The first gay bar I ever went to was a lesbian bar called The Flame. It was on the edge of the gay neighborhood called Hillcrest in San Diego on Park Avenue. I worked in nearby Balboa Park, taking orders for cheeseburgers and nachos at the snack bar and was one of the few on staff there who could take apart, clean, and reassemble Taylor, our big money maker. Taylor was the ice cream machine that churned out creamy soft serve in chocolate and vanilla named as such because of the brand of the manufacturer’s emblazoned across the top in stainless steel, not because we decided to humanize it or make it part of the family.
The snack bar was tucked in between the curve of the thruway off the main road, the Spanish Village Art Center and the elephant end of the world famous zoo confirmed by the constant wafting of fresh pachyderm shit into your nose. We also were home base to the half dozen hot dog carts strategically placed around the park because San Diego is a tourist trap as much as it is a military town so if you needed a Coke, some peanut M&Ms, or a chili dog served in a white paper sleeve and didn’t want to schlep it back to our brick and mortar, we had the hook up.
The bulk of the management were all gay women. I did as I was told, made sure I covered my shifts, and was a model employee. Holly, the manager, ran a tight ship. Firm, but fair. She kept her dark curls cut short so that her hair tightly framed her caramel colored face. Despite her squat, sturdy frame, she was surprisingly agile on her feet. In my mind’s eye she would’ve been a great point guard.
At some point, she dated Jen—Big Jen, so as to distinguish her from Little Jen, naturally. Little Jen was straight, still in high school, and drove a white Honda Civic hatchback like the one Bruce Willis’s girlfriend Fabienne owned in Pulp Fiction. She wore her brown hair in a long, smooth ponytail that fit through the rear of our required black caps that were part of our uniform. Big Jen was smart, kind, and left the snack bar not long after I started working there and joined the Army reserves. She dropped in after basic training fit as hell remade not unlike the physiques of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It? and I’m sure that made Holly very happy.
I was swapping out the sodas in the small stucco room off to the side of the snack bar one afternoon, the floors sticky with the drips and run offs from the cardboard boxes that held the syrup of Cokes, Sprite, and root beer as well as the old school carbon gas canisters that looked like vintage torpedoes shot from Cold War era submarines. All of this connected by labyrinthian plastic tubing that snaked its way back inside the main building and magically made soda when you pressed a waxed paper cup to the lever to its corresponding flavor. I didn’t mind it, the room and isolation. As much as I could turn on the wattage and be a charismatic people person, I’d much rather as such float to the background and let others shine. It was around this time that I realized I did a lot of performing in order to be liked; cracked jokes and used humor in order to deflect that there were things I didn’t like about myself and assumed others would not and did not like either and hoped being funny would soften the emotional blow, cutting the hurt off at the proverbial pass.
A man walked up and asked for directions while I was down on my knees on the soda sticky floor, hiding out longer than I needed to in this small space alone that I preferred to the tightly packed confines inside, where hot dogs and super dogs (quarter pound hot dogs not unlike what you get at Costco’s walk up window) rolled themselves up and down until brown on a stainless steel contraption, and burgers sizzled on grill underneath an exhaust fan. I couldn’t see his face. The sun at his back left him in black construction paper silhouette, but his voice was soft and when I turned to look at him, I thought that it didn’t match his burly frame shadow cut-out.
He was in the Navy, a white boy from the Midwest—Nebraska, maybe Illinois? Somewhere wide open with a lot of cows because he, naturally, grew up on a dairy farm and signed up, as many often did, to leave the farm behind to see the world. I know this because after I gave him directions to either the IMAX theater at the Fleet Science Center, or the triumphant statue of El Cid on the Prado, or probably just the closest restroom, we chatted each other up and, since he was alone, made plans to hang out once I finished my shift. We were close in age but I was thrown by how much more mature he was, at least physically. I was a doughy, soft incomplete nascent thing, and he had the fully formed stature and build of the men I secretly clamored after, dreamt about, desperately wanted to be like. It was the first time I ever consciously flirted, with anyone, let alone another guy. For some reason, on that day, I let my self-consciousness behind. I wanted this man. I don’t know how that might manifest, though I obviously had an idea of how sex between two dudes worked. In theory.
