By Justin Hayford
Forty of us have spent the day packed into a Keeshin bus with air conditioning that barely keeps the heat at bay. We’ve been all over the north side, and though most of us live here we still look like tourists–sun hats, sensible shoes, cameras, and tote bags. We are young professionals, middle-aged retirees, little old ladies. You might mistake us for a church sight-seeing group or a continuing-education field trip, except for two things: most of us are wearing cheap, scraggly wigs, and a fleshy drag queen named Daisy Mae stands at the front of the bus calling out bingo numbers.
The maiden voyage of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Tour is winding down, and to keep our minds off the heat we’re playing Drag Queen Bingo. The tour was organized by Chicago Neighborhood Tours, under the auspices of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (I imagine Mayor Daley picked out the wigs himself). It was billed as a one-time “special tour” to differentiate it from nine other tours that run regularly. The next special tour, called “Threads of Ireland,” isn’t until September. But today the sissy bus has been our “huge, fabulous pink time machine,” in the words of tour guide Sukie de la Croix, who’s slumped in an exhausted pile near Daisy Mae. An impish Brit who came here eight years ago and now writes weekly columns for Outlines and Nightlines, de la Croix is the perfect man to lead us into unrecorded history: articulate, charming, and slightly sinister. With his monstrous black goatee, steely gaze, and lubricated gait, he is the farthest thing from the flight attendant wannabes I’ve come to associate with bus tour guides.
Daisy Mae explains that anyone who calls bingo prematurely will receive a “drag queen attitude check”: we’re supposed to scream “Fuck you, girl” in unison and toss off a sassy snap. Even Doris and Alice, two suburban sisters who are pushing 80, rehearse shouting obscenities. Daisy Mae calls out another number. My bingo card remains unmarked, and my wig is starting to itch. “I’ve got goddamn nothing,” Doris announces. We pull to a stop at an intersection, where a throng of people waiting for a bus stare quizzically up at this mini Wigstock on wheels. “Look at all those nice people out there,” Daisy Mae purrs. “Don’t have a clue.”
“I like an element of chaos,” de la Croix explained a few days before the tour. True to his word, his four hours at the bus microphone lack any semblance of coherent chronology. He jumps from decade to decade, era to era without apology, spinning a web of legends, rumors, hearsay, and innuendo gathered during his two years collecting the oral histories of gay people. “Half of the tour are actual facts,” he says, “and the other half are people’s memories. So who knows?”
Who knows, for example, how many gay people were living in Chicago during the first decade of the century? All de la Croix can tell us is that the Chicago Vice Commission issued a report in 1911 placing the number at 20,000. He says the report also noted that homosexuals frequented interracial cafes, had their own vocabulary, and made up a disproportionate number of the clerks at Marshall Field’s. De la Croix gives us a long look. “So you see how much things have changed.”
Who knows who actually owned the gay bars of the 1920s and ’30s? One thing is sure: they weren’t gay people. “Most were owned, or managed, or whatever by men with mob ties,” de la Croix asserts as the bus charges north from downtown. Maybe mobster Jimmy “the Monk” Allegretti owned the famous Wind Up Club near State and Erie, he speculates. Or maybe it was Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, Al Capone’s bookkeeper.
The bus pulls to the curb at 669 N. State, in front of the restaurant Bijan. “Here, in what is now this cheesy little eatery where none of us would go, stood the Wind Up,” de la Croix announces. On January 9, 1949, the place was raided by police captain Thomas Harrison, kicking off a fresh crackdown on sexual corruption. Everyone in the place was arrested; names, addresses, and occupations appeared on the front page of the newspaper the next day. De la Croix has tried to piece together the story. The men were held in a basement room at the Chicago Avenue police station. Someone named Vince, a bartender at a nearby club, managed to slip notes to his incarcerated lover through the station’s street-level windows. He says the father of one of the jailed men showed up with an attorney, bought his son’s fingerprints and arrest record, smuggled him out of the building, and shuttled him off to New York City. The son “now lives in New Mexico,” de la Croix concludes, “and to this day he still won’t let me tell you his name. That’s how frightening things were for gay people back then.”
