In 1910 the Art Institute of Chicago established a summer artist colony near a sleepy little town along Lake Michigan. Over the next ten years many gays, including a prominent Chicago interior designer, bought summer homes near-by and thus a secret movement was born. A private gay-friendly beach was established as well as a gay friendly bar in an era when it was actually against state law to serve liquor to openly gay patrons. Fitting with the times they kept a low-profile, unbeknownst to most of the locals and tourists who flocked to the town for summer fun and sun. Don and I both spent time there in our teens and ‘20s, before we knew each other, and after we met it was our favorite place to go for a day trip. The art galleries, beach, marina, restaurants and festivals were and still are fantastic. We were not aware of the town’s “secrets” until one of the town’s residents got angry when he found out that several of the local businesses were listed in a guide for gay travelers (circa late '70s?) and one of those businesses mysteriously burned down. Things got tense over the next few months, another arson was attempted and the media picked up the story. The closeted gay community was outed. Fast forward to now and many businesses that are owned by gays fly a rainbow flag by their doors and no one walks into a gay bar by mistake.
That was not always true, though. Not long after the story broke we had some old friends visit from out of town. The couple had gone to high school with Don and those three had a long history of playing practical jokes on each other and since they no longer lived in Michigan they were clueless regarding the recent stories about Saugatuck. One night we all decided to go over to Lake Michigan to sample the night life and Don took us to a gay bar---without telling our friends ahead of time. When we pulled into the parking lot I recognized the name of the bar from the media coverage but I got 'that look' from Don that all women know and it said: “Don’t say it!” In other words, the jokerster was back in practice.
The place had a long staircase you had to walk down to get to the club and we were all busy watching where we were stepping in the dim light when a bunch of people broke out singing, “You’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time!” We took the only table open, smack-dab in the center of the place and as our friends were looking around, trying to make sense out of what they were seeing, a guy came over to our guy friend and said, “Would you like to dance?” Talk about a pregnant pause! It took forever for Ron to reply, “Thanks, not right now. Maybe later?” A waiter came over next, took our order and served us quickly---the four of us trying hard not to laugh as we talked about everything but where we were at, sure our every word was being monitored for mocking or insults from the "sightseers." We left after one drink and back in the car Ron said that it took him so long to answer the guy who asked him to dance because he knew he’d been pranked and he was thinking about saying "yes" as an attempt to prank Don back. Saugatuck is full of memories of all descriptions and Don was a master storyteller. Over the years, when he'd tell the story about the gay bar it often took longer to tell than the amount of time we spent inside the place.
Wednesday I got a wonderful surprise. My oldest niece and I had lunch in Saugatuck. We originally had planned to meet for lunch on the south end of town, but the night before she proposed a change in plans and I couldn’t have been more elated. We'd still meet in the same place but we'd hop on the highway headed toward Lake Michigan. It was just what I needed. For four hours we talked about family, politics, women’s history and how fast things have changed for the LGBT community nation-wide. We also had a good laugh over the fact that the restaurant at the marina where we ate lunch had liver and onions as a special. “It’s got to be a sign from Grandma!” she said. “How often do you see that on a menu?" My mom used to cook it once a week and on liver night I had to sit at the table until bedtime because I couldn’t eat it without gagging. My niece loves it and ordered it after I promised the smell wouldn’t bother me. Thankfully, it didn’t smell because I lied. For a fleeting moment I was tempted to taste her liver to see if it still makes me gag, but I was afraid my mom’s laughter would ring for the world to hear out if I didn’t spit the liver out and try to give it to the long-dead dog who parked underneath the table on liver day. That is until my brother snitched on me and the dog.
During the outing, my niece took me to see her daughter’s house, an American Four Square, circa 1910/20, that my great-niece and her husband have gutted and are in the process of updating all the mechanics, the wiring, plumbing, plaster, etc. My niece knows that Don and I loved looking at fixer uppers and that I’d be able visualize what the place will look like after the rehab. As I stood surrounded by all the dreams in progress it brought back marvelous memories of a house Don and I had put an offer on, a brick farmhouse with a round barn that never had indoor plumbing or electricity and probably hadn’t been cleaned since the day it was built. The bathroom fixtures sat in the basement still in their late-1800’s Sears and Roebuck shipping crates. That house would have been an adventure and I sometimes wonder how restoring it would have changed the trajectory of our lives.
Running away from home on Wednesday was just what I needed. My niece and I looked backward and forward and we enjoyed both views on a beautiful sunny day. ©