"love this place, will miss it. Memories with Aaron, dance tunes and dancers.. laughing and lusting, and sometimes feeling like a diamond."
The quote was an anonymous comment left on the blog "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York" in response to a posting about a gay bar in Chelsea that'd been in operation since 1979, but would soon be closing due to a near-doubling of the rent.
I posted the text on Facebook on March 8 as part of a status update because I'm always impressed when just a few words, written by someone I've never met about a place I've never been, manage to elicit emotion from me. Those certainly did.
Though my post didn’t reference The Garage, a gay bar on Norfolk’s Granby Street that’d been in operation, largely uninterrupted, since July 4, 1986, the personal resonance of the words could be attributed to the fact that I had an image of it in my mind. That was the bar where, amidst its walls and ceilings (and until more recently, floors) as dark as coal, I had most often laughed and lusted, and had sometimes felt like a diamond.
Just a few weeks later, on March 29, I’d find it apropos to share the status update, having learned that morning, via Facebook, that The Garage would be closing its doors in just a couple of days, at the end of the month (although you should read the epilogue below to learn what really became of the place).
In ways good and bad, The Garage had played a pivotal role in helping to shape my notions of gay life when I first had an opportunity to really engage with gay life face-to-face, and it most certainly played a role in what I would term the wildest period of my adult life, which I concluded when the need for sleep and the need to not have a weekend hangover became larger priorities, amongst other reasons.
But my awareness of The Garage arrived long before I ever set foot in the place.
Back in the early ‘90s, when I was at home in Elizabeth City during summer and holiday breaks from attending college in a small town in NC that was four and a half hours distant, back in a time that preceded “Will & Grace,” Facebook, and a well-developed web that was readily accessible to most, in an era when print publications and landlines still ruled and you very much needed to visit a place to get a feel for it, rather than eyeballing it from afar via one’s computer, I can remember -- though barely so -- finding in the Hampton Roads phone directory a number for a gay information line.
If you dialed that number, you’d reach a recording that had a recitation of gay bars and related resources in Hampton Roads. I vaguely remember taking notes and being gripped by some mild degree of concern that my parents would ask about the charge when the phone bill arrived, because long distance actually cost money then, and I would not have been inclined to provide an entirely complete account of what was on the other end of those particular digits in the 804 area code, as that was well before Hampton Roads became the 757. As it were, I was still unsure at that point what label might apply to my sexual orientation, and I certainly had no interest in broaching with my parents a possibly-touchy subject I was still trying to sort out.
However, with the notes I’d made from the information shared by the recording, and the freedom to explore without a need to explain my whereabouts, I drove to Hampton Roads on a few occasions when I knew my parents would be out of town for the night or weekend. I hoped that, by observing the people heading into and out of the bars, I might figure out if I was one of them (though, by that point, I was fairly convinced that I was), and, if so, was there a place for me there. Indeed, when I’d set out, I don’t think I ever really had the intention of getting out of the car -- or at least not the expectation that I would, and sometimes, I’d not even stop outside the bars, instead merely driving past at a stately pace.
But I can recall, on one of these drives, attempting to find, in a strip shopping center on Virginia Beach Boulevard at N. Lynnhaven Road, what may have been a prior location of the Rainbow Cactus or the Ambush -- either that, I was in the wrong place entirely. Certainly, I never found there an establishment that was consistent with my notions of a gay bar. Of course, there were no smartphones to provide assistance then, and certainly none with GPS and a data connection.
I had better luck, though, when it came to locating The Garage downtown, and Nutty Buddy’s on East Little Creek Rd. in Ward’s Corner. I remember parking on Granby Street in the case of the former, and in the parking lot behind the building in the case of the latter, and just watching for a bit the people who came and went.
However, years later, I would find myself not just an occasional visitor of Hampton Roads, but a resident. By that point, I’d come to be not only quite confident that “gay” was the appropriate label, but to have arrived at a certain amount of peace with the idea. Still, though, my real-world gay experience was almost zero.
From what little I recall of my plan, I had intentions of volunteering for Our Own, the local gay newspaper I found quite impressive. That was my chosen path for avoiding bars, but still meeting gay folks. However, after what had been many years of publication, the newspaper folded before I could ever put that plan into action.
It would appear, then, that if I wanted to meet gay people, I could avoid the gay bars no longer, could avoid no longer possibly finding out that no one had any interest at all in my presence, particularly physically.
