Doors to the Magic Theater

G.J.’ Gallery and the Central Arms

I read Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf as an undergrad in the early 1970s. I had not heard of the recent riots at the Stonewall Inn. And I wasn’t aware of the existence of gay bars. The most striking and lasting impressions I had of Hesse’s novel were the depiction of free love and explicit drug use, the mysterious appearance of the Magic Theater at just the right time in the protagonist Harry Haller’s life, and the bohemian bar atmosphere of jazz and the homoerotic undercurrents of Pablo, who serves as a guide for Harry into this underground culture. The allure was electrifying for me.

When I walked into G.J.’s Gallery, a neighborhood bar in Albany, NY, for the first time, I found myself stumbling into the very bohemian underworld I had longed to find. I loved the atmosphere. Of course it was dark and smoky, and rock music (lots of the Rolling Stones) played on the jukebox. The space was long and narrow. A long bar stretched from the front door half way down the length of the bar. Plate-glass windows stretched for half of that length. The opposite wall was lined with booths. The pungent smell of Mary Jane mixed with cigarette smoke. 

Over time I became familiar with the bar’s clientele—a mix of writers and painters from the neighborhood, a few drug pushers, some gay men, and the occasional college student (like me), could go to bars when the legal drinking age in New York State was 18. The crowd was almost exclusively men. People smoked joints in the bathroom. Dealers peddled acid, speed, Quaaludes, and grass, making transactions in the rear of the bar, which had an extended space to the left, outside the line of sight from the bar and the bartenders.

I usually went to G.J.’s with two of my friends, Doug and Ritchie. All three of us were on the editorial board of the campus literary magazine. And Doug had recruited Ritchie and me to join his fraternity. All three of us were poets (Writing poetry was hugely popular in those heady days of America’s counterculture.) Our justification for hanging out at G.J.’s in the Lark Street neighborhood was to mingle with fellow artsy folks. My actual purpose was to find men to have sex with. If anyone asked, I declared I was experimenting with my bisexuality.

Looking back now from the distance of some fifty years, I am amazed at my intuition in reading the bar crowd, picking up on the subtle clues of men signaling sexual interest in each other and in the brazenness of me leaving G.J.’s accompanied by a total stranger in front of my fraternity brothers. 

One evening a guy I connected with asked if I wanted to go to the Central Arms. I had never heard of the bar. But he told me it was a gay bar where I could meet a lot more gay men. He said, “With your good looks you’ll be popular.” 

These were the first years following Stonewall, and the gay subculture in Albany was still distinctly pre-Stonewall closety. Chapters of the GLF, the GAA, and Gay Maoists started up on campus my freshman year. A few gay men were out on campus, but most, like me, were closeted. The Central Arms was also pre-Stonewall. It was in what had been a store in what was now a decrepit commercial street. There were no windows or signs on the building. It looked like it was abandoned. There was a peep hole in the front door. To gain entrance you pushed a button. Someone looked through the peephole. And, if you passed muster, someone behind the bar buzzed you in.

The bar ran along the entire length of one wall, as did a mirror. Guys used the mirror to surreptitiously check out other guys. Strings of twinkling Christmas lights were wrapped around the mirror and along the walls. A huge pink cardboard clock in the shape of a pop art daisy hung over the mirror half way down the bar. The jukebox played mostly ongs by the Supremes. Most of the men seemed to be fairly drunk all the time, and very “feely.”  I often got groped while I was standing at the bar ordering a beer.

I went home with many men. One worked at a hardware store, one was a seminarian, one was a florist, one a groundskeeper, one a hairdresser, one a state office worker. All the guys who picked me up were older. I was 19, 20 years old. Pretty much every guy would be older than me. They were all alcoholics, or budding alcoholics. I always gave a false name and, if they asked for it, a phony phone number. I never saw any of these guys a second time. 

As I found other ways to meet men for sex—cruising in Washington Park, calling numbers left on the walls of public toilets, cruising the stacks in the basement of the university library—I stopped going to the Central Arms. During those months I came out completely, first to myself, and then to my friends. When I was released from the terror of living in the closet, my heart began to open and I became open to having a lover and to making friends, social friends, with other gay men.

The Coleherne

By the mid-1970s I was fully out and an in-your-face gay activist, what in those days the straight press called a “militant homosexual.” I was a graduate student in West Germany and living with my first lover, a man who I expected to spend the rest of my life with. Dennis and I had an open relationship. I was by far the more sexually voracious. We both wrote poetry and, with three German students joining the editorial board, published a semi-annual small press poetry magazine. Over summer and winter breaks we traveled a great deal around Europe and the US.

