Prime Month — Toni Bruce

The first openly gay person with whom I had a semi-adult relationship was christened Beverley Price. I met her as Toni Bruce. She was my mother’s friend. I asked my brothers and sisters how Mom and Toni met. None of us knew for sure, but we all suspect they met at a department store lunch counter downtown where my mother used to work as waitress, cook and dishwasher. Remember those? Exactly the kind of place Toni would frequent.

According to the handwritten list of AKA’s taped to her mailbox door, she could, at the inkling of an inquiry, be any one of a couple dozen people just by saying that’s who she was. She told me because of this list on her mailbox, she couldn’t be charged with fraud by the record and book clubs, magazine publishers and unsuspecting hawkers of whatever she wanted that she could get simply by clipping something out and sending it off. The worst they could do, she said, was make her pay the originally agreed to price of the product. No fraud as long as those names were on the mailbox. Somehow, that list made it all on the up and up. Besides, she said, it would cost more than she owed to try to collect anyway. Eventually, she said, they even stop sending threatening letters.

Toni said she learned about posting AKAs on the mailbox door while doing time at the women’s prison in Tehachapi in the mid-1950s.

How did she get there? She and three of her lesbian friends were outed while working as secretaries for a government contractor in Korea after the war. The contractor immediately put them on an airplane and before they knew it, they were jobless and homeless lesbians in San Francisco.

Not to worry. One of them came up with the idea they could each open a checking account. With checks, they could buy whatever they wanted, right? But here’s the jackpot — they’d write a boatload of checks to each other, deposit or cash them and then withdraw all the cash from the bank at the last minute and skip out of town with the loot just before the banks figured it out. No computers or instant communication in those days. They figured out exactly how do the deeds and how many days they had to get away with it before anyone became wise.

It was all good until it went bad. They traveled up and down California stopping in new cities along the way, ripping off bank after bank until one afternoon they were late and missed the final big payday at one of the banks. Toni and two of the girls wanted to just move on, but the fourth refused to leave all that money laying in the bank. She got arrested inside, and Toni and rest got busted in the parking lot sitting in the convertible Cadillac they’d paid cash for, the trunk packed with clothes, firs and jewels.