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The case of the phantom cathouse

May 14, 2010

When friends from distant climes call and ask what's happening, I always tell them the same thing - "Nothing."

But believe it or not, last week something happened.

It started with an e-mail from the alphabetically sequential Amy Bachman-Catania of Historic Saranac Lake.

Attached to her e-mail was another. It was from a producer for a Discovery Network show called "Haunted." They're doing an episode here, and the producer wondered if I knew any stories of haunted cure cottages.

Unfortunately, I had none. In the first place, I never heard any, and second, I don't believe in any bumpf of a spookish nature.

In fact, I don't believe in paranormal phenomena at all - not ESP, telekinesis, crystal power, spontaneous human combustion, past life regressions, aura readings, psychics, dowsers, faith healers none of it.

Ultimately, I feel the same way about paranormal phenomena as I do about honorable politicians, non-materialistic mega-church ministers and progressive educators - they're fun to believe in but no one's ever proved they exist.


The scintillating tale

All of which disqualifies me as a source for the TV program. I mean, let's face it: If a program called "Haunted" is sending a crew here to look for ghosts, they'll find 'em.

And that's just fine with me because I know a far more interesting phenomenon than the ghosts of people who once lived here. It's the specter of a place that never existed at all.

Known to every male of my generation, it was a bordello on Dorsey Street called The Antlers.

I first heard about it from older neighborhood kids when I was 11. For a boy, 11's a magic year, the last time there's no border between fantasy and reality. It's the last time he can believe in All Things Possible. At 11, you know you can be an Olympic champion, an astronaut, a brain surgeon, an Antarctic explorer, a famous rock guitarist - anything. All you have to do is want it, and it'll happen sometime somewhere somehow.

At 12 such lofty visions start to fade, and by 13 they've vanished completely, replaced by the painful realization that success is governed by all sorts of forces beyond your control, two of the major ones being connections and jackass luck.

But at 11, when told about The Antlers, I was a True Believer. And how could I not be? The stories were too fantastic not to be true: tales of community stalwarts representing the highest positions of law, medicine, business, even religion, being regular patrons of the establishment.

And how were these stories verified? Simple. They were witnessed and sworn upon by the older boys. Their credibility was never in doubt. Those grizzled vets were already regulars at the Teen Canteen and Bernie's; some of them had girls' names written on their notebooks; all of them had serious flattops - how could people that sophisticated ever be mistaken about worldly matters? They couldn't.

But simply taking their word for it was only half-good for an inquisitive lad like me - I had to witness the scandal myself. It was an easy enough task. I only had to do what they did - namely, go to Dorsey Street and check it out. Apparently, at any given hour of the day or night you could see Scoutmasters, ministers, bankers - all our putative role models - either heading in or heading out of the joint.

My first expedition was disappointing, to say the least. Not only did I not find the house itself, but I never saw any upstanding citizens there either - let alone see them furtively ducking into any of the houses.

My subsequent expeditions were no less disappointing. Several times I walked down Dorsey Street at a glacial pace, checking each house meticulously, listening for the surefire sounds of a bordello: raucous laughter, clinking of champagne glasses, ragtime jazz being pounded out on a piano (my concept of the forbidden had a definite fin-de-siecle theme, probably from having seen "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" - a grade C movie about the Stanford White/Evelyn Nesbitt/Harry K. Thaw scandal of 1906).

Of course, I heard nothing.

This was back before young people were weaned on high self-esteem, so naturally I figured The Antlers was there, somewhere - it was my fault I couldn't find it. So I gave up.

Later, as a battle-hardened survivor of eighth grade, I decided The Antlers had indeed existed before my time but contemporaneous with the older boys who'd borne witness to its goings-on.

Then, a few years after that, I reckoned The Antlers had existed, but long before anyone of my generation was aware of it - including the big boys.

Finally, I decided it was all a myth, kept alive precisely because it could never be proven.


The sad truth

Oddly enough, into our Golden Years, many of my peers still believed The Antlers stories. Whenever the subject came up in front of my former schoolmates, someone would insist The Antlers was real and either he knew which house it was or his neighbor's father knew a guy who married a gal who heard her boss at the candy store says. Which, of course, is the stuff of all legends.

For me The Antlers faded into the mists of history, till I finally decided to settle the issue once and for all. I did it by calling my fellow ADE hack and local raconteur Howard Riley.

Of course, Howard had heard all the stories about The Antlers. But more importantly, he knew the truth as well, which is simple: The Antlers existed - but only in schoolboy legend and lore.

Probably the inspiration for its tale was a Dorsey Street bar called Phil Adler's that was long gone before I ever saw the light of day. It was a rundown joint and, according to Howard, a real bucket of blood. There were rumors of women of dubious character frequenting the place, but since they would also have frequented the A&P, Newberry's lunch counter and the Altamont dairy bar, the rumors were more dubious than the women's character.

I further checked with my favorite local chronicler/cartoonist/character, Adirondack Bunk. He also doubted The Antlers ever existed.

So does this mean my column will put to rest all the rumors about The Antlers? That now the guys of my generation will finally admit it was all just a hoax we believed, not because it contained a shred of truth but because it was so scintillating and forbidden? Of course not.

I expect to be told that Howard, Bunk and I are wrong. And I can't blame anyone for thinking it. After all, legends, especially local ones, never die quick and easy deaths - if they ever die at all.

Besides, this is America of 2010, the scientific, technological, information hub of the world and a place where people still believe in ghosts and honorable politicians.



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