Publication Launch

“Miss Michael in the Mirror,” a true story I wrote for my blog, will be included in Fourteen Hills, the literary journal published by San Francisco State University. I’ll read from “Miss Michael” at the launch for the journal’s latest issue, along with four other writers. The event is free; however if you don’t fork out for a drink everyone will think you’re tacky, and I’ll pretend like I don’t know you.

Oh who am I kidding? I’d do anything for seven minutes of adoration. Come on down. Get cultured. Meet the Manly Fireplug.

Press Release:

“Beautifully designed, impeccably edited, Fourteen Hills in one of those handful of literary journals doing the important work of keeping American writing alive and new” –George Saunders

Fourteen Hills Fall 2008 Release Party

Please join us for the release of Fourteen Hills vol. 15.1, an international literary magazine that publishes innovative poetry, fiction, short plays, and literary nonfiction. Fourteen Hills is San Francisco State University’s literary review, committed to presenting a diversity of experimental and progressive work by emerging and cross-genre writers, as well as award-winning and established writers. Contributers have included Peter Orner, Robert Glück, Pam Houston, Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Ray Bradbury.

Part of the vibrant literary heritage of the west coast and the San Francisco Bay Area, Fourteen Hills is honored to be an active participant in the contemporary creative community. As a nonprofit press, its staff, editors, and contributors bring readers of the journal some of the most exciting offerings of independent literature. From the postmodern to the traditional, Fourteen Hills is a testimony to the fact that independent, innovative and experimental literature is alive and thriving.

Please come support your local literary journal as we celebrate with excellent food, tasty drinks and talented writers!

Readers will include: Barbara Jane Reyes, Craig Santos Perez, Michael McAllister, Dustin Wells, and Jeff O’Keefe.

No admission charge, but bring $$ for the new issue. Raffle tickets will also be for sale for fabulous prizes, including:

Private Tour and Barrel Tasting for 10 at Periscope Cellars, $48 BART Pass, 3-month Rhapsody To Go Pass, Handmade Stationary goods from Yellow Owl Workshop, Free 30-minute Psychic Reading with Jeff Alvarez, Gift Certificates for Zzas Wine Bar, Dolores Park Café, West Portal Bookshop, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Starbucks, and more!
Bollyhood Café

3372 19th St @Mission

Wed, December 17th, 2008
7 pm

Birds of a Feather

My gay fathers, now retired, split their time between a house in the Carson Valley of Nevada, and a condo in Palm Springs, both of which make for good escapes from San Francisco. Last year the Manly Fireplug took off for Philly, to visit his own family for Christmas, and I drove down the long, dry, stretch of Interstate 5, Finley curled in his little doggie seat beside me, the windows rolled up against the thick cloud of air pollution that had settled in the valley, until I reached Palm Springs, where I crashed in their spare room for a few nights.

There’s not a whole hell of a lot to do in the desert. Too cold in December to lay out by the pool, and none of us golf. So we played a few games of Scrabble, where I got my ass handed to me by my father, who worked as an editor for thirty years, and who uses every “Triple Word Play” square with relentlessness and skill. His humility, upon winning each and every game, does me no good, and merely feeds my resentment and my primal desire to one day Trounce. Him. Good. When not playing Scrabble we took long, slow walks around their neighborhood off Ramon Road, or watched game shows as Finn chased their little Maltese from one end of the condo to the other.

Every time I visit, when we have a moment alone together, my father asks about my health. He means of course the virus in my blood, the virus that neither he nor his partner have, the virus he only found out about a few years back, when a strange dream about my mother woke him, and led him to the computer and, after a few clicks, to my blog, and the words that I had so far kept from him. Words from which I wanted to protect him and the rest of my family. And each time he asks I tell him the truth, that so far I’m one of the lucky ones, with no viral load and no meds, and though there’s nothing to worry about I think he still worries about his son, who should, if there’s any justice in the world, outlive his father.

Always an awkward moment, that talk, every time. I’m careful with my voice, my words, the casual shrug of my shoulders. The truth is that I do have it easy, compared to others, and that there’s nothing much to worry about. Still, that question pulls me from the corner to center-stage where I stand, separate from him. Always an awkward moment, for I shouldn’t have the virus, for I had all the facts, unlike him, long before I ever had sex. In that spotlight I see the consequence of every mistake I’ve made, for this path through life that I’ve willfully taken, a path that diverged from the calm and measured one he himself has traveled, a practical and guarded path, that has kept him safe.