Of course, there were preparations to be made. For one, I’d procured contact lenses after wearing glasses almost my entire life. And I ordered the sort of attire I thought I should don: a few selections from International Male, whose catalog had somehow made its way to my awareness and helped shape my ideas of how I should present myself in a gay bar. (Now, though, I can just barely escape blushing at the thought of you knowing that International Male was my go-to source for a time, even for clothing I intended to wear only after dark.)
And even before moving to Hampton Roads, I’d begun losing weight. In fact, I lost weight for nearly the entirety of 1998 and into early 1999. That was something that needed to happen anyway, but in magazines a friend had given me, and in what I was seeing on the web as accessed via a dial-up EarthLink connection, I couldn’t help but see, quite a few times, personal ads noting that neither “fats” nor “fems” were particularly welcome. While I wasn’t quite sure what standard would be applied to result in one being labeled “fem,” I was definitely fat, and I was devastated to think my dating opportunities had been reduced to zero before I even began.
Certainly, the “no fats, no fems” specification was in my mind when I did a drive-by of The Garage as a resident of the region.
More specifically, I recall driving down Granby Street and observing a man whose muscularity and size would qualify him as a superhero in most comics. As it were, he was crossing the street and heading toward the door, and I recall laughing aloud, thinking that if all the men in The Garage resembled that, I probably stood no chance whatsoever. However, I was definitely no longer fat. Indeed, I needed the small sizes International Male offered that were otherwise hard to find.
Still, whether or not I would find myself classified as “fem” remained somewhat of an unanswered question, though given the number of times I’d been called “faggot,” and derivations thereof, in my teenage years, before I really knew what the word meant, I had my suspicions. Certainly, though, I could discern that it was not intended as a compliment.
Ultimately, the plan I hatched for my Hampton Roads bar debut was to drive to White House Cafe/Private Eyes on Norfolk’s West York St. -- a place that now lies underneath the Belmont at Freemason apartment complex and/or the light rail stop in that vicinity -- have a drink or two, and then walk over to The Garage.
Although The Garage, for whatever reason, was where I actually wanted to be, I found the idea of Private Eyes less intimidating as a venue at which to begin my evening. Still, wanting to reduce uncertainty as much as possible, in the time leading up to what I think was probably a Saturday night outing, I’d phoned Andi, a friend from college, to ask her what drink I might order when I went out, knowing the question would be inevitable and not wanting to embarrass myself. Although I had imbibed during my last year and a half or so of college, I tended to consume what happened to be there and didn’t necessarily know the names of many drinks. As it were, though, Andi proposed a Tequila Sunrise, and the die was cast. I clung to that bit of knowledge so that at least I’d know the answer to one question and I could deploy it when needed. And, in fact, I did order one or two Tequila Sunrises at Private Eyes, a place where I was largely ignored. That, of course, did not ease my concerns about my possible reception at The Garage, where it seems I thought I’d be even less desirable, but I did not get to explore that that night.
Whether I was so naive as not to know when last call was, or whether I simply delayed as long as possible walking out of Private Eyes and toward the Garage has been lost to me now, about 14 years later. However, when I reached the Garage on foot, I found the door locked.
Whether I then tried again the next weekend, or waited for two weekends to elapse, is not a recollection I’ve retained, but on what I think may have been a Friday night, I headed back to Norfolk and directly to The Garage. While I’m left to suppose, in the absence of a specific memory, both that it took me quite some time to disembark from the car after arriving on Granby Street and that my heart was probably about to pound through my ribcage and my inexpensively-made, overpriced, and form-fitting International Male shirt, what I do recollect is that, upon drawing open the door of The Garage and stepping across the threshold, I wanted almost immediately to turn around and step back onto the sidewalk. However, for the sake of saving face, I decided I’d resist that urge and stay five minutes to preclude my looking quite so spineless.
Still, something about the darkness of the space -- and the dark’s ability to accentuate the tunnel-like qualities of an area that is much longer than it is wide -- combined with the presence of the throng of men at the bar to intimidate me. Of course, some of the men turned to observe the new face, and I was terribly uncomfortable with the scrutiny I thought, perhaps errantly, I was receiving.
However, a strange thing happened, something that had not transpired at Private Eyes: someone (and perhaps more than one someone) began talking to me.
While I can’t tell you today if I ever summoned the courage that night to make it past the second doorway -- a doorway that lead to the significantly larger back bar area and that almost always gave one the feeling, as one passed through it, that one was making a second entrance, an entrance that incited another round of butterflies as one came into view of another and usually more numerous group of patrons -- I can tell you that I stayed significantly longer than five minutes.
