The Gay '40s
Have you ever seen that Warner Bros. cartoon titled "Book Revue," set in a drugstore late at night? The camera flashes over row after row of magazines from the 1940s, and one after another they spring to life. As a peculiar jazz score swings in the background, Daffy Duck--dressed in a zoot suit, his hair coifed into a pom-pom of blond curls--launches into a breathless scat. In turn, characters pull themselves from the pages of real-life glossy weeklies with titles like Rogue and Photoplay.
Interesting, those magazines. Flipping through them nowadays, we get a look at a Forties not preserved in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. I used to be obsessed by them, the men's magazines and the crime magazines of the period. While weeklies such as Life presented an optimistic America--a country returning from World War II to an unlimited future of high-paying jobs, comfortable suburban homes, and family outings to ballparks--the crime stories showed a side of society that simply wasn't making it. Here were the stories of dope fiends holed up in
seedy hotels, rolling drunks for their pocket change. Here were prostitutes, their throats slashed in the back seat of taxicabs. Here were photographs of children, sleeping seven to a bed in a row apartment, asphyxiated in a fire. And here were stories of homosexuals. The vice squads would storm public restrooms or private apartments, leading dozens of men out to the paddy wagon, each man covering his face with his hat or his coat to hide from the blinding flash of the press photographers.
The magazines printed photographs of drag queens, still in their dresses, sitting unhappily behind bars, giving the photographer a weak smile. The caption underneath the photograph was inevitably surprising: She stormed the beach at Normandy!, it would say, or This "lady" was once a priest!
Homosexuals turned up only in the crime magazines--where they were arrested--or in the men's magazines--where they were attacked. There was a language used in these latter magazines that is not often found anymore, a style intended specifically to describe "weak" men. Effete male movie stars were described as "simpering" or "flouncing." When homosexuals appeared in stories, they inevitably "giggled" and "twittered." Gay men could be expected to "screech" at each other when they were fighting, and "coo" at each other when they weren't.
In a typically hard-boiled manner, these magazines told stories of bartenders de-queering their bars with baseball bats, or of tough guys slapping uppity queens at parties. Indeed, our noirish Daffy Duck cartoon returns repeatedly to a nelly newspaper columnist clapping and laughing like a little girl, and the closing image has a brutish criminal repeating the gesture. Come to think of it, just how many Warner Bros. cartoons ended with one of the characters suddenly being struck queer and waggling a finger, decrying the others as "thilly"?
These images seem strikingly merciless nowadays, and maybe we shouldn't be surprised to discover that as far as homosexuality in the Forties went, these were close to the only public images available. Gays and lesbians kept a necessarily low profile in those days, even with one another. "The only point of reference we had was Oscar Wilde," one writer from the era explains bitterly, "a man destroyed by the public discovery of his homosexuality, a scandal so great that it came down to haunt even people like us half a century later, despite the conspiracy of silence, censorship, and hypocrisy."
The author of that line is Ricardo J. Brown, writing about a working-class gay bar in downtown St. Paul during the Forties in his new book The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's, to be published in August by the University of Minnesota Press. "We never just walked into Kirmser's," Brown writes at the beginning of his memoir, "nothing as simple as that. We scouted the terrain to see who might be watching us. If the coast was clear, we stepped forward quickly, yanked the door open, and lunged inside, head down, moving toward the cover of a booth or the safety of a barstool out of range of that small, oblong window."
Brown's book is a document of such furtiveness--after all, Kirmser's itself was nothing outrageous. It was a small, nondescript bar, "long, narrow, and deep, like a tunnel," according to Brown. It wasn't even a uniquely gay bar: "Kirmser's was a workingman's bar," Brown writes, "straight in the daytime and queer at night. Its daytime customers were day laborers, cabdrivers, old clerks, pensioners, railroad men, and a few tough old barflies who found the dim, quiet interior restful and the prices reasonable." Brown confesses that most St. Paul residents were unaware that the evening crowd at the bar was gay--in fact, many St. Paul homosexuals didn't know about the place. So why all the secretiveness?
