The first place I rented in Washington, DC, was Hartnett Hall. This was in the spring of 1975, in the DuPont Circle neighborhood. The hall was an aggregation of 19th Century townhouses, nearly half a city block long, whose once-spacious interiors had been walled off into single rooms, shared bathroom down the hall. Each entrance, up formal front steps and through a stylish doorway, led to a hall and stairway with eight or ten one-room units over three floors. The common dining area and office were around the corner on P Street, NW. The repurposing of those once-grand homes dated back to World War II, when the city nearly doubled in population every couple of years as it geared up to execute the war effort. The tenants were a mix of young men like myself – strictly no women allowed – hopeful new arrivals to town, eager to test ourselves. A few may have seen themselves as destined for greatness. I remember only needing a plan, and being unclear what it was. A few older men lived there, too, men who never managed to forge the life they had come for. Some never had a chance from the start, really, defeated by Jim Crow or the tyranny of conformity. They were settled into lives cobbled together with varied amounts of contentment or resignation, and they were living out their days. They would, if asked, show you the routine of hall life, but they remained diffident. At least they did so with me.
It was an outdated housing model, one that served gold-rush towns a century earlier and a continent away to the west. But a half-century ago, Washington was its own kind of gold-rush town – sleepy and provincial for the most part, with a high-stakes political arena at its core. I suppose in some sense, DC is still a goldrush town. Politics, mostly, but – even in the era I arrived – burgeoning finance, medicine and international NGO sectors.
My room had a wash-stand, dresser, lamp and single bed. The window overlooked leafy 21st Street, lined up and down both curbs with cars parked nose-to-tail all day and all night, the rare open space never empty for long. Room-and-board was due every Saturday, payable in cash or by check. The dining staff served breakfast and evening dinners only, Sundays through Fridays. Most of the help in the kitchen were older Black women who barked and bantered as they ladled grits and bacon or “smothered” pork chops, collard greens and macaroni and cheese onto the trays queued in front of them. That rich, heavy food and blunt camaraderie were my exuberant introduction to the pleasures of Southern living that would nourish me for many years.
DuPont Circle exuded a bohemian air. Today the neighborhood is upscale and gentrified, home only to those who can afford astonishingly high rents or mortgages. Then it offered small shops that sold foreign-language newspapers, Japanese products or marijuana paraphernalia. A couple of cafeterias cultivated a gritty clientele by advertising their leftist political predilections. Mr. P’s, on P Street, self-identified as a gay bar, well before rainbow flags ever flew over anyone’s doors. The idea of a place publicly catering to homosexuals was novel, only a few years after the Stonewall riots. In buttoned-down Washington. The fear of harassment from a belligerent patron or a police raid always hung in the air. It was a dark and sour-smelling space. Most of the clientele postured disinterest. Surliness often came with the bar service, too. The floors and walls had accrued the odor and patina of hard, indifferent use. The décor reinforced the sense that “ours is a seedy mission,” and the ambiance telegraphed that everything was attenuated, everything spoken in code. Standard dress included Frye boots, faded denim and plaid flannel. Color-coded bandanas in back-hip pockets signaled one’s sexual preferences. I never learned the codes, but the possibilities made me nervous. I often came in clad in Izod shirts and pleated pants. I knew I was pegged as a tourist, a curiosity seeker. Not gay enough.
But I sought the company of gay men. I was in my late 20s and had lived a nearly celibate life theretofore, notwithstanding a failed romance, years earlier, and the odd attempt to find love where it wasn’t really on offer. So I screwed up my courage, suppressed my fear of public scorn, and ducked in from the street. Once inside, I would sit self-consciously on a bar stool or stand by the shallow rail along the wall meant to hold drinks. Oddly, no one ever sat at a table in Mr. P’s. I would busy myself with one of the newspapers stacked near the door – Out or The Washington Blade – and try to read in the semi-darkness meant to encourage anonymity. Most everyone was equally ill-at-ease. I can’t remember any interesting conversations held under those circumstances. I braced myself on exiting as well, eager to be several paces down P Street before anyone might notice from whence I had emerged.
