Thursday, January 29, 2009

Guest Blogger: Backintheday

The winter weather horror continues unabated, there's continuing bad news about the economy, and my car is still in the shop. So if you're wondering why I haven't been blogging lately, there are a few reasons. Fortunately our friend Backintheday has stepped in with another tale of Detroit Gay Days Past! This time we get to hear about long-defunct drag bar Gagen's. Your gay education continues now ...

Gagen's: Wiggin' Out in the 70s

Imagine if you will, the world of a questioning youth nervously venturing out to see what tender mercies might await him beyond the walls of his beige bedroom in beige Harper Woods on a fall evening in 1973. Join him on his quest for the attentions of a quiet man who might resemble Gonzo from Trapper John M.D. or – dare one hope – be half as handsome as Adam West.

The only place this boy had heard of where an assignation of this type might have even the slightest chance of taking place was in a far-away land called Palmer Park. Specifically in a place called Gagen’s. ‘Round and ‘round the block he circled in his mother’s Dodge Dart, summoning the courage to enter this strange new world. ‘Round and ‘round his head spun visualizing the intimate setting he would encounter as he passed through the doors and into the arms of Ryan O’Neal, or at the very least Bobby Sherman.

Okay. So this “tender youth” was me. I said it was 1973.

That first night at Gagen's … after several beers I finally calmed down. And after a few more beers I went home with the man of my dreams. Who knew at the time that this Adonis was actually a hairdresser from Clawson with absolutely no finesse when it came to penetrating a nervous virgin - whose dream of tenderness in the arms of another man was shattered with a couple of extremely painful thrusts? Coming out lesson #1: true love and tricking are not the same thing. But, I digress…

Gagen’s was a drag bar that started out life as a straight supper club called Frank Gagen’s. And make no mistake about it, it was swanky! One big room with a bar along the right wall, and a raised dance floor at the rear with a stage behind it. The bulk of the space was filled with circular red leather banquettes; the ceiling over each was a concave circular depression covered in gold leaf and lit indirectly. Very moderne and very plush. By the time it had ceded to the reign of the queens, it was a little worn around the edges. A closer inspection of those red leather banquets revealed a fair amount of red carpet tape enlisted to keep it all together.

But the decor was only part of the magic. When you filter the experience through the lens of a terrified boy who had only lately been attempting what David Bowie had been urging (“Turn and face the strange." Ch-ch-changes indeed), it was like the club scenes in Baz Lurmann’s Moulin Rouge complete with whip pans, manic editing and breakneck sensory overload. A red and gold explosion of music, dance and theater.

And Sunday nights were smokin’ hot. The line-up included the likes of Buttons La Walker, Jennifer Foxx and Betty Clarke. Miss Clarke could be seen donning a forties style swimsuit and sipping a huge Cuba Libra while singing (well, lip-synching) “
Rum and Coca Cola” by the Andrews Sisters – all the while roller skating through a crowd gone wild with the spectacle of it all. Hummin’ Helen “sang” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in a nightgown as she dragged out an ironing board, set it up, plugged into a head-full of curlers and proceeded to iron the very rag she wore.

Miss Betty Clark, an artist's remembrance.

One major show-stopper was Sharene Dennis “singing” a wicked version of “It Should Have Been Me” by Yvonne Fair, a wrathful, ghetto screed about watching your man walk down the aisle with another woman. As the song reached a fever pitch, Sharene moved into the audience, pulled a knife out of her purse and brandished it at the imaginary couple.

One night she got so worked up she tore the wig off her head and threw it on the floor. This unheard-of act of improvisation was too much for the aging emcee for whom illusion was paramount. With microphone in hand, he fired her on the spot. The rest of the girls recognized Miss Dennis’ actions for what they were – an uncontrollable act of passion fully in line with the sentiment of the song – and tore their wigs off in a show of solidarity. After all the screaming and crying was over the emcee was forced to apologize. Hell hath no fury..!