Because, Brown explains, any breach in anonymity could have devastating results. Brown's narrative is a document of camouflage, and of the terrible possibilities that could accompany any breach of discretion. Voices were kept low at Kirmser's, last names were never used, and customers sat, almost unconscious of doing so, with their backs to the window. When they saw each other outside the bar, they would avert eyes and refrain from speaking, or fabricate blustery explanations for their families as to how they knew each other. "We didn't like to take chances," Brown writes.
In turn, Brown relates the tale of a friend of his, Dale, who was fired from an office job at Central Coal and Oil. Someone had made an anonymous call to the company saying, "You got a cocksucker working for you. His name's Dale."
"Dale was out of the door and out of a job that same morning," Brown continues, "and he spent the afternoon in the Garrick Theater, hiding in the dark, slumped down in his seat, sick to his stomach, sure he would never get another job, and panicked at the thought that he would have to go home and tell his mother that he had lost his job." To a generation that had grown up in the Depression, Brown explains, "A job was a sacred thing."
Because we are dealing with a community that took such necessary caution to protect its privacy, there is virtually no record left of its experiences, which makes Brown's book unique. Gay St. Paul? In the Forties? What do we know of it? Kirmser's itself is gone: The building it inhabited at 382 Wabasha St. was razed, replaced by the courtyard to the Norwest Center.
Even those homosexuals who went across the river, to the Viking Room in downtown Minneapolis's Radisson Hotel, have little to look to for memories. Brown speaks of this group disparagingly (he calls them "Ribbon Clerks" and "piss elegant"), his distinctly working-class tastes chafed by their pretensions to sophistication. The Viking Room, with its dark-stained oak finish and Arthur Wilberg murals showing scenes of Scandinavia, was "too high-class for us," filled with "bored-looking fellows who sat around in vested suits and Countess Mara neckties, drinking martinis and gossiping about the latest antics of Mae West as if they actually knew her." The Viking Room is gone too, along with any memory that it once catered to a homosexual crowd. All that remains of the place is a silver scale-model Viking ship designed by Edward Caldwell that currently hangs in the similarly named but nowhere near as fabulous Viking Lounge of the new Radisson--an artifact from Minnesota's gay history, misplaced and mute.
Brown's memoirs do much to give the era a voice, and it's a distinct one. A lifelong journalist, having worked as a court reporter for the Alabama Journal, court reporter and sports editor for the Fairbanks Daily News Mirror, and as the Minneapolis bureau chief for Fairchild Publications, he writes in a spare, no-nonsense style. There is something bleak about Brown's book--"deadpan," as the book's editor, William Reichard, describes it. Although Brown enthusiastically recalls his first encounters with the work of Willa Cather, his clipped descriptions bring to mind authors like James M. Cain and David Goodis. It's memoir as noir, describing the grim, grotesque experiences of huddled, hunted figures (in this, the book recalls another of Brown's favorites, Sherwood Anderson).
Take a look at Brown's description of a gay-bashing in Kirmser's in the chapter we're excerpting: The style is uncluttered and terse, a series of short, jolting sentences, followed by the sort of cruel denouement that noir authors adored. Brown, having interfered with the fight and taken a knockdown punch to the jaw, returns to his booth to discover his blandly handsome boyfriend glaring at him. "They looked at me as if I were a stranger, an unexpected and unsettling appraisal," Brown writes. Finally, the boyfriend speaks: "Why did you get into it?"
In fact, Brown's tough, common-Joe voice sometimes parrots the tone of the men's magazines described earlier. He rankles at effeminacy; it is almost possible to see him shudder in horror at the more queenish characters who inhabit his book, such as the wedding guest in Bette Davis drag from our excerpted chapter, or the characters he meets during a brief, unsuccessful move to Greenwich Village. Brown moves there fresh out of high school, lured by the promise of a city where he might feel normal. Instead, he is appalled at what he sees. Describing a drag show, he says of the performers, "There was something vivid about them, almost exciting, except for their eyes. Their eyes were not alive, but blank, cold, and glittering, hard as steel; they were ball-bearing eyes, machines that measured and challenged every member of the audience." The audience, it should be noted, didn't seem to mind--but then Brown is repelled by them as well. When the drag show ends, and the emcee rises and calls for applause, Brown notes that "the beasts in the audience obeyed."
