Miss Bo-Bo profiled by the whirling fan; letting the breeze disarrange false auburn locks and tickle the fuzzy tips of a three-day growth of beard.
A Bally popped a free game to a squeal and Gladys Knight wailed with her Pips while the no-lunch lunchtime regulars lollygagged and watched Miss BoBo vamp the bar-length mirror at the Brass Rail.
"I am to-oo-oo gor-GE-OUS," thundered Miss BoBo as his hamhock-sized hands gently fluffed the Farrah Fawcett lie on his large, black and handsome head.
Miss Bo-Bo, while bartending, has launched an impromptu dress rehearsal -- without the dress. Squat, stocky, built like a bull, he will later join Ms. Kim, Ms. Jerry and Ms. Kisha to perform as The Railletts -- a jumpy, strumpy drag quartet that boasts more beef-cake than the Isley Brothers.
The Brass Rail, at 13th and New York Avenue NW, is, hands down, the city's fastest and loosest predominantly black gay bar. It is also the most popular. The cruising is fierce; the disco and dancing are ferocious.
Popularly known as "the Rail," it has ruled the roost with an iron hand by successfully and ruthlessly beating back all comers for the title, "Diva of the Black Gay Clubs." At the hint of a challenge it will redecorate, provide free music, pour more liquor at lower prices or do whatever is necessary to bring back the customers.
This policy worked until a few weeks ago, when the Rail became involved in the fight of its life with the black-owned New Yorker, around the corner at 1212 New York Ave NW.
With no decor to speak of, thin drinks, no happy hour and a personality best described as neutral, the New Yorker has become a sanctuary for black gays who dislike all the other gay clubs. Less than half the size of the Brass Rail, the New Yorker's premises have been overwhelmed by its sudden popularity. Even when empty the long bar has just inches to spare between bar stools and wall-connected tables; during peak hours, with shoulder-to-shoulder standees, it takes on the ambience of a Metrobus hijacked at rush hour.
Kissed by success more for what it isn't than for what it is, this new club has effectively bagged nearly all of the Rail's daytime and early-regulars, but is still held back from threatening all the other black gay clubs by lack of space.
"We're working on that," said Frank Nelson, the club's manager, until a few weeks ago, as he outlined immediate plans to open two more floors above the present bar. Tall, handsome and witty, Nelson was a popular bartender at the Rail before the alert New Yorker stole him away.
The Rail management is in a tizzy. It has rolled back from 3:30 until 8 p.m. a $2 admission charge, opened its roomier, more relaxed upstairs bar during the day and, as could be expected, struck its set and put in new geegaws and doodads.
"They'll never get me back," crowed one New Yorker convert. "I've been waiting years for this to happen. It's important to me that I spend my money at a black-owned bar." He and other regulars remember when the Rail was a redneck gay bar.
It was so bad back then, recalls John a graying man in his late 40s, that, "When a record by a black artist was played on the jukebox, the bartender would turn it down from behind the bar."
The breakthrough at Rail came in 1975 when a bar called the Annex, then located across the street, went out of business.
"Black people packed that bar; when the owner sold out, the Rail realized a good thing and welcomed us because their business was hurting," John explained.
Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold were immediately robbed of their yellowed jukebox slots to make way for The Temptations and Aretha Franklin.
But despite the new open-door policy, John continued, "We had to fight to get rid of the cracker bartenders and waiters who ran the place like it was their castle."
After several customers complained about not being served and many others were arbitrarily barred, the new clientele retaliated with googobs of thrown drinks and busted chairs. Management acquiesced and hired black bartenders and waiters, allowing them a free hand to cater to the drives and needs of the black gay.
New policies chugged into motion: redecorate and expand, be sensitive to any occasion to celebrate, put in disco, make it belch smoke, salt the music heavily with burly percussion. Be Grand, feel good about yourself, Holla, Scream, become an after-work decompression chamber.
Click. Young blacks gays streamed in to twirl, hustle and smash the beat home with feverish feet, prickly prattle and an engery level that sizzled and crackled. Urban slang replaced rural twang. White become black. A star was born.
"It was the only act in town during the day and early evening," recalled John.
And the staff knew it. Overflow business brought on attitudes that chilled customer relations. Their efforts had made the Rail famous from coast to coast as a brazen, bawdy, good-time black gay club. It is listed in all gay guides, black and white. But the Rail personnel apparently overlooked one thing -- themselves.
"That staff stinks," shouts a lawyer seated at the New Yorker, his beard bristling, "they make you beg for service.
I got very tired of their accept-us-or-go-home attitude. I'm a man, I spend my money, I want some respect."
Jerry Williams, a waiter at the Rail and also its disco deejay, pointed out that he and the rest of the staff take more than their share of abuse. When the place gets crowded they try to do their best, he said but someone will always be displeased.
"We have our spats, yes, but they'll be back. This is home."
