Thursdays at Bob and Barbara's belong to Miss Lisa Lisa.
A roar of confirmation. The PBRs are high in the air, saluting Miss Lisa Lisa, “The Girl so Nice they named Her TWICE!!!”
“Now, here we go, who in here is GAY?!”
Men and women are bopping their heads to the music and lifting up their drinks.
“Now whether you’re heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, trisexual, transsexual, even ASEXUAL — we’re all here to have a good time, am I right?!”
• • •
Lisa Thompson. Here in a coffee shop on Ninth between South and Bainbridge, she is just Lisa. Perhaps if one of her voice students arrived, he or she would call her Ms. Thompson. If a patron of Bob and Barbara’s, the dive bar on 15th and South where Lisa performs on Thursday drag nights, happened to recognize her without the makeup and skimpy outfits, he or she might exclaim, “Hey! Miss Lisa Lisa!”
But really, it’s just Lisa. Her parents had initially wanted her to keep her given name — not vehemently and not a desire born of stubborn denial. They just thought she might want to retain some of what she had at her own beginning, some sort of clear identifier to indicate where she had been and who she once was. Eventually, though, they shrugged and desisted, not only accepting but endorsing the decision. After all, everyone just calls her Lisa.
She doesn’t have on any makeup. She wears a sweater and jeans and a scarf gracefully looped about her neck. Simple. A coat with orangey leopard print and slightly dingy faux fur at the collar is the only aspect of her appearance that makes any sort of grab at attention, and it’s a pretty half–hearted grab, at that. Otherwise, Lisa Thompson is understated. A pleasant, unassuming woman. And she does indeed appear to be how she presents herself — a woman.
Her voice is perhaps a little bit lower than that of the average middle–aged female but certainly not unpleasantly so. One could even say that she has the perfect Hollywood–sultry timbre. She speaks deliberately and in calm and soothing tones about the goings on of her life: the voice lessons she teaches, having graduated from University of the Arts, her work at Bob and Barbara’s. Her hands are placed before her on the wobbly coffee–shop table; she uses them very little, gesturing infrequently. Occasionally she’ll flip a stray piece of hair behind her shoulder and only in those moments is there any trace of “diva” to be found.
Her views regarding Bob and Barbara’s are utopian. It’s a place where anyone is welcome to a PBR, hold the judgment. No one cares how you identify yourself: straight, gay, bi, transsexual and even hipster.
• • •
The guy who has come to sit at the bar wears glasses — the big, black–framed sort that may or may not actually have lenses and that may or may not actually be prescription. His black, perfectly unkempt hair is haloed by a dark blue beanie. He wears plaid. His jeans are cigarette–thin. He sips a PBR. He is, in short, insufferably trendy — the textbook example of a hipster. Every night but Thursday, Bob and Barbara’s is just a typical, low–key bar filled with similarly dressed patrons.
His name is Frank, and Frank seems nice. He has an easy smile. He talks about the bar. Unnecessarily, he points out all the PBR paraphernalia — it’s an obvious feature. The place is a shrine — posters, cans, bottles, clocks and even the light fixtures pay homage to the Blue Ribbon.
“PBR: Blended 33 times to make One Great Beer.”
“Pabst makes it perfect!”
“Enjoy a ‘Cool Blue’: The BLUE RIBBON Winner!”
Older advertisements are quaintly offensive, their cool, retro vibe making any casual racism or sexism more permissible. A few signs also make reference to the House Special: a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam, $3. This, too, is specific to Bob and Barbara’s.
• • •
Mr. Barney is wearing a fedora and large framed glasses. His long, khaki trench coat is draped over the back of his tall, red–upholstered bar chair. He looks sharp. He looks like a vestige of a different time. He settles in nicely with the throwback appeal of Bob and Barbara’s.
“They used to be spittoons down thay. They had water runnin’ right on through. And place used to be so smoky, ya couldn’t even see the guy sittin’ right next t’ya.”
Butch nods. He’s wearing a newsboy cap and small–framed glasses. He too looks sharp. He appears younger than Mr. Barney, though they’re both getting on in age. They call me “sweetheart,” “honey” or “baby” in a grandfatherly sort of way.
“Mr. Barney here sho knows his history. He can tell you ‘bout all the bars they had ‘round here. Licensing and everything. He knows this neighborhood like the back a’ his hand.”