And during the next several years, scarcely a weekend would elapse that I didn’t go to The Garage. At the zenith of my gay-bar-going life, I was there on both Friday and Saturday nights. In fact, even during the relatively short period of time Norfolk had The Metro, The Garage remained in my -- and many others’ -- rotation.
Of the local bars I visited on any regular basis, The Garage was, on the whole, less loud, more conversation-focused, and more likely to be a place where I’d see someone I knew or in which a stranger would talk with me. And without a doubt, I had many conversations there I'd not otherwise have had, and climbed upon many bar stools that would otherwise have remained unscaled (by me, at least).
It also happened to be the place where I first made out with a guy.
Though I would later come to miss some of the conversation and the chance to occasionally be found physically appealing by someone who was standing face-to-face with me, rather than merely examining online pixels representing me and possibly projecting onto my photo and profile qualities or traits I didn’t possess, after quite a few years of regular patronage of The Garage, I drifted away from going out at all. This I’d attribute to a variety of factors, including my body’s unwillingness to spot me a few hours of sleep in the morning to compensate for those stolen from the night (which, of course, was less of a problem when I was younger), the fact that gay friends moved away, got into relationships, or otherwise gave up regular flirtations with nightlife, and my realization that there was a far greater certainty that my night would conclude with a bar tab, rather than with time with a man who might wish to have and to hold from this day forward, or even to date seriously, for that matter.
In fact, in the last couple of years or more, I’d gone to The Garage only twice: Once to keep the fun going after Out in the Park 2012 and for the adventure of taking a straight friend who’d never before been (she, coincidentally, also wanted quite quickly to bolt, being overwhelmed by the amount of testosterone almost undiluted by the presence of any women -- until she realized the men had absolutely no interest in her, at which point she was fine), and then again this past March 30th, which was purported to be the bar’s last Saturday night in operation. As it were, I wanted to say farewell before the place closed, and was delighted to be joined by a couple of straight friends who were kind enough to accompany me that night. One of them had heard some of my stories about the place and had previously expressed an interest in seeing it, but had never been. So, I wanted to introduce her to it before there was no longer an opportunity to do so. (I’ll note that she was unintimidated, even from the outset.)
All that said, I think it's fair to assert that The Garage was a fixture in the community for much longer than I knew of its existence, and I appreciate that it unabashedly was what it was -- a gay bar -- which was likely not always the easiest route. In so doing, it provided, over the years, a safe space for so many people to be themselves in a place other than within the walls of their home.
Most garages are notable only for housing the car that then transports one somewhere else, but this Garage was somewhere else. It was a destination, its entrance a portal to another world.
Farewell, then, to an icon and a place that, if you were local and gay, even if you hadn't been there, you'd at least heard of it.
May it be that we all find our place to sparkle, laugh, lust, and, hopefully, to love.
The Garage, Gay Bar, Norfolk, VA | Photographed May 3, 2014
Epilogue (updated May 3, 2014): Looking around at the plethora of people who turned out for The Garage’s “last” Saturday night, I quipped that perhaps, in the vein of certain area-rug shops, the bar should perpetually go out of business to boost attendance. Interestingly, by the time I’d finished a first draft of this piece, which was on a Wednesday, the third day after the bar’s closure on Sunday, there were already signs that the bar might stir to life once more. Posts on the Garage Norfolk Facebook page indicated that the bar would be reopening soon, and the cover photo that had announced, tombstone-like, the week of closing activities eventually vanished, like the description of the bar itself.
The comments that then began to ripple across Facebook expressed confusion on the part of longtime patrons who, like me, had believed the assertion that March 31, 2013 was The Garage’s last day of operation. I likewise saw posts by at least one individual employed by the bar up to and during its concluding week that said he was similarly unaware that any type of reopening was anticipated soon after the March 31 closing.
In any event, though, from browsing the Garage Norfolk Facebook page, it became apparent that the bar was closed for only about a week. Judging from the posts on the page, it appears the bar effectuated a fairly significant overhaul of staffing and entertainment, somewhat akin to a format-change at a radio station. And as with those format-changes, you can still find The Garage at the same spot on the dial, and while even the name is the same, whether the new groove makes you move and feel like the old groove did remains to be seen.
A version of this piece was originally published by AltDaily.com on April 30, 2013.