Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Keller Bar: 1974

It was the sort of night I've since learned to recognize.

The bar was full of shuffling, listless men. The room was enervated, it's inhabitants desultory. The center seemed to be missing. Sporadic hollow laughter echoed in the small space. This clearly was not where it was at, tonight.

Not two years prior, I'd walked around this block several times, trying and failing to work up the nerve to enter Ty's. I'd gaze through those plate glass windows as I passed at the crowds of newly proud gay men inside. Frankly, they intimidated the hell out of me. All those leather jackets. All that freedom.

Since my mid-teens, I'd traveled the fringes of where men met, trying to figure out where I'd be welcome. Youthful misadventures in Times Square and at the Everard sent me downtown, to see what all the shouting was about in the Village. Liz and Eileen, friends from my senior class in high school introduced me to the Ninth Circle ("the music's great...we can dance and no one bothers us!"). Following that first evening, I headed back the following weekend by myself. When that bar burned down some months later, I high-tailed it up to the Eagle's Nest. And I decided it was time to face the pride of Christopher Street head on.

Ty's was, and still is in many ways, a tough room. I learned early on to sidestep the sharp tongued regulars crowded by the window as you walked in. I would chart a narrow course between the jukebox at the door and the cigarette machine at the back. I would catch sight of myself in the long mirror over the bar as I passed, and soon learned to catch the eye of other men as well.

The bar had always been crowded when I visited it; tonight was different. I wondered where everybody had gone. I gulped down the remains of my beer and headed out onto the crowded street. I stood there watching the unceasing parade of men and debated a walk up to 21st Street.

A man, who up until a few weeks ago, had worked as the doorman there ran up to me.

"What are you doing here?", he asked.

I looked him over, taking in his broad shoulders and red hair.

"We're all down the block!", he added.

I was studying his red beard.

"Don't you wanna go? I'm just rounding up the rest of our crowd."

I didn't know until that moment was that I was considered part of any crowd. The idea thrilled me. He threw his arm around my shoulder and we walked west. I wasn't sure where we were heading, but it seemed near the river.

The few blocks of Christopher Street before one arrived at the river were grim and run down. Every vacant space was reserved for truck parking. The Miller Highway, so recently closed, loomed over a dark and dreary stretch of diners, garages and abandoned construction sites. One had to navigate through a labyrinth of parked trucks and displaced traffic to arrive at the gray river. A few long shoreman bars were sprinkled here and there. Some had been co-opted in recent years by the burgeoning masses of gay guys infiltrating the vicinity. Keller's was one such place.

As we turned the corner onto West Street, I saw a few motorcycles parked in front of a small bar. A bright rosy light cast itself across the pavement from the two windows, illuminating the chrome detailing on the bikes. The red neon sign, hanging above, threw the now silent trucks parked under the highway into stark relief. We opened the door and walked in.

It was a small, rather plain room, shaped like a shoebox. A door, with a window on each side. A rough wooden bar that ran the length of the room on the left. A pool table and jukebox on the right. A few strings of Christmas lights and dozens of handsome men crammed inside. The jukebox featured a mix of current soul and rock, along with the Ronettes singing "Walking In The Rain" and the Shirelles essaying "Chains". Later "Shame, Shame, Shame" would play incessantly, as the patrons danced in place, and the bartender hollered in faux-annoyance.

Keller's became my haunt and I was soon there every Friday and Saturday night. On Sunday afternoons, we'd take our beers out onto West Street and congregate to the alternating amusement and chagrin of the families that drove by. A can of beer was .75 cents. A quarter tip was deemed acceptable. It cost very little get off your face. This being the early 70's, there were no end of drugs to be had. I specifically remember a preponderance of THC, available in a pretty purple capsule, and the lovely visions it provoked.

I remember the men I met at Keller's.

There was Warren. Under the influence of said THC, I ran my hand under his shirt over his seemingly huge smooth muscles, and announced that his chest felt like vinyl. I wasn't quite sure why he begged off minutes later.

I remember Bob, of French-Canadian descent, from New England. Taller, wider than me. Bearded, like the lumberjack stock he was. I spent an evening boring holes in him with my eyes while he socialized endlessly with his friends. Frustrated, I turned to leave the bar. He reached out and grabbed me under the arm, lifting me out of my spot and pulling me wordlessly out the door. He steered me around the corner and led me into a small clearing hidden from the street behind some parked trucks. Smiling, he cracked a Burroughs amyl nitrate ampule between his teeth, pulled me to him, and kissed me hard. The universe spun. It was a strangely magically moment.

