Officially, Julia Walker is a mother of three, but through her 25 years serving drinks and providing comfort to Phoenix's often ignored or disparaged underbelly, she has become "Momma Judy" to thousands.
After her 21-year marriage ended, Judy moved to Arizona to be with her two sons. One of her sons managed Cruisin' 7th (called Cruisin' Central at the time because it was located at Central and Roosevelt). Both of her sons are gay, and Judy wanted to acquaint herself with that aspect of their lives; so despite having zero experience, Judy's son hired her to bartend at the seediest gay bar in town.
"I'd never done it before in my life, and he started me out and he left me," she says, "and I was left all night by myself with a bunch of drag queens, street people, drug addicts, drug dealers... everything down there."
Judy likens Cruisin' Central to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. It had no air conditioning and no place to keep beer cold; they had to keep 10 camper coolers stocked with ice. Despite its lack of amenities, Judy says the bar sold more beer per capita than any other bar in the state. Much of Cruisin' Central's success had to with the fact that its clientele was either not welcome or not comfortable anywhere else; it was also notorious for being a drug bar.
"But I survived," Judy says. In fact, Judy enjoyed her customers so much that when the bar moved up to 7th Street and Indian School in 2003, she did too. Now, at 69 years old, Judy watches over customers old and new to make sure everyone behaves; and they do, for the most part.
"The only ones I have to lay the law down to are the new ones and the straight girls... they're the worst," she says, because the straight girls "do not act like ladies at all. They come in here and think 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' Then they'll go in the bathroom or something and ask 'How come there's a guy in there?' This is a gay bar, you have to expect it. They don't care what you look like. If you have to pee, pee."
Judy doesn't tolerate anyone speaking or acting in a discriminatory manner toward her other customers. She also doesn't tolerate fighting, regardless of who starts it.
"Last week a drag queen got in a fight," Judy recalls. "She hates not coming in here, so I came in Thursday to a big, beautiful bouquet of flowers. She called me and I said 'As soon as you raised your hand you became guilty. You may be dressing like a woman but you gotta ball up and be a man and walk away from that fight if you wanna stay here.' She won't give me anymore trouble."
Drag queens play a vital role in Cruisin' 7th's nightly entertainment. The bar hosts drag shows several nights a week, alternating between drag nights and stripper nights. But even within the drag scene, prejudice makes Cruisin' 7th the underdog's choice.
Judy says the drag queens at her bar "don't go many other places because most of them [other drag bars] are just gay men, or the upper elite queens. My little lowly girls aren't welcome some places."
For many of her customers, Momma Judy is a firm but loving maternal figure. She makes them laugh, listens to their woes, and provides kindness and compassion to those who receive it least and need it most. To some, her customers are addicts, trannies and hookers; to Judy, "They're just people in need, a lot of them."
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Cruisin' 7th is open 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. The bar will be just as busy today (during the time others are eating Thanksgiving dinner with their families) as it is any other Thursday. Without a doubt, Momma Judy will be high on the list of things her bar patrons are thankful for.
As for Judy, she'll eat dinner with her ex-husband and his family and then come to work, serving those without families and those who couldn't endure any more family time. After a quarter century of dealing with people who are down and out, Judy is content and grateful for the simple things in life.
"I'm just thankful that at the age I am I'm still capable of working and I have a young mind; my body's not so young anymore but I still have a young mind so it makes me fit in to this. And I'm thankful my family is healthy, and that I'm here for another 10 years."
We're not sure whether "here" implies "being alive" or "managing Cruisin' 7th," but 10 years from now we hope Judy's doing both.