Building Fall Down Go Boom

Have you ever sat through the Saturday morning teenybopper shows on NBC? All of them seem like warmed-over “Saved by the Bell” wannabes, each with exactly one stylishly-attired member of each major ethnic group (although some have two or three stylishly-attired white kids…audience demographics, y’know…). I can’t imagine watching this crap even when I was a kid. However, I did sit through it on Saturday morning in Detroit.

I should have been visiting the boy in the room next door: the one Scott and I had (mistakenly, it seems) pegged as a straight high school kid throwing a homecoming party or something. More about him later.

Instead, I waited for the abortion protest to end and tried to get in touch with Mike, another email correspondent who was planning to show me around a little. Unfortunately, we never could connect (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the message light on my phone wasn’t working).

 

Soon enough I was off with Scott to downtown Detroit for the demolition of what used to be Hudson’s Department Store, second largest building of its kind in the United States. This is the event around which my entire trip was oriented, and frankly I was pretty amazed that there wasn’t a bigger crowd assembled to see it. All the same, I’m told, there were more people downtown on a Saturday afternoon this day than there had been in years. Specifically, there were more WHITE people. Maybe they felt safer knowing their suburban counterparts were there to protect them.

There was definitely a crowd at Jacoby’s, a cool bar nearby, with a tasty bartender and a good beer selection.

Demolitions of old buildings are always disturbing to me, and since I’m just barely old enough to remember when big downtown departent stores were the rule rather than the exception, I could identify with the old-timers who were sad to see it go. On the other hand, this building could never really have been re-used and its vacant shell was a big slap in the face to residents forced to see it everyday…a constant reminder of what Detroit used to be and would probably never be again. So I could also understand that many people were glad to see it go.

  

After a few delays, we heard the first blasts. Nothing happened. I wasn’t worried, having watched the Hotel Charlotte in North Carolina demolished in similar fashion about ten years before. Eventually, wings started collapsing, the crowd started cheering, and the whole thing was over in a few more seconds.

  

And then came this horrendous dust cloud. I was prepared for this as well, having been caught in it at my last implosion. We even brought masks and offered the extras to a few kids so they could propagate the species. Once the building came down, I grabbed Scott and we ducked into a corner bar (which locked its doors against the dust a few minutes later). When the dust settled, it looked like a gray blizzard had hit.

 

After drinking a toast to Hudson’s, there was time to roam around downtown Detroit (which was now relatively dust-free) for a while. This was a good excuse for food at Lafayette Coney Island, which came highly recommended by my friend Rae. Coney islands (hot dogs) seem to be a pretty high art form in Detroit. This place was incredible. Thanks Rae.

 

I took lots of pictures. Downtown Detroit is such an amazing place, with blocks and blocks of early 20th century commercial buildings and skyscrapers, many of them alarmingly vacant and abandoned, standing like testosterone-deficient phallic symbols (did I really write that?). There is life downtown. You just have to look for it.

 

There was another beer or two later, of course, at Steve’s, this very strange old bar run by the same marginally bitter couple for about 50 years or so. Huge place. Nothing on the walls. Bathroom from the 30’s. Cheap beer. I love hanging out with locals. Afterwards, we retired to the Motel 6 for what was supposed to be a nap (no…I’m not offering any details thank you…) and then off to more Detroit nightlife.

 

We hit a leather bar called the R&R (I think), which allegedly has some backroom action some nights (but not this night) and then a beautiful, huge, new club on Michigan Avenue. This place was your basic top-notch dance club. At 1AM on Saturday night, we were the only customers. I don’t understand…

Find a City

Not that I’m committing to any radical course of action in the face of my current disillusionment, but I find myself scoping other cities with increasing frequency. Any comments (particularly from people who live or have lived in any of these places) are most welcome. First, some of the criteria:

Type of City:

I fancy a fairly large place (in the 500,000 to 1,000,000 population range) just because these cities tend to be more interesting and diverse, and have bonuses like working transit, a variety of bars and restaurants, etc. I do, however, want a place where having a car is not a complete nightmare. I do in fact have a bias for older (perhaps even decaying) industrial-type cities. One bedroom apartments in the $500 range are a plus. Cheaper ones are a much bigger plus. Some job options might be nice too…

Geography:

Proximity to the Family is increasingly important; I’d like to be within a day’s drive from home. This rules out the west coast. Having a river, lake, or other large body of water IN the city is pretty essential as well, for aesthetic reasons rather than recreational ones. A variety of fairly close road trip destinations is just as important. I don’t particularly mind cold weather, or even some snow, although these are not “must haves”. I really hate hot summers.