Mr. Barney goes on about Bob and Barbara’s various names and owners, throwing in a few anecdotes along the way. Bob Clarke brought in all the Pabst paraphernalia — he was a collector of sorts. Named the bar after himself and his manager Barbara. Jack Prince came in after working as a bartender in Avalon — heard about the place from some girl he met and decided to buy it. He brought in the drag show, but that doesn’t interest Mr. Barney and Butch. Sometimes they come for the jazz on Sundays.
“What is it they do here — you know on Thursdays?”
“Oh yeah, the, oh hey, now, oh the drag show.
“Aw yeah, the drag show!”
Toward the stage — really just a wooden, mattress–sized, raised platform — a small plaque pays tribute to a different aspect of Bob and Barbara’s, an aspect equal in fame to its PBR particularity or to its House Special. The plaque is wooden, white and hand–painted with stencils:
“Miss Lisa Lisa: The Girl so Nice they named Her TWICE!!!”
• • •
The man is clearly pretty drunk. He’s slightly older than the rest of the Thursday–night crowd, but he is oblivious to most everyone else’s presence. He, with his thinning salt–and–pepper hair and black tee–shirt, only has eyes for the drag–queen Britney Spears imitator lip–syncing to “Hit Me Baby, One More Time.”
He doesn’t dance, but rather stalks. The music cannot deactivate what is clearly his predatory mode. He follows the trans–woman around, his eyes never lifting from her face or body.
Eventually, he tires of his futile pacing and instead adopts a new strategy. The man shoves a few dollar bills into his mouth and circles the periphery of the stage area, desperately trying to attract faux–Britney’s attention.
She successfully evades him — a number of times — even after he attempts to pull her in for a kiss, encouraging her to take the bills from his mouth with her own.
The number ends. Faux–Britney retreats. Miss Lisa Lisa comes to the mic.
“Oh, you bad, bad tranny chaser!”
She wags a disciplinary finger at the older gentleman. He’s had too many House Specials to feel any embarrassment or remorse.
• • •
“Oh, I get hit on.” Lisa laughs to herself. “Men. Women, too, sometimes. And I’ll flirt, but I’m taken.”
Lisa has been in a relationship with a heterosexual man for the past 18 years. He had met her and was immediately interested.
“Listen,” she’d said, pulling him aside, “I’m just not your type.”
He persisted, and she gave him her number, telling him to give her a call and she would explain. He did so, as did she.
Their relationship is a large part of why she chooses to remain pre–op — as in… it’s all still there. She could never even envision herself as a post–op. She notes that her identity as a pre–op transsexual is part of what her boyfriend finds attractive, not necessarily in a sexual way, but simply because it’s part of what sets her apart. It’s a special quirk belonging to Lisa Thompson that, while integral to who she is, is also, fundamentally, just not seen as being a big deal.
“It’s not a sexual thing. It’s more than that. It’s emotions, it’s mental — there are a lot of other things that go into a relationship. People in general tend to put everything as a sexual thing.”
And yet, Lisa discusses friends of hers that had been in relationships, some 11 years long, only to have the relationship disintegrate after undergoing surgery to become post–op. She describes it as though the remaining genitalia, a vestige of any given transsexual individual’s struggle to find a viable gender identity, holds some sort of power. As though it were simultaneously entirely inconsequential and the source of an entire personality.
“You’re just not special anymore. If your boyfriend had wanted that, he would have just stuck to the standard, heterosexual lifestyle.”
• • •
Walking down the freestanding wooden staircase, Lisa Thompson is still Lisa. Her conservative light–green cardigan is neatly buttoned. It’s paired nicely with a sleek pair of dark–blue skinny jeans. Plaid, peep–toe, small–heeled pumps adorn what, at a second glance, seem to be abnormally large feet (for a woman, that is). But for a touch more makeup, this is the same woman that sat, not particularly noteworthy, in a coffee shop on Ninth and Bainbridge.
As she descends the stairs into the dressing room, however, a slight, almost imperceptible transformation begins to take place. Perhaps her hips start to sway a little bit more. Maybe her chin juts at a slightly higher angle. Undoubtedly, her voice adopts more of an edge, now infused with what can only be deemed “fierceness.” The diva is emerging.
Which dressing station belongs to her is apparent before Lisa even seats herself. It has a full wall to itself, distinguishing it from the cramped row of stations clinging to the perpendicular wall face. The mirror above the station is the largest of the oddball assortment of hand mirrors scattered about the room, messily duct–taped to sparse walls. Taped above the mirror is a photograph of Miss Lisa Lisa, resolving any potential ambiguity as to the ownership of the dressing area.
