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.