Road Notes 4: Natchez on the Mississippi

I knew it was a long shot that the Under-the-Hill Saloon in Natchez, Mississippi would be a gay bar. It’s been listed in Damron’s since at least 2007, but there’s nothing on the internet to corroborate: none of its effusive Yelp reviews mention anything remotely queer. The town is a regional tourist destination chock-full of beds and breakfast in Antebellum mansions built when Natchez was the cotton-and-slavery capital of the middle Mississippi.

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The bar is part of Under-the-Hill, the rough section of town from the steamboat era that was revitalized in the late 1980s. A historical market quotes a riverboat captain’s 1833 description:

The lower town of Natchez has got a worse character than any place on the river; every house seemed to be a grog shop, and I saw ill-favored men  and women looking from the windows. Here the most desperate characters congregate…

There are no signs that this is a gay bar. The almost-rainbow windsocks belong to the gift shop next door. The Harleys out front are driven by men in sleeveless Affliction t-shirts who dip snuff.

The saloon’s interior does a good job of looking like it’s been there forever: globetrotters’ curios and maritime tchotchkes on the walls, framed photos of steamboats and cotton bales, and hundreds of signed dollar bills tacked to the ceiling. The afternoon band played the blues, but after dinner they were playing classic rock: Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, All Right Now.

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Out front on the wooden sidewalk, well-groomed men in cargo shorts and leather sandals chatted with weathered men in soiled jeans and work boots. Only one woman socialized there, in her sleek floor-length sundress carrying a python purse. Her kids turned cartwheels in the grass with her mother-in-law across the street lined with pickup trucks punctuated by an Audi, a Mini Cooper, a BMW and a VW bug. Two economic worlds united by the fact that everyone had brought a beer coozy from home.

We all watched the sun set over the Mississippi while barges guided loads of coal downstream while I screwed up my courage to talk to the bartender about the least gay bar in the Damron Guide. A lanky white guy in a worn denim shirt, his kind face was framed by a long grey beard and the blue bandana he wore on his head.

 

–Do you have any idea how this place ended up in a guide book for gay bars?
We let anyone in here… even Whites,” he replied with his eyes atwinkle.
–Even the Whites, huh.
As long as they’re well-behaved and having a good time. Goes the same for your dog, welcome in here too. We let ’em all in, white, green, purple, whatever!

He nodded and turned back to his customers, accepting cash for two Budweisers and pouring Fireball shots at the same time. The full bar was completely white, although two African American families strolled along the Mississippi outside. 

I don’t know what to think about his answer. On the one hand, the live-and-let-live attitude and class mixing suggests that yes, gay people’s money is as green as anyone else’s. There’s plenty of gay-friendly straight bars that deserve to be listed, but those usually host drag shows once a month, or PFLAG meetings, or have posters for spoken word performances. Maybe someone submitted the bar to the guide as a joke or an attempt at sabotage. Maybe it was a bold act of allyship in a state that last year made it legal to deny services to LGBT people for religious reasons. It’s possible that Under-the-Hill Saloon is the gay friendliest bar around… but it’s likely that there are other live-and-let live establishments that serve the genteel propriators of Franklin Street’s antique stores and florists, described by a 2009 newspaper article as part of a “grand gay scene in Natchez.”

Either way, the nearest legit gay bars are 100 miles away in Baton Rouge, Jackson, or Monroe, Louisiana. The straight dating scene in Natchez may have its own peculiarities, if the television ad for FarmersOnly.com was any guide

I drove back to my $45 motel with the windows down so I could hear the frogs and crickets.

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