Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bar Associations

Rumors is the only gay bar in Bellingham. It’s been around forever – during the 90s I would sneak out of my parents’ house and head over to the bar to meet friends, or sit alone and flirt with the late Eric, my second bartender crush. That was at the old Rumours, of course. Back then the bar was located in an inviting hole-in-the-wall space downtown, used the Canadian/British spelling of its name, and identified as a gay bar. It was the epitome of a comfortable queer space. In fact, at an LGBT film festival in Chicago, I once saw an earnest low-budget coming out movie with scenes filmed in the old Rumours, featuring in the background two out of the three Bellingham guys I’d slept with. 

I miss those old small town gay bars that served as de facto LGBT community centers. One night the place would be filled with fierce drag queens, the next night with lesbian bikers. Everyone learned to get along. Even before the Internet killed gay culture, I preferred bars like Rumours or its Peoria equivalent to the micro-targeted niche pubs in big cities, where you could limit your socializing to other 40something be-sweatered professionals and the men/boys who love them.

Now an excellent Italian bistro inhabits Rumours’ original location. Years ago, Rumors lost the “u” and moved a few blocks to a vast warehousey space next to a brewpub. Like all formerly queer spaces, Rumors has been overrun by batchelorette parties, college kids with plausible fake IDs, and straight girls who like to drag their boyfriend out to dance to 80s music. (Yes, I’m a curmudgeon, but it’s true.) Rumor’s semi-closety website refers to itself as “Bellingham’s only alternative nightclub.” I haven’t been to a bar in Bellingham, including Rumors, for well over a year. Even with smoking finally banned everywhere but New Orleans, I’m just not a bar person.

I’ve tried. When I graduated from law school, I moved to Seattle and started drinking alcohol and coffee. My neighborhood hangout was the original R Place. The bar was just down the street from my nouveau yuppie apartment, in an old brick building that was demolished years ago to make room for overpriced condos. Yes, I used to be brave enough to walk into a bar alone. In fact, I whiled away countless nonbillable hours at R Place learning to be gay by clutching a microbrew, watching guys play pool, and hiding in dark corners. I even had my first gay kiss that fall, with my original bartender crush.

Last week after chorus practice, I was trying to explain to a young baritone what gay life was like before the Internet. We were at Pumpjack, the gay bar where a significant portion of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus socializes after rehearsal each Wednesday. I realized that since moving to Chicago in 1995 to be a gay rights lawyer, my bar time has been limited to tribal rituals:  Sidetrack for Showtunes Night each Monday with my inestimable friend Charles Katzenmeyer, Big Chicks on Wednesdays after rehearsals with Windy City Gay Chorus, Marie’s Crisis whenever I happen to be in New York, and now a token appearance at Pumpjack after rehearsal before heading across the street to Vancouver’s weekly showtune night.  (But only on those Wednesday nights when the kids are with either my ex or an indulgent babysitter, because we tend to lose track of time and end up closing the bar.)

I suppose the Internet’s triumph over bar culture has been good for my liver and wallet. It’s also traded one set of social anxieties for another, arguably worse one. Despite their many benefits, virtual communities are no substitute for the real world.

As I was describing the Paleolithic era to our newly-out young friend, I remembered one long lost personal tradition. Back when I hung out regularly at R Place/ Rumors/ Sidetrack/ Numbers/ wherever, I would pause every hour and make an updated mental list of the cutest guys in the bar. I’m a big believer in gathering data. These particular lists were useful on multiple levels – they helped to figure out patterns of attraction, they created a pool of candidates for my next unrequited crush, and they provided a useful blood alcohol test. Beer goggles are real. In every place I’ve lived, there’s that one deplorable guy I know I should avoid if I want to retain a tattered scrap of dignity. When he showed up on the list, I knew it was time to go home.

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