The bathroom counter at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club in The Flats looks like a small colonized offshoot of CVS.
Newport, Newport, Parliament, Newport, Camel, Pall Mall, Advil, Excedrin, 5-Hour Energy, 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength, Tic Tac, Life-Savers, Dial, IceBreakers, Calvin Klein, 47/11, Frost, Febreeze, Febreeze, Axe, Axe, Axe, Axe—ladies and gentlemen—Axe.
They're lined up like a miniature city against the mirror, their irregular lids and caps assuming the distinct personality of a skyline.
Door George wipes down the black granite surface between the four bone-white sink bowls, hobbling perpetually fore and aft on medical boots and toeless feet, his reflection rising above his products like a hobbyist architect's. He's the lone sentinel and shark of this strip club washroom and damned if he isn't pouring himself a cold one.
He's got a bucket of beer stashed on ice beneath the sink deck, Busch heavies, bobbing like apples down there. It's only 10:14 p.m. on this Friday in April, but he's already had a few. Door George owns this bathroom, after all. He does as he pleases.
"Thank you sir," he nods at a guy pressing a single into the ice bucket full of bills on the counter next to the cigarettes while another guy pats his chest and then his butt, searching for his wallet even as he disengages from a urinal. But George waves him off, tells him he's already been very kind tonight.
"George, you're top of the line," the guy says. He finds a billfold and tosses a single on top of the others. George smiles and dispenses soap into a third party's waiting hands, the maestro multitasking with ease.
Door George is a taller guy in his sixties, "once-striking" more than "once-handsome." As he talks with his customers, he's got the big friendly face and graying hair of Eastern European uncles. But the most notable thing about his appearance are his injuries. His hands are gnarled by arthritis, his legs bloated by veins that won't circulate.
"What are you doing?" demands a woman who has materialized near the breath mints. Except her interest is purely conversational because now she's focused on her makeup and the adjustment of her wee and insubstantial bra, and then the location of a cigarette with the appropriate filter and brand.
Door George greets her as "Honey," like he greets all the strippers who saunter back here to converse or convene or—in a manner of speaking—convalesce, and tells her he's being profiled.
But Door George both transcends and defies that narrative tradition, in the way that he both transcends and defies time. He's been playing the bathroom attendant game for five years now, but his legacy in the Flats is singular and vital, caught up like a helix in the history of the place itself.
He was the doorman at The Circus—Caesar's Circus, before Vegas politely asked them to cut their name in half—for 25 years before owner Tim Spencer sold the joint to Larry Flynt's, the national chain, in an act of defiance against the Wolsteins and their monopolistic glitz, in 2005.
Door George was the gatekeeper. He was the man who made the rules and held the cards. He wore a tuxedo to work. His business card was printed on parchment.
And you bet your ass he's got one left over from the Circus heyday here in the bathroom—he keeps almost as much memorabilia and paraphernalia from his personal past as he does accessories for his customers' present. There's a photo of George in uniform above the sink that looks like something out of M*A*S*H. There are albums and placards and decades-old advertisements in frames around his makeshift office. And there is this business card:
"DOOR GEORGE" it reads. "The Circus. Cleveland's Verrrry Finest Show Bar."
"I used to answer the phones, and that's how I said it," says Door George, trundling about his apartment on E. 185th St. "Just like that: Cleveland's Verrrry Finest Show Bar."
The tagline is a recurring and inescapable apparition, even in George's domestic sphere: Here it is on a poster above the image of a woman in sultry chiaroscuro in George's bedroom; and there again embossed on a windowsill ashtray; appended to advertisements for food specials and event invitations festooned upon George's walls and chairs like evidence at a crime scene.
Door George doesn't get back here until late. He works the Hustler Club bathroom until 3 a.m., takes a taxi back to Collinwood and falls asleep by five. He doesn't wake up until after 12.
It's 12:30 now and George hasn't dressed. His feet, erumpent with gauze, pad from his kitchen to his bedroom and back again, in addled pursuit of who knows what. He's already had a pot of coffee and now he's onto beer.
"I've only got one," he admits. "Wanna split it? It's a tall one."
He talks in an insistent baritone, but his mouth is often far ahead or far behind his brain. Things dawn on him mid-sentence or twenty minutes after the fact. It's because his mind is a reservoir of endless stories, and lately, a reservoir of crack cocaine. He's spent 65 years compiling an iconic life anthology, and 12 dismantling it (or complicating it), hooked on heavy drugs.
Much like the Flats itself, Door George had a rise and fall. And much like the Flats itself, he's counting on a renaissance.
Door George is George Deutsch. But don't let the name fool you, he's more Slovene than anything else.