In 1977 we visited Britain for the first time. We stayed at Redfield’s, a gay hotel in Earls Court, which in those days was a famous gay neighborhood in London. Our very first day there we came across a very popular gay pub, a few streets from our hotel. It was called the Coleherne. At that time the Coleherne catered to the levi and leather crowd. It had a long history as a bohemian pub before becoming the preeminent London gay leather bar in the 1970s and 1980s. It attracted an international crowd, including people like Freddie Mercury, Anthony Perkins, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jarman.

The pub was huge, with a horseshoe-shaped bar. On the short side of the “J” figure bar the leather crowd hung out. On the other, long side of the bar, the “levi” side, the crowd was thicker, the sexually charged air buzzing with English being spoken in different accents, English, Scottish, Irish, American, Australian. The cruising was heavy, and a narrow passage space was maintained between the bar and the crowds for guys to circulate.

I quickly picked up on the unspoken cruising rules. I’d survey the crowd looking for the guys I found most attractive or otherwise interesting-looking. I’d approach each guy and talk with him for a while. Sometimes a guy would offer to buy me a lager, or I’d do the same. After a while one of us would make an excuse to leave and resume circulating through the crowd. When closing time came I’d ask one of “my” guys to go home with me. If he turned me down, I’d ask the next guy on my list. I never left alone, and I always left with a guy I definitely wanted.

On my very first visit to the Coleherne I met and went home with a painter, originally from working-class Bradford in West Yorkshire. Ken was a redhead and spoke with suck a thick Yorkshire accent at that time that I had to ask him to repeat almost everything he said. Although we never had sex with each other again, Ken became my best friend. I would make many visits to London over the years always stayed with Ken. We always went out to the Coleherne. Over time my ears adjusted to Ken’s West Yorkshire accent. 

I met many, many gay men from all over the world in the Coleherne. I became friends with many of them. Some of these friendships endured for years. And all of those friends, except for Ken, died either from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s or of old age in the last two decades. Ken is now over eighty, still living in London, and still painting. In retirement we are now both too old to visit each other (Ken used to visit me when I lived in San Francisco, then in Boston, and then again back in San Francisco.) We remain in regular contact by mail, email, and Facetime. 

My most poignant experience at the Coleherne was meeting Derek Noakes there. Derek was from Australia and working for a travel agency in London at the time. That was the summer of 1979 when I was leaving Tübingen to move to San Francisco. At that time I was again on my own and was taking the entire summer to get to the West Coast, stopping to stay with and visit friends along the route. My first stop was London and planned when I was ready to move on to fly standby to Boston. I had already shipped my stuff ahead of me to a friend (my then-current leather master) I was going to stay with in San Francisco and several friends along the way were expecting me to show up at some point in between.

And then Derek happened. We spotted each other while cruising one afternoon at the Coleherne. And we homed in on each other. I had never felt such a stark, strong, intense immediate attraction like that to any man before. (Derek felt something very similar.) We went back to Ken’s place and made love. (This was much more than recreational sex.) We agreed to get together the following day. And the following day, and again and again. I had never been fucked like that before. Derek fucking m gave me whole-body orgasms.

We became emotionally intimate. I had never experienced this form of love—the sexual intertwined with the emotional. I found myself falling deeply in love with him. But I was slow in realizing Derek was falling in love with me as well. We explored London together, walking around different neighborhoods, poking around odd shops, eating in ethnic restaurants, and sleeping at his place. 

Eventually, the road was calling me. I had other people to see and other promises to keep. On the day of my departure Derek and I exchanged gifts. (I gave him a book of Rumi poems and he gave me an Indian cookbook.) He asked me not to unwrap his gift until I was on my plane. He saw me off at the Earls Court tube station. When I got on the plane and took my seat, I unwrapped his gift. On the inside of the book Derek had written a note. It read, “Learn to cook these dishes and I’ll be yours forever.” It wasn’t until this moment that I realized Derek loved me as much as I did him. And I realized it was now too late for me to bail on my plans to move to San Francisco. I cried then, and I still cry whenever I think of Derek. If I could have stayed in London and made a new life for myself with Derek, I would have done so. This remains the only regret I still have.

