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.

"Let's sit here, Didj," Mike said, gesturing to some seats.

"Oh, really now, Didj!" Dan said back to him, cocking his head dramatically and feigning a fake-game-show-host inflection. "Are you sure you want this option?" Actually, Dan never drops the fake-game-show-host inflection. It is how he communicates. He is sort of a mix of Jim Carrey and Monty Hall.

Toad Hall has the same ownership as Badlands across the street and has been dubbed "Badlands II," for good reason. The owner sticks to the formula of loud pop music, cheap well drinks at happy hour, and sexy bartenders. Apparently the two places are onto something, because they are consistently packed. The music they play isn't very inspiring — Cyndi Lauper's latest dance song (yes, it exists), Britney Spears' "Toxic," or the Pussycat Dolls. This is the shitty music of the young gay generation. The older gay generation's shitty music — Barbra Streisand, disco, and show tunes — is an ancient relic of a bygone era. Still, Mike has his limits. He hates Whitney Houston. "All of her songs are sung 'balls to the wall.' I mean, give it a rest," he said. "But I love Kylie Minogue."

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.

Both places are sleek and stylized with banquette seating, high tables with stools, and dramatic bars staffed by good-looking guys. Toad Hall has backlit water running down the back of the bar, a small dancefloor, and an outdoor patio for smoking. To me, it lacks any semblance of coziness or personality. But for Mike, it is a home away from home. When he misses a day, the bartenders ask about him. "It feels nice," he says.

Like most regulars, he avoids the bar during peak hours, which means he visits only on Sunday through Thursday nights. Sometimes he comes because he is horny (he has had a few dalliances in the bathroom); sometimes he comes because he doesn't want to be alone; and sometimes he comes because it is just what he does.

Though it's hard for a hetero girl like me to see, there is a difference between Badlands and Toad Hall: the brand of gay men at each place. Dan prefers Badlands and its multitude of twinks (gay slang for young, thin, boyish dudes free of body hair), while Mike digs baby bears (smaller versions of the big, hairy, pot-bellied men known as "bears" in the gay world) and people of color. "Put this in your story, m'lady," Dan said as if he were unveiling a new car to someone on Match Game. "NASA wants 'Faster, better, cheaper.' I want 'Thinner, smoother, younger.'"

"Yecchhh," Mike said. "I hate Badlands." We all agreed that it was a good thing that they had totally different taste in men. It cut down on the competition.

I sat with them at Toad Hall and watched as man after man came in. Mike and Dan rated each one on a fuckability scale. When men do this with women, I of course find it disgusting. But when gay guys do it, heck, it's kind of charming. Still, night after night of loud music and, let's face it, a certain level of shallowness — I wondered whether gay bars ever got old.

"Why don't you ever drink at home?" I asked Mike. He looked at me as if I were nuts. "Why drink at home when I can go have fun out here?" he said. "I have the money. I might as well spend it."

In Mike's Castro, it's live fast and drink young. He's a regular, all right, but one of dozens. If he stopped coming out every night, the bar would keep hummin' along just fine.

"Tell her that you order grapefruit drinks because a certain someone hates grapefruit juice and therefore will not drink your drink," interjected Dan, staring into a fake TelePrompTer somewhere in the distance.

"Shut up, Didj," Mike said, rolling his eyes.

Some bars have such a close relationship with their regulars that the bars are never the same after they are gone.

The Bonanza is a corner dive situated in the middle of an industrial area in the Bayview. Most of its regulars are blue-collar guys who work nearby in warehouses or machine shops.

There is little or no foot traffic at the corner of Toland and Evans streets, where the bar sits, and only the 19 bus goes by. A place like this needs all the customers it can get, and has to adopt interesting business plans to keep 'em coming in. For Bonanza, this means every Friday night is Lingerie Night. A big banner across the roof advertises the weekly event.

The inside of Bonanza is much larger than the outside suggests. The main room has the feel of a Midwestern tavern, with beer signs, paneling, and the dank smell of cigarette smoke. In the back is the pool room, where spirited daily tournaments are held. Lysa, one of the main bartenders, has been here for 28 years, though she barely looks 35. She is the consummate hostess, greeting everyone like old friends. I was no exception.

I told her I was looking for the place's main regular, its "Norm from Cheers." She mused for a few minutes and told me about the Mm-hmm Boys, a group of guys who hang out at the other end of the bar and say "mm-hmm" a lot. A sample exchange:

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