The Old Howard

I was 14 in the fall of 1956. My mother had driven me to Boston innumerable times for therapy at Children’s Hospital (I had Polio at age six), but this was not a casual trip for me. I had a grand deception planned and its execution involved an outright lie. I had told my parents that school started on Tuesday following Thanksgiving recess. Classes actually didn’t begin until Wednesday, and I had made plans to spend the night in Boston to see the burlesque. Although I was an academic and social misfit, I had developed a mastery of the game of poker in my first year at The Holderness School. I played strictly by the odds and had $45 in winnings to finance my adventure. I always felt that my parents could read my mind, and I thought that on this long intimate drive into Boston my mother would surely become aware of my deceit. I felt like I was holding my breath for the entire two hour trip, but my mother remained chatty and apparently innocent of my subterfuge. We parked. My mother walked with me to the platform. She lingered there at the door of the first car, gave me a big hug and told me how proud she was that I was doing better at school and how much she loved me and a bunch of other stuff which made me feel like the earth’s lowest form of life. I got on the train ready to abandon the entire dirty little enterprise.

As I walked down the isle of car after car, my confidence returned. My scheme was actually going along exactly as I had plotted it for so many weeks. I could hear the conductor announcing the train’s destinations, “White River Junction, Plymouth, New Hampshire…” as I descended the steps of the last car before the great steaming locomotive. I slipped in behind the platform column where I watched through the vapors as the distant figure of my mother waved goodbye to her beloved son and dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. By the time the steam from the departing train had cleared, she was gone. With mixed emotion I realized that I had made good my escape.

The next step of my plan was easy. I went upstairs from North Station and for $8 registered myself in a room at the Manger Hotel. Once there, I changed out of my blue blazer and tie and into jeans and a sweater. Then I was off to Haymarket Square. I was pretty familiar with the Market. When time allowed on our frequent trips to Children’s Hospital, my mother would bring me to Durgan Park for lunch. I was young, probably seven or eight, the first time she brought me there. The butchers with their aprons covered with blood from the morning’s work, the short, dark foreign looking men who sold produce from the pushcarts jammed up side by side along Congress and State Streets and the gruff waitresses demanding that I make up my mind, at first scared and confused me, but over the years, I had grown familiar with the sights and sounds and smell of Haymarket Square.

My mother introduced me to the Union Oyster House with its low ceilings and its labyrinth of little rooms with what seemed like no square corners. It lacked the symmetry I was accustomed to in old “five over four and a door” New England architecture. The place had been built to conform to the winding street abutting it, and even the gabled roof was devoid of any two parallel lines.

My father, who occasionally relieved my mother of the tedious drive to Children’s Hospital, took me to Jake E. Worth’s where we ate fat German sausages buried under heaps of sauerkraut. I remember it as loud. Men at the bar were sometimes singing or in heated discussions over large steins of beer. The floor was so covered with peanut shells that I never knew if it was wood or just dirt. A waitress there once yelled at me for putting peanut shells in the ashtray at our table. She treated it as a serious breach of manners and flung the offending shells on the floor.

And the Old Howard; everyone knew about the Old Howard; the name was synonymous with burlesque. I had walked by it, with my parents, wondering what the marquis said, not daring turn to look but getting glimpses of posters which only fired my adolescent imagination. I commit these memories to writing for the first time in 45 years, but I remember the marquise that night. Headliner was Virginia Belle, a well endowed stripper whose claim to fame was that she could twirl her tassels simultaneously in opposite directions. The posters showed no private parts directly, but if she were to just turn a bit, they would. The sign on the glass ticket booth window said “No One Under 17 Allowed.” I stood up as tall as possible and addressed the ticket agent in the deepest voice my changing vocal chords could muster. I thought I had done pretty well because the guy never even questioned my age.

I remember the black faced routines with side men telling off-colored jokes. I remember the fat guy who sat beside me and kept getting real excited and leaned way to far over on my seat. It was hard to pay much attention to the fat guy because I was watching Virginia actually living up to the claims of the posters. There was a wooden Indian standing in the corner upon which she began to rub as part of her strip routine. As she rubbed, the Indian’s crotch began to glow with a purple fluorescent light. The more clothes she removed and the more she rubbed, the brighter the light in the Indians crotch got until it became a huge erection.

The climax of the show came when Virginia twirled 'em in two directions and the light in the Indian’s crotch flashed on and off. I guessed it was the climax for the fat guy sitting next to me because he was breathing hard and grunting and shaking the seat before I realized that he was masturbating right there beside me. I was pretty disgusted but mostly annoyed that he was leaning over onto my seat so that he was almost crushing me. I was dealing with my own physiology while watching a grown woman in a “G” string and pasties that just covered her areoles. Why was this guy leaning on me? I looked in the dim light of the theater, just long enough to see that the fat guy wasn’t looking at Virginia Belle at all; he was looking at me. All of a sudden I thought he was going to drool on me, or worse, so I gave him a hearty shove with both hands. He looked limp and scary, as though he liked it, and slumped back on me. The seats were sparsely populated so I moved down a few rows. The fat guy made no move to follow. Meanwhile, the wooden Indian had been replaced by a live Zoro character with flat brimmed black hat and Lone Ranger mask and real tight pants. Virginia rubbed on him until they had to turn the lights out and draw the curtain. Suddenly the lights were on and everyone was getting up, headed for the doors. It was all a little abrupt for me. I had to stand up and walk out of there with an uncontrollable autonomous erection at which (after the incident with the fat guy) I was sure every one was looking.

I woke up the next morning feeling quite grown up and accomplished, showered hot ’til I was wrinkled and wondered briefly whether I should make the bed or not. Decided not to. Casually tossed the key on the checkout counter thinking myself quite cool and grown up, got almost to the door before the clerk asked me if I didn’t want my receipt? I thought I saw a smirk on his face, but so what if he knew I was a 14 year old hick kid from Warren, I had been to the Old Howard and had seen Virginia Belle twirl ‘em and almost fuck that Zoro guy on stage, and have some faggot drool on me. Anyhow I’d never see that guy again.

I carried my suitcase down the stairs to the platform. I saw little groups of parents, some with kids who were my classmates. I lit a Camel & walked past them to the very end of the platform by the steaming engines. I watched the mothers of prep school boys wave goodbye to their beloved sons and dab their eyes with their handkerchiefs.