The local bar has been a gathering spot for decades. In 1945 the popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern had the tag line, “Where the elite meet to eat,” which was echoed in the 1980s by the popular TV series Cheers with its famous tag line, “Where everybody knows your name.”
I was born in 1932 during the Great Depression. My parents owned a narrow brownstone on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. Our home was just a few steps away from the legendary White Horse Tavern. As a kid I spent many happy hours listening to the poets and folk singers express their views in speech and song. That might be one reason I’m looking back now at how the biker bar slowly evolved into the leather bar, an evolution I witnessed and am still here to testify about.
In 1950 I graduated high school and headed for California. The journey took several months since I stopped off in various places along the way to sample the lifestyles of my fellow Americans. In Texas I worked on a cattle ranch for two months, and in Arizona I got a job in a local diner as a short-order cook even though I’d never cooked anything in my life. The experience from both jobs served me well when I got to Los Angeles.
My first step into a biker bar was on the fringe of Los Angeles. I have long forgotten the name of the place, but what lingers in my memory is the jukebox, which was like no other I had ever seen. You put your dime in the slot, and a live, sultry-voiced “spinner” took your request and played the tune. You could even send requests to other bars that had a similar jukebox. This was my first biker bar but not my last.
Aside from that unusual entertainment and the motorcycles parked outside, the bar was like every other bar, tavern, and saloon I had ever been in. The smell, the lighting, and the laughter were universal. Some had sawdust on the floor while others had peanut shells, but those are minor differences. Looking back, the main ingredient was always the spirit, the camaraderie of the patrons.
At the end of World War II, many of the returning GIs did not go back to their original homes and previous lives. Instead, they built new lives based on riding motorcycles and hanging out with their buddies. In the early years it didn’t seem to matter what your sexual preferences were when groups of friends hooked up and rode together. It was the wind in their faces, not their sexual tastes, that united them. The freedom of the open road was intoxicating, and it was usually topped off with beers together at a bar afterwards.
I bought my first bike, a brand new Indian, from a local war-surplus store for $25. I loved that bike and treasure the memories associated with it. I bought another one when I came back to New York in 1952. There was a certain joy and air of expectation every time I parked alongside another bike outside a bar.
In 1950, most bars were for men only, so it was not unusual to see one crowded with guys drinking and enjoying one another’s company. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between a straight biker bar and a gay one. It could be hard to tell even in less “butch” establishments, which might be straight during the day and turn gay at night.
New York back then had a great many gay bars of all kinds. Two of my favorites were on Third Avenue under the darkness of the elevated railroad, affectionately called “The El”: one was The Lodge, just across the street from the now famous P. J. Clark’s, and the other Shaw’s, a few blocks away. Both were on the ground floors of narrow buildings like others that lined the street. Half the width was taken up by the bar itself, with the other half for the patrons. On a busy Saturday night each place resembled an overcrowded bus, and getting from one end to another was often a sexual experience. The bikes lining the cobblestone streets outside were both an invitation and a warning.
Back then, all the gay hangouts in New York were owned and operated by straights. Whether they liked us or not, the owners realized that gay men were good business — the bars and clubs were packed seven nights a week. Since the law required bars to provide food, they often offered free meals or brunches, and the clever biker could eat free all week.
In the early days there wasn’t much leather available, but by the mid-1960s more and more leather shops opened to sell clothing and fetish gear. Before then, guys (and gals) into kinky sex either improvised or adapted gear purchased at riding shops. New York had two of these, Miller’s and Kauffman’s, within a block of each other on East 24th Street. On Saturday afternoons they were often filled with the same people we’d hung out with in the bars the night before.
In those early postwar years, a kind of innocence permeated the nation. Gay life was unknown to most of the population, so gay men went unrecognized unless their behavior was too extreme. This innocence extended even to presumably sophisticated publications such as The New York Times, which often published personal ads like “Novice seeks leather master craftsman for instruction.”
But that innocence was short lived — McCarthyism and the Korean War spread paranoia and fear across the land. Each new decade brought more changes, some good and some not so good.
As a kid I used to listen to my grandparents talk about “the good old days,” and I always thought their nostalgia was more about their lost youth than about the places and events they remembered. But now that I’m in my 80s, I understand that it actually was about the places and events. Now when I look back to those early years of the biker bar, I think of them as my good old days. I don’t believe they were always better than what we have today, but they were certainly different.
Perhaps it was because most of the men in the bars had been in the military and understood the importance of a buddy — a comrade. Of course, there was the usual cruising and hook-ups, but that seldom seemed the main ingredient of an evening. A new face was not viewed as a possible trick so much as a potential new member of the group. And on the other side of the coin, someone who was clearly a tourist or wannabe was often tossed out into the street to the sound of cheers and laughter.
Local bars have always been neighborhood melting pots and levelers. For example, in English pubs a lorry driver can stand beside a barrister as both enjoy a pint. The American biker bar was the same, because many of us led very different lives by day. The scruffy guy you picked up at midnight might turn into a doctor, a lawyer, or a hairdresser in the morning.
Times and styles changed over the decades, but until recently the leather bar, the biker bar’s descendant, was still a social proving ground. You went there to meet like-minded friends and enjoy pleasures ranging from free peanuts, TVs showing porn videos, and a pool table to a dance floor, go-go boys, dark corners for sex, or a patio where smokers could gather. The bar was a home base for bike clubs and sometimes a venue for activist meetings or a fun contest.
Today it seems that in more and more places the leather bar, like the gay biker bar before it, is going the way of so many extinct species, done in by rising real-estate values and the seduction of the Internet. Soon it may be only a memory cherished by those who lived through one or more decades of its rise and fall.
This book celebrates the good times.
Home for BIKER BAR