out of the booth, and at the bar where I grabbed a beer bottle by the neck. Mrs. Kirmser was shouting, coming from behind the bar. I raised the bottle over the head of the stranger nearest me, but I hesitated, afraid that if I hit him too hard I might kill him. In that second of hesitation, his friend called out a warning, and the man turned and saw me poised with my bottle. He punched me in the jaw, knocking me flat on my ass on the floor. Then, just as suddenly as they'd come into the bar, the two men bolted. They ran out the door. No one tried to stop them.

Mrs. Kirmser and I helped get Flaming Youth's foot free from the radiator, and when he got to his feet, he picked his watch cap up from the floor, put it on, and straightened his jacket. Embarrassed by the whole incident, he quickly made for the door.

I stopped him until I had a chance to look outside to make sure the two men were gone. The coast was clear, and Flaming Youth limped out, never saying a word.

I felt foolish, trying to hit somebody with a beer bottle and getting knocked on my ass in the process. As I crossed back to the booth where I had been sitting, I saw Mick Flaherty and his new friend, Ramblin' Rose, with their heads poked out of the end booth.

I sat down beside Lucky again, feeling my jaw to see if it was broken. It was sore, but it was still working. No one said a word for a couple of minutes, not even Haupers. They looked at me as if I were a stranger, an unexpected and unsettling appraisal. Then Lucky finally spoke.

"Why did you get into it?" he demanded.

I was stricken silent by the question. Why? What did he mean, why did I get into it? I didn't know how to reply to such a stupid question. Were we all supposed to sit there while two guys kicked the shit out of an old man like Flaming Youth? Maybe I hadn't done too well, but at least I helped break it up. And where were the rest of them? Haupers was too old and too fat to fight. So was Mrs. Kirmser. Mr. Kirmser was too old and too slow and probably didn't give a shit. But what about Lucky, Tom, and Ned? What about Flaherty, the big muscle builder, the Charles Atlas of Kirmser's? He could at least have stood up and flexed his muscles, maybe kicked some sand in their faces. Ramblin' Rose could have screamed.

Tony had been at the bar, too, talking to Tom Clark, who had disappeared immediately after Flaming Youth left. Tony might consider herself butch, but was she supposed to single-handedly defend eight queers from a couple of bullies?

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