From an ongoing documentary project.
New York, NY
Fall has arrived in the West Village. Last night a tropical storm rolled over the Hudson and ripped the last of summer out by the nails, screaming all the way out to Long Island. Blew rain and lightning up the New Meadowlands Stadium skirt, clearing stands for almost an hour before the Jets beat back the Vikings for a soggy 29-20 victory. There's a cold and frail bite to the air just now. Brittle leaves are skittering down Christopher St. in the orange liqueur light of window decorations; in less than three weeks these streets will be jammed with drunk goblins ogling for a view of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade surging up 6th Ave.
I am ten minutes late for my meeting with Ronelle McKenzie, co-owner of Chi Chiz, styled "the only black gay bar in New York City". It's the title-holder on Christopher St., at least. Luis the doorman asks me to wait at the end of the bar; they always act like they’re expecting me, and hop excitedly when I arrive. The bartender phones down stairs.
The Chi Chiz of weekday afternoons and early evenings is a townie bar, not the swamp of vice and violence concocted in police reports and news articles. There is tension here, but not from patrons.
On March 5, 2010 the NYPD's 6th precinct sent in officers to shut the place down. It was a Friday evening. A 24-hour phone scramble ensued between McKenzie and some outside help. By the late afternoon of the following day, Saturday, March 6, Chi Chiz was re-opened for business. No one expected that.
The city's case went back nine months prior, to the summer of 2009, when, according to their own reports, the first of several subsequent drug sales was made to undercover officers from the 6th precinct on the Chi Chiz premises. Opinions swerve widely and predictably on these sales; some Chi Chiz patrons aren't shy about calling it an outright setup by undercover cops. Whatever the methods, the cops worked hard and fast to bring down a bar that, in local opinions of influence, had long been a blight on the West Village.
For several years a conflux of forces toxic to local sensibilities has been building in Christopher St.: the pier kids—gay teenagers, most of color—from New Jersey and the outer boroughs congregate in the area, raising hell occasionally into the early morning hours; transvestite prostitutes—also of color—can be overheard negotiating with johns on the sidewalks (many moved to the area after their former trawling grounds in the Meatpacking District were swept clean); open drug sales pass hands just across the street from Chi Chiz. It all chafes visibly on the well-to-do locals, gay or straight, of any color. The biggest complaint: jammed sidewalks; locals have to walk in the street half the time because of people glutting the sidewalks. It is occasionally, awkwardly, added that these people just happen to be of, ah, often of color. Yes, vague sentiments of racism, real or imagined, flavor every exchange on the subject. In the eyes of the 6th precinct Chi Chiz itself has become (or always has been) the beachhead of this unwelcome element from across the river and the outer boroughs, and it requires firm and final dislodging. They've cast the battle solely, rigidly as a narcotics issue. The raid of March 5 was likely intended as a clean and ruthless first-round knockout; no one working the case expected Chi Chiz to get back on its feet so quickly, if at all.
I've been waiting five minutes at the bar when Jay comes up, tends to some business with the bartender, and escorts me through the door. He's manager most nights of the week. He hits the elevator button. “Usually we take the stairs, but the knee is acting up.” I ask if he ever played ball. “No, and I only got one broken bone. I’m turning forty-two soon. It’s the change in weather,” he says. I tell him—honestly—that I wouldn’t guess him to be that age. Jay chuckles. “Well…thank you. But I said I’m turning forty-two. Not there yet.” I never find out what the broken bone was.
Elevator deposits us in the basement. Dank, fluorescent-lit. Around a corner is Ronelle’s office, a closet-sized affair jammed on all walls with alpine files and a floor-standing AC unit like a polar bear on its haunches, grinding noisily at some bone in its jaws.
Ronelle and I chat briefly while she taps at her cell phone. She’s honking through her sinuses now, a very different voice than I’ve spoken with before, and she snuffles and dabs her nose with tissues. “I have a cold,” is the flagrant announcement. She hands Jay the cell when the text composition is complete, asking him to send it when he gets back upstairs.
I suggest we shut off the AC for the audio recording, but am already counting losses. Ronelle lifts and drops back on her desk what might be a stack of raked leaves: “See what I’m resorting to? Need to win a million to save Chi Chiz,” she half-jokes. They’re lottery tickets.
I suggest we postpone the interview; the goosey change in her voice and climbing temperature in the room won’t work. We reschedule. As long as I’m at it, though, I ask about an introduction to some old-timers of both Chi Chiz and the neighborhood.
Ronelle leans back, then glances into a corner of her desk blocked from my view by an Ikiru-like column of paperwork. “Antonio. That may be him now. I can’t tell without seeing the Afro. Is that fuzzy hair?” It’s a security monitor buried in that hidden corner. “Another old-timer is Craig. And Alex.” She mentions a few familiar names: Keller’s. Two Potato. Old-timer hangouts current and former for gay men of color. “And me,” she says. She moved to the West Village in ’89. Used to drink here—this building, now Chi Chiz—when it was called The Bulge. A leather bar, then, and it had two pool tables but no one ever played. Didn’t matter; she was in New York's Gay Pool League and used the empty tables for practice. That’s how they all met back then—Ronelle, Alex, and the now-deceased former third partner, Mark.
I let the trail go cold to save it for the audio interview. We’re wrapping up. Ronelle turns away and blows her nose. “I get two colds a year. When it changes—winter to spring, summer to fall,” she says. “It’s the change in weather.”
Back in the bar—we take the stairs up—I decide to take a few pictures. I’m as curious about the two men playing pool in back as they are of me. I work my way over and interrupt. Fulton is smallish, professorial, with salty stubble he strokes with thumb and forefinger when reminding you of his regrettable age. Without effort his warmth puts one at ease. His pool partner is Michael, young and with a Bronx style. He declines to be photographed, though Fulton doesn’t mind. “I don’t do pictures of me in magazines, newspapers, nothing like that,” says Michael.
They rack up another game and break. I’m rusty on the camera. Not one good shot—on the table, either. The game is over in what seems like ninety seconds: Fulton has a case of camera jitters and throws the game to Michael, who sweeps up. They crack jokes about it. I take Fulton’s card and exit.
Depending on who you talk to, there's a strong case for mistaken identity: the patrons of Chi Chiz are not the cause of trouble on Christopher St.; in fact, they're victims. They've been rolled by thugs in the PATH station, harassed by knots of pier kids teething for a fight, told by cops they can't even smoke on the sidewalk out front of the bar. Guilty by association. You talk to someone else, it's all a lump case of racism: black faces are not welcome on this street.
Outside the temperature has dropped another degree. A circle of black kids, early twenties at the oldest, have swamped the sidewalk in front of a nearby café. One of them sits on a bench next to a sign that says, “For Customers Only”. He isn’t one. Someone from the café leans out the window. “Excuse me, sir? Please don’t sit there. For customers only. See the sign?”
The young man laughs shortly. It falls flat, the smile drops. “You serious?” he says back. There is a nod. He stands, maybe offended. Maybe just shocked. He and his friends murmur restlessly about it.
A seriously put-together blond, white, crisp in black jacket and a lot of leg scissoring beneath black miniskirt, veers over the curb, jabbing a three-inch heel into the drift of dank gutter debris, totters down the bike lane and back up onto the curb to circumnavigate the group. Her lips purse slightly. Her eyes fire an acid look almost too quick to catch. The kids don’t notice.
William Bourassa Jr.