Assessing the inventory of discarded treasures that the building still housed was one of the more amusing activities that we indulged in while taking in the weight of new fortress ownership. Highlights on the list include a 22′ shuffleboard game, an impressive air pistol found under an old, but comfortable couch, a bonanza of furniture carts and dollies, various crutches and wheelchairs, and this picture of this handsome guy we named Vern. Later, after we were open, an older hottie with red hair who, I swear, introduced herself as Trixie used to come visit the space on occasion. It had been her bar home when it was the Legion. I took her on a tour during one of those visits including the large room we set aside as office/liquor storage space where Vern’s framed picture was enshrined to the right as you entered. She picked it up and shouted, “Oh my God, where’d you get this picture of Virgil?” And even though the two names are not similar in any way, except that they are both old-timey and start with ‘V’, it was enough to confirm the pre-ordained order of righteousness in the universe and Pi’s place in the history of awesomely fighting the good fight. This was actually kind of a regular phenomenon at Pi, which is one of the things I miss the most because normal life is often not overly filled with hearty pirate-dick-grabbing Fuck Yeah’s.
When we were done newly investigating the crannies, Benny and I had serious work to do. I now owned my very own commercial building. It was also legally owned also by my soon-to-be ex-wife, who understandably didn’t want to hang out there much and my new business partner who was already colorfully expressing her disinterest in understanding magnitude of the build-out process at hand. Mostly she liked to smoke pot and dream of feeling like Sam Malone in Cheers, which at the time seemed relatively benign. Neither one of them were there much at all, so, it was 12,000 square feet of my uninterrupted vision in all practicality. Promise and mold. Benny and I had made it look a little prettier on the outside on our first day. I remember the gleeful blend of terror and some sort of emboldened queer psuedo-nationalism. I felt important. I felt devoted. Then I had to go home.
As I’ve referenced, immediately prior to spontaneously deciding to open a dyke bar in South Minneapolis, I had been obsessively courting a straight woman for nearly a year and a half while simultaneously trying to resist this same compulsion because it was destroying my long-term relationship. If you’re a butch, you’ve probably experienced the addictive rush of a pretty straight woman alternately expressing a never-before-felt, supernatural, inescapable, deeply spiritual connection to you, and then 45 minutes later, acting like they’re struggling to remember your name. This situation can drag on for some time, as you know, as well as nudge your sense of identity into the realm of make-believe. Well, I happened to win this particular round of butch/straight-girl I Want To, But I Can’t, No Wait… and found I had a new girlfriend. Subsequently, my beloved friend and partner of nearly a decade moved out of our house. Most of our friends sided with her, as they should have.
You know when you do something like this to your life, you gotta act like you knew what you were doing all along, right? Meanwhile, whenever I thought about my ex, the pain and nausea was overwhelming. What a coward. Hanging out with my new ‘girlfriend’ also felt uncomfortable from the start. What a coward.
But, my new building offered an unmanagable number of tasks to face every single day. I was also sincerely under the impression that I was doing this in order to provide a necessary haven for the lost and overshadowed in my community. Somebody had to do it. Gay marriage was out to Tone Down our tacky, shitty, fabulous culture. Perhaps I could work off my psychic debt. If I succeed, perhaps I could redeem myself and my character. I would also never really have to go home and face the destruction and failure that dusted every surface in my house. It was only during the short commutes to and from my fractured existences that I would allow myself to cry in fits of self-pity and regret.
Now that we have the protagonist’s emotional low point firmly established, let’s start the training montage portion of our story!
After our initial, sunny triumph over the weeds, there was necessarily the following day, and another one, and another one. The building was in such a state of disrepair and decay that it was not even worth developing a list of potential renovations at this time. It seemed reasonable to focus on removing things that smell or were potentially hazardous. Honestly, a good portion of time and energy is expended merely trying to decide what the next step should be. Many prospective restaurant owners hire people for this very task. Lack of money was my only project manager, so specific missions were defined by this driver of ingenuity. Demolition and clean-up can thankfully be done fairly cheaply.
