Tracing several decades of history through two months at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
The 100 block of Turk Street is historically one of the worst blocks in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. It exists, physically, equidistant from Westfield’s six-floor shopping menagerie and the glitz and glam of Union Square. It also exists at the cross-section of what should be prime real estate, and the reality of hundreds of arrests and at least two serious shootings in the past five years alone. In 2009, a frustrated SFPD Captain called the area’s chief intersection, Turk and Taylor, “ground zero for the Tenderloin.” Things have since cooled, leaving the area more a shell of infamy than an actively dangerous neighborhood, but it’s still the kind of place where no one bats an eye at sirens or the reflection of red and blue beating down on every surface.
Sandwiched in amongst faded-paint SROs, the soup-kitchen lifebloods of the inner city, and the raw wood of old storefronts deconstructed and reconstructed at a snail’s pace, there is Aunt Charlie’s Lounge. In its simplest form, Aunt Charlie’s is one of only two gay bars in the TL. It has been called “a Law & Order episode waiting to happen,” “shockingly trashy,” “a little red-lit hallway that smells like balls,” and a thousand other things of mildly nicer and maximally meaner degree. In a week– perhaps even a day, depending on whether you’re there for drag, dick, or DJs (there are nights for the pursuit of all three) –it cycles through all these and more. The best, most-encompassing description of Aunt Charlie’s comes from the bar itself: “a smorgasbord of sleazy glamour.” Yet even that doesn’t help to pin down how a ramshackle gay bar the size of three dorm rooms sandwiched together has remained one of the brightest diamonds in Tenderloin’s rough.
“It’s the people.”
That’s the conclusion at least three bartenders and one drag queen offer when asked what makes Aunt Charlie’s so special. Still, it’s no closer to an answer. What people do they mean, exactly? The patron who sleeps, boozed-up and face-down on the bar, only to suddenly pop up and share his life story as 81-year-old bartender-cum-doctor who’s darted from the Bay to Berlin and back, just to nap on this. very. bar? Aging drag queens caked with foundation, throwing up their middle fingers at anyone too slow to tip for their show? Each other? The hallowed few who brave the masses day to night and rendez-vous between shifts to pour each other drinks and debrief? There’s no shortage of colorful characters staffing and frequenting Aunt Charlie’s alike (example: at least two drag queens double as bartenders when not performing, one in drag, one as a “normal” gay man), and far too many stories brimming within its history to accept something as abstract as “the people” as an answer.
Hence my Monday night in the tiny Tenderloin bar, sipping a cosmo so strong I wonder how I’ll be able to type this up later, while three 30-something gay men hurl expletives at a screen playing “Dancing With the Stars” eight feet away from me.
The cosmo came courtesy of Barry, the sole staff-member present to man the tiny crowd. He doesn’t notice me until DWtS goes to commercial, at which point he saunters over to stoically mix me a cocktail. He sets it gently atop an Amstel Light coaster, charges me $5.25, then disappears out the bar’s black back door to have a smoke – without checking my ID, without excess conversation, without even dignifying the tip I’ve left in his line of sight.
Barry is an enigma, staffing the bar in a soft-looking Burgundy sweater that wouldn’t have been unwelcome on Mister Rodgers, plus pale white hair and thick-rimmed black glasses that betray him as far older than any bartenders I’ve encountered during my tenure as a hard-drinking college student. He knows who needs a drink seemingly before they do, uncapping beers and placing a Miller Lite, a gin and tonic, another cheap beer whose label I cannot read, before men who’ve only just finished their last one. He’s a well-oiled machine, servingservingserving …then pausing to watch his TV show, ignoring his clientele’s whoops at Michael Sam’s physique and digs about some dancer or other who “shouldn’t ever wear that outfit ever again,” before shuffling off to re-organize his bar’s vodka selection.
