The Regulars

Bouncer visits bars in three very different S.F. neighborhoods and discovers people everywhere all want the same thing: companionship. Oh, and booze.

"You seem like you're having a bad day," I said.

"Oh?" he responded sarcastically. I knew that he had been to see the doctor again, and that he was supposed to have found out if he would ever see out of his right eye. He sighed. "Oh, I'm not ever gonna ever see again. It's over." This, I figured, was probably the real reason for his mood. We sat next to each other in silence, both of us looking out the window, he in his own way.

The Castro is full of young men who consistently dress, act, and imbibe like they are 17-year-olds on spring break in Cabo. Every day is a party. Mike Johnson is one of those guys.

Ringo at Club 21 in the Tenderloin.
Paul Trapani
Ringo at Club 21 in the Tenderloin.
Mike at Toad Hall in the Castro.
Paul Trapani
Mike at Toad Hall in the Castro.

He reckons that he spends at least $100 a night, five nights a week, at Toad Hall, his favorite watering hole. He's in his 20s, single, and attractive. He makes a comfortable living as a waiter at a place in Union Square, and says that he never gets a hangover, despite drinking upward of 10 mixed drinks a night. Life is good.

I first met Mike across the street from Toad Hall at the Edge, a bar some old-school folks say is the closest thing to how the Castro really used to be back in the day, when the patrons had to keep their gayness on the DL. There is no TV, or dancefloor, or even much of a sign out front. The walls are sculpted to literally look like a cave.

So anyway, there I was at the Edge, the only chick in a place with cut-'n'-paste dicks all over the walls. Mike sidled up and told me to check out the guy at the end of the bar. "Isn't he cute?" he said.

I figured out who he was talking about and nodded my assent. The cute guy's name was Kevin, and he was a bartender at Toad Hall. (Many of the bartenders in the neighborhood go to other bars to unwind after their shifts.) Mike said that Toad Hall was his regular place, but that he was such a fan of Kevin's that he had shown up here to see him during his off hours.

But "seeing" Kevin was all Mike was doing; he preferred to sit at the other end of the bar. I asked him why he didn't just approach Kevin and ask him out. "No way," he said. "I like it this way, from afar."

I warned Mike about the dangers of taking things to the next level. "Bartenders are like dudes in bands," I said, adopting my wisest, most insightful voice. "There is only heartbreak and VD awaiting you when it is over." He agreed.

"That's not to say, though," I continued with a wink, "that it ain't fun to party on the tour bus!" We clinked glasses and laughed.

Mike moved here in 2000 to escape his hometown of Los Banos. He came here for the same reason hundreds of gay people do: It is Mecca. And, like Mecca, you can turn toward it and get down on your knees five times a day (badum-bump). But seriously, folks: Imagine growing up in a town with few people you can relate to, and having to suss out who the other gay people are. Then imagine being able to immerse yourself in an entire community where everyone is just like you, sex is easily obtainable, and gay is the norm, not the exception. Maslow's third human need — to belong somewhere — is fulfilled.

"I'm a Kinsey 6," Mike informed me, meaning he is 100 percent gay with zero interest in women. He admitted frankly that he rarely spends time with straight people, that they make him uncomfortable: "I don't find them as interesting or accommodating. I'm a little more cautious of them."

"Cautious?" I asked. "What are you afraid of?"

He paused, and then said, "I'm afraid they will bore me to death."

Mike agreed to meet me the next night at Toad Hall at his usual time. The bar is named for the pioneering Castro gay bar from the 1970s, depicted in Milk. Its moniker is a literary allusion to The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's children's novel about woodland creatures. To my knowledge, there is no gay subtext in the book, unless you really want to examine the leather-daddy relationship between Mole and Badger. Though not as obvious as Moby Dick, another watering hole down the street, I suppose the character of Mr. Toad has a foppish side that could be construed as, er, flamboyant. (Actually, the original sign for the bar had a toadstool. Once you see the similarity between the illustrated mushroom and the shaft and head of a penis, the allusion starts to make some sense.)

Mike has no idea what The Wind in the Willows is. He also doesn't know about the original Toad Hall in the '70s. All he knows is that he likes the music there, and the bartenders, and the clientele.

He rarely ventures out without his faithful sidekick, Dan, his friend of 11 years, who joined us at Toad Hall the next night. They didn't call each other by their first names. Instead, they refer to one another as "Didj," as in "digital." It's some inside joke that goes way back.

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