Last week's Loaf included a brief piece by Scott Henry about the closing of two gay bars. One of them was the Phoenix on Ponce.
"The bunker-like bar," Scott wrote, "served as the most visible reminder of the days when the surrounding mile of Ponce de Leon Avenue was a disreputable stretch peopled by street hustlers and the down-and-out."
Well, that resolves the mystery of why I lived across the street from the Phoenix for two years in the early '90s, and a couple of blocks away for several years in the '80s. And, no, I wasn't a street hustler.
The Phoenix closed because its owner died. However, Scott also reported that the bar's liquor license had been revoked "after police caught a customer getting a blowjob in the bathroom." I'm sure I wasn't the only middle-aged gay man to laugh very hard upon reading that. I was surprised that it occurred as discreetly as it did -- in the bathroom instead of on the patio or in the middle of the bar.
I never went to the Phoenix. Well, I did walk over there once with a friend when I was living across the street. I put one foot through the door, took a look, and a drunk man with approximately three teeth lunged for me. I literally turned on my heel and sprinted away. My friend told this story to everyone for years because I was notorious for having no limits to my curiosity about the depraved. Seriously, had Fellini made a movie based on Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers," it probably would have looked a good bit like the Phoenix.
While the Phoenix set the depravity bar for me, I had frequently been to the bar's earlier incarnation as P's Annex in the late '70s. It got its name from Ms. P's, the city's most notorious gay bar, located in the basement of the hotel across the parking lot. The Annex served as Ms. P's performance space for a time. These were the years when drag shows -- like the rococo spectacles at the Sweet Gum Head, the city's big show bar -- were de rigeur.
Ms. P's dilemma, I guess, was that it was supposedly a "leather bar," where men in women's clothing would be inappropriate for the bar's testosterone-drenched mood. Nonetheless, we had to have our dose of drag. The shows at the Annex were completely the opposite of the Sweet Gum Head's, where every number was precisely choreographed and the drag queens, like my friend Lavita Allen, tried to look as much like women as possible.
The shows at the Annex, on the other hand, featured what came to be called "gender-fuck drag," in which the performers made no effort to fully disguise their male gender. Picture bearded ladies. The shows were chaotic and although they mainly featured the disco music of the time, they also anticipated, by their play with gender, the New Wave movement that would soon eclipse disco (and find expression in local drag goddess Lily White).
Besides nostalgia, what mainly struck me, reading the report of the Phoenix's closing, was how little some things have changed over the years. Ms. P's was infamous for its weekly "blackout party," on Wednesdays, as I recall. The rear of the bar would fill to the point of involuntary frottage and, eventually, someone would unscrew the single red light bulb in the low ceiling. Then the sex began. Yeah, I know: shocking. But it happens all over the world, especially in countless bars in Europe, and nobody cares.
At Ms. P's, the cops would occasionally show up, and somehow the red light would be illuminated to warn everyone to reassume a comparatively puritanical demeanor. Now and then, though, people would be arrested. I was there one evening when 10 or 15 men were led out the door in a virtual conga line.
That the cops are still sneaking into bars to catch people having sex and that Mayor Shirley Franklin would approve revocation of liquor licenses over such a triviality is pathetically -- I don't know -- retro. Or it should be.
To be sure, many gay men find such still-common sexual behavior objectionable, just as they find drag queens and any other gender deviation embarrassing. And I certainly have no nostalgia myself for the criminal status of all gay people 20 years ago. It was infuriating to passively watch the police corral randomly selected men for arrest at Ms. P's so many years ago. We were all corralled, psychologically. Many still are.
Whatever your opinion, surely a bathroom blowjob is not still worthy of arrest and loss of a business license.Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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