He was born after the war, the same war everyone was born after, in a home straddling Collinwood and Euclid, directly adjacent to Muldoon's Saloon. He cultivated his aptitude for boyhood in the nostalgic wealth of all those things most of us still associate with Norman Rockwell: soda fountains, white t-shirts, baseball.
George was addicted to the Indians before he even knew what addiction was, let alone cocaine. He just knew he loved the sport. He took the #1 bus down St. Clair to the old stadium any chance he got. He saw Ted Williams hit his 500th home run in 1960 and Early Winn win his 300th game in '63.
"It's only because both of those games happened to fall on a Sunday," George remembers. "And on Sundays my mother—God bless her—she let me ride down by myself."
When the Vietnam-era reared its psychedelic head and inhaled, George donned a uniform and shipped off to Panama. The U.S. was maintaining and defending the canal zone during that time. George's job was chauffeuring the U.S. General around, and there he acquired a knack for hospitality. In the equatorial heat, he got comfortable rubbing shoulders with monied men, thuggish powerful men.
"I met two Panamanian Presidents," George says, "But I was never in harm's way. I'm a disabled veteran, but I'm no hero."
That's one interpretation, though it doesn't jive with the letter of commendation he received for rescuing a group of elementary school children from a burning bus. (George still has the picture, naturally).
He returned from Panama in '72, back to Cleveland's East Side where crime and its organized varietals were on a glamourous rise. Like everyone back in those days, George began gambling in a concerted, daily way.
"That was a solid 15-year period," says George. "I knew Danny Greene and the people who killed him. All the gangsters. I never hurt anybody—I was on the fringes—but I gambled pretty good. The racetracks, the poker games."
Collinwood was a festival of moderated depravity, in George's recollection. Brazen illicit activity up and down the main streets. He played billiards against the best in the country at Waterloo Pool Hall—"A pool hustler's life is hell..." reads a sign in his current apartment, "but somebody's gotta do it"—and made a nightly pilgrimage to the after-hours poker game on E. 156th St, where the Northeast Shores Development Corporation currently holes up.
"We were playing Hold 'Em before Hold 'Em was ever on TV," says George.
He got a gig working for Al Spencer at the Crazy Horse on 13th and St. Clair when the gambling reached a breathless climax. And through Al, George met the other Spencer, Tim, who gave him the job at the Circus.
In short order, Door George became not only the face of the Circus—the face of the Flats—but also the soul.
"Here comes George Brett in the club—I recognized him right away—and I showed him to a chair and got him a complimentary drink. I ran the tables. And if I said somebody got a drink, they got a drink."
In the Hustler bathroom, Door George is half-seated on the sinks with his head cocked in what the uninitiated might mistake for a parody of 'fond recollection.' Chris Brown's "Don't Wake Me Up" is blasting overhead and an upbeat announcer is imploring us to keep it going for a dancer of unseen endurance and felinity.
"This was '87, and the Kansas City Royals were in town," George goes on. "This was the year after Buckner let that ball go through his legs in the World Series. And, well, I didn't recognize Buckner, but I recognized Brett. And somebody was giving Buckner a hard time on account of that ball going through his legs.
"And I took care of them, moved them to a more private table and got them drinks. And Brett, he appreciated it. He asks me 'Can you come to the ballgame tomorrow night?' And I say, sure.
"Next day, here comes a limousine and an envelope with $100 and two tickets to the game with a note thanking me for looking out for them." George raises an index finger, the story's not over.
"From that day on—I never saw him again in my life—but every time the Royals were in town, sure enough, I got an envelope with $100 and two tickets, up 'til the day he retired. That George Brett, now there was a classy guy."
As a bathroom attendant, Door George's interactions with athletes and celebrities aren't necessarily quantitatively changed. It's the quality that's different.
"A year-and-half ago or so, a girl runs back here and into that stall there," George points to illustrate. "And, even though the management hates it, the girls are always coming back here. But this girl, she didn't work here.
"Ten seconds later, here comes Dennis Rodman. You can't miss him. I mean with the earring and the purple hair and how big he is. Here he comes around the corner, and I guess he had made arrangements to meet her in the stall. But I wouldn't let him go. He started thumping me," George pokes the air in front of his face.
"And I thumped him right back. I almost wish he'd hit me. Maybe I would've got some money out of it. But Rodman was asked to leave and then someone from his entourage came back and gave me a fifty. They were really nice about it."
George doesn't even know why Rodman was in town. Doesn't matter much anyway.
The autonomy of the bathroom is both a blessing and a curse.
