Even before Facebook quizzes, the question of which super-power you would choose if you could would occasionally come up at parties or on first dates. For as long as I can remember, I have always chosen the ability to see the entire history of a specific location as my superpower. I imagine myself standing still, eyes open but not focused on the present. Maybe they’d get that cool opal cloud covering like Storm in X-Men or the old master in the opening credits of Kung-Fu. My surroundings would begin to morph into their previous incarnations, activated by the ectoplasms of the individuals that have occupied that space in the past. I can see them laughing, drinking, dancing, fucking, and dying in cyclical ceremonies of inhabitation.
I could solve crimes. I could see where rad stuff is hidden. I could reveal the mysteries of the ancient past. I imagine there would be lots of cool hats. Of course, at some point, I suppose I would have to travel to the pyramids in Egypt or Stonehenge, but for a long while I would be content standing and watching the past in old bars.
There is something special about the feeling of refuge and calm that bars create for the loyal misfits that assemble to form clots in them. That warm, tangy aroma of stale cigarettes and old beer that gets pulled over your damage like a fuzzy blanket when you open the front door smells like a secret that belongs to you. Bars are relatively safe places for the more intense versions of yourself that feel vulnerable in the daylight. Many bars are even made to attract a specific segment of the fringe that polite culture would like to forget. I believe in a kinship of consciousness that exists between the bold outskirts of an individual’s bar persona and the audacity necessary for true social transformation. I fully realize and am intentionally ignoring the many fantastically destructive scenarios that also occur at bars, because occasionally, rare moments of the singular clarity of the dangerous beauty of humanity are birthed only by the alchemic orgy of desperation, dance, sweat and alcohol. Bars briefly become Dionysian temples. These shared experiences also create unique tribes, bound thenceforth by special initiation. I could spend a lifetime rewinding through an old building’s secret rituals. Perhaps just to salve an internal longing to bear witness to a human intensity and turbulence that I fear is being irredeemably dulled.
The demise of dyke bars in the last ten to fifteen years is just truly sad. In 2006, I had set out to resurrect a dying paradigm. But, there was no alternative. How much queer history has happened in bars? I was truly worried about the kind of legacy we were creating without them. The cultural stability that gay marriage provides is a cushy gig if you can get it, but I had set out to remind the queers that we are at our most fabulous when we are laughing loudly at our own jokes, half in the bag, bedazzled with transgression. For this task, I required an old bar that felt forgotten.
I arranged to meet the owner of the old American Legion building the following afternoon. I do not recall the showing specifically or what the guy looked like. I remember only that I already knew that this was the place, even before I saw inside.
At some point while he was showing me the building, I wedged a rock or something into the jamb of an inconspicuous side exit. I came back some hours later so that the building and I could become better acquainted in private. The ruins of this brotherhood of Veterans had summoned me. Somebody’s shadowy nostalgia stuck to the old school cafeteria tile, reanimating with my footsteps. The mold, the standing water, the rotten carpet, the smell, all faded from perception as I saw what was to occur here and as what had happened here came out to meet me. The decay was meant to deter lesser advocates, and obscure the magic from the unworthy. The building had been waiting for me.
The invisible interaction of past and present occasionally and fleetingly reveals its bustling machinations to the corner of your eye. Right now, I am trying to remember what I felt like and how the building felt to me as I walked through it for the first time. But, considering the unlikeliness of the building’s materialization within the parameters of my obscure geographical criteria and its availability within my shaky financial reach for the purpose of Pi, I have to wonder… what are the metaphysical desires of a space? How do people and events dent and deposit their creature residue onto a particular location, especially one that has been a place of gatherings? When first encountering the abandoned surroundings of a previously well-used structure, there is a natural inclination to sift through the remaining artifacts or make note of smooth, shiny irregularities of wear, fabricating likely or fantastic scenarios of explanation. But this innocent curiosity is not the totality of the negotiation of promise that is occurring. I projected my own desires onto the remains of another clan’s ceremonial hall. The wreckage granted me permission and also gave me a caved-in mirrored disco ball as a housewarming gift.
