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The Gay Bar

Edmund White pays a visit to a new old haunt.

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Hey, there, lonely girl: g bar on a Thursday night.  

You might think that as a 62-year-old, five foot nine, 250-pound, bespectacled writer, I might not be the best judge of happening gay bars, especially since I haven’t been in one in a decade. No matter. I do physically reside in Chelsea, and I am gay, so in that utterly misleading way I’m a Chelsea boy, and I’ve always been curious about g, the glamorous-looking bar humming to itself behind plate-glass windows on 19th Street.

It’s long had a reputation as an S&M bar (as in “stand and model”), and I was afraid the doorman might turn me away. But then my barber said, “I hate g; it’s full of older men hitting on younger ones.”

“Older? Like how older?”

“Forty.”

Luckily, I have a highly presentable young lover, a workaholic writer, so together we took the plunge -- and found the place completely unintimidating. The bartenders are predictably buff, but at least they keep their shirts on. (My barber again: “In a classic gay bar, the waiters must stay dressed.”)

Of course, for me, the Ur–classic gay bar was Julius in the Village, which I first visited in the mid-sixties. Mayor Wagner was closing gay bars as fast as they could open to clean up New York for the World’s Fair. If he left Julius open, it was only because it was well-lit and had a few conspicuous women. There was even a period when we weren’t allowed to face the bar but had to stand absurdly with our back to it to prove, I suppose, that we had nothing to hide.

Today, Julius is still going strong, and scores of other highly specialized bars exist, where drunks can caterwaul choruses of “Hello, Dolly,” or white men (“rice queens,” as they’re sometimes called) can pick up the Asians who fancy them (“potato queens”). As for g, “we get all ages and races,” said the barman. Not to mention that ultimate rara avis: women!

With crazy reportorial courage, my otherwise shy boyfriend went up to interview two men at the bar. Soon we were happily playing Do You Know?, comparing the Chicago Lyric Opera house to the Met, lamenting a mutual friend’s alcoholism, praising the Avedon show -- it all seemed pretty classic gay-bar chat to me, circa 1959, and I knew I wasn’t all that far from heaven.


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