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Entering the Devil’s Triangle

In late September 2018 it would have been a challenge to read a newspaper or watch a television news program without encountering the phrase “Devil’s Triangle.” In case anyone has already forgotten, I’ll briefly explain. It was related to Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court and Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against him. With Kavanaugh’s character in question, everything about him became subjected to analysis, including his 1983 high school yearbook, where the phrase “Devil’s Triangle” appeared in a long list of Kavanaugh’s accomplishments meshed with a slew of inside jokes.

This is a pretty typical thing. My own 1991 high school yearbook lists my involvement in luge. My high school didn’t have an official luge team, of course. But the entry isn’t entirely a joke. I organized several sledding events with my peers — just the traditional riding of orange Paris and red Norca plastic sleds down the hills of Duluth. We referred to ourselves as the Denfeld High School Luge Team.

As you can probably guess, the odds are 100 percent in favor of a search for “luge, sex term” on the internet generating an eye-opening result. It turns out that mentioning in my yearbook the simple act of going sledding with my friends could be interpreted as bragging about fellatio skills.

Putting Kavanaugh’s yearbook entry in context, it’s impossible to tell what was meant to be implied. After a few athletic accomplishments are listed, it reads as follows:

I Survived the FFFFFFFourth of July; Renate Alumnius; Malibu Fan Club; Ow, Neatness 2, 3; Devil’s Triangle; Down Geezer, Easy, Spike, How ya’ doin’, Errr Ah; Rehobeth Police Fan Club (with Shorty)

The phrase “Devil’s Triangle” is most commonly used to refer to the Bermuda Triangle, a region of the North Atlantic Ocean where aircraft and ships have famously disappeared. During Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the debate centered on whether the reference to Devil’s Triangle related to a drinking game played with three glasses in a triangle, as Kavanaugh insisted, or a sexual encounter involving two men and one woman, as the internet insists.

At the time this was in the news, I remembered having heard the term “Devil’s Triangle” used in reference to a trio of bars in Superior long ago. I couldn’t really recall the specifics, and basically let the thought drift through my mind. Then, a few months later, the thought came back to me and I decided to put my curiosity to rest with a little research.

The excerpt below is from the June 15, 1997 Duluth News Tribune story “Superior’s bar owners, police cooperate more,” by Steve Kuchera. The article is about a partnership between the Superior Police Department and bar owners to reduce fighting, drug use and other problems associated with alcohol.

“It’s no secret that a large portion of our calls are from 12th Street to Sixth Street on Tower Avenue,” said Capt. Doug Osell, who heads the Special Crimes Unit.

It’s been that way for years. In 1979, one law-enforcement official called the area of Seventh and Tower “The Devil’s Triangle.” In 1980, city counselors told then Police Chief Roy F. Martinson to present monthly briefings on problems at and near bars.

There it was. The other Devil’s Triangle. At the time — forty years ago — Devil’s Triangle would have referred to the Lamplighter Bar & Lounge, Mayor’s Brass Rail and the Cove Cabaret disco nightclub, as near as I can tell. All three of those Superior bars are no longer in business.

And, of course, it must be noted there is a related modern-day phenomenon in West Duluth — the Barmuda Triangle of the Kom-on-Inn, Mr. D’s and the Rustic. But I digress.

In Superior, the buildings where the three “Devil’s Triangle” bars existed are still there, and are still drinking establishments. Two of them are strip clubs. The devil is as active as ever in 2019.

Top Hat Tavern’s logo makes it look like the place might be a strip club, but it’s the one out of the three that isn’t. Centerfold’s Cabaret and Lady Vi’s are strip clubs.

A digression related to the map above: Sometimes pink sidewalks are just pink sidewalks.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with whether Justice Kavanaugh crossed any ethical lines rendering him unfit for the Supreme Court. Obviously I feel a powerful urge to insinuate his guilt or innocence related to the sexual assault allegations, because I know that’s what readers will work through paragraph after paragraph to get to. So delicious is the urge to judge. It’s not enough to have a strong opinion about a matter based mostly on gut instinct; that strong opinion must extend into judging those who agree and disagree with the opinion, which was also based largely on little more than what a lifetime of influences steered them toward. Truth is a process; opinions are reactions along the way.

