Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Malevolent Munchkin of Christopher Street


In a bar in the West Village which has been around so long it’s practically an institution, but which has frankly seen better days, there is a diminutive bartender that lately I’ve been calling the "Miserable Munchkin" of Christopher Street. We used to have a cordial, even friendly, acquaintanceship, the munchkin and I, but it got to a point where I got tired of the melodrama he created and avoided him whenever I could. I confess I also thought he was sort of cute and the last thing I wanted was to develop any kind of serious feelings for him considering he was twenty years younger than me and oh so full of angst. And I’d heard stories ...There was one man who said they’d been friends but that M. no longer spoke to him and "was not a nice person." And the outraged playwright who told me one Halloween that the Munchkin "holds out the promise of sex" to get a part. [To a straight guy it may be networking, but to a gay guy it’s a date.] I later realized that my main feeling for the fellow was one of simple paternal affection and nothing more. But most of all, I just felt sorry for the guy.

Admittedly I’ve never been very comfortable with straight-identified bartenders in gay bars (I’ve often wondered what these fellows say to their friends or girlfriends -- do they laugh about the "fags" or "old queens" behind our backs to take off the "curse" of working in a gay bar?) And I doubt if most of them are completely straight [NOTE: See post on Gay-Friendly Closet Cases.] But I got used to the Munchkin because he at least seemed gay-friendly on the surface (remember these fellows work for tips). I never really bought into his straight act, which I imagine was a big bone of contention between us, although I didn’t bring it up very often and it seemed not to bother him when I did, until a later point. Tough. When he first started working there he went on and on one evening about the women he’d been fucking (those who talk about it the most do it the least) until I finally shouted "who the hell goes to a gay bar to listen to some straight guy talk about the women he’s fucking?" which practically got a round of applause from the other customers.

The vast majority of customers of the bar think the Munchkin is outright gay and closeted, bisexual, or just deeply conflicted. Some feel he’s a straight guy who hates the thought of anyone thinking he’s gay (which is in itself a kind of homophobia). It seems to me that any guy who has a horror of being perceived as gay would want to work anywhere but a gay bar – Duh! In any case, as we shall see, this is a man with serious issues. NOTE: Let me make it clear at this point that I am NOT saying this person is gay or bisexual and have no personal knowledge of his sexual orientation or romantic life, nor any desire to have any knowledge of same.

The munchkin is an aspiring actor (one reason why I pitied him, as there is no more merciless and hopeless profession) and one night I took a friend to see him in a play where he essayed a gay male stripper. My friend is an elderly man who is very hard of hearing, so we sat in the front row, as we usually do when I’m with him. The munchkin broke out in a broad grin, convinced we were there just to get a close up look of his assets, which I didn’t even care to check out. I found this display of ego rather amusing, however, and indeed to be fair to the munchkin he could, like most actors, be very charming when he wanted to be. There are customers who find him perfectly friendly, warm and pleasant, probably because they're lucky enough never to venture into the bar when he's in a nasty funk. When the Munchkin turns off the charm, there is no bigger bitch in a gay bar or anywhere else.

Not long after we saw the show – one of a few mostly forgettable epics the munchkin has appeared in off off off off Broadway – I went into the bar and asked about his next role. He told me he had been cast in a play in which he was a straight guy (naturally) who moves in with two gay men. When they refuse to let him leave, he murders them. Amazingly, he didn’t even seem embarrassed as he told me this plot. Did he forget he was in a gay bar and that I was a gay man?
Okay. I told him the play sounded pretty homophobic to me and he responded that the playwright himself was gay (if so, another person with issues?). He then had the unmitigated gall of suggesting that if he moved in with me and the elderly friend who’d attended the first play that we probably wouldn’t let him leave. (Let me make it clear that this guy isn’t that cute. And the average guy on the make at Ty’s on a Saturday night is a lot hotter.) I responded with equal hubris that if he moved in with either of us he wouldn’t want to leave (in which case I’d have to call the police to get rid of him). Anyway, about a year later I asked him again about this stupid play he’d told me about – which under no circumstances would I have gone to see – and he told me he had never been cast in a play like that and had no idea what I was talking about. In other words, he’d made the whole thing up. Was he "warning away" two gay men, neither of whom had any serious interest in pursuing him in the first place?

Let’s look at that plot again. Straight guy murders two gay men. Is this a guy with issues or what?

