The Evening Crowd
A Gay Life
In the 1940s
Ricardo J. Brown
(Minnesota)Ricardo Brown grew up in Minnesota, was inducted into the Navy in 1944, and received a dishonorable discharge a year later because he revealed to his officers that he was homosexual. He spent the succeeding years in St. Paul, working at various jobs and hanging out at the one gay bar in town, Kimser's.
Only they didn't call them "gay" bars in that era --- and the night life was far different that what we have today. Kimser's was a drab hole-
in- the- wall. During the day, it was what we thought of as a working-man's bar. It was only at night that the men (and occasional women) came in to the one place in town where they could be with other gays.
The owners --- Mr. & Mrs. Kimser --- pretended that their clientele was "normal." No affection could be shown. Strangers were treated with suspicion. Everyone followed the unwritten rules, because the crowd was in retreat from the outside world. In those days, if one was accused of being a "deviant" --- for example, by anonymous letter sent to one's employer --- it meant loss of job. For those arrested in flagrante delicto, it meant prison time and a permanent, damaging police record.
One of Brown's friends, Red, was caught having sex with a married man in the front seat of his car. The stranger was merely fined; Red not only lost his job, but lost hope, life, joy. He had
a new look, and it wasn't a mask; this was the real Red Larson, unmasked, his pudgy, colorless face a dead man's face, embalmed, expressionless, frozen in the past....
Someone should have had the decency to close the dead man's eyes.
§ § §
In later life, Brown worked as a journalist in Alabama and Alaska. He is a powerful writer. His description of life in Kimser's and on the streets of St. Paul not only rings true, it brings back strong memories for so many of us who had to live through those times. There was then a drab triviality in that gay world: no pride parades, no flamboyance (except, in Minnesota, for the weekend of the Winter Carnival --- but by today's standards, it was very tame).
Gays had to live under the gun --- and, because of that, they turned mean and petty, turned against their own, became members of a dark world turned inwards on itself.
When other gays tried to penetrate the crowd at Kimser's, they were often shunned. One visitor, the only African-American to come into the bar, was seen to be "aloof, almost snotty." The gossip was that he was a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railway. But because he was black, eg, another minority, he was scorned by those who should have been his brothers. As Brown says, "He seemed unattractive to most of us..."
The most hair-raising part of The Evening Crowd tells of Brown's last month in the Navy, when he was waiting for his discharge. All the "undesirables" --- the bed-wetters, the crazies, the "queers," --- shared a single bunking area. They never talked; one gay tried to kill himself. Everyone detested the man called the "Night Crier:"
I hated that guy. He cried every night, into his pillow, muffled, harsh little moans and sobs. Every night he cried himself to sleep. Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night and he was still crying. It was a sound as grating and as frightening as rats gnawing their way into our tomb.
With passages like this we know that Brown is a character of his time, having to be macho, showing a loathing for minorities, for weaklings --- like the crier --- and for the very femme gays in the bar, and for himself. There was very little joy in that world, and the crowd at Kimser's and every other similar bar in America gave ironic twist to the word --- not much used then --- "gay."
As perceptive as Brown is, as artfully as he captures those times --- one is left with a feeling of self-hate that clouded his vision, poisoned his life and his loves.
It's a revealing, poignant journey into a fascinating past, but it is, too, a trip into the desperation that was American gay life sixty years ago.--- Ignacio Schwartz
Robert J. Caputi
(Susquehanna)Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of Great Britain from 1937 to 1940. He is remembered today for that short film clip showing him arriving fresh from his third meeting with Hitler, climbing out of his tri-motor plane, holding in his hand the Munich Pact, "a scrap of paper" --- intoning "peace for our time." For a few months, until the Nazis broke the treaty and overran Prague, Chamberlain was touted as "the world's greatest peacemaker."
The story of those days is one of high drama and high controversy; a time when some thought it impossible to deal with the Nazis. (Even the prime minister referred to them in his private correspondence as "madmen.") On the other hand, some thought him brilliant:
to undertake the rigours of a difficult journey in order...to put the whole issue on a frank man to man basis, had about it the quality of genius.
Chamberlain often bruited about the word that was to haunt him, "appeasement." It's a terrible word --- more so after he arrogated it to his activities --- but many of his critics forget that a scant twenty years before, according to historian Gerard de Groot, 9,000,000 soldiers and 12,000,000 civilians lost their lives in a ghastly war that never seemed to end. For the English people of 1938, Churchill intoning that one could not and should not treat with the Germans must have sounded like the utterings of a lunatic.