I was more comfortable at the Ben Bow. It was harder to categorize. On its surface, a neighborhood bar, quite down-scale, even for that neighborhood. A dive, really. A gin mill during the day. At times it was also a cruising place for gays – both Black and white. Its battered door slammed shut behind you when you pushed your way in. A counter with a few stools ran the length of the short front bar, lit from a window running the width of the façade, mullioned panes reaching up to the pressed-tin ceiling. A series of individual block letters were strung over the bar, spaced apart, each in a dark wood frame, that spelled out E N J O Y L I F E. A large jukebox blared out the odd playlist: Bette Midler’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and Elton John’s Benny and the Jets were in frequent rotation. Clientele didn’t so much vary as cycle through by type, according to the hour of the day and the day of the week. The owner, Ellen, was originally from Gort, a County Galway town. Her default mood was annoyance, and she never welcomed familiarity from her customers. I don’t remember a single drink offered on the house, even in those days of 25-cent beer glasses. I was never clear whether she was an Irish expat or an Irish fugitive. She always talked about going home to visit, but she never did, as far as I knew.
Ellen employed a couple of other barkeepers, drinkers themselves, who, after a certain hour in the evening, poured out their personal discontents along with shots and pitchers of watery beer. Friday nights were the main event. Everyone came ready to blow off steam, even the patrons who hadn’t worked all week, who never held a steady job beyond patrolling the margins of the neighborhood, turning their hand to whatever looked like it might pay off. It was not uncommon to have strangers help themselves to a glass of beer from your pitcher, or someone offer odd bits of merchandise at prices never referred to as “a steal”. I had friends from Georgetown and Glover Park who would meet me there. They seemed to find the general chaos amusing. It was their way of slumming it, even if many lost interest once the novelty wore off.
There were also the friends I made at the Ben Bow itself: New York, Charles, Black Ronnie, Little Ronnie and a parade of others whom I’ve forgotten. New York, his frizzy afro picked out into a spiky, uneven crown, carried a walkie-talkie that had enough battery life to snarl out static but that communicated with no one. He would press his speaker button and announce into it, “This is Walking Dog. This is Walking Dog. Over.” He didn’t wait for the response that would never come. Charles was a sallow, middle-aged man with a broken spirit, constantly spitting out loose tobacco from the unfiltered cigarette on his lip. He preferred to stake out a stool at the front bar, where he sat in a slump, propped on an elbow, his sadness buffering the swirl of agendas surrounding him. Occasionally a fight broke out, a body was thrown against the jukebox, and Elton John’s wail would be interrupted by the sk-sk-sk-sk-sk of a stylus slipping from its groove. Innumerable rounds of beer and bourbon cast a blurred connectedness over the comings and goings.
I remember many nights in the Ben Bow, and I forget even more. One night I remember in particular was the Friday I sat alone in a booth, after my friends went off to find their cars on the back streets off Connecticut Avenue. It was the first night I saw Louis come through the door. He was with a group of other Black guys who stopped in to see what was up, maybe drink a quick round, punch something into the jukebox, then head off somewhere else, somewhere different. I had taken a couple of Jim Beams by then. That may be why, when I saw Louis, I unguardedly let my eyebrows arc. A silent acknowledgment. Or provocation. Either way, Louis noticed. Soon enough, his friends were ready to leave, and Louis wasn’t. I don’t remember each of the subsequent exchanges that evening, but things moved forthrightly. I certainly remember Louis in my narrow bed later that night, the street lamp casting a dark sheen on his smooth haunches, the smell of coconut oil on him, his inky-black irises rimmed in white. His ease, afterward, with what could have been awkward. Our reticence to say much about what had taken place, or to move out of post-coital comfort. The furtive goodbye at the room’s small door, the hand-signaled admonishment to be quiet on the way out, our determination to awaken none of the others asleep in Harnett Hall.