All around Miss Lisa Lisa, people flurry into motion. A transsexual named Chloe rummages through her bag to locate a cell phone. Her implants peek out from underneath the bottom of a silver–lame bikini top. Phone in hand, Chloe perches at the invisible periphery of Miss Lisa Lisa’s dressing area, pausing so as to not interrupt the combing and preening.
“You got your music?”
Lisa’s voice is now distinctly different than what it had been before the show. Previously mellow and warm, it now sounds almost shrill — possibly more antagonistic than formerly, definitely more intimidating. Chloe hands over her phone. As she begins to explain, Miss Lisa Lisa cuts her off, holding the phone at a distance and scrutinizing it, skepticism apparent.
“Is that all gonna work? Oh, now, this had better work, Chloe.”
Lisa’s head is shaking back and forth, preemptively chastising Chloe for any technical difficulties she may inadvertently cause. Her hands wave about dramatically. Chloe protests, though she doesn’t seem offended.
This is nothing personal — just business. And the affectations that Miss Lisa Lisa has adopted seem to just be par for the course — all the women are acting the part. They’re all waving their hands about — a sassy finger flitting about the face to emphasize a point, voices rising and falling and bursting, peels of laughter breaking against the general discord.
And now Miss Lisa Lisa begins to change. She peels off her clothing — item by item — almost seductively. And it all comes off. A black thong remains. A man named Timmay with the stage name Gio Michaels is dressed as Liza Minelli. Liza stares, ogling as Miss Lisa disrobes. She does it in an obvious sort of way, as though it were a joke, but her stare, directed at Lisa’s breasts, belies real envy.
In general, all of the women performing seem to have a preoccupation with those that they perceive to be more beautiful, more successful, more feminine drag queens and transsexuals. All of the women, that is, except Lisa.
She slips on a sheer, floor length robe. It’s black and lace, with violet flowers embroidered in elegant patterns. All she wears beneath it is her thong. She steadies herself at the edge of her chair and daintily droops one leg over another to begin applying lotion. Her legs are perfectly shaven.
“Honey,” Miss Lisa Lisa calls to a younger man simpering down the stairs. He perks up and dashes over. Miss Lisa Lisa extends her right foot, stretching her smooth, lotioned–up leg in the man’s direction.
“Honey,” she repeats, “could you just help me get these strapped on.” She dangles a pair of strappy black stilettos in front of him. He practically crashes to his knees, exclaiming, “Of course! Of course!”
The man proceeds to delicately put on Miss Lisa’s shoes — a new–age Cinderella. When he leaves, Diva Lisa realizes those were not the shoes she wanted anyway and slips on a different pair before heading upstairs.
Men and women scramble in and out as the show begins. Costume changes are hung up, already prepped. A beautiful teal, mermaid–style gown with an open back; a long–sleeved, floor–length, mesh evergreen dress, completely sheer and transparent. Wigs are strewn everywhere.
Upstairs, Lisa’s voice bellows, “Avert your eyes! I’m a married woman.” She pauses. “And a virgin.” Drunken laughter.
• • •
At the coffee shop one final time, Lisa walks in with a broad smile. Open, friendly, genuine — a smile not seen at Bob and Barbara’s. On Thursday nights, all smiles are sultry. But today, sheer, floor–length gowns have been replaced by a simple green spaghetti–strap summer dress.
Lisa greets the cashier by name. He apologizes for not having been able to make it to her show on Thursday, but he’ll be sure to make it to the next. He gets her iced black tea without her having asked.
“Everybody that sees me outside of Bob and Barbara’s says you’re so totally different. But Bob and Barbara’s — it’s a show. People come to be entertained, so you entertain them. Well, I’m not going to be entertaining them out in the street — that’s stupid.” She laughs. “People have to realize that this is the norm of me and then that’s the performance.”
And it’s that simple.
• • •
Randi Thompson was a sophomore in high school when he came up with the name Lisa.
“This is what I want you to call me,” he informed his teachers and peers.
“Oh. Okay,” they responded.
“The name Lisa — I just like the name. I didn’t really think about it; I just woke up one day and was like, well, what do I really want to call myself? And I thought, Lisa. To me, it’s feminine and soft. I just see myself as a Lisa. When someone addresses me I don’t want them to call me Ms. Princess. If you’re going to fit into society you need the kind of name that no one would think twice about. Lisa.”
Lisa Thompson still doesn’t get the fuss, though. When it comes down to it, it’s really just a name — just another identifier.
“You call me whatever you’re comfortable with. I’m still the same person. But people mostly just call me Lisa.”
• • •
Tatum Regan is a senior in the College.