Where the Boys Are
To hear the locals tell it, 10 p.m. on Fridays at Georgie's Alibi is between shifts. The early birds -- the after-work crowd -- are in bed, either alone or not. The night owls are arriving in dribs and drabs and Hondas. The transition period sees a little of everything in the sprawling bar: guys playing pool, guys standing near a wall of sports plaques holding hands, guys cheek-kissing each other hello, guys standing alone scanning the room, guys in tank tops, guys with disciplined haircuts, and one guy standing in the middle of the bar's main room beneath the TVs that are playing one of Gwen Stefani's latest, displaying a belt buckle the size of a Hershey bar with a scrolling digital display that reads, in red lights, LEO LOVES DICK, surely answering in literal terms that old conversation starter, "What's your sign?"
Boys who are into boys are into this place, and they are having a fine time indeed.
A bartender hands a drink to a bespectacled, goateed man named Charlie, who notes that it's plenty big.
"Oh," the brick-jawed bartender responds, "it's never as big as you want it." Then the bartender gathers some cardboard boxes and ducks under the end of the bar to go trash them. As he does, he holds one box in front of him.
"You notice how they always lead with the box?" asks a ruddy-faced patron named Ralph, who isn't so openly gay that he'll provide his last name. "That's so you don't stick your dick in their mouth."
A little later in the main room, a middle-aged man notices Ralph's T-shirt, which reads, "Make me late for work."
"How late do you need to be?" comes the question.
"I've got 72 hours till Monday" is the reply.
From near the men's room, where a large portrait of Seinfeld's Kramer hangs on a bruise-colored wall, a wadded-up napkin flies over the shoulder of its intended target and against the chest of your correspondent, one of the few straight guys on the premises.
"I'm so sorry," says the napkin-thrower, who introduces himself as Andre. Then he notices the chest he hit. "Oh, he's got a hairy one." Andre reaches over and lifts the front of the Calvin Klein button-down covering said chest. A likewise hairy belly pokes out. "Oooh!" he says, and lifts his own white T-shirt to reveal a pelt of dark curls. Then, unbidden, he gropes the left side of the hairy spot that he hit with the napkin.
"You ever notice," says an onlooker named Joel, watching this scene, "how friendly gay guys are?"
This township, Wilton Manors, is by any measure one of the most gay-friendly towns in the country. It's one of only three American cities with a majority openly gay city council (West Hollywood, California, and Mount Rainier, Maryland, are the others). The best running estimate is that perhaps 35 to 40 percent of Wilton Manors' 12,500 or so residents are gay; the 2000 U.S. Census found that the Manors had the nation's third-highest proportion of same-sex households after Provincetown and Guerneville in California's Sonoma Valley.
At the epicenter of what has been a remarkable and swift demographic and economic transformation have been several people and many outside forces. But some amount of credit has to go to this so-called video bar on Wilton Drive in a very large strip mall. Since it opened in early 1997, Georgie's Alibi has not only shaped the Island City into a town amenable to a concentrated gay and lesbian population but it's also goosed the economy.
At first glance, this bar doesn't seem particularly unique. A collection of softball and pool trophies makes it feel like a frat-house rumpus room. The skill crane machine is jammed with the usual stuffed-animal trinkets, the beer is cheap, and the service attentive. Says waitress Lois Kessinger, who is 77 years old and a delight in conversation: "It is a fabulous bar, the best bar in town. It's very clean, and we don't allow no naughtiness." Indeed, you won't see much worse in the Alibi than you would on the field during an average high school football game.
Lois' son, George Kessinger Jr., owns the bar, along with Terry Norman and Adam Burnett. The trio's formula has worked well. According to Kessinger, a second location, in St. Petersburg, celebrates its fifth anniversary this week; a third one will open in Palm Springs, California, by October. The Wilton Manors bar is the seventh-largest purchaser of liquor in the State of Florida. Whether this ride continues, of course, depends upon whether the city and the bar fall victim to their own hasty success.
The gay village in Wilton Manors certainly predates Georgie's Alibi. In 1988, residents installed as city commissioner Broward County's first openly gay elected official, John Fiore, who today is heavyset and affable and works for the county's marine advisory committee. Fiore and his fair-skinned and bespectacled partner, Michael Pierce, indulged recently in a happy-hour drink of water on the fan-cooled Georgie's Alibi patio.