Chamberlain was, according to Caputi, a man with a "strong abhorrence of war, a sentiment common enough to Englishmen who had experienced the Great War and its senseless slaughter." But so blinded was he in his pursuit that he was to write, upon meeting Hitler,
I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.
Chamberlain was turned out of office in 1940, and died a few months later.
A fascinating time deserves a fascinating book. Perhaps one of Caputi's problems has to do with the fact that Chamberlain was a tedious bore. He was a man, according to the author, whose nature was forged not by war or politics, but, rather by losing a fortune in sisal, in Bermuda. Most authors, historians included, will agree that trying to bring a dead man to life --- even a famous and controversial prime minister --- is nigh about impossible.
Still, Caputi's writing should not have to take on the personality of his main character. Unfortunately, page after page of "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" drove this reviewer to an act of personal appeasement: she made a bargain with herself that if the words and the story didn't brighten up by page sixty, she'd dump the whole kaboodle.
Alas, it came to pass.
--- Lolita Lark
Of Abbie Hoffman
(Four Walls/Eight Windows)"Free speech is the right to shout 'theatre' in a crowded fire."Abbie Hoffman's father always wanted to know "where he went wrong." Certainly it wasn't birth or upbringing. His grandparents were Ashkenazi from the Ukraine, don't-
rock- the- boat types: "[W]e felt our parent's generation was a bunch of cop-outs. Six million dead and except for the Warsaw ghetto hardly a bullet fired in resistance!"
Hoffman figures it was his getting into Brandeis. The teachers that ended up there! In the mid-1950s, you could find Herbert Marcuse, Frank Manual, Irving Howe, Max Lerner, Abraham Maslow, Philip Rahv, and "a crafty old codger named James Klee who slipped off each summer to score mushrooms in Mexico."
After graduating, Hoffman found Berkeley and "strange rumblings" in the United States: sit-ins in Greensboro, "angry poems" in San Francisco, vigils for Caryl Chessman, and the House Un-American Committee hearings in San Francisco. He was on his way.
We go along willingly. For Abbie writes winningly, scintillatingly. His tale of those years is the tale of so many of us being bored silly during the Eisenhower years, all the while knowing that our country was sponsoring secret revolutions abroad, murdering dissent within its own borders. Our sense of justice was piqued, especially when we found out that our own elected officials "overthrew the elected governments of Guatemala and Iran. They are trying every day to kill Castro."
There was organizing, there were marches, there was love in the streets, and psychedelics:
A Life magazine cover story was touting LSD as the new wonder drug that would end aggression. I've always maintained that Henry Luce did much more to popularize acid than Tim Leary. Years later I met Clare Boothe Luce at the Republican convention in Miami. She did not disagree with this opinion. America's version of the Dragon Lady caressed my arm, fluttered her eyes and cooed, "We wouldn't want everyone doing too too much of a good thing."
The CIA was funding LSD experiments at the Langley Porter Clinic. Hoffman and his friends stole a batch, and after trying it out, he reports: "Say what you want about the CIA, but they sure had damn good acid."
Time danced in space. I talked continuously. When the others didn't want to hear, I picked up the phone and called God --- collect. We had a nice chat. The Virgin Mary swept down from a cloud in the ceiling and I think we...I'm not sure, but we petted a little...
I took buddy Ira's pen and wrote, "I was burned on the silver rim of space." It took on meanings beyond meanings.
Later, Hoffman goes alone out to get food for everyone. The guy "with the funny white hat" repeats back his order,
"That'll be four tunafish, two ham and egg, five BLTs, four hamburgers, three malteds and a Coke."
"That's right," I agreed. "Do you have any mushroom clouds?"
"No, we ain't got mushroom but I can whip up a cheese omelette..."
"Right." I said.
Twenty-six lives later he appeared out of the back room with three huge brown bags stuffed with food. I paid the bill and somehow managed to steer everything back to the loft. "Let's see now, who ordered the pickle-
and- mushroom bomb?"
Later, Hoffman is to give a speech at a "movement disco at a church."
Father Gonyer eyed me strangely. "Your speech was getting pretty flowery there. What's all that jazz about 'trailways of life' and 'byways of bliss?' You trying to be Allen Ginsburg or somebody, hunh? hunh? hunh?" he jabbed.
