Watching the maximum glam queens on RuPaul's Drag Race (god help me, I'm addicted to it) got me thinking about this feature* and one night of research I did for it:
That a town such as Warren, Ohio, which lives in the ruts the steel industry left behind as it receded, is home to the Queen of Hearts Bar, is no small irony. Warren is neither rural nor urban nor suburban. It is the land of James Traficant (yes, still) and Fat Cats Tattoos (to name just one). There are boarded-up factories, dilapidated houses and acres of vacant weedy lots. There is Pete's Gun Shack (doing a brisk business) and the Tokyo Health Spa (nary a car in sight, but the neon sign promises that they are indeed open).
And if it is the third Saturday of the month, Warren is a place fit for a Queen.
The lot fills with cars. They venture from all points across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. The chariots hark from Michigan, West Virginia, Missouri, and New York. There is a baby-blue BMW Z3 Roadster next to an experienced Dodge Caravan, which is next to a gleaming Lexus sedan, which is next to a rusty Ford pick-up.
Inside, the bar is cavernous, with cinderblock walls, 20-foot ceilings and glittering disco balls. Forgiving red lights illuminate the bar, which is teeming. Cigarette smoke hangs. A bucket of beer (five longnecks on ice) can be had for $7 until 9 p.m., at which time the price goes to $10.
Sitting in that bar on "Queen" night was a singular experience. It was all about men in drag. The bartenders were gay men. And there I was. The queens stared at me like they wanted to take a bite right out of me. I couldn't tell if they wanted to deck me or bed me, stroke my long hair or grab of fistful and pull it out. There were plenty of uber-regular looking men in jeans and tees drooling over the queens. They would look at me and do a double take that would quickly turn wary, as if to say who is this broad, some sort of spy sent by my wife? I was intimidated and transfixed by all of it.
Many of the young glamazons were sexy and absolutely convincing, but the queens that fascinated me most were the older girls. I loved the sixty and seventysomethings. One was standing there in a pastel green dress with a Peter Pan collar that could have come straight from Aunt Gerdie's closet. She wore sensible heels, a strand of pearls, and had a straw handbag dangling from her wrist. She had a cigar in one hand and a scotch on the rocks in the other, but there was no Milton Berle ha-ha about her.
People were talking in tight groups. The music was cocktail-party soft, and despite the sizable crowd, it was oddly quiet until about 11 p.m.
That's when the opening glissando of ABBA's Dancing Queen blasted from the speakers. It was like a battle cry. All the queens exploded from their seats and poured onto the dance floor in a flurry of motion. Many were awkward in their heels. Their muscular legs were obvious in tight mini skirts. Some wore short baby-doll style party frocks full up with lacy crinolines. They danced with each other. They danced in groups. They danced alone. Their energy and abandon was something to behold. I marveled at their joie de vivre, even if it was contained to an unlikely barroom at the end of a mostly vacant strip mall in torn and frayed Warren, Ohio.
Although I got one good interview under my belt, as a GG (genetic girl) by herself, I simply did not fit in. This was an all-male vibe with no room for a straight chick. I don't often feel uncomfortable in a bar, but I did that night. Things were just warming up, but I left around 11:30. Although one of the queens made a vaguely threatening statement to me that I don't exactly recall (something about how, as a man, she would tower over me), I was probably being overly cautious when I got up to leave. In a rare move, I flipped open my cell as I walked out and called Eric. I spoke to him until I was safely locked in the car with the engine running.
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