By Tim Murphy
(This piece originally appeared in September of 2008)
It's nearly midnight on a Thursday in late July at Julius', New York City's oldest gay pub'turned'newest gay hipster hangout, and I'm down at the blunt end of the crowded bar with the longtimers: Richard, Kevin, and Tom. Richard Keat, a former World War II Air Force pilot, manufacturer, and (by many accounts) great beauty, won't tell me how old he is, but I've heard that he's had $1 million worth of plastic surgery. Kevin, a stout, sweet-natured former Social Security worker from Queens, says he's been coming to Julius' since 1965, when he was in high school. Tom Bernardin, tall and garrulous, moved to New York out of college in 1971 and gives tours of Ellis Island.
I ask the guys how they feel about the 100 or so gay men (and sprinkling of women and trans folk) -- most anywhere from their mid 20s to mid 40s and of the arty hipster persuasion (facial fuzz, partially shaved heads, eye glitter, droopy tank tops) -- packing the place and bobbing their heads to DJ-spun classic rock and '70s AM-radio pop. It's a most unusual sight at Julius', where on a good night a few dozen men hunch rather broodingly around the bar, like figures in a grizzled gay version of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, while watching a Yankees game and eating the greasy-delicious $4 burgers Julius' is famous for.
'I think it's just fine, but I'm glad it's only once in a while,' says Richard, glancing around the bar's scarred, ancient dark-wood landscape. The place looks more like an old Irish whiskey joint than a glossy gay bar, with its beer barrel stools, wagon wheel chandeliers, burger grill aroma, and (packing every square inch of wall space) dust-covered photos of everyone from 1930s jazz chanteuses to countless deceased patrons.
Does Kevin like the crowd? 'It's OK,' he says. 'Usually it's empty.' And all the new faces? 'They're nice to look at -- cute, friendly. The music's a little too loud, but I can deal with it.'
'This is what it was like in the late '70s,' says Tom. 'Not quite this crowded or noisy. But this is great -- it's rejuvenating the place.' He wasn't planning to stay this late, I remind him. 'You gonna shoot me?' he asks.
Richard, Kevin, and Tom kind of sum up the response of Julius' ever-thinning old guard to Mattachine, the monthly party thrown here by the actor-director-DJ John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and his performer-DJ friends PJ DeBoy and Amber Martin. Since its kickoff in February, the party, which announces its dates via a private e-mail blast, has attained a quiet cult status within a certain arty genderfuck circle, attracting everyone from Justin Bond (of drag cabaret duo Kiki & Herb), actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Scissor Sister Jake Shears to Radical Faeries and 20-something art-heads from Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Yet all comers share a conviction that old gay bars, the old gay men who frequent them, and gay history in general are to be embraced rather than shunned, especially at a time when gentrification is effacing New York's broader history and when gay life is leeching ever more into the mainstream.