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

Could we call the cops? Not us. We were the criminals.

Flaming Youth was back in the bar the next week, talking to Lou. He was limping a little, but he looked okay. We waved at one another. We didn't speak. I hardly knew him. I'd never had a conversation with him in my life.

Even so, I discovered that he and I were the newest gossip item at Kirmser's. Lucky not only chastised me for getting mixed up in the fight, but later told me Clem's reaction to my getting into it. He phrased it like a question, almost an accusation.

"Clem thinks you must have an 'interest' in Flaming Youth to get mixed up in the fight like you did."

That was too much. Flaming Youth was old. He was bald. He was the biggest whore in town. Christ, he had hair in his ears. Lucky could be dumb at times but I was really surprised by Clem's reaction--that the only reason you would help someone is if you had an ulterior motive, figured you might get something out of it.

I couldn't believe these people. I didn't want to be with these people if they couldn't understand anything as basic as helping a friend in a fight, helping one of us against all of them. Whatever we thought of Joe, he was "one of the boys." He belonged to the lodge.

Flaming Youth--or "Joe," as I came to call him when the childish pretense of nicknames fell away--and I became friendly after that. We didn't talk so much at Kirmser's, since Joe seemed aware of the gossip there and was concerned that it might embarrass me; we met and talked around town. We'd usually see each other on Saturday afternoons after I got out of work. Joe was always around town.

It was awkward the first time we actually stopped to talk to one another.

"Where you headed?" I'd asked, a dumb question and none of my business.

"I'm between toilets," Joe replied cheerfully, breaking the ice. We both laughed.

Neither of us mentioned the fight. Even after that, when we began having coffee together and I got to know him, better than most people in Kirmser's knew him, we still never mentioned the fight.

Joe never condemned anyone for not helping him that night, but he never forgot that I was the one who had. He was handling it better than I was. I was angry at Lucky, surprised, disgusted. Worse than that, I'd come to the cold realization that this small brotherhood of mine was no better than some of the bastards outside.

Lucky and I were not exactly meeting the standards we'd expected of one another, but we were hanging in there. He was the best security I had. Yet it still rankled me that he had refused to help Joe, and it made me even angrier that he was angry and suspicious that I had.

I never said anything to Lucky, but I was not good at concealing my feelings and I'm sure he knew how I felt.

My defense of Joe had created a whole new atmosphere in Kirmser's, even affecting Mrs. Kirmser. She looked at me now--I mean, she really looked at me, like a friend or a neighbor; she smiled at me, and there were a couple of times I would have sworn she was going to call me by my name.

 

About this time, Lucky chose to express disappointment about my teeth. He was extraordinarily proud of my smile. He bragged about my smile, gloated over it. A perfect smile. Nice white teeth.

One night I mentioned a problem I was having with a filling. Lucky looked shocked.

"You told me you had perfect teeth," he charged.

"No, I've got two fillings."

"You never told me that."

"They're in my back teeth," I said, trying to reassure him.

His disappointment was enormous, and out of proportion to the reality of the situation. He decided to see it all on a more dire and symbolic level; what he thought was perfect was flawed. He had been bragging about me over something that wasn't right. He felt I had let him down.

We still had our good times, despite these small disappointments, like the time he took me to a drag wedding in Excelsior, out around Lake Minnetonka, way on the other side of Minneapolis.

It was at the home of a fellow that Lucky had met in the army. The host gave us detailed instructions on how to get there, and we left early in case we got lost. Neither of us had spent much time in Minneapolis, and none at all in a place like Lake Minnetonka. If Minneapolis was foreign, Lake Minnetonka was another universe.

Lucky's friend kept trying to keep the wedding party in the cottage, but some of the guests insisted on spilling out onto the lawn. One, dressed up like a Bette Davis bridesmaid, an ugly little guy in a shiny, pink formal with puffed sleeves and a sweetheart neckline, was wild. He wore a silver cloche and his hair was combed forward in bangs. I had never seen anything like him.

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