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Everything Felt Cursed After Carrie Nation Closed

Before it became Ginger’s, the Brooklyn gay bar was its very own neighborhood opera.

The most Brooklyn thing I ever said, I said at Carrie Nation, a gay bar on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope named after the famous Prohibitionist who carried an axe to chop open barrels of alcohol. It was a classic Brooklyn cash-only bar.

One night, a new guy was complaining loudly about how they didn’t take cards, waving a Visa around and saying he’d buy everyone a drink if they would just charge him. No one was looking at him; everyone was just waiting for him to shut up and go down the street to the ATM. Finally he said, to the bartender but also to the silent room, “Come on, how about you guys give the new guy a welcome?”

“We just did,” I said. The rest of the room snickered.

He left and we never saw him again.

Before I first walked into Carrie, I usually endured gay bars. When I first came out, going to one was like a kind of torture; nights spent acting casual as the anticipation of meeting someone rose and then often fell. I might go with friends or see friends when I showed up, but they were usually trying to meet someone, too. The best ones had style, but there was still a dull sameness to them. The drinks were usually not any good and too expensive; they were served in plastic cups and made with two ingredients: vodka and something, rum and something, whiskey and something.

After I found Carrie, sometime in 1995, I realized how much I needed a place where my identity wasn’t a badge I needed to flash, a place where I could just relax. I recall being immediately aware of an easy quiet in the bar’s front room, unusual in a gay bar. There was a beautiful old dark-wood bar with a mirror behind it that ran for almost the length of the room, allowing those who sat there the ability to scan the space without looking at someone directly, if they wanted to cruise. A few of us would sit in the front window if we wanted—unusual in gay bars until recently. I recall that the primary division was between the front and the back. The people who came to play pool—often but not always lesbians—kept to themselves, while the rest of us occupied the front.

Most nights I would order a bourbon, beer or both and sit in the dark by a candle at a small table with a book. I fell into the rhythm of the place so quickly, it was as if I’d always been there. Sometimes I looked up from a book and fell in love, or at least in like, and sometimes I saw just an old friend—someone I’d met there. The room could be lively, quiet or an opera—especially on the few nights the owner’s wife would come in and kick everyone out, turn up the music and drunkenly pull down the gate until her husband showed up to plead with her to let us all back in.

I still remember the bartenders—Ray, Cheryl and Jack—most of all. We loved them so much we followed them to three other bars after they left. That was when the bar seemed cursed for a while, and we felt cursed, too.

Eventually, Carrie closed and became the new location for Ginger’s in 2000 (the “lesbian-centric dive bar of your dreams,” as this website put it), and some former patrons of Carrie opened Excelsior, down the street. But I still missed Carrie. Where else could I have stayed the night Princess Diana died, watching the news as it came in on the small television that was usually never on, drinking until dawn? I still recall the man who gave me a French copy of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover as a parting gift before he moved, or the man who came for the summer and broke most of the hearts in the bar one by one, coming in at different times and how we all watched like it was a public access soap opera.

Carrie Nation was my local bar, and also my gay bar. I’d never had one before and haven’t had one since. In its place is a loneliness unlike any I’ve ever known.

This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.

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Alexander Chee is the author of the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh.