Saturday, October 8, 2016

We Walk into a Bar in Iowa

The Blazing Saddle, Des Moines, Iowa
The Blazing Saddle, Des Moines
“You’ve been to forty states and this is your first gay bar?” Bryan the bartender (and one of the owners) asked incredulously. We hadn't planned to go to The Blazing Saddle, but we went to a different place. Then we went somewhere else that looked interesting from the website. But no one was there. (They may all have been at the Carrie Underwood concert at the Wells Fargo Arena.) So we walked down the block and saw plenty of people inside and outside The Blazing Saddle.

Besides the very important fact of actual people we could talk to, there was the name of the place. I love the early films of Mel Brooks (From The Producers to Silent Movie is one of the all time great five film streaks, with Blazing Saddles smack dab in the middle.) The founder of the bar went by the nickname of “Mongo,” after the character (played by NFL star Alex Karras) who slugs a horse. The Blazing Saddle has a pool table and a variety of posters and paintings for decorations (including a portrait of Bette Davis). There were a couple of TVs playing music videos.

One of the bartenders, Christopher (who we later learned was also an owner), greeted us cheerfully as we worked our way to the crowded bar. He asked what we’d be having. Mindy inquired about a drink the man next to her was drinking. It was a coffee martini, which sounded good to her. The man drinking it offered her a sip, since it was made with tequila and might not be what she liked. She declined the sip, but when the man added that it tasted like mocha, she ordered it. I, being boring and stuck in a rut, ordered an Angry Orchard.

Christopher later told us that he considers it very important to greet people when they come. Sometimes, he told us, if he’s out front smoking a cigarette when someone new enters the place, he’ll toss the cigarette in the ashtray and go in to greet them. “Can’t let them wait at the bar.” (He said he sometimes goes through a pack a day that way.)

We sat down next to Jesse (whose martini Mindy didn’t share). He told us he works in human resources, so we shared stories about customer service. We asked if he’d mind answering our standard questions, and he agreed.

We asked, “What makes for a good bar?”

Jesse said, “My answer has changed as I’ve gotten older. If I had to pick a word, I’d say ‘relaxed.’” He said he liked to be able to talk to people and listen to music. He added, “Anybody’s welcome here.”

I asked what he liked in a bar when he was younger, and Jesse said that he used to like a loud place with as many people packed in as possible.

We asked what would make for a good church. Jesse said, “It’d have to be open and affirming. So for here, that’d be Plymouth Church.” (I heard a couple of other people at the Blazing Saddle speak positively about Plymouth.) He added, “I grew up Pentecostal. I don’t like it where the format’s all rigid.” He joked about churches where you have to stand up at 9:04 and sit down at 9:05, same time, every week. He also said he likes a positive message and not “fire and brimstone” every week. He said that until he left his hometown to go to school, he’d often led music at church, which he kind of misses. He said, “Music in church seems to be unifying. It’s the closest to real magic the world has.”

Jesse was to our left at the bar, so after a while I turned to talk to Joe, who was to my right. He was there with Jim, his partner of thirty years. They had been going to the Blazing Saddle for the last thirty years, most of the bar’s 33 year existence. “We like this bar, people know each other. It’s a family atmosphere.” He also said that a good bar serves strong drinks, but Joe drinks beer anyway. He said he wants a welcoming place, which will be clean and comfortable and safe. He implied this place hadn’t always been such a place, but it is now.

He talked about some of the good things this bar did, such as collecting amenities (such as toothpaste and soap) for AIDS victims and the homeless. They’ve also raised money for scholarships for LGBT students with Bingo, drag shows, or silent auctions.

I asked Joe what would make for a good church and he said, “They should have activities that keep you interested and bring you back.” He said that they don’t have to a hundred percent supportive of the gay movement but they shouldn’t be “preaching against the gay world.”  He added that a good church, like a good bar, should have people that are like family. He said most churches he’s known have been warm, and he felt that churches should be a good place to socialize without being judged.

The crowd at the bar had thinned a little, so Mindy asked another of the bartenders, Aaron, if she could bother him with a couple questions. He said a good bar needs a “combination of staff and clientele. We have regulars creating an atmosphere of enjoyment. We’re the Cheers of Iowa.” He said, “We treat people the way they want to be treated. And I should add that we have the strongest, cheapest drinks in the state.”

As for church, Aaron said a good church needs “an understanding of who your people are -- who’s coming in.” He told Mindy about his grandma, who’d said, “Whoever walks in your front door is family. Welcome everybody who comes in.”

He said church should be like that, then added, “Kind of like here, but our communion is fireballs and peppermint shots. People come in here to get the stress of the world off their shoulders. Religion and bars are two entities that are kind of the same. There’s a lot of sin here, maybe, but a lot of charity, too. If we have a show, it’s for a good cause, like for veterans. It’s one of the things we’re known for around here.”

As we were leaving, Christopher was sitting on a bench outside, and he thanked us for coming. We asked him if we could ask our two questions, and he happily complied.

He first said that a good bar serves “a good stiff drink,” but later, he spoke of what he thought was good about The Blazing Saddle. He said that it was friendly and not a threatening place: “straight, gay, whoever you are, come in and have a good time.”

We told Christopher we appreciated his friendly greeting when we entered, and he said, “If you own a business, you have to be that way.” He said he’s been in the service industry since he was 14, and that’s how he’s been.

We asked him what would make for a good church and he said, “My parents were hippies, so I never grew up with religion. I didn’t grow up with church. I never ever ever went to church.” He did say, though that he’s been to weddings and funerals and that as a kid he went to Bible school at a church nearby. He said his “other half” grew up Catholic but doesn’t go to church anymore. For Christopher, church and religion have never had a place in his life.

He said that he and his partner Matt sometimes go to a straight bar near their home. One of owners, a Catholic woman, initially lectured them on their lifestyle. He asked her, “Who are you to judge me?” He said that they worked through it and now are friends.

Bryan, another owner who’d been working behind the bar, joined us about then. He said Blazing Saddle has won so many awards in the local papers for best neighborhood bar that they’ve considered changing the award name to “The Blazing Saddle Award.” He said they’re known as the “Gay Cheers,” and Christopher added that the same people come regularly and sit in the same seats.

Even though we weren’t regulars, the folks at The Blazing Saddle still made us feel welcome.

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