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Calumet City Indiana

Spitbacks wait for marks and 11am is the dead of night...

One hour south of Chicago, just this side of the Indiana line, there's a patchwork burg that looks by day like any midland patch you see from any railroad right-of-way: the same small frame houses, quietly curtained, where 20,000 squares bless their state of grace and gratefully tuck themselves in by ten. Where Daddy gets up at five a.m., bangs pots about the kitchen a while, and leaves with a black lunch bucket under his arm to be on time at the roundhouse by six.

Where crossing bells dong the whole forenoon, warning Daddy to get his work done and get back between walls again, lest some creature of the cat's twilight creep over the state line and snatch him into Indiana.

Under the patchwork a baby Babylon lies sleeping. Bar-broad and booth-broad, both alike, pimp and puller, each the same, stripper and bartender, owner and drummer, M.C. and trumpeter, cats that have howled the whole night through, all, all lie dreaming while crossing bells toll.

Now the jukes sleep like tired horses. In a country where eleven a.m. is the very dead of night. For even the jukes rest. Rest until that hour that twilight falls in, and squares begin to feel tuckered; then the baby Babylon will stretch and yawn.

The night's first juke will waken, neighing, your cheating heart will tell you. From somewhere down the other side of the strip a bigger juke will neigh reply, You ain't nothin' but a hound dawg.

By nine p.m. the girls in their gown will be playing booth and bar stroll for "spitbacks" - shot glasses of tea or sherry, but never of hard liquor; her work is to get the mark loaded, not herself.

Spitback kittens get a dollar and the house six bits for every shot. The waitress, humble child, tips herself two bits and doesn't ask for more. If you think you can get off cheaper by buying beer, give one of the hillbilly caves a play. You'll get off cheaper. But you'll drink alone.

The straight spitbacker, the girl who doesn't get a chance to undress publicly because she doesn't quite own the grace, the looks or the build, has to press the mark harder than the stripper. The stripper has a salary besides what she can hustle off drinks; the spitbacker has none.

"I could of been a stripper myself," one of these chicks assures me, "only my hips was just a mite thin. I could of been a model except my bust was just a mite low. I could have been a typist, but my fingernails was just a mite long. Once I could have been a coppers old lady, only I cant bear no copper. I could of married a airlines pilot, I think. Then all I'd have to do was just sort of fly around. I could have married lots of men, I could of been most anything. Only, a funny thing, sometimes I really don't care for men. That must be why I'm doing what I'm doing now. I just don't care for them."

And what are you doing now, my rain-colored kitten, is a question as well left unmasked. And yet, in the hour of the outcast cat, that is long past twelve, yet far from morning, you'll see the very same chick, the girl who doesn't care for men, in the evening gown and fur wrap over it, hurrying away from the music and the lights toward the darkness at the end of the world.

For the end of State Street is the end of the G-string Gomorrah, the end of Babylon, the edge of honky-tonk country. And where she goes when she goes, nobody knows nor how long she'll be gone. She may not care especially for men, but so long as jukeboxes blow blues away between midnight and dawn, she'll need them to get by.

Because she doesn't depend so wholly on a percentage of the drinks, the stripper often gives the spitbacker first crack at a mark. Her investment is in her act, and a few have fairly elaborate productions.

One uses a shower stall and a bed to help her stimulate a girl showering before turning in, with all the soapless fancies seizing her as she strolls about all dry. Another, under a floppy chapeau, does Mademoiselle de Pails lyrics in G.I. French and lined out in a good clear voice despite a trumpet blaring off key behind her. Others play it Cuban, Turkish or Hindu. The farther from home you get, it would seem, the wilder the women.

Yet none so wild-seeming as the doll who comes out dancing with an effigy of a Satanic after theatre type in black and scarlet cloak, dancing out a losing struggle to keep her honor. This is sometimes done with a gorilla, though why a gorilla would be coming on with a cotton headed blonde when he could stay home and have a lady gorilla without risking a pinch is one of those things I can never quite figure.

"Get off your cotton-picked hands," the emcee challenges his public, "the more you give out, the harder she works, the harder she works the more you see of her, the more you see of her the less you see of me." Fair enough.

To judge just by his mug, he's an ex-pug who didn't do too well pugging, and he isn't doing too much better emceeing. Once in awhile he'll trill, "Now I'm trolling for fairies," and sail away through the light with his shirt flowing behind and his pants falling 'til they bind his ankles and he stands in the spot in his baggy shorts, making motions like a crippled butterfly.

"God give me strength," he prays as he pulls up his pants, "this is as funny as we get." Female impersonation is sure fire for laughs.

Fortunately, nobody expects him to get truly funny. His trade seems to be chiefly to encourage applause for the strippers, and he works hard at it. Sometimes, to get them off their hands, he'll twirl a girl's breast like a pinwheel. If you don't have talent you work without.

Sometimes he'll play a Jolson recording offstage and mug along with it, pretending it's himself doing the singing. This is called record-miccing, a trade honest as most.

