I hope you enjoy my stroll down memory lane.
Despite the ominous title, this essay is rated PG-13 for strong language. No nudity. There is one furious drag queen screaming in front of a Chicago leather bar, so yes, adult situations.
Two weeks ago, on a return trip to visit family, I wandered up and down Chicago’s Halsted Street, lost in reminiscing. I remembered dining at that narrow but long restaurant when it was Italian and not a French/Vietnamese cafe. I hung out a few times in that cruddy little bar when it proudly bore the name of the previous bar owner. It was a cruddy little bar then, too. I remembered some first dates, some last dates. A couple landmarks changed over the years but The Alley and that excellent comic book shop remained, as well as the Belmont Street Dunkin’ Donuts.
Glad to see that.
I was disappointed to observe the Manhole, a raunchy leather bar, had gentrified into something classier and pastel sounding: a bar called Hydrate. Although it was never a hangout of mine, still, I missed the Manhole. One sunny afternoon, I fought the most wonderful, physically abusive, domestic argument outside that bar.
At the time I lived in a northwest suburb and on weekends volunteered for a Boystown group called the Pink Angels. In response to that late-80s take-back-the-city movement, Chicago’s Pink Angels copied other successful groups’ mission and patrolled the predominantly gay neighborhood. Pink Angels jogged down dark alleys reporting drug deals to cops, helped drunks find cabs, and ran like hell toward any cry sounding like “Help!”
It takes a unique flavor of compassion to love people this way, to race to their aid down a dark alley. Groups patrolled from about 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. For one summer, I was a member but it turns out I am chunky and there was a lot of running involved. Still, for one summer, I ran the streets of Chicago.
We wore pink T-shirts and matching berets. I thank Hercules this happened prior to phone cameras’ popularity for I did not project “sexy strong gay” in my pink beret. I was a pink-tinged, jolly cake topper you’d stick on a German chocolate cake for a child’s first communion celebration. We never engaged in true fisticuffs that summer (which is smart—some of us undoubtedly imagined West Side Story and would have been mightily surprised when our attackers did not bring tap shoes), but I felt brave among them. I felt safe.
In the heat of August, we conducted training for the new recruits. After morning workshops on walking tough, non-confrontational de-escalation and how to observe street-smart nuances, the experienced volunteers broke into small groups to enact training situations around a ten-block radius.
My assignment was to stage a domestic argument in front of the Manhole. Our training director set the scene: I was to be witnessed verbally harassing and physically intimidating my assigned boyfriend in the bar’s front entryway, screaming at him, and he would, in turn, give the appropriate signs of intimidation, subtle and skillfully done. The Pink Angels would approach and demand to know if everything was okay.
Portraying the brutish thug, I would execute my line with menacing undertones. “He’s fine. Go away.”
The Pink Angels would insist on hearing from my partner. He would respond by saying, “It’s okay,” in an unconvincing tone. They might ask again for a clearer answer. I would stand close to him, pinning my boyfriend against the Manhole’s exterior, my arm blocking a view to his face. When they reluctantly withdrew and moved a few feet away, I would give him a hearty shove, which would trigger scene two: the dramatic return and de-escalation to remove me from the man I intended to beat down.
Our roles clear, my new life partner and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Sure. We can do this.”
As we walked toward the Manhole together, we exchanged names and short bio information. He lived in Chicago proper and while he expressed admiration for the greatness of Arlington Heights, he clearly looked down on me as a suburb dweller.
North Halsted was crowded, the regular Saturday flow of people living in north side Chicago, shopping, strolling, jogging, or generally fucking around under the hot August sun. The Pink Angels would not show for a few minutes, so we practiced my pushing him in a way that didn’t hurt but still looked realistic. I practiced yelling mean things. About three minutes before our patrol was due, during a faux shoving, we both jumped to hear a rich baritone voice four feet behind me.
“Oh bitch, you did not just shove that man.”
We both turned sheepishly to find a 6’2” African-American drag queen with her hands on her hips. She wore a leopard print miniskirt and had big RuPaul hair. She would claw my eyes out for not remembering her top, but I was so stunned I forgot to check out her breasts.
I was about to get my ass kicked.
“He’s fine,” I said in a pleading voice. Thinking the patrol could be here at any second, I added, “Go away.”
When she started yelling at me, threatening me, moving closer, I turned to my temporary boyfriend and said, “Tell her.”
In a completely unconvincing tone, he said, “It’s okay.”
On the plus side, we had accidentally practiced our lines and he hit the mark perfectly as unbelievable and in danger. I, on the other hand, could have used more authority in saying, “Go away.”
One or two people stopped to watch as she swore loudly. I tried to explain we represented the Pink Angels training team and could she please not let them find me spread-eagle on the sticky, scalding sidewalk with her black stiletto heel jammed into my fleshy neck. She was furious. Nervously, we did our best to persuade her.
Our furtive glances down the street in the direction of our soon-to-be-arriving patrol apparently lent more credibility than our actual words and she reluctantly agreed to step back a few feet. But she let me know she was not departing until this alleged training scenario played out and if I thought I could outrun a bitch in heels, I had another thing coming.
“Please,” I begged her. “Stand far enough away. Over there.”
She skulked away, but not far.
My partner and I got into position and we took a few deep breaths because the lady was not shy with swear words and could threaten some explicit possibilities. It takes a different kind of courage to be a Chicago drag queen.
“They’re almost here,” my faux-boyfriend said, eyes wide. “Go. Do your thing.”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do you piece of shit,” I yelled in his face, jabbing a hard forefinger two inches from his eyes.
The Pink Angels appeared at my side and we played out our scene. My partner was said he was okay (unconvincingly, of course) so they reluctantly retreated. I shoved my faux-boyfriend with faux-rage. They returned and dragged me away using the proper techniques, though I had a few critique notes to pass along once we debriefed at headquarters. If anyone on the patrol team paid deeper attention, they would have noticed I was probably the more rattled of the two actors.
By the time the Pink Angels had resolved our drama and began jogging to the next scene, our drag queen had silently slipped away.
This is what I love about Chicago.
If you’re in a shop and overhear a conversation that’s not meant for your ears, chime in. It’s still your fuckin’ business. This city is where I learned to tell drunks, “Get out of my face!” and how to get seen when howling for a cab. If you think you’re gonna knock your boyfriend’s teeth out, you may have to answer to a self-policing pack of homos in matching pink berets or an African-American goddess who is not going to stand for any shit.
On the day I walked Halsted reminiscing, my fond memories from the Manhole were enough to make me want to stand at the corner of Belmont and North Clark, and, ala Mary Tyler Moore, throw a pink beret into the air screaming, “Fuck you, Chicago.”
I have no doubt someone, whether in a brownstone, at the Dunkin’ Donuts, or from the back seat of a cab, would yell back, “No, fuck you! What’s your fucking problem?”
And they’d really want to know.