Halfway through a cosmo, I strike up a conversation about who is, why he’s at Aunt Charlie’s, and who even runs the place. He tells me the owner is not around, but I should speak to “Joe,” who is in every weekday around noon. He tells me he loves working at Aunt Charlie’s, so much that he’s stuck around for 27 years. He tells me about his years as a patron at Aunt Charlie’s, when a friend/bartender named Reba would serve him drinks in the midst of smoking and stamping out cigarettes on the bar’s wooden surface. Barry traces his fingers over the scarred surface, showing each blemish left, as he recalls the rough persona Aunt Charlie’s has had since its olden days.
“Every time I came in, I ordered a screwdriver, and every time I got a greyhound. You were lucky just to get a drink, much less the right drink.”
Barry pauses, smiles, then continues his story.
“You see that [popcorn machine] over there? It used to be a payphone. Customers used to call Reba, because they knew she’d always answer the phone, and tell her ‘I’m at the bar waiting for a whiskey!’ and that’s how they’d get their drinks.”
Barry rises instinctively, then heads towards the bar. Grab / uncap / serve / repeat.
Some 15 minutes later, Barry has tired of the rowdy men at the bar’s southern tip (near his prime TV viewing spot), and their borderline-offensive jeers: “fucking twink!,” “he needs to be a top, he’s too sissy,” “his ass isn’t good enough for Latin flair.” He quietly sets up court several seats away from me, near another [muted] TV where he can watch in peace …until I interrupt him with more questions about his tenure at Aunt Charlie’s.
He repeats that his time at Aunt Charlie’s began 27 years ago, when he worked at an adult video store across the street. The store no longer exists, and one gets the sense that he’s ok with that by how politely unwilling he is to talk about it. He does, however, offer that at that time all the TL’s bartenders used to congregate at Aunt Charlie’s once done with work. After drinking there long enough to get to know the Aunt Charlie’s staff, he was offered a shot at bartending when he (happily) lost his video store gig.
These days, he says, Aunt Charlie’s is the area’s sole gay bar. Those days, there were two or three on each street. It was during the Tenderloin’s heyday as San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, a history long forgotten as the Castro has overtaken popularity as the LGBT party spot of choice. With cheaper drinks, like 90 cent ones on Friday nights at Beaux, and cuter boys, like muscled pro underwear models hired to go-go dance in storefronts, who could blame younger gays for favoring hangouts farther South of Market? Nevertheless, Aunt Charlie’s continues to draw whoever’s left downtown looking for cheap drag, boys to meet, and the occasional odd performance highlight, like “Bollywood. There’s Bollywood sometimes … and Britney, who was a nude model back in the day. She’s a real woman. She performs as a man sometimes.”
Barry, too, likes the people of Aunt Charlie’s. So much that he says so, twice, when asked what he likes best about working at Aunt Charlie’s. He likes the bar and it’s people so much that he’s stayed here despite being HIV positive, and having had to leave work several times to recuperate from his illness. Each time, his job has been waiting for him when he gets back. He doesn’t specify any plans for the future of his work at Aunt Charlie’s – only what is implied in his final thought.
“Bartenders at Aunt Charlie’s don’t quit. They either retire, go down with the bar, or die.”
Mornings at Aunt Charlie’s are a little quieter. They begin at noon each day, Sunday through Friday, when Aunt Charlie’s olive green doors slide open and the bar opens for business – except on Saturdays, when the day begins at 10 a.m. and affords two bonus hours for drinking.
Presumably a few minutes before each open, a switch somewhere flicks on and illuminates the bar’s crown jewel: a gaudy fluorescent sign encompassing ¾ of the bar’s length, hanging it over it like a giant gay halo that swaths every surface in a rosy glow. Naturally, it reads the bar’s name in impeccable, prideful cursive.
Between the ever-present pink glow and the building’s early morning quiet, Aunt Charlie’s functions as an oasis of calm removed from the bustle brimming outdoors. There’s a certain amount of comfort in finding quiet in the heart of the Tenderloin, solely dripping coffee (for the bartender), pouring spirits (for the patrons), and occasionally heavy footfalls or muttered curses from outside passersby. Perhaps it’s also a necessary comfort, since within twenty minutes of opening a total three patrons sit at the bar sipping stiff drinks. It feels like another world compared to the outside, although if you sit close enough to the door you can still catch sunlight and swears streaming in from Turk Street, along with a distinct whiff or two of piss. No one mentions it. In fact, no one really speaks at all, except to Bob – he’s the ringleader for today, an aging white bartender with thinning white hair on call until 3 p.m.
