Every time I despair for my country, it's America's storytellers — gifts we don't deserve, every one of them — who restore my hope. Trump and his bigots pound their chests — and are swept into the gutters where they belong, as the rainbow of America dances down the streets singing "I am not throwin' away my shot!"
Nate DiMeo is the creator of a podcast I like called The Memory Palace. In each episode, he offers up a brief story — an incident, a sketch, a life — in the best tradition of storytellers around the hearth since time immemorial. Tiny, compelling stories about people you'd most likely never otherwise have heard of, that always illuminate something far bigger.
Last week, he totally hit it out of the park. In nine-and-a-half minutes The White Horse pulled me into the story of the country's oldest gay bar. And left tears streaming down my face.
I don't know, but I assume he'd already been working on a story about The White Horse for some time before Orlando. If not, he can't possibly have slept in the four days between the attack and his posting the story. Either way, he extracted transcendence from horror.
I am painfully aware that some of my friends don't share my love of audio storytelling. Rather than try to persuade you that this one is special — you have to try it! — I've started transcribing it. I'm not done. But I didn't want to delay this post. I'll finish transcribing it and post the rest later. Meanwhile....
The White Horse Inn on Telegraph, in Oakland, opened in 1933. Or thereabouts. No-one's been able to nail down the date. Historians have tried — as have various of its owners, it seems, over the years. But if you're not an academic, or if you don't have a personal financial stake in solidifying its claim — as the oldest gay bar in the United States to operate continuously in one location — it doesn't really matter when The White Horse first opened its doors.
Just that it was soon enough. For a man to walk in on just the right night in 1936. Or forty-six. Or fifty-four. And see the most beautiful man he'd ever seen in his life. And just be done for.
Soon enough for another man, who'd heard of this place — heard of places like it. Whispered about — or mocked — by the fellows on the assembly line or in the office or in his usual joint across town. Heard the cracks about pansies and perverts and queers. And feared what they might mean. Feared why the words seemed to cut right through him. Sit strange in his belly. Tight in his throat.
But who fought through that fear to make his way there — to The White Horse. Who may have circled the block, all butterflies, before working up the courage to park. Who may have walked right past it, rather than be seen walking in by some stranger. Or maybe he pulled his collar up, and tipped his fedora low, and pushed through the door as fast as he could.
And who may have learned that night — in that bar — where men talked to men by the fireplace in the back. Where women flirted with women in the light of the jukebox. Men held hands by the pool table like it was nothing. Like it wasn't everything. Knew that night for sure that this was the place he belonged. That this might be the only place he belonged.
Like it was for other women and men — those who were identified correctly as such at birth, and those who weren't. People who needed their lives to change. To make sense. To be less lonely. To be less scary. To be more fun. To be safe.
In the forties and fifties, and later, men and women — friends from the neighborhood or the bus, or church — friends who knew the truth about each-other — would walk arm-in-arm up Telegraph Road to The White Horse. Would play at being people they were not. And then walk through the door — into that windowless room — and become who they were. They'd go their separate ways: He to a boyfriend, and she to a girlfriend. And they'd spend a few hours in a place where so much of that they'd been taught all their lives about what life was supposed to be — about who they had to be to be happy, or responsible, or good, or saved — just fell apart. Just put the lie to the whole thing.