DJ Tikka Masala has worked at Henrietta Hudson’s bar since 2014. Hen’s is a New York City institution within the LGBTQ community, and has managed to hang on amidst massive closures. I spoke to DJ Tikka about what a night would have been like at the bar before Covid-19.
DJ Tikka Masala
I would hug the security person, and the security would typically open the door for me, which is so sweet. Greet the bartender, getting a scope of what’s going on in the room, what the lighting feels like, who’s sitting there, what they’re drinking, what kind of mood the bartender appears to be in, just generally taking the temperature of the room, just scoping out who’s there and getting a sense of what type of music I can guess that they might like, by their dress, by their age, by their temperament, by what kind of energy they’re in, if they’re in there with a group, if they’re in there by themself. Because these things lead to different outcomes. Taking a deep breath, and starting it up.
And moving people into the night bit by bit with what I know so far, and how to match that. Really moving back and forth between what I think their journey might be. And what my journey’s been that week. And finding common ground in between these, these two areas.
Another level of attention is the regulars are sort of like low-key stars, kind of cool, because the staff knows who the regulars are. But the other customers don’t. There are these secret stars in the room who aren’t so obvious, whose musical tastes also influence what the overall consistent vibe is. I consider them to be famous because when they come in every Thursday, it’s almost like they’re coming to their gig. So it’s like a star has walked into the room. I love that. If customer, ;ike I know what their favorite song is, shows up for them, they feel very special when they walk into the room, and their favorite song starts to play.
It’s a mutual recognition. That’s a little ritual that I miss.
There’s another energetic exchange that always happens between me and the staff there, which is that you know, certain staff members have certain favorite songs. So if you play those songs, you’ll notice the bartender starts to dance. Or if the security person just had a stressful interaction that they feel seen when one of their favorite songs comes on.
There is this whole healing and recognition zone that we all tap into, together to its collective energy work.
Set time was six hours. So I think it was always pretty important for us to find ways to be seen together there, to feel connected.
At Hen’s, we went digital right after. I’m a computer person. So I was already ready to DJ on Zoom like the week after. You know, like I thought the pandemic was not gonna last this long. For me, I really needed to keep holding the ritual together for my own sanity as something that stays put, because everything felt like it wasn’t staying put. Folks needed the grounding.
There were some Henrietta’s customers who I would never have seen the interiors of their homes and lives. So that was very intimate because some of our physical regulars started coming to the digital Zooms and then I was like, Oh my god, I had no idea you had so many plants, you know.
People are going to do what they need to do to find love. And I think that there is room for that. In the digital space. To watch this kind of funny thing happened, where it’s like, oh, there’s these two separate people in their two separate boxes. And then a month later, they’re both in the same box together. They met in that Zoom space, you know, and now two of them are getting married.
You know, just a few blocks away from Henrietta’s is Stonewall, and we can’t forget queer liberation movement started in a nightclub. The ways that our queer communities move with we’re famous for our original, like physical dance movement styles that get created in New York City like Voguing. You know, that’s one of many examples of movement forms that have come directly out of queer communities that are dance, that are political. I do see a lot of connectivity between original movement creation, political movements, and being an organizer and a creator in these kinds of spaces with the desired outcome of people being able to gather people being able to express themselves and for people to be beautiful and visible and seen by their own communities and for those spaces to encourage growth and deliver us some power in a world that sometimes invisiblizes is us, or is violent towards us.
Henrietta Hudson does not give up. That is why it’s the oldest lesbian bar country. It is not going anywhere. I can see Henrietta’s coming back with a completely new level of gratitude and appreciation coming from its audiences. There was an apathy, just kind of take it for grantedness of what a lesbian bar is. New Yorkers just take it for granted. Oh, yeah, we have three of those. I can see Henrietta’s having its own type of Renaissance. I can’t imagine it doing anything, but making it through and like really pushing, pushing the limit of what’s possible for a certain type of bar that’s not meant to survive. You know, this is the West Village, it’s probably the most expensive neighborhood in the country. And lesbian bars in much less challenging places have been dropping like flies over the last decade.
There’s a culture of resilience there. And people are so loyal there. It’s not this place that tries to ride on trends. It’s this place that really does build its community and stay connected to its community. And people form rituals with it because it doesn’t give up.
This is absolutely a Buddhist moment. We’re in a time that I think a lot of spiritual figures have articulated very clearly already. It is asking us to question our sense of attachment. I mean, it’s a time of great loss. And it’s a time of great transition. I don’t know very many people whose lives haven’t been transformed or touched when fast, natural disasters happened to people. And they really have to confront the fact that their lives are not that predictable. And that can be in deep contrast to the regularity of a DJ night or like a scheduled event. At Henrietta’s. I was there every Thursday night, and every Sunday night which is a little bit like church and for the church to disappear, the physicality of the church to disappear or the temple to disappear. It forces a sense of realignment about where the ritual actually sits in our lives, like does it sit in the physical space? Or does it sit in our hearts and minds. And I think that can be a really big challenge, especially for people who don’t have access to technology. I’m looking forward to that, that people who aren’t high tech people who don’t have money, people who don’t have these devices that let them stay plugged in, people who rely on the physical ritual of showing up at the bar. That they find it again. I think it’s gonna be very robust. I think things are gonna be really super busy. As people jump back in to their old lives.
It feels a little bit like this rubber band that’s been it’s like getting pulled and pulled and pulled as the pandemic wears on this like rubber band of social need basic human contact. And I do see it like when it whips back. Like there’s gonna be a snap. I can tell there will be this like snap and I, I would like for it to not whip back so, so quickly. I would like for us to make sure that everybody is is being attended to as we return to our our joy.
That was DJ Tikka Masala. She wrote and performed the last two songs. The first one is called Many Forests In This Heart. And right now, you’re listening to “River Crossings.”
For iPondr, I’m Carolina Kroon.
Audio story edited and co-produced by Annie Sinsabaugh
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