If you arrive early enough, you’ll spot Bob lurching down Turk Street towards the bar, propped up by a sturdy black cane. He props himself up behind the bar, too, always one hand on the rich wooden surface as he shuffles from patron to patron to refill their gins, their bourbons, their early-morning Irish Coffees. If you stay long enough, you’ll hear more than a few patrons compliment his drinks.
“This is the best Irish Coffee you’ve ever made, Bob.”
“Your Gin and Tonics are the best!”
Each time, Bob smiles knowingly. He says thank you. Then he waits, poised at either end of the bar, closest to either TV silently playing Jeopardy or the news or something of idle interest, until someone asks him for another drink.
Bob (surname and age politely refused) has been tending bar at Aunt Charlie’s for at least ten years, and for countless years before that at other bars in the Tenderloin. “One day someone walked down to Wooden Horse [now defunct] when I was working, said he needed somebody [to tend bar],” and that’s how he got started at Aunt Charlie’s. Beyond serving drinks, Bob’s second job is just listening. Over the course of a morning, customers pipe up one by one, talking to Bob about their families, their health, his health – asking him how he’s doing and whether it’s ok before turning the conversation back to their daughters and their wives and whatever latest confessions they need someone to listen to. No one really calls him over, they just wait until he comes– and he does, slowly moving his between-drink perch up and down the bar as if to give each person a chance at his ear –and suddenly begin speaking.
Perhaps this is the bar’s third purpose, beyond cheap drinks and Dancing With the Stars on Monday nights – a place to gather and share stories of life in the Tenderloin. Perhaps it’s what Bob means when he, too, says he likes working there because “the people are pretty nice.”
In any case, a lot of stories are shared in a week.
On Tuesday, around 1 p.m., there’s Damien. He comes in, slowly, with his own wooden cane and a stunning outfit of matching leather hat and fringed jacket. He starts off talking about disco, and the greatest hits the Bee Gees and Donna Summer ever offered the world, and before long he’s sharing his own stories of life in the disco hey day. He saw the Bee Gees once live, back in the late seventies, when Andy Gibb was part of the band. He used to disco all day and all night long when he lived in NYC during that time. And– his favorite story –he worked for Elizabeth Taylor’s costume designer, Edith Head, which garnered him entrance into several Oscars post-parties and a quick thank you in one of Ms. Taylor’s speeches. These days, he’s “too old for any of that anymore.” Now, he sits at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge sipping cocktails and waiting for fresh-faced twenty-somethings to tell his story to. “You’re the future now,” says Damien, glassy-eyed with remembrance. And gin.
On Wednesday, there’s Leslie, who comes to meet two friends already drinking at the bar. He’s there partially for cocktails, partially to console his friends, who are already neck deep into drowning their sorrows.
“‘We’re going to cut off your health insurance,’ says one, whose meager health care has just gotten slashed, faking the voice of the witch he envisions severed his lifeline. “‘We’re going to let you starve and die.’”
Leslie’s friend needs new teeth. He can’t get new teeth without money, which he doesn’t have. Or credit, which he also doesn’t have, because “for 30 years I was a blind, gay AIDS patient. There was no credit for me available.” Leslie is at a loss for words, and his friend is still desperately venting. “There’s still no credit for me. I’m tired of having to prove that I’m a human being and I deserve help.”
He vents for a few more minutes, then the three finish their drinks in silence and leave, just a few more of many who pass through Aunt Charlie’s for a drink to quell their problems and an ear to listen. Maybe it’s a friend’s, maybe it’s Bob, maybe it’s someone else at the bar. The point, it seems, is that someone listens.
During a lull in business, when there’s just me and one more customer drinking alone at the bar’s end, I corner Bob for some more questions. Why is Aunt Charlie’s a good place to work? Is it just that it’s hands off? What’s it like working here? Where’s the magic? My secret hope is an anecdote about how it feels to spend all day listening to locals. That’s the implication, one that I can’t actually voice, because the lone customer might once have been a confidant in Bob herself. For his part, Bob smiles politely, and redirects the question, with all the grace and (more importantly) confidentiality of a lawyer.
