Monday, January 16, 2006

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Before I get too pigeon-holed as the memoirs blog dedicated to just Philly's new wave nightlife, I wanted to shift gears today and bring it back to this site's true purpose: a place for me to remember before I forget.

In the late fall of 1981, I was a year out of high school and immersed in the various sub-cultures of Center City Philadelphia. Either going to varous punk or new wave shows or hanging with my new circle of friends in the gay community.

Besides the dinner I posted about earlier that took place at The Venture Inn (unbeknownst to me a gay establishment, but then again I was just 15!) ... the first time I actively entered a gay bar was in the summer of 1979, when at the ripe old age of 16 I mustered up the courage and entered Maxine's - located on South Camac Street (now the home of Tavern On Camac).

It was one of the 'Old Guard' of gay establishments and had been around for some time ... and had all the markings of an old gay bar: located on a back alley with no windows and very secretive. Hence why it was perfect for a closeted teen to make his debut.

None of the gay bars in Philadelphia had windows until Woody's renovated his 2nd floor, overlooking 13th Street - and Mort rebuilt his Seasons Bar into Uncles and installed french doors looking out to Locust Street. But that was sometime in the mid-80s.

Upon entering I quickly walked to the bar, since I felt a bit safer there and found myself next to this elderly woman ... who looked like someone's grandmother. She smiled and put out her hand and introduced her to me; her name was Mary. I later found out that she was a fixture at the various gay bars in the 1970s until her death in the 1980s and was affectionately known as Mary The Hat, in celebration for the wide array of hats she wore out every night.

Turns out she was a widow and as a lifelong resident to Center City, considered the gay boys her family. I never quite knew where her 'real' family was - but she was loved by everyone. I suppose here I should mention that she was quite the drinker as well. One of my funniest memories of Mary The Hat was her end of the night exit.

She had moved into a small apartment directly across from Maxine's - which became Raffles the ultimate piano bar, in the 1980s. She would drink the night away and when the time came to leave, she would summon a cab. Legend had it that her husband had always told her to take a cab whenever out in the city, since it wasn't a friendly place for a lady to walk alone. She followed his wish, even after his passing, by having a cab take her home every night.

The funny part was she lived right across Camac Street - which is a tiny alley of a street - a car can barely fit down this street. So, nightly the cabbie (who was a regular) would pull up and she would be helped out of the bar, down the three steps and into the back seat - at this point she would slide over and the cabbie would open the other door and she would climb out and he would assist her into her apartment. She paid him two dollars for the 'ride', which he would just give to the doorman, who would get it back to Mary without her knowing the following day.

It was hysterical.


yoko said...

Please settle a debate that's been going on among my friends: What is the proper pronunciation of "Camac"? Many thanks!

Robert Drake said...

i'vr always said and heard it pronounced KUH-MACK :)

yoko said...

Oh no! I've also heard it pronounced with stress on the first syllable.

I'm enjoying reading your reminiscences. I like reading about the recent history of Philadelphia. Best wishes to you.

Robert Drake said...

having lived in center city for 25 years, i don't think i've ever heard anyone i know say KUH-mack .... usually the KUH is short and the MAC is the emphasis ...

i never thought I'd spend this much time discussing Camac ... HAHAHA!

Thanks for reading :)

Liz said...

KUH-MACK - thats what I say.

It's funny at a young age I hung in the gay bars and I'm not even gay. I always gravitated to the community- straight b/f's in tow. Sneakers and Key West, we hung at a lot of them. It was a different vibe for me and I liked that. Straight meat markets were never my thing and the gay bars always had the cool/beautiful/artsy people I liked.

HughE2030 said...

Mary The Hat takes a cab; that is the funniest story I have ever read!

Musicguy said...

the owner of "tavern" also says cuh MACK.