§ § §
Hoffman is comic, but he's no fool. He studies television intensively to figure out how to use it to change the world. His philosophy is pure pragmatism:
I practice nonviolence as a tactic, but was far from a follower of Gandhi. Confrontation always demanded surprise and uncertainty. By saying, "If you punch me in the face, I'll turn the other cheek," you could often get hurt more than if you kept a threat of returning the blows. While Gandhi was fasting in jail, guerrillas blew up trains throughout India. When Martin Luther King, Jr., prayed, blacks rioted and armed groups formed in the ghettos.
Despite this rhetoric, much of Hoffman's power comes from his willingness to be silly. The trial of the Chicago Seven --- and the description of it here --- is so rich because he's talking high theatre, carefully orchestrated by him and most but not all of his fellows (Tom Hayden, he convinces us, was an arrogant twit, "absolutely without humor.")
The defendants had something different to offer the world --- their "willingness to go outside the accepted form of courtroom behavior:"
Once it was demonstrated that we neither feared the court's power nor were impressed with the pomp and circumstance of tradition, all hell broke loose. The Chicago Conspiracy Trial became, among other things, the greatest comedy of manners ever to occur in a courtroom.
As Hoffman (Abbie, not Julius) said later, "When decorum becomes repression, the only dignity free men have is to speak out." And as Hoffman, (Julius, not Abbie) said during the trial, "The jury will disregard the kiss blown by defendant Hoffman."
§ § §
It's useless for me or anyone else to try to "review" Abbie Hoffman's Autobiography. He is an eloquent writer, and what he has to tell us is pure Abbie. He was a merry idealist who was appalled at a governmental system that was (and, apparently, still is) willing to validate cruelty, war, and injustice as patriotism. For his funny, righteous caring about his country, he was spied on, cornered, beaten, jailed (three times in one day was his record) and finally set up with a drug charge which, had he not fled, may have consigned him to jail for the rest of his days.
Even in hiding, he could not stop working for Right and Good. He reappeared (new face) as Barry Freed and embarked on Save the River! to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from destroying the St. Lawrence.
But running away turned out to be ruinous. For one who was so purely Abbie, changing his name and his face, hiding, always on the move, always terrified of being discovered, pretending to be who he wasn't --- all these murdered the true, comic part of him. Even after he emerged from underground, he was given to grievous depressions. Finally, several years ago, using Phenobarbital and alcohol, he did himself in.
§ § §
I have lived outside of the United States for many years. I do it mostly because of health and dotage but, too, I return less than I should because, when I am here, I cannot stop despairing for my country. Abbie was of our generation and our mind-set. The barriers that me and my friends stormed, marching, protesting --- and, yes, getting naked --- were a small scale tribute to Abbie's works on such a grand scale.
It seems harder now. To demonstrate at a convention, Democratic or Republican, they move you as far from the action as possible, into an isolated open-air prison called "The Protest Area." To march for any cause, one has to have a license, and often the police --- in their Darth Vader outfits --- outnumber the protesters. Free speech has come to mean low insults on radio or television. Our legislators seem as much bought, paid for and delivered as those from the desolate times after the Civil War.
The country seems stuck on an escalator that continuously moves down. Bulging prisons, ruinous, meaningless drug laws, a slow and careful dismantling of the Bill of Rights coupled with the victories of position, money and power that come from stepping on the still-warm corpses of the poor and the dispossessed.
The media that Abbie so loved for its ability to change people now seems primarily used to show the needy what they need in order to get ahead (advertisements), coupled with the repeated message (programs ) that to achieve these goals one must have guns, cruelty, greed, cynicism and a terrible desolation of spirit. The message has gone far beyond the medium.
Because I am away from America many months of the year, I often miss national events of importance. The whole Gulf War took place outside my consciousness, as did the Clinton Weenie Scandals. (Unfortunately I was here when they destroyed the WTC).
I somehow missed news of Hoffman's self-inflicted death in April of 1989, so as I read through his Autobiography, I found myself looking forward to the last chapters where, in his merry way, he would offer some ideas of how we might get out of this new jungle of American frenzy and hate --- one that seems so much more vicious than the one that we lived through in the 60s. Then I learn, on the very last page, in a brief encomium by Howard Zinn, that Abbie is no longer with us; and I find myself feeling abandoned, grieving that our society should so casually chew up and spit out such a patriot; drive him into exile, forcing on him a death of spirit from which there could be no escape.--- Carlos Amantea