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“Let’s go to the Hub Grill for a bowl of chili and a trick,” was our weekend rallying cry as gay teenagers. A dollar or two — and our youthful, reasonably innocent good looks — could get us through a promising Saturday night.
Two sisters, Fran and Flo, and a scruffy cook, Uncle Jimmy, held bicarbonate-of-soda court. Fran rarely smiled and smoked nonstop. Flo, her hair worn in Rosie the Riveter upsweep, was all winks and confidential tease.
“Miss Thing, don’t you look all Hollywood. You gonna snag husband number five tonight, or is it six?”
I hadn’t sat down more than five minutes, far from outside viewing by straight tourists, when a talkative number at my elbow nicknamed Marshmallow — decades later transitioning into Interchange Leather Club butch — asked, “Are you a Browning King or Queen?”
Not knowing what Marshmallow meant — top or bottom — and wanting to be newcomer polite, I asked cautiously, “Is there such a thing as a Browning Prince?” “How about Princess?” ‘she’ clucked.
A jukebox played six hits for a quarter. My favorite: “Secret Love,” sung by Doris Day. Each time I heard it, I felt myself go romantic: soft in head and heart for a yet-shining knight in tight-fitting armor, codpiece optional.
I soon got to know regulars by face and nickname. There was a spate of Miss this, Miss that. Little Bobby, Estralita, Taboo, Lady Chrysler, The Empress. I made friends and, importantly, I realized as a gay teenager I was not alone. My world was much bigger than I had ever hoped.
It was custom summer nights to stroll onto the streets to see who paraded in and out of the bars: The 1011, Silver Dollar, Barrel Bar, LaRosa’s, The Palais, a dyke hangout. (I had heard about LaRosa’s when I was 15. “It’s a queer bar. Fairies go there,” snickered a buddy one Halloween night when we spotted some guys in drag getting into a Checker Cab. If there was one thing I hated as a kid, it was being called a fairy.)
I weighed 175 lbs, buff in my penny loafers. Was 6’2″, and had a 30-inch Levi’s tempered waist. (I was told I looked like actor Carleton Carpenter — later gay mystery writer — who starred opposite Debbie Reynolds in a no-brainer B-movie, singing “Abba Dabba Honeymoon.” Circa 1950.)
Standing on the corner of Farmer & Bates Streets during those adventuresome nights, we underage teenagers flirted, flaunted, schemed to meet someone special — preferably older, reasonably butch — when the bars closed. Unfortunately, most nights I had to be home by 11 sharp.
Occasionally I would hop into a car cruising the area. Nearsighted as I was, if the driver proved not my type, I’d say I’d left my wallet behind, please take me back and vanish.
One hot July evening I saw a tall, elegant guy stroll by, wearing requisite tight Levi’s and white T-shirt in imitation of actors James Dean and Marlon Brando. “Who’s that?” I asked proud, black-and-bold Miss Bruce — actually a well-built factor worker — who knew everybody who took to the streets, like circling hawks of prey.
“That’s T.D., ‘Tall Dick,'” he winked. “He’s your kinda man, honey,” he elbowed, leaving me, new kid on the same-sex block, to make time and small talk. T.D. listened, smiled a lot, captivated me with his lanky presence. “Got time for coffee?” “Sure thing! Do you like Doris Day?” I asked.