So each time he asks I reassure him of the truth, longing for the awkward moment to pass, for when I can step away from center stage and rejoin him and his partner, and return to my place as just a member of the family.

The days around that Christmas run together in my memory, a sort of pleasant, lazy haze of a weekend. My clearest memory is from my last morning there, when they took me out for brunch at this popular local restaurant, the kind of place that has brassy waitresses and little containers of Smuckers grape jelly in dishes at every table.

My father’s partner gave his name to the hostess, and we sat there in the lobby for a few minutes, gazing around at the small crowd waiting for tables, at the families and the couples who had wandered in after the holiday for brunch, all of our faces lit from the bright harsh light of the pasty cases nearby.

We didn’t wait all that long. The hostess checked her list of names and then called out, in a clear, strong voice that carried across the crowded lobby:

“Dick, party of three?”

If she only knew. She gathered up the menus, and I followed my fathers to our table.

Our Holiday Plans

So tomorrow my homosexual lover and I will drive to Nevada, to spend the holiday with my two homosexual fathers in their tastefully appointed home in the Carson Valley. I anticipate that there will be several other dinner guests in attendance, all of them Known Homosexuals. Over plates of turkey and cranberry sauce we will, as we do every year, conspire on our most recent additions to the Agenda. This year I will put forth a motion to pursue legalized marriage between men and farm animals, which I anticipate will receive a unanimous vote of support from my peers. After dinner and a light dessert, we will play board games and hope for a knock on the door from some Mormon boys. Failing that, we will disperse in various cars to roam the neighborhood for potential recruits. May you and yours have an equally fulfilling holiday!

Leave Judy Alone

Blogs are strange animals with voracious appetites. The constant need for new content, etc etc, blah, blah. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship to mine, since by nature it calls for rougher drafts and less reflection than a good book requires. And my more facile assumptions and least artful sentences hang there to dry as the weeks and months pass, preserved for all eternity in my archives, should anyone bother.

I used to have this policy, that once published to the web, I would never revise a post, since invariably the more vulnerable I made myself in writing, the sooner I wanted to hit “delete.” Which felt like a dishonest reaction. But recently I changed my mind.

Last week I wrote an essay here about the Christian preachers chased out of the Castro, an essay that brought me some traffic and a few dozen comments. I wrote it in about three hours, which is pretty average for a longer post. But some of the comments by some of the readers made me reflect more on what I was trying to say, and I realized that I hadn’t actually captured the full spectrum of my emotions around the event, which made the essay less than honest.

Since first hitting the “publish” button on that essay, I’ve been thinking a lot. Mostly about anger and violence, the role they played that night in the Castro, the role they’ve played in the history of civil rights, and the fact that so many of the initial readers thought that I was giving a wholehearted thumbs-up to violence, when what I really wanted to encourage was anger.

But I felt conflicted and doubtful about both, and I realized that I needed to introduce this doubt into the post. And the more I thought about anger and violence, and the role they’ve played in gay people’s fight for civil rights, the more I wanted to refresh my memory about Stonewall, which meant that I did a little reading. And that reading cleared away some of my more facile assumptions, like Judy Garland’s death being the match to Stonewall’s gas tank, an assumption that can’t be reliably supported by the evidence. So I had to change the title of the essay as well, and leave out Judy, who, like, had a tough enough life as it was without getting dragged around Stonewall.

Which is a very long way to say that I revised the damn thing, because it felt irresponsible to leave it up in its rougher stage. It’s just a matter of a few short paragraphs, and I don’t know if anyone else but me cares about such a thing, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that night in the Castro, and about anger and violence in general, which means that the issue, for me, stays unresolved. Which means that I will keep reading what other people have to say, and studying our history, hoping that eventually the clearest path to our goals will be revealed. Which ain’t so likely, since only hindsight is 20/20.

My Classy Boyfriend

Friend: So he really proposed to you?

Me: Yeah, in the hospital.

Friend: So romantic.

Me: I know. Even before I got my diagnosis, as I was lying there gasping for breath, he told me later that he thought, “I want to spend the rest of my life with this man.”

