Dilemma: I viewed the citizens of Milwaukee as my tribe – transplanted, Brooklyn stoop-sitters. But, they viewed me as a recruiting officer for the Viet Cong.
Solution: I had to change how Milwaukee saw me. I had to shave my beard. I had to cut my hair.
I loved my shaggy self, but I was hungry, broke and beaten. So, when a movie theater offered me work as an usher, but only if I took a haircut, I took a haircut. The barber howled with glee as he hacked away at my freaky flag while his waiting customers pointed and giggled at my humiliation. It was the most painful haircut I have ever taken and the worst. But, it worked. It made me invisible.
The duplex movie house that hired me was in downtown Milwaukee. Downstairs it ran Julie Andrews musicals while upstairs it screened what passed for porn in Catholic Milwaukee. Back in Sheboygan, I had seen the movie Goodbye, Columbus. When Ali McGraw dove naked into a swimming pool a celluloid X covered the entire screen. Nude scene over – the X disappeared. I was one shocked New Yorker. The locals didn’t even blink. But, Milwaukee was more sophisticated than Sheboygan. In fact, we screened the world’s only Mongolian soft-core porn film and that classic was held over for weeks.
So, downstairs it was all little old ladies in hats and upstairs it all was dirty old men in trench coats. Oh, and the Vice Squad. They were upstairs a lot, especially for the Mongolian porn. They needed multiple viewings to fully grasp the depth of the film’s decadence. They’d push past me with a quick flash of the badge and a quick grunt of “Vice.” When I was bored, I’d tear the cinemagoers tickets and send the cinemagoers to the wrong cinema. I did so enjoy imagining their confused faces as they waited for Julie Andrews to break out of her bra and the naked Mongolians to break into song.
I also had to skulk around both cinemas, flashlight in hand, ensuring that no one had their feet on the seats or was smoking in the “No Smoking” section or jerking-off in the “No Jerking-off” section. You gotta watch those little old ladies every minute!
I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in strange towns and since I was broke that was my only entertainment in Milwaukee – a strange town indeed. On Saturday nights, I watched German and Polish farm-boys, come to the big city for an evening of beer drinking and beer vomiting, challenge each other to daredevil leaps across the opening drawbridges that spanned the Milwaukee River. Sometimes they made it.
Milwaukee hippiedom amounted to one music store that sold records, bongs and crucially, pot to put in those bongs. It was there I met a speed-freak wraith named Tulip. This sixteen-year-old ruin was another sign to me that all was not well in the post-Woodstock days of 1969. We’d just had Manson. Altamont lay dead ahead. The party was if not over, definitely winding down and the casualties were piling up.
Earlier that summer, I’d met another faded flower child. She had allowed a motorcycle gang to pull out all her teeth with pliers. She was tripping on acid at the time of the extraction and was sure her sacrifice would win her the bikers’ undying approbation. No wonder I felt a millennial chill.
Tulip asked me for spare change when she’d been kicked out of the record store for loitering with sonic-erotic intent. She was one of several speed freaks I’d observed attach themselves to the front of the mountainous Marshall amplifier used to play records at ear-bleed volume. They glued their emaciated bodies to the amp’s front like an octopus to a rock. There they clung thrusting their pathetically thin pelvises into the vibrating sound cone as they and the guitar solo reached climax. And, there they remained until the store clerk peeled them off or the music ended and they slid to the floor in post-coital bliss.
I reckoned my next/best hope was Milwaukee. (And, if that isn’t the textbook definition of a dilemma I don’t know what is.) But, I figured it was a big enough city where I could be anonymous and find a job – maybe even an acting job. If Milwaukee didn’t work out, I’d ride the rails. In yet another LSD-addled fantasy, I hallucinated my life as a rugged, soulful vagabond – Paul Muni in I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang, but with music by Woody Guthrie. I might even change my name to Woody or Slim and I would wear nothing but denim accented with red bandanas. I’d learn harmonica and my Mulligan Stew would be legendary in hobo jungles from Bangor to Baja.
Yeah, just try and find me, Uncle Sam. So, one morning after Steve left for work, I left him a note. Then I grabbed my few rags, grabbed a Greyhound and made for Milwaukee aka “Beertown.”
Dilemma: Milwaukee was Sheboygan, only larger and less welcoming. Worse – it reeked of roasting hops, beer and beer vomit. I hated beer. I hated beer vomit. And, “Beertown” hated me.