... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Personal Ads, Lost Cookies and Perfect Hair:
A Night a Warehouse 29

I'll never forget my first trip to a Gay bar -- I don't think anyone in my age group really can. At a time when Gays were really only starting to come out and become visible in the bigger metro areas, and certainly not much in the South, the first evening at a Gay watering hole was, if you'll pardon the pun, a watershed event.

For me, it was Charlotte's grand and glorious Scorpio's. I had heard of it before I came out. In fact, in the 1970's, a report about the bar burning to the ground on the Charlotte station was the first time I'd heard of the word "Gay" mentioned in the local TV news. This was pretty exciting stuff to someone raised in the hills of North Carolina, pretty much sheltered from the evils of the outside world.

It was 1989 and I was fresh out of college, had my first real job and was finally living in an area where I felt I could finally show my face in public in a Queer space. At least in Charlotte I could do that -- it was about an hour away from the small town, Lexington, where I was living at the time. (Lexington went on to become nationally famous for Sheriff Gerald Hege, the law enforcement officer who always dressed in riot gear, drove a squad car souped up by NASCAR mechanics, and who painted all the jail cells pink, dressing his prisoners in children's pajamas. But, I digress.)

Scorpio's at the time was an amazing place. A big dance floor was the centerpiece with dazzling lights and video monitors all over. Off to one side was a game room and, at the other end, an entirely separate bar with a wood an tin theme. Then, there was a quiter upstairs with a cut out hole in the floor with a railing just over the dance floor where you could just stand and look down on everyone in the bar below.

There was pretty much everything there -- women, drag queens, what we'd call Bears nowadays, clones, twinks, jocks, faux cowboys and leathermen, all mingling with one another. Sure, Charlotte had a women's bar and a leather bar at the time, but Scorpio's was the big tent that attracted a little bit of everybody and everything in the community. There was no dress code, no keep out signs -- everyone was welcome for the big party.

Pretty much up through the 80's and 90's, it was like this in North Carolina. The bars were the only option to meet guys, look them over, introduce yourself and buy them a beer. If you were really randy you might even grope somebody. You could hook up with folks through personals or, heaven forbid, cruise a rest area or adult bookstore. The bars were safe places where you could just be yourself without a lot of pretense.

I enjoyed going out to the bars and probably hit them a little too much in my lost twenties. As I started working in Greensboro, Scorpio's gave way to Bourbon Street in Winston and the Palms and Warehouse 29 in Greensboro. I got involved with the Tarheel Leather Club around '92. Their home bar at the time was the Palms in Greensboro, but they organized bar nights and AIDS fundraisers and toy drives all over -- at Mickey Ratz in Wilmington, a bar I can't recall the name of in Hickory, and, of course, Capital Corral in Raleigh.

Each place had it's own personality, but there was a kind of easy going fun atmosphere. Bourbon Street had a bartender, Debbie, who got a group to raise funds and register voters against Jesse Helms in one of his Senate bids. On Wednesdays, she organized a line dancing night, similar to the one held each week at the Capital Corral. Friday's and Saturday's at most of the bars meant a drag show or male strippers.

Of course, there were some bars that were specialized -- a bar in Charlotte catered mainly to the leather and levi crowd, one in small little dive in Winston attracted a similar following for a brief period. But, no matter what night of the week it was, you'd never know who would be out. Redneck guys from rural Virginia would drive all the way down to Winston or Greensboro for a night on the town, even when the drag shows were going on. The clones and twinks would be out in force on country western line dancing night. It didn't matter.

One minute, you might be making eye contact with a hot guy on the dance floor across the room as you played pool. The next minute, he might be right there asking you about those strange run pins on your leather vest and offering to play a game of pool with you.

At the '90's progressed, the bars became less important to me. Through my contacts there and in the leather club, I had a small circle of friends and we always seemed to be doing something -- movie temple nights at my apartment screening film classics on 16mm prints, checking out an art show or some sort of strange music concert. I drifted away from the work of the Tarheel Leather Club, pursuing filmmaking and writing in my spare time.

My last trip out was probably around '98 or '99, donating toys to an annual Christmas drive organized by TLC at the Warehouse in Greensboro. Even then, I sensed something had changed. Yes, there was the same mix of people -- twinks, cowboys, Leathermen, women, working class guys. But there was almost a kind of self segregation. People congregated in small groups and only a few people circulated, socializing with others in the bar. Despite the fact that it was a Saturday night with the constant beat of the never-ending dance music, everyone seemed almost lethargic.

A part of me chalked it up to the particular night I was there, but something kept gnawing at me about the whole thing.

Fast forward to 2003. I have a good friend who goes to Warehouse 29 a couple of times a month to have a couple of beers and play pool. For a couple of years, he's asked me to tag along, but I've always turned him down, the memory of that last night there nagging at me. Finally, a couple of weeks back, I decided to go and check it out.

Even more changes have happened in my life. Most of the friends I had have moved away. Some, unfortunately, have passed away. At 39, I find myself in pretty much the same position I was a decade ago -- living in a small town with no place to actually meet Gay men. Since then, there are potluck dinners and bowling nights that have cropped up. I've tried and those darn things feel like an evening with my straight co-workers, chatting about home improvements and shuttling the kids off to soccer practice.

