By John Lloyd Clayton
Gary’s really not a bad guy. He always gives some bit of advice or counsel gleaned from years of trial and tribulation. He’s a good listener. He smiles and he means it. He always remembers your name. But I’d cover his tab for a month if he would just stop referring to everybody in the place as “old queens,” and “us old fags.” Invariably this begins complaints about his poor health, his doctor appointments up at Good Sam, his medications, his surgeries, and the daily aches and pains that cause him to be unable to work a normal job. With a face that has lost all decorum and droops like a basset hound, he drinks gin and tonics by the liter, wears flimsy plastic sandals that show his hairy-bulbous toes, and works from home as a telephone operator for an HMO. Finished with his litany of pains and his sixth G&T, he falls into far-too-detailed reminisces about his lost loves. When the crowd has turned and every man begins looking down at his watch, he ends by invoking all of us in the drama, “well, you know, Dorothy just needs a good hard fuck now and then!”
Take away the cellular phones and color photographs and it could be 1929, sliding in with your brother-in-law after a terrible day on the stock market.This might turn a few heads at one of the trendy coffee shops down the street. But he’s saying it at the Golden Lion Lounge, the kind of Cincinnati gay bar where time has less stopped than never actually caught up in the first place. You could find it at Clifton and Ludlow, right in the middle of a municipal neighborhood that was swanky a hundred years ago, became a drug-infested slum after the war, then in the ‘90s became an eclectic neighborhood of French bakeries, Indian restaurants, and clothing shops selling hemp jewelry and organic cotton tees at 45 bucks a pop. UC is just up the street and DAAP kids pace the sidewalks, intentionally scuffing their $400 sneakers so they look all broken in and worn.
Golden Lions, however, never changed. It had no windows. It stood upright covered in dull beige plaster from sidewalk to roof. It had no sign, though legend says affixed to the other side of the plywood plank that served as a door were some sticky-letters unevenly applied, the kind you use on your mailbox. But you heard others call it “Golden Lions” and so you did the same. Take away the cellular phones and color photographs and it could be 1929, sliding in with your brother-in-law after a terrible day on the stock market. Stonewall could be two days away. That ’86 Camaro parked out back? It might actually just be new. Gary himself might range from 30 to 68, but in this light he’s ageless.
I was never much on bars in general and a detailed chronicle of my experience with the Cinti gay scene would make little more than a frightened haiku (“Hey Handsome- Lookin?”/ Snarls the sketchy lumberjack/ Time to run back home.) For actual drinking I preferred like George Thorogood to do it alone, and for company I preferred some place with at least a 40-watt light bulb and an off-chance that we’d remember the conversation by the next day. And I could live out my days just fine without a four-hour loop of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation set to a dubbed house-mix tape.I’d come out of the Bible Belt, where drinking, bars, and gays were things that only occurred in the back pages of pamphlets with titles like “Beware the Devil’s Handiwork” or “Don’t be Fooled by Satan.” My hometown claimed “a diverse religious community” because we had both Presbyterians and Baptists. A debate still raged whether or not full-water immersion during the Baptismal was required for salvation. One sect promised hell for anybody who played musical instruments in church. We were a dry county until 2012, when after 150 years we went “moist” and you could get a glass of cheap table red at a restaurant. It typically stayed open for three days and was stored in the refrigerator. And there were two gay guys in town; they’d managed not only to find each other and start a beauty parlor, but also end with a lover’s quarrel that put one of them in jail for assault with a deadly weapon. Yadda yadda yadda, Elaine says, and somehow one Tuesday night I found myself on my own stool at the Golden Lion Lounge. I then found myself there again a few times a week for nearly a year.
The first time I walked in, even before my eyes adjusted to the dark, the soundtrack to Cruising seemed to echo in my soul and I feared for my life. Sketchy lumberjack? This place was something from Silence of the Lambs. But I breathed, sat down, and ordered the finest craft beer on tap… Bud Light. As the bartender slid it across to me, I worked frantically on my cover story and a good excuse to run on home: I had narcoleptic children who were being left all alone at home with a box of matches. My Baked Alaska needed to set. I was having an aneurysm.
I breathed, sat down, and ordered the finest craft beer on tap…Bud Light.It took me a while to get my sea legs and be able to discern the overall décor. The interior was dark; mahogany-veneer on the walls and two fluorescent light bulbs somehow made it darker. The corners were invisible and the ceiling receded away into some sort of netherworld of grime and asbestos tiles. The floors were plastic linoleum that may once have been green, but now were brownish-black and covered in mauve, teal, and puce rugs bought more-or-less new, but on sale as a factory second, in 1974. There was a pool table with threadbare felt, a bar of black painted plywood edged in cracked-cushioned pleather. It was splitting in most places and covered in duct tape where the foam insulation wasn’t already poking out. The metal-framed bar stools matched, and on the far side was a small dance floor with spotty mirrors and a portable sound system purchased along with the rugs and at the same percentage discount. Nobody danced.
There was also a large rear-projection television, one that was very posh in 1983 but that since the mid-90s had only a 10-inch square area in the upper right still functioning. Over time, like a shrinking universe, it just got smaller and smaller. Later I learned that at some point it stopped working altogether and was positioned out in front of the bar on the sidewalk for months until the fire marshal threatened a violation.