He flees to St. Paul, and then into the navy, with equal failure (he eventually reveals himself to be a homosexual to his commanding officer, receiving a dishonorable discharge that, Brown notes, was not overturned until 1981). He secured part-time work in the circulation department of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, lying about his discharge (he claimed he was 4-F because of a punctured eardrum--a real ailment, but not the source of his dismissal). And then he found his way to Kirmser's.
There was nothing spectacular about the bar; as the book makes clear, it attracted an evening crowd of homosexuals simply because it tolerated them. The owners, always referred to in the book as Mr. and Mrs. Kirmser, were a middle-aged Alsatian couple who had met while working together in a butcher shop near the turn of the century.
Their son, Philip Kirmser, now a professor emeritus at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, tells of his parents growing up under German rule in Alsace following the Franco-Prussian war. Kirmser fled Alsace at the start of the century to avoid being drafted into the German army, and he found work in restaurants in Chicago. He brought his wife out a few years later and moved to St. Paul to work at the Saint Paul Hotel. The Kirmsers opened their bar/restaurant in 1930, working long hours, as Brown describes: "They opened in the late morning, cleaned up from the night before, put on the noon soup, and made the coffee, then worked straight through until closing at 1:00 a.m. every day except Saturday, when state blue laws dictated a midnight closing the minute the Sabbath began."
Both Brown and Philip Kirmser, who sometimes worked in the bar, make it clear that the Mr. and Mrs. Kirmser were fully aware that they had a different crowd in the evening. "If some of our conversations got a little loud or a little careless when [a] stranger was present, Mrs. Kirmser would 'Shoosh' the offender, adding a curt nod toward the straight customer nearby," Brown writes. "We always enjoyed these little acts of conspiracy on Mrs. Kirmser's part, her willing participation in the ruse that kept all of us safe."
"My parents were tolerant people," Philip Kirmser says of them. "They accepted Negroes in the bar when some people frowned on that. After all, they had some experience with intolerance," here referring to their childhood in occupied Alsace.
Mr. Kirmser died in 1954, and the business proved to be too much for an elderly woman to run on her own. She sold it a few years later. As quietly as it had existed, the bar faded from public view, and the secret community that had dwelled inside it went elsewhere.
Brown's book, written in Minneapolis during the 1990s after his retirement, brings this lost world back into the present. Which is, in some ways, a fitting place for it. Many of Brown's frank observations of gay life 50 years ago could easily slip into a memoir about Club Metro or the Saloon: the role of cruising and promiscuity in gay identity and the competing significance of stable partnerships, the sometimes uneasy alliances between gays and lesbians, the injustice of discrimination in the workplace and the military, and, last but not least, the status of the bar as a locus for homosexual culture.
Brown himself died in 1998 after having sent his manuscript to the University of Minnesota Press. His rough draft was smoothed into shape by poet and short-story writer William Reichard, who cleaned up the text's elliptical narrative and pared the book down into a tight, tough little collection of memories. Here is a look at a St. Paul that has seldom been documented, and at a moment in gay history that is usually shrouded in silence. Those who experienced the history had so much to lose if they were exposed. In one of his most sharply drawn paragraphs, Brown describes the haunted look cast upon him by the officer who presided over his dismissal from the navy. "Odd, how in just a second you can find so much exposed in another man's face: horror, compassion, and something else, something like recognition."
This story is an excerpt of the chapter Lucky from Ricardo J. Browns The Evening Crowd at Kirmsers: A Gay Life in the 1940s, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2001 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.