Friend: Aw.

Me: Right?

Friend: It’s like a made-for-tv movie.

Me: I know.

Friend: Or rather an after-school special.

Me: Totally.

Friend: So where’s your ring?

Me: Oh, I didn’t get a ring.

Friend: You’re kidding.

Me: No.

Friend: Why not?

Me: He told me, “No hymen, no diamond.”

Drag Queens and a Few Bricks

Last Friday a couple hundred gays and their friends chased a small group of young Christian preachers out of the Castro, calling them “bigots” and chanting “Don’t come back!”

I wish I’d been there.

The video of the event, or rather part of the event, has now been posted on YouTube, along with a written account by one of the preachers, who claims that they were both physically and sexually assaulted.

“It wasn’t long before the violence turned to perversion. They were touching and grabbing me, and trying to shove things in my butt, and even trying to take off my pants – basically trying to molest me…”

Unfortunately for him the video doesn’t capture any of this particular “molestation,” but our little gay uprising has predictably garnered both scorn and ridicule, and our community is accused of hostility and intolerance, and all weekend I wrestled with my conscience over the primal anger that still sweeps through me when I watch this video.

Why so angry? Why so hostile? The reasons may seem obvious to us, but since all of the preacher’s buddies on YouTube keep asking those questions, let me take a stab.

We grew up wondering what the hell was wrong with us, why we were so different from everyone around us. We observed and learned how to act, and some of us could hide that part of ourselves and pass, and some couldn’t, and those are the ones who were mocked and beaten on playgrounds and in cafeterias and gymnasiums.

We started to figure out how we were different, and how we were perceived. And for the rest of our lives we were told that we weren’t good enough, that we were sick and immoral and doomed to Hell.

Sometimes we made it out of adolescence without slitting our wrists, and we grew up and started looking for each other but we could only find each other in bars, because any other place was too dangerous. And those bars were raided by the police and we were rounded up and thrown in jail and our names printed in newspapers.

We were thrown out of jobs, out of schools, out of the military, out of churches. We were disinherited and shunned from our own families.

Our own bedrooms weren’t safe, according to our government.

When we got sick and died by the thousands we were ignored, and then told that it was all our fault. “God’s punishment,” they called it.  Only when Magic Johnson revealed his HIV-positive status, after thousands and thousands of us had already died, did the media treat AIDS as a legitimate story.

We couldn’t join our friends and partners in their hospital rooms, or at their funerals, because we weren’t considered family. Or we were allowed at the funerals only to see Fred Phelps and his followers show up to console us in our grief with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”

When we asked for the same rights that everyone else enjoys we were castigated for wanting “special privileges.”  Our fight for the same rights that straight people take for granted was called the “Homosexual Agenda.”

We were blamed for threatening the institution of marriage by people who drunkenly wed in Las Vegas chapels, people who committed adultery and beat their wives and their children and then preached and pointed fingers from pulpits on television every Sunday.

We were the scapegoats and the punching bags for Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Born-Again Christians, to name just a few. And our supposed allies couldn’t stand up for us because they might be mistaken for one of us, and that, as everyone knew, was the worst thing you could be.

We were barred from adopting the children of people who weren’t capable of parenting themselves, let alone someone else. We watched as people wrung their hands on television and cried that their children needed to be protected from us, that children needed to be sheltered their whole lives from even realizing that we existed.

Each and every one of us grew up surrounded by images, in magazines and television shows and movies and on every street in every city in the country, of straight people kissing and fucking and holding hands. But when we demanded the right to marry we were “shoving it down their throats.”

We were told by our families not to bring our partners home for the holidays, so we left our partners and flew home and sat around the dining table with people who pretended that we were something we weren’t, and that everything was fine when it wasn’t.

We read in newspapers  that “I-killed-the-faggot-because-he-made-a-pass-at-me” is a legitimate legal defense.

We were allowed to dress up straight men on television, and listen to straight women recount their relationship problems while we nodded sympathetically and told them that their shoes were fabulous. They let us plan their weddings. But the idea of a gay wedding was just too much, too soon.

We were told  that our love for each other was sick and immoral and undeserving of protection. They placed our love in the same category as incest and bestiality.

We were even blamed for Hurricane Katrina.