I won’t keep you hanging: Nothing happened. There was no fumbling of hands on brass belt buckles or ripping off of Levi’s and t-shirts. No accidental coincidental touching of lingering hands in a jointly shared bucket of large popcorn while watching Batman Returns or Unforgiven, or Lethal Weapon 3. No awkward unsure are we going to do this or not way our lips hovering mere millimeters from one a on the porch near the front door in wrapping up the evening. I don’t remember much about our time together other than I found him and his curtain of chest hair sprouting over his collar, his knob of Adam’s apple dancing in his throat in between sips of Mr. Pibb incredibly sexy. I wish I remembered his name, this innocuous first and last date for lack of a better and more definitive term if only for finally giving me permission—the go ahead to surrender to those forbidden, deep down spooky sentiments: that guys are hot and that for me, I was gay, and there was no use in fighting it anymore.
I was nineteen years old then. In my first year of college where I was a commuter student at San Diego State University and trying to make sense of the world on terms that worked by and for me. I was barely out to myself. I was certainly dreaming of, longing for, and spending enough time in the shower and under cheap cotton-blend Target sheets with myself in deep carnal thought about men like this sailor, but had not articulated this to anyone else. A year before, maybe two, I despised myself, wanted to go to bed and not wake up, wanted to fold myself up like origami into smaller and smaller pieces, creases on edge, tucking corners and flaps of myself over, behind, and into one another going subatomic until I disappeared. Sometimes these feelings were more intense than others and when they were, I acted out in the ways that people who don’t like themselves do. I was sullen, despondent, withdrawn. I cried, I repelled people, I drove them away because I couldn’t be helped, forever engulfed by a dark depressive cloud. Word got out. Teachers noticed. People told my folks and I mostly played it off by playing dumb. I kept my distance. Endured. Survived. I left high school behind, started college, and eventually ended up working in the park with a squad of happy-go-lucky lesbians.
Little Jen and I hung out a lot. I remember going to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the one with Keanu, with her and her then boyfriend, Tommy. We consumed caffeine by the giant mugful with another co-worker, a high spirited tiny wisp of thing named Monica whose Cali-Mex accent shot out of her mouth rapid fire with a smile like the Fourth of July. We weren’t old enough to get into Rich’s, the gay club on University Ave in the heart of Hillcrest, and it’s doubtful Little Jen or Monica had any interest in what went on inside the giant warehouse, but I was certainly more than curious. We could go to the cafe right next door though. So instead of grooving and dripping sweat all over each other under pulsing strobe lights, or so I imagined what it might be like inside Rich’s, we relaxed in bean bag chairs at The Coffee Table, wasting time with weirdos and other night owls, some queer, all feigning eccentricity while they smoked cloves and sipped oversized peppermint mochas into the early morning.
I remember standing outside once with Little Jen talking about black and white photography. She studied at the creative and performing arts high school while she took long drags on convenience store non-clove cigarettes when a fight broke out in the serpentine line to get into Rich’s. We stood in the alley that separated the club from the coffee shop posted up against a brick wall. As someone who grew up in a neighborhood where crime seemed to always be there beneath the surface at a bare simmer, I tensed up and pondered my options. Crack cocaine had infiltrated our working class black and brown streets and turned its users to heavy-eye-lidded zombie addicts and gang life was a real, credible and ongoing threat. I had lost too many friends to violence. My natural instinct? Run. I loved Little Jen, but I was ready to leave her and everyone else behind in the name of safety and self-preservation if things were about to pop off. But white girl Jen didn’t flinch, her large chestnut eyes unstirred by the melee. It took a moment to realize that these two men, both of them with necks as wide as dinner plates, the rest of their rugged, fit proportional bodies to match, were not fighting at all, and the energy expelled wasn’t anger, but was something just as fiery: passion. Confirmed when one pinned the other to the wall, cupped the back of his friend’s freshly shorn high-and-tight military haircut and placed his hungry mouth on his. It remains one of the most definitive, inspiring, and hottest things I’ve ever seen.
My idea of what it meant to be gay, especially black and gay, was shaped by very little. There was no blueprint, or paradigm or someone to model. My childhood babysitter’s brother Scotty wore breathtakingly high cut off denim shorts a la Daisy Duke with a side of Dirty Mind-era Prince. But that wasn’t me. There was Lamar, the effeminate and dare I say, savior of Lambda Lambda Lambda, the fraternity at the heart of 80s comedy Revenge of the Nerds, but that wasn’t me either. I liked Air Jordans and mixtapes, basketball and loud music, tacos and low riders and baseball cards and sure, Prince, but I felt that what I saw before me as examples of how to be gay and how I saw myself as a maybe gay, were incongruent. But after seeing that erotically charged kiss, and after that affirming but chaste afternoon with the corn-fed, soft-spoken Midwestern swabbie, I was all in.