Well, Warehouse 29 was the same, but a bit different. Yes, the pool tables were still there and there was the big dance floor and a long bar along one wall. The patio was still in place and the owner, a man very supportive of TLC and the Gay community, was still bopping from place to place, making sure that the bar was running smoothly.

But, slapped right in the middle of the place, just in front of the pool tables and in front of the long bar, was an enclosed glass and tile shower stall. This recent addition was for the occasional stripper night at the place -- one could apparently ogle the caged stripper for the evening as he disrobed and showered himself down.

It was still early and we were some of the first people there. (Goddess bless my cheap friend, Scott -- he wanted to be there before 10:00 so he could get in for free.) As the evening's guests arrived, filling up the place to its usual Saturday night capacity, I noticed a far more significant difference in the place. It was a very different crowd than any I had seen in a bar in the state before.

First, there were the straight girls out for a night on the town with their early 20's boyfriends. This, I discovered, was one of the reasons that my friend wanted to get there early -- they usually hog the pool tables and if you arrive late, you might not get to play pool that evening.

Then, there were a few of the artsy types -- guys who were mostly overweight and seemed to be there to show off their new retro black horn rimmed glasses, outrageously colored shirts and interesting hair cuts. One was an Elvis imitator from the King's hefty sequined leisure suit period.

Mostly, though, there were guys in their twenties and thirties, trim, fit and dressed to the nine's. Immaculately outfitted guys who had been shopping at A&F and Old Navy, hair neatly trimmed, and almost all sporting a perfectly trimmed goatee. I noted one guy -- one of two Black men there that night - who had a mustache. My friend and I were the only one who had beards. I also noticed something else about myself. Outside of the artsy types with their weird hair and Goodwill 70's fashion sense, I was the only person in the place with a belly. No, this was definitely height in proportion to weight night at Warehouse 29.

At one point, I headed off for the washroom. A young, tall blonde guy (with a perfect figure, A&F t-shirt, designer stone washed blue jeans, and, of course, a goatee) went in just ahead of me. His head held high, he marched right up to one of the toilets, still holding his mixed drink in one hand. He bent over and tossed up the messiest, loudest, and longest set of cookies I think I've ever seen. I just stood there in amazement -- just what the hell was this guy drinking or ingesting? Afterall, it wasn't even midnight yet.

Mr. Blonde stood erect, flushed the toilet and immediately turned around and went for the washbasin. He put down his drink, cupped some water in his hands and washed out his mouth. Then, he looked in the mirror, checked his hair, picked up his drink and marched right back outside. "I may be vomiting my guts out, but I still look hot and I'm still going to have a good time," he seemed to be saying.

The other thing I noticed was that the guys would come in, usually in groups of two, three or four, and find their little spot in the place and just plant themselves there pretty much for the whole evening. The drank, they chatted with each other and they were the only people in the whole world.

At one point, my friend wanted to see if a guy he knew had come in. At one time, you could simply look up from your game of pool and see all around the place -- the Warehouse was just one big open space. Now, though, with damned glassed in shower stall, one had to make a long walk around the bar to check out everyone.

After leaving the Warehouse, I commented to my friend that I felt like I was trapped at PlanetOut for the evening. He laughed and knew exactly what I met. PNO's a haven for the type of guys we saw there that night. But, it's not really that different from other gay spaces on the Net. Bears -- the slightly overweight or thin "wolf" types looking for a relationship - converge at bearforest.com or bear.net. The slightly more sleezy one's looking more for sex can be had at bear411. The hairy muscled types can be found at bigmusclebear or beefyboyz.com. The hairless buff dudes trot over to bigmuscle.com or one of several other sites. Fetishists start their own Yahoo group; all around leathermen have their own sites on the Net. Hell, there's probably a series of personals sites out there for Gay albino dwarfs with varying amounts of body and facial hair for all I know.

The Warehouse's vision-blocking shower stall seemed to sum up a lot about what we've become. Much like the rest of the bar, with it's small corners for small groups of chatty, well dressed goateed buff men, it's an enclosed space to look but not touch, it's glass walls and tiled frame not unlike the myriad of personal ad sites one sees on the Net.

I thought the Net might be the "new" way to connect with other guys as I drifted away from the bars over the past few years. Gone would be the nervousness about first impressions, no more loud music, cigarette smoke, and booze.

I have to wonder if it's any better. In fact, I had an ad at one site and today tried to access it, but it had been pulled. I wrote to the webmaster, asking for an explanation. It seems that my ad "didn't fit the theme" of the site.

Ironically, that night at the Warehouse, I saw a guy there who had an ad at the same site. I wrote to him once, but never heard back from him.

I suppose he was looking for something more in keeping with the "theme" of things and that's why he didn't get back to me. Perhaps he was looking for the same thing at the bar that night. Or, maybe he wasn't looking at all. Perhaps it was enough for him just to see and be seen, forever trapped inside the glass box shower stall of a web browser, never to emerge.

I might be nostalgic for a time that wasn't really all that better. Oh, we complained about the stuck up guys and cliques, the way the bars promoted alcohol or weren't friendly enough to Lesbians. Of course, we worried that the bars portrayed the "wrong image". I will say this much, though: it was the only time in my life I got to meet people of all races, all sizes, and all manner of belief systems. And they weren't embarrassed if you actually spoke to them. Hell -- you could even mess up their hair and they didn't seem to mind.