It’s a Wednesday night, and an evening crowd is slowly trickling into Grand Central Club on North Charles Street. Glass windows in the bar’s entryway remain shattered, and an excess of white paint is still spattered across the bar’s wooden floor, traces of a truck carrying paint buckets that recently ran into the historical bar. The lights are low, but the attitude of bartender Alana Carter is hardly dim.
“You want another Coors Light?” she calls out with enthusiasm to a customer across the bar. Alana is in the zone, taking orders left and right and engaging in conversation with what seem to be regular customers. Her upbeat personality and genuine nature show how much she enjoys working at what some consider being Baltimore’s best gay and lesbian bar.
A week before, a police chase left the club a wreck. Rumors flew when the bar’s owner, confused and hopeless, said he didn’t know if the bar would stay there much longer. The owner, Don Davis, returned to Baltimore a week later to rebuild his legacy.
“I looove Mount Vernon,” Alana says tonight, in contrast to her former place of work, a bar in Federal Hill.
“Fed Hill wasn’t my scene.” She recalls feeling irritated hearing “the F word” so much at her last job, not four-lettered profanity, but a certain three-lettered slur.
“I’m not talking about fuck. I say that all the time. Fuck is like, my favorite word,” she says matter-of-factly. Alana scoots a few feet to the left to a gentleman that has just sat down.
“How can I help you?” she says warmly. It’s clear the customers love her, and it’s even clearer that Alana loves them right back. Upon being offered a job at Grand Central just a few months ago, Alana reflects on her initial excitement.
“I was like hell yeah!” One man seated on a barstool points at Alana. “She’s the reason I started coming back in here!” he says with a smile. “Central’s staff is getting better and better.” Alana beams at the man in obvious appreciation.
“I think so too,” Alana says, and she bounces across the bar to take care of another loyal customer. The night has just begun, and Alana is eager to help make Grand Central better than it’s ever before.
Inside Look: Performing in Gay Bars
Tom Martin is a go-go dancer who has performed at venues like Hippo, Grand Central and Baltimore Soundstage. In this slideshow, we hear Tom describe his usual routine before a night out dancing.
The Progression of a Community
While bartenders and performers alike frolic around the bar, one longtime customer has wandered up a small set of carpeted stairs to the billiard tables.
Patrick Eberle grips a pool stick in his right hand, holding his breath as his friend takes a shot at the 8 ball. The white billiard ball glides across green felt and clanks against the sides of the table, missing its target by a few inches. Patrick sighs in relief.
“That was a close one!” he says with a laugh. He may play the part of fierce billiard competitor, but in reality Patrick is here to enjoy drinks and a game with his friends.
Patrick used to frequent Grand Central years ago, at a time when he lived closer to Baltimore. Returning back now for a visit, he speaks of how the bar has changed since the days when he was a regular. First and foremost, he expresses his shock at the paint truck incident.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to see all this paint here,” Patrick says.
He also speaks apprehensively about former gems of Grand Central.
“I miss the room that used to be upstairs! And the country western nights…those were the best. They haven’t had that in a while though. I’m totally aging myself right now,” Patrick laughs. Though he may yearn for old features of the club, something still brings him back.
He focuses on the billiard table in front of him for a moment, planning out his next move. Making his shot, he steps back with a thoughtful look on his face, before throwing away his previous apprehension. Patrick begins to praise Grand Central for its growth and its constant dependability.
“I do like what it’s become. Progress is progress, and Central has definitely made progress. Hold this for a second?” He tosses a pool stick at one of his friends seated nearby and takes a sip of his drink.
Patrick begins to hint that even greater change for Grand Central could be positive, as they are leaders in the local gay community.
“I think they definitely are a positive contribution. They’re so involved in pride. They’re providing pillars for the community; that’s what they’re doing. Your turn,” he nods at his opponent. He talks about the surrounding LGBT community, recognizing that in any metropolis area, any growth in the gay community is huge.