People who haven’t walked an inch in our shoes told their followers with unwavering conviction that we chose to be gay. That this distinction (this lie) therefore separated us from all of those who fought for their “legitimate” civil rights. That we didn’t even deserve to use the phrase “civil rights.”

We were told, decade after decade, by the political allies that we elected and supported, that we needed to be even more patient than we’d already been, that our time hadn’t come, that Americans weren’t ready for us to have the same rights as everyone else.

So we retreated from the scorn and the violence, and we built little communities, neighborhoods in cities where we could feel some measure of safety and belonging, however fleeting or illusory, where a few of us could feel bold enough to hold our partner’s hand when we walked down the street, in our neighborhoods, just a couple of square miles, here and there, scattered across the country.

And still they came. Over and over people who claimed that they were led by God came into our lives, came into our funerals and our bedrooms and our relationships, called us immoral and disgusting, arrested us, beat us, robbed us, and killed us.

And still they came. After we’d been given the right to marry, after we’d stood in line at City Hall, after we’d baked each other cakes and made cards and bought presents, after we’d taken each other’s photos and stood and witnessed our love for each other while surreptitiously wiping tears from our eyes, after all of that, they still had to come. They came into our private lives, and stripped away our rights.

And Friday night, after we’d lost at the polls, after we watched the entire world celebrate the “dawning of a new day,” after our rights had been eliminated, after we’d crawled back to our neighborhoods and licked our wounds and talked to each other about what we should do next, they came again, into our neighborhood, into the Castro, to try and save our souls.

They were just stupid kids, with the worst sense of timing ever, but they were led by “love,” right? They came into our neighborhood, after we had suffered such a defeat, to “worship and to sing.” How innocent it all sounds.

But why us, why the Castro? They came into our neighborhood because we’re still not good enough, we’re not worthy of respect, we are immoral and wrong and in need of their salvation, and their compassionate, Christian beliefs somehow prevented them from questioning the wisdom of their timing, in such a neighborhood.

And it comes as no surprise that after our backlash, after we’ve chased them out of our neighborhood, after we’ve gathered at their temples, and marched around their churches, after we’ve made public the already-public record of their campaign contributions, they wring their hands and cry to the cameras that we are the intolerant ones, we are the hostile ones, we are the ones denying them their simple human rights.

What’s surprising to me is that we waited so long to chase them out of the Castro.  That we haven’t chased them out a thousand times. What’s surprising to me is how tolerant we’ve been, for so many years.

Let me put it blunty. We’ve taken their abuse, and we’ve taken it some more, and then, just when we thought we’d taken enough, we took some more.

I’ve read on more than one gay blog that our anger is a dangerous emotion, that we shouldn’t act on it, that we should just ignore it. But if a bunch of drag queens hadn’t gotten pissed off and thrown some bricks nearly forty years ago, none of us would even have a gay blog. They’d put up with the scorn and the violence and the police raids for so many years, and something that night put them over the edge. Instead of meekly surrendering to yet another raid, something that night pushed them in a new and exhilarating direction. The first to fight back were the drag queens, hustlers, butch dykes, and street kids, who threw pennies, bottles, and bricks from a nearby construction site. The same types that some of us still want to push to the margins and keep from television cameras.

Just like some of us want to pretend that we can only reach our goals by acting like Ghandi.

The anger of the crowd at Stonewall swelled and turned, over the following weeks, into an urgency for broader activism. Within two years there were gay rights groups in every major American city. We’ve continued their work but grown complacent, and overestimated our so-called assimilation.

But Prop 8 is our flashpoint. For the first time we had a right taken away, one that we had enjoyed and honored for five short months. After 18,000 weddings a simple majority of Californians, preached to by their church elders, persuaded by deceitful commercials funded in part by non-Californians, stripped us of that right.

Lately, the conventional wisdom in the Castro said that the neighborhood was changing, losing its character, its gay essence. Too many straight people were moving in, with their children and their double-wide strollers. And really, wasn’t that to be expected? As we were more widely “accepted,” as we were assimilated into society, our neighborhoods were bound to change. To disappear.

Friday night reminded some of us, at least, how important our neighborhoods still are, and that we all have our flashpoints.

