Scenes from The Hole, San Diego's Most Glorious Gay Bar
This is far from the country's most depraved gay bar, but it hovers near the perfect amount of madness, and is that much better for it.
Among leather-leaning gay bars, there is a tradition known as the beer bust. Straight bars have this too (they look like this), and the gay kind isn't so different: it's basically a crowd of guys drinking in the afternoon. Sometimes, there is a grill. But a sense of familiarity and cheer arises among a gaggle of fat, happy, liquor-loosed gay men that doesn't anywhere else. Gay bars are already orders of magnitude more deranged than their straight counterparts; with day drinking, the beer bust is a cross between a kinky "Afternoon Delight" and a kegger for childless adults.
For my money, the best of them is at San Diego's The Hole, whose embittered owner tricked everyone into thinking it was closing last weekend when the landlord ended the lease. The landlord owns the place now, and is changing the name to "The Hole in the Wall" (like it's America's saddest hotel sports bar) and cleaning things up. But not too much, hopefully, because since the 1980s, when it began offering free fried chicken on Sundays, this place has conjured a weekly horde of the most unpretentious, unrepentantly fun dudes known to gay mankind.
The Hole stands on a bleached, sprawling San Diego street, between faceless auto shops and the iridescent green of a neighboring golf course. Once known as The 19th Hole, it sits at the bottom of a century-old ditch in the ground, lending two excuses for the least subtly-named bar since The Cock. Sunday is the only day it turns a profit. To descend through its tree-shaded entrance into the morass of sloshed humanity below is to hallucinate a back-hair-fleeced mirage. Where the world outside is way too real, this feels like gay Margaritaville. Among the crowd, holding a quarter-gallon $8 cocktail, with an ocean breeze and the California sun, you'll unclench.
Sexual tensions wax and peak among the crowd, and things happen here that wouldn't fly most anywhere else. Every regular has a story about The Hole's debauched antics—they'll tell you about Blowjob Alley, a long hallway made famous for its namesake, or their first go at the Wet Underwear Contest, where Ophelia Later, San Diego's greatest drag queen, held court over all manner of shivering, vulnerable men. They'll tell you about The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization of drag nuns who disturb as much peace as they make. They'll tell you about the uncouth activities that could only happen decades ago (in public).
A good gay bar is where a community center meets a bathhouse. Gay people have always come together, whether out in the open or not. By necessity, those gatherings are as much about sex as mutual support. When popular convictions misalign with your life, you find places to exist or you won't. It was only obvious to serve a mess of liquor to said gathered queers, and what began in secret became the dance floors and lounges that have enriched our culture in ways both trivial and profound ever since.
In a handful of whiplash-inducing decades, homosexuality has gone from illegal to celebrated. Gay bars in turn have gone from places to be among peers, as vital and dangerous as that was, to quaint as Queer as Folk. That's not progress to mourn, nor is the distance that remains between swaths of our community and similar liberties something to celebrate. But the sanitization of gay culture is something to marvel. By some measures, the gay bar is dying, which figures—when gay places become unnecessary, they fade.
The Hole didn't close over the July 4 weekend, but seeing as this was the last of its Sunday beer busts in its current form, a small part of it died. I went to collect its patrons' most deranged stories. Nobody would give me their last name, and a few asked that I not take their picture.
"I've only been working here three months, but the other weekend I saw a woman, obviously lactating. She's standing near a guy, he takes his shot of whiskey, she lactates into his glass, then he drinks that, too."
"The first time I was out here at The Hole, the wet underwear contest had three contestants. Myself, a friend of mine, and some little muscle bear from Laguna Beach. I had just moved to San Diego three days earlier. This was when the contest was still outside, there was still a shower out there, and there was this wall behind the stage the other contestants would hang out behind. Muscle boy goes first, does his show for the crowd in the shower, gets interviewed by Ophelia, the drag queen who hosted it, and he's done. Then I go, then my friend Doug. Doug had already gotten me drunk to get me to sign up, and as you do the contest, you get hammered. Drinking, drinking, drinking. Doug's talking to Ophelia now. An employee came up and said he'd throw my underwear in the dryer if I wanted, so I did. That little muscle boy and I are sitting behind the wall, he asks me why I'm wearing a towel, and I said, well, I've got nothing else on. So he starts giving me a blowjob. Doug's up in the shower doing his show for the crowd, but he sees us, starts pointing backstage and shouting for everyone to see what's going on. He runs out of the shower toward the backstage, Ophelia's confused but she knows something's going on, and starts coming up the stairs, yelling at the top of her lungs. So as she comes up, I shoot on the guy's chest, and as she rounds the corner we throw towels on ourselves and sit in our barstools like good Christian school children. She gave us no end of hell for it. That was my first visit to The Hole, and I've been a loyal patron ever since. Nobody's got a case of the Mondays here."