Ruled out from the start:

Cute college towns, gentrified yuppie meccas, and relatively suburban boomtowns (Houston, Denver, Charlotte) hold no appeal whatsoever. Neither do congested nightmares like Washington, New York, and Boston. Portland and Seattle are probably not options either, losing out only because of distance from the parents. Los Angeles and San Diego never were options, nor was the southwest or New England. And I will not move back to the south…no discussion allowed…

And now the short list (not that I’m planning to move or anything):

  • Chicago (visited in 1996 and 1997): A little big, a little pricey, and the summers (and winters) are brutal. But it’s a great place. I like the way it looks. I could spend several years exploring and not get bored. There are White Castles and cheap Indian restaurants, and bowling alleys which host bands, and the transit is good.
  • Detroit (visited once in 1997): Most people who know me realize I have an unhealthy obsession with Detroit. The climate sucks, there’s no transit to speak of, and the place can be down right scary. But I still like it. Canada’s just across the river. The cost of living is close to nothing. They have White Castles too…
  • Baltimore (most recent visit in 1997): I’ve visited pretty often and Baltimore has always intrigued me. No one seems to like the place except its residents. This is a big plus. It’s also close to New York, Philadelphia, and home, and not all that far from Chicago and Detroit. Could be an option…
  • Toronto (visited once in 1979): I don’t know about the logistics of moving to Canada. But I’d like to look around the place and see how it’s changed since my last visit nearly 20 years ago…
  • Oakland (just across the bay): I include Oakland simply because it’s where I WILL live if I stay in the Bay Area…
  • Minneapolis (visited once in 1996): Damn…talk about ugly winters… But I like the place and I have a fair number of friends there. It’s a little far from home and the road trip options are pretty much limited to Chicago, but they do have White Castles, so I’ll say Minneapolis has a slightly more than slight chance…
  • Pittsburgh (visited once in 1997): Another one with an outside chance. Great place, hugely industrial and working class feel. Lots of hills and rivers. But it’s a bit isolated and I fear for the nightlife options. Very possible, still…

The second tier: Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia…

Suggestions, comments, job offers, and links to cool web sites are solicited. Not that I’m planning to move or anything…

Chicago

 

Two and a half days in Chicago, and I’m not sure if the town ever once toddled, but I like it there anyway. So much so, in fact, that I’d consider moving there in an instant if (again) the weather weren’t so severe. I can deal with the cold and the snow; it’s the summers that would get me. Fortunately, at least on this visit, things were just right. Last time, it got a little cool and I was a little rushed.

 

I didn’t cover nearly as much ground as I’d have liked, simply because I just didn’t figure in enough time there. I was also unable to connect with Gary or Curt. But the accommodation and guided tour, courtesy of Joe, my host, were great. I predict another visit to the windy city very soon; I have to admit the place fascinates me tremendously.

 

Diving into Woolworth’s downtown proved to be rewarding. It’s really depressing that this American institution is about to disappear forever. I almost picked up a lunch counter stool for $35, but decided I didn’t really want to carry it around the country and back in my back seat. I’ll probably come to regret that decision.

There was also a visit to the first Ray Kroc McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines. Contrary to popular belief, this was neither the first McDonald’s (that was in San Bernadino), nor the first McDonald’s franchise (which I believe was in Sacramento). It was, however, the beginning of the evil empire we know today as McDonald’s Corp.

 

Much-anticipated was my return to return to Big Chicks, which may be my favorite queer bar between New York and San Francisco. This time, I even met one of the owners. She was fairly big, but not huge.

The Chicago Reader is without doubt the best free weekly in the country, putting even the Village Voice to shame.

