The Wayside Inn started out illegal, and now it’s respectable, which is how American stories often go. Teenagers used to sneak in, but now couples bring their babies and children by in the afternoons to meet their Uncle Manny. The Arrow Brewery sponsors Trivia Night on Tuesdays, and credit cards are accepted; obviously, there is now running water and a liquor license. There is a Little League team named the Wayside Inn Innkeepers. (The Innkeepers was not the first name suggested by the Wayside’s patrons: Manfred Pierce had made the mistake of opening the decision up to a vote, and it started out dirty and ended up filthy.) The bar is walnut, with a brass rail to put your foot up on, and the coke dealer in the bathroom is the classiest in the neighborhood.
And it’s not just the bar that’s moved up in society: Manfred Pierce was a Town Father for a few years, and unlike most Town Fathers he ended his term in higher esteem than he entered it, mostly on account of not being indicted, not even a little bit. Town Fathers that don’t get indicted must be either honest or criminal geniuses, and Little Aleppians are fine with both. When people would ask him about his time in office, Manfred Pierce would lean over the bar and say,
“They’re all gay, sweetie.”
The customer would always inquire what he meant, and Manfred would answer,
“Every shitty little stereotype about gay people? Vain and petty and catty and superficial? We got nothing on politicians.”
And if the customer laughed at his joke, Manfred would buy them a drink–two if they were cute–but in between the illegality and the respectability were several decades. Nothing happens overnight except falling in love.
After the Wayside Riot in ’68, the law office of Holly, Wood, and Vine took Manfred on as a pro bono client and they sued everyone in sight. (The firm was trying to buy itself some good publicity after successfully defending the Upside Strangler.) The cops, the liquor authority, the water and power utilities, the fire department, the sanitation workers, KSOS, KHAY, all the schools, and the First Church of the Infinite Christ.
Manfred demanded a meeting with Lawrence Holly.
“Mr. Holly, why are we suing the church?”
“Manfred, this is lawyer stuff. Don’t worry about it.”
“Uh-huh. Why are we suing the church?”
“We got carried away.”
“Stop suing the church.”
“What about the temple?”
“Sue no houses of worship in my name, please.”
Little Aleppians are like most people, mostly: time can change their minds, and a solid argument can change their opinions, and an effective appeal to their emotions can change their perspective. But if you want to change someone’s behavior as quickly as possible, then the best tool is a lawsuit. The LAPD (No, Not That One) never raided the bar again. (It took a separate suit a few years later to get them to respond to emergency calls from the Wayside, though.) The power and water got hooked up like the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood, and Manfred Pierce began getting overcharged just like the rest of the neighborhood.
It wasn’t always simple. There was a law on the books requiring Dance Permits–the law had been passed in 1938 to shut down a Negro bar–and the Town Fathers would not issue one. They were letting the homosexuals drink; they wanted to dance, too? No, no, no. That was a gay bridge too far. Men dancing with other men would lead inexorably to Communism. There were men–brave, honorable men–fighting in Vietnam, and we’re just supposed to let homosexuals boogie? That’s what Ho Chi Minh wanted, dammit.
And so back to court they went.
Lawrence Holly was an old man, and had been for some time; he had settled into his age and found weapons within it: people think old people are slow, and so he played dumb until it was time to fuck them, and he enjoyed pretending to be deaf when it suited him. Lawrence Holly had been around long enough to know your father, and his, and to recognize that you were about to make the same mistake that both of them did. He had a thin muff of white hair that wrapped vertically around the back of his skull that he let grow long and did not comb.
Young men have their tricks, and old man have theirs.
Courtroom A in the Valentine Courthouse was packed at nine in the morning when Judge Blanton gaveled the proceedings to order. Lawrence Holly and Manfred Pierce were sitting at the plaintiff’s table. Lawrence was not wearing anything that was not made custom for him, except for his watch, which was a Rolex Oyster. Manfred was wearing his dress uniform from the Navy.
“I didn’t retire from the Navy. You’re only supposed to wear your uniform if you retire.”
“Retire, reshmire,” the attorney told him.
“And I wasn’t an officer. It’s not a suit. It’s a big blouse with a giant collar and a neckerchief.”
“Just wear the damn uniform. We’re trying to play down the gay thing.”
“You think a Navy uniform is playing down the gay thing? Oh, honey.”
He put it on anyway. Spent two hours the night before steaming all the wrinkles out and getting the creases perfect. He took his medals out of the box in his closet he kept them in, and pinned them to the left breast using a wooden ruler to keep the lines straight. Another hour on the shoes. Manfred’s friend Shammy came by and cut his hair in the backyard of the small house on Fantic Street that currently housed two teenage boys that had been kicked out their houses, a teenage girl who had run away from a town in Texas called Cascabel, two dogs, one blind cat, and a turtle named Myrtle.
After Shammy had finished, Manfred slipped the uniform on and went to the mirror. Still fit. Fifteen years a civilian, and it still fit. Took the uniform off, hung it carefully and re-steamed it. Fucked Shammy, sent him home, made sure his kids and animals were safe, went to sleep. In the morning, he shaved with precision and walked up to the courthouse wearing his dress blues. Four old ladies smiled at him, and three old men shook his hand, and two young men cruised him, one of whom was ridiculously cute.