In a perfect world we could walk down the streets of the Castro and pass the preachers with only a glance, and continue on our way, and let them sing and worship and maybe even convert a desperate soul or two. In a perfect world we could all sit down at a table and talk peacefully and reach some diplomatic compromise. We could work with the communities and the religious representatives that have opposed us, and come to a better understanding of each other, and reach our common goals.

I’ve never seen that world, and I never will.

Sometimes it takes anger, along with diplomacy. Sometimes a few drag queens need to throw a few bricks for things to finally change, or for things to at least begin to change.

We are human, with human emotions, and one of those emotions is anger.
And sometimes we need to fight back before others begin to see that maybe we’re stronger than we appear, and maybe they need to back off, and question their methods. We need our anger. We need our outrage. We need to fight back. Our anger could take us farther, in the next few months, than we’ve gone in the last few years.

Most of the time, when we live in the gay ghetto, our oppressors are abstract: a flickering image on a television, a cluster of words in the newspaper. Rarely do we get to see them face-to-face, as some of us did that night in the Castro.

I still wrestle with my conscience. I don’t know what I recommend. I don’t know what, exactly, is the surest road to our goals. There is a part of me, maybe the larger part, that feels only relief that I missed out, the part of me that knows that what happened was ugly and divisive, the part that questions if our backlash served our goals.

But it’s the other part of me that’s writing this, the other part of me that scares myself, the part I want to let loose, if only in words, to give it room to stomp around and fume. The part of me that looks back over the history of civil rights, to search out what role anger played.

That part of me wishes that I had been there, that night in the Castro, to have, for a few minutes at least, real, flesh-and blood examples of our oppressors, to feel the rage ignite within me, and around me, to watch in both surprise and elation my peers shake themselves out of that quiet place of resignation, to watch everyone around me cross the line that we’ve kept ourselves behind for so many decades, despite what the world keeps handing us. For one night, for a few short minutes, to chase our enemies from our home, and watch them flee, flanked by cops in riot gear, until they disappear from view, and we can turn back to each other and celebrate.

Because I Want to Pick Out China Patterns Like Straight People Do

So Kaiser pulled out my chest tubes, packed me up, and sent me home, where I promptly slept for eleven hours, greedily devouring all of that precious REM time that had been interrupted all week by well-meaning nurses checking my vitals all through the night.

The next day I flushed my Percocet because, honestly, my pain was at an ibuprofen level, and I was thinking a little too much about them. A short-lived but powerfully blue mood settled over me, but by last night I was back at the bar, slinging drinks, and feeling fine.

Spontaneous, as a human descriptive, can often be good. A boyfriend who acts out of spontaneity can be a lot of fun. You know, the sudden and romantic idea of a last-minute trip to Paris, in the unlikely event that your boyfriend also has money.

When it comes to medical conditions, however, spontaneous lacks charm. Spontaneous combustion, for example. Take my recent diagnosis: spontaneous pneumothorax. When I tell people about my collapsed lung, they panic. “What do you mean spontaneous!?!” they demand. “What happened, what did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” I say. “There was no underlying cause.”

“I know,” they invariably say, “but what caused it?!?”

We’re all a little terrified by how little control we wield in this life, and I have to admit, I get a sadistic pleasure in watching these people emotionally flail about as they picture their own poor lungs collapsing for no good reason, if only because I resent the implication that I brought it upon myself.

The Manly Fireplug is, like me, a planner. He has me beat by the planner gene so thoroughly that it’s a relief to sit back and watch as he makes all of our travel plans, prints out itineraries and maps, and arranges for lodging. Spontaneity strikes him rarely.

As it turned out, he really did propose to me, and we are settling in for a nice slow engagement, as we don’t even live together yet. There may have been an element of spontaneity in his gesture, but then spontaneous medical conditions have a tendency to quickly clarify one’s life and relations. He later told me that within the first few minutes of bringing me to the ER, before we even knew my diagnosis, as I lay on the hospital bed hooked up to a couple of machines, wheezing, he knew that he wanted to spend his life with me.

Whether we will have this option next week remains to be seen, as California voters will choose whether or not to “eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.” Support for the measure is running about 50-50, so nobody really knows what will happen come Tuesday. I’ve had the privilege to attend two gay weddings since we earned the right, a few months ago, and naturally I spent all of each ceremony wiping tears from my eyes, because the power of the legal ceremony, and the palpable love between each couple, was immense. Thankfully the Fireplug cried his eyes out as well, which means our own ceremony, if and when it finally happens, will be a waterworks.