“Progression is inevitable, but how it happens or how long it takes, I don’t know,” he says, as he finishes his beer and the game comes to an end soon thereafter. Patrick and his two friends head down the steps to close out their bar tabs with a friendly bartender named Bryant.
One can only hope that the positive change Patrick speaks of is around the corner for a bar like Grand Central, and that progression will come sooner rather than later.
Inside Look: Nightlife of a Bartender
Grand Central, an alternative bar in downtown Baltimore, has certainly changed over the years, but the day-to-day life of a bartender hasn’t.
Owner “not going anywhere”
It’s a week later at Grand Central. The patio and sidewalk are still splattered white, but the bar’s doors are open and ready for business. The sun is beginning to set through the blue and green glass-stained windows of the bar and there are a handful of customers roaming through on this seemingly regular Wednesday happy hour. Some are playing pool upstairs and some smoking outside on the patio; however, this Wednesday there is a special guest.
There is a happy and palpable presence here tonight. It has blue eyes, a blue collar shirt and warm smile. Don Davis, owner and founder of Grand Central is back. After enjoying the sunny splendor of retirement in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Davis still managed the business from a far, taking a backseat and leaving it in the trusted hands of his general manager.
But Davis is back and ready to whip the bar back into the shape.
“I trusted my general manager 1000 percent with my business,” Davis says. “I am not mad at him, he just got burned out.Things started slipping. There were no job descriptions, dress codes, bartenders weren’t greeting people. It wasn’t how I left it.”
Exchanging a condo on the shore for a one bedroom with no bathroom on the top floor of his row home nightclub, Davis, his partner Troy and their 9-year-old diabetic black Schnauzer poodle Junior packed up their lives and moved back to Baltimore.
“I’ve lived here for 32 years and owned Central for 22,” Davis says. “It’s good to be back and see everyone, but I’m back to rebuild it.”
Davis wants to welcome everyone. You can tell by the way he walks the entire bar, striking up conversations with customers and genuinely asking about their experience. “Hey, you guys need some more drinks?” he calls over to a group on the patio. He wants his bar to be accepting and personable.
“I never wanted a neon sign saying ‘gay bar’,” Davis says. “It’s for everybody. I don’t care if you’re straight, gay; money is money and green is green. I didn’t want to be stigmatized as a gay bar. It’s an alternative bar, not a gay club. It’s for everyone.”
Davis starts talking about his expectations for his bartenders, when a happily houred woman stops by to say goodbye.
“I always tell my bartenders to always say thank you. If they don’t tip you, still say thank you. For every customer you take out, five will go out with..”
“Goodnight Don,” the woman says with squinted eyes and questionable balance. “It was so good seeing you tonight.”
“Oh, goodnight. It was so good to see you too,” Davis says as he gives her a hug.
Davis cares about his customers and their views and reads the comments they put on the club’s Facebook page and is sometimes hurt by the posts.
“I’m not the best at social media,” the 62-year-old native of New Jersey says. “Troy gets so mad at me when I’m on that thing, because I get so upset about what people put on there… They don’t know me, but they will.”
After 22 years of owning the business, things are bound to change. Workers change, buildings expands, customers change and Central is continuously changing right along with the times.
“It’s amazing over the years how much that has loosened up. I have straight males and females that work for me, gay and lesbian bartenders that work for me. Our clientele is very alternative, mixed and that’s why I love it. My clientele and customers are the cream of the crop.”
Davis is also looking to put in new floors, carpet, dance floor, lights and a paint job.
Rumors about the club’s closing circulated the Baltimore “gayborhood” due to a recent Baltimore Sun article about the car incident, where Davis stated “…this may be the last straw…we’re going to get it fixed, but I’m not sure what I’m doing after that. I might sell the place. I’m tired of the whole city.”
Davis clears the record and says that he spoke out of frustration and apologizes for his moment of weakness. He says he is ready to get his business back and running.
“Grand central is here to stay and is going to be better than ever,” Davis says.