“You’ll have to ask Joe.”
Joe Mattheisen, General Manager, is the glue that holds Aunt Charlie’s together. If you want to find Joe, you have lots of options: he tends bar during drag nights each Friday, Saturday, and the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of every month; he’s in nearly every morning checking supply levels and restocking everything from Worcestershire sauce for Bloody Marys to fresh limes for Cosmos, and/or stacking crates of beer in the back of house by himself. The only thing Joe doesn’t have is time. Between his many jobs keeping Aunt Charlie’s up and running– and decorating for the nearest holiday, like the campy sombreros he’s hung up for Cinco De Mayo –the only time he’s comfortable scheduling a chat for is via phone before the bar has opened and he’s started prepping for the day.
Joe isn’t going to provide a sentimental understanding of the magic of Aunt Charlie’s – that much is evident two minutes into our phone call, when he begins rattling off a list of the bar’s weekly events and what each day has to offer. Sentiment isn’t his job. Keeping the bar running day to night is his job, and that requires knowing everything there is to know and not giving everything up to anyone who calls you with a few questions. Joe is, however, key to understanding the bar’s history, which he’ll gladly and freely talk about.
Aunt Charlie’s was not always “Aunt Charlie’s”. First, it was Mitch’s, back when “this whole area was seamen and merchant marines,” says Joe. Sometime in the ‘60s, during the Tenderloin’s gay hey day, it became Queen Mary’s – the first incarnation of gay bar to hit 133 Turk Street. Aunt Charlie himself, a man actually named Charlie and frequently called Chuck, owned and managed it up to 1987, when he retired and moved back home to Mobile, Alabama. At that point, current owner Bill Erklens bought it, and named it after Chuck in tribute. Thus, Aunt Charlie’s was born. It is because of Erklens that Aunt Charlie’s is a Tenderloin fixture, even as classic bars around it fold and vanish (like the 21 Club, within a block away – a recent casualty of rent increases). He still owns the bar, he’s owned plenty of gay bars in his day, and he doesn’t plan on closing it or letting it leave his family’s ownership. Perhaps, even more importantly, than the bar’s physical space is what Erklens has maintained inside it: he also birthed the bar’s famed Friday and Saturday night drag nights.
“He started the drag shows because he was a cross dresser, and he wanted to come out to his own bar,” says Joe. “He didn’t want to be the only one in a dress. That way, [with a half dozen actual drag performers] if he wanted to come out on a weekend, he wouldn’t be the only one with a dress on. We’ve been doing the drag shows since then.”
Joe won’t say whether he’s tired of seeing drag despite having seen it “every Friday and Saturday since ‘87,” but he will say that drag is probably the bar’s biggest draw.
“If you check Yelp!, we have some very good writeups for the show,” says Joe. “Most people from out of town find us on the internet.” And they don’t even seem to mind being in the Tenderloin.
“You know, there was that major shooting about a year and a half ago where seven people were shot in the 100 block of Turk,” recalls Joe. “After that they put a police car out 24/7. They also moved all the parking meters off that block so drug dealers could not park there and do their transactions, to keep the street clear so the police could have a nice, clear view of it. After that, Turk street cleared up quite a bit [and tourists continued pouring out for shows.”
Joe also attributes the drag shows to keeping him at Aunt Charlie’s for so long. The most special thing he finds about his job, he says, is witnessing the first drag shows for many travellers from far and wide.
“So many people have never seen a drag show. [It’s really special seeing] how enthused they get about seeing it.”
The last stop left on the road to understanding Aunt Charlie’s is one of their famed drag nights. These hallowed Fridays and Saturdays–and in this case, a Wednesday–are a far cry from the bar’s quiet, empty mornings and evenings. Now, the bar is packed from end to end, leaving only a foot or so of clearance from bar to wall, through which queens will sashay during their performance. At the bar’s northern end, there’s a long, black curtain that forms “the stage.” In front of it, queens perform. Behind it, they change. (Behind it, also, are bathrooms that the general public will need to piss in after a few more drinks. That’s how small Aunt Charlie’s is. Somehow, it all works out).