The Balcony

When I arrived in San Francisco I was like a gay kid in a gay candy shop. As one tee shirt popular at the time out it, “So many men, so little time.” The pre-AIDS gay liberationist party of sexual freedom was still going nonstop in San Francisco. There were dozens of gay bars, gay bath houses and sex bookstore, bars with backrooms for sex. Castro Street was always full of gay men—Castro clones, for the most part—all easy-to-meet friendly, and always up for sex. My appetite for “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” (actually, disco music was omnipresent at this time) became insatiable. 

Shortly after arriving (my leather master kicked me out of his apartment after only three weeks) a guy picked me up in the very cruisy Badlands. Peter and I immediately became lovers. We drank heavily, drugged heavily, and had endless sex, often three-ways with guys we picked up at the bars or orgies in the gay bath houses. We both lived for sex.

There were many gay bars in the Castro we drank and cruised in. But we soon settled on the Balcony as our neighborhood bar. We moved to an apartment half a block away to be closer. And once Peter and I broke up (In a burst of drunken rage I had beaten him up pretty badly), I spent most of my time there. It was called the Balcony because the ground floor bar had an outdoor patio facing Market Street. There was a downstairs bar, where all the cruising went on. There was a pool table indoors, between the doors to the patio and the bar in the rear of the space. On occasion, well after midnight, so the story went, the bartender would close the patio doors and permit a willing bottom to strip naked and get fucked on the pool table while an enthusiastic and inebriated crowd urged the fucker and fuckee on. (I never witnessed this, but I was always willing to do it.) 

There was also an upstairs bar. This is where the seriously drugged guys hung out. There was a bench that ran along the walls around three sides of the bar. Joining them, I’d find a spot to perch on. Joints and bottles of poppers would be passed around. And the crowd would become entranced by the music. Every night the bar played the extended-play version of Dan Hartman’s “Relight My Fire” (arguably one of the greatest disco songs ever). The EP version begins with a very long, gradual intro and pre-chorus. This crescendos into an intense, lush burst into the song. The effect is orgasmic and the Balcony crowd always screamed in chorus when the crescendo burst. (This daily repeating ritual was outdone only by David Kelso playing the piano and singing “San Francisco” at the New Bell Saloon, a gay bar on Polk Street. When he started singing, one of the bartenders would set the huge chandeliers in the middle of the bar swinging. And everyone would join in singing.)

One Sunday afternoon when I was newly single again, I got loaded on MDA (now called “ecstasy”) and headed to the Balcony to drink and cruise. I got very drunk indeed. The last moment I remembered in the bar I was making out with a guy. The next thing I remember I was waking up in bed at home with the radio blaring Sheena Easton’s “My Baby Takes the Morning Train.” I was sleeping on a bare mattress, all that Peter had left me when he moved out. I woke with a feeling of terrifying dread. I realized in that moment that if I continued on in this way I would soon be dead.

Not long after that I went to the VD clinic because I had the clap again. While examining me, the doctor asked me if I remembered being at the Balcony on a certain day. I did. He asked me if I remembered how I got home. I told him I did not. He then said he was the person who took me home. He saw me pass out in the middle of the bar. And seeing I was there by myself took me home. Or tried to. I gave him one address after another, which he drove me to, only to have me realize I no longer lived at that address. I had moved so many times and had gotten so drunk I couldn’t remember where I lived. Finally, I remembered my current address. And that was where I had woken up in a state of mortal dread.

Soon after that I stopped drinking and found sobriety. My first sober day was May 3, 1981. I have not had a single drink or taken any mood-altering drugs since then. I stayed away from bars for a few years until I was able to be comfortable being in an environment organized around drinking. I only go to bars when friends want to socialize there. I know very few people who drink nowadays. The popularity of drinking diminishes among people as we age, and drinking has become a far less common pastime from what it used to be.  As social media has displaced the historically central role of the gay bar in the gay community, they have largely disappeared, as we all well know.In the time since the leather bars died out, bear bars have come and gone as well. I came into the bear community around the same time I came into faerie community. As the bear bars died off, the warm and welcoming acceptance I found in the now old-school bear community has also disappeared, at least in the US. I have found the social isolation of being a single, older gay man in a conservative rural community at times intolerable. With everyone now emerging from the long Covid shutdown I am heartened to see a new desire awakened in everyone to reconnect again in person. Nowadays I get to reminisce about the good old bar-going days with the gay men I am now meeting at potlucks. But I still miss the Coleherne.

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