But the emphasis on the ceremony itself ignores many of the legal rights that go along with marriage, and I wonder if support for this proposition wouldn’t be running so high if people really looked at the big picture, at what attendant rights would also be eliminated. And in my own life, with my own parents, I’ve seen these legal abstractions rendered with depressing clarity.

My fathers, each of whom worked for the U.S. government for thirty years, both qualified for their full pensions. They’ve been together for over twenty-five years. But unlike their heterosexual counterparts, they were not able to leave their pensions to each other in the event of their deaths. They’ve had to engage in a letter-writing campaign with the government to secure this right for each other.

When my mother died, her partner of over twenty years was not eligible to collect my mother’s Social Security payments, as straight couples can.  Instead of her partner receiving a check for a few hundred dollars every month, I was sent a check for $800 total, because I was considered her next of kin. I signed the check over to her partner, who donated it to charity.

And when my mother died, at home, where her partner had been taking care of her for the past few years, the Hennepin County coroner in Minnesota would not release my mother’s body to her partner, who had made arrangements with the cremation society.  Again, her partner was not considered next of kin.  Since I was already on the plane on my way to Minnesota, the Minneapolis cops posted a patrol vehicle outside of their house until I, the legal next of kin, arrived.

Those are just a few examples from one family. No doubt I’m preaching to the choir here, and all of you who read this would, if you lived in California, vote to preserve our right to marry. Because you are sensible that way, and recognize that without rights, we are merely second-class citizens. And we’re first class around here, all the way.

A Can of Red Bull and a Case of Denial

So here’s what happened over the last week:

  • Worked until three a.m. Saturday at one of the two bars where I now sling drinks. Had to turn around and come back eleven hours later to work happy hour
  • Saturday morning felt a sharp pain in my chest followed by some weird breathing patterns
  • Decided that the above was due to drinking a Red Bull on top of two cups of coffee, and went to work
  • Worked one hell of a slow shift. Every time I bent over to get a beer out of the cooler, I’d cough
  • Worked until nine pm when the Manly Fireplug came by and took me down the street for Indian Food, where he noticed me acting even stranger than usual
  • Walked back to my car after dinner and realized that I couldn’t catch my breath
  • Long story a bit shorter: the Fireplug drove me to the ER
  • A couple of hours later, following some blood tests, an EKG, and a chest x-ray, they diagnose me with a spontaneous pneumothorax. In other words, my right lung had collapsed that morning, from no discernible cause
  • Given a drug that rendered me loopy, but not loopy enough to forget the part where they stuck a tube through my chest and suctioned out the air around my lung, nor could the Fireplug escape the noises I made even though he left the room
  • Sent home with a valve sticking out of my chest. Various old tire jokes ensue.
  • Come back on Monday to get the valve removed, only to discover, via x-ray, that my lung had collapsed again
  • Given a stronger drug so as to forget the part where they remove the first valve and stick in a different kind of valve, through a new hole in my chest
  • Admitted to the hospital for observation, where I’ve remained, since my lung continues to collapse when left to its own devices. We’re hoping it heals up by Friday and I can go home.
  • Reduced by pain meds to writing nothing but bullet-point lists
  • Surrounded by bags of cashews, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Brownie Bites
  • Tethered to a machine that sounds like my own personal aquarium
  • Woke up this morning trying to remember if the sight of the Manly Fireplug getting down on one knee and proposing to me in the hospital room last night was real or a drug-induced hallucination
  • Realized that, either way, I’m glad I said “yes”

Bar Tales: Miss Michael in the Mirror

I prop open the door to Folsom Street and blink against the sun for a second or two before retreating through the black leather curtains. Happy hour will be slow today, and an hour later only one customer, a regular who often dj’s at the bar on the weekends, keeps me company, sitting across from me on his bar stool, sipping a Jim Beam and Coke through a straw.

His lazy eye looks over my left shoulder as he tells me stories of the previous night. In his stories he is a fierce presence, whipping rowdy customers into shape with a single look, or a bullet-quick line. I sometimes wonder if these retorts aren’t shaped by wishful thinking after the fact, the kinds of things we think to say hours after the interaction, when our blood is only just beginning to cool. For in person he is a tad awkward if unfailingly helpful, dragging full kegs across the bar, checking coats, watching over the register when I need to take a piss.