Fiore recalls the Piggly Wiggly grocery store that used to fill the plaza where he's basking. There was also a pool hall, a thrift store called Poverello Center, and not a lot more.
"The city had such potential," Fiore says. "Wilton Drive was a ghost town."
The rise in the gay population overlapped much of the city's development. One boost may have been the rapid rise in prices in Fort Lauderdale's posh and once largely gay Victoria Park neighborhood a couple of miles to the south. First, the northern migration moved a mile north to Poinsettia Heights; pretty soon, the older, larger homes in Wilton Manors were looking attractive. It's tough to quantify the gay migration into the city, but it's striking.
Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA who studies gay and lesbian populations, says the 2000 Census showed that the number of same-sex households in Wilton Manors grew six times faster than the national average during the 1990s. The city's transformation into a gay haven is unusual, he says, because Wilton Manors is neither urban nor a resort town.
"There's a portion of the gay community that's attracted to that more mainstream lifestyle," Gates says. "It's just a nice little community. That's part of a broader transition in the gay movement, which is this shift from focusing on how gay people are different to... wanting things to be the same."
The real estate boom/bubble in South Florida has received enough ink to drown a giraffe. The particulars will not be belabored here; suffice it to say that unless you can afford to pay 300 large for a 1,000-square-foot condo, you're too late for downtown Wilton Manors. If the swell in prices of a single-family home is any gauge, the town has become one of the most sought-after addresses in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In 1996, the year before Georgie's Alibi opened, records show that the average home in Wilton Manors was valued at $85,480, about 81 percent of the county average. In 2005, the single-family homes in Wilton Manors are more than $300,000 -- 115 percent of the county average and a whopping 256 percent increase.
"We knew it was only a matter of time before we were on the list of neighborhoods," Fiore says. "I knew they were coming here. In the quantity that occurred? Never."
To nurture the change, the city courted businesses while denying or refusing to renew permits for less desirable shops and bars. Not much stuck, the ex-mayor says, until the city got aggressive. Just before Georgie's opened, water and sewer lines were renovated, a $3 million parks bond passed, and the commission amended the city code to allow valet parking, outdoor dining, and sidewalk sandwich boards. The big step was designating a .8-mile stretch of Wilton Drive that Georgie's neatly bisects as an "arts and entertainment district," a step that allowed businesses to acquire liquor licenses in close succession.
People began referring to Wilton Manors instead of saying their addresses were in "North Fort Lauderdale." Manors City Commissioner Gary Resnick, who was elected in 1998, recalls a period in the late '90s when more than 1 percent of the homes were changing occupants every month. "What I told this city was, 'You need a gay bar,'" Resnick says. "I can't overstate how important Georgie's Alibi was. It really did turn things around."
But there's no gay way to fix a pothole or pick up the garbage. Fiore recalled the City Commission meeting in which the gay-majority council debated which color bricks to use at Wilton Drive and 26th Street. Someone yelled, "Oh great, the gay guys are going to pick the color of the sidewalk," and as stereotyping goes, it was pretty harmless. The fruits of their debate are now on view at the intersection.
"You take a community like Wilton Manors, where sexual orientation isn't much of an issue," says Dave DeCicco, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute, which tracks and supports openly gay politicians. "People are more comfortable volunteering, more comfortable serving on different commissions. This type of community engagement often leads to public service."
The best estimates of the proportion of gay Americans is between 2 and 7 percent, yet openly gay elected officials nationwide number only about 300, according to DeCicco, suggesting that many gays either don't feel welcome or are not accepted by others in public life. (DeCicco says the number has increased about six times since 1991, when the institute began promoting gay and lesbian candidates.) Seventeen of those 300 serve in Florida -- more than any state except California and New York -- but only two of them were elected north of Oakland Park, and none serves at a state level. For all its apparent normalcy, the Island City is a rare outpost of integration.
That integration went smoothly in part because the rising property values allowed bigots to sell their houses for two or three or five times the values from just a few years earlier. "All the damned houses are painted pink in Florida anyway," says Fiore's partner, Pierce.
