Bringing It All Back Home

Wolf and Dessauer’s, Fort Wayne’s Finest

Billy was my friend for over 50 years. For the first 30 of those I wasn’t even calling him by his correct name.

After graduating from beauty school in the 1950’s he went to work in the salon at Wolf and Dessauer’s, Fort Wayne’s leading department store. The impresario of the shop decided he needed a different name because she already had a couple of Bills. Like Lady Marjorie naming one of the servants on Upstairs Downstairs, she decided he would be called Steve. No questions asked, that was his professional name.

By the late 50’s Steve was ready to branch out on his own. He took his stage name with him and opened his own salon in a Victorian at the corner of Broadway and Kinnaird. For the next half century, The Corner House became the ne plus ultra for the city’s toniest coiffures..

With Billy-Steve, early 1980’s

Steve was one of Rosie Didier’s best friends which is how Mother heard of the shop. She started going around 1965 and soon became friends with the owner. She was puzzled by the name dichotomy at first then learned why some of his closer friends called him Billy.

But she persisted on calling him Steve. They had been introduced that way and she wasn’t one for playing games. So I called him Steve too.

When I was thinking about the gay thing in high school, I knew the men in the salon were a link to that mysterious life. I couldn’t completely figure them out but they had the trendiest clothing, seemed to always have fun and were forever changing hair styles. When I got my drivers license and knew I’d be picking Mother up at the shop, I made sure to wear my latest.

Everything looks better in black and white. Unless you’re trying to describe red platform shoes.

Junior year in college was the season of the Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I’d been to the Brass Boot on Oak Street in Chicago and came away with a pair of red leather platform shoes. They had three inch heels that were silver as were the soles and the stars that were on either side of the red leather. Everyone took notice including Granddad whose indifference to my wardrobe never waivered. He asked dryly if the shoes were for “orthopedic purposes.”

The staff in the Corner House took note as well. Although too cool and professional to fawn over them in person, their comments filtered back through my Mother for weeks to come. Even years later someone would occasionally ask her if I still had the red shoes.

Steve had been kind to me when I was in high school and college. But we never socialized. That all changed when I turned twenty-one. Suddenly the world of cocktail lounges and dinner dates that he and Mother inhabited opened up to me. Exposed to the full bore of his humor and intellect, I understood why Mother found him so engaging. I started to gain confidence that I could hold my own with him.

Head, Heart, Hands, Health–Hell yeah

With his rapier wit, Steve was a master at playful banter. If you got off a decent quip you could always expect a response in kind. One year I sent a Christmas card of Jayne Mansfield decorating the tree. I wrote I’d found this old photo of Mother wearing what I believed was one of her 4-H sewing projects.

I then saw him when I went home for vacation. His first words were, “I think you’re right. that was the year she won the blue ribbon at the county fair.”.

Hometown boy makes urine. Paying my respects at Johnny Appleseed’s grave, early 1970s.

In the end my route out of the closet ran through the Union Building in Bloomington and not the Corner House. In less than a month the scales fell from my eyes. I was meeting guys who were young, attractive, intelligent and witty. Except for their sex partners, they were just like other kids. It really was not that big of a deal.

My apprehensions had been based on a lack of information. The only ones talking about gay people were those who hated them. It was hard to reconcile what I felt with the child molestor/sex offender characterizations gays were given. Which is why I was so curious about the guys at The Corner House. They didn’t strike me as criminal class.

Until my generation gay life was underground. There was no visible community portraying a positive image to counteract all the negativity. In the early 1970s emerging political groups were rapidly trying to change that. 

There was pressure for gays to come out to everybody especially their families. The suggested mode was the classic intergenerational speech that began, in hushed tones, with the cliche, “Mom…Dad…I’m gay.”

No one in my family communicated like that and I wasn’t going to be the first. Still I needed to acknowledge my sexuality somehow.

Eric in a bridesmaid dress we found in Mother’s attic

Eric was a Bloomington friend who also was from Fort Wayne, although we didn’t meet until college. Mother got to know him during our breaks at home. She was fond of him because he would openly discuss any subject with her. Their talks were so frank, a sense of propriety had me leaving the room at times. I wasn’t about to discuss that with her.

Eric and I never had sex although we could have. Everyone was doing everybody and with an “all-in” attitude like that STDs were rampant. It was 10 years before AIDS, VD was like the common cold in college.

I had several illnesses as a child and still felt the need to communicate to Mother when I was sick. So on one of my calls from campus I fabricated the story that I’d contacted gonorrhea from Eric. I wasn’t completely lying, I did have the infection. I just used him to soften the blow.

Mother’s immediate response was direct, “well, have you been to the doctor?” Any disdain she felt was was for the disease not the act.  She’d been through my childhood TB, double pneumonia, spinal meningitis and hepatitis but no member of her family was ever stricken with a malady like this.

There might have been a perfunctory “be careful” during the call but not much else was said about it. From that point on, however, there were no major secrets between us.

I offer this as an example to mental health professionals. There are probably more sensitive ways to address coming out, but it’s just as effective to say, “Mom…Dad…Eric gave me the clap.”

Later that same year. Me in the bridesmaid outfit at Halloween.

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