These are the nights when a small troupe of pro drag queens draped in sequined gowns descend upon the tiny bar, without regard or disdain for the tiny space. They fill the house with Madonna, Nancy Sinatra, even the latest Calvin Harris song (feat. Haim), channelling divas past and present with lipsynchs tighter than their lace-fronts.* While there’s a charm inherent in any man dressed as a woman, sashaying around in front of you as they sing your favorite songs, Aunt Charlie’s in-house specialty is the rough edge to every show. The Dream Queens, as their drag troupe is so named, are not the slender and sprightly young queens popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race and marketed as the medium’s future. Their makeup is not impeccable, painted on as a smooth photo finish. Only one of them will death drop, and she is not a representative segment of the population by any means. Rather, they will sing and sashay elegantly up and down Aunt Charlie’s tiny aisle with dried-mud layers of foundation slathered over wrinkling faces, and the crowd will eat it up because at least their years of experience mean they know what the hell they’re doing.
The show starts at 9:15, and keeps a sporadic flow of customers until around 10:46, some 44 minutes before it will end. It entails a Hawaiian drag queen, dressed like Lil Kim, replete with a boob-bearing dress and giant nipple-pasty for faux scandal; an emcee named Sophilya Leggz, a punk queen introducing each number, then performing her own to old grunge hits that she pouts and stomps her way charmingly through; a gender-bending performer named Lucy the Slut, who appears with comically giant fake breasts that she will rub all over unsuspecting audience members, a messy blonde wig, and a real goatee left unshaved around her lips; a gentle drag queen named Olivia Hart, who passionately whisper-sings the lyrics of songs she lipsynchs along to.
Last, but not least, there’s the show’s unofficial star: it’s founder, Collette LeGrand-Ashton.
LeGrand-Ashton is a magnetic queen, a constant presence at each drag show as both a performer and a cocktail waitress. On stage, she’s lackadaisically hilarious, appearing with a pink feathered headpiece the size of a human torso, and performing only to forget her lyrics halfway through her song. She doesn’t care. She lets the audience know, via a loud “fuck it” that she’s forgotten the words already. She does twice, and both times the crowd laughs simply because she plays it off with a confident sashay down the aisle anyway.
When LeGrand finishes, she flits from seat to seat, making sure each patron’s “livers are lubricated,” as Leggz jokes more than once, and that the tourists are at home at their night’s entertainment.
“Did you find the bathroom ok?” she asks two, a nice-looking middle-aged couple who can’t stop staring at each other like it’s the first time they met. She looks stone faced, frown accentuated by the dark shade of lipstick she’s got on. They’re ok, they know where the bathroom is, and she moves on.
Once she is spotted laughing, with customers up by the stage. The next time she revisits the middle-aged patrons, she banters with them about how bad Jager tastes. “Like gasoline!” she says, before smartly slipping an extra wad on the table they’ve managed to spill liquor all over since her last visit. It illustrates the degree of seriousness with which she does her job, despite its demands of silly dress and tall pink wigs. This is Collette’s bar, and there is nothing in Collette’s bar that she does not see.
When the bar’s rainbow strobe lights slow to a stop and the last patrons have left Aunt Charlie’s post-drag show, I approach the last person who could possibly relay the mystery behind this bar’s magic: Miss LeGrand herself.
She’s sitting at a small table, where a group of young hipster boys watched her perform a few minutes earlier at “[Their] first drag show – you were great, Collette!” and counting all the wadded bills that have been tipped over the course of a night. Mostly dollars. Hopefully something more.
Collette knows there’s been a journalist in her bar – she tells me as much before I’ve even finished introducing myself. “I’ve known,” she says simply, in a cigarette-battered voice that lilts as much as a cigarette-battered voice can possibly lilt. It’s just another fact to her, two words that exercise her expertise in all things Aunt Charlie’s. Before she begins, she must let me know that she knows I’ve needed her before I even realised that I did. After that’s clear, she’s ready to share her side of the Aunt Charlie’s story.