This was during the first few months of his employment at the bar, and I don’t think he ever tried anything quite so glaringly homophobic again -- at least not with me. Instead he would make comments, sweeping comments about the gay community, such as "gay men don’t want to be in the military" or something to that affect. When I protested he told me to "get real." I had no chance to discuss why we have a don’t ask/don’t tell policy if gays don’t want to be in the military, nor to mention that my aforementioned elderly friend had been an Army sergeant during the Korean War, that I knew lots of gays in the military and one of the regulars at the bar had even been a fighter pilot. It was the old "gay men are big sissies, they could never survive being in the Army crap" only it was coming from a bartender in a gay bar! And there were other incidents, other comments that went right up to the border of homophobia. There was the time when with withering disdain he complained about "all the old queens who come in here and say they're related to Judy Garland," or some such nonsense which I knew was utter bullshit if ever I heard it because the only time I have ever had anything close to a conversation about Judy Garland in a gay bar -- this or any other -- was on this occasion with the Munchkin. Few of the customers in the bar were "queens" and most were a hell of a lot butcher than the Munchkin. One time -- during gay pride week no less -- a perfectly nice and friendly "queen" from Brazil did come into the bar and in a cute way said that he "used to have a big photo of Madonna" on his bedroom wall. Now, maybe the Munchkin dislikes Madonna as much as I do, but couldn't he at least have had a smile on his face when he almost spat at this nice fellow "why am I not surprised?" Instead, smirking unkindly, he came off bitchy, snide, and decidedly not gay-friendly. Madonna may never have gotten much play in this bar, and this fellow was not a regular or even a typical customer, but he was a gay man, damn it, and this was fucking Gay Pride week. Needless to say, the Brazillian did not stay long in the bar, and who could blame him (he, too, thought M was in the closet)?

Once I told the Munchkin "you don’t know what it’s like to be a gay man." He responded "Yes I do." Hmmm. "Why?" I said, "just because you’ve worked in a gay bar for a couple of years? I’ve been openly gay for twenty-five years – do you really think you know more about the gay community than I do?" "Only twenty-five years?" was his rejoinder. What a bitch! But then maybe he thought I came out of the closet at five or something; I never thought he was out and out stupid, but apparently he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, either.

As I review all this I remember what another patron once said to me about the Munchkin. "The trouble with him isn’t that he’s straight. The trouble is that he’s an asshole."

There were comical moments along the way. When the bar wisely hired an attractive young man who was actually openly gay (bravo!) – a beefy and very likable hunk straight (no pun intended) from Splash bar – with big sculptured biceps, the comparatively skinny Munchkin attempted to compete with him by taking off his pants and cavorting in his underwear. It actually looked kind of cute, like he was wearing a kilt, but when one of the customers told him "put your pants on, you look ridiculous," the Munchkin got mad and 86'd him. [I imagine people may have occasionally made unkind remarks to the Munchkin (or at least what he interpreted as same – he can dish it out but he can’t take it, sensitive to his own feelings but insensitive to others’) but I’d be willing to bet that in almost all occasions they were reacting to some remark he’d made to them first.] When the bar started hiring go go boys, the Munchkin jumped up on the stage when the pros were through for the evening and did a quick non-strip for his fan club. Yes, the Munchkin had his admirers, those who couldn’t see the mood-swings and unpleasantness lurking beneath the baby face, but there were plenty of customers who couldn’t stand him. (Some of these call him "Grumpy.") One turned to me on this occasion and said, "[Munchkin] doesn’t like it when any one else gets some attention." The night he wore his underpants somebody sitting near me shouted out for M to take them off. The Munchkin thought it was me (one view of his naked body in that play was more than enough), rushed over to where I sat, and almost spat in my face: "There aren't enough sheqels." [Yes, the sheqel is Israeli -- Jewish -- currency.]

Like most people in his twenties, the Munchkin is undoubtedly panicked at the thought that he probably won’t be rich and famous by the age of thirty. As the years went by and the big 3 0 grew closer, his angst increased and he seemed to become increasingly like the stereotype of the bitter middle-aged bartender whose dreams haven’t come true – you know the type – only he was only 28! The last time I encountered one of these creatures was when I attended a party out in Brooklyn. Leaving the party I was heading for the subway when I realized I had to take a pee. I went into an Irish pub on the corner that had seen better days, ordered a beer, and took a leak. Most of the customers were elderly men who were getting a little drunk to forget they were elderly and all of their other problems. The bartender was a man in his forties who made vicious, cutting, vile remarks to these men out of his own unhappiness and misery. Not only had none of his dreams come true (I mean, you could tell), but he was working in a dump with only half a dozen customers and probably had creditors up the kazoo. He was a powerless man, and the only way he could achieve any small measure of power, in his own mind if nowhere else, was to run the bar like a petty tyrant or pathetic dictator picking on people who could not fight back and probably felt comfortable in no other bar and couldn't leave.

The Munchkin, incredibly, began to remind me of this man, especially when months went by and he wasn’t cast in a play and his mood soured. As noted previously, the Munchkin and I used to get along for the most part despite his occasional dumb remark and my calling him on it. One night he came into the bar, drunk, with two women – it was his night off. I asked one of the women if she was his girlfriend and she said "But isn’t he gay?" [A couple of weeks later she was briefly kissing the Munchkin at the end of the bar – quick, get me an air sickness bag – so I guess she decided he wasn’t totally gay.] The Munchkin then sidled up to me and said, "I’ve never told you this but you’re one of my favorite people who comes in here." (I am now one of his least favorite people.) I admit I was a little touched by it at the time. Perhaps because of the misplaced pity and overly sentimental paternal affection I mentioned before.

