I grew up in a small town (Do I hear a song?) farm community during another era. We had, I believe, 62 students in my graduating class, all straight and Christian. Ostensibly. At least, no one I knew of admitted to being gay or to not being Christian. Well, except Erica. Erica was our Jewish student. We were very progressive for the 60s. We even had a black student. For a week. I have no idea what happened there.
I managed to go through college and the Army being aware of only one person who was openly gay. When I tried man-handing him (I hear it.) out of the third floor window, it was for entirely unrelated reasons. (He was playing “Incense and Peppermints” over and over when I decided to help him explore the possibilities of leaving via the window. Justifiable? I think so. No serving member of the United States Army should be dreaming of a production number to that tune at 4 a.m.) I was unaware of his orientation until he was dishonorably discharged.
I mention all of this to say that I have no gaydar whatsoever and, as a baby boomer, I had very little–virtually no–experience with people who openly identified as gay. And that might go some way toward explaining my reaction when….
Well, let me tell you:
I was thirty-years old and teaching English within the boundaries of the original District of Columbia in Northern Virginia. While serving in the military I had traveled through several foreign countries; later I had lived in New York City and in England; my horizons had expanded once I started wearing shoes. One weekend, a colleague suggested that we go into DC for a bit of bar-hopping.
We were passing a bar on the corner of 9th and H, NW. As I recall, the blacked out windows featured silhouettes of what appeared to be bare-naked ladies (not a band) and advertised dancing girls. My friend looked at me and asked whether I wanted to in.
Not my thing, but I shrugged and said okay.
There was a small–foyer is so much more elegant than it deserves–let’s just say that a guy sat on a stool inside the door, collecting $5 a head. My friend, Let’s call him Buddy, said that he’d get the cover charge and preceded me into the establishment, vibrating with disco music. (It has been some time since I was 30. I still miss Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, and my heart still pounds at the beat of “Knock on Wood.”) As I cleared the entrance alcove, I saw scantily-clad young men–they looked like teenagers, but had to have been in their 20s, at least according to their IDs– dancing. On the bar.
I noticed that they all wore white socks.
I noticed that they wore only white socks.
That is to say, I noticed that they wore nothing but white socks as they gyrated and bounced to the tunes.
I thought of AC/DC. I understood the song.
Ever the model of discretion and decorum, I fell back against the wall, grabbed my chest and shouted, “Oh, my God!” not an exclamation I often use, but it seemed much better than “I’m coming, Elizabeth!” à la Redd Foxx.
Not only did he know, but he also knew I don’t know. He was openly amused by my naivete in some areas, this numbering high among them.
I was thirty years and did not know about–had never heard about–gay bars. Well, maybe I had heard about them but vaguely thought they were urban legends. I had never heard of bars in which young men danced naked.
We pushed through the throng of men crushing (probably more than one meaning here) around the bar. It was a long, narrow room with a single row of cocktail (Again, you hear it under certain conditions) on a raised platform facing the bar.
We ordered beers from a handsome and charming young man and sat talking as there were not more than participles dangling before us.
Buddy said that he liked to come here…it was called the Chesapeake House (I’ll tell you why the name is important anon.)… because drinks are much less expensive than most straight bars. I later learned that that was not the only reason, but for now we maintained the illusion.
I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t know how to react when guys started hitting on me. Buddy told me not to worry about it. It took me much too long to realize that he was not flattering me.
No one so much as glanced in my direction as I scanned the room for someone who might recognize me and rush out to tell the world that I had been in a gay bar. Among the lessons I learned that night were two huge ones: I am not honey to gay bees and the world does not revolve around what I do or who I am. It was more deflating than it was a relief.
Besides, Buddy pointed out, how would anyone who was patronizing the establishment explain his presence therein?
Buddy explained that the Chesapeake House was (a massive office building now stands on the site) what might be called a “chicken” bar because it catered to very young men, “chickens” in the parlance of gay culture. I don’t know whether it is still used, but he told me that there were many specialty bars in DC, including a leather bar,( which would be torn down to make way for the old Convention Center) transvestite bars such as the one with regular drag shows across the street from FBI headquarters, (I wish it had been called Hoover’s, but it was called, I think Louie’s) and others.
At the same time, we had a chain of all-you-can eat seafood restaurants called the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House, very popular with our family, especially the teenagers and their friends and teammates.
