"It's four dollars tonight," a doorman named Mike rubs his fingers together in my direction. "But for the mayor ... ."
"Oh, no special treatment necessary here," I bloat like Buddy might, pretending to reach into my pocket for a pittance of pecuniary passage, and possibly a surprise demolition notice. Then I snap back to reality, hand over the $4, and realize that although I am never the type to refuse a handout or a hand job, I just have. From whence has this new morality emerged?
Well, maybe it has something to do with the time-slip banana peel I've just dirtied the heel of my shoe upon, stumbling into what used to be a gay bar but now oddly resembles an old Hollywood studio swing joint colorized by Ted Turner. What was once the Cactus Club, where old gay livers came to dry up and get more prickly, is now Club Swank, a dressed-up stab at time travel to the days when horns blared and men stained their bowties with whiskey. A more honest time. Or at least a time when you appeared honest before dropping a room key slipped to you by a frisky cocktail waitress, and then ran home to your West Side apartment to beat your wife in private retribution. I feel like fucking Cary Grant. But, sadly, I still look like Mr. Furley. Times may change, but I never will.
Although the formerly gray cinderblock exterior (replete with cactus murals and rainbow flags) has given way to a hooker-red paint wash and some silhouetted images of jitterbug and jazz flashbacks, inside the décor remains remarkably close to the that of the last-chance queer hole of days past. Not that there haven't been some necessary embellishments - old-style table/chair situations and fancy-lamped corner getaways - but the fact that I still almost trip over the willy-nilly, step-up level changes in the old tile flooring takes me back, only not to the '40s. If I close my eyes hard enough, I can almost still smell the sweat of old gay men mixed with the sickly sweetness of your corner drug dealer. Hello, 1998.
And hello, Mark. Turns out the bartender, although now wearing a tie, used to poison my liver years ago at Southern Nights. He's a fantastic guy, and ruefully attractive, and he remembers me. Which is surprising, considering the narcoholic game of Pac-Man that we both used to play with our brain cells back in the day.
"We were there and we did it when it was fun," he Ms. Pac Mans.
"Yeah, now it just hurts."
Mark goes on to inform me that everything has not changed, not the important things anyway.
"We're still gay-friendly," he crafts a manifesto. "As long as I'm working here, there will be gay people."
"Because it wouldn't be a bar without gay people," is the best I can give back, seeing as I'm drinking a beer, which in my opinion is nothing but a powdered-liquor substitute. Club Swank won't be getting its liquor license for another couple of weeks. Oh, the pain and suffering I have to endure to cover this journalistic beat.
Bored by my generational displacement, I eavesdrop on the conversation slurring from the pursed lips of the desperate housewives to my left. It's better, it turns out, than that of the desperate houseboys I used to have to swallow when this place was a desert plant.
"He doesn't know a fucking thing!" curls one fried perm. "Y'know, everybody has a belief system and you can't question it."
They like my shirt and my hair, they're keen to tell me. I like them now, too.
I peer over into the other room where a swing/jazz/big band is sweating through the oldies: "Moon River," "Moonbeams," Moon Unit Zappa, whatever. A couple of older gentlemen who might or might not be Ed Koch and Ron Popeil start to clap along with no apparent rhythm, but seem very happy - as does virtually everybody in attendance; a couple even ventures to swing dance in front of the band, which, to me, is embarrassing. And we all know that it takes a lot to embarrass this circumcised soul.
I corral co-owner Leesa Halstead Franzen. (She and her husband opened the "joint" just a few weeks ago.)
"I love that you call it a joint!" she puffs, all gorgeous curvature in a slinky black dress, a big rose blooming out of the side of her head.
The band is playing "This Joint Is Jumping" and, in some respects, it is. A drunk wanderer of the baseball-cap variety has entered the fray and is griping at Mark about the price of beer. Slyly, he approaches the ladies to my left and flat-out asks them to buy him a drink, and because they're probably not used to confrontation outside the gates of their communities, they nervously agree. Leesa's not having it.
"Looks like Big Mama's gonna have to get nasty!" she pushes her ample bosom out. And she does, swiftly escorting the (kinda cute) ne'er-do-well out the door and back into the direction of Wally's.
"Dammit. That's probably the one I would have gone home with," I joke to Mark, but not really.
Crisis averted, I chat with Leesa a bit about the new club, reminding her that the term "swank" has been commandeered by tweens in locked bedrooms that smell like a cross between fishing lures and dirty socks. I remember the magazine, and the stench, all too well.
"That's OK with me," she swanks. "As long as they buy a drink. It's like the word 'gay'; it means 'happy,' right?"
Talk of "soft openings" and "hard openings" follows, with the necessary winks that lubricate conversations about "openings." Leesa starts to talk a bit about the gay thing ... or at least the way her father sees the whole issue.
"He says, 'Don't you think it would be appropriate if they wore a rose, like on one side of their jacket?' ... to indicate their sexual preference." I get lost and just keep staring at the rose in Leesa's hair. She gets up, runs to the office, then slams her finger in the door.
"I live on pain," she shakes it off, then sets to swing dancing with Mark while I wallow in beer.
And as for the expense of opening a new bar in downtown Orlando?
"Well, I can live in my liquor license," she supposes.
And I can live in the past.
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