I bought it the next week. It was for sale, contract-for-deed. What that means is that as long as your check for the down payment clears and you keep up with the monthly interest and tax payments (almost $6000 a month), the owner will hand you the keys to a building you can’t actually afford and you have two-years to get a successful business up and running and create enough credit to convince a traditional bank to pay the owner off and give you a regular mortgage. If you’re unable to secure the financing after two years, possession of the building reverts to the former owner along with all the money you have already given him as well as any improvements you have made to the building.
My half of the down payment was the entire inheritance my mother had given me in addition to half of the total amount that my secret investor was going to invest. I had not even started a business plan yet, which was apparently necessary according to everyone that liked to tell me what was necessary. I also had no plan for how I would continue to make the monthly interest payments, but the urgency and clarity of the vision I had in my head demanded that I proceed. At the time, it felt very much like the point of no return. I constantly had the sensation I was in a movie, one of those movies where improbable things happen to and for the protagonist toward the climactic fruition of a specific dream.
I would quit my regular, low-wage job the next week. My partner, Patricia would move out of our house three weeks later. My only source of income would be my home equity line, about $40,000. With this, I would be paying my house mortgage and bills, the interest payment on the building, and within a few more weeks, I would be paying my best friend to keep me company in my new haunted, moldy castle. There was no other money in sight yet. I had a very limited understanding of even how much money it would take to rehabilitate this derelict shell into a permissable business. I had a laptop, a cell phone, and an old phone book that I found in the building. At this point, a few of my friends tried to talk me down. I just told them that I had been called by god to open a dyke bar. The part of my brain that could not face my real-life grief and self-hatred made anything reasonable or practical taste terrible.
I am sure there is technical diagnostic language to explain my mental state at that time, something fancier and more precise than merely delusional. Also, traditional psychology is not inclined to encourage uncommon states of consciousness in an otherwise functional cultural participant. The correlation to dangerous outcomes is too unnerving. However, I also believe that finding yourself temporarily unmoored to mundane practicalities can open unexpected conduits between the part of you that has been broken and the place in others that is unsatisfied. Most people, if given the opportunity, would rather not give a fuck about all the things about which they are supposed to give all their fucks. I felt like I surreptitiously locked onto an invisible low-humming frequency that called out to the romantics and the lost. It was like my fairy godmother sobered up for a minute. I found, at this time, with shocking regularity, that people and things seemed to gravitate toward the success of my unlikely endeavor, usually exactly at the juncture they were necessary.
The day I rode my bike all the way to some office building in St. Louis Park to sign all the building contract documents and get the keys to Pi, the scenery on the path changed. I had left the Shire for sure. The acquisition of the building meant that I could start my liquor license application. The gravity of the financial doom I was now facing certainly compelled me toward the task of writing a business plan. But on the first day in my new broken-down, smelly-ass building, it was just me and Benny. I don’t know where the fuck Gandolf was. It was hard to know where to start. What would be our first task?
The building and I had a new relationship. I was the one who held the keys. My instinct was to let the building know that it had a responsible new caretaker. I also knew we would have to win over our new neighborhood. We were surrounded by other functioning businesses. I think I had even already had a conversation with a proprietor directly behind us, across the alley, that had revealed her extensive concerns about our future patrons uncontrollably urinating all over her parking lot. I also knew that we would eventually need to get formal approval from the Seward Neighborhood Group to advance our liquor license application. My endless teenage hours spent mowing, raking, and detailing my parent’s various suburban yards suddenly unearthed my father’s wax-on, wax-off karate wisdom. The very first thing we did on this leg of our journey was clean the yard.
Pi had a twenty-four space parking lot and a patch of grass out front. The parking lot was full of cracks, through which a prairie had been trying to emerge for the last several years. We spent an entire Minnesota August day clearing weeds, mowing the lawn, and trimming the bushes. I think I might have even purchased weed-killer for the parking lot, a modern evil that my progressive politics had previously prohibited. I remember Benny and I making jokes about our yard work that seemed like an inconsequential gesture toward the tidal wave that was our to-do list. But, if there is anything that growing up in suburbia teaches you, it is that the maintainance of your yard is the foremost indicator of your sense of responsibility and accountability as a neighbor.
When we would later canvas the surrounding businesses and residential areas for support, almost everyone mentioned their appreciation for the new tidiness of our lot. They believed it would discourage suspicious behavior in the neighborhood and showed that we would be responsible and accessible business owners. Thanks mom and dad.
The old Legion smiled on us and liked its new haircut.