I worked with Hummin’ Helen (a.k.a. Bill) at the
Roostertail while I was in college. He was a sly and amusing guy out of drag but a real handful in character. Through this connection I found myself escorting him to an awards show for female impersonators. The affair was every bit as elegant as its location would have you believe: The United Dairy Workers Hall in Highland Park. I was a bit embarrassed by it all. Watching drag behind closed doors at Gagen’s was one thing, but escorting a six foot tall glamour-puss with impressive deltoids and a fearsome baritone to a sold-out extravaganza in a cinderblock building alongside the railroad tracks was a bit much for my closeted suburban sensibilities.

True to form, Helen got loaded, fought with the other girls, and passed out in my car on the way back to her apartment. Much to my horror, I realized my tank was on empty. At two in the morning I found myself coasting into a service station somewhere in the vicinity of Hamilton and Grand Boulevard. I could only pray that my date would remain comatose in the passenger seat – bouffant bobbing, dress up around her knees, bucket between her legs.

The attendant, a polite African American gentleman of a certain age, couldn’t help but notice my stylish powder blue tuxedo (I forgot to mention that?) and the uncertain mess slumped next to me and said, in an embarrassed attempt to make sense of the scene, “My, my. That sure is a pretty lady you got with you.” To which the “pretty lady” lifting her head up in a sudden burst of consciousness replied basso profondo, “FAAAAAAAACKYOU!!” before collapsing once again into a swarm of organza. All in all, a lovely evening.

It’s no secret what killed drag. In a word: disco. I remember the night we decamped from Gagen’s and walked a few doors west to check out the opening of a new place called Menjo’s. Menjo’s would go on to have a few drag shows now and then to spice things up but it was definitely not about drag. Eventually Gagen’s went on to gain greater fame as Bookie’s Club 870, the premier punk club in Detroit. But by then the place had been stripped out and painted black. I guess all that deco decay had no place in a new wave world.

Somewhere along the way the place burned to the ground. Maybe it’s for the best. The building, like the entertainers it housed, might best be thought of as some great illusion the likes of which Detroit hasn’t seen since.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Winter Kills

I am feeling really ambivalent about a lot of things about life in Detroit right now, and I think that’s because I’m avoiding delving in and feeling not ambivalent about it.

This winter weather is really bringing me down, for starters. Sure, it’s pretty to watch out my windows, but it seems to have brought life downtown to a standstill. Which is fine for a weekend but for two months? I am probably more sensitive to it because my livelihood depends in part on people’s willingness to come downtown. But if the recession and collapse of the auto industry weren’t dampening things enough, this weather is only making it worse.

I’ve never minded winter that much until the past two years. Last year I didn’t hate it until my car was disabled during a theft attempt and I had to walk to work for a couple weeks on insanely bumpy icy sidewalks. That’s when I learned why people walk in the streets in Detroit, at least in the winter.

So what has brought me to hate it again this year? Well aside from the extended effect on downtown visitation, my car got broken into again on Friday night so I’m back to hoofin’ it to work.

Now I know you are thinking “what the fuck?” and you would be right. I don’t even know how many times my car has been broken into at this point. This was another theft attempt so the car is disabled and towed for repairs.

At this point I think a little “blame the victim” is probably in order. I should have started using The Club after time number three or four. But it’s just so ghetto, I was resistant. Plus after I get my car back from repairs I always forget to go buy one until it was too late at night or I was in the middle of some other activity. I have no idea what they cost so I just imagined that they were probably hundreds of dollars and I couldn’t work that into my budget.

Now, with my car in repairs again and me cutting across Lafayette Plaisance in knee-deep snow, I think we can safely say: lesson learned. I will bend to the ghetto.

Of course with an insurance deductible to pay and a Club to purchase and with me being about three cans of chunk light (yes that’s right, not even albacore) tuna away from a diet of cat food, it’s gonna be some pretty boring times around here. I’m just giving you a heads up.

My friends and I always have these intermittent periods of feeling like we need to get out of here, but we always come back to loving it. I’ve always found when I feel frustrated about Detroit I need to spend time with the people I’ve met here who make it so exciting and that usually leaves me feeling reinvigorated. Lately, however, whenever I get together with my friends we end up talking about how the bad economy is affecting us, how bleak it feels here, and how much worse will it get. For once everyone seems to be having their rough patch at the same time.

I don’t need to have everything perfect, but I want to live someplace where I can actually make a living and have some fun. And where I am not assaulted with ugly and cigarette smoke every time I leave the house. After the New Year I was texting with a friend of mine and I said, “I really need something to go my way this year.” He wrote back, “It will. Unless karma is real … then u r fuct.”