Jim was hugely muscled, Native American. He was 51 when I met him; my age now. My friends and I referred to him as Lucifer, due to his widow's peak and his red coloration. Jim was the walker of great Hollywood star, and would vacation with her at her Caribbean estate. He must have sensed my interest, because one evening, as I was leaning against the bar, he came over, and lifting me onto the bar itself, kissed me. The crowded room roared with delight.

Of course, I met Robert there. It was a non-traditional Monday night, the bar was almost empty. I was out with one of my school chums who turned heel and ran immediately upon entering and confronting the dive that Keller's was. I stayed behind and sat on the pool table, leaning against the wall. A blonde, bearded man walked in with a group of friends. It was quite clear that they were slumming. I watched them intently. The blonde kept his eyes on me pretty much full time while entertaining his friends. Eventually, I had to leave. I walked to the bar, wrote my number on a card and handed it wordlessly to the blonde, as I walked out the door. He called me an hour later. We had our first date the following evening. I turned 21 that day. We spent the next 19 years together.

You can still see the room that used to be Keller's on West Street today. It actually doesn't look appreciably different on the outside, in spite of the rotting asphalt siding, and the gates pulled down over the blacked out and broken windows.

Some evenings, when the Dugout gets to be too much for me, I've been known to wander around the corner to stand once more in front of Keller's, and breathe in the cool night air.


Blogger Joe said...



9:19 PM  
Blogger Sheri said...

Is that you?! Wow!

9:10 AM  
Anonymous bryce said...

Not big surprise that you were H.O.T. in 1974!

10:29 AM  
Blogger Gayest Neil said...

In 1974 dollars, what was the price for a ride on those handlebars?

10:32 AM  
Blogger seymour said...

bring back that 'mo dad

6:22 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hubba Hubba.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Matty said...

I've said it once I'll say it again...


9:53 PM  
Anonymous Matty said...

Somehow I only looked at your picture and never read the post. Have to say - WOW. I can relate to many aspects of it, but in other ways it comes across as a primer on another era. No offense.

At any rate, I wish some of that era still existed. More than once I felt like I don't fit in, even with the gay crowd - but your descriptions keep me thinking that 'my people' are out there somewhere.

Thanks for the memories...

10:56 PM  
Blogger Qivan said...

I'm always interested in hearing what it was like to be gay in the 70's as I came out in 1982, and always sort of feel that I showed up after the party was over.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Joey said...

Thats a great story! I wish I had to come out in the early 80's instead of the 90's. I really missed out on a lot.

Do you have any pictures of West Street or Christopher Street from the 70's or 80's?

11:57 AM  
Anonymous John in Denver said...

Wow. What a great story. I haven't had many experiences like that...yet! Thanks for the great writing.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Sheri said...

I really enjoyed reading was fascinating and well written. I had only seen the picture before. You must've added the story afterwards.

Thx for sharing so much :)

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey mark; really enjoyed this post. like 400-odd other people, I found my way to your blog by way of JMG cause I thought you were one hot superdaddy, and now I check in regularly cause I enjoy your wrtiing. your nostalgic memories serve as a testament for those of us who were too young to experience gay life in the 70s and 80s. it's an era that conjures up a strange mix of fascination, titillation, sadness and fear. my husband who is 15 years my senior lived through it all; his stories are much like yours. i hope you keep telling them. - stephen

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

believe it or not my dad and were the owners of Keller Bar.I worked the back end of the bar so as to keep an eye on the bathroom action.. and all the popper sniffing.i closed it upin 1999.We owned it for 40 years.That was trully the gay epicenter..Aids crack and crime riddled the area to render it a ghost town for me. I fel as though i grew up there at that bar in that time.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to comment on this. I just put up a long response on an international gay site belonging to some friends. It was about the piers.

One of the regulars on the site came across an article about the harrasment of gay youths in the Village. I had to respond. And I had to give my perspective as a gay youth who once inhabited the very same piece of real estate that you did. Although, I did it about a decade later than you.

In short, it was a paen for what has been lost and the people that went with it all. Kellers was there when I first put a proud foot on the asphalt of Christopher Street on that hot summer when I came out of the closet.

It's all gone now. Really, what's left in the Village is a touristy mix meant to lure the transient much like Little Italy or the Times Square area.

I'm proud of my years of service on that strip. And I wouldn't have made it this far without the life lessons learned on hot summer evenings on a derelict pier in what used to be the most fabulous gay city on Earth.

3:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh and Joey, it was precisely a search for pictures of the pier back in the day that brought me on here. My friends from Europe and Canada would like to see what was lost. I have a friend that has been taking pictures of the Village and the gay scene since the '70s. He once emailed me tons of them and they were all destroyed by a virus on my last computer. If I get a hold of him, I'll be more than happy to forward them. But if you can get a hold of some first, by all means keep this posting in mind. I'll leave my email.

3:53 AM  

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