|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 showed up 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 use of the singular. "It'll be back..." As if the city had one cab, which maybe was the case. A cab 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 jukebox. 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 jukebox, 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, blonde 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 website. It closed in 1981, and is now a parking lot.