The smell of stale alcohol and Pine-Sol pervades the dark and musty interior. The newly refurbished bar, composed of brownish-red mahogany with chairs to match, seats a few older gentleman who casually eye the tight T-shirt-wearing pretty boys prancing around behind the beer taps. For happy hour, this crowd doesn’t seem too happy.
It’s my first time at the Stonewall Inn — my curiosity finally urged me through the large double doors —so I claim a seat at the front end of the bar near the doors. I feel a bit out of place in the eerily solemn atmosphere. It’s nothing like what I expected from the historic location that gave rise to the modern gay right’s movement. Where were the rowdy drag queens, and the uplifting spirit of gay pride that the bar was once known for?
A bartender named Ben sidles up in front of me and slaps a white cocktail napkin down, while asking how I’m doing, what I’m drinking and where I’m from — in that order. I order a vodka tonic and cast my glance back down the bar at the medley of characters who fill the bar’s seats, several forty- or fifty-somethings, sipping well drinks or bottled beers on the 2-for-1 special.
A forty-something-year-old man seated next to me leans in and addresses me like a friend: “How have you been?”
“Good,” I respond. “How about you?”
He’s wearing a POW hat, though he refuses to tell me which branch of the military he served under. He abandons the topic quickly and continues to talk my ear off in a rather one-sided conversation about his partner, Michael, who bears the same first name. The other Michael is currently in the hospital with kidney stones. So this Michael is killing some time at Stonewall before he returns to his partner’s bedside. He doesn’t come here often — he lives in Staten Island now — but he assures me he’s a true New Yorker since he grew up in a cramped apartment in Chelsea with seven other brothers and sisters. He tries to stop by for a drink when he can, because Stonewall’s a piece of history and he wants to pay his respects. That, and it’s just a nice place for a drink, he adds.
He trips over his words; maybe this isn’t his first round, maybe he’s just eager for someone to listen to his tale or maybe it’s a bit of both. He orders another vodka cranberry and steps out for a cigarette. Ben saunters back to check on my drink and see if he’s bothering me.
“No,” I respond. “I think he’s just a little lonely.”
Despite the rather modest interior, Stonewall is not without its fabulous, prideful décor. Mini rainbow flags hang behind the bar above the large mirror centered between two old-fashioned cash registers. Black t-shirts with the bar’s name—the same t-shirts the bartenders wear with the sleeves rolled up—hang off the edges of the mirror, ripe for purchase. And then, the pièce de résistance: a jar of NYC condoms positioned in the middle of the bar with the label “get some.”
The single claim to fame — an echo of another era, when Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland look-a-likes frequented the original Stonewall — hangs at the far end of the bar. The giant black-and-white photo shows a drag queen standing aside an old Chevy, arms outstretched into the sky grasping a banner that reads, “Stonewall means fight back! Smash gay oppression!”
The flashback to the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement is the sole reminder that this building is much more than a tourist trap — as Yelp.com insists — or a local watering hole. It’s a symbol of the continuing fight for gay rights; one that will never cease or shut it’s doors.