The first time I set foot in a gay bar was Saturday, February 13, 1971 when I was twenty-one years old. Even some of my good friends might say to me at this point, “Oh come on Matthew, how the hell do you expect anyone to believe you could remember such details after so many years?”. This milestone is easy to recall, because it was Valentine’s weekend and the entire cast of BOYS IN THE BAND went together, even the straight ones, under the guise of doing research for the play. Research – hell, not me! I was going because I wanted to, even though terrified by the prospect. As we walked through the door one of the straight boys remarked “well, there goes my reputation”, joking of course, but for me that was the reality. It was the act that clinched the deal for my gay-ness, not to mention the fact that I was accompanied by my first steady boyfriend, Guy.
As we entered the bar, an old, dark oaken saloon of a place, all heads turned to gawk at us young college boys, or rather fresh meat as the somewhat older crowd of regulars surely must have viewed us. I remember moving into the main bar area clustered together in our brood, looking for all the world like little kindergarten girls holding hands so they wouldn’t get lost in the bus line. Over the mirror behind the bar itself, hung a gigantic, tacky, handmade heart-shaped sign. It read simply: Mother Loves You. To clarify, the bar was named MOTHER’S.
That following summer, returning to my parent’s house to work before my last year of University, I visited a hometown bar which was not much better, only much bigger. The name of that one was The 620, the address of the building in the heart of downtown Cleveland. There were crowds of people, many younger like myself and loads of thirty/forty somethings – guys, who those my age considered to be older men. Everyone was dressed in finery, trying to look their best. Jeans were still just jeans then, too ordinary for going out to look and be looked at, (I can’t remember “cruising” to be part of my vernacular then). The horrible thing about the Cleveland bar was that a police officer in full uniform stood outside the door and carded you. They didn’t do that in any straight clubs in town. It was truly intimidating and the cops made the most of it as they glared at your face, glancing back at the picture on you license, as though they were committing to memory each and every gay person who came through the door.
It always gave me the creeps so I seldom went out in Clevetown and certainly never alone. I would go with my buddy Ed, who I met doing summer theatre in the area. Although I’ve always enjoyed spending time with him, I can’t ever remember having much fun going out in Ohio. It was much akin to visiting the dentist or getting your hair cut. So why do it then, you might ask? Because I saw it as a rite of passage and a sort of grace to finally be together with my peers. For the most part, every guy in that bar spent the better portion of his week hiding: behind an office desk, in a warehouse or factory, in a classroom or dormitory pretending to fit into a straight world. Here we could relax amongst our own and try to appreciate who the man inside really was that we’d been carefully camouflaging.
New York City had a different take on the bar scene. I once talked Ed into driving his late 60s gas guzzling boat of a car to Manhattan one Friday night after work. We planned to go out on Saturday night, only to climb back into the car Sunday morning once the bar had closed at 4:00 a.m. to return home to Cleveland. The trip is typically at least eleven hours each direction. THAT was a fun time for sure. The excitement of just being in New York made it sensational and we still laugh about that insane trip today.
And once I had moved to the City and experienced all those early unpleasantries connected with my time spent at Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I thought it best to find a better place to meet eligible men. I began to frequent Julius’ on Tenth Street and Waverly Place. It was (and still is) an intimate bar, long and narrow with fresh sawdust on the floor each night. To me it looked much like any comfy neighborhood watering hole with a great mix of ages and types. I was doing this on my own, so it wasn’t always a comfortable thing for a somewhat innocent twenty-three year old hayseed from Ohio. In those days, I could count the number of men I had been to bed with on two hands and still have several fingers left. I would walk into the front door, order a drink and find the least conspicuous place along the wall somewhere near the back door. There I watched, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, puffing nervously and sipping carefully. From my vantage point I could scrutinize both doors and the traffic which came and went all night. New Yorkers seem to always be in a hurry and it was never more evident than in a gay pick-up bar, which is all Julius’ was. No dancing, no piano playing or singing drama queens – just two doors to move em’ in and move em’ out.
I was going to this place several nights a week, hoping to fall into the open arms of Mister Right the moment he waltzed through either door. I loved watching the regulars who would kiss each other as they oozed their way through the tightly packed, elongated room. There were men with greying temples wearing loafers and khakis with blazers or V-neck sweaters. There were shaggy haired guys in tight jeans, work boots and plaid shirts or white T-shirts and leather vests. Who would I go home with tonight, I’d ask myself as I fantasized the evening away. Sometimes a pair of eyes belonging to a guy I was studying would lock onto mine. Should I look away or return the glance and maybe smile? I’m sure I must have looked terrified most times and was woefully lame at both the rules and how to play this game they all seemed so proficient at.
I can recall the first time a guy actually cruised me and crossed over the room to speak. I have no idea exactly what he looked like or how he was dressed, only that he was thirty-something and alarmingly handsome. After a few minutes of trading smiles and cautiously eyeing each other up and down, he Rhett Butlerly sauntered across to my side of the room. Leaning in closely, he cupped my small ass in one big hand and as he did, whispered wetly into my ear “wanna come home and warm up my bed?”. It was so forward and took my midwestern sensibilities by such surprise that I whispered back into his available ear something to the effect of “maybe you’d like to know my name first?”. Without a beat he released my ass cheeks from his clench, moving smoothly away, as I stood there, wishing the floor would collapse beneath me.
That had been a good night for me; at least I was finally attracting somebody. Why hadn’t I said yes and just left with him? Because I was still of the mindset that you had to know the person and care about them before climbing into bed together. I was playing by the rules of generations before me to find a life mate, rules originally tailored for a straight world yet the only ones I knew. There had been a game change even before our generation and those old principles were no longer valid for most straight people either now. Why did I persist in thinking any of it would ever fly in the gay world? With few role models, without ever having heard the terms life partner, long time companion or significant other, still I knew it had to be possible to find someone to share a life with, even if you were queer. But it looked as though I would have to bend a bit to make things work in my world. New York was a freer place that allowed me to be whatever person I wanted, but I had to be willing to make some big personal concessions.
I took a break from Julius’ shortly thereafter. My social life needed to take a backseat to my everyday existence: rent, employment, electric bills, food in the belly, these became my priorities. Even if I found my Prince, I knew I couldn’t expect him to foot the bill. Our rendezvous would have to wait.
to eventually be continued…