In the midst of all the horror and great sadness about the tragedy that occurred in Orlando last night at the gay bar Pulse, I keep thinking of a poem Frank O’Hara wrote in 1955 called “At the Old Place.” This daring piece is one of the earliest and most exuberant poems about a gay bar I can think of:
AT THE OLD PLACE
Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.
Button’s buddy lips frame “L G T TH O P?”
across the bar. “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s
my soul delight. (Feet! feet!) “Come on!”
Through the streets we skip like swallows.
Howard malingers. (Come on, Howard.) Ashes
malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers.
(Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,
Alvin.) Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.
Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.
(It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s
heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,
and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
on toothpicks. And the interminable intermissions,
we have them. Jack, Earl and Someone drift
guiltily in. “I knew they were gay
the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.
How ashamed they are of us! we hope.
— Frank O’Hara (1955)
The poem describes a summer night in 1955 when O’Hara, Joe LeSueur, John Ashbery (the poem’s “J.A.” and “Ashes”), the painter John Button, and the rest of their crew are drinking at the San Remo (a non-gay bar). Button mouths the words “Let’s go to the Old Place,” and the group leaves and heads to a gay dance bar in the Village known as the Old Place, only to find that “Jack,” (Spicer), “Earl, and Someone,” who they’d left behind, show up to dance at the gay bar too.
O’Hara’s roommate and sometime lover Joe LeSueur recalls the circumstances surrounding this “crisp, campy poem,” which wasn’t printed until 1969, several years after O’Hara’s death: “Frank couldn’t have gotten it published if he had tried, since in those days, the unenlightened fifties, there was no place to send it.” LeSueur recalls that the Old Place was a “sweet and innocent” place which Frank loved going to “for one reason only, because he loved to dance, and he was terrific at it.”
O’Hara’s joyful, unabashed ode to dancing the night away in a gay bar with friends testifies to what places like Pulse have meant to so many people, for so long.