I loved opening the snack bar. I came in early and sliced commercial-sized hunks of deli meats and cheeses and made sandwiches, chopped up salads and put them in paper boats, and topped off reservoirs in front of each drink station with hollow rounds of ice from a machine near the time clock. I blasted music from a decrepit boom box as loud as I wanted with the heavy steel shutters still closed tight locking out the world. Holly stayed back in the tiny office where she counted out the drawers, made sure the money was right, and prepped deposits for the bank. She drove a Jeep Cherokee with a manual transmission and taught me how to gently ease up on the clutch until you felt it start to pull before giving it a little gas in the empty San Diego Zoo parking lot on cool, overcast mornings, just the two of us. It was probably on one of those drab May mornings when I let the cat out the bag, that I’d hung out with a boy and I liked it. I can’t imagine it was a total shocker. She softened. There was a tenderness there that was who she was at her core, but rarely revealed itself on the job. After all, she was butch and tough and wore men’s tighty-whities and told pissants they could suck her dick.
“Who was he, Derrick? Are you sure? Did he hurt you? Make you uncomfortable? You can tell me, sweetheart.”
Naw, Hol, he was fine, nothing happened. Couldn’t have been nicer, maybe just a couple years older than me. A country boy. Navy.
The softness continued and over the next few days, I got more reassuring kindness in simple ways from the other managers to whom I slowly realized Holly had let word slip. Nothing overtly crazy, and not everyone was in on it but even decades later, the affirming nods and wide-lipped smiles, the back pats and shoulder squeezes, the hey mans and high fives from Candy and Patrice, from Teddy and Delilah, from Big Jen, Mikey, Keisha, and Carlos still resonate as I worked through figuring myself out.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Holly asked me what I was doing one night, adding they were going out after work and that I should come with. “Nothing crazy, just a few of us hanging out over at The Flame.”
I don’t think I ever put much thought into the lives of gay women. A lesbian bar and they were inviting me? I didn’t really drink, not even in acts of typical teenage high school rebellion. I knew it was a lesbian bar and that it was a place they frequented. Part of me felt tiny explosions under my skin at the idea of being included. Another part of me thought, lesbian bar? But where are the hunky dudes? I don’t have a fake ID so how am I going to even get in? I wasn’t ready for sex yet and I just wanted to make out like those guys in the alley. But the act, the gesture, the kind overture she made was too much to ignore. I don’t know what I was expecting inside. An all-female version of the fictional Blue Oyster Bar from the Police Academy movies, maybe (It was not a leather slash bear bar)? Butches with buzzcuts sipping beers from glass bottles (check, plenty of that). I met Holly and Susan and Big Jen at the door where they were laughing and chatting up the bouncer. I smiled through my nervousness, and wondered what she thought, all of us still clad in our black work pants and red polo uniforms. We looked like a decrepit boy band still working on our shit, but if anyone else thought this, it never came up. I reached for my wallet, assuming I’d just power through with my driver’s license and my factual age and Holly put her arm around my shoulders. “He’s with me,” she said, and the bouncer nodded and smiled back. Inside, the bar was, as I’ve since come to call them, a dive bar. Much smaller than perceived from the outside and where I was welcomed not just by my co-workers, but by their friends as well.
Holly kept it legal, considering I wasn’t of age, and she illegally snuck me in. I mostly sipped Cokes and kept quiet during happy hour which was fine by me. This indoctrination into queer spaces was exactly what I needed. Part of me expected bacchanalian ribaldry, but what I got was camaraderie and support. And it wasn’t just women, or even queer women, though they were the majority. I felt affirmed, in today’s parlance, I felt seen. No one mocked me, and for the first time in my acknowledged queer self, felt okay with the flesh on these bones, in this skin, on these soles and heels. The Flame was my first dedicated queer space and while it wasn’t Rich’s, the club I’d eventually enter when I came of age and shouted my drink order to shirtless bartenders over the thump of “Whoomp, There It is” and “Vogue” and “Rhythm is a Dancer,” it was as good as home. I went to the Flame with no expectations of other than a place to chill. I was Norm and Cliff from Cheers when I was there. Low stakes, no pressure, and you could relax. I learned to like myself and others because of the queer spaces like this lesbian bar with the vertical movie marquee with the emblem of a torch on its front. After I went to gay male bars like Brass Rail, or Flicks, or even Rich’s and stood against the wall nodding my head in time to the beat, or let go and grinded on the dance floor grooving like nobody was watching, or made out with men with new found confidence found in the bottom of a rocks glass emptied of its whiskey sour, I always came back to The Flame.
Sometimes, I brought my dates with me and Holly and Justine and Big Jen would be there. We’d catch up, and smile, and exchange hugs, and it was cool.