Even in New Orleans, where anything goes,
prejudice runs rampant against gays
in the Seventies, when being out,
for most, remains completely out of the question,
a difficult life in and around the Big Easy.
For city dwellers and suburbanites
taking buses from Kenner and Metairie
and places even farther out than that,
for rural guys in need of a night on the town,
Upstairs Lounge the place to be themselves,
in the Quarter on a seedy stretch of Iberville Street,
with cheap beer and something like community.
For those men of necessity closeted,
Friday night’s the time to really live.
Excuses made to parents, kids, even spouses—
“Got to run an errand, help a friend,
take care of business, go to a thing for work”—
they arrive in singles, couples, groups
to red wallpaper, frilly curtains, drag
queens and all the rest, a happy refuge
from discrimination and from hate,
a place to meet, relax, drink and dance.
Prices right, people friendly, gossip—
“Look who he’s with, what she is wearing”—
and “nellie-drama,” always so much fun.
Men dressed up in leisure suits, wide belts,
white shoes with platform heels, or down with jeans,
mesh shirts, hair center-parted, feathered back.
Listening to “You’re So Vain” with snide jabs at friends,–
“Sweetie, this song is really about you”—
singing along with Elton to “Crocodile Rock,”
dancing to the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman
(Like the One I Got),” not missing the irony.
This fateful Friday starts like them all:
beer bust, good times, people having fun,
everyone buzzed, some a little too drunk—
“It’s Friday, go ahead and have another”—
everything hazy from the cigarette smoke.
But then some conflict over who knows what
between strangers, rivals, lovers, or former friends.
A raging-mad customer gets himself kicked out,
vows vengeance on whoever’s perceived to have wronged him—
“I’ll show you all, burn down this fucking place”—
goes down the street, buys a can of lighter fluid.
When the door buzzer sounds and will not stop—
“Somebody go see what the hell is wrong”—
door’s opened and a ball of fire shoots in;
the updraft takes it fast—“Oh my God!”
Quick-thinking barkeep leads a few out back—
“Y’all follow me, we can make it this way if we hurry!”—
some manage to squeeze themselves through barred windows,
but the place is packed, and many unlucky men
stuck inside die screaming in the flames,
some fused together in desperate embrace,
determined to spend eternity together,
some alone now at their hour of death,
even a reverend minister among them.
Because the dead are queer, there’s little interest;
no churches want to host the funerals.
The incident, never conclusively solved,
has been called a massacre of gays,
though survivors say history should omit it.
Perhaps a hate crime before the term was current,
but if, in fact, an evicted patron did it,
that means the hate in question was internal.
And legend has it the arsonist confessed,
to a nun and, drunk, to a friend,
though legal evidence could never be assembled.
But there’s no uncertainty about the horror
of thirty-two people dead, most of their
bodies burnt past recognition in
a hell not imagined like Dante’s, but all too real,
regardless of which devil fanned the flames.
Note: The facts on which this poem is based come from an article in the 1 July 2013 issue of Time. “The Horror Upstairs” was written by Elizabeth Dias with Jim Downs. I have, however, invented a number of fictional details.
T. Allen Culpepper