My ego has historically been very attached to my ability to perform long days of hard and messy physical labor. Such is the impoverished identity of an old-school butch. So my initial inclination was to tackle the mess. Benny quickly intervened and told me to go find some money and get us a liquor license. There were only two of us at this time and he also possessed the martyr laborer instinct, but I was the sole vision manager. It was my fault we were here doing this. He would thusly take charge of the demolition and crap removal department. He also independently assumed the responsibility of bringing me turkey sandwiches every day. It was around this point that I became completely unable to shop for or feed myself.
It was time for me to go talk to some grown-ups. Never having even worked in the service industry or received any kind of business training (besides being my parent’s offspring), it is difficult to just decide one day that you should assume that you have any kind of legitimate access to the gate-keepers of capitalism. For us over-educated, life-style underachievers, it feels very much like a private club that perhaps our parents belong to, but our only glimpse of the inner-workings and protocols has been from the lifetime kiddie table at carefully scripted holiday events. But at least I had been to those events, and I grew up around my parent’s businessy super-powers, and I’m white. I instinctively knew my privilege would aid me now.
I knew we would obviously need a liquor license to operate a bar. I did not quite understand how complicated it actually is to obtain permission to sell alcohol in Minneapolis yet. I also had a rudimentary understanding that a Business Plan was some sort of magical document that made banks give you money. These responsibilities framed my immediate agenda.
I made an appointment to finally receive my Liquor License Application. These are acquired at a business licensing office on the first floor of City Hall downtown. They don’t just hand them out. You have to actually have a meeting with a liquor inspector. I was wearing my usual summer uniform, Dickie’s cut-offs and a black t-shirt. I grabbed my bag, a canvas shopping bag from a book store in San Francisco. I had casually grabbed this tote one day from my home and now carried it with me everywhere. It contained my Spiderman notebook, a date book, and the remains of a bag of sunflower seeds that had spilled. It is now one of many priceless artifacts with which I still cannot bear to part.
I rode my trusty, crusty mountain bike to City Hall one sunny morning. City Hall in Minneapolis was built to look like a kind of old-world stone fortress. I will admit that in all of my many meetings with the necessary grown-ups that police your ability to open a business, I generally felt intimidated and out of place. My mother would have also been appalled by my wardrobe choices. I made my otherness public, contrary to my mother’s life-long advice, but I felt like I was out to change the world, or at least challenge the arbitrarily appointed powers that denied my legitimacy. An adolescent rebellion to be sure, but it provided the requisite resolve to face the faces of authority. (Crap, was all of this to prove something to my mother? Probably, but moving on.)
Once at City Hall, I passed through the initial clusters of people who believe in striding everywhere and checked in at the correct plexiglass. I was then ushered into a small office within the licensing department. I was sat at a small round conference table. A short time passed and three large polished older white men in really nice suits with impressive briefcases came in and sat at the table with me. They were followed by a slightly scruffy, compact man in a short-sleeved button-up and khakis. Phil.
Phil sat next to me and began his spiel, carefully distributing professional respect with equity around the table. When he noticed my Spiderman notebook, he told me about his twin two-year-old boys who loved Spiderman everything. He was nice to me.
When the subject of the food and non-alcoholic beverage revenue requirements came up, one of the lawyers on my right informed him that their corporation would be seeking a “nightclub” exemption for their venture. I told Phil that I too was seeking an exemption to the revenue requirement, but since the “nightclub” exemption was only possible in zoned specific areas downtown, I had sought out a location that met the other required geographical criteria that would allow me to sell as much booze as I wanted. When he told me that, after fifteen years as a liquor inspector, he was not aware of such an exemption, I simply recited the pertinent code word for word and even offered the reference number. I do not have an idetic memory, I was simply obsessed.
The smile he offered me then seemed to convey that I had found a magic ally to aid my quest, like running into the scarecrow on the yellow brick road. One of the businessmen chuckled and half-jokingly offered me a job. The amusing contrast of my antagonistic appearance with my casual eloquence was obviously playing well in this tiny room. I was beaming with the potential of eventual success and probably subconsciously, being validated by white men. I had passed through a gate. I left that initial meeting with an application that was, itself, nearly thirty pages in length, each detailing a different leg of the bureaucratic scavenger hunt I was now responsible for completing.