When Fiore was elected mayor in 2000, it was national and international news; there were no more than a couple of openly gay mayors nationwide. That election also gave the city only the second gay-majority council in the country, (West Hollywood was first). Word of his victory ran in at least one British newspaper; he recalls doing an interview with a Colombian radio station that was cut off three times because of repeated terrorist bombings.
The ultimate success of the town may be an observation of Fiore's: "If you drive around the neighborhoods, it's a little on the boring side. It's just middle-class neighborhoods just like other middle-class neighborhoods." Extraordinary as Wilton Manors may be demographically, the town fosters nothing if not the mundane.
Georgie's Alibi fits that mold, a place that through its business and outside endeavors helped create a city that accepted gays as the commonplace folk so many of them are.
Because it's what's inside that counts, the Alibi's interior is always changing. Every year, the joint gets new carpeting, at least, and often something more: granite bar tops, new paint, a patio area reaching into a former parking lot, flat-screen video walls, kitchen remodeling -- in all, over eight years, it's expanded from about 3,800 square feet to about 5,300.
On a recent day in the newly refurbished back room, a bartender wiped the bar and a worker with toned, spidery arms sat atop a ladder to adjust a projection-screen television that would soon be playing the same music videos that pulse through the rest of the bar.
"Keeping up with the Joneses," says George Kessinger, the lanky, soft-spoken co-owner and namesake of the bar, as he surveys this from a high-backed chair near a brick wall featuring oversized posters of Campbell's Soup. Presumably "the Joneses" include Boom, a club across the parking lot that feels like the Alibi crossed with a South Beach dance joint, and Tropics, south on Wilton Drive, fresh off renovations. Whereas Georgie's used to have the game to itself, a host of non-threatening gay businesses threatens to take a cut of the business.
The confluence of a migrating gay population, a pliant City Commission, and a real estate rush, Kessinger explains over the noise of the bar, was not his doing. The bar's slogan, which he says he came up with at the bar's opening, was a nod to the fortune of circumstances. "'The Right Place at the Right Time,'" Kessinger says. "We've all been there, haven't we? Some time in our life?"
Others say the bar's culture was personality-driven from the start. Lois Kessinger recalls her son's childhood in Cincinnati, when younger neighborhood kids would troop to the front door to ask for Georgie. "He always came out, would play with them, take care of them, told them stories," she says. Soon after he enrolled in kindergarten, Lois received a call from his teacher, who said she didn't know what to do about Georgie: The class' attention was so squarely on the boy that the poor woman couldn't teach.
George Kessinger moved to South Florida 31 years ago, enticed by the weather and the oodles of service-industry opportunities. His first job was as a trainee at a Wendy's restaurant in Pompano Beach; his first business was a guesthouse in Victoria Park that, though long since sold, still features the wooden cutout gingerbread men he fashioned 20 years ago. He opened a bar on Sunrise Boulevard called the Fireside, bought out his partners, renamed it Georgie's on Sunrise, and in 1994, records show, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, forfeiting the building. "It's just business -- I tell people never to be ashamed of it," he says. He, Burnett, and Norman worked for a spell at a joint called the Club Caribbean Resort on Federal Highway, and then he managed a gay bar called the Stud. When the owner there, Ron Gofrank, decided to sell, the three entrepreneurs went hunting for a space big enough to hold another Georgie's.
When Kessinger describes what he found on Wilton Drive in the mid-1990s, he sounds a bit like the family friend in The Graduate who tells Benjamin Braddock that plastics are the key to his future. "The shopping center was pink; it was old," Kessinger recalls. "The trees were overgrown. You couldn't see our sign. But it had all the parking in the world. It had everything I needed: parking."
Poverello, a thrift store and food bank that benefits people with HIV and AIDS, was in the plaza, but not much else. "It was known as a speed trap, the consignment-store district," Norman says of Wilton Manors. The idea was that Norman and Burnett would tend bar, Kessinger would manage, and they would make a living. George Kessinger Sr. and Lois helped refurbish the place, an old bank, with the office in the vault; to cut a hole for an air-conditioning vent took seven hours.