Lucky was something right out of the Wish Book, the name we gave to the big Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog that our families got during the Depression. "I wish I had that" or "I wish that was mine." That thick, glorious catalog--almost eight hundred pages and weighing at least five pounds--was a winter's entertainment when I was a boy.
We'd often sit around the kitchen table near the stove those cold winter nights and page through that enormous book. Its slick polished pages, finished in a fine brown tone the color of new pennies, were crammed with beautiful pictures of clothes, toys, furniture, kerosene stoves and coal stoves, diamonds and windmills, bicycles, summer horseshoes and winter horseshoes, and flowery linoleum rugs so richly patterned that the makers of the catalog showed them in rare, full color. There were pictures of console radios and mantel models, banjos and ukuleles, shotguns and bear traps, studio couches that turned into beds and real beds and books of every variety. One page, advertising Sex Facts Plainly Told across the page from Tales of Tarzan, had been cut out by our mother, but not before I'd seen a curious reference to something called Birth Control.
We reveled in all the things we couldn't afford, dreamed of our favorite things, a cowboy outfit with a clicker pistol and a fire-engine-red Lone Eagle coaster wagon for me, a horsehide aviator's helmet with earflaps and goggles for my brother, an electric train, an Orphan Annie wristwatch that Elizabeth liked, bathtubs and water closets in glowing, glorious white, like marble, rare works of art that all of us, even my dad, admired; all the things that Mother yearned for--a matching mohair living-room set, a console radio, and her greatest dream of all, an electric wringer washer.
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-
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.
The telephone was a bosom friend, an idol, a confidante--the best kind of confidante, having no memory--a guardian angel, faithful servant, a thing of wonder to Lucky's mother. It was the most magical of all modern conveniences, more remarkable than a gas stove, as quick as electricity, more friendly than the radio. The radio entertained; the telephone worked magic. She could gossip anytime with her girlfriends, talk long distance--when rates were low--with her sister in Iowa and her son and grandchildren in Mankato, order her coal and groceries from the dealers, call downtown to complain about her taxes, make human contact whenever she was snowed in or feeling blue.
The telephone had brought the doctor when Lucky had a bad ear infection, when the boys had scarlet fever, and the night her husband died. The telephone was also her master. When it rang, she galloped from whatever room she was in or, if sitting down, she lurched awkwardly, almost leaping out of her chair to answer the summons, anxious, expectant, and curious to find out what voice would materialize, what message was forthcoming.
I got along well with her. She liked me, Lucky said, because I was "good-looking and lively." A little too lively for Lucky, I guess, when I tried a couple of times to talk him into letting me cornhole him. I didn't pursue it too much because he might expect the same thing from me and I wasn't keen to have anyone poking around in my butt.
Only once did his mother give any indication that she thought something might be amiss in the relationship between Lucky and me. She had waited until Lucky took the trash out to the backyard incinerator one night after supper to ask me where Lucky and I had met. We didn't work together; we didn't go to the same church; we weren't neighbors; we weren't even close to the same age.
We had met at Matt Weber's, where a waitress we both knew had introduced us, I told her. It was a clumsy lie, but it was the story that Lucky and I had agreed on. I knew Lucky had already told her this, but she had waited until I was alone with her, drying the dishes, to ask me how we'd met. It bothered me, but I looked straight at her and lied. I could tell by her reaction that she didn't believe me, and I suppose she wondered why we would lie about anything so simple. She never brought up the subject again. I think she was content with things the way they were, and I presented no challenge to the system.
We spent several cozy evenings together with his mother, listening to the radio, drinking Cokes, playing Chinese checkers or hearts, her favorite card game. She loved slipping the queen of spades--old "Slippery Liz"--to Lucky or me and sometimes I'd make a bad play just to give her the pleasure.
His mother had met Pete and Ned and Red Larson, all of us bachelors. She liked to kid us about our girlfriends and we played right along with her. I talked about Meg as if she were my steady girl. Pete let on that he was engaged to a girl at work. Ned mentioned his ex-wife. At least that was true. Ned, of all people, the flighty guy, had been married. He had stayed on good terms with his ex-wife, called her twice a month, remembered her birthday, and took her each year to his store's Christmas parties.