A few minutes later both of us – anxious for more customers – catch sight of a movement just beyond the gap in the black curtains; a strange movement, slow, methodical, made by something that neither one of us can quite make out. There is a flash of leather, and of the bright petals of flowers, and what looks like a billowing cloak.

“What the hell is that?” I say.

“I have no idea,” he replies.

I take a step towards the door when the curtains part and she walks in.

I say “she,” though her gender is ambiguous. I say “she” because it’s what the DJ mutters when he catches sight of her, “Oh, no,” he says. “Here she comes.”

She’s a large girl, dressed in a long black trench coat and a black hat, with a wide, dramatic brim that casts a shadow over her pale-face, her eyes rimmed with heavy mascara like some downmarket Boy George, circa 1985, without the braids, and with bad teeth. She carries a black leather purse over one shoulder, and in her arms a bouquet of flowers, which she hands to me after making careful progress to the bar.

“These are for Mitch,” she says slowly, speaking the words as though placing one careful foot in front of the other, maintaining the appearance of balance.

“I’m filling in for Mitch,” I tell her. “He’s out today.” She gazes at me silently through half-lidded eyes, as if waiting for my words to settle somewhere in the back of her head. I wonder if she’s simply misunderstood me, thinks that Mitch is coming in later. I am embarrassed for her, for the now-pointless extravagance of the flowers. “It’s his partner’s birthday,” I tell her, my voice more tender than before. “But I can make sure he gets them.”

But whatever she thinks remains a mystery, as she pulls her purse onto the bar and pushes her small pale hand inside, like a tentative animal. She rummages around for a few long seconds, and then pulls out a slender patent-leather wallet, mumbling something.

“I’m sorry?” I say.

“Absolut and soda,” she murmurs.

Any bartender worth his salt would refuse to serve her, as the security of his job depends upon discretion and common sense. During happy hour I’m the only bartender, the sole employee, responsible for the bar and its patrons, a hat that I wear uneasily. Feeling awkward about the flowers, eager to avoid embarrassing her any further, wanting, as always, to avoid confrontation at all costs, I pour her the drink, knowing that I will regret it.

She fishes a few crumpled ones out of her wallet to pay for the drink, and then hands me a crisp twenty.

“What’s this for?” I ask her.

She points at me unsteadily, arching an eyebrow.

“Do you want change?” I ask. She says nothing, eyebrow still arched. “This is for me?” I ask.

“You don’t know who I am, do you?” she murmurs.

I look over at the DJ, who merely shrugs.

“My name is Miss Michael,” she says meaningfully, and offers me a crooked smile as she pushes her wallet back into her purse. Then her gaze wanders up, across the bar, where she catches sight of herself in the mirror behind me. Years ago someone fashioned a series of lamps from old Crisco cans, and they hang over the bar, casting red circles across its battered metal surface. More red lights are strung behind the bar, above and below the very mirror she ponders.

What follows is, to date, the most bizarre thing I’ve seen as a bartender.

She places both hands on the bar, and begins to perform an exhaustive series of poses, as if from the pages of a fashion magazine. She raises her head and regards herself, like Norma Desmond, in the reflection, touching one finger to her cheek. She lowers her chin until the black brim of her hat obscures one eye. She turns in half-profile and fingers a small studded earring. She pauses in each pose a few seconds, sometimes for what feels like a full excruciating minute, her eyes never leaving her reflection, never wavering from their focus, seemingly oblivious to her own spectacle. “I wish I had on a different outfit,” she whispers, pulling the lapels of her coat together and giving herself a coy smile.

The DJ and I glance at each other, unsure of what to do in the face of such a performance, her intricate, elegant poses mere inches away. This goes on for a couple of minutes. She picks up her drink and coyly sips through her straw, arching her eyebrow again in self-regard, unaware that she has tilted her glass too far, and her cocktail is spilling down the arm of her coat. Wary customers stack up behind her.

