By John Sanchez
Except for a few details, Milwaukee Avenue's Friar's is a grill from another time. The clock seems to have stopped sometime during the Eisenhower administration. On the other hand, the upholstery in the booths is teal, presumably the result of a Miami Vice-era renovation. A television high above the back door plays VH-1, which is probably why no one uses the jukebox anymore. And a small but noticeable part of the clientele is made up of neighborhood artists, who have lately been crowding the working-class Mexican and Polish residents. But Friar's still belongs to the old guard, perhaps because the cholesterol-filled menu has little to offer the health-conscious newcomers.
The menu is simple: breakfast, hamburgers, soup, and sandwiches. There are booths along the window and one wall, and built-in stools at the counter. The fixtures appear to have been here since the place first opened, as do some of the customers. In the morning, gruff retirees belly up to the counter for breakfast and bullshit. A huge Bulls banner flies overhead, and the walls are lined with faded color photographs of basketball stars, some legendary, some forgotten. I don't know what the men spend their hours talking about, but I'm certain sports are part of it.
When I arrive a few minutes after 11 this morning, Jacob is waiting for me in a booth next to the window. We have mutual friends, but this is the first time we've gotten together without them. A thin white 20-year-old with delicate features, Jacob makes a living as a "drag dominatrix" (as his classified ad puts it) under the name of Nina. This stretch of Milwaukee Avenue is a drag queen's dream strip mall, with its discount lingerie, wig, and dress shops. The electrolysis office at Milwaukee and Ashland clinches it. Jacob's asked me to film the shopping spree he has planned for today; he's going to turn in the Super-8 footage for his film class at the School of the Art Institute, where he's a second-year student.
Jacob has biked several blocks to Friar's and thought it best to travel in what he calls "boy drag." Now he has to change his clothes and put on his makeup, and he plans to do it here. While Friar's is a fine place for lunch or a cup of coffee, it may not be the ideal spot for a drag queen to perform her delicate transformation. He says he'll pop into the bathroom and throw her look together in 10 or 15 minutes. "When I come back, I'm going to be very calm and ladylike," he says sternly. I understand that I'm to remain cool and collected as well. And with that word of caution he sweeps off to the rest room, makeup bag in hand.
She returns much sooner than expected, not looking particularly ladylike and explaining, "There's no mirror."
I offer my sympathy, but Nina is undeterred. She rummages for a compact. "This will work," she says.
I'm not so sure. The little round mirror can be no more than two inches in diameter, and to use it she'll have to give up a free hand. I see a half-empty glass, but Nina's is half full, and she disappears into the bathroom again.
Ten minutes pass, then 15, then 20. After walking by our booth several times, the waitress pointedly asks if I'd like to order. I demur, saying I'm "waiting for my friend," then reconsider. The price of a bowl of chicken soup is probably worth the peace it will buy. But the waitress is already gone, complaining about something to the contingent at the counter. I wonder if she's grousing about us, those fags in the booth by the window. Occasionally someone bangs on the bathroom door.
Finally, after half an hour, Nina reappears. Despite her admonition, I can't hold back a laugh of joy. With a narrow black dress, a chic little hat, and a subtle makeup job, she has re-created herself as a Vogue model, circa 1952. In our post-Wong Foo world, where it's hard to open a magazine or turn on the television without seeing some male star dressed as a woman, drag may have lost some of its power to shock. But as she steps nonchalantly through the diner on her spike heels, Nina is a revelation. The fact that she's a man in drag is obvious. She wears no wig and is apparently not concerned with "passing."
Nina's time-warped look has coincidentally evoked the era of Friar's itself. And her elegance, not her being cross-dressed, creates a delightful incongruity. Such a refined-looking lady is out of place in a workingman's hangout like Friar's.
One by one, each man she passes turns to stare, but Nina has nothing to fear from them. Except for my muffled tittering and the click of her heels against the linoleum, she walks in silence. No one snickers, no one scowls, no one calls her a faggot. Using beauty as her only implement, she has forced a roomful of men into submission. As she calmly seats herself across from me, I can see that the men who pay $300 an hour for Nina's services are getting a bargain, for there can be no better dominatrix than this.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.