The Vortex poem “Chances ‘R’” is a contemplative poem, both pensive and sentimental. Dated only “February 1966”, it was written after a visit by Ginsberg to the small Chances R bar at 1123 E. Douglas in Wichita – along with his guide, Charlie Plymell, and probably the other members of Ginsberg’s traveling party, Julius and Peter Orlovsky.
During a period of only a few years in the 1960s, the Chances R was the only gay bar in Wichita. For many years previous, during the 1940s and early ‘50s, there had been two primary gay bars, The Blue Lantern, at 116 E. Douglas, and Curley’s Round-house, at 206 W. 1st.
Curley’s was a very small, plain white undistinguished building, tucked away in a non-descript area of downtown. For many years North Main had been a rather disreputable two block stretch of decaying old buildings whose original elegance was only a few decades away from the city’s founding. Lesbians as well as gay males frequented the often over-crowded bar.
Curley’s was in the second block west of Main, and The Blue Lantern was just a couple of blocks away, at the intersection of two alleys: one running between Main and Market and the other between Douglas and First. There were two entrances to the tavern, one in the north-south alley, and one in the east-west alley.
The Blue Lantern was a place with a great deal of character to it. The ceiling of the first floor drinking area reached high up to include the space of the second floor, while the bar receded under an overhanging balcony which occupied what remained of the second floor level. The open balcony looked down over its low iron railing on everything that went on below. On the main floor there was a minuscule dancing area and a gaudy, painted piano, on which a black piano player occasionally performed. The patrons of the tavern included straights as well as gays, but Lesbians did not gather there.
The Blue Lantern was where the Wichita early Beat group of Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Dave Haselwood and the rest regularly met during the first half of the ’50s, and McClure memorialized it in The Mad Cub, calling it “The Blue Lamp”. Following the unwritten rule, our group sat in the balcony where the straights sat, leaving the main floor to the gays.
There was a great deal of paranoia among the gays in Wichita during the early Fifties, and the word was that the police had a “list” of all of the homosexuals in town – with ominous implications. However, Curley’s and The Blue Lantern were wide-open, and I never saw any intrusion by the authorities at all over the several year period that we went to the Lantern – or even ever heard of any. The police force at the time, apparently, was tolerant of, if not broad-minded about, homosexuals. The Vice Squad cast an averted gaze, it seemed, on the liquor traffic, gambling, prostitution, and sexual conduct as a whole. This could well have been a carry-over from the War-Years, when prostitution was allowed to flourish unchecked on North Main, liquor was obtained freely in “dry” Kansas, and gambling went on at clubs all over town.
Both of the buildings are now gone, victims of the economic decline of the downtown area as shopping malls sprang up on the outskirts of the city, and of the urban renewal movement of the ‘60s.
The Chances R, opened by Robert Lindsey out on the fringes of the warehouse district east of downtown (see the city area map in Section 1), picked up their trade when Curley’s and The Blue Lantern closed. By the early ‘60s it was, if not thriving, at least a busy place much of the time. When Ginsberg visited it in 1966, it was probably at its peak as a gathering place for gays and Lesbians.
Like The Blue Lantern, the Chances R had a piano and a small dance floor, but there the resemblance ended. The barroom was small, and decorated in a fey ‘60s style. Ginsberg describes a red neon composition on the wall – which he interprets as being of a “nymph and shepherd” – with the shepherd holding a trident; a jukebox “beating out magic syllables”, and a “Diabolic bar light”. [Ginsberg, 1988: 393]. The jukebox is invariably linked in Ginsberg’s poetry with gay bars. In “Howl” he refers to Fugazzi’s, a gay bar in New York, and writes of the crowd “listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”. [Ginsberg, 1988: 126].
In “Chances ‘R’” he also mentions two other gay bars as contrasts to the Chances R: Sunset Trip and Jukebox Corner. The jukeboxes at those bars he calls “ecstatic pinball machines”, while at the Chances R the music is “sad” – “No Satisfaction”. [Ginsberg, 1988: 393].
And there is an odd companion piece to “Chances ’R’” – “Seabattle of Salamis Took Place off Perama”, written in 1961 in Piraeus. He begins this poem:
teeth eating dirty drx.
yr eyes starred round the world, purple diamonds & white brain revolving
in every bar from Yokamama to Pyraeus … .
In this poem, as in “Chances ‘R’”, he describes the clothing of the boys – the “juvenile whores”; but in Piraeus the neon is azure; and the dancers are “jumping & joying”; and the music is “Open the Door Richard, I’m Casting a Spell on You, Apocalypse Rock, End of History Rag!” The tone, thus, is, as he says, “happy” – though with a sense of carpe diem.
Ginsberg’s Wichita poem is parallel to his Piraeus poem, but the contrasts are striking; and, in a way, the one is not fully realized without the other. While the Piraeus poem is loud, joyful, jumping, and filled with the sound of the “Muses”, the Wichita poem is constricted: its actors are “stiff necked” “painted boys”, performing a ritual without religion, “suspended from Heaven”. Whether it was Ginsberg’s own mood of the moment, or some special insight into the gay community in Wichita is impossible to say. But in any case, what he saw here seems not the same as what he had seen elsewhere.
Others saw the Chances R differently from Ginsberg, however. Glenn Todd, in his limited edition novel, The Book of Friends, had this to say about it:
manikins. He stands at the front of the dance floor before a juke box that has a waterfall behind it and light flowing down its sides, so he appears to be coming from a neon grotto. […]
“It’s the vortex!” he shouts. “Can’t you feel the forces! Pulling you in! It’s twisting in twister land!”
“This is where it all comes from!” shouts Charlie. “Can’t you feel the vibrations? Man, there is so much energy here that you just get near it and flooom! It’s got you and swinging you someplace else.”
[Todd, 1997: 40-1].
“Charlie” is, of course, Charlie Plymell.
Glenn himself had his own perception of the place:
All the steps are perfect and harmonious. They are all oh God so beautiful and I know we cannot lose, beyond all certitude of mind mankind will take the stars and crush time with these golden kids, born of our bodies and spirit.
I only went to the Chances R once: in the late spring of 1962, with my wife, Marshall and Ann Ruchte, and another couple; and my take was much more like that of Ginsberg’s, though certainly not as thoughtful or artful. But it was a time of rapid change, and four years, or even a year, would produce great differences – so much so that the scenes in 1962, 1963, and 1966 were hardly even comparable.
For one thing, the music was different in 1962. The “Twist” was not yet popular (I myself did not see the Twist well-danced until late in 1963 – and it was beautiful) and the music on the jukebox at the Chances R in 1962 was a mix of Big Band-type music and the rock of the time. Much of the music lent itself to “slow dancing” – with couples holding each other. That fact alone created a very different atmosphere in a gay bar. I have the feeling that the younger gay and Lesbian crowd was uncomfortable with close touching in public at that time – though that may only have been my own impression.
In any case, the Chances R faded away, and other gay and Lesbian bars took its place. The building still stands, but it has been long empty.
This section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 8 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984.
Todd, Glenn. The Book of Friends, (1963) published in a limited edition, 1997.