Though this particular bathroom happens to be at the Hustler Club—and George is endlessly grateful for the venue—it's not like he's clocking in. The contents of the tip bucket are his to keep (though he often tips out the barbacks who clean up the vomit, piss and other errant bodily fluids). He also occasionally gets a little extra from the strippers if he makes a serendipitous introduction.
But he's also responsible for keeping his bathroom stocked. He'll spend $100 or more on supplies and has to replenish multiple times during the week
"Cigarettes, breath mints, pain relievers. Those are the most popular." George says.
"Breath mints," agrees a balding gentleman in a polo. "When you've got a stripper on your lap, they're important."
George even gets his own soap and paper towels, though the Hustler Club has its own. His are higher quality, and mobile. He roams with his Dial Complete—the foam stuff—ready for action.
He acknowledges that there's sometimes awkwardness with attendants in bathrooms. People hate feeling like they have to tip, or don't know how much, especially because in Cleveland attendants are a rarer breed than in New York or L.A. It feels like a weird or misappropriated luxury.
Nonetheless, George's set-up is optimal. He worked at the Barley House bathroom in the brief interim after the Circus and before the Hustler Club was built in its current location on Center Street. He describes a cramped and claustrophobic atmosphere—"heavy volume"—where the money escalated in direct proportion with the drunkenness of the clientele.
But there's something substantively different about strip clubs.
"At adult entertainment venues, the men tend to be more predisposed," George says. "Even when they're sober, the wallets are a little looser."
He speaks the truth. The Washingtons are locked and loaded here. Everyone seems to have a billfold instead of a wallet to streamline their transactions. These men tip without even being rendered a service. It's like a toll.
"People sometimes ask how much I 'charge.'" George gestures at his little battalion of 5-Hour Energy shots. "It's always been my policy not to charge. I'll say, 'If you'd think of me in a generous way, I'd appreciate it. And it's always worked. Every so often, someone will stiff me, but I'll usually get $5 for [a 5-Hour]. I've gotten $20."
George takes a cab both ways ($25 per trip) and estimates that he needs about $100 to break even most nights. Some winter evenings, when the weather is bad and business is worse, he'll be lucky to close with $20 in his pocket. Other nights, when he sees familiar faces from his days at the Circus, he'll walk away a king.
"I made $300 last night," he says, leaning in. "I've made as much as $800."
But even the most profitable nights lack a certain pageantry. Eight hundred dollars is nothing to a man who once was on the receiving end of $3,000 bribes for reservations on The Circus' golf outing, an annual event that became a tri-annual sensation under George's stewardship.
"I once knew 40,000 people by name," says George of his impressive rolodex. "First and last name, job, drink preferences, everything. I wrote notes to remember them."
In one of the mostly empty bedrooms in George's apartment, he's still got hundreds of old business cards, rubber banded and paper clipped and bundled in plastic organizers. Presidents of local companies, visiting big-shots, media executives.
The room is also littered with those red journals with the year inscribed in gold on the cover. Old seating lists. George was in charge of reservations at the Circus and in many of the interior pages, he's drawn perfect circles to represent tables. Each night, each page, looks like a solar system, endlessly renewable and shiftable and entirely under Door George's control—hobbyist architect indeed.
He flips through the pages, stroking them with his arthritic fingers as if the contact somehow reactivates the past.
"The Flats!" Door George nearly shouts. These are the rhapsodies that come with ownership and with pride. "Millions of people came there. Millions! Every year."
"They were Cleveland places. They were Clevelanders, and there were a lot of characters," George says, without identifying himself as such. "But when the corporations started coming in, that changed it. There were some bad incidents, and the media blew it all out of proportion. There were a few brawls, a few stabbings. One of our girls got killed. And apparently she had been doing drugs. But the bad things got blown up."
Like George's own life.
On his fridge, there's a picture of a younger George and his girlfriend, murdered last year in a warehouse on St. Clair.
"I was with her for 20 years," says George when he returns for his beer. "And I didn't touch crack before I met her. The day I did...I don't know why. I don't know what happened. I was 53 years old."
And the man who once drove a new car every year, who bathed in the generosity of the show bar crowd, now lives in a crackhead's apartment, literally nursing his wounds and reliving his glory days to remind himself that they existed.
And each night, he returns. Above all, he is a man who has made hospitality his career. And he'll be damned if he won't earn his keep.
During a lull in the bathroom traffic on a relatively quiet Friday night, George considers whether or not the Wolstein project in the East Bank can revitalize the Flats.
"It has a chance," he says. "I certainly hope so."
He wipes the the sink despondently, eyeing himself in the mirror. He constantly examines himself as he works.
"It'll never be the same though," he says. "I miss the heydey."