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 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.
Sheboygan looked like Our Town and it was. As in: “This is our town you no-good, long-haired, faggot hippie-freak! What the fuck do you think you’re doing in our town? If you so much as look at one of our women (not that a faggot like you looks at women), we’ll cut your dick off and throw it on the grill at our next Bratwurst Festival.”
As I’d driven into Sheboygan, I’d passed this cheery, road sign –
Welcome to Sheboygan!
Bratwurst capital of the world!
The sign was lined with the crests of the Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Masons, Moose, Owls and Odd Fellows – everything but the Raccoon Lodge and the Mystic Knights of the Sea. But, the town’s “Welcome Wagon” committee hadn’t taken that big-hearted, big-bratwurst sentiment to heart; especially where bearded, longhaired, hippie-freaks were concerned. If you looked like I did and weren’t in college or crippled then folks, especially in places like Sheboygan, were mighty suspicious –
“Why aren’t you in the Army, boy?”
You know the scene in the movie where the stranger walks down Main Street and merchants pull down their shades and hang the “Closed” sign on the door while parents cover their kids’ eyes and pull them indoors? That was me in Sheboygan in 1969. You know the movie scene in which the stranger turns a corner and walks smack into the high school football team who proceed to kick the stranger’s long-haired behind? That was me. Or, the scene where the town’s folk speak angrily about the stranger in the third person while the stranger is standing right next to them? Me, again. So, getting a job in Sheboygan in 1969 was near-on impossible. In fact, it was impossible. Employers asked to see my Draft card which listed me as 1A, which marked me as bound for Saigon which raised alarm bells about my being in Sheboygan and close to Canada.
To avoid the Draft, Steve who’d been my drama teacher in the Catholic seminary, suggested I move in with him in Sheboygan, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan. It seemed like the best way to save my 1A ass. If the Draft noose tightened, I could easily slip across Lake Michigan to Canada and safety. In my LSD-addled brain, I hallucinated myself wearing a leather-fringed jacket while felling a redwood on the shore of Lake Michigan which I assumed was an easily navigable, tranquil pond. I imagined myself hewing a canoe out of the fallen trunk then paddling across to Canada where the Indian maiden pictured on packages of Land O’ Lakes butter would await me – kneeling on a rock, her arms extended in wise, warm Native American greeting. We would then retire to her wigwam for some wise, warm, Native American fucking. When my squaw and I presented our papoose to the people of Canada, they would toss their Mountie hats in the air while Neil Young and Joni Mitchell serenaded the scene. Never mind that had I canoed across Lake Michigan I would have landed in… oops… Michigan. (So, okay, geography wasn’t my strong suit.)