So what is the first step when you finally decide to open the gay bar of your dreams? Take a moment to think about it. What is the first logical thing you would do set this phantasmagoria in motion on the physical plane? I know so many of you have thought about it. Your own economic treehouse is the charming, undiscovered, magic trinket shop in the bohemian district of capitalism. It is sporadically even more alluring to you than, building your own tiny house (organic farm and strawbale home are so ten years ago), or thinking about how it would feel to be in witness protection. And among queers, especially queers born with vaginas, talking about opening a dyke bar is one of our favorite party games. We all want the fort. What do you do to get it?
Well, first make sure you’ve had some kind of psychotic break. Make sure it’s severe enough to completely disable your ability to participate significantly in any relationship in your life. Next, embrace the obscure, but persistent suspicion in your head that you possess magical powers. Allow yourself to believe that you are now an actual pirate action hero, secretly charged by the collective powers of history to build this enchanted hideaway. The outcasts have always been your people. You have been called to build the sanctuary that suspends normal time and space within its walls so they can conduct their clandestine and awkward social rituals within the safety of the anthropologically appropriate diorama that only you can manifest.
The first necessary incantation for manifestation of visions is transcription. You must say it out loud, and preferably write it down. You may use the vehicle of your choice. Mine was a spiral-bound Spiderman notebook purchased from a Walgreens on the way to my first “meeting” about the bar. “Meeting” needs to have the ironic quotes at this stage because having a secret meeting about opening a bar when you make $12 an hour stocking shelves at a co-op feels roughly like planning your wedding when you’re eight.
It is essential to have an ally, more than a friend attend this first meeting. Otherwise, you would be that person obsessively and furiously writing in a Spiderman notebook, in a bar, by yourself. You need someone who takes you seriously, and believes in you, but still has some tether to the real world you’d rather not interact with just then. They can relay messages and make you sandwiches.
Benny and I had our first planning session at Bryant Lake Bowl, a familiar Minneapolis hipster hang-out that was once a divey old bowling alley. The woman who owns this establishment is a lesbian who has built a local empire from her prowess collaborating locally-sourced meat, midwestern kitsch, and zero-waste aspirations. Managing to set aside my jealousy for her success for a moment, we accomplished three things at this meeting: I roughed out a sketch of the actual space I was imagining, we made a long list of the items and services we imagined a bar would require, and we decided on a name.
The first page of my notebook, recalls the imagination of the bar’s physical space.
This drawing is titled Joe and Jack’s Pi Hut at the top. It includes renderings of a stage, dance floor, bar, pool tables, and a quieter area with tables. There are three restrooms, with one set aside as gender-inclusive. The resemblance of this drawing to the as yet unmet building that eventually housed Pi Bar feels a bit supernatural.
People often assume that because I eventually acquired a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies I must be religious or spiritual in some way. This is inaccurate except in the most intimate and cryptic sense. What I am may be more precisely conveyed as superstitious. Sometimes I sense unseen voyeurs. They frequently receive mundane offerings from me in the form of a pinch of salt over my left shoulder while making breakfast or a modified cadence while walking my dog to avoid sidewalk cracks. This could be merely a shame-induced psychological projection, or perhaps it is a subconscious perception of an alternative reality where underdogs prevail and all that is necessary to access aid from this morally-attuned universal dark matter is earnestness of heart and a narcissistic disdain for commercial practicality. Whatever the situation is, the universe wanted me to open this dyke bar. The serendipitous Hobbit quest that followed that day can only be truly comprehended in retrospect as fairy tale, complete with fortuitous fairy encounters, chance treasure finds, and the obligatory gauntlet of trials of faith.
The next several pages of my Spiderman scripture are occupied with a long, subdivided list of all of the things we could think of that this space might require. My favorite passage can be found on page 1, category 2, under the heading “Building”. Under it was the simple instruction: “Buying”. I do not recall why the participle form is used.
I am so grateful to still possess artifacts from this time. I was drinking a lot so it’s helpful. I remember where Benny and I were sitting and I do have a fairly strong memory of the portion of the meeting when we were trying to come up with a name. I do not recall any of the other ideas, but I remember us both feeling the magic of Pi when it appeared at the table. We knew we had guessed the right name and in uttering it together, we conjured the specter of its future.
Many have asked me about the name or even more think they know why we called the place Pi. Some know I used to be a Math geek. More know I turned into a classic philosophy geek with a special love for translating ancient Greek. In math, Pi is the constant no matter how big the circle gets – an apt metaphor for our endeavor. In philosophy, it has been used to hypothesize some existence of order or harmony or plan in an ostensibly chaotic existence. Pretty deep, kinda cool, a bit esoteric for commercial application. There is also the double entendre created by American slang. (Pie is a word for pussy) Belly up to the pussy bar. Get it? Oddly, all the boys, including the gay ones assumed this to be the implied allegory and thought it quite amusing, which it is. Lesbians, for whom the bar was founded, always acted like they had never heard of that euphemism. Whatever lesbians. The name Pi, in addition to being all of those things as a bonus, was my nickname for my partner at the time, Patricia.