I can’t say that I was ever a regular, but “semi-regular” just doesn’t have the same ring. I never could figure out why I went, and each time I said that trip would be my last. Back at home and scrubbing in the shower with steel wool, I’d lament life and wonder whether an itchy monk’s habit and a cloistered cell were in my future. Nights would be lonely, no doubt, but there would be gardening, calligraphy lessons, and barrels of craft beer. Invariably, though, a few days later I’d go back into the Lounge, sit down, and get a decent buzz and three hours’ entertainment that, including tip, finished out at about $10.50.I also learned these things about the bar and about life in general:
Happy hour really neither stopped nor started. Well drinks seemed never to be more or less than $3.00 and pints of beer were always $2.50, the particular variety rotated by whatever was closest to the expiration date. Well drinks were almost all the same, differing only by color. Good tippers might actually get Coke in a Jack’n’Coke, but sometimes the glass came back just a touch yellower than the Schweppes tonic water.
Each night had a theme: Half-Price Monday, Go-Go Dancer Tuesday, DJ Flash Wednesday, College-Night Thursday. Nothing really changed on these nights, though; I heard stories and saw a picture of DJ Flash, but I never saw him. In the picture he was wearing hot pants, cheap shoes, and a three-day beard. College-Night Thursday might promise something new, but I don’t know that I ever saw anybody under 30 who wasn’t being paid to be there or was only there long enough to deliver a crate of booze.
I got to know the regulars pretty well; they were typically the only other people in the place. There was a 60-something white businessman who called himself “Jim” and had one whiskey sour before going home to his wife and children. There was a black guy who used to be in the military and rode a motorcycle; he had excellent taste in music, even though the jukebox in the corner didn’t work and so we could only hum or talk about our favorite cuts from Exile on Main Street. There was a haggard drag queen in a red wig and cotton skirt who never bothered to shave. And of course there was Gary every day after 4:00. Together we solved many of the world’s problems, and let the others go without comment. The drag queen tied back her hair and stopped pitching her voice; she had a lovely bass and I bet could sing a mean ballad. Jim complained about his wife; she wanted to renovate the kitchen and he wondered if he could do it without going downtown for the permits. Gary was lonely and never quite asked me on a date, but inched his stool closer and closer, getting within arm’s reach by the end of the night. Somebody would buy me a beer. I’d buy somebody a 7-and-7. Nobody ever went home with anybody else, and nobody ever really talked about dates. We were all just there, in the dark and house music, wondering what “Go-Go Dancer Tuesday” was ever meant to be.
The world lost the Golden Lion Lounge in late 2011. Whether it was due to lack of customers, failure to pay taxes, or the zoning board finally realizing the place ought to be condemned, I can’t say. I also can’t say I was really saddened by the news; I had moved from Cinti and it had been at least a year before that since I’d been back to the bar.
Instead, the image that came to mind was Martha, dozy and pensive on her perch, the last of billions of Passenger Pigeons who died at the Cinti Zoo in 1914. Nobody much cared about the pigeons when they were alive; they were ubiquitous, harmless, and not particularly good looking. Apparently you could walk right up to a group of them and clobber them all over the head before any one of them would realize something was amiss. But when they were gone, suddenly the world suddenly seemed an emptier place. Keep your hawks and falcons and cardinals; I guess people realized that sometimes the world needs a big, ugly bird that never really bothered anybody.
While those other bars might have nicer décor, more variation, and better names, they also marketed the one true thing Golden Lions lacked: attitude.Of course there are and were other gay bars in Cinti. There is a nice, clean, glitzy one across the river where all the college kids and fancy people go; at least one piece of Dolce & Gabbana is required for admission. And if your cologne isn’t Gaultier Le Male, it had at least better be one its seasonal variations. There was also that post-industrial wasteland down by the old train station; new and decorated in steel and concrete and metal. There was a lot of leather there and the phrase “$3.00 well drink” might as well have been spoken in Farsi; you’d be looking at six bucks for a Coors’ Light.
Jim and Gary would never go to these places. Neither would I, for that matter. And the drag queen would have to do a lot of waxing beforehand if she tried. Without Golden Lions, I saw us all instead in varying types of lounge chairs, alone in our living rooms, mixing a tumbler and pretending we hadn’t actually bought (and were then playing) a solo album by Annie Lennox. When it was there, we never really loved it and just showed up for a few hours; but now, with it gone, we looked around and weighed our other choices.
While those other bars might have nicer décor, more variation, and better names, they also marketed the one true thing Golden Lions lacked: attitude. Each has a theme; you have to be somebody to go in there, whether it be a good-looking blond in a tank top or a daddy vying for first prize in this week’s Peter-Marino-lookalike contest. And even then they all end up looking the same. Nobody really cared at Golden Lions: if you showed up on a Tuesday in a suit, great. Wednesday, if you came in a flower-checked muumuu, not an eyebrow would be raised. And nobody would send out a team of bloodhounds if you didn’t show up on Thursday. It was College Night, after all, and so anticipation of fresh meat would be high.
Instead, it was just nice to have a place that was an untrendy in 1978 as it was in 2008, a place as dark and dismal on a Monday as it was on a Saturday, and where a pint of flat beer would always, always be $2.50.
John Lloyd Clayton is a writer and teacher from West Kentucky. He now lives in Chicago. Contact him via his website www.johnlloydclayton.com.
Banner photo by Pete (https://flickr.com/people/86079236@N03)
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