We've not seen much of the old neighborhood at night--as in night "life"-- since we returned to STL from the Exile three months ago. I get back from a short shift of day-jobbery, setting up snacks and and a bar for the Mothra-fest at the Garden, and J wonders if I want to go to have a PBR at Urban. That's a bar, sort of "hipster" (but not in an obnoxious mode), that opened up next to our restaurant on Grand back in those great days when we had the restaurant. We liked that place, set up in the shell of an old Vietnamese eatery that moved up the street a few years ago. And its owner was a friend and ally when we were business neighbors, and we hadn't been back there since the Exile. I say, yeah, let's go, and we are somewhat surprised at how hard it is now to park anywhere on the Grand strip. Not that it was ever easy on a Saturday night, but the street is way busier now, even early, it's like 7:30.
The guy recognizes us immediately, as if almost 3 years haven't passed since we last entered his bar, and he anticipates that we are going to drink bottles of PBR. This sets me at ease because I feel so often, since returning from the Exile, that I will be regarded as a loser, a shell, a ghost of past failure. I've lately been in the weird place of being back in good standing with a former employer; I see people who knew me years ago and probably assumed I was washed away some where. My stuff is still around. A legacy of recipes and other documents exists in the server of my employer's computer network. And everyone knows about the Exile. So again and again, I encounter subtly changed places and people and things from before. It makes me nervous. But at the bar, I relax quickly. We drink for a little while, and then I feel like moving on, seeing some more.
Of course we need to walk right next door and look through the plate glass store front of our old place, our beautiful and beloved Jasoom Restaurant that ate us whole but that I still love in memory. The Ethiopians who now run it fucked and cheated us out of our property. It's a shame because I love Ethiopian food and their restaurant is supposedly well-regarded and they insult us in a deeply painful way simply by being in business longer now than we were. So I'll never eat there. I think they notice us with some vague recognition as we gaze through our (their, fuck them) window. They've expanded into the neighboring space, where the hair salon was (with the hot dude with the tattoos that I liked to look at), and they've built a big bar in the room that was our dining room. The expansion room is tasteless and poorly appointed--not in the charming and homestyle way of of many real ethnic eateries in the area, but in a I-have-no-style-at-all-and-don't-care-be
We visit two other old South Grand haunts. We forget that one of our favorite bars is still cash-only, and we don't have cash. Our friend who runs it is off tonight. We realize that we probably never even did know that the place is cash-only since I don't think we ever actually paid for a beer there back in the day. We move on to Mangia, a long-time fixture of the neighborhood. They make fresh pasta there and it is their pasta that is used in dishes in dozens of other kitchens around the city. Back in the day, it was a somewhat divey joint, kind of dirty in ambience if not in actual dirt, filled with art and old lamps and chrome-legged kitchen tables and really uncomfortable chairs, as if a 1990s raver had appointed it from garage sale finds. A restaurant with respectable food, it was also always one of the few 3am-closing-time bars in the area, and therefore a super-popular hangout for the youngish drinking locals. I hadn't been there in a long, long time. So we go in through the new entrance, through the new expanded area (they, too, blew out into the next storefront) and we barely recognize it because now it is much more orderly, much cleaner, it looks like a high-end restaurant in the West End or Clayton. It's beautiful but devoid of the ambience I was expecting. Until I notice that the chrome-legged tables and crappy chairs are still in the original dining room. We sit at a beautiful bar that is very uncomfortable for us because it doesn't feel familiar. I notice a spectacularly colorful and minutely detailed mural covering most of the wall of the old section behind us. In one tiny portion of its mad flurry of details, infant Romulus and Remus painted as almost fully-formed males suckle the swollen teats of a crazed-looking wolf. It's a lovely place but it's not for us right now. We move on.
I'd be OK with going home at this point. I am kind of cranky for no real reason anyway--low grade crankiness that's been turning on and off all day--and I figure that all we're going to do is sit somewhere drinking, which we can do as comfortably if not more so on the deck behind on our own home. But I get it that this is special that we are out and I feel badly for J because he hasn't been out of the house much since we returned from the Exile. He is having fun being out and I try to work up some of that sense in myself. We can't decide where to go. We leave the Grand area and head over to the Morganford area. We like the Tin Can, but it's about 10pm now and it's too crowded. We're both crabby about being in certain kinds of crowds. He suggests going to a gay bar--the very thing that he normally never wants to do--but I say no, I don't want to. He persists and names a bar over in the Manchester/Choteau "Grove" area. It was an old "troll" bar. Fuck no, I say. I don't want to go to a gay bar anyway, and certainly not a troll bar. Come on, he says, everyone will be so old and run-down that it will make us feel hot by comparison. That actually appeals to me a bit: I have been feeling somewhat old and unattractive myself lately.