She had meant everything to me for over nine years and I knew I was in the process of wrecking our relationship. The name was a form of homage to one of my very favorite people from whom I was distancing myself and trying to deal with the pain that caused us both.
This brings up one of the guilt sections of processing this story. Patricia was still my partner when we would buy the building a short four months after this initial meeting and also legally became my business partner that same month…less than a month before she moved out of our house. She was obligated financially and legally after our divorce, to ride this ride with me. For those of you who think I’m an asshole, I will not argue with you. I can only try to assure you that profound gratitude and contrition have always been a part of this story.
I left our secret meeting with a marginally more detailed list of tasks for myself and a transcendent sense of resolve, or perhaps refreshed delusion. Benny had recently gotten a third job barbacking for some douchey nightclub downtown and would now add the task of reconnaissance to his duties. I was about to finally graduate from college and thought that perhaps the bar could be thought of as a research paper. I headed to the public library.
On the fourth floor of the Minneapolis Central Library in downtown, one can find the entire collection of Municipal Codes and Ordinances for the city of Minneapolis. I eagerly read the entire tome devoted to Liquor Codes. Prior to this, I had some vague understanding, somehow, of the 60/40 rule. That is, Minneapolis requires establishments that sell alcohol to make 60% of their revenue from food and non-alcoholic beverage sales. An archaic and restrictive zoning fascism. I also knew of businesses in Minneapolis that operated as nightclubs and wanted to understand the seeming contradiction. I knew that Pi would never, ever meet those standards. I didn’t even want to sell food. I also wanted to be in South Minneapolis where I didn’t actually know of any other examples of the type of establishment I wanted to create. What I found went something like this: any new liquor license granted to an establishment south of 22nd St (out of the old patrol zone -whatever that means) would only be given to a restaurant, hotel, or fraternal organization (like the Elks Lodge). All new licenses would be held to the 60/40 rule unless the following exemption criteria were met: The building must be in an area zoned I-2 (light industrial and commercial), must be in a 7-acre contiguous plot, and be 500 feet away from the nearest residential zone (R-1), and 300 feet away from the nearest school or church.
Later, I would be accused of exploiting a loophole in the liquor code, that happened to inadvertently be also in direct contradiction to some other zoning code. Right now, in the library, holding the biggest three-ring binder I had ever seen, I felt like Indiana Jones, or one of the Goonies and I had just discovered a long-lost treasure map.
My next stop would be to a beaurecratic zoning catch-all office that Minneapolis had established on the second floor of a government office building kitty-corner from City Hall. It used to be called simply “One-Stop”. I would visit this office many times in the coming months. Upon my initial visit, a ritual of sorts was established. Among the mounting pressures of my dissolving partnership, the partially-secret development of a new romance, finals, and devoting any spare time to advancing my fantasy bar plan, the stress was beginning to feel heavy. “One-Stop” was the first place I was going to have to talk to a representative from the governement-business-capitalist complex whose world I was trying to infiltrate, a muggle, if you will. As I entered the building, I remember feeling kind of like a spy or burglar. But at least, I didn’t feel like the asshole I normally felt like. However; as I stepped onto the escalator, I felt time stop. The feeling that overwhelmed me was that as long as I was simply riding up this escalator, I didn’t have to do anything else. These escalator rides became dear to me so I never rushed them. Then I got off and was a magic pirate again and proceeded.
I met my first fairy here. I don’t recall his name. He seemed gay. His job seemed worse than working at the DMV because people will kill you if you tell them that the addition they want to put onto their house is eight inches too high and their $15,000 architect should have known that. When he called my number, I tried to sound confident as I explained why I was there. I felt like a child explaining my plan to catch Santa Claus. I wanted to open a bar. I had read the liquor code and recited the necessary geo-political details for the exemption I required. I was wondering if he knew of any areas of South Minneapolis that met those criteria and what applications I should require for opening said bar. He looked at me for a moment, obviously taking in my appearance, which was butch dyke in sweaty cut-off t-shirt and dickies. A widening grin crept across his face. It was not condescending as I feared it might be. It somehow said, yeesss, let me help you shove something large and uncomfortable into city hall’s ass. Or maybe it was completely patronizing and he was just trying not to laugh. Regardless, he pulled up a zoning map on the computer. It did not take long for us to discern from this map that the only appropriate area in South Minneapolis that met my needs was an awkward, semi-industrial area Southwest of the neo-liberal Seward residential neighborhood and just North of the developing East Lake St. commercial corridor.
I knew that area from commuting from my house to the U of M on my bike. It’s filled with short, 30-40 year-old small warehouses built on the ruins of an old rail hub. It’s actually quite accessible by freeway, light rail, and it’s right off the Greenway (one of Minneapolis’ main paved bike thoroughfares). I was confident, looking at that screen that the treasure was hidden there.