We thought we were smart and discreet. We were even careful not to use affectionate names with one another in private because we could slip up in public. I never called Lucky anything but Lucky and he always called me Rick. It was obvious to Lucky's mother that he had no girlfriend. She would kid him about being so "fussy" that he'd never get a girl, but she didn't seem bothered by this fact.
We were quick to act the gentlemen, opening doors for the ladies, carrying their parcels, walking on the curbside when accompanying them on the street, giving up our seats on streetcars and buses. We made ribald and clumsy jokes about pinups like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth whenever one of their new movies came out.
None of us followed sports except Pete, so we counted on him to bail us out of embarrassing spots if the subject ever came up with straight guys, or when Hazel, a friend of Lucky's mother, brought up the subject of baseball.
Hazel was a big fan of the Saints, which we thought was a strange hobby for an old lady. Most old ladies knit or crocheted, but she sat glued to the radio when baseball games were broadcast, and on Ladies Day, when women got in for 30 cents, she took the streetcar out to the ballpark.
She was like my Aunt Bert, another unlikely baseball fan. As elegant as she was, Aunt Bert sometimes went with Uncle Chuck to baseball games in Minneapolis. Appropriately attired in a nice summer print dress, she cheered the Millers, ate hot dogs, and even drank beer, just like a regular guy. Uncle Chuck adored her for being such a good sport.
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?
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.
"Petah!" he kept screaming at people, mimicking a greeting Bette Davis had used so effectively in one of her movies. "Petah!" he screamed out over the lake as he ran down to the shore, clutching his breast and scanning the horizon as if searching for a lost ship.
He stood dramatically on the beach, a pink figure of great tragedy, until his exasperated host finally coaxed him back inside. He kept smoking cigarettes, making jerky movements with his arm and spitting out little clouds of smoke, just like Bette Davis. There were brown stains on the fingers of one of the long, white gloves he was wearing. Sometimes he tucked his bouquet of red roses under one armpit while he lit up another cigarette.
The bride and groom, perfect little wedding-cake figures, were cute, the bride in an enormous white dress and veil crowned with seed pearls, and the groom in a formal cutaway. Yet they and the two other bridesmaids were upstaged all afternoon by Bette Davis, who came down the aisle with one hand on his hip, twitching his hips and shoulders, and rolling his eyes. He stopped in mid-aisle and announced that due to the seriousness of the occasion he would not smoke during the actual ceremony. We shrieked with laughter.
The fellow who acted as the minister, in borrowed white collar and black suit, listed an uncle who was a priest as his reflected credentials to perform the ceremony.
There was champagne, a white, three-tiered wedding cake with pink roses, and little silver dishes filled with pastel-colored mints and mixed nuts.
The guests all kissed the bride and groom, and in all the commotion, the screaming, the hugging, the laughter, the loud music on the record player, only the groom looked subdued. He looked wistful, even rather tragic, anxious for his bride and bravely determined to make the best of things.
I was unsure about the whole performance, sympathizing with the dilemma of the groom and slightly shocked at this sacrilege of a wedding although I laughed as hard as everyone else. I made the mistake of mentioning my doubts when I was talking to a slim, good-looking blonde from Minneapolis, who dismissed my provincialism with an arch, "Well, of course, you're from St. Paul."
Lucky was also irritated with me when I tried to explain my feelings on the way home.
"Why do you want to make a big thing out of it?" he demanded. "I thought it was kicky."
The glow was obviously off our romance. I had seen a side of Lucky that had shocked and angered me, and he, in turn, had discovered a flaw in my character; I was a liar with imperfect teeth. Yet we still felt a commitment to one another, we were a couple, we were partners, lovebirds, as Dickie Grant would say. We were one of the steady couples in Kirmser's. We were glued together by what other people expected. And, of course, we still had sex, carefully and without conversation, in that little bedroom across the hall from his mother's room.
by Ricardo J. Brown
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter