Location, Location, Location
Many of us have had a favorite gay bar. The “Brook” was not mine. Nevertheless, when I heard that it was closing, I felt a tug at my heartstrings.
The most unique feature of the Cedar Brook Café in Westport, Connecticut, back in the mid to late 1960s, was its location. At the time, the state police barracks was right across the Boston Post Road. I always wondered whether that made the bar more of a target or offered it a tacit protection based on proximity. Of course, staying in business for 71 years also attests to the civility of Westport, one of the richest towns in what has sometimes held the title of the richest region in America, Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Before The Brook, I’d only gone to gay bars in New York City. Compared to their tight spaces and tiny dance floors, the Brook was a barn. The bar side of the building was long and deep. The dance floor was wide. Out back was a patio. The concept of gay people getting together outdoors right there on the Post Road was startling to me in those pre-Stonewall days. I wondered what the neighbors behind the Brook thought.
As college kids, we used to joke about the aged pickup trucks in the parking lot. I don’t know if this was true or if we made up stories about gay men and women, fresh off the farm, hopping from the backs of pickups and brushing hay off their pants. Queers came from the farms, the housing projects, fancy houses and probably a few state troopers found their way across the street over the years.
I had a fever for gay bars in those days. Not that I ever talked to anyone but whoever I arrived with. Maybe we’d do a little verboten making out. Gay bars were for being with our own kind, for holding hands and dancing among other dykes and gay men. They were for looking at one another and looking for someone to love, for drowning our sorrows and celebrating our special times: graduations, birthdays, one-week anniversaries. As pitiful as gay bars could be then—with their crooked money, their straight voyeurs, a culture of all-alcohol-all-the-time, their social imperatives like smoking and unsafe sex, I doubt that my great Aunt Jo had anyplace remotely like the Brook to take her “best friend.”
The Brook wasn’t just for young, white men either. It drew anyone who could get a ride. We might have made fun of the hicks, but they were just part of the mix. This was gay territory and our bars were true melting pots. The democracy at the Brook might have sometimes been uneasy, but as far as I know, anyone with the price of the cover was welcome, and the cover wasn’t very pricey. It was also pretty easy to get in with fake I.D. if you happened to be under 21. It was almost as if, in moneyed, educated Westport, there was a kind of respect shown to the Brook and its clientele. As if the majority straight population deemed it appropriate for us to have a teeny bit of space in their world. They left us alone and as a consequence, we had somewhere to go.
I had just about bought my first car, which would have allowed me more access to the Brook, when American gays and feminists found our voices. Like mushrooms in fertile soil, we pierced through the silence and hiding. There were women’s dances and gay meetings and protests and collectives and food co-ops and concerts and festivals and conferences. Who had time to go to the Brook? Who wanted to spend an evening with a girlfriend in a smoky fortress with dirty toilets when you could spend the night on a bus headed to a march on Washington? Meet your friends at a feminist-vegetarian restaurant? Go to a reading of lesbian poetry at a newly out dyke’s apartment?
Well, me for one. Yesterday, my friend Tex was telling me stories of her bar days in San Antonio, Houston, and wild Galveston. There was a pride in her voice about flouting the rules, about defying het society and about risking everything to be with our people. She said she felt daring and invincible. There was a unique camaraderie in those dreary bars. You didn’t have to talk, or drink much, or ask women to dance. You just had to be there. Every chance you got.
Email Lee Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org.