Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cafe du Nord and The Fabulous Juan

Everything must end. Meanwhile, we must amuse ourselves.—Voltaire

During the late 1990s I went to Cafe du Nord almost every Sunday night to swing dance. The Cafe operates in the basement of San Francisco's Swedish American Hall on Market Street, near Castro. It was a comfortable scene for an aging guy like me, because the music and fashion were "retro." I already looked "retro" every day, so I didn't need to do anything different to fit in. I discovered the place on a date with a young communist girl. She spent most of the evening dancing with her girlfriends, and I never asked her out again, but I liked the environment and returned by myself.

At 8PM we had a dance lesson in East Coast Swing, which goes with the Big Band Sound of the 1930s and 40s. At nine there was usually a live music act. Lee PressOn and the Nails were perennial favorites.

Dancing presented a unique opportunity for me to touch women I didn't know, without getting arrested. I took lessons at a couple of ballrooms, but I was lazy. I only learned to dance a little better than a rank beginner, because that was enough to get action in the Sunday night crowd. 

My strategy was to spread around during the dance lesson, then dance with a girl I fancied. Then I'd ask her to come out to the bar and sit while I did a drawing of her. If she had an escort, I'd draw him and talk to him too. If things went well, I might give her the drawing and/or ask for her phone number. I was pushing forty already, and most of the women were considerably younger. I was surprised and reassured at my success rate.

Our dance instructor was an older guy also, a tall, skinny Spaniard who called himself "The Fabulous Juan." Juan had a rich, throaty voice, like a pipe organ. His accent was rich also, so that when he walked us through the basic step: "One-two-three, one-two-three, back step," what we heard was, "Whan-two-three, whan-two-three, bock step!" During the lesson, we danced to the Glen Miller Orchestra's famous recording of The Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Flawless Asian girls sang along. It was a hell of a paradise. 

Juan often dressed in elaborate drag outfits. He charmed me, which was surprising, because I'm sick to death of men dressing as women. It was radical in 1820, but today it's been done to death, and in San Francisco, it's become pathetic and creepy, like wearing a Nixon mask.

Juan transcended all that. He made that tired medium fresh and sweet. My favorite outfit was a black party dress that Juan accented with thick yellow wrist bands. On closer examination, the wrist bands revealed themselves as live snakes. Juan was so charming, no one cared. Young women gladly danced with him, while the yellow snakes sniffed around their bare shoulders.

Over many weeks, I developed a kind of partnership with Juan. He saw me operating with the girls and we respected each other's work. He would come watch me drawing a new prospect in the bar and say, "He is the artist! I am the dancer, and he is the artist." He turned to the girl I was drawing and said, "I want you to only dance with him. You look good with him."

All good things must end. One night Juan came told me the Sunday night swing program would be terminated. In its place, the Cafe did something that sounded like a lesbian prom night. We were in the Castro, and many college girls danced with each other on Sunday nights. Few of the young women were actually gay. This was mostly play-acting, getting a tingle, thinking, "If Mommy could see me now!" I referred to them as "Lesbian Try-Outs," but they deserved their time on the dance floor, like anyone else. We were all playing, all pretending. 

The Cafe is still thriving. I did not see Juan again, but I often drive through the Castro with my wife and little boy in tow, and I always keep an eye out for a tall, thin Spaniard in turtleneck and slacks. The dresses were only for performance; I don't expect to see Juan walking out like that. If I ever see him, I plan to yell out, "Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are!"


Rose said...

I enjoyed your vivid description of this place and your experiences. I found your blog because I was remembering time I had spent at Du Nord in early - mid 1990s, and was wondering what was documented. I like your style of writing, very honest, and your drawings!

John Paul Turnage said...

Thank you, Rose! It was a wonderful time, worth remembering.