Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today as promised, is a more Deitchian day than yesterday’s launch of this tale. I left yesterday’s readers hanging a bit at the point where, after Hurricane Ida, we found out that we had several feet of water in the basement of our high rise building in Manhattan, a basement where for decades we have kept a storage locker which (to some degree) alleviates life in a 600 square foot studio apartment. Hurricane Ida hit New York on a Wednesday night and Thursday dawned sunny.
We were banned from the basement which remained flooded, but the elevators made a cautious return online in the morning and I took a run and surveyed Carl Schurz Park and the East River Esplanade. Aside from several feet of water remaining in some of the lower spots, the park was okay and a clean up of broken branches and opening of storm drains was underway. The actual Esplanade, along the water, was washed clean by the rain and river water and to my surprise no detritus remained. Such flooding where I grew up resulted in everything from garbage to fish washed ashore. (Boats broken free of their moorings and would be found high and dry would await neighbors claiming them and even a mattress had to be removed from the yard after Hurricane Sandy.)
Since Kim and I were on the last leg of our vacation we had decided to head over to Dizzy’s, Isaiah Thompson was playing in a quartet of recent Juilliard grads I know from work and it was Kim’s first time back at the club since our recent reopening about ten days before. We walked across Central Park and skirted some areas that remained flooded, including Bethesda Fountain. As we walked a thought occurred to me and I asked Kim pseudo-casually, “So, um, were your notes for the Butte, Montana Details magazine story in the basement locker?” Kim said no, he didn’t think so. I thought otherwise, but nothing we could do about it right now.
The set was great that night and the waiter who knew me well from my many nights at Dizzy’s was happy to see me and Dizzy’s was starting to feel like home again. At the end of the evening I came back to the table to find him and Kim talking with Kim regaling him with the story of our trip to Butte. (Kim still sports a straw cowboy hat from a K-Mart in Butte and he was wearing it that night.) Somehow Butte, Montana was in the air. (I wrote about that trip to Dizzy’s and our vacation here.)
It was late Friday afternoon before we were allowed our first go at our locker. Puddles were still all around and an industrial fan was blowing. A cough of water spilled out when we opened the doors of the locker and a sort of river smell was everywhere. When we say water we use the term lightly because in addition to water from the East River and rain run off in New York City you are also being treated to sewerage.
The winter coats had gotten some of the worst of it, one was already molding which I threw out. The others I would ask the dry cleaner if he would attempt to clean them. (Of course they were up to their ears in bags of clothing from my neighbors when I got there.) He agreed and a few bags of wet clothes that seemed like they might stand a chance went over to them, luckily just a few doors down from our building.
An industrial juicer, some old editing equipment and the remains of a lightbox of Kim’s were trash. A light-up standing Santa, a tree star and some other holiday decorations seemed largely intact. By this time reports of deaths across the tri-state area had already begun to pile up (they were to top out around 24) and being in our basement, with a watermark about four feet high brought home the horror that it must have been for people trapped. This made us philosophical, but far from cheerful, as we tied up bags of clothing that would not recover and piled up other soaked possessions alongside our neighbor’s for the trash.
Then there it was, a folder, now soaked, with Kim’s notes and photos from a trip to Butte, Montana to cover a story about a whorehouse museum which was closing there – one of the longest running whorehouses in the country, the Dumas Brothel, and also the last standing example of a whorehouse architecture imported from Amsterdam, way back in the 1890 (or so) when it was built and opened. We had made the trip back in about 2000 when Kim was hot off of two articles he’d written and illustrated for publications in Details magazine. These were, for lack of a better term, comics-journalism – a story for the magazine researched, written and illustrated as comics. The first was his visit to death row and about the execution of Ronald Fitzgerald. (Republished in the 2006 Best American Comics, this is the best way of seeing it now.) Kim’s story of visiting Fitzgerald and getting to know him, his story and family before attending his execution, had been well received by the magazine.
The result was the opportunity to pitch another assignment which turned out to be a story idea credited to my dad who had been talking about an early computer virus named Melissa in tribute to a stripper the engineer of the virus had known in Florida. That story was a fairly light-hearted romp through the stripper community of Florida with strippers who went by the name Melissa calling us at all hours of the night for weeks ongoing.
