Night Crawler

The early morning air is brisk, a welcome relief to the jumble of Latino clubbers standing outside the sweaty environs of Esta Noche last Sunday. Veteran drag performer Marisela cools off with a group of her admirers. Her waist-length hair, skintight electric-blue dress, and 5-inch fuck-me pumps draw attention from passers-by.

"Not bad, huh?" a leering twentysomething male says to a friend as they make their way up 16th Street.

"Pretty hot," slurs his hooded companion.
A faint smile plays on Marisela's lips as she takes a frisky swat at her sleek-haired, brawny paramour standing close at hand. She strikes a showgirl pose and pushes her painted lips into a pout.

"Just like Vegas!" she says.
Alexis, Carla Gay, Mahogany, and Taina, the other performers of the evening, move in and out of the bar, escorted by muscular men in white T-shirts. Two doors down at La India Bonita, the queens from Klubstitute, a slightly paler drag cabaret, pack it up for the evening.

Esta Noche, recently in the media spotlight after a brutal incident of gay-bashing was perpetrated against one of its customers on Oct. 6, has been a disco-dancing haven to much of the Mission District's homosexual Latino community for over 16 years. With at least four drag shows per week, the club is always jumping, its patrons adding a much-needed shot of glamour to the seedy stretch of 16th Street separating Mission and Valencia streets. In recent years, several documentaries have looked at the Esta Noche phenomenon: a highly visible drag club largely tolerated by both the traditionally macho Latino community and the diverse urban population surrounding it. Although Esta Noche regulars say that homophobic violence is more the rare exception than the rule, since the recent attack they take care to leave the club in groups.

"That's a shame, because the Latina queens really add something to the neighborhood," says a female hepster who watches the action from Johnny Donuts across the street. "The girls always look great -- really passable -- and their boyfriends are just chock-full of machismo. As far as people-watching goes, you can't beat it on a bad TV night."

Apart from the crowd outside, Esta Noche is no eye-catcher: The paint has turned gray with car exhaust; the windows are dim, offering only the slightest glimmer from within; yellowing paper fliers mounted in an old display case promote Las Chicas on Wednesdays and Thursdays and International on Sunday. But inside, the bar is a menagerie of blinking Christmas tree lights, mirrors, and sombreros. Four large flags (stars-and-stripes, rainbow, 49ers, and Mexican) hang proudly behind the bar as Andrew, the young, fresh-faced bartender, serves up drinks heavy on the hard liquor.

Although Mahogany performs in her own voice, the showgirls, for the most part, lip-sync to Latin pop and strut their stuff to choreographed moves. Well worth the $4 cover, the routines are flamboyant and fun, with some of the performers boasting 10-year careers under their belts. As the star-studded curtain closes, DJ Marco takes over, spinning Latin disco and pop. The small, tiled dance floor fills with couples who writhe and wiggle against one another in a display of fancy footwork. An array of men still perched on the bar stools come 1:30 a.m. are definite Noche veterans. They know everyone and are quick to point out some of the bar's highlights.

"This is Charles," a middle-aged Caucasian says, indicating the African-American man next to him. "He's been here since the beginning. And that," he turns to contemplate the doorman as if he is a national treasure, "is Daniel. He just won Mr. Gay Latino 1995."

Daniel and his friend Marcos preen for my photographer.
"You know why he won?" Marcos asks, pointing at Daniel's buttocks with a sly grin.

Later, I am whisked away by Marisela, who spots my notebook and immediately starts to vogue even though the photographer has left the building. We move outside, where her lover holds her handbag so that Marisela can work it. Daniel pokes his face outside for a look and a little exercise. Stretching out, he stands with his leg extended well above waist level and flashes us a big, toothy smile. Just like Vegas.

If you have any information regarding the Oct. 6 attack outside Esta Noche, please call Sgt. Ottone at 553-1139.

By Silke Tudor

 
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