One morning shortly after my first foray into gay DC, I was having coffee in the English office when a colleague said, “You go to the Chesapeake House, don’t you?”
She seemed surprised that I just stared at her without speaking, my cup halfway to my mouth. People always seem surprised when I am not speaking.
I made a half-nod, a quarter twist of the head and a dem-shrug trying for as non-committal a commitment as I could muster.
“Do they have chicken?” she asked.
“Well, yes. Yes, they have chicken,” I said, not sure whether tears would help or hurt. I hoped that the lip-quivering would be as far as I went.
My colleague looked steadily at me as she said slowly, “I think I’m going to take [her daughter] there. She likes seafood, but I’d rather have chicken.”
And the light broke through and understanding descended.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I think you’ll like it; My family loves the Seafood House.”
My borderline manic response did not go far toward breaking her steady gaze as she gathered her books to go to class.
I buried my head in my arms when she left. Walking on the wild-side, no matter how tamely, takes a lot out of a guy.
It was not the last time I went to a gay bar. The next time it was my step-son who took me. Well, he wasn’t technically my step-son and he didn’t actually take me. His mother took me.
“Clare,” and I were together for many years. We were “without benefit of clergy,” but I routinely referred to her as “my wife” and to Chad (You know it’s not his real name, but he has made clear that he does not especially like my writing about him.) as my son. In all fairness, I had asked her to marry me and she explained that while I was good enough to live with, she was not interested in marriage. But she was more diplomatic. Nonetheless, I loved them both as much as if we were legal and legitimate, and I was heartbroken but not stunned when she left me to marry someone more “exciting.”
I think I lost the thread.
Oh, I remember! Two weekends in a row, Chad, then 17, came in very late, as in the wee hours. When I asked where he had been so late, he named a club called “Tracks” in the District.
I had heard students talking about Tracks. I said, “Isn’t that a gay bar?”
He said “No” as if I had asked whether he still wore lace panties.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah! I think I’d notice that.
When I asked how he could even get in at his age, he showed me a large black X in indelible ink on the back of his hand. “This means I can’t have alcohol.”
He looked at me. There are many ways people look at each other. We can look at each other with our eyes filled with love or hate or understanding. Chad looked into my eyes and his steady gaze said: “Now, what you got to say about that?”
“Then, why do you go there?”
Now his look was a mixture of contempt and condescension: “To meet girls.”
Okay, that was his answer to every question, whether or not it was verbalized, and, if we are being honest, even that answer was only partial, because for Chad, meeting a girl was only a rest stop on the road to releasing his excessive hormones. (Yeah, I’m not sure that that makes sense either, but I’ll bet you catch my drift.)
“And we play volleyball. There’s a volleyball court in back and that’s where we usually hang.”
I looked at his mother and said, “As responsible parents, we should go and check it out.”
She agreed and there began our gay adventuring.
In those days, there were two semi-official gay zones in Washington: on and around Dupont Circle and the industrial section of Southeast where Nationals Stadium now stands. Other gay clubs were scattered throughout the city, but these were concentrated areas.
Southeast Washington also was (is?) the violence-saturated drug-dealing center of activity in DC. With the arrogance of the ignorant (and the ignorance of the arrogant) we slapped down the top of my convertible to better showcase our white honky selves while riding through an area into which Wonder Breads do not often wander.
I got lost.
There are those who have suggested that those words should be inscribed on my tombstone. (Surprise! It will have to be written on the side of the little butcher-paper-wrapped ash-filled box.) Night was falling and drug dealers were openly plying their trade on street corners.
And they were looking at us…hard. Chad’s mother, ever the shrinking violet, grabbed me by the shirt front and shouted, “You’re going to get us killed.”
I’m sure that made us less conspicuous.
But we were well and truly lost, driving among what appeared to be vacant factories, when Clare said that her nose urgently needed powdering.
We heard loud music coming from what appeared to be a warehouse. We followed the music to the entrance (Picture Pepé Le Pew following his nez.) and were dismayed to see a line of–mostly women–lined up to pay a cover charge. Annoying, but at least we knew that a powder room was near.
As we waited, I thought to myself that these women were unusually tall. Looking down, I quietly said to Clare, “These women have big feet. What are the chances that so many women would have big feet?”
She gave me that look and that screamed “idiot.”
I was not unaccustomed to it.