Immediately, it took off. When the bar opened, it had abundant TV screens but initially didn't have enough glasses to serve the customers. Kessinger recalls a night in April of 1997, shortly after the bar opened, when Ellen DeGeneres declared her homosexuality on her sitcom. "You could have heard a pin drop," he says, and adds, by way of crowd comparison, "It was worse than a Thursday night," when the bar offers a massively popular Long Island Iced Tea special. It wasn't long after they opened that, Norman says, some hoods driving with a blacked-out license plate stabbed him in the leg as he walked out of the bar one night -- a case of wrong place, wrong time for Norman and another indication, he says, of how the city has changed.
Patrons' memories of the bar, while sometimes hazy, tend to be highly favorable. An ex-firefighter named Terry tells of his encounter at the Alibi with a real-estate agent who eventually talked the New Yorker into buying a home in Wilton Manors. Ralph, the wisecracking patron with the "Make Me Late for Work" shirt, tells of an episode when Cyndi Lauper and Cher toured together, in 1999, when a friend in the area brought them to the bar. No one seemed to recognize the pair, leading Ralph to the conclusion that the men inside might simply have thought they were drag queens dressed as Cyndi Lauper and Cher. Also that year, the bar held a New Year's countdown, complete with balloons falling from the ceiling, at the end of every month; some balloons contained raffle tickets, and after the December 31 balloon drop, they raffled off a new Mercury Cougar sedan. More recently, the bar threw a party for Martha Stewart's release from prison, with a raffle of some of Stewart's signature line of home products from Kmart.
Meanwhile, on the civic front, the Alibi supported the city's parks initiatives, the annual Easter egg hunt, Halloween costume contests, and the Police Benevolent Association. In 2002, Georgie's held a library fundraiser that sold pink plastic flamingos painted by artists such as Romero Britto. Library workers enjoyed not only the financial assistance but the fact that the bar served cheap drinks throughout the auction.
Last October, Georgie's hosted a get-out-the-vote rally and was a staging ground to bus people to the polls; on one Saturday afternoon, the place felt like a political rally. Poverello awarded its 2005 Seraphic Award to Kessinger for his years of contributions to the center -- including gratis Christmas parties for volunteers. And in this way, as can happen in a small town, the business of a bar became the business of the whole town. Come for the Long Island Iced Teas, stay for the well-supported public services and sense of belonging.
"I was joking with him months back," says Jim Kiser, a social acquaintance of Kessinger's, "and I said, 'Georgie, you should be the mayor of Wilton Manors.' He said, 'Oh, no, not me. I'm too busy for that stuff.'
"It's hard to give him a compliment because he has humility, a rare quality," continues Kiser, who after 18 years working in the county's criminal justice system prides himself on knowing where the dirt is. "But he would be an excellent mayor. He has great judgment, and God, he knows the community. He knows everybody there."
The day might not be far off when Georgie's Alibi franchises begin popping up around the country in gay-friendly enclaves. The Wilton Manors bar, with 13 years remaining on its lease, has no plans to go anywhere. "Believe it or not, I think we've educated a lot of people, that we're not the monsters or the crazy people they think we are," Kessinger says.
"I would not want to see this be an all-gay city. To have the diversity of everybody getting along -- it's almost like we're creating something that everybody wishes for. And I think it's happening here."
The damnedest thing, says Rick Wierzbicki, the retiring chief of police, is the little cards they use at Georgie's. "It's pretty cool, how you rate people," he says. "I'll get you one."
Wierzbicki, who leaves office in September, is dressed in a gray T-shirt and snug corduroy shorts as he takes lunch at one of the tables on the patio. He says he makes a point of dining here at least once a week, one indication of why the Police Department has a generally positive relationship with the gay residents of Wilton Manors. The cops not only screen applicants with psychological tests that attempt to predict interaction with people different from them, but they train on addressing things like same-sex couples' domestic spats.
"The city now has a diverse identity," Wierzbicki says. "You say 'Wilton Manors,' people say, 'That's where the Alibi is. '" His most vivid memory of the bar? It was the first place where a man addressed him as "honey."
As far as the police presence at Georgie's, it's rarely needed. Kessinger says the bar spends $20,000 a year on its own security. When officers do show up, usually the most they have to deal with is being playfully cruised.
