Underground Hemingway

AN ADVENTURE IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN’S HEMINGWAY COUNTRY

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(A moose at the Mitchell Street Pub in Petoskey.)

WHILE we were on our honeymoon two weeks ago, one of our more fascinating experiences was an underground tour conducted by a young woman who may or may not exist in reality. (A ghost?)

We were at the City Tavern Grill in the quaint town of Petoskey, both of us sitting at the bar, in a saloon which young Hem himself used to frequent. I was at the exact spot– second from the end– which Hemingway was said to like.

We must’ve seemed easy marks. Out of nowhere, a woman approached us and asked if we’d like a tour of the saloon, including its underground tunnels.

“Sure,” we said.

The woman was dressed like someone from another time period– the 1920’s, perhaps– with a feather in her hair and wearing a delicate retro black dress. In build she was tiny, as if from that bygone era when people were smaller than today. Her waist could not have been more than 20 inches around– Scarlett O’Hara territory.

Beyond this, she spoke in a dramatic manner, as if on a Victorian stage. She batted her eyelashes like a silent movie actress. When she walked, she shimmied like a flapper from the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald story.

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The woman knew, somehow, by looking at us that we were Ernest Hemingway fans. She told us how often Hemingway frequented this spot– named The Annex in his time. The bar and its furnishings were the same. She showed us signed bills from Hemingway for food and drinks. The last one was from 1947.

This narrative was related in a secretive manner, as if she’d personally known the man.

Her name, she said, was Mary Ellen. She reminded us that in the time Ernest Hemingway first came here, Prohibition was in force. At any sign of police, observed through a peephole, booze and customers moved swiftly downstairs, to the basement.

Mary Ellen asked us cryptically if we’d like to visit the basement.

Without waiting for a response she turned and made her way down rickety stairs to the basement. We followed.

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The basement was gray and dimly lit. Bannisters, walls, shelves of liquor bottles– everything– was covered in dust. Layers of dust, in some cases. We looked at each other with our eyes, asking ourselves, “Can we trust this woman?”

In the way she spoke and was dressed, she could have indeed stepped through a time warp. Or, could she be instead an escapee from– ?

We didn’t continue that thought because we didn’t want to continue it. Instead we stumbled along after Mary Ellen, through lengthy depths.

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Mary Ellen showed us a number of blocked or partly-blocked tunnels, used both to smuggle bootleg liquor into the saloon, or out of it. One of the tunnels led to the nearby Perry Hotel, where we happened to be staying for the week.

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The smuggled booze came from the Al Capone gang. From his base in Chicago, Capone controlled all liquor going into resort towns which spread north along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including this one.

The lights began flickering.

“The lights are going out!” Mary Ellen said dramatically.

Her eyes seemed truly afraid. Perhaps the time allotted for the private tour was over, or someone above needed her. Or perhaps she was about to turn into a pumpkin, or vanish, or appear her real age, or something. We were, after all, only days from Halloween.

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We made it back up shaky wood stairs to the main floor, breathing, despite ourselves, a sigh of relief.

The tour was one of many highlights we encountered in the quaint town of Petoskey.

-K. and K.

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*******

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