Boy Meets Grill

In 1953, eating out was simpler than it is today. Remember the icy sweetness of a tall Root Beer Float or a super thick chocolate shake on a lazy summer day? Remember the juicy goodness of a grilled patty melt sittin' next to a big mound of fries . . . all at simple, honest prices?

Welcome back to Denny's. We remember. And you will, too.
--from the menu at Gay Denny's

She has dusky skin, long black hair and full lips. She's wearing a light dress that shows off her long, smooth arms and legs. She's beautiful by just about any standards.

Then she talks, and her voice is deeper than mine.
"She" is talking to an acquaintance of mine. After "she" leaves, I turn to that person and ask, "That was a guy, right?"

"Yeah," comes the reply. "I hadn't seen him in a while. He wasn't doing well the last time I saw him. He seems to be feeling a lot better about himself now."

Welcome to Gay Denny's.
That's not its official name, of course. And that's not its constant state. Most of the time, it's just another Denny's. It sits on the northwest corner of Seventh Street and Camelback Road, and in the morning or afternoon the only thing that distinguishes it is how cold it is. If you go, make sure you have a jacket and sweater in your car. The "icy sweetness" of the Root Beer Float has nothing on that of the air conditioning. Perhaps that's why the place isn't all that busy at these times.

But it's a different story at night. Especially Friday and Saturday nights.
"Dude, that is a thoroughly Gay Denny's," I'm told by one kid who found himself there by mistake.

He's not entirely correct, though. Although popularly known as Gay Denny's, the place has a clientele that's harder to categorize. Weird Denny's might be a more accurate moniker.

I'm back there again the following night, a Saturday. It's just before midnight. The place is already full, and there's a waiting line for tables.

I have only one person with me, so they manage to find us a small table. At this point, the patrons don't differ significantly from the ones over at the 5 & Diner at the same time of night. There are a few exceptions, though. Like the two guys sitting together at the counter. From the back, they look like truck drivers. They're wearing jeans, lumberjack shirts and baseball caps. But they're sitting just a little too close to be friends or co-workers. One has his arm draped along the back of the other guy's seat. When I view them from a closer distance, I see that their beards are immaculately groomed, their hands are without calluses, and their proletarian attire looks fresh and new. Their look owes more to the Village People than the Teamsters.

But these guys aren't typical. And then, suddenly, they are.
The transition takes place over a period of about 15 minutes. Between 1:10 and 1:25 a.m., as the bars close, the place turns into a John Waters movie.

There's undoubtedly a large gay element--two fem dykes stand kissing as they wait in line for a table--but the atmosphere isn't that of an after-hours gay club. Rather, the crowd brings to mind the sort of crowd you see at transgressive performance-art venues. It's part gay pride party, part white trash apocalypse.

It certainly has nothing to do with the ambiance of a late-night diner, where you sit at your table and eat and don't talk to anyone you didn't arrive with. The vibe here is social to an extreme; as many people are walking around rather than sitting down, and you feel like you can start a conversation with a stranger. It's insistently, manically friendly. Late-night diners typically have an air of quiet menace, but here the carnivore atmosphere has given way to a carnival atmosphere.

Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any social apartheid between freaks and straights. A fat goth girl in a black-and-red-velvet cape chats to a couple of guys in tee shirts and jeans. A guy wearing black lipstick and lace gloves sits talking to a woman who looks like an elderly cheerleader. He looks about 18, perhaps one of the Dark and Misunderstood at ASU. She's in her 40s, youth replaced with peroxide. I imagine she has a picture on her dresser of her in her cheerleading days, and the dress still hanging in her closet. As the guy talks and swishes and waves his hands, she laughs loudly and leans over the table at him.

A lot of the swishiest guys here aren't gay. Or, if they are, they're not so gay that they mind making out with the women they're with.

But a large number of them are. And, of those, many are still in their teens. There can't be many diners in town where teenage boys can make out in safety.

The atmosphere is vibrant with hormones, alcohol, nicotine and French fries. People yell to each other, reach for each other with arms or tongues. Overseeing it all is a waitress in her 30s who looks as straight as straight can be, and acts as though she's serving in an ordinary diner. She greets her regulars with the same maternal air, regardless of age or freakishness.

Even straighter-looking than the waitress is a young couple snuggling together in a booth. They look improbably wholesome, and in this setting they might as well be in a Twilight Zone episode about a diner in hell. They look like they time-traveled here from the '50s. I almost expect them to share a milk shake using two straws. Somehow, they seem weirder than anyone else.

I ask the waitress if she usually works weekend nights, and she says she does. I ask if she'd like to be interviewed the next day, and she doesn't miss a beat. "Sure," she says, unfazed.

She doesn't show up for the interview. Some inquiry on my part reveals that Denny's employees aren't allowed to give interviews. I find a manager and press him, but he says he can't do it. "I'd have to clear it with the district manager," he tells me.

I called DenAmerica, a Scottsdale-based operation which is the nation's largest franchisee of Denny's restaurants, operating about 105. They didn't want to talk, either. Neither did the chain's parent company.

If only the proprietors were as garrulous as the customers.

Denny's is not a restaurant chain known for its progressive attitudes. In January 1997, Flagstar (now called Advantica) handed over $1.5 million in donations to nine civil rights organizations. This was a face-saving exercise; the money was what was left of $54 million the company had set aside in 1994 to settle two class-action lawsuits filed by people who alleged that they'd been discriminated against in Denny's restaurants in Maryland and California. Many Denny's employees alleged that managers often discouraged minorities from coming to the restaurants.

Working musicians who tour regularly have horror stories to tell of branches of Denny's in small towns where they received hostile service because they looked different.

So how did a branch of Denny's in Phoenix become a center for all that is different? How did Denny's become Gay Denny's?

Its patrons don't seem to know. "Everybody comes here. . . . You just hear that this is a good place to hang out," one guy tells me. But how did it get that way? He isn't sure, and neither is anyone else.

Except for Jody Ohrazda, manager of Obelisk gay and lesbian bookstore, and walking encyclopedia of everything gay. "It was one of two things," he says. "There was a relationship discussion group which used to meet every other week at the Unitarian church. They tried to do it every week, but there wasn't enough interest to do it that often. So the people who wanted to meet every week would do it at that Denny's. That could be what started it . . .

"The other thing--and this is the one I think is most likely--is that it's so central. It's near a lot of gay bars, and near where a lot of gay people live. And it's close to freeways. So it's a convenient hangout after the bars close. Also, underage people can't get in the bars. But they still want to be social and feel like they're part of the community."

Another element that Ohrazda considers a factor is the gay tendency toward affectionate slumming. Asked why gay people would decide to congregate in such a stereotypically trashy, redneck setting, he says, "That's what makes it fun. Rather than go somewhere chichi, a lot of people prefer to slum it, hang out and eat fries with an ice cream float."

Sunday night, I'm back at Gay Denny's. Or Weird Denny's. But tonight it's neither. The place has a day-after-the-party feeling. It's clean and quiet and nearly empty. The air conditioning is vicious. The few customers look and act ordinary. The babel of last night doesn't seem real now. It doesn't feel like it could happen in a place like this. But it will again, starting in the early hours of next Saturday morning.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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