Daryl and I were here in April of this year. It was a much more subdued visit than what transpired at this same location yesterday.
It was a chilly, rainy early afternoon as we searched the winding, uneven streets of New York’s west village for a little bar called the Stonewall Inn. Daryl and some wonderful lesbian friends of ours jumping the clogged drain puddles and dodging the vicious splashes of speeding taxicabs with umbrellas in hand as we came upon this tiny brick place in a city of tall, thick concrete. A glowing orange neon sign greeted us into the day.
It was much smaller than I expected. I remember the first time I saw the “Cheers” bar in Boston I was underwhelmed at its small size. I expected it to be larger than life itself… filled with those folks from the TV show singing songs while Sam and Diane argued flirtatiously in a corner. I was disappointed then, but not today.
The Stonewall Inn was barely open this early afternoon. “The gays” typically don’t begin bar hopping until much later in the early evening, so the bar was deserted, except for a short little fire plug bartender named typically, Joe. He welcomed us in immediately as if desperate for company on this miserable Saturday afternoon. Folding our dripping umbrellas and leaving them by the front door, I looked around. You could smell the age and the mustiness of this dark and dingy place. A thick painted tin ceiling and dark poster filled walls hugged us as small tables were tossed about a small elevated “stage” hardly protected by a single red velvet rope. Black and white photos of the now famous “Stonewall Riots” were haphazardly placed around on the deep paneled walls of this establishment. Framed newspaper and magazine clippings of history were draped behind the bar. Somehow the light of day made this bar look like me when I wake up in the morning. Raw and exposed. Pale and puffy. Vulnerable yet somehow as cozy as the thick fleece robe I throw on to ward off the early morning chill.
“What’ll it be?” Joe smiled, as we pulled our heavily shellacked bar stools across the old wooden floor making a wood on wood scraping echo that empty bars tend to make. We looked like a bunch of drowned rats as Joe hooked us up with clean-glassed beverages. He continued shuffling around the place acting as though he had to get ready for some large crowd, punctuated with a chuckle or two about a drag show here a few nights before.
My group of friends sat and listened to Joe’s ipod music playing loud enough over the bar’s worn speaker system to get a foot tapping from Janet Jackson’s “Control.” I continued walking around the bar’s interior, studying the photos on the walls of the Riots of 1969 trying to imagine a world where gays and lesbians had to hide so much of themselves, even in the progressiveness and toleration of New York City. To have to fear for your livelihood, your reputation and in some cases, your life must have been unimaginable to deal with on a daily basis.
Daryl and I attempted to play a game of pool on the Stonewalls well worn and uneven table, its dulled orange felt dusty with cigarette ashes and a cocktail straw. I smiled as I thought that gay men typically aren’t playing the game as a sport anyway, but as more of a way to connect to someone else if only for a moment… or possibly to start a conversation with a future life partner. The pool table eventually ate our cue ball, refused to spit it back out and our game was done. Joe didn’t have the key or the means to fix it.
We chatted and joked with each other and with Joe for another hour or so while finishing up a couple of rounds of cocktails. Daryl purchased two souvenir tee shirts for his sister and Mom, and we moved on. The rain had let up a bit as we headed out into the streets of the Village as the ghosts of men and women past smiled as we all left giggling hand in hand not realizing that in a few months there would be throngs here celebrating another milestone, another victory.
Thank you for your tiring fight, people of this tiny little place called Stonewall. Thank you for your beginning to bring the right of marriage to ALL people to the sidewalks and streets of this city… this state and eventually this country.