And season of sun or season of sleet, the patient old pullers hold the big doors wide to seduce the marks that pass and repass, weather wet or weather dry. The wandering conventioneer, the Indiana preacher of the side-street solitary from Chicago's deeps, all appear, to the puller, to be wearing an 'M' for 'Mark' right in the middle of the forehead.

"This is the place, buddy, this is it, the show where they go all the way. She's taking 'em off right now, you're just in time." The puller never notices them in the middle of his own brow. Yet there's more to being a puller than grabbing the sleeve and hauling it in. These are old survivors of jungle and carnival, operators of bingo, Ferris wheels and floating crap games, that own a discerning eye for the law that wears neither badge nor uniform.

They are outposts as well as haulers, guardians of the doors as well as openers. For, syndicate or no syndicate, you're never sure when some captain's man in plain-clothes will sneak inside, pinch a couple of girls and run the customers off, and keep the heat on for as long as three days.

Several years ago the mayor of Cal City got himself taken along on just such a raid. But when the girl he had pinched was brought to trial, the judge ruled that the mayor, who had been the movement's rear guard, had been too far from the stage to qualify as a material witness.

The following May a candidate for mayor, running on a "close-the-joints" platform, made a successful campaign. Not a joint was closed.

Though the reforming elements do succeed in pinching a stripper and fining an owner now and then, they can't board up the strip because it's the town's economic jugular. You don't fool around with jugulars.

The cabarets have been running since the lighting was still by gas, and they'll still be honky-tonking when the neon is lit by atomic power. The strip is forty years old and looks good for forty more. Some assume that when the St. Lawrence Waterway comes in, Calumet Harbor will become the world's greatest inland port and the joints will have to close just to lend the city a dignity worthy of its size.

My own notion is that the day the first transatlantic crew disembarks, forty new joints will open. There are only about a hundred and fifty now. That won't nearly meet the demand. When you see some of the chicks having to work both booths and bars to make a living, and some of the pullers having to haul for two joints, you realize that the future of Calumet City may well be imperiled by lack of chicks and pullers.

Local reform groups labor for the day when the pullers and strippers, emcees and owners alike, all go down the darkness at the end of State and never come back. They'd rather see State Street lined with honest business enterprises, such as loan offices and used-car lots, than have a single marquee bum. They look to the day when the coming of the St. Lawrence Waterway will put a stop to the present riot.

It's true that the waterway is certain to bring great changes here. Yet so long as there's a conventioneer, a sailor on the loose or a side-street solitary with his cap pulled over his eyes, somewhere beyond the traffic's iron cry a G-string Gomorrah will flicker off and on.

And there one sits now, his little cap yanked forward to shade his face so close to the stage that he has to bend his neck to look up, the single-O solitary with paws wrapped tight about his dollar bottle of Budweiser, come to lose his loneliness without sacrificing his solitude.

A rain-colored cat who has lived away from women so long that a spotlight on one, burning from purple to pink, weaves a mystery about her nakedness as ancient as that through which Eve once walked.

Back in her room, she comes up behind him, puts her arms about him and lets her breath run like a warm bath down his neck. Though Time and The Goat have seared her and her face is a bit lopsided with its secret load of gin, he will still see her walking naked through the rainbow-colored air. From her cheap perfume he'll catch an ancestral magic. When she captures his cap gently and says, "My name is April. What's yours?" he'll give the Budweiser full tilt to his lips, drain it an answer, "Mark. just Mark..." And beam. Just beam.

Now here's one doll wise enough to know that some men can starve harder for companionship than for sex; and will pay for it where they won't pay for sex. A solitary like thing, may be affected more by the touch of April's hand saying, "I'm on your side, Marky dear," than by the offer of her breast.

Look, Marky dear is buying the buck-six-bits stuff, a shot for himself and a shot for her. Well, good.

For the jukes are blowing the blues away, and now is the Daddy-Can-I-Have-One-More-Hour. Now is the Of-Course-I'm-Single-Honey time. The-Daddy-Let-Me-Have-Your-Little-Cap, Please-Don't-Ever-Leave-Me hour. Now is the What-Color-Are-Your-Eyes-Little-Daddy, I-Live-With-An-Aunt-Who's-Out-Of-Town time. When single-O cats get their fur stroked just liked married ones. For an hour.

Yet the whisky in the glass goes dry. And neon, though it burn ever so scarlet, burns less red against the ordinary day. Trumpet man and drummer grow weary. Yet the jukes keep trying to blow the blues away.

Taxis will wheel back from the curbs; even the pullers will begin giving up. A bar-broad will lay her head on her arms and nod off, and the bartender will just let her nod. Sooner or later someone will hear crossing bells. Someone will yawn. "I'd rather be in bed than be riding a passenger train."

And the big jukes will sleep in their stables.


This story originally appeared in the August, 1957 issue of Esquire Magazine. It is reprinted here in its entirety, stylistically intact. We thought the writing was hip, the story cool - hope you do, too. Let us know what you think. Maybe we'll do more "Editorial thru the Eons."

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