A Lesson From Sam
I moved to San Francisco in June 1995.
By mere coincidence, the weekend I arrived was Gay Pride weekend. My first few days there were a giddy explosion of parties, marches, parades, fireworks and an endless stream of smiling, attractive men who were all hands.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
That Sunday night, I made my first visit to San Francisco's legendary nightclub, Pleasuredome, a place where I would spend many nights over the next six years. Pleasuredome would become my disco home, my emotional oasis, my sweet refuge, where I would dance and hug my friends and laugh all night long.
It was a place populated by men of a certain age, who wouldn't necessarily be welcome on the dance floors of most gay bars. A place where age and race and gender and body type seemed to be far less important to the other patrons, compared to most gay clubs, just so long as you were there to dance.
Because Pleasuredome was a dance club. Oh sure, there was cruising and flirting and hooking up, but the overriding interest of the patrons was the music, and only slightly less importantly, the DJs. The only place I've been to that came close to resembling the transcendent vibe of Pleasuredome was New York's Body & Soul. Sadly, both clubs now only live in the fond memories of the dancers, both venues now victims to rampant gentrification of formerly crappy neighborhoods.
So there I stood that first Sunday night, unaware that this rather unadorned big boxy room would become a true emotional salvation for me in years to come. At the main circular bar in the middle of room, I took position, lavishly attended to by a crinkly eyed bartender who took my hands and held them, when I was paying for my first drink.
"Happy Pride, hon! You here from outta town?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I just moved here. Yesterday!" I said proudly.
"Well, welcome to paradise! I'm Barry. You married, hon?" he smiled.
"No. I -"
Barry cut me off, shouting over the music and looking around, "Fresh meat! We got some fresh meat here boys!"
Nobody heard him over the music, but I was still a little embarrassed. Barry laughed at my squirming and leaned over the bar again, "What's your name?"
"OK, Joey. Hang out with me and I'll introduce you to some boys!"
And I did hang around, occasionally drifting off to watch the dancers or stand in the endless restroom line, but always returning to watch Barry perform. And he was a performer. Familiar customers, and there were plenty, were greeted with a shout and hug. Occasionally, he'd be overcome by a particular moment in the music and would stop to wave his hands in the air. I could tell that he was much beloved by the clientele. Other bartenders were less busy, but lots of the customers would rather wait in line for a moment of Barry's beaming attention.
About an hour after I arrived, I noticed Barry giving his (now familiar to me) hoot-n-hug to a handsome Asian man. I saw them look over, the guy nodded, and they both came over to me.
"Joey, this is Sammy. He's a lot of fun and he's all by himself tonight," Barry said, taking my hand and giving it to Sammy.
Sammy shook my hand and smiled, "Hey Joey!"
Barry moved back to his station and I said, "Actually, it's just Joe."
"And I'm just Sam, Barry's a trip, huh?"
"That he is. The customers seem to love him, though."
"Oh yeah, big time! He's been around forever here in SF."
Sam and I hung out together at Barry's bar for a long time. We talked about jobs, apartments, neighborhoods. We had a great time and were getting very comfortable with each other. He pointed out different local club celebrities that sailed past us and provided a hilarious running commentary on them, including some delicious gossip. That lead us to talking about nightclub culture in the various cities around the country. Sam was very interested in South Beach, where he'd never been.
"So, the guys there are totally hot right? That's what I've always heard," he said.
"Oh, I don't know. There's a lot of really hot guys here too."
"Really? Compared to South Beach? C'mon!" Sam said, unconvinced.
I looked around the room. At that moment we were in the epicenter of a huge swirling group of shirtless guys, hands all over each other, all nodding to the music.
"Yeah, I'd say this place compares. Yeah, definitely, " I said.
"I have a feeling I'd be pretty invisible down there."
"Dude! You're totally ripped, you're good-looking and all that, you'd have to beat 'em off with a stick!" I giggled, hearing my pun a second too late.
Sam laughed too and I went further, "In fact, pardon me for mentioning it, but you probably could totally rule down there because there's hardly any other Oriental guys."
At that moment, if we were in a John Hughes teen movie, the DJ would have ripped the needle across the record and someone would have dropped their drink. The smile on Sam's face froze, then slowly faded. He regarded me for a long moment, then placed his beer bottle on a napkin, carefully centering it before looking back at me. For a second, it seemed like he was going to walk away.
"Joe, I'm gonna give you a break because I know you just moved here. "
I felt my face flush, I knew I'd fucked up by mentioning Sam's ethnicity, but how? "OK...," I said, apprehensively.
Sam put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me close, speaking in my ear, "Joe...Oriental is a style of design, like furniture. But people, Joe.....PEOPLE are Asian."
Sam laughed at my obvious discomfort. Before I started to stammer out an apology, he pulled me in for a hug and said, "It's all good bro, everyone gets a free one. That was yours. Don't forget it."
And I haven't.