The Great Dorsey Street Delusion
I heard my first urban legend when I was 13, told to me by my pal Mike Newman. It was a classic — the $150 Corvette.
He said the Corvette, only a year old and in almost pristine condition, was for sale in Poughkeepsie for $150.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why would anyone sell a ‘Vette that cheap?”
“Well,” he said, “the driver ran off the road and got killed, but they never found him till a bunch of weeks later. By then, the whole car stank and they couldn’t get rid of the smell.”
“But why didn’t they change the seats and upholstery?” I asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of my voice. See, I may not have had even close to $150, but I’d get that car if I had to stick up the Wells Fargo stagecoach when it came through town. (Yeah, even then I had a pretty warped sense of reality.)
“Oh, they did,” he said breezily. “But it didn’t work. Nothing did. And it still stinks to high heaven, which is why it’s only 150 bucks.”
No matter. I still would’ve bought it, cash flow problems and death stench be damned. But two things stopped me. One was I couldn’t have handled the inevitable mockery that would’ve followed me and my Vomit ‘Vette everywhere I went. The other thing, of course, was that car never existed.
Throughout my adolescence, I heard that same tale retold, except maybe the car was a T-bird or a Porsche or even a Ferrari, and it was for sale in Boston … or Portland … or maybe Buffalo, for $100 or $125 or …
And that’s the essence of urban legends: They’re fantastic stories, completely precise in detail, but completely vague in provenance. So Mike knew where the car was, how much it cost and why it cost so little. But how did he know that? Well, he’d heard it from a guy whose cousin’s brother worked for the garage that was selling it. Or maybe the guy who told him had a friend in Poughkeepsie whose aunt’s ex-husband had a neighbor who owned a towing company and he …
You get the idea, I’m sure — pinning down the origin of an urban legend is like trying to tattoo a cloud.
Sources, reputable and otherwise
The good thing about urban legends (aside from their entertainment value) is they can be readily disproved. You only need hit up Google to find reputable fact-checking sources that’ll give you the skinny on what’s what (or in the case of urban legends, what’s not what).
But things get murkier when it comes to what I call Rural Legends, which abound right here in My Home Town.
While I always liked hearing the RLs, I was more interested in finding out the truth behind them … if there was any. And unlike urban legends, which are documented by skilled myth-busters, I had to depend on local sources. As you might expect, there were a lot of them: On Saturday nights, every town gin mill probably had at least a dozen of them. But the issue was how many were reliable. Over the years I vetted a bunch. The ones still around are, in no order, May Plumadore, Howard Riley, Bunk Griffin (who has archives up the wazz), Carl Sorensen and Champ Branch. Amy Catania at Historic Saranac Lake and Michele Tucker in the Adirondack Research Room have all kinds of written information, as does Phil Gallos.
Hiding in plain view?
Without doubt, the most persistent and perplexing RL was The Invisible Cathouse. It was persistent because, after almost 60 years, there are people who still insist it’s true. And it was perplexing because I spent hours pounding the pavement, literally, trying to find it.
Both its name and its location were well-known to all the local boys: It was called the Antlers, and it was on Dorsey Street. More specifically, it was on that section of Dorsey between the bridge and Broadway. I was told that repeatedly.
To add more authenticity to the tale, I was told by older teenagers, grizzled vets of 16 or 17 (I was about 12 when I first heard about the Antlers) that they had personally seen various stellar citizens either going in or coming out of it. When I asked exactly which house it was, I got answers that wouldn’t have satisfied a census taker but were good enough for me — at least for a while.
OK, so it was on the river side of the street, somewhere between the bridge and Broadway, but where? There were only a few buildings there. One was Doc Bouton the veterinarian’s place, and given the sensory overload coming out of it, while he may’ve had cats in there, it was no cathouse.
After that, there were maybe two or three other buildings, which I scouted out thoroughly … and subtly. Whenever I walked down or up Dorsey Street, I feigned total nonchalance, maybe perusing the pages of Mad magazine or trying to do round-the-world with my yo-yo or some other sophisticated dodge. Thing is, if anyone in the Antlers had looked out the window, they’d have only seen my disguise as a disheveled little kid, not the astute and surreptitious observer of the Human Condition that I really was.
But as much as I checked those buildings out, I never saw anything that even remotely resembled a brothel. There was no sign, no red light, no parade of local celebrities.
Granted, I may not have known what to look for. My idea of a chez du chat came from one terribly misleading source — “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.” It was a movie about the Stanford White-Harry K. Thaw-Evelyn Nesbit scandal of 1906, which I’d seen on one of those Saturday afternoon programs dedicated to eminently forgettable B movies. Except it wasn’t forgettable to me. In fact, the exact opposite was true — it left an indelible impression on my tender psyche: In my mind, all activities of the demimonde had a Fin du Siecle flair.
So to me, a house of ill repute on Dorsey Street had fancy curtains in the window, an ornate door (with of course a dapper doorman) and women who looked like Miss Kitty at the Long Branch, lounging about on the divans. I also had a specific image of the clients. They were portly gentlemen with top hats and handlebar mustaches, arrayed in tuxedos with silk brocade vests and huge gold watch chains.
I also thought if I listened closely I’d hear the tinkling of a piano and those portly gentlemen singing “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” in four-part harmony.
But — alack and alas! — I never saw such sights, and I never heard such sounds.
After maybe a year of two, I gave up my search and figured my failure to find the Antlers was due more to my poor observation skills than the most obvious reason — there was no cathouse on Dorsey Street.
Enlightenment at last!
But while I quit looking in earnest for the Antlers, from time to time I’d wonder about it. Did it really exist when I was a kid? And if it did, was it on Dorsey Street? Or did it — or any house of ill repute — ever exist in town at all? Or what? So whenever I talked with a local old-timer, I’d inevitably ask about it. And I’d inevitably learn nothing more than I already knew, until a full half-century after my quest started. I can’t remember who my agent of enlightenment was, but at least he’d laid the issue to rest, at long last.
Way back when, there was a place called the Antlers. But it wasn’t a bordello — it was a bar. While the old guy couldn’t remember its exact dates, he knew where it was located — in what’s now the village parking lot, by the riverbank.
So there was some truth in the rumor. There once was a bar called the Antlers, and it was near Dorsey Street. From there, it took only a little imagination and lot of retelling to move it — and its stock in trade — to a new location.
And when I say a new location, I don’t mean Dorsey Street but the mischief-making minds of a couple of generations of misguided youths.