When we entered I thought that the dance floor looked like a skating rink, with a circular path around it to the bar, toward which we bee-lined. (I could have stooped for pee-line, but I have so much class and dignity that it never occurred to me.)
Ever the gentleman, I asked the barmaid to direct me to the women’s room. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward an unmarked open door. I walked Clare to the door and took up sentry duty, but she was back in seconds.
“There are urinals in there,” she said.
I returned to the barmaid. “Sorry,” quoth I, “that seems to be the men’s room. We need the ladies’.”
Her gaze was steady. “Well, we’re pretty unisex here,” she said. “The the one women use is behind the ‘men’s’ room.”
The quotation marks were unspoken but understood.
We investigated again, but found only the one door. Back to the bar. Clare was dancing an awkward little jig with her knees together.
“Do you have to go through the men’s room to get to the women’s?”
“Or you can go around.” She gestured toward the other side of the bar. We decided to take the more modest route and go around.
As we walked into the back room, I noticed that the young man who was dancing on the miniature stage was scantily clad, indeed. The hushed crowd seemed mesmerized. Even Clare slowed her pace, yet we soldiered on.
She ducked into the ladies’ while I guarded the doorless door. When she emerged she grabbed my arm, trying to drag me into the woman’s room.
“Did you see the feet in that stall?” she demanded. “There was someone peeing,” she said, managing to sound scandalized that people with feet engaged in such behavior in a room designated for the purpose.
Humoring her seemed my wisest course. “Well, people…”
“They were huge!”
“Well….” I was so lost. “Some people have large feet; some people have…”
“And they were facing the porcelain!”
I was silent.
We began to retrace our route through the back room, called “Secrets,” as it turns out. I began to suspect what some of those secrets might be, because the young man on the tiny stage was now wearing only a bikini bottom and his socks as he gyrated to the musical stylings of Madonna.
“Hold on,” Clare said, catching my sleeve. “Let’s wait till he finishes.”
So we sat across from each other at a table with a direct line of sight to the stage.
The Speedo briefs went away and the dancer stepped down to the floor and began to shimmy from table to table.
Unaccustomed as I was to having naked young men gyrating around the tables, I felt myself stiffen. That is to say, I tensed. I felt my face flush and I didn’t know where to look. Clare looked more than a little amused…when she wasn’t looking at him.
When the young dancer was close to her, she said, “My friend is feeling a little tense. Any ideas about what might relax him?”
“Oh, yes I do, honey,” he said. “By day I am a massage therapist.” Whereupon he gyrated around the table behind me and began to massage my neck and shoulders.
Gay, straight, bi, or alternating among the various choices, I do not understand how anyone who is feeling tense about a naked person dancing around him would relax if said person begins massaging him.
He moved closer until I could feel his squishies pressing against my back.
Mixed feelings here. At least they were still squishies…and then, “Wait, What?” Nothing? Am I nothing more than a piece of meat?”
Clare was clearly enjoying my discomfort, and she had the presence of mind to tip him. I was far more confused and flustered than a grown man should be.
But Clare never massaged my shoulders. Maybe we were onto something here.
After one or two more dancers, Clare decided that we should make Tracks…or at least try to.
But just at that time, apparently at some signal I missed, all the big women in our room decided to rush back to the main room. Of course, Clare snagged my arm and dragged me along with the crowd.
Her doing so seemed the more appropriate when we saw that our lady-friends had been rushing back for the drag show that was underway in the main room.
If I had been confused before (There really is no “if.” I had bewildered from the moment we got there.) now I was in serious trouble. The fact is that many of these women were beautiful–perfect.
Now, I had seen La Cage Aux Folles more than once and so I knew that men could be beautiful women. I did have fun “guessing [their] gender.” As I looked at these ladies, some were grotesquely obvious cross-dressers, but I found myself intently checking bulge locations of the others who were just stunning.
Then the music changed and the crowd took to the dance floor. Clare saw her chance, but my head was spinning and she stopped hitting me when I promised that we would go dancing the next week. When my head had cleared.
As we were leaving, a man approached and asked “how far on the wild side” we wanted to walk.
Of course, my immediate response was to flush crimson and choke on a response (as if I had one). Clare just shook her head, laughing, and pulled me away by the arm.
On the way home, we had fun guessing what he meant, but we never did make Tracks. We planned to try again the next week, and I was grateful that one of us was a man of the world.
Next time: What happened at Tracks (and didn’t stay there).