The first gay bar I ever went to in Chicago was a small but colorful neighborhood bar called Buddie’s. I’d found it wandering down Clark Street while my friend Denise, who had driven us there from Indiana where she worked and where I attended Purdue. She was attending an author reading and discussion about “obsessive love.” (She’d recently been the object of it, not the perpetrator.)
Since she’d be busy for a couple of hours and since the topic didn’t interest me I ventured out into what would be my future neighborhood to see what the big city could offer a shy but curious–and recently out–twenty-two year old. (Though I was still about a year away from coming out to my family.)
It was hot Saturday afternoon in Chicago in 1991ish. Hotter, I figured, than any small town could get ever get. So much pavement and movement and friction. Finding shelter from the sun and glaring pavement, the cool darkness of Buddie’s was just what I needed. I’ll admit I was a little intimidated to walk into a bar that was speckled with obviously experienced gays and lesbians–sitting on the stools in clusters, talking, owning who they were–but curiosity burned inside me.
The bartender was a rotund lesbian, convivial and frightening at the same time. Crew cut. Tank top. Tattoos. My mind blanked when she barked “what’ll ya have?” I’m sure she got a kick of terrorizing twinks. Who could blame her?
My usual drink had been whiskey and Coke up until recently, but too many wild turkeys with Coke backs after watching “Thelma & Louise” had rendered it unthinkable–undrinkable–for many, many years to come. I tried to think of drinks my dad ordered, but I didn’t like beer and whisky had been his adult beverage of choice.
“Long Island special today.” She pointed her sausage index finger at the chalk board above the bar. I don’t recall the price, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d have paid anything for sitting where I sitting.
“I’ll have a Long Island iced tea, please.”
What color? What color! What a wondrous place! Here in the big city anything was possible–even changing the historical color of a cocktail. The city opened up with endless opportunities in my mind’s eye. My future would be in this city, and I couldn’t wait for it to start!
“Any color you want,” she said kindly. She became much less scary to me.
Her buxom hands set about work creating the concoction. As she used the “soda gun” to inject the effervescence into my cocktail, she paused, put it near her face and pantomimed like she was shaving with an electric razor.
The bar roared. It seemed like maybe that what her trademark. And the image of it springs to mind as if it just happened yesterday, not twenty-five years ago.
When Denise found me after her event a few Long Island iced teas later, she’d been worried about me. In the days before mobile phones, I’d lost track of time, people watching and just “being”. Sitting there, alone, among people who were all so different, yet basking in our sameness was just a taste of something that I not only craved, but deserved. And eventually found when I moved here the following year.
Though Buddie’s is long gone, Chicago is chock full of sanctuaries where the LGBT community gathers regularly. I met Ken at such a place, luckily changing my life forever–but in best of ways. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience. And that’s tragic. We are all people. We share much more in common than we don’t. Until we are all accepted for who we are, sanctuaries–like the one tragically violated in Orlando–are needed more than ever.
Also published on Medium.