We all know things often aren’t what they seem. We know the depths of motivation and deception can be difficult to gauge. We know the real truth is seldom apparent. But hey, we can’t go around being wishy washy, right? It’s important to be bold and take a stand.

If I were a United States Senator, no one would have to ask what I think about any controversy. It would be easy enough to just look at the letter in parenthesis in front of my name. Is it an R or a D? Mystery solved. Because that’s how it works when we divide up and pick teams for politics. Either Kavanaugh is a victim of a smear job and Michael Cohen is a liar with his pants on fire, or Kavanaugh is a sexual predator and Cohen is a trustworthy reformed sinner. Don’t mix those up or add any nuance to either option unless it’s a subtle attempt to trick people into thinking you’re being impartial in handing down your prejudged partisan opinion. If you do you’ll be considered a freethinking outcast who could never be elected to anything and/or will always throw votes away.

Last spring I was pruning some shrubs on the far end of my property and my neighbor shouted out to me: “Hey, I see you’re wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap.”

“No, I’m not,” I responded.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, it looks like one from over here.”

“It isn’t,” I assured him.

“O.K.” he said.

What a marvelous interaction. Both of us were left aching to judge each other. Was he going to malign or praise me if I had been wearing a MAGA cap? I don’t know. I actually prefer not knowing. But of course I still want to know.

When I decided to write about the other Devil’s Triangle, I wondered if all three of the Superior bars on that intersection today are truly still in business. I don’t drink my way down Tower Avenue these days like I did twenty years ago. Searching the internet gave me a vague sense they were all still open, but I thought if my journalistic credibility is on the line I better confirm it. Then I took it to the next level and decided I should pay a visit to each of the bars and get a sense of the vibe.

Of course, the fact that two of the places are strip clubs led my thoughts in several directions. Strictly thinking about my personal reputation, maybe it was OK to go to a strip club with friends 20 years ago, but to go alone as a middle-aged man seems like a bad idea. And it’s 2019, so … how is it that we still have strip clubs? Is everyone on stage an empowered woman doing what she wants? Why was I less concerned about that in 1999 than I am in 2019? Or was I just as concerned in 1999, but needed the fourth-wave feminist movement to make me aware and potentially responsive to that concern in 2019? It’s not easy for me to comprehend that about myself, so it’s kind of scary to imagine other people trying to assess my motivations and impulses. I don’t even know if my supposed dedication to fact-checking an essay is just an excuse I cooked up to convince myself it might be OK to publicly acknowledge going to the nudie bars.

All that thinking made me thirsty, so I made my way to the Top Hat Tavern, where I could tackle the part of my mission that wouldn’t threaten my reputation. Not to anyone’s surprise, the Top Hat is a fairly typical drinking establishment. While I was there about two-dozen people either sat at the bar or played darts while music by the band O.A.R. played over the sound system. Then I realized that while I thought my reputation was still safe, it will actually be destroyed once people find out I was in a room where O.A.R. was playing and I didn’t run out screaming with my hands over my ears.

With the topic of my essay being how eager we are to judge others, I should probably be embarrassed about disliking O.A.R. so much. But I’m not.

At the conclusion of my rum and Coke, it was time to decide whether or not I would check out the two strip clubs. What would it say about me if I did or didn’t? What useful information could I gather there anyway? Would I think less of myself after going in? How would I be judged by others? If I’m judged negatively, should I call those people prudes and disregard them? Or should I apologize and beg forgiveness? Or should I defend myself by pointing out that all I did was enter a legal drinking establishment for research purposes?

I’d probably choose a mix of apologizing and defending myself, which is stupid because that method has worked exactly zero times in the realm of public opinion. It’s possible to convince individuals you are sorry and meant no harm, but anyone in a group knows it’s all lies and deflection unless they are inclined to like you in the first place.

On at least one level, it would be better to destroy evidence of having any of these thoughts at all. But I can’t deny I enjoyed the mental exercise. Maybe there’s nothing to really learn from any of it. If there is something to learn, it’s likely a burden anyway. The weight of knowledge is always compounded by the desire to share it.

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