From the bars to burgers, flavor remains the same
By Tim Gay
Somewhere on Christopher St. it is still 1980.
It began with a hamburger one recent night last week. And it ended with rediscovering the Christopher St. that I remember from 1980.
Every day, on my way to and from work, I walk down W. Fourth St., past Sheridan Square and Christopher St. — the magical crossroads of gay liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, and where I spent a lot of time when I moved to New York at age 24. But over the years, the crossroads has lost its “gayness” for me.
On this particular night, I became hungry for a burger, a bar burger, not any bar burger, but a special bar burger — one made in the dark-wood open kitchen of Julius’, at 10th and Waverly, as you stand at the long, wooden bar with interpretations of “Greetings” in languages that I never learned. I hadn’t been there since sometime in the ’90s.
Thankfully, in 2008, Julius’ still fries them up on the same burned-steel grill. Each burger is individually molded, fried and steamed under a battered aluminum lid. And the cook makes freshly cut deep-fried onion rings — try finding that in New York these days! The burger tasted just as good as how I remembered them from years ago.
I sat on a short barrel and ate on top of a larger cable spool-turned-table, covered with carvings and the pre-ban smoke stains. The bar’s crowded, so you share the tables. But the crowd was friendly. A few guys had maybe one too many, and some of the younger men seemed to be looking for accommodations for the evening.
Along the floor was the same foot rail of brass dachshunds, nose to tail, that has been helping gay guys belly up to the bar since Prohibition.
Was Julius’ a speakeasy? Did Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett really drink here? What were the names of those pre-Stonewall Mattachine Society members who sat at Julius’ in 1966, declared they were gay, and demanded a drink — only to be denied service because back then New York State Law prohibited the sale of alcohol to a known homosexual?
As I savored my burger, I thought about this and so much more. What has become of the Christopher St. of my youth circa 1980, more than a quarter-century ago? What happened to those early freedom days when you could be gay on Christopher St. and not worry about being arrested?
I took a stroll and — surprise! — a lot of my old haunts are still there.
Pieces, once upon a time called Uncle Paul’s, is still going strong where Christopher St. begins off Sixth Ave. Looking in the door, I saw a very young, very white crowd of “twinks,” as they are called today.
Where Waverly Place meets Waverly Place meets W. Fourth St. meets Grove St. south of Christopher Park at Sheridan Square (I can never remember, exactly, but it’s there and quite prominent) is The Monster. It was a used-paperback bookstore, and then became a piano bar with a disco in the basement and today, 25 years later, it still is a piano bar with a disco!
The piano bar is the same — “Peach walls with Mylar and mirrors, very Barry Manilow,” as my ex-lover Paul described it. Rumor has it that Patti LuPone was seen there singing along from time to time.
And in The Monster’s basement is a full-size disco that today plays trendy Latin dance music. The piano bar attracts the business-suit cocktail crowd while the disco is populated by younger gays of all races and color.
Across Seventh Ave. is Boots & Saddle, what was once the quintessential high-alcohol-content, Western-themed, beer-and-whiskey bar. But changes have taken place! The jukebox with Tammy Wynette has been replaced by a deejay booth. The wagon wheel chandelier is gone, and the “hitching post” for leaning on is out. The bar is now blond oak, and there’s a go-go boy platform in the middle of the floor. Will it work? Time will tell.
Down Seventh Ave. and around on Barrow, Marie’s Crisis remains as it did in 1980 and 1969 and 1955 and before. It looks the same as it did in an on-location scene in the 1950 film “Side Street” with Farley Granger. Inside, above the bar, is the irreplaceable etched mirror featuring the American and French revolutions. Thomas Paine, author of the pre-Revolution pamphlet “Common Sense,” lived here; despite the rumors, the piano did not belong to him. It is legend that the original cast of “A Chorus Line” often danced in and closed the joint after performances.
Back on Christopher St., Ty’s is frozen in time. It attracts that certain dependable man in a plaid shirt and button-fly Levi’s who sports a mustache and prefers his beer Lite.
Across the street, The Hangar Bar has changed with the times. Cocktail hour attracts older men, while after 8, the bar is a hangout for gay men of color.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Beer Blast was held every Sunday at the bars at the end of Christopher St. A thousand or 2,000 gay men would crowd on the sidewalks, wrapping up around West St. and Weehawken. Seventy five cents per can, lots of guys, sunset on the Hudson, what could be better for a poor boy making $153.50 take-home pay in 1980?
The Dugout wasn’t there in 1980, but it carries on the tradition of the Ramrod, Keller’s and Sneakers with a beer blast every Sunday. The Dugout, on the corner of Weehawken and Christopher, is the “clubhouse” of the New York City Metro Bears — an organization for big guys and the men who love them.
L.G.B.T.’ers of all colors, and mostly young, flock to Christopher St., especially west of Hudson St. There are now bars and small clubs for them, where once were restaurants and shops, like Trilogy and All-American Boy.
Doing my final research for this article, I walked down Christopher St. on a Sunday evening with the trendy L.G.B.T. youth of color. It occurred to me that there wasn’t too much difference between us, except that I could be their father, and that I wore more severe clothes when I was their age. And, it also occurred to me, my presence was just as menacing and threatening to heterosexuals in 1980 as these kids are to heterosexuals in 2008. But was my generation that loud? (Probably yes.)
And then I thought, “This is ridiculous, going to a beer blast, when I don’t even drink. And besides, none of those Metro Bears will even look at me.”
Bill, a physical trainer, and quite burly, I might add, gave me his phone number. He’s kind of cute. I gave him my phone number, too.
Maybe we’ll go to Julius’ for a burger.