I lean over and whisper to her, “I need this section open for my customers, sweetie,” and gesture at the bar between us. My worries, that she would cause a scene, that she would crumple in tears, or erupt in screams, dissipate as she responds, gathering up her her purse and clutching her drink with an unsteady hand. Miss Michael makes her slow way up the small flight of steps to the back bar, where she finds a table in the dark, leaving the flowers on the bar and a thin trail of Absolut and soda in her wake.

“You shouldn’t have served her,” the DJ says, and I lie, telling him that I didn’t realize how drunk she was until after I’d given her the cocktail. He either takes me for a liar or a naive. Even his lazy eye seems to regard me suspiciously.

Her performance, like a cloud of perfume, lingers over the bar, and for the rest of the afternoon and long into the evening I glance up at her, sitting alone in the dark, her back resting against the chain-link fence that encloses the DJ booth, one arm outstretched, her fingers playing and strumming on the fence.

Occasionally she responds to some lyric in the music blasting over the speakers, and raises one arm, her hand curling open and pointing at the ceiling. Every once in a while she gathers together her coat and purse, the gathering taking a good ten minutes, and I pray that she will leave, and take with her my responsibility for her welfare. But she merely shuffles off to the bathroom and back, removing her coat, taking her place again at the lone table in the dark. She sits there for four hours, as a slow trickle of customers, all men, pass her on their way to the back room.

Then, sometime around eight o’clock, she raises her hand again and cries out, “MADONNA!!” in a voice that overpowers the house music. It sounds like both a frustrated demand and a cry of victory, as if confirming the singer’s unassailable power over our lives. The customers look at her with a mixture of humor, disgust, and pity.

The hours pass slowly and I make my rounds behind the bar, tipping chilled pint glasses under a stream of draft beer, opening bottles, scooping ice, now and then wondering about Miss Michael, about her life, or what remains of it, outside the bar. Where does she live, where does she get her money? What does she think when she wakes in the morning to memories of the night before? Does she even remember the night before, and throwing flowers and cash away on bartenders?

Not that she could answer my questions, not tonight, when she is too drunk to respond. Would she even answer truthfully, or would every word cohere around the image she has woven of herself – you don’t know who I am, do you? And what did I really know of that image, after a few short hours?

Her twenty dollar bill rests in my tip bucket like a dark reminder of my passivity, of the single drink I poured onto the others she’d had before stumbling through the black curtains. If I truly cared for her welfare, I might have insisted she keep the twenty, but I am as selfish as the next guy; I will take what I can get on this slow Monday night.

When she makes her way back to me and asks for another, I tell her, finally, that I can’t serve her any more liquor.

“You can’t?” she asks, like a wounded child.

“No,” I say. “How about a bottle of water?” I ask her. “Would you like a bottle of water?”

“Okay,” she says meekly.

I place the bottle on the bar, telling her that it’s on the house. She regards it unsteadily, then catches sight of herself again in the mirror. She begins a new series of poses but I stop her again, this time more quickly, and remind her that I need to keep that section of the bar open. She takes the bottle of water and shuffles over to the bench behind the pool table, leaving a five for me on the bar.

There she appears to catch sight of the mirror again, and maneuvers herself a few feet to the left, undoubtedly to the best unobstructed view of her reflection, sitting within inches of a few of my favorite regulars, three guys with shaved heads who drink Skyy and sodas with a wedge of lemon and leave me big tips. She begins posing again, her elbow brushing against one of the guys.

A man at the bar asks for a Bud, and I turn away, rehearsing in my mind the words that will extricate Miss Michael from the personal space of my regulars, words that seem complicated to me but should be easy, just a few words every bartender must at some point say. “Honey, it’s time for you to go.”

I turn to the cash register and ring up the Bud, glancing up and catching my own reflection in the mirror, confirming what I had noticed a long time ago; under the red lights, we all look better. I regard myself for a second longer than necessary. When I turn back, Miss Michael is gone, the bottle of water, still slick with condensation, sitting unopened on the bench.

Bar Tales: Bear Seduction

“So last year I went up to Lazy Bear,” says one of the bartenders. “And I’m over at the pool party at the Triple R Resort. And this big hairy guy is cruising me. And he comes up to me, leans over, and whispers in my ear, ‘I’ve got nachos back in my room.’”

Bar Tales: Bringing Home the Bacon

“This is for the vodka tonic,” says the man, handing me a five. Then he throws another one on the bar. “And this is for forgetting to put your shirt on.”