After Pi’s demise, many cited location as one of its main detrimental qualities… Thank you for your input. How’s Chicago?
The “One-Stop” fairy also informed me that my fleeting fantasy of converting an old warehouse was financially untenable as the city would require an EPA report and any facility not used previously for food service would have to be brought up to code as if it were a new construction. This introduced two new obstacles. One, we were not going to get out of serving food. This required a “nightclub” exemption which was only possible in specially zoned areas of downtown. (Lesbians were not going to pay for parking). Also, I would have to find a building in my as yet non-existent price range, in the middle of that small area full of old warehouses, that used to be a restaurant or a bar. He also informed me that I would need a location to even start my liquor license application.
I was sure my benevolent invisible forces were watching me walk out of that office in slow motion that day, to face insurmountable odds. 70’s power chords beginning to lay the mood. Back in Black maybe.
A lot happened that summer. I will leave my complicated and uncomfortable romantic debacle largely out of the narrative, mostly to protect the feelings of those involved who have moved on with their lives. Benny and I revealed our plans for the bar at a birthday party in late June. The artistic, hip gayborhood in attendance was enthusiastic and offered their input. This brought a new element of reality to the pursuit and propelled me further down the path. Occasionally, someone who was not at that party would approach me to ask if I needed help with anything. Word was spreading. A collection of expectation and hope was started and everyone seemed to take us seriously. I started to develop charismatic glamoring abilities when I talked to others about my vision, which now included a venue that would provide a space for the many talented visual and performing queer artists that I knew. I just needed to find a space. Oh yeah, and money.
My mother had planned a trip to Yellowstone for the two of us that summer. It was there that my mom informed me that she and my father had inherited $50,000 from my Grandpa Buddy, who had died the summer before. My father wanted me to have it for my future, since they are relatively financially secure. This brings us to part two of my guilt, remembering this story. My parents have always believed in my intellect and potential and have wanted me to succeed professionally. I’m not sure what their visions for me have been, but I’m positive they did not include a queer nightclub. I timidly told my mother about my plan. It made her incredibly uncomfortable, mostly because she thought it was risky as a business owner herself. But I think she might have also doubted the eventual fruition of this crazy scheme. She gave me the money anyway. And again, thank you and I’m sorry is all I can say about that.
In addition to this unexpected seed money, Patricia and I also had a home equity line for an additional $40,000. Then a woman I didn’t know, but apparently had been to one of my Halloween house parties (I have a picture) and was good friends with an acquaintance of mine had heard about the bar and wanted to meet with me about investing.
This is perhaps the most complicated thread of this whole saga and I’m just not going to explain it really. It is the third and last section of my guilty conscience side-plot. My sadness concerning her investment is complicated by anger, but certainly not enough to want to cause her any additional distress. For now, I will simply state that there was a third investor, who wanted to be a part of this. Without her willingness to risk so much and believe in my plan, Pi Bar would have never happened. At least, not in the way it did. Anyone who knows more of this story, including her identity, and has questions or is mad at me can contact me personally. I’d be glad to explain my side of the story.
So, just like that, money unexpectedly appeared. I called a commercial real estate broker and set an appointment. A few days before our meeting, I rode my bike through the weird little Seward industrial dead zone. On a side street, just one block long, I passed an enormous, low-slung, brick building. Judging by the prairie growing in the parking lot, it had been abandoned for some time. I cupped by hands around my face to block out the sunlight as I peered into one of the few windows. I was looking into an office with bent and broken aluminum blinds. There was a for sale sign that had partially fallen out of the window. I called the number on the yellowing sign and got a voice mail for some software company. I thought I had gotten a wrong number, but left a message, nevertheless, explaining my interest in the property and my desperate desire to see inside. I left my phone number.
I probably tried not to look like a total miscreant in preparation for meeting a real-life commercial real estate agent for coffee at Muddy Water’s in Uptown. We sat on their outdoor patio. I tried to patiently listen to his well-informed expertise as he explained to me that most aspiring bar owners can usually expect to search for up to two years to find the perfect property, and can use that time to refine their business plans and secure build-out financing. He was obviously not privy to my other-worldly time-line. I became increasingly anxious as he droned on and was acutely aware that he was not part of this adventure. I nodded in eager agreement to mask my growing impatience in an attempt to politely expedite this dead-end conversation. I even muted an incoming call without looking at my phone so I wouldn’t appear rude.
When I safely on the sidewalk, preparing to unlock my bike to escape this unfruitful encounter, I checked my message. It was the owner of the building I had called about wondering if I had any free time to look at it tomorrow.
Soundtrack changes to Flashdance. What a Feeling. My watchers had sent me a portent of their intentions. I obediently hit redial on my flip-phone.