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Last modified: Fri Jun 8 08:11:51 PDT 2001
Love Me Tender, TenderNob
Guerrilla Queer Bar Parades Our Silly Selves Through the Valley of the Shadow of Res-Hotels, Massage Parlors, and Enthusiastic Crackheads; November 17
“Hey! HAAAAYYYYY!! Don’t touch that! Don’t touch the machine!”- one of two middle-aged barmaids at The High Tide, after a devious GQB’r hit the jukebox’s reset button to skip a Madonna song from that “Ray of Light” album
“. . . This poverty seeks out stereotype: gentle black whore, foul-mouthed old cripple, snarling skinhead, tottering transvestite, etc. City romantics. . . .” - from “Tenderloin,” by brilliant local poet Thom Gunn, in The Man with Night Sweats, 1992 (Noonday Press)
Well, another hoot and a half was had by GQB adherents on Friday night, November 17. The northwestern edge of the Tenderloin was the unsuspecting landscape for a three-bar pub crawl of 200-strong proportions. Our surprising and asinine presence in the gritty T-L was like a jam-and-jelly accident in Safeway: a colorful, sticky mess, wildly amusing, and all stirred up with the reality of broken glass and can’t-help-it chaos. Bars were bridged by our incredibly orderly parade, and given a John Phillip Sousa and “Bridge Over the River Kwai” soundtrack by GQB’s industry-first MP3-to-megaphone (MP32M) musical broadcast system. The crowd was also the sexiest one we have had yet, not sure why, but it sure was nice to have all the eye candy.
We gave the regulars something to talk about at The Gangway (populated by middle-aged gay men), Edinburgh Castle (hipsterrific indie-rockers), and The High Tide (wherein lay a small and mellow assemblage of nondescript demography). It broke down like this:
We started at a worn gay bar from the heyday of the Polk Street scene, and I believe its survival in its original state can be credited to the fact that it is around the corner from the other bars of its generation. These bars on Polk proper have undergone drastic facelifts recently, and some of them turned out as poorly as some of those you would find at, say, a big-money fundraiser at the SFMOMA. Anyway, we gathered and gathered and gathered, until the bar area was really crowded. One had to meet people just to make it okay to be all up in their face. And meeting people is a big part of the whole point of this thing. We had the Marina Halloween-Homo-Quid-Pro-Quo’s Cruella de Ville looking for the honey-sweet boy who was Winnie the Pooh. The mechanism of his search was a napkin stuck in his collar with “I was Cruella, where’s Winnie?” or something to that effect written on it in ball-point pen. Ahh, the digital age.
The “Twister” pinball game in the back was worlds better than the movie from which it was licensed. There was a buffet of food including some sort of casserole off to one side: a nurturing Friday happy-hour tradition, we decided. I didn’t see any of our folks eating.
Then it was 11:00 or so, and there emanated from the unsubtle megaphone the important “bottom’s up” warning, so that not a drop of alcohol would be wasted as we prepared to move on. Then an assortment of men and women took turns admonishing the crowd by megaphone to move on to the next bar. (We are sorry to those who hate the megaphone, but it is soooo effective and efficient in its way.) We took the long way around the block so that we could stretch our crowd legs, and strut as much as “Stars and Stripes Forever” inspired. “Why are we going the long way?” many people asked, but many others didn’t care. They simply tromped down the street, and confidently. This parade element of the evening proved the favorite part of the festivities for many people. It is darn swell, heartwarming even, to see so many people happily united in something so pointless. Sidewalk regulars who we passed proved very supportive, and one guy danced for us in that arms-flapping-over-the-head style made famous by Joe Cocker and people on fire. Another guy who looked like he spent a lot of time on the sidewalk simply asked: “What is this?” as he joined the procession.
The most impressive thing about bar number two, a cavernous and crusty place with fish and chips and live music on an upstairs level, was the effortless flow of our 180 or so boisterous individuals into it. We turned off the street and walked right through the door, as if there were two of us instead of one hundred times that. Real smooth, magical even, it took us all of 30 seconds to get inside. Another ten seconds later, the door burped a small huddle of prior patrons onto the sidewalk. These young people looked like stunned grandparents staggering out of a twisted David Lynch movie. Weeks to recover.
Inside, our crowd was warming up nicely. Chatting, cruising, smiling bemusedly. (Advice: Don’t come to one of these and leave in the first hour if you are there to meet new people. The night needs time to get underway, and once people check in with their friends and their first couple of beverages, they will become more outgoing toward strangers. And that’s putting it mildly.)
