Tender(loin) is the Night

8.13.2014

By Jeremy Lybarger

The stars of San Francisco drag’s gritty frontier, in their own words

Photography by James Hosking | Pictured: Collette LeGrande

It’s midnight at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge and everyone is drunk. The drag show is deep into its last act. Against the mirrored wall, two men in the audience, enmeshed like iguanas, sing to each other. A man in a pith helmet creeps down the bar’s narrow aisle and presents his dollar tip delicately, as if it were a corsage. Five bachelorettes steeped in crantinis caterwaul each time a queen emerges from the curtain: “She’s hot! She’s fucking perfect!” In the bar’s pink neon, faces are exultant and overripe.

Maybe because Aunt Charlie’s is windowless, it’s easy to forget that it’s about 200 feet from the most dangerous block in San Francisco. If you stand outside and look east, toward the intersection of Turk and Taylor, you’ll see a Shangri-la of residential hotels — the Warfield, the Winston Arms, the Dalt — a former porn theater, a fenced parking lot, and across from that, 21 Club, a dive bar that’s like flypaper for the neighborhood’s junkies, pimps, and dealers. The air is electric with need. Bent silhouettes shuffle down the street, heads down, dowsing for crack or meth. Hookers clip-clop back and forth like trick ponies. The sidewalk is a thoroughfare for homeless people piloting shopping carts or shouldering trash bags. Every 20 feet, there’s a puddle of urine or asterisk of shit.

This is the Tenderloin. Crime rates here are 35 times higher than anywhere else in the city. But inside Aunt Charlie’s — which is long and low-ceilinged and as warm as a throat — there’s the serenity of cheap booze. It’s the last gay bar in the neighborhood and a favorite watering hole for men from nearby SROs and rent-controlled apartments. There’s Cowboy Bob in his big white Stetson; bug-eyed Eddie swaying to the jukebox; Jerry, a cigar store Indian come to life. By 9 p.m., most of the regulars have rotated out for the prime-time crowd there for the drag show.

That there even is a drag show is ludicrous. I’ve been in shuttle buses bigger than Aunt Charlie’s. There is no stage, just a clearing at the back where tables are wedged against the wall. A spotlight hangs from the ceiling, along with a disco ball and strands of bedraggled Christmas lights. There is wall-to-wall carpeting. For a couple of years there was a fog machine that emitted mace-like smog, but now the bar’s only atmospheric disturbances are weed (which the queens smoke by the kilo backstage), disinfectant, and body odor.

SLIDESHOW | MEET SAN FRANCISCO'S DRAG PIONEERS

Unlike glitzier drag clubs in New York or Los Angeles, Aunt Charlie’s looks like a basement at the edge of the world. The production is ramshackle: CDs skip, wigs tilt, falsies ride up out of cleavage, and yet there are nights when the show is almost transcendent. Three or four strong cocktails help, but still, there’s a sense that the place and its people are special. Most of the queens are middle-aged; a few draw pensions. When they mention this or that performer who died years ago — often of AIDS-related complications or drugs or alcohol — it’s hard not to think of drag as a big fuck you to the infinite.

But drag is a lonely art. Rarely do we see a queen and contemplate the private rituals that brought her into the world. All we know is that these beautiful creatures on stage are ours to possess. Warhol wrote that drag queens “perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection.” As proof that the glittering alternative is yours if you want it, here are the stories of three Tenderloin broads.

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