A few more highlights:

  • Dinner at the Wishbone, a “home-cooking” establishment which seems oddly out of place in a dark industrial district. Liked the restaurant. Hated that they were out of pork chops.
  • Boy-watching (and band-watching) at the Empty Bottle.
  • Street cruising on Winnemac Avenue (which I’m told is NOT common). Guess I’m just lucky…
  • Compulsively humming the theme from “Good Times” after driving through the Cabrini-Green projects in which it was set. This got a little embarrassing.
  • The “el”. Being short for “elevated”, it is not spelled “L”. Keep that in mind, please.
  • Yet more White Castle. Yumm…
  • A tour of the Chicago boulevards of urban planning fame.
  • Joe’s really cool 1972-era book on drag culture.

 

Chicago is an amazing place, which is unlike any other city of its size in the US. The fact that land was so abundant has resulted in an unusually sprawling city by east coast standards, but still a very dense and concentrated one compared to the rest of the midwest and west. The streetscapes are wonderful and colorful, the road system works, and driving around the city is a joy I might never tire of; there’s something to see around every corner, from neatly-maintained rowhouses to industrial wastelands to the severe decay of the south side projects. Like I said, Chicago just fascinates me.

 

And there was also my moment at the very start of Route 66 at Lakeshore Drive and Jackson Boulevard. It’s a little disorienting to do Route 66 out of sequence, but it’s better than not at all, I guess.

 
All in all, it was an eventful couple of days. And, after a drive through the depressing landscape of the south side and the Indiana suburbs, followed by a few hours of Indiana farmland, I have now successfully reached Indianapolis, where I’m living in the lap of luxury thanks to Bob. The Hoosier adventure begins in earnest tomorrow.

Chicago

I wanted Chicago to be much more than it was. Maybe I didn’t spend enough quality time there and maybe it’s because we didn’t do sufficient planning, but Christopher and I were two fags in search of a scene and there just didn’t seem to be one. Driving and parking were a nightmare (yes…worse than in San Francisco) and it was 27 degrees one day, which is outside my California-moderated temperate zone. All the same, there were moments. And anything would seem exciting after driving across Wisconsin!

  

How could I not stay at this place? It was almost as much a symbol of good karma as the White Castle I encountered on the way into Minneapolis. And it was cheap! When we checked in, having OK’ed the two people/one bed arrangement, I offered ID. The nice lady at the deask responded “I’d ask other people for it, but I won’t ask you…if you know what I mean…” (Insert wink and nudge.) My theory was it was related to our inherent whiteness. Christopher’s guess was that she thought he was my whore and the fags would treat the room gently. Who knows? Big old console TV in the room which displayed “The Simpsons” in colors I didn’t know existed. I was appalled to find a station which plays not one, but TWO reruns of “Home Improvement” daily.

The closest thing to a scene we found and the reason our road trip was scheduled as it was. Picture a 50-year-old bowling alley which has never been remodeled. Add an all-ages show, put on by Homocore Chicago featuring the Third Sex (again) and Kaia. Great scene, great place. But they need to serve food (or maybe it was just that I hadn’t had my White Castle fix for the day…)

  

 

Christopher did the Art Institute. I took pictures of buildings.

Friday was good, although the “driving aimlessly” thing got a tad tedious, especially due to the fact that driving in Chicago is truly an obnoxious thing. Downtown Chicago rules, but we were never quite able to find the “cool neighborhood” (or at least not until it was too late.) Made it home in time for most of “The Simpsons”.

I’ve always heard bad things about the Chicago bar scene, but I didn’t dare believe them. Until this week. Five bars visited: the Manhole, Cell Block, Big Chicks, Berlin, and Cocktails. The first two seemed OK, if a bit mired in the 70’s leather/disco scene (in a non-endearing sort of way.) The Cell Block actually has a dress code for its back patio, a practice I thought (hoped?) had gone out of vogue about fifteen years ago. I also question their definition of “rock and roll”. Big Chicks seemed to have potential and reminded me a little of the Tunnel Bar (not the club) in NYC, but was pretty slow, perhaps due to location. Cocktails was too deplorable and preppy to consider except as a place to sit down and be warm. Berlin may have been the best of the bunch, but it was tremendously clubby and crowded and had no place to escape. I actively solicit suggestions for my next visit.

I hate to sound like I’m running down Chicago. Maybe we just needed the right “native guide”. I just sensed a really strange energy there (and I rarely use that term) and never quite felt comfortable anywhere. Next time?