As Kim’s then girlfriend (now wife) I knew one thing and that was if the next story was going to be strippers I was going along for the ride this time so we purchased a ticket for me to Butte and off we went.
The basis of the story was that sex workers rights activist (and former prostitute) Norma Jean Almodovar was helping to spearhead an effort to save and restore this nascent whorehouse museum, much to the displeasure of this down at the heels city which seemed just as glad to ignore or bury this particular chapter of their history. For better or worse, Norma Jean’s idea was to re-route some of the biker traffic heading to Sturgis for their summer rally for an evening outdoor concert to raise money for the museum. It was hard for me to keep my fundraising hat off when we arrived just in time for a meeting about how this would roll out. I always say about fundraising, especially around events, don’t try this at home, it is harder than it looks and you can easily lose more than you can make. Which, long story short, is pretty much what happened.
We toured the actual building which was fascinating. Based on the brothel buildings of Amsterdam, it was three floors (and a basement) around a skylight atrium. Each room had a sort of “display” window where the woman would advertise her wares and the cribs were somewhat larger and had more light with each floor. Newbies would start in the basement cribs (dark and claustrophobic, complete with tunnels to downtown so that one could transverse in bad weather, but perhaps also without being seen entering and leaving the establishment) and work their way up. The had been a robbery recently and some of the artifacts of the museum had disappeared, but in reality the actual structure was what was fascinating.
While there we met interesting long time residents for background on Butte, including a doctor a waitress told us about, out on the edge of town. He’d treated miners back in the day and was retired now. We visited a guy who was known as the Santa Claus of Walkerville (a nearby suburb) who gathered toys throughout the year for needy children. (I had my photo taken with him which sadly I cannot locate for you right now.) Despite the summer heat he happily put on one of his Santa suits for the photo. We also met some folks holding a tent revival meeting in opposition to the whorehouse museum and frankly they also seemed like really nice people too.
The edges of Butte end abruptly into mountains and wilderness, almost like a cartoon town in the desert. Butte had (has?) a mall strip highway of big box stores and restaurants, but the original downtown with its buildings pristinely intact also remained. Among the surviving original businesses were a few bars and a Chinese restaurant where we ate one night. Much like the brothel (a few blocks away) the restaurant was said to have tunnels under it to other parts of town. Inside the restaurant each table was its own private booth which would have had curtains over the open side, affording privacy which would have allowed other activity within. (The New York Times just published a very charming article on this restaurant which can be found here.)
Our trip ended with engaging with some of the bikers in a bar while trying to get our hands around this rally and directions for getting there. I have a license but don’t drive although I did on this trip. We had an SUV and all I can say is that it was a good thing that for most of the driving I had plenty of open space around me. However, I did park the car at the rally on the grass as directed and got it stuck – it was a kindly biker who got behind the wheel and got us out.
Frankly they were all giving Kim a sort of sideways look and I was trying to do the helpless girl thing. (Kim was wearing an old shirt that belonged to a long deceased relative which had drawings of dogs on it and just when I thought we were cooked one of the bikers exclaimed that he LOVED THAT SHIRT and that he had greyhound rescues of his own.)
To cut to the chase – almost no one showed up at the concert/rally and they lost their shirts as predicted. Kim could see the story slipping away and by the time we were back he was ready to pitch a story with a lot of heart that addressed Butte’s history and remaining spirit and unique qualities. Details (sporting a new editor, soon to be replaced by yet another), wanted more of an ironic hatchet job and when Kim demurred the story was killed. The notes assembled and found their way, along with the photos and roughs, to a folder in our basement where they were now wet, but luckily we had gotten there in time and by placing them all around our apartment (along with the surviving damp but not entirely wet clothing from numerous bins where I store the off-season clothing). The notes, roughs and photos dried out fairly quickly. Further into the locker excavation we found the much more finished roughs I am sharing here – luckily those had been tucked onto a shelf at the top.
What else came out of the locker? More to come on that in my final installment, with more Deitchian discoveries and other artifacts next week.