Wierzbicki explains too that there is a break in decorum during the Stonewall Street Festival and Parade, which is held on a Sunday in late June to commemorate a violent resistance by gay men upset with a police raid on a New York City gay bar. It's hotter than hell. When Wierzbicki granted the officers permission to wear shorts, he says, the gathered revelers were delighted.
"The gay community should thank their lucky stars for the Broward County area, that we're able to live down here pretty much without the abuses you would take if you lived in Mississippi or Iowa or Nebraska," says Thomas Smith, the Poverello financial officer, who's originally from Minnesota's Twin Cities. "We're so damned lucky in this part of the country to have as many choices as we do.
"Most of us are middle-of-the-road gay people who have jobs and make a living and go to church on some Sundays," he continues. "There are certain bars that we go to and certain bars that we don't go to. Some people like leather, some people like dresses, and some people don't like anything. Georgie's is the kind of place where a straight person could walk in by accident and not be offended by anything they see."
Offensiveness, of course, is relative, as evidenced by the business card that finally comes. On one side, it carries the bar's particulars. On the other, it has a little survey, with space for a name, a number, and then columns of boxes, allowing the giver to rate his eyes, hair, teeth, chest, ass, legs, and package; describe himself as good-looking, well dressed, a bear, charming, funny, and top or bottom; and space for additional comments. You have to figure that if chicks went for this sort of thing, they'd be in every bar in the country.
On Thursday Long Island Iced Tea nights, three bucks gets you a huge Mason jar of blue goop that men drink through straws, siphoning the heavier alcohol off the bottom of the drink first. The place is packed. Cars spill across NE Seventh Avenue to spots in front of Pride Mortgage and the Italian American club, then along the side of Poverello. If there are 300 people in and outside the bar, 293 of them are men. There's no walking from front to back without scraping shoulders, backs, fronts. The T-shirts alone are a trip: "He's out of town" in white letters on a black shirt, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" against a map of Missouri. The shirts cut through the blaring dance music, as does a shouted pickup line.
Shorter guy to guy in sleeveless shirt near pool table: "Are you gay or straight?" The response is inaudible, though it's presumably the latter, because the short guy follows: "Are you a BJ man?"
The response again is inaudible; the shorter guy keeps walking. It may be a place you can bring -- or even hire -- your mother, but it still roils with the sexual energy of men. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
"You can be a man and just be gay," says a medical administrator named Patrick, who's buying a third or fourth round of Miller Lite on the patio one afternoon. "I think part of the whole Georgie's issue is you're going to find a lot of guys here who are just regular guys, who just happen to prefer men. You can still be a man and be gay. I was Air Force; I was military police. Nobody ever knew the difference until I announced that I'm never going to get married, I'm never going to have kids, I like to sleep with other men. Doesn't mean I go home and sew curtains.
"The only thing that should distinguish a straight bar from a gay bar," he continues, "is the clientele." This is an important point for him, because when he first moved to Fort Lauderdale about 12 years ago, he says, gay bars were almost strictly pickup joints, and seamy at that, a contrast to much of Wilton Manors today.
Then again, there are plenty of bars that wouldn't abide a guy under a tent in the parking lot hawking cell phone accessories and adult DVDs for $4 a shot. But Georgie's has always been different. "This bar," says a stout, black-haired fellow named Raymond Rock, "put Wilton Manors on the map." Rock, a former Georgie's bartender, is getting nicely schnockered on a summer Wednesday, prompting him to, at one point, demonstrate on a couple of patrons a deft if overeager face-massaging technique. Rock used to work for some Prudential outfit in New York for about eight years, designing computer systems and making hella dough, but calls his hire at Georgie's "the job I was most proud of in my life." Something about community, family, that sort of thing, but everything gets hazy once the second beer comes and Rock goes to work kneading shoulders.
He offers his heartfelt revelation at the sports bar where jokes about penis size and masturbating in the shower had sent the assembled midday drinkers into gales of laughter minutes earlier. "Welcome to the Alibi, where all your dreams will come true," bartender Jason Basilico says. "Sort of. It's an endless sea of opportunity. What those opportunities are, is questionable." His rubber Jack Daniels bar mat that used to say "America's Cocktail" has been stripped of its final syllable, by the way. Someone down the bar makes another dick joke, scarcely audible over the laughter. Seriously, your mom would love it.
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