Unfortunately, yet another straight-identified barback/bouncer was hired by the bar not long after this. Not only was he rather surly, but he didn’t seem especially gay-friendly. (When this fellow came in drunk one night he seemed at least as interested in other men as any other customer.) I turned to a man sitting beside me and said, "why does a bar that caters to middle-aged gay men keep hiring young straight guys? How can they relate to us and we to them?" The Muchkin overheard me saying this, and instead of understanding where I was coming from – which may be completely beyond him as he is extremely immature – decided to interpret it as a personal attack on him. And boy, did he make me pay for it. The fact that it coincided with his being left on the cutting room floor of a film he been an extra in – and I felt very bad for him because of it – only made things worse. [Months previously I had told an acquaintance of mine that M had worked on a film with and met Jack Nicholson, and as M walked away, this other fellow said "I bet he winds up on the cutting room floor." I remember thinking that I hoped M didn’t think I had made that remark, but apparently he did.]

To "get even" with me, the Munchkin was almost as nasty as that straight guy in the bar in Brooklyn. He would snap at me, be extremely unpleasant, make unkind jabs, refer to my being Jewish in a way that was borderline anti-Semitic, and one night even went so far as to "86" virtually every person who dared to talk to me with one excuse after another. [There is something outrageously vile, pre-Stonewall, and homophobic about a straight boy throwing a gay man out of a gay bar.] He announced that he hated working with one particular bartender because when he was there "all the boring old guys come in" – I guess he was suggesting that I was one of them even though I’m the author of 30 published books and he’s a wannabee with little of interest on his limited resume – and on and on and on. In other words he was a complete c--t. There was even a sadistic cast to all this because at the time the bar was one of the very few I felt comfortable in (because of many changes I rarely go there now and I avoid the Munchkin like the plague). Still feeling sorry for him over his big disappointment at not being in the movie I cut him some slack, but began thinking that this was someone I really did not to want to be around anymore. (What made it worse is that I went to see that fucking movie – which otherwise did not really interest me at all – on the day it opened, because I knew I’d be in the bar that night and wanted to be the first to tell M that I had seen him in the film. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in it. That was hardly my fault.)

People who work with the public, especially as waiters and bartenders, have to leave their problems at home. Many people go to bars to get away from their own problems, not to have to deal with the bartender’s. Certainly if there’s a crisis in a bartender’s life, he can tell the customers he’s closest to, but he should never turn into a monster just because things aren’t going well for him. I mean, we’re talking about people who work for tips, no? Why go out of your way to alienate people. (Let me say that most of the bartenders I've met and see on a regular basis are friendly and fun and professional.)

But there’s a deeper issue here, and it has to do with the Munchkin’s obvious homophobia. Does he try this shit – this "I didn’t like what you said so get the fuck out of here" business – with young straight guys in the straight bar in the east village where he recently started working a couple of nights a week (and a far more appropriate place for the little fucker)? Does he still think gay men are a "bunch of sissies" he can pull this shit on with impunity? Doesn’t he realize by now that most of the men in the gay bar, middle-aged or younger, are a hell of a lot tougher than the Munchkin only thinks he is.

I don’t know what will happen to this fellow in the future, but if things don’t work out for him I hope I never run into him in any bar where he might be working. Not because he scares me because believe me he doesn’t. But if he’s this obnoxious now, imagine how he’ll be ten or twenty – hell, even two or five – years from now? I still feel a little sorry for him (although I don’t know why the hell I do) – not every younger person is happy or has an easy life, and I’m sure in addition to the known pressures, there are others I have no idea about. But either he’ll get along or he won’t. It sure as shit ain’t my concern.

I’m a middle-aged gay guy. I have problems and pressures that I doubt would ever occur to the Munchkin, nor would he give a shit about them. I don’t believe that during the past four years he asked a single customer what it was like being gay or what their lives were like. He has no feelings for nor interest in me, but I also know that on a subconscious level he’s damned pissed that I’ve basically ignored him for months. Because people who suffer from NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), which is basically most actors, don’t like to be ignored. After not seeing him for about eleven months, I went into the bar and he was even nastier to me than before. One customer quipped that "he’s probably hot for you and can’t handle it." Well, no, I don’t think he’s hot for me.

Maybe it’s just easier to hate other people instead of -- for whatever reason -- yourself.


John said...

Ugh! This sounds like a bartender to avoid! Gay, straight, or bi he's a complete A-hole!

I've met a couple of straight guys in gay bars but they don't act like this -- and if they did they'd be thrown out in a hurry! As he reveals his negative, homophobic side to more and more customers it's likely he'll eventually be asked to leave. Complaints to the management might have some effect as well.

Bill Samuels said...

That's true, but he's already worked in the place several years and people forgive a lot because they either think he's "cute" or pitiable or both. I have a feeling he'll eventually do the sensible thing and switch to a straight bar full time. Good riddance!

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

You're not alone, Bill. I've had the misfortune of encountering the munchkin myself and have also found his behavior and comments to be highly inappropriate and obnoxious at times. Frankly I think you're perhaps being too sympathetic. It's not as if he's the only bartender/actor in New York who can't get an acting job. He had better learn to join the club and deal with it.

Bill Samuels said...

Thanks for your comment. You make a good point. People who work with the public in particular have to "suck it up" and remember that everyone else is dealing with their own problems as well. But it's tough to get immature people to see anybody's side but their own.