Thirty years. More, thirty-two, almost. No family. No responsibilities beyond a job I loathed. Nothing to do after work but cruise down Santa Monica Boulevard in my 1963 Volvo P1800, maybe grab a few beers and a bowl of chili.
A long time gone by, drop by drop. Yet it can can come surging back at the oddest times.
Things were quiet on Wednesday, so rather than cab it back from lunch on North Michigan Avenue, I strolled the great boulevard. Kids were out in those jackets with the "=" equality sign on them—gay rights— raising money, or gathering signatures or whatever it is they do. I thought up a pithy line in case one came up to me—"You've already won, haven't you?"—but nobody approached me and I walked on, suddenly thinking of Barney's Beanery.
If you lived in Los Angeles, as I did 32 years ago, you know the famous bar with the green and white striped awning, right where Santa Monica Boulevard veers southward, just before it intersects with La Cienega. Opened in 1927, Barney's was a dive with a past: Charles Bukowski drank there. And Clark Gable. Erroll Flynn too. Clara Bow. Bob Dylan. Just about anybody who was anybody in LA. Janis Joplin ate her last meal here, supposedly. The Doors' Jim Morrison once urinated on the bar, and he and Joplin once got into a fist fight with each other here.
I knew of the place, vaguely, through a Tom Petty song, "Louisiana Rain," that has a line "Singing to the jukebox, in some all-night beanery." I'm not sure if Petty was referring to this specific all-night beanery (West Hollywood was not incorporated in 1982, so niceties like closing hours tended to be looser there). But it was enough to get me inside, and I stayed for the chili and the late hours and the convenient pool tables. I liked to stand at the bar on a Friday, sip my beer, hope to meet somebody, maybe, toward that end, get some quarters and treat myself to a solitary game of pool.
So what's the connection between gay rights and this Los Angeles bar? When I frequented Barney's Beanery, in the early 1980s, their distinctive red matchbooks looked like this on the front—I didn't have to grab the image online, but just ducked down into the basement, where I have a big glass apothecary jar filled with dozens and dozens of the matches I once collected as little trophies of my travels and reminders of boisterous times.
Flip the matchbook over, however, and you find this.
From the 1940s onward, Barney's had a sign reading "FAGOTS STAY OUT" in large letters behind the bar and, obviously, on their matches. The story was that in the 1940s there had been a police raid on homosexual acts in the bathrooms at Barney's, and the owner wanted to avoid that kind of thing. Times changed, and there had been protests, around 1970, but they didn't stick. We patrons didn't think much about it—I wasn't a faggot, so didn't mind, and what thought I gave to the matter was sort of a unspoken satisfaction, almost a pride. It was unusual, quirky. I remember thinking the slogan was part of the ambience, a sign that this was a genuine, authentic place, a tough dive that wasn't about to let itself be taken over by a bunch of pansies.
I was 22.
Shortly after I moved back to Chicago, West Hollywood incorporated, and passed an anti-discrimination ordinance. Barney's Beanery took the sign down, and got new matches.
A sign of just how alien that idea is now, when I looked at the matches after all these years, I was struck more by the curious spelling—"fagots"—than the odiousness of the expression. It's a relic of times that are gone, thank God, and never coming back, nothing more. I think a lot of people are like that, still, today. Not so much they are haters as oblivious, which is why education like that being offered by the equality kids on Michigan Avenue is still important. Despite all our clear progress, we aren't as far away from "FAGOTS STAY OUT" as we like to think. You don't have to be a hater to be part of the problem, all you have to do is eat your chili and go with the flow.
Before I returned the matchbook to its glass reliquary, I admired it and, for no particular reason, opened it up, and got a surprise. This:
So I must have met somebody there. Who was "Dina"? No idea. "312"—a Chicago number. Maybe I was still carrying the matches, trying to show off my worldliness, after I got back in Chicago. "Yup, just got back from LA." That sounds like my style. Maybe it was a Chicagoan I met one night in the bar at Barney's. Some things are too effaced by time to retrieve. It'll have to remain a mystery. Probably a good thing, too.