Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Meeting the Andrews Sisters at the Manhole



The Andrews Sisters

    Yesterday's celebration of Manhole Cover Monday, plus the passage of nearly 40 years and a certain don't-give-a-damness that settles upon a man in his late 50s, permits me to tell this story, which I used to love to recount to friends.

      Participants in what used to be called, with antique specificity, Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism were expected to spend time working at a real newspaper. This was a central attraction of the place, if I recall. No hazy theorizing, no mucking about in sandboxes and playpens. Junior year, an entire academic quarter, booted into the real world to sink or swim.
     There were options across the country—some tantalizingly in Florida—but those all required the student to own an automobile. And I did not, nor would my parents buy me one or let me use one of theirs.  I don't think I even asked.
    That left one choice: the Green Bay Press Gazette in Green Bay Wisconsin, a town compact enough to cover on foot and by bus.  It was where all the carless students went.
     I arrived in early January—it was 17 degrees below zero when I arrived at the airport, which resembled, I would write my parents, "an abandoned bus station." Passengers got off the plane, ran to their cars and were gone. I dragged the steamer trunk I was carrying by its handle as luggage and went to the area in the airport labeled "Taxis" where a ruddy security guard was gazing out the window.
     "Where are the taxis?" I asked him.
     "It'll be back in a moment," he said. The "moment" was 30 minutes, while I mused at his used of the singular. As if the city had one cab, which did eventually pull up, the cabbie got out, walked over to the security, started to talk like the old friends they were. Then the driver noticed me. Oh, do you need a lift? He said. Yes, yes I did
      I went to the YMCA, to a dingy, loud room out of a Nelson Algren story. "Over fifty years old," I wrote my parents. "Smelly and dark, and really depressing, and not extraordinarily clean." But soon found residence a few blocks from downtown, the upper floor of an older couple named Schwartz. He had lost his larynx and spoke in an incomprehensible buzz by pressing a device to his throat. She took pity on me, and welcomed me with a basket of good apples and use of an electric frying pan. The apartment had a Murphy bed—the kind that swung out of the wall.
     I helped out on the police beat. My first story was on a bank bag of $1,700 that was lost but recovered. Life fell into the pattern of daily journalism, which for me involved visiting the local police and fire stations, on foot and by bus, and collecting the records of their ambulance runs.
    "I don't understand why every time an old woman has trouble breathing we have to put it in the newspaper," I remember griping. What I really wanted to write about was Wisconsin's state rock—I was charmed to find the state had a rock. The story grew and grew, but was never printed, despite my efforts. Like all interns, there was much screwing off. In my ample spare time, I used my computer to write short stories, which I thought would be my true career. They tended to be long, and in trying to print one out, managed to crash the Green Bay Press Gazette's entire computer system.
     Needless to say, I was not a popular person.
     When not at work, being 20 and an alcoholic-in-training, I went to bars, but those bars I recall as small, brightly lit places with the same gathering of flannel-clad Wisconsonites watching the same sporting events. It was early 1981, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Double Fantasy" album had just come out. The first single was "Starting Over" and was on the juke box. The B side was "Kiss Kiss Kiss," a classic bit of unlistenable Yoko Ono screeching, and my habit would be to visit a bar, have a beer, establish that this was the deadest place on earth and I would never return to it, pop a quarter in the Juke box, punch up "Kiss Kiss Kiss" three times ,and then head outside just as its opening shriek began.
      But then one night, as I trudged around  what passed for a downtown in Green Bay, I saw a different sight. From a distance, I could hear the whump of dance music. Lights were strobing. I paid a cover and went inside, The dance floor was packed. The air hummed with sweat and life. I beamed—finally!—and went to the bar and ordered a glass of red wine, slid into a booth, looked around the room. My happiness curdled and I said to myself, through gritted teeth: "There are ... no women ... here."
     I had never been to a gay bar; I probably had never have imagined their existence. The thing to do was to flee but a)I had paid a couple dollars to get in and b) I had a full glass of wine before me. There seemed no harm in finishing it.
     At that moment three men walked up, all dressed in identical white blousy untucked shirts, blond wigs, make-up and dangly earrings. They identified themselves as "The Andrews Sisters" and slid into the booth around me. We had a conversation the nature of which is lost to me—no letters to my parents describing that— except when the guy to my right asked me to dance.
     "I don't know how to dance," I said quickly, in one breath, instantly thinking of every girl who had ever told those exact words—I heard that a lot—and uttering a sincere and spontaneous prayer to the Lord in Heaven: "Please God, I hope I didn't seem to them the way this guy seems to me." I looked at him closely, at his sideburns under the makeup. He looked like the singer Joe Cocker. In drag.
    Time passed. I finished my wine. We all looked at each other. The only way to exit the booth would be to either climb over Joe, or ask him to let me out, and that seemed somehow ... rude.
      Instead, polite to a fault, I said, "Okay, let's dance."
     He sprang up and started dancing, eyes closed, head back, not really engaging with me at all, thank God. I surveyed the dance floor around me in a kind of wonder, and had a thought that stayed in mind. Usually specific thoughts at specific moments in your life don't remain, crystal clear, after decades. But this one did. The thought was:
     "Here you are, Neil Steinberg, Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism, Teaching Newspaper Program, Green Bay Press Gazette, Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the gay bar, dancing with the homosexuals ... what is it like?"
     I looked around at the crowded dance floor. And the truth, the honest, unvarnished truth, is I couldn't quite believe it, couldn't believe these men were sincere. I thought that, if you turned the lights up, and clapped each one on the shoulder and said, "Hey buddy, you're in a gay bar. What are you doing here?" that each would have a tale similar to mine, of confusion, of finding themselves in the wrong place.
     I was 20.
     The song continued, and I danced away from Joe Cocker, toward the exit, then turned and fled into the cold Wisconsin night. Walking away, I turned and saw, for the first time, where I had been, spelled out, "The Manhole." I don't know how I missed that going in. Maybe I read it and missed its significance. That sounds right.
      Of course on Monday I told this story to my colleagues at the Green Bay Press Gazette, who did not take it with the humor that I did. They seemed sort of aghast.  Part of the trick to being a writer is knowing whether the tale you have to tell will amuse your audience or horrify them, and I hadn't figured it out. Maybe I never did.
       The coda to the story is this. I am on the elevator at the Press-Gazette building, some time later. The Swedish janitor gets on, rolling a wringer bucket with a mop in it. The doors close. He turns to look at me and says, "Zo, you vent to de 'Manhole, eh?'
 
