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The Ross Fireproof Hotel (2002)

The Ross Fireproof Hotel (2002)

©2002, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2002, Fall). A Word from the Editor: The Ross Fireproof Hotel. Transgender Tapestry, 99, p. 6.






The Ross Fireproof Hotel

 By Dallas Denny


The very day I finished 8th grade, in June, 1963, my family relocated to Tennessee. I lived there until 1989, when I moved to Atlanta. So naturally, I was pleased when IFGE announced their 2002 Coming Together conference would be held in one of my old stomping grounds— Nashville. Nashville is a great city.

Gender conventions— and I’ve attended more than 50— have always meant work for me. I almost always give presentations and have board meetings to attend, and in many cases I’m involved with the actual running of the event. One my biggest frustrations over the past dozen or so years has been to fly to fabulous places like New York, Vancouver, Boston, Chicago, Aspen, and Los Angeles, and not see my surroundings because I can’t manage to get away from the convention.

This time would be different. I had a presentation scheduled for Thursday morning, and another Friday morning; beyond that, I had no obligations. And so I slipped away and played hookey, not only visiting old haunts, but going places and doing things I never found the time for when I lived in Nashville. I spent hours walking through the wonderful conservatories at Opryland Hotel. I visited Printer’s Alley, the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Museum Hall of Fame, and went to the Grand Ole Opry and a midnight taping of a radio show. Hee haw!

A year or so out of high school, I found myself living in the Ross Hotel. The Ross, built around 1900 of brick and proudly advertised as fireproof, had degenerated into a gloomy fleapit in which rheumy old men sat in the lobby dipping snuff and watching a portable black-and-white television set that rested crookedly in a bucket-butt plastic chair.

My basement room at the Ross cost eight dollars a week, cheap even by 1969 standards. A six by ten cubicle, it contained a single bed, a chest of drawers, a wobbly chair, a sink, and me. There were no windows.

Mornings, dressed as a boy, I would catch the city bus to and from my job at Shoney’s, where I worked many hours a week for $1.50 a hour, and where I ate most of my meals. On my days off, however…

The Ross sat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Commerce, facing the back door of the Ryman Auditorium, which at the time still housed the Grand Ole Opry. On Friday and Saturday nights, standing at the Ross’ front door, I could watch performers making their way from the back door of the Ryman to the back door of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge for a quick nip. At the rear of the Ross ran Printer’s Alley, with world-famous night clubs and exotic dancing. Opposite the Ross’ parking lot was the Electric Circus, named for the psychedelic night club in London. In the still night air, acid rock would mingle with fiddles and yodeling from the Opry and jukebox music from nearby taverns.

One block down Fifth Avenue was Broadway, full of sleazy bars and tourist joints. One block up Fifth was Church Street and upscale downtown shopping.

On Mondays, I would leave my room and sneak out of the Ross, leaving the basement door slightly ajar so I could would get back in without being seen. Days, I would go up to Church and shop for clothing and cosmetics at ritzy department stores, spend time at the library or the reading room at the YWCA, see a movie, or go to a restaurant. Evenings, I would wander down to seedy Broadway, or try— always unsuccessfully, as I was not even close to legal drinking age— to get in the Electric Circus. When the sun went down, men would hit on me, sometimes propositioning me from their moving automobiles as I walked down the street. Always, I was in dire fear of being recognized as a boy or interrogated by the police— but it never happened. And always, I was desperately in search of a way to live full-time as a girl— but that never happened, either.

My stay at the Ross came to an abrupt end when management discovered a girl in my room. One Monday, as I stuck my head out the door of my room to see if the coast was clear, who should I see in the hallway but the desk clerk, who had grown suspicious of the not-quite-latched-on-Monday back door, and who had come down to check. I ducked back inside, but not, apparently, quickly enough. KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. I had no choice but to open the door. “Yes?” I asked. “What are you doing here?” “I live here.” “No you don’t. There are no women allowed at the Ross. I’m going for the manager.”

Scarcely two minutes later, the clerk was back with the manager. When I opened the door to their pounding, they saw what was apparently a boy.

“Where is she?” “Where’s who? “Don’t try to kid us. We know she was here.” They peered suspiciously around the room to see where I could possibly have stashed a young woman. Not finding her, they told me I would have to leave for breaking the Ross’ no-females rule.

When I saw the jig was up, I did my first public coming out. I told them the woman was moi. They refused to believe me— and so ended my residence at the Ross.

On the Friday of the IFGE conference, Sandra Cole and Holly Devor, with whom I had been sightseeing, indulged me, walking up Fifth Avenue with me to my former home— or, rather, to the spot where it had once stood, for the Ross was no longer there.

Where the lobby should had been, there was now a plaza leading to a towering structure of steel and glass, rising from the previous site of my basement room. Gazing upward, I saw we were at the base of the much-reviled and much-revered BellSouth headquarters building, which, according to whom you ask, has destroyed, or made more interesting, the Nashville skyline.

The Ross is gone now, and I don’t even have a photo— but forever more, when I think of Nashville, I’ll smile, knowing the Batman-like outline of the BellSouth tower stands as a monument to my almost-girlhood at the Ross Fireproof Hotel.