The next important task to begin would be writing a business plan. I called my mother first, who promptly Fed-exed me three different books on the subject. I also looked for templates on the internet. All of this research yielded mostly tips on how to make your plan “pop”. I hate that word used in that context. What I needed was practical step-by-step consultation. Someone told me about Women Venture, a non-profit established, in part, to help female entrepreneurs find funding for their projects. I had high hopes that such an institution had just been waiting for a project like mine. They had even been featured on Oprah who had donated boots to help women get into the construction industry.
This experience would be the first in a substantial list of bewildering experiences where a woman-run or woman-centered company or individual stunned me with disinterest, disorganization, or greedy self-importance. I was a butch woman opening a dyke bar. How much more vagina cred do I require for your assistance and solidarity? It happened with enough regularity that it began to be a source of private, probably offensive humor for me and Benny. It also began to slowly reveal our perceptions of who our people were, who we were really trying to open this bar for. Sometimes, being a lesbian or a gay or a groovy liberal feminist does not make you interesting and brave and insightful. Sometimes it just makes you an unimaginative, self-aggrandizing little punk.
Women Venture requires you to attend an introductory informational meeting. I think it cost $35. I eagerly attended. Surrounded by images of Oprah, they wasted an hour of my time encouraging me to indulge in one of their spa retreats, which would not only provide necessary, relaxing ‘me’ time, but would allow me to network with other would-be professionals. Not one useful word was uttered. After the meeting, I cornered the facilitator, asking if there were people there that could help me write a business plan, or if there were classes, or if they could talk to me about what banks required or how did people get grants from them. She actually seemed confused by my determination to open my own business, which, in turn, confused and angered me. She awkwardly helped me make an appointment with one of their advisors for some individual consultation. This appointment yielded nothing but a “good job, you seem to be on the right track” and cost an additional $80.
I left their offices gape-faced and crazy-eyed, wondering what I was going to do next. Then, as I was walking out of the building, I noticed a small office with its door open. The sign on the door said something about the Small Business Administration. I knew from my online research that this organization had something to do with fostering small businesses. I poked my head in and saw an older man with distractingly bushy eyebrows watching the Price Is Right on a small portable TV sitting on the corner of his desk. I don’t recall the conversation that we had that first day, but turns out, not fifty feet from the offices of Woman Venture, housed in the very same building, the SBA had built a small satellite office and its sole purpose was to help people write business plans. They had free computers to use, with free business plan writing software, and a retired business owner and ex-city councilman would not only help you through the process for free, but take your completed plan home to read and provide free thoughtful feedback. Tom. Tom would also give you free coffee and sometimes doughnuts.
Suck it Women Venture. And Oprah, too. Just kidding Oprah. I’m scared of you like a Catholic school girl is scared of Jesus making her pregnant.
I hung out with Tom for endless hours at least twice a week for the next couple of months. Benny came with me once for support. He fidgeted like we forgot his Ritalin, but I think I just wanted to show him. I wanted someone to know what I was doing. I was writing mission statements and making up projected revenues and pretending I knew what repairs the building needed and how much it would cost and how much we would need for an ice machine and glassware and an initial liquor inventory. It was a lot like playing some ‘build-a-bar’ board game or Facebook app. Tom told me that it was all just guesses anyway. It was most important to promote your idea and yourself…two activities with which I am still quite uncomfortable.
Another theme established at this time was some kind of sick cosmic recurring cycle of facing the crushing disappointment of immanent failure quickly followed by the exhausting exultation of some sort of benevolent, serendipitous, magical intervention that cleared our path for at least the next short leg of our journey. Benny and I came to cautiously expect miracles, Pi miracles. We started to understand we were facilitating a project that was charmed. The business plan and the liquor license, at this early juncture, were my two big projects that loomed like circling dragons on the road between me and the portals of queer glory, but I had already gained the favor of two unlikely straight white male demi-wizards with conventional entrepreneurial powers. It was up to me to trudge forth with my canvas tote of hope.