“Your Honor, this case is not about dancing.” Lawrence Holly began his opening statement. “Nor is it about homosexuality. No, sir. This case…this case is about America.”
The courtroom cheered lustily, and Judge Blanton pounded his gavel so hard that the glossy striking board went flying. All the regulars of the Wayside Inn had shown up, most of them having stayed up all night eating acid and fucking. They were in the mood to hear grand pronouncements about America.
The defense argued that a municipality was entitled to regulate businesses within its borders; Lawrence Holly argued free speech. The defense worried about the morality of it all; Lawrence Holly brought up Town Father Samping’s recent arrest for what the Cenotaph would only refer to as “the zoo incident;” the defense brought up the Bible, and Lawrence Holly called a theologian to the stand who put his hand on the Bible, swore to tell the truth, and then lectured about the separation of church and state.
The trial lasted three days. The jury deliberated for three minutes, and found for the plaintiff. (The quick decision may or may not have had something to do with Manfred sitting in on the voir dire and using his gaydar to pick the jurors.)
The Wayside Inn danced all night, and into the next morning and afternoon.
The party continued for years afterward. Manfred Pierce installed a dance floor with lights on it, and a back room that had no lights at all, and the bar was made of cocaine and chittering hi-hats. Vodka on ice, and Seven and Seven, and silver spoons jangling on necklaces while string sections padded under baritones who couldn’t get enough of love, or falsettos that wanted to know how deep your love was. Meet at the bar, or lock eyes on the way to the bathroom, whatever: the men wound up in grasping groups in the backroom, and the women paired up and went home with each other.
Manfred Pierce’s hair started going gray around ’77, but he didn’t care. 45 years old, and still thick as molasses; his hair could turn purple and puce as long as it stayed on his head, he figured. His mustache was an entirely different story. Man with gray hair was distinguished, but a man with a gray mustache was old. The dye came with poorly-written instructions and a little comb. When he was done, the ‘stache was bright orange and he said, “oh, shit.” Tried to wash it out, but just muted the color. This was in October of ’81, and when he walked into the Wayside Inn the next afternoon, he was self-conscious.
Doug Tours was dead. Shammy knew him, cut his hair, came by the bar to tell everyone. Doug had not been in the Wayside Inn for a month or so, and before that he looked pale and skinny and could not shake a cough. Manfred told him to stop smoking so many damn cigarettes, but Doug laughed and lit another unfiltered Camel. And then he hadn’t come in, but Doug was a flight attendant and had a schedule quite unlike normal people, so no one at the bar noticed. Shammy noticed. He had accidentally fallen in love with Doug Tours, and memorized his schedule. Doug was supposed to be home, and so Shammy called him but there was no answer. Nor was there on the next day, or the day after that, so Shammy went over to Doug Tour’s apartment on Mint Avenue and picked the lock. The hallway smelled sweet.
The coroner said he’d been dead for five days. He weighed 115 pounds on a 5’11” frame. Doug Tours was not murdered. That, the coroner would attest to, but nothing else. Cause of death was listed as NATURAL CAUSES. He was 31 years old, and his parents refused to claim his body. A regular at the Wayside named Steppy Alouette paid for his casket and burial in Foole’s Yard.
This life is full of monsters, and sometimes young men die for no reason. It happens.
Then it happened again. December of ’81. Another one in February of ’82, and two in March. Barry Snack and Finster Tabb. Barry was 23, and dumb and beautiful. He had a kind smile and an open heart, and so everyone in the Wayside loved him, and he had a big dick and no standards, so everyone fucked him. Finster had a lovely pension from his 25 years teaching English at Paul Bunyan High, and a house on Simpkins with an extra bedroom that he let Barry Snack live in for free. When Barry got sick, Finster Tabb took him to St. Agatha’s Hospital. They were turned away. Finster got pain pills from the Wayside, and that was all. Barry was hot, and then cold, and then blind, and then dead, and Finster cried so hard his heart gave out.
Manfred Pierce felt that there was a demon in the Wayside Inn. What was happening there was not happening in the other bars in the neighborhood, and in April another regular died and then two more in May; no one came to mourn with them, and the politicians did not make speeches, and the Cenotaph was careful and cowardly in its language.
The doctors and the scientists came up with a name, and then they came up with a test. The Wayside came up with more money for funerals. Manfred Pierce shut down the backroom and opened up the bar in the afternoons to activists and rabble-rousers and the terrified. Direct action. Only way to fly. They shut down Town Hall, Harper College, the churches, and the schools. Manfred was arrested a dozen times, always wearing his dress-blue Navy uniform with the giant collar and the neckerchief. He had served on the USS Dextrous in the Korean War, and his boat had been shelled by Communists. Manfred Pierce had defended his damn country, and he would hold his country to her promises.
The Wayside Inn is on Sylvester Street across from Madame Cazee’s and the Wash-N-Slosh. There are windows now–there did not used to be–and there was a sign above the door, and also a plaque next to the door commemorating a riot that happened a long time ago. Inside, there is an old man tending bar with a gray mustache and a row of neat, white teeth. He will buy you your first drink–and your second, if you’re cute–and if you ask about the pictures of 21 young men that line the wall above the top shelf of liquor, he will tell you each and every story if you’re willing to listen. Or you could dance. You could dance with whoever you wanted to in the Wayside Inn in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.