Colin: The craziest thing that ever happened here? Me, getting picked up by my rugby teammates, laid across their arms, and having guys do jello shots out of my ass. Gets $20 in the fundraising jar. One night, I did the Wet Underwear contest, like right after I moved here. And I was the only contestant that night, so I won by default, but that meant I had to stand up there for an hour, shivering wet, and get interviewed by Ophelia. Literally for an hour. And if you know anything about Ophelia, you know the show isn't about the contestants. It's about her. But I made my money.
Scott and Paul
Scott: It's just casual here. Everyone comes and has a beer, hangs out.
Paul: It's a very diverse crowd. You can come here as whomever you are.
Scott: Yeah, it doesn't matter. There's no preconceived idea of who you have to be.
Steve: No judgement. At least not to your face.
Paul: I've been coming here for 30 years. I remember coming here right after I bought my first house, 19 years ago. I was emotional, and I remember coming here, drinking a bit, marching right outside and throwing up my emotions. Life happens here, good and bad.
Steve: And the beauty of The Hole is that you don't remember what happens here. I'm being serious—it's not a bad thing. You come and have fun.
Paul: I miss when they used to have jello shots off people's bellies. They'd put whipped cream on them, and lick the jello and whipped cream off your stomach. Frothy stuff.
Steve: They should really bring that back.
"I'm glad you asked about the craziest thing I've ever seen, not done. This hallway we're standing in used to be Blowjob Alley, and it was even more so before the current owners took over. It went from gay owners to straight, and they really had to turn it down a bit. But this place has always been forbidden. They used to have a letter posted from the military, because this place is equidistant between the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and what used to be the naval station. It was a letter to the effect of this was a disreputable place frequented by women of ill repute and questionable men. Basically, perfect code for "go here if you want your dick sucked." They toned it down with the straight owners, and part of that was the city. Back when Queer as Folk was big, they used to have a projector out on the patio, and they'd show Queer as Folk after football games. Code enforcement came in and said you can't show both. What kind of bar can't you see a football game in? That's why the only TVs here are inside, showing local stations, no paid content. The police wanted the bar to get an exorbitant, multi-thousand-dollar permit to show anything."
"It's the same today as it was eight years ago, when I started working here. Madness. Sundays we're packed wall to wall, and that started in the 70s or 80s, when they'd have free fried chicken on Sundays, and people would come for that. Now it's just tradition. We also have one of the largest patios of any gay bar in San Diego, so the boys come for fun and sun. This place is more like somebody's man cave or clubhouse than a bar. The vibe is very relaxed. Our customers feel at peace with who they are and what they do when they're here."
GM: I've never been ribald here. I've never said a bad word about anyone. I don't remember those events. I'll just say I've seen semen flying and I'm not talking about the ones in those Cracker Jacks.
SC: She's full of shit.
GM: I've only lived here since '06. This one's been here how long?
SC: Since 1978. I'd have to say the craziest thing I've ever seen was when Sister Notorious got her veil stuck in a swamp cooler and it sucked her right in. They stopped it in time, thank God, but girl, she was wrecked. It's just fun here on Sundays. Sunday is funday. You think we go to Church on Sundays? Nooo, Sunday is funday.
GM: Probably before you were born, this whole patio used to be dirt and gravel. You could come over, have a burger and someone to relieve you of all your tension. There used to be a little backyard out there they called the Vulcan East. [NOTE: Vulcan is a San Diego bathhouse.] They used to frolic in the weeds. The guys didn't know which direction they were going, but they knew where they were coming. But, you know, it's changed a little over the years. We're a little more reputable now.
"I can't legally tell you about blowjob alley. My DNA's all over this place. But trust me, I've done it all. This is just like the meeting ground for the bear crowd, then they'll take it somewhere else, or they'll get kicked out because they can't wait."
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