Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Behind the bar


An excerpt from 'Vodka and Limelight'

Gay comic Yuri Kagan in his early bartending days. photo: courtesy Yuri Kagan
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It's my first opening shift as a bartender. This is coincidentally the first time that I have ever been in the bar completely alone. There are no customers or coworkers in here. It's just the booze, the empty barstools and me.

There are no lurkers in the shadows of the bar, sipping whatever strange concoction it is that they drink. There aren't any weird rent boy situations sitting at any of the stations, hoping to pick up their next John or daddy.

The only things to keep me company are cameras set up throughout the bar to monitor my every move while working, but I am used to that. Being alone in this place is an awkward sensation, one difficult to describe. It's like the episode of The Brady Bunch, where they end up in a ghost town.

For some reason, the concept of being alone in this place always has freaked me out, in the same way that little kids fear the deep end of the pool. It's like seeing the place without its makeup of music and superficial drunken gays as far as the eyes can see.

As an opening bartender, there is often a period of time, for about two to three hours on occasion, where I am the only person in the big empty enigma of the Labyrinth.

Often, the shift starts slow. As the afternoon progresses, the place sifts through random crazy daytime drunks, harmless people coming in to use the bathroom or get change for parking. In San Francisco, parking is so expensive that change is often a whole roll of quarters.

After about two hours of trying to make an empty bar look like a happening place, a guy walks into the bar very slowly. I can't tell if he is swaggering with some odd style, is cracked out, actually has something wrong with one of his feet, or all of the above.

This man has this odd limp where he moves one foot and slowly drags the other behind, like Igor from Frankenstein. This guy looks nothing like LL Cool J, isn't attractive, nor does he have rippling abs that you can see through his shirt. And, best of all, he doesn't seem like he will suddenly break into rap.

I just assume that there actually is something wrong with his feet. He slowly slumps up to the bar, plops his tired ole self down on a chair and just sits there. He is wearing a Padres baseball cap, with stringy grey hair hanging from it like a mop, complimented with a tie-died tee- shirt with a Bob Dylan quote written on it, and a dark blue James Dean jacket that has a little green pin on it. The pin reads: "Ass, grass or cash, nobody rides for free ."

He also has an equality symbol-pendant around his neck. His cheeks are sunken in slightly and covered with mostly salt and lightly peppered hair that looks like sand on the bottom-half of his face.

His lips are skinny, yet visibly chapped, and his skin has almost the pigment- less look, like that of a vampire. (I wonder if he even has a reflection.) His eyes, probably once blue, are grey and look like they have lived some journey. He looks like he is in his seventies, but his demeanor tells me that he is decades younger than that.

As he pulls up a stool and sits down, he picks up a napkin, as though to make a spot for an invisible future drink. Once he does this, he looks up at me. Then sitting there, fixated on the napkin in his hand, he begins to fidget with it. He goes on to turn this little napkin into some sort of origami something or other. He folds it in fourths then puts it in his pocket.

Yuri Kagan as a bartender.

I say "Hello!" three more times.

He undoes his little paper crane and starts the napkin folding process without once looking up at me.

In my head, I am not sure if he is bat-shit crazy or just a lonely guy. Then I ask him if he is okay.

He is quiet, takes out a five-dollar bill and asks for a Bud Light, he calls it "the piss of champions."

As I hand him the beer, he starts to fidget again. He then looks up at me with this smile, which reveals all his dental work, or lack thereof. The man has a mouth full of porcelain caps, where you can literally see the silver at the bottoms of every tooth. His smile says "Tijuana" all the way.

He reaches out for my hand, as though we are old friends and I am about to console him on some problem. I can truly feel his loneliness at this moment. I feel sorry for him, even though I know nothing about him or even what plagues him. I want to tell him that he's not at Cheers, because unlike Sam, I drink, but keep that thought to myself.

Not knowing what to do, I put my hand out. He holds my hand as though he has never held one before. He smiles, staring deeply into my eyes. It's one of those gazes, where someone looks into your eyes for a tiny bit longer than normal, long enough to make me feel uncomfortable.

Through his eyes, I can feel the weight of the world and see how fed up this being is with life's cruel deck of cards he has been handed. He then asks me my name. As I start to tell him, he cuts me off with a...

"You're beautiful."

Yuri Kagan

Not knowing what to say, and being horrible at taking compliments, I change the topic.

I am now trying to pull my hand out of his withered old hand, that is now clamped on to mine, making me feel like a car with too many parking tickets.

In the back of my head, I feel like he is somehow trying to suck the youth essence. It's a weird thought that I constantly have in these situations. Still alone, I ask him where he hails from. He is silent and looks down at his beer.

I walk away for a few minutes to help the two new patrons who just walked in. About ten minutes later, I come back to ask this man if he is all right and maybe if he needs a refresher. He begins to tell me about how he lived in San Francisco, "before my time," although he makes it sound like it was yesterday.

"You know, you look a lot like a bartender I used to go to here. He was my bartender."

I don't know what to say so I just give a blank, "Okay!"

"He's dead."

He was totally killing the high I came in to work with.

"It was years ago...It was a different place then. I knew Harvey Milk! We used to go to his camera shop!"

He explains this to me defensively and in an oddly loud tone. He then smiles at me and again tells me of how handsome he thinks I am. He asks me if I have any friends.

I smile and reply as cleverly as possible, "Everyone around here is my friend."

As I turn away with a Kathy Lee Gifford style half-smile of fakeness, I keep it intact while I pretend to be preoccupied with re-organizing glasses at my station.

He then says something, a response that I will never forget.

Kagan's book, Vodka and Limelight

"I used to have friends... They're all dead. Do you know what that's like?"

His words are somehow cutting through me and adding to the awkwardness.

As he twiddles with a new napkin this time, he hands me money for another beer.

As I come back with the beer he once again mutters, "They're all dead," then politely tells me, "Fuck off, you don't know me, you don't know."

He had me in his corner right until now. I don't know how to handle him. He is sort of creating a scene, as my little crowd of customers slowly forms.

I try to change the topics to happy funny sexual innuendos that any red-blooded gay man can enjoy for shits and giggles, but nothing seems to work.

Eventually the guy gets up from his barstool, falls over, trips on his own foot, then flips me the bird as he walks out the door.

Maybe he sensed the cynicism in my eyes. I do realize that I am judging much of his character based on his dilated pupils and odd mannerisms.

As he walks out, I realize that the reason he makes me feel so uncomfortable is because we all could be him in the right circumstance. Any gay man could easily understand the hostility and invisible axe this poor man must be carrying with him day in and out.

The unspoken fears that, we, as gay men all share, and the concept of being both positive and negative men.

This man is a one in a million person in this city; a gay needle in a haystack. This guy is the first of many I'll meet like him, or at least that is what my coworkers tell me. These guys all share the same scenario, some less crazy than others.

These men all would tell me about their pasts. They all "knew Harvey Milk." They all remember a romanticized version of the Castro and San Francisco that has been dead longer than I have been alive.

The version of the city I live in is far different from the one they knew. While I am thankful for the sacrifices of those before me, so that I could live as I do, I am just saying, things have changed. The world I live in is simply different. They may have known Harvey Milk, but I know Harvita Melk, a Latina Drag Queen who performs Selena songs. 


Read more of Yuri's memoir at

Former bartender Yuri Kagan and Valerie Branch cohost Full Frontal Comedy, a new monthly comedy night (3rd Thursdays), with Lydia Popovich, Kelly Anneken and Ginger Snap; proceeds benefit Margaret Cho's #berobin charity. $5. Feb 19, 8pm. The Lookout, 3600 16th St. at Market.

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