The latest car thing got me thinking that maybe I’m fuct. If 2009 dishes up more of 2008, I'm not sure how much I've got left in me for Detroit.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

We have a winner

Hey! I heard from my friend Rose and her video won that Rand McNally contest!

Yay Rose! I'll be riding "bitch" on that new scooter on my next trip to SF!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ano Nuevo, New Doggy Style

Tuesday night is the first all-nuevo Doggy Style of 2009, and I still refuse to learn how to make a tilde over the "n."

Please join us!


Monday, January 12, 2009

New Year Musings

Sitting in the waiting area to board my flight to Palm Springs on New Year's Eve, I commented via text to some friends that it was like sitting in death’s waiting room, on account of all the old people. It turns out I was completely correct as a woman in first class had a heart attack in the restroom and we were forced to make an emergency landing in Colorado. And after we took off again the guy across the aisle from me had to be put on oxygen. It was really insane.

[And as a nice bookend, as I waited for the flight that would take me back to the Midwest – a flight that was delayed on its way to Palm Springs because of an emergency medical landing – I heard the gate agent put in a call for SEVEN wheelchairs to assist the arriving passengers.]

But Palm Springs isn’t just old people. It’s gay people too. A lot of them. Like so many it’s a little uncomfortable, as least until you get used to it. Well, if you come from the gay desert of Detroit it takes getting used to. 40% gay is the number I heard. Isn't that nuts?

I went to Palm Springs to meet up with a group of guys who were my core group when I lived in Ann Arbor. Over time we all moved away, me only as far as Detroit, but the rest to various California locales. It is always absolutely wonderful meeting up with them, because as we've all noted, we've met great people in our new homes but there was a special kind of connection on the sense of humor front in that group. Whenever we meet up it's pretty much constant laughs. And we're not even high.

Palm Springs is like the opposite of Detroit - it's mostly modern, the weather is beautiful (even in winter, when it is the cold desert). The amount they do modern there is actually almost crazy. Even all new contruction seems to be modern, and you know America loves a neo-traditional homestead. All in all, it's very pretty there.

An open house at the condo across the lane from my friends' place ...
the pool was gorgeous, but alas, the interior was straight-guy TRAGIC.

A lady moment at the wonderfully prissy Kaffeehaus.

Fruits are cheap in PS!

A spontaneous drag moment while out for Sunday afternoon cocktails

As mentioned, the gays are everywhere. And they skew older, this isn't a young man's town. So it is a little strange to go to the bar and see guys in their 40's and 50's acting as typical and stupid drunk as the kids you might see at Menjo's. Honestly fellas, haven't you learned anything in the past 20 years?

The up side, of course, is that I am basically a twink when I go there, and that was kind of nice. Everyone wants to feel pretty now and again.

Now speaking of pretty, even though not all the architecture there is executed flawlessly, people there are pretty house-proud and modern is the prevailing aesthetic for commercial spaces as well as residential, so from my perspective things look good. And there is no blight. Even the homeless people seem pretty happy (and they aren't braving frostbite standing out with their stupid "Why Lie? I want beer" signs).

It was with a heavy heart, then, that I returned to the depressing winter weather and the oppressive oppression of the economic disaster that is Michigan. Everything just looked so ... ugly. It was just so ... cold. And getting together with friends - the usual antidote when the bad parts of living in Detroit get to you - is met with people complaining about the same things you're complaining about.

Now boarding: flight back to Detroit.
I would have been lucky to be seated in between these two. Instead I got the overweight single mom from downriver
with a smoker's voice, and a styrofoam container of fast food and a two-year old on her lap.

It's an ugly time in Detroit.

And that leads me to thinking about the Supergay agenda for 2009. Last year I wanted to promote the city as a good destination for gays and help foster gay community. I think overall I can say that was achieved, although without any measurable result (except for Doggy Style, that's a certifiable hit).

This year I need to strike closer to the root of the problems that disturb me. I learned in Palm Springs that a surplus of gay people isn't what I really want - being there, as delightful as it was, actually made me long for the mosaic of people who are part of my life downtown, even if I do sometimes feel like I'm somewhat isolated as a gay dude. All good things in moderation, I suppose.

