Few bartenders personify the bar they work for more than Fredd E. “Tree” Sequoia, who has served drinks at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village on and off for nearly a quarter century. Before that, he was a regular of the Christopher Street tap and was present the night of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots were sparked by a violent police raid; the protests are widely credited with starting the gay rights movement in the United States. In recognition of Sequoia’s importance to Stonewall, last year he was sent on a nine-country tour as an ambassador for the bar, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the uprising.
This year, meanwhile, is another story. Just months after Stonewall’s half-century celebration, the bar, like many others across New York City, was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, Stonewall joined a sidewalk-seating brigade, generating some much-needed income. But the road ahead for the bar—which has seen it all during its long history, from closings to reopenings to garnering national landmark status—remains steeply uphill. For the 81-year-old Tree, who has temporarily returned to his former home not as a bartender, but as a barfly, it’s just another chapter in a life packed with drama. “One of my friends told me,” Tree said, “‘You have led five people’s lives.’”
Are you back behind the bar now that The Stonewall Inn is doing sidewalk seating?
No, I’m not working. A couple of us have not gone back yet. I had the virus in February and have antibodies. It was a mild case. I took a weekend off and that shocked everybody. They all know I work with 102-degree fevers and the worst colds. We meet once a week outside Stonewall and have drinks, a bunch of us.
Do you miss bartending?
I miss the people I work with. I miss the regulars who are in there all the time. But most of all I miss the people I have not met yet. That’s why I don’t work now. We’re behind plastic. The owner said, ‘Tree, you need to know everything about everyone sitting at your bar—who they are, where they’re from.’ I talk to the young, the old. When I talk about the old days—the ’50s, the ’60s—they say, ‘Really? How old are you?’ I say 81. They say, ‘No way!’ Because everyone says I look, like, 65. I call them my family. One of them calls me Dad. When his father died, he called me up and said, ‘I only have one dad now,’ and I started crying.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
I had a friend that was a bouncer at the Ninth Circle [a former steakhouse on 10th Street that converted into a gay bar and disco in the 1970s; it closed in 2002]. He worked seven days a week for a long time. He asked me would I cover two days. So, I worked Monday and Tuesday, quiet days. After about a month and a half the owner asked me would I like to be a bartender, I said, ‘I don’t drink and I’ve never made a drink.’ He said, ‘You’re gonna learn to do both,’ and that was 52 years ago.
How did you get the job at Stonewall?
I was manager at Ninth Circle and manager at Mama’s Chicken Rib, a little coffee shop. I worked at Julius’ for five years and then I thought I’d retire. But that didn’t happen; they keep dragging me back. I was asked [to bartend] by Stonewall. They wanted someone who was there that night [of the riot]. I love working. I love bartending. I don’t want to retire. I always tell the owner, “You’re going to have to clean it up when I drop dead behind the bar.”
What was the night of June 28, 1969, like?
The night of the rebellion I was in there dancing with my friends to a jukebox. I was doing the Lindy Hop with my friends. It was a gay bar; you had to know people to get in. In those days, if you didn’t know where a gay bar was, you never went to one. It was against the law to serve known homosexuals alcohol. We heard the screaming and rioting and all of a sudden the cops came in. We were lucky that we got out. One of the cops, Charlie—one of the good cops, there were a few—he would give us money, 35 cents, to go home if we were broke. And then there were the cops who would just hit us with a nightstick and call us faggots. That night, I was in there with my friends Charlie and Frank; we called them Bubbles and Crystal; and Gregory, we called him Father Fun because he was a Catholic priest. That’s why Charlie the cop helped us, because it wasn’t nice to catch a Catholic priest in a gay bar in 1969. Gregory left instantly. We started throwing rocks and bottles, breaking the windows. They were shaking the police cars. One police car was set on fire. They broke the lock on one of the paddy wagons; everybody they arrested ran up and down the streets. When we ran out of bottles and bricks, we threw garbage cans through the bar windows. When we saw the riot police come, we ran like hell. I ran. We came back the next night to join in. We were up on Christopher Street and saw our friends in line. They said, we’re marching up to Central Park. We thought they were nuts—that’s a long walk! We walked along with them. We came back down to the Village. We looked at each other and said, ‘It’s over. Nothing’s going to happen again.’ And look what happened. We’re on our 51st year.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
If the customer has a sense of humor, I’ll say to someone, ‘Drink fast, my phone number is on your ice cubes.’ Or, ‘Your hair color is going to look so nice on my pillowcase.’ My job is: They came in for one drink and now they’re on their third.
How has bartending changed over the course of your career?
It’s hard to say how bartending has changed. Well, first there’s always new drinks coming out, new ways of making a drink and of course price changes. The pay got better and in some instances covered for insurance.
The pandemic must be one of the most unusual chapters in your long career.
In my life! I was born when Roosevelt was President. I lived through all the wars. I always tried to join but I was always too young or too old. I lived through the AIDS pandemic. I lived through 9/11. I lived through everything. This is the worst.
What is the first thing you’ll do the day Stonewall reopens to the public inside?
I’ll probably kiss the bar. Kiss the people I work with. Though we’re probably still going to be wearing masks all next year.