     The Manhole, at 207 S. Washington Street opened in 1976, and was "probably the first gay leather bar in Northeast Wisconsin" according to the History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee Wisconsin web site. It closed in 1981, and is now a parking lot.


 

15 comments:

  1. Juke box vandalism, and I thought I was the only one. Senior year in high school and my buddy and I are on our way home, late at night, from fishing off a bridge. We stop at Royal Castle. On the juke box was the Royal Castle theme song (catchy ditty used in their commercials). We poured all the change we had into the machine and played that tune as many times as we could. Not proud of that moment but it was funny at the time.

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    1. Eh, wouldn't call that vandalism, since you put money in the machine. Just garden variety jerkiness.

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  2. Green Bay is a lot different today than it was back in 1981.

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  3. And??? How did things go with that crazy janitor?
    Finish the story, please!

    (Or is that Finnish? ....sorry)

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    1. That IS the end of the story. I've never ended it any other way. I was naive then, I suppose I'm still naive. The thought that it was a pick-up line never occurred to me ... until now (I think. It was so long ago at this point, who knows?)

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    2. Actually, Mr. S, I am somewhat surprised. By the time you served your time in Green Bay, you had already lived in Chicago for a couple of years...well, Evanston, actually, but it's just an 'L' ride away. And you had never been to a gay bar? Not even with gay (or straight) friends? As I said, I am somewhat surprised. Perhaps you didn't go to bars at all?

      From reading your book, I know you later lived in Oak Park, Logan Square, and finally near Wellington and Broadway (as did I, but twenty years earlier). I do recall you writing about having stopped at some gay watering hole while you lived in East Lakeview, so you aren't as naive as you think.