This year, we've got to work on the aesthetics of life in Detroit. As inspiring as the cycle of decay and (ideally) rebirth can sometimes be, the downward slope can be really depressing. Palm Springs showed me what pretty can do for your attitude, and my return home showed me how ugly can just suck the life out of you.

I can't fix the weather, and I can't fix the blight. But I can point out what is right and I can try to encourage individual efforts to make Detroit slightly more attractive.

So on top of the gay attraction agenda of 2008, this year we'll add "beautification" to the list. Because Detroit, you can do better, even if means not wearing that ugly sweatshirt out in public. I'm sure I'll follow through as well as last year, but at least we'll get the message out there for a while.


Friday, January 9, 2009

What the ... ?

OK, it's either bizarro Detroit or someone somewhere read a magazine article about the buying power of gays, because there are two random gay nights on the horizon here.

Firstly and most promising, there is a huge
drag show at the Majestic tonight! The Majestic Divas Present A Winter Wonderland! It is a show featuring Detroit's finest drag queens in an evening of female impersonation, comedy, dancing and more! In other words, a full on drag extravaganza!

While I might be skeptical of an event like this at the Majestic, which is one of the straighter venues in town overall, the list of performers leads me to believe this will be a really great night. Electra Lites, DeAngela "Show" Shannon, S'myra Skye Banks, Hershae Chocolatae, Cece Daniels, Tianna Rumbous, Misty Harrington and Gayla Grace.

From the queens I am familiar with in here and the names of the rest, I am betting on a performance from Detroit's premiere black queens, and that means realness and talent! I will see you there - a $10 cover is a steal!

Now in an interesting alternate, um, universe, the Hard Rock Cafe is starting a gay night. There are so many things wrong with that I can't even being to recount them. But I will point out two.

First of all, it's the Hard Rock Cafe. I don't know if anyone noticed, but "rock and roll" and "gay" don't really go hand in hand. Rock people don't really like gay, and gays don't really like rock.

Secondly, the Guerrilla Gay Bar that was held
at the Hard Rock was successful but the separation between the regular clientele of the Hard Rock and the gay guerrillas was distinct and glaring.

But ok, so here it is. Each Sunday there will be
Rockin' Out Detroit, a differently-themed gay night at Hard Rock! And the cover is only $10 (which includes a drink ticket)! This week's theme, 80's night. Because white people love an 80's night. I am going out on a limb and presume they won't do it quite like hipster Fierce Hot Mess or Sass does 80's.

I guess, you know, good for them? All I know is between
Doggy Style every week and a bi-monthly Fierce Hot Mess my gay ad-hoc social calendar is pretty exhausting.

So it may be weird that so many straight places are putting out feelers for the gay dollar, it is nice that it's all happening downtown! Too bad they don't know there are only 14 of us down here!

I love to try to do it all, but I'm realistic about my ability now that I'm getting so very old. But I'll tell you this: I can always make time for a drag show, so I hope to see you tonight!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Friend Indeed

I'm gonna ask all you blog readers to help me help a friend.

My friend Rose is the first person I came out to right after getting to college. She already had a gay friend from high school so I knew it was safe to tell her, and she let me hang in her room and read Maurice by E.M. Forster (before going to see the movie which had just been released, and seeing Barney Frank on the T on the way ... it was my first gay-ish weekend).

You can never really return the favor of someone listening to your stupid coming out angst, but here I am going to try.

Rose and her husband Dan have entered a contest to win a new scooter. The contest entails making a video based on this new microfiber map that Rand McNally came out with called FabMap. The idea is that you have a handy hanky with you all the time and when you get lost you can look at the map on it. They have them for many locations but NOT Detroit. I think the idea is that you use it for walking around, and Detroit is not a real walky place, you may have noticed.

Anyway, they need to get views and (hopefully) good ratings for their video to help them win. If it isn't too much trouble, why don't you watch this fun video about love in the city by the bay. And if you are really awesome, maybe you can register on the site and give the video a good rating! I did (and then promptly unsubscribed from e-mails).

Help me help Rose win a scooter so that karmically we can be equal!

Find more videos like this on I Never Get Lost

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