Barracuda is a bar with no signage, and almost no indication that it’s there at all. It’s just a little hole in the wall spot, long and narrow with only one glowing red light to indicate that you’re in the right spot located in Chelsea on 22nd St. And I just so happened to find myself in the exact place I needed to be right when it was most necessary for me.
I was hired at Barracuda Lounge in a very transitional moment of my life. It was October of 2014 and I had just broken up with a long term boyfriend. I was soon to be 26 years old, and I had decided to quit my toxic corporate restaurant job AND my freelance magazine job at InStyle all at once. When I asked my friend Aaron (the then manager of Barracuda and currently one half of the fabulous music duo FHAT) if they were hiring. He told me to roll through for an interview with the GM the very same week.
I was so damn nervous, I must have changed my outfit five times and adjusted my hair until the very last moment. I wasn’t a bar person at all. Especially gay bars. I worked so many hours back then and I was in a serious relationship. There was never a need or time for me to navigate the bar scene. But I was ready for a fresh start and somehow pushed that nervousness aside and was hired as a cocktail server.
Was it a pay cut? Yes. Were the hours insane? 9pm-4am, absolutely. But it truly was one the best moves I could have possibly have made then.
I remember scoping out the staff there and thinking, there was no way I looked like these guys. Muscled, handsome and gregarious; my insecurities were on level 10. It took me a while to get my footing there and to really figure out this new world of cocktails, drag queens and bar regulars. Not to mention the staff. I butted heads with the GM often (I won’t name him here but he was a character), and one of the barbacks instantly hated me. I eventually won him over and he’s become one of my good friends (Love you Goose!).
I often worked happy hour with a bartender named Josh. The Happy hour crowd was mostly older gay men who came to relax after work, have a few drinks and reminisce about times past while enjoying the Josh & Richie show, which basically was just Josh and I goofing off and being ridiculous while wearing skimpy mid drift shirts, jockstraps peeking out from our cut-offs.
These older men became my friends. I listened to their stories. We talked about the important things. Our fight for our civil rights and the devastating realities of the AIDS epidemic. I learned about what the New York gay scene was like before the age of Grindr; much more social with a language of flirtation that only comes with in-person interaction. I learned who Mary Astor was; an American actress and star in The Maltesse Falcon who passed before I was born. I gained confidence in my writing with the guidance of my friend and mentor Michael Caroll, who I met standing outside Barracuda one day before opening. He asked me “what else I did,” a common question to service industry folk, seeing as we often have our “money job” and our artistic goals. I confidently told him I am a writer and was currently reading A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. To which he replied, “Oh, that’s my husband.” A moment like that can only happen in New York City while sharing a cigarette outside of a gay bar.
In my late shifts, I swooped around the bar balancing a tray of half spilt cocktails ordered by those who came to watch the drag performances. If you’re looking for top-tier drag, Barracuda is the place to go. Weeknights at the stroke of midnight, the lights would dim, the DJ would announce the Queen and the splits and shenanigans ensued. I’ve watched Tina Burner perform her Chicago medley so many times I can almost do the entire choreo (almost). I hung the Bob the drag Queen sign on stage with its giant glittered lashes for almost every performance. I even came on my off nights to enjoy the shows and snuggle up with whichever guy I was seeing at the time, drink in hand (on the house of course).
I didn’t realize that October night when I was hired that this gross little bar with the smelly bathroom, dungeon like basement with the occasional rat would become so important to me. It was my emergency bathroom. My writing studio. A place of birthday celebrations. A place to cry and laugh and dance. But most importantly a place to feel safe. I learned to love myself in those years at Barracuda. Love my body, my mind and my point of view. I gained the confidence I needed to truly accept myself and demand respect and be open to love.
In a world where so much of it is ruled by hetero norms, it felt good to just be gay, be queer, be unabashedly myself knowing that those around me also felt this relief once they walked through that black door and into the dim lights.
It’s my hope that I will find a space like this in my new home of Philadelphia. I haven’t gotten my chance just yet. Things are slowly starting to reopen and the world may be on the mend but there’s still so much that needs to happen before we can gain a sense of normalcy again.
It’s community I miss the most. I know it will happen eventually but I’d be lying if I said things have been easy. So for now I will reminisce and I will remember to appreciate those moments that really helped shape me into the person I am today. And I will never take something as simple as a gay bar, for granted ever again.
Barracuda will always be special to me. This series of prints is dedicated to those spaces that have made me feel like I was part of the fabric of this great Queer community. They were made with love and hope for better times ahead.
Richie Wilde Lopez