      There were...and maybe even still are...other gay bars called The Manhole. Not a chain...it's just a very...um...well...catchy...name. One that tells you right away that the place is what it is. And if the strobe lights and the thumpa-thumpa dance music weren't also clues...the name of the joint should have been. But hey...like you say, you were twenty. And from just outside of Cleveland.

      As a native Chicagoan who now calls Cleveland home, I do understand why a suburban Ohio 20-year-old, even in 1981, could be unaware that gay bars existed. Chicago is not only a much larger city, but it also has a history of being a gay mecca, with a more open and obvious gay life, especially since Stonewall.

      Don't misunderstand...gay men in Northeast Ohio are neither closeted nor invisible, but forty or fifty years ago, when you were a kid, it was probably a different story. I have to think that coming to Chicago to go to college had to be quite an eye-opener. Me? I couldn't wait to get the hell out of Daley's Dodge, which I did, and go to someplace quiet. Too quiet.

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  4. That is the kind of story best told in print. Am I the only one that had the punch line sneak up on them? Had me LOL.

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  5. During my long long adolescence (it's not quite over yet, while senescence is knocking on the door), I've often envied gays and women who, it seemed to me, could have sex any time they wanted it, whereas I, a lover of women, was often thwarted in my sexual desires by all the rigmarole required to persuade a woman to sleep with me, so that when confronted with a situation where a gay person was obviously trying to get me in his bed, I was not so much tempted as amused to see myself adopting the "I don't know how to dance" routine familiar to all spurned lovers.

    That said, I hope that Neil's lgbq readers aren't offended by anything contained herein or above.

    john

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    1. Do you think they might be? By what? The notion that, at 20, I was unfamiliar and a bit disbelieving at the whole idea of homosexuality? That seems like a stretch. Certain attitudes are self-indicting, and I think that anyone who would take vigorous offense at the above would dismiss their opinion by the very expressing of it. One is permitted a past. I didn't know how to read or write at one point, too. That isn't an endorsement of illiteracy.

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    2. The "I don't know how to dance" gambit is the easy way out. Ask the man who knows. At twenty, I was physically cornered by a huge former biker and gangbanger who had 'switched teams' while doing time in Joliet (for arson). It was almost a scene out of a bad TV movie or pulp paperback--he even went by the name of "Tiny"--and after trying to talk me into having sex, he begged and pleaded, and then got more physical.

      I had three options...do what he wanted, talk my way out of the situation, or try to clock him over the head with a wine bottle, which could have resulted in my being assaulted, or even killed.

      I chose the second option and left, shaken but not stirred. Ann Landers claimed that this scenario is common for most straight men, but I don't believe that for a New York minute.

      Every female who hears this story says the same thing: "Now you know how women feel. Especially women who come close to being raped." And they're right.

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  6. Who knows? I frequently anticipate reactions that don't happen, thank God. Though the minute I saw that Epstein had committed suicide, I thought, "Poor Hillary, another notch in her imaginary pistol." But I guess that one was too easy.

    john

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  7. The 'rigamarole' Tate refers to brings to mind some famous lines.

    "Sexual intercourse began in 1963
    (Which was rather late for me)
    Up to then there's only been
    A sort of bargaining'
    A wrangle for the ring.
    A shame that started at sixteen,
    and spread to everything."
    Larkin did overstate the matter of course. I recall some years before 1963 a fellow scholar and I losing our respective virginities late one summer night. That it was not particularly memorable was due in part to the venue, a dampish patch of lawn on the Midway Plaisance, and more to the fact that, although we both knew what goes where, we were, neither of us practiced in the arts of love. Still, I like to think I ushered her into a lifetime of sensual pleasure. I could ask her, but we have long lost touched. Probably just as well.

    Tom

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  8. I suspect Neil was waiting for a softball like this to hit out of the park. His response is pitch perfect.

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  9. I'm guessing you made quite a sensation at the Manhole--I've seen your leather jacket photo!

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