The area that they call the Grove now used to be a blighted stretch of old derelict commercial buildings and abandoned housing. For many years the lesbians and gays maintained a handful of outposts in the midst of that, bars like Novack's and Attitudes. In urban areas again and again, our people lead the renaissance by being the pioneers back into the dead zones that white flight left behind in the 20th century. The gays are still in the Grove and probably in even larger numbers now, but there are a lot more people and businesses there now, too. We hear loud live reggae music emanating from one of the newer establishments, and J wants to stop there. But then I realize that we still don't have cash and we won't get into a single one of the joints in this neighborhood without paying a cover. I get really cranky again. We need to hit an ATM but he doesn't have his card (to which we know the PIN), just mine (to which I do NOT know the PIN). We need to go home and get either his card or the scrap of paper that has my PIN on it. The car needs gas and is chiming for it. J wants cigarettes. I see a cycle of hassles in front of me. J doesn't think I am any fun, and I don't think I am any fun either. I want to be fun, but I get crankier. I repress the crankiness and say that we will run home, get the other card, get gas, get cigs, get cash and go back. And have fun.
Once on the ground, we somehow don't think that paying the cover and actually entering any of the places is as appealing as it seemed from the car. We spot a sign in front of one bar stating "No cover tonight!" and we decide we'll stop there and decide if we have the stamina to take in any music at one of the other spots. J looks around trying to figure out where exactly he is. The neighborhood has changed a lot. "There's Novack's," I say, pointing across the street. Then I point eastward on our side of the street toward another landmark he would recognize. He gets reoriented, and then I realize that the bar that we about to enter, now called "Just John's," is in the space that used to be called Freddie's. Years ago, on a similar outing, we picked up a stray there. Inside, it looked much the same, but redecorated and repurposed a bit. Inside, a shirtless bartender has the bar's logo tattooed on his chest. I hope he is the actual owner of the place because otherwise it seems a mistake to put the name of a place that you work on your body in indelible ink. It's very crowded, very noisy and I am still fairly cranky, but I feel like I can relax a little bit since J seems to still be having fun.
Gay-bar-cruiser mode kicks in a bit, a reflex: I am glad that the crowd as a whole seems pretty average in appearance, no real over-representation of very hot dudes nor very non-hot ones, and not overly young on average. Since I've been feeling kind of aged and schlubby lately (and had not prepared myself for a "gay" outing), I take cheer in the fact that it's not all cute 22-year-olds in here nor too many raging hipsters. I feel that I fit in credibly with the median profile here. While I am not heinous in appearance, I am not hot either. I'm not young anymore either, but I have actually improved with age and can usually pass for a few years younger if I want to. Until my ancient soul speaks, a soul that was old when I was 12, but I don't plan to speak to anyone other than J, which I do with a lot of hoarse shouting because the music and crowd noise is such that we need to repeat ourselves a lot. Maybe we are too old for this.
At some point, we move to an outdoor tiki bar area behind the main space and J scores a seat at the bar. I stand next to him and we talk about random things at high volume. He is smiling unselfconsciously and looks about 23 and is very, very cute. He talks about Lady Gaga, whose music and music videos seem to dominate the audio-video system throughout this multi-bar compound. I notice the music shift into something by New Order--"Blue Monday" I think it was--and I notice every guy in the place who is paying attention to the music (or not) react in at least some subtle way to it, if not dancing outright. This bouncing, bobbing boy near J's barstool catches my eye. I'd noticed he'd been mouthing with great enthusiasm the Gaga song immediately preceding. He is a short, scrawny, somewhat funny-looking kid who was certainly born well after New Order made that song. He is beautiful. I wonder if he really knows the song or is just reacting in a primal way as he dances and bobs to it with even greater enthusiasm than he seems to have had for Lady Gaga. I remember that I've thought the thought before that there is universal appeal in New Order for Anglophone gay boys regardless of age and background, as if there is a switch in the hardware of our genes or the software of our hormones that gets flipped when our bodies hear it. It delights me that I see the goofy-looking beautiful youngster reacting in the same way as the 50-year-old just a few feet away from him.
Eventually we make our way back home. I wonder, in a Vulcan-like way, if we had the desired "fun" the quest for which seemed to motivate this rare outing. I think possibly so, and J's mood is good, and I am less cranky.