Her journey, from cross-dressing gay who once considered a sex change to performer who finds solace on a stage and in a dress, started years ago at the insistence of Vicki Marlane. Marlane, inarguably Aunt Charlie’s most famous talent of all time (and whom their street has been honorably renamed after), recruited LeGrand to do a number in the show once, for fun. She kept doing it. Then she took on the cocktail waitress job when that opened up, and she’s enjoyed both jobs so much, she’s stuck with them. When it came time to expand drag to Wednesday nights, LeGrand took up that mantle as well, founding a new troupe of [old] talent for Dream Queens Revue.
“It’s fun, you know?” says LeGrand, 64, of her work. “I’ve been in San Francisco for 40 years. What is this, 2015? 42 years. I’ll probably quit in three or four more years if I don’t have any more energy.”
During her 42 years in the city, LeGrand experienced the Tenderloin at the height of it’s gay hey day, and she remembers the time fondly. “Now it feels a little different than it did then because there was… so much stuff. When I first came to San Francisco, this whole area was all bars all around here, and they just.. diminished over the years. Right now, Aunt Charlie’s is–there isn’t that much going on as far as the LGBT culture out here, so we keep it going as much as we can.”
LeGrand’s pace picks up excitedly when questioned about the drag show’s popularity. Surely, all the hype must mean a diverse group of customers learning to love the art of drag – gay to straight, young to old, native to transplant?
“That’s the thing I like most about here! It’s that we do get such a diverse crowd. Which is good, that’s why we have different types in the show,” she says, pausing just long enough to spot Olivia Hart on her way out, and work a snide comment into her answer. “Even old hags like her.”
“I’m not a hag, really,” says Hart quietly, softly, the joke rolling off her back like water off a duck. “Besides, [Collette] has to dye her hair – i’m a natural redhead!”
Hart, and her “natural” red wig roll along, out of the bar, and towards home. LeGrand continues reminiscing.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she says. “I never thought that I would stay here that long, but everybody’s so nice and the crowds are nice and I-I have a good time, so that’s what’s kept me.”
She enjoys Aunt Charlie’s so much, she’d be happy giving up performing altogether and just being a cocktail waitress. That way, she’d have more time to talk to everyone who passes through the doors and make sure they’re really getting the full Aunt Charlie’s experience. (Whatever that is, anyway.)
“I think–” she begins, immediately pausing to find the right words that will sum up what Aunt Charlie’s means to all those who pass through it.
After a few beats, she’s satisfied, and ready to continue.
“People come here and they have a good time. You know, the crowd is pretty nice and they like to enjoy themselves. We try to make sure everybody has a great time here. Dive bars are fun. And this is…” she pauses once more, to look around at her surroundings, the faintest hint of a sigh crossing her breath, “…A dive bar.”
Maybe LeGrand’s hinted at the simplicity behind Aunt Charlie’s success. Maybe it’s not specifically the drag, the long mornings spent by patrons sharing stories within, or the torch of LGBT history that it burns just by staying afloat. There’s no one thing that makes Aunt Charlie’s Lounge special – what makes it special is the presence of all of these things, and all of the other oddities it has to offer, from cheap cosmos to its limp flag to a picture of Joan Crawford gazing at customers from behind the bar. If Aunt Charlie’s Lounge was just one thing: just a gay bar, just a local watering hole, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much. The appeal is that, in a time when San Francisco is oft said to be losing all the color and diversity and hope that it was built on in the first place, a business as haphazard and gleefully multifaceted as Aunt Charlie’s can still survive. There are no gimmicks in being so diverse. There’s no smart business plan dictating what happens when, who performs, or anything else about the bar — its only marketing strategy at all includes an HTML website template from the early 2000s and word-of-mouth. Aunt Charlie’s just is, with the help of its loyal bartenders, hallowed queens, and a wide following who show up to each event it puts on with equal vigor. That’s just what San Francisco needs these days, and with luck, Aunt Charlie’s giant fluorescent sign will burn and glow for years to come, guiding new faces to a niche they never knew they needed.