Right around the time David Bowie died, more bad news spread: The Gangway, San Francisco's oldest gay bar, was getting sold.
After a dispute over wages with a disgruntled employee soured him on hanging onto the bar until his scheduled retirement, Jung Lee, the 64-year-old owner whose wife managed the place until her death from ovarian cancer in 2011, decided to get out. The buyer? A ghastly-sounding bro-sortium called Breaking Chad, which planned to rename it Daddy Bones. Articles appeared, on SF Gate and in the Bay Area Reporter, lamenting that this gathering spot for sexual deviants at least since 1961 — and a bar of whatever kind since about 1910 — was walking the plank. My friend Nicole Schwieterman, who runs Fleet Wood (the shop and art gallery next door) confirmed it. Guilt-stricken over how little time I'd spent in The Gangway these last few years, I started going as often as possible, quasi-hoping to avert the sale via a burst of eager patronage.
As of March 24, I'd heard that it was in escrow, but as of press time, the sale is off.
“We had a contract,” Lee told me. “They had a partnership, but the one I would call the investor pulled out. They don't have the funds to purchase it.”
As far as the initial dispute that spurred him to put The Gangway on the market, its effect was more psychological than strictly financial. Lee, who claims to be a hands-off owner — “I trust every individual. I always tell them, 'You're the boss'” — owed back wages to several staffers, which city fines eventually compounded into a $9,000 bill.
Coupled with his wife's death — her picture is there on the wall, framed with beads — his heart wasn't in it anymore, even though he beamed when I asked him about what The Gangway meant. (The Lees bought it in the '90s from a lesbian couple.)
“I'm proud of myself and of my wife,” Lee said. “Oldest gay bar in town! I'm very happy, I didn't change anything. Just the lighting.”
The roster of now-gone gay bars is long, and the reasons for their disappearance are many: Grindr, GROWLr, gentrification, acceptance. But if The Gangway closed, it wouldn't be sad only because yet another working-class queer space would have vanished, almost certainly to become something much fancier. It would be sad because The Gangway is genuinely unlike anywhere else in the city, weirder even than nearby Aunt Charlie's (a tiny drag den, and the only other gay bar in the Tenderloin).
The Gangway is old-school divey, too: You can't see in from the street. It opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m., every day. You can watch Family Feud on closed-captioning while eating Saltines out of white plastic bowls, drinking very strong drinks priced for people on a very fixed income. There are a lot of handwritten notes, like “Chips $1” and “Edith 86'd for using the N-word.” There's a fish tank, a phone number for sidewalk cleaning, a microwave, a table covered in parquet along one wall, and the requisite bowl of condoms. There are porthole-window mirrors and a wall of newspaper clippings featuring long-ago Empresses of the Imperial Court. People routinely call the bar: “Tracy! Did Charlemagne have her keys?” At just the sight of a Sikh guy poking his head in, Andy the bartender — who's been there since 2007, and previously worked at the Cockpit, Castro Station, and the Headquarters, all gone now — knows to shout, “David! Your cab is here!”
After weeks of trying to pin Lee down, I talked to the entire staff, none of whom spoke for attribution, and many of whom had been there for years. I talked to 87-year-old patrons, people who were drunk off their asses at noon, people who could not remember my name after I repeated it five times, people who didn't want to talk to the media because 60 Minutes misquoted them in 1997, septuagenarian flirts who kept touching my friend's bushy beard even after he'd politely asked them not to, and heterosexual British millennials bar-hopping with 75 other hostel guests. The Gangway deserves a grad student compiling an oral history for his or her dissertation, but most of all, it deserves some more butts on its stools.
Of course, it will get sold at some point, and Lee claims to have five potential buyers lined up. But news of its imminent demise seems to have lit a fire under the LGBT community. Lee showed me a business card from a mayoral aide who connected him with a male couple who own another bar already. He needs a letter of cancellation from his current suitors before anything can move forward, but they're his first choice because “they'll keep the bar the same way.”
While it's entirely possible that The Gangway will stay as is for a long time to come, it is certain nothing will change for at least six months. (As proof, several staff and patrons directed my attention to another handwritten note: “Do Not Give Wrong Idea. Last Call & Music Play AT 1:45 AM. Also Turn BAR Light ON.”)
As I was walking out after yet another fruitless attempt to speak with Lee and — maybe after a noon-ish bourbon-and-ginger served with an I-won't-tell wink — I chatted with a guy on the bench outside who was skeptical that anything would ever change.
“How do you even turn a bar not-gay?” he asked, ashing his cigarette into a Folgers can. “You can't kick all the gay people out. It's rude and I think it's illegal.”