Did you hear the one about the two straight guys who walk into a gay bar "... ?
Actually, the evening I visited Velvet — a hip bar in the Laurel district — the only customers shortly after the 6 p.m. opening were three straight men. All gray-haired, they looked like they might spend more time lifting pints instead of weights. Not what you'd expect to find at one of the few bars catering to Oakland's lesbian community, one of the largest among U.S. cities, according to co-owner Bob Huff.
It would be hard, however, to say what would pass as unusual at the popular Velvet lounge, where every third Saturday a drag king performance art group takes to the stage for gender-bending cabaret. First Saturdays are reserved for "Crush," a hip-hop party for boys who like boys, girls who like girls and their friends. Then there are Wednesdays with DJ Weyland from KPFA "Hard Knock Radio," and happy hour on Friday with Salene and Candy.
A parade of women and men, gay and straight, young and old, pass six nights a week (it's closed on Tuesdays) through Velvet's understated doorway at 3411 MacArthur Blvd., lit from inside by a warm red-hued glow.
"I've been happily married for 24 years," Robert Jarratt said, adding that his wife often joins him at Velvet. He said it doesn't matter to him that it's a gay bar. "I don't discriminate." And he lives two blocks away.
Everything about the bar is warm and eclectic in a way that creates a comfortable but cool neighborhood watering hole. Velvet's motto is, "Are you friendly?" Rule No. 1: "If they can't deal with a gay bar, they're not welcome," Huff said, unloading cases of Corona longneck bottles into a cooler. "The big rainbow flag in the entrance takes care of that."
Rule No. 2 at Velvet: Don't trash the Oakland Raiders. "We are a Raider-friendly bar," Huff announced, breaking into a hip-hop move as he joked with patrons.
The two don't often go hand-in-hand. Nevertheless, a Raiders banner hangs beneath a TV above the bar, on which an episode of "The Simpsons" was playing with the sound muted.
Business has been brisk since opening night, St. Patrick's Day in 2007. Huff and business partners Adam Afuvai and Stephanie Sullivan teamed up after seeing the bar advertised on Craigslist. Huff knew the spot from its days as a biker bar when he was a kid growing up in the nearby Maxwell Park neighborhood. When they took over in January 2007, it was Merle's Hilltop Tavern, the last American Indian-owned bar in Oakland.
The bar's front door is in limbo land, just a half block from the arches announcing the start of the Laurel District at 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, just a stone's throw from Interstate 580.
The new owners bet Velvet's success on patrons from the underserved lesbian community and the up-and-coming neighborhood, which has ample room for lounge-lizard expansion. "We saw it and liked it and knew we could do something with it," Huff said.
Huff said the trio of bar partners wanted to create a nice, comfortable place, "the kind of place your mom would want to come to." His mother does occasionally stop by. The partners salvaged a couple of old-style booths and the scruffy bar on which red plastic bowls full of Tootsie Rolls and lollypops are placed at even intervals. New are the chrome and black leather bar stools, as well as the plush sofa, chairs and leather Ottomans.
An old closet filled with junk became a DJ booth, and large-screen TVs were installed. They come in handy on movie nights. A popcorn machine made to look like an old-fashioned popcorn cart stands near the pool tables, which can be moved to make way for dancing beneath disco lights.
"How many bars have free pool?" said Nicholas Cienfuegos, who lives a block and a half away. He said good players were plentiful. The only element the art student appreciated more was Huff's support for local artists. "Oakland has a very diverse art movement," Cienfuegos said.
"This," Cienfuegos announced, "is a local bar."
That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Night Owl blog, www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl, for more events and oddities.