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Fifty years ago Detroit’s Washington Boulevard was a busy setting for exclusive shops, upscale restaurants, elegant bistros stretching sedately from Grand Circus Park’s popular Statler Hotel to Michigan Avenue’s prestigious Sheraton Cadillac.
Both hotel bars catered to a discrete, well-heeled, happy- hour gay clientele. Good manners expected. No camping it up. No untoward touching. No two-shots-and-a-beer, buddy-buddying. No Mary this! No Mary that!
At the Statler, offenders were handed a terse note: “Your patronage is not wanted here. Please do not return.”
For those engaging in the covert pastime of dalliance in sensual stalls of solicitation, the nearby Tuller Hotel was notorious, as were the Telenews theater balcony, Brass Rail Bar (where 50’s pop star Johnny Ray was arrested — twice by the same cop!), J. L. Hudson’s popular 13th floor men’s room, several park underground, tap-tap loos.
As a teenager all was terra incognita, but I learned the lay of the land from “experienced” trowelers who had navigated the watering spots first hand. I did venture cautiously into the Greyhound Bus Depot on Washington Boulevard to check out noonday comings and goings. (So to speak.)
I was cautious. And warned. “Miss Tillie [vice squad] goes there all the time. Mind your business. If you have to pee, just pee. Don’t look anybody straight in the eye!” Stories of arrests for merely peeking at a vice officer were many. “It’s your word against theirs. Case closed.”
Behind the Greyhound was an unexpected gay teenagers hangout called Mama’s, one diner star rating over downtown Hub Grill’s none. Mama’s was owned by the mother of thirty- something, Butch Jimmy (“BJ”), who had his share of impressionable teenagers. Myself included.
Mama — short, roly-poly faced — was of some slavic heritage. She wore her hair in a tight bun and dressed in basic black (no pearls). She got her sense of humor by osmosis, greeting regulars with a hearty hand flutter, loudly announcing, “Kud-de-vahs! Kud-de-vahs!” (“Whores! Whores!”)
Mama employed Frank, a cadaverous looking cook, who, while abusing hamburgers and squinting menacingly at potato fries, would tell anyone who’d listen that he had made his funeral arrangements and knew exactly where, and in what pastel satin-lined casket, he’d be buried. (R.I.P.!)
During many visits to Mama’s I became friends with my Hub Grill idol, Rich. A Polish blond, Rich Suess liked dark- haired, swarthy types. Italians. Spaniards. Mood Indigos. (I was just a tepid Anglo-Saxon, dishwater, Brillo-pad brunet.)
For me it was important to act straight. I didn’t like hanging around with flamers. I knew that my day-to-day survival in this fairy-fag-hating world depended upon passing, looking like your average duck-tailed, occasionally hip-gyrating, pegged pants, Zoot suited groupie.
Rich looked straight as a 10-inch, no-nonsense nun’s ruler (until decades later when returning as a New York hair dresser, with a “FAB-you-luss!” ersatz Brooklyn accent). Just weeks into our newly formed alliance, Rich suggested hitting Toledo Ohio’s Scenic Bar.
“Hey, Al! It’s brand new turf. Fun and games. Drinking age 18. You’ll love it.” So I did (except for gawdawful 50-cent Zing! 3.2 beer).
It was a gas. Not to be passed up. (Or down.)