My favorite restaurant in Jacksonville is Derby on Park. It’s a recently renovated cafe that was converted from a greasy spoon to a gourmet diner. Last month when I got my new job offer, I went there with some friends to celebrate.
We were sitting on the outdoor covered patio, lit by twinkle lights and candles, when a group of people at the bar watching basketball started shouting. There are TV’s on the patio-TV’s that often show sports-but Derby is not a sports bar. It’s a restaurant owned and waited by mostly gay men and women. When Ryan and I went there for Valentine’s Day, we were one of two straight couples sitting at the rose petal covered tables. On most nights the atmosphere is quiet and subdued.
Not this night.
Soon the shouting turned into loud celebration. The group of men were jumping up and down and screaming as if they’d just won the lottery. My friends and I stopped talking to stare, at the same time the tallest guy turned around and looked at us, both hands raised above his head.
“I just won $15,000!!”
Before any of us could respond, he stumbled over to our table, pulled up a chair, and plopped down. “Can I have some of that?” he said, reaching for the Caprese salad in front of my friend Lisa.
“Uh, sure, go right ahead,” she said.
He did not look like the typical guy I saw at Derby. Khaki shorts, boat shoes, tucked in polo, and a baseball cap. I’d have bet half of what he just won that he was in some kind of frat in college. I looked over at his friends, who had the same “bro” style, and loud, raucous attitude. Part of me was pissed they were interrupting my celebration dinner at a restaurant they didn’t belong in. Part of me was grateful for a good story to write about later.
“So, uh, how’d you win fifteen grand?” I asked.
“Vegas baby!” he swayed a little in the chair.
“Waiter! Hey!” he gestured to Matt, our stressed out looking server. “Bottle of wine for my friends here!”
“So man, what’s your name? What do you do?” my friend Dave asked. He looked at Ryan and me and shrugged. Free wine is free wine.
“I’m Pat, and I’m in the air force!”
“Oh really, like Top Gun*?” I said. He did have a bit of a Tom Skerritt mustache going.
“Pssssshh,” he said, “I’m not that cool-but hey,” he drunkely attempted a whisper, “I might get laid tonight!”
I backed away and rolled my eyes, “Not by anyone here you’re not.”
“Nope, cus I’m gaaaaaay!”
I choked on the nacho I was eating. Met the eyes of everyone at my table and saw they were in equal states of shock.
Dave leaned forward. “Are you just messing with us? Because we’re cool with that if you are, the friends we were just talking about are gay.”
Pat nodded his head up and down. “Yep. I mean nope. I’m gay!”
I turned my eyes from my friends and directed them at him again. He looked totally different. No longer did he seem like a douchey frat guy. Now he looked like my friend Mike, who was one of the trendy “gaybro’s” everyone keeps writing about. Plus, Pat had that mustache, how could I have missed that?
I felt like a total hypocrite.
Unlike some people, who would have met Pat, liked him just fine, then found out he was gay and felt shocked and put off, I felt the opposite. I at first saw a drunken fratty douche at a bar, and angrily judged him. Then the moment I found out he was gay, I instantly liked him more. I reverse homophobia’d him.
Pat’s friend came over, and put his hand on Pat’s shoulders. He was maybe two beers less drunk.
“Sorry about my friend here, he’s just really excited. Is he bothering you?”
By this point the bottle of wine he had bought us arrived, so we all shook our heads. “Nope!”
Pat got distracted and wandered off, and his friend sat down.
“So are you two, like, together?” I asked.
He laughed and scrunched his face up in disgust, waving his hands. “Uhhh no. He is not my type.”
While Pat was very “bro”, his friend was more easily identifiable as gay. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, showing off his waxed chest.
Eventually the conversation steered towards what it’s like to be gay and in the military, and Pat’s friends thoughts on the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell. By the time he and his group left for the next bar, both the bottle of wine and my ill feelings for Pat’s friends were long gone.
Later that night, I thought about how my impression of Pat changed the instant I found out he was gay. How what had at first annoyed me about him, became endearing and humorous. How three little letters turned him from someone I wanted nothing to do with, to someone with whom I gladly shared a bottle of wine. It wasn’t fair. It was completely hypocritical, and probably slightly offensive. But it was something instinctual, that I couldn’t help. I’ve spent so much time making friendships in the community that I can’t help but be drawn to gay people.
If Pat hadn’t drunkenly stumbled to our table, I’d never have talked to him. I’d never have known he was a part of a group of people whose rights I am passionate about. Which made me realize something. Pat was just one of many people I interact with everyday. People I, to be totally honest, usually drop into categories with nothing more than a glance.
Pretty skinny blonde. I hate her.
Ugh. McCain bumper sticker. Not letting them in traffic.
POPPED COLLAR. Oh God. I bet he reeks of Abercrombie.
Until the interaction with Pat, I hadn’t even realized how bad it had gotten. How many people I looked at and dismissed, or alternatively, decided were worth being nice to, without knowing a thing about them. I need to work on that. It’s not good.
I’m just really thankful that the person who taught me this lesson was a drunk gay air-force man with a Tom Skerrit mustache. Because otherwise, I would have had neither a lesson, or a good story.
Or a free bottle of wine.
*I realized later (thanks to a friend) that I was way off about Top Gun being airforce. It was about Navy. Oh well.