The bus pulls back into traffic, and de la Croix continues his nonstop stream of juicy tidbits. Doris is right on his heels with a host of you-don’t-says and well-I’ll-bes. In the 1950s, Chicago’s gay mecca was centered at Dearborn and Division–or Queerborn and Perversion, as the area was affectionately known. During the 1920s, when gays were called “bohemians,” “temperamentals,” or “intermediate types,” the gay ghetto was called Tower Town, just east of the Water Tower. On June 27, 1970, exactly 28 years before the date of this tour, the first gay pride march set off from Bughouse Square; approximately 150 marchers ended up in Daley Plaza doing a circle dance around the Picasso sculpture. Back then the cops frowned on women wearing men’s clothing; de la Croix says police would wait outside of lesbian bars and shine their flashlights on the customers’ crotches as they exited–if your pants zipped in front, he claims, you spent the night in the slammer.
De la Croix’s take on history is refreshingly unconventional. For the most part, he has little interest in the big names and big events that the typical historian needs in order to feel he’s looking at something important. His is a history of leisure and entertainment, dining and dancing, secret codes and public mating rituals. He is out to reweave the fabric of ordinary gay social life, lest we forget that during the 1910s the best way to pick up a man was to stroll down the east side of State Street between four and five in the afternoon wearing a red necktie.
We get off the bus for the first time at the Gerber/Hart Library, where a woman named Linda the Vampire Lesbian snaps our pictures. Doris and Alice cheerily thumb through Gay Chicago and Outlines. “Oh, that’s a nice picture of Chastity Bono,” Alice coos.
Neither of the ladies is a lesbian. Both were widowed about a decade ago. “We just love people,” Doris explains. “We saw the ad in the Sun-Times. If there’s a bus tour, my sister and I will take it.”
Next we’re off to the Howard Brown Health Center, where the sisters ooh and aah over the intricate mural in the lobby. I check the tour itinerary and see that we’re also stopping at Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville and Charmers, the city’s oldest gay bar, in Rogers Park. The group is visiting all my regular hangouts. I’m taking a guided tour of my own life.
The Leather Archives & Museum spices things up a bit. Linda from Neighborhood Tours warns us, “Those of you who are faint of heart may want to stay on the bus.” Undaunted, Doris and Alice charge ahead, wandering cheerfully among the souvenirs of torture, gliding past the huge painting of a nude man in a sling being fucked by a gasoline pump. In the leather store next door, they marvel at the reasonable prices for such quality hides. On the way out they notice a large steel cage for sale. “Oh, that’s bad,” Doris groans. I open it and stick my head inside. “Let’s close it and get out of here,” she says. “We’re not safe!”
“Any ten-year-old would just love this,” Alice points out.
As we head back to the bus, Doris seems to have a lift in her step. “God bless ’em,” she says. “If they’re gonna do it, they should do it good.” Alice can’t wait to get to Charmers. “Do you think they’ll let us in?” she asks her sister. “Oh, I really want to see it.” As Doris walks down the aisle, she says to each person, “That cage, oh, that cage did me in.”
De la Croix, understandably spent, pops in a video on the history of Charmers and takes his seat. Opened in 1929 as a speakeasy, the bar was originally called Chalmers after its two owners, a husband and wife. For a while the place was called Peppers before settling on its present approximation of the original name. When we finally arrive at the bar on Jarvis just east of the el, the tour’s penultimate stop, a number of people offer to buy Doris and Alice drinks. Doris has a Manhattan, Alice a Coke. They chirp with delight over the bar’s vintage interior. With a small audience circled around her, Doris shares one of her favorite poems:
There was a young sailor named Bates
Who danced the fandango in skates.
He fell on his cutlass
Which rendered him nutless
And practically useless on dates.
A woman who looks about 35 cozies up to the sisters with a smile on her face. She says she just came out this year, and it’s been the best year of her life.
“Oh, good for you, honey,” Alice says, rubbing the woman’s forearm.
“You shoulda done it a long time ago,” Doris adds.
Daisy Mae winds up her second game of Drag Queen Bingo just as the bus pulls in front of Ann Sather’s, our final stop. A buffet lunch awaits. Since I’ve eaten here a few thousand times over the last 15 years, I start to head out. But Doris insists I eat something. She wraps her arm around my shoulder, squeezing with the strength of someone half her age. I ask what she learned on the tour.
“Nothing I didn’t already know,” she says. “Except for the cage. Oh, the cage.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sukie de la Croix photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.