Benny still had his other job at the coffee shop, but would still come to the bar whenever he wasn’t working. His to-do list was considerably more vague at this time. I had asked him to be my bar manager. We were a long way from having a bar to manage. It was still August at this point in the story. He busied himself throwing away less awesome leftovers from the previous business and demolishing any drywall that was stained with mold. There was also a long hallway of filthy, ancient bar carpet that was welded in place with an overabundance of old adhesive. At a pace of several inches a day, armed only with a 3″ rigid paint scraper, he steadfastly removed it all. I rented dumpster after dumpster.
All of these projects were happening simultaneously, along with a hundred other details I’ve forgotten, but I do recall a mere day or two after acquiring my liquor license application, barely two weeks into this endeavor, sitting on the steps of Benny’s Powderhorn duplex, I received an unsettling call from another emerging ally, Elena.
Elena was a regular at the coffee shop where Benny worked who flirted with me and Benny. On the surface, Elena was a powerhouse. At the time, she was the director of a nearby important Neighborhood Association, not Pi’s. She loved the intrigue and drama of City Hall and municipal politics and was really good at her job. She was also a hard femme who hadn’t fully explored this aspect of herself and was drawn to Benny and me, Benny for his earnest, and deceptively simple butchness, and me for my history of sexual recklessness and love of obscure 80’s R&B. We had always been friendly acquaintances, but with the initiation of the Pi Project, she gladly made herself our own consultant and City Hall mole.
Elena called to inform us that a prominent City Councilman had already heard about our liquor license application and had been rumored to say that under no circumstances would he ever allow us to get our license. Something about over his dead body, I don’t know. This news was initially confusing because the councilman in question was not only openly gay, but also represented a ward historically inhabited by Minneapolis’ own old school version of the Lesbian Mafia. These women were not the self-proclaimed Facebook Familia. They were the middle-aged lesbian feminists active in the 70’s who now held various respected leadership positions at non-profits, school boards, community organizations, and co-ops. They were all connected through past romances and grudges. Thankfully, Pi was in another councilman’s ward, but it still seemed like a big deal that a City Fucking Councilman had declared Pi anathema.
So, I freaked out a bit. I even called his office to try to talk to him, but was rejected. And then another emotion took over. I was sitting there on the stoop with Benny, asking him whether I should continue trying to open this bar or if I should run away to Hawaii with my new girlfriend and live in a hut on the beach. That fucking Benny face.
It made me want to be brave. It made me want to be not disappointing. My life suddenly turned into a cartoon with the appearance of an actual mustachio-twirling villain, who in real life, irrationally and prematurely, condemned our dreams with a mwah-ha-ha. I had no idea prior to this that anybody was actually taking me seriously. Thanks Councilman Oldtwink. Over the coming months, the circumstantial evidence would become overwhelming that he had some personal grudge against this endeavor and it just made me want to win.
I asked for an audience with my old boss from the co-op who happened to be one of the pillars of the older lesbian guard and had known this councilman when he was still a Woman Studies major at the U. At our meeting, she, of course, expressed concerned about the riskiness of my venture and the fragility of my mental state, but also obliquely intimated that she would ‘make inquiries on my behalf’. I have no idea if any backstage blackmail phonetree actually took place, but I had the feeling that some kind of torch-passing blessing had occurred.
I was now aware that people knew what I was doing. The hornet’s nest had been kicked. Everyone started to transition into allies or enemies. I began to understand that there was more at stake than my personal need for redemption.
Obsession is necessarily melodramatic. One end of the line distinguishing poetic from creepy is clenched in the teeth of the obsessed, the other is held by the people you imagine are watching you. The plausibility of real-world benefit from your compulsive visions is determined by the quality of your hustle. I had serious game just then. I made myself mayor of the Island of Misfit Queers and people were starting to encourage me in real life. I imagined it was like those kids running behind Rocky in Rocky II. A good training montage is a worthy spirituality.