Many regulars stayed, as there was indie-rock upstairs to be appreciated smugly. These young men and women wore the spectrum of non-black leather jackets from thrift stores. Several of these hipsters were quite fabulous. Most tried hard not to be curious. The bartenders adapted nicely, working the large bar for the people. A gymnast among us did a nice show inside the front window of the place, enjoyed by her friends and the smokers outside. We tried but failed to find her a spot in the main bar to do a show for everybody. She said working from the second floor railings was too dangerous, although it seemed like a great idea to everyone else. She’s a trapeze artist, too, so we will try to work her into future events somehow. About 12:30 (I think) the megaphone blared once more: the final bar awaits.
Things were reaching a fever pitch as we headed down Geary Street toward the last bar. The crowd was so eager and disoriented that we found ourselves crowding into some tiny tiny place at 700 Geary, when the bar of adequate size was the High Tide Cocktail Lounge with the bubbly neon sign at 600 Geary. People filed into this not-destination, and kept walking back until they reached an odd office room. The rumor of a back patio kept people flowing in even after several individuals discovered that the “patio” was really a dark dirty scary cramped outside stairway. Back in the front of the place, there was nothing to do but for everyone to yell “The wrong bar!” at one another a couple times, and walk one more block down Geary.
The High Tide had cool hanging lights, a black-velvet titty painting above the bar, two very loud and forceful barmaids, and a flooded men’s room floor. Home at last. The crowd was ready for action at this point, and it didn’t matter much what kind. We found the reset button on the jukebox (which you should all know how to find, these things are quite handy), used it to get the appropriate mood music, and then there was yelling (quoted at top of story). This same bartender was screaming merrily and trying on people’s wacky party hats as well.
In the midst of all this joy, Guerrilla Queer Bar had its first-ever medical emergency. It was over quickly, but it was excruciating to witness nonetheless. Local drag star Squeaky Blonde, who most resembles the lovechild of Trent Reznor and Tammy Faye Bakker, fell victim to her own makeup when her mascara somehow exploded into her wild left eye. Viscous black sludge blinded her temporarily, and true to her ancestry, the traitorous mascara ran in rivulets down her cheeks. (No Jessica Hahn required.) But the most impressive part was Squeaky’s show-must-go-on fortitude. She rallied to the first strains of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and bested the searing blinding goop to once again scream like a banshee and grab the rafters and gyrate and stuff. Believe me when I say: Transcendent. Also believe me when I say: Guard your beer. She’ll take it out of your hand.
The megaphone was passed around, maybe a bit too much (“Shut UP!!”), and was used selflessly by one pink-haired woman, who was trying to pick up “Guy in the Red Shirt” for some other guy she didn’t know either. Trashy and generous, that’s what I like to see. Oh, and there was the lesbian frottage in the bathroom hallway, too. (Sentences like this last one make me so happy that my mother reads these things off the website. Hi, Mom.)
Then the bar closed at two, with the louder of the two bartenders screaming us out the door. At this point there were about fifty people standing on the street, not knowing where to go, not ready to go home, and not willing to invite such a large group to their place. A confused police car circled the block three times to take a look at this loud crowd of really cheerful people, and the siren on the megaphone was sounded for the cops’ benefit.
On what seemed to be good authority, we accepted the great news that the Campus Theater was open late. We walked the three blocks only to be turned away by the window guy who was turning off the lights. “We have money! Where’s the dick?” did not win our case with this guy, even coming from such a large group of men and women.
A certain tall, blue-eyed, naïve-looking young man took up the screaming refrain “Tequila sex party!” around this time, after purchasing the big bottle to get it started. Not since Amos Brown last opened his mouth has such a terrifying idea been trumpeted with such blind bravado. At least our friend here’s motives were clear and shared in some measure by the rest of us. And one other guy seemed to like the idea enough to leave the late-night street stagger with him.
After that, several cab-loads left in the direction of the End-Up, and more dispersed to put us soddenly into ours and others’ beds. And the dried-spill-and-body-fluid sidewalks of the Tenderloin were quiet, and the men and women wrapped in dirty blankets in doorways were alone again, without the loud, safe presence of carousers. They relaxed as much as a person stuck out on the street can, and tried to get some sleep.
2001 (c) Urban Anthropology Institute