The New Yorker staff gloats. If the Rail is the grande dame, arms folded, foot tapping, waiting for its customers to return, the New Yorker sees itself as the Statue of Liberty.
"Here the black gay can be free of drag queens and a sissy atmosphere not conducive to socializing," said former manager Nelson. Sequined flamboyance dampens the quiet fire some gays need for a smooth cruise.
One of the New Yorker's seven owners -- all of whom are black and adamant on remaining anonymous, for fear of tainting their nongay business investments -- echoes the same theme: "We're a macho bar, we prefer to have the more masculine-type gays."
Unstifled, stinging criticisms of The New Yorker can already be heard. Theft has become a problem as young hustlers who usually "work" the two nearby bus stations zig-zag in and out, eyes darting. This young "trade" can often be found slumped over, sleeping, at the wall-connected tables, or slouched on the stools, legs extended and blocking the aisles. The blase management looks the others way.
Complaints about "skimpy" drinks, "lousy" bartending and "nothing" music draw a big shrug from the bar's small staff. An I-will-truly-take-my-time bartender, in mid-shrug one evening, verbalized his body English to a customer: "If you don't like it . . ."
Everything here is tired; where else can we go?" lamented one bored customer.
Well, there's La Zambra at 14th and Rhode Island Ave. NW, the only other black-owned gay bar in town; Nob Hill, 11th and Kenyon St. NW and The Clubhouse, a private club that has two official gay nights, Tuesday and Saturday.
La Zambra, beaten black and blue over the years by the competition from the Brass Rail, is trying once again to be a contender by opening a spanking-new restaurant. It is an attempt to undercut the Rail and the wowsy New Yorker, neither of which serves food. La Zambra starts humming at 10 a.m., with early lunch. Beginning at 9 p.m., a $2 admission is charged as disco and live entertainment take center stage. This bar is customarily a late starter. Serious boogeying begins at 10:30 p.m.; frantic cruising comes 15 minutes before closing.
"This whole place is late," said the War Queen. At 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, and with equal measures of pudding and storm cloud, the War Queen never pays admission.
"Two dollars for what? A bunch of tired sissies and no atmosphere. I don't pay it, because nobody there can whip me." Actually, the War Queen is humored because he's a long-standing regular and spends money by the buckets, not infrequently setting up the bar.
La Zambra is, by gay bar standards, expensive. Drinks range from $1.75 to $2.75; the popular drinks are in the $2.25-$2.50 range.
"You need $25 in that place just to get drunk," another New Yorker convert says of La Zambra.
A schoolteacher who frequents La Zambra calls it cold and totalitarian, but adds: "It could be the best black gay bar in the city if they weren't so money-crazy."
Nob Hill, the granddaddy of all black gay clubs, having opened in the early '50s, catches fire on Sunday gospel nights when local groups tear the place up with a spicy piano and high, searing, bar-glass-shimmying notes. It's a gimmick -- a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, tambourine-whomping lure that has filled the club for years.
Nob Hill recuperates the other six days. "When I die, I wish to be laid out here," whispered one middle-aged patron on a recent weekday night. His whisper was the only audible sound in the tiny bar.
Where else to go for the black gay, estimated at 30,000 to 35,000 strong by Ray Melrose, president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays? The white gay clubs? Those who frequent them represent but a trickle, compared with the aggregate number to be found at any given moment in the black gay clubs.
"We don't get no satifaction," said John.
Most local black gays refuse to risk the indignity of a quota system or, even more to the point, an atmosphere one gay described as "mummified."
A black gay professional complained bitterly about the "disparity" between the black gay scene and its white counterpart:
"They have good restaurants, happy hours at their bars and places to congregate and talk. We, on the other hand, have limited opportunities to express ourselves. Black gays are limited to a cruise bar or a disco bar. I'm sick of both."
The answer to "where do they go?" becomes clearer and clearer. Black gays craving sophistication and diversity either stay home or go to straight clubs and bars. Gays who reject the raw atmosphere of The New Yorker, the Brass Rail et al, take their business to the black-owned, and nuanced, Faces, 5626 Georgia Ave. NW, Tiffanne, 2015 L St. NW, and Foxtrappe, a private club at 1601 R St. NW.
As one Foxtrappe regular put it: "There is, at the very least, an atmosphere there where you can relax. Only a part of me is gay; the other parts demand things I can't get at this town's black gay clubs."
These gays, a significant percentage of the local black homosexual population, go out for dinner, dancing, conversation and maybe a show. A glissade. A little meringue. They spend their money, expect decent surroundings and service and a hassle-free experience. To get this they go to straight clubs. Dance with women. And then leave with their lovers, another male they've cruised, perhaps a woman. Or they leave alone.
A young man leaving Tiffanne's had this to say: "I often do the straight scene alone; it'll have to do until something better comes along." He turned and walked away "I'm going home to bed," he shouted back over his shoulder. It was a little after 8. On a Friday night.