Originally from Guatemala, Aldana has been in L.A. for 15 years and has seen the scene change totally. "Clubs are very flat now," he says. "There are no hot places."
While admitting that West Hollywood has a reputation for being "stuck up," Aldana is nevertheless proud that his bar attracts an affluent crowd, and even the occasional celebrity--apparently Julia Roberts made an appearance here a year or so ago. And on any day, there are a fair number of women, certainly not all gay.
Whether it has a sexy atmosphere is another matter--maybe the new visibility, the lack of a covert sensuality, actually takes away a bar's sex appeal. And the constantly thudding dance music seems to be playing to itself in a vacuum, as there isn't anyone here who's about to get up and start dancing. This is very much a place where your eyes do most of the moving, as you stand and sip your apple martini.
But it is the men who are most important, of course. "Bed, Boys & Beyond" had parodied the preening tyranny of appearance, the preoccupation with getting the perfect look of the gay scene. On a crowded Saturday night at the Abbey, there is the feeling, crucial for a successful venue, that here indeed is to be found the best-looking and most eligible crowd in town. The most ripped--the muscle boys--are literally at center stage, in the middle of the patio, by the outdoor bar.
Fashionably yet somewhat identically dressed--the three-quarter-length pants a la Jude Law in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" seem to be de rigueur at the moment--these guys are just the right shade of tan, with improbably white teeth and pectoral muscles which seem to have a life independent of their owners. These guys don't so much move as position themselves.
As with all "trickle-down" effects, the rest of the crowd, the majority, are in shape to varying degrees, but there's no denying who sets the standards. "Five percent body fat," answers one campy, short, stocky guy when I ask what he and his friends think gay men are most looking for in WeHo.
Aldana insists that the crowd is very mixed in terms of age, though undoubtedly 20-and 30-somethings predominate.
Since being in L.A., I have heard constant protests at the particular ageism of the scene here. "There's no question that at my age you're virtually invisible in the gay world," complained one 60-year-old friend, a guy who goes to the Abbey, among other places, from time to time but takes a good 10 years, at least, off his age when he crosses the threshold. "I would get more recognition if I were dying from AIDS," he said.
Here, as with other gay bars, I can't help but feel that the presence of older men works more to simply flatter the younger ones in their aspirations to be broad-minded and inclusive.
What is indisputable, however, is that the crowd doesn't fully reflect the city. Looking around at the hundreds of guys packed together on the evenings I was there, I certainly saw Asians and Latinos but only a handful of African Americans.
The segregation of L.A. is evident in the gay scene of West Hollywood, where the accepted standard of desirability for the whole gay world--smooth, chiseled, muscled, white--largely originates, whether it admits it or not. One black guy who said that he rarely goes to West Hollywood told me, "If there is racism, then it don't bother me. But I'm not gonna be some guy's fantasy for the night."
Stage and reality pretty much coincided therefore, albeit that one-fifth of the cast of "Bed, Boys" is black and, thus, quite different than the cast at the Abbey. But what was also true of both was the absence of a big issue about which gay men could become passionate.
If anything, from my conversations and observations, the general tone of gay life seems to be increasingly conservative and introspective, not to say self-absorbed. The gentrified, affluent and self-assured tone of the Abbey suits this well. As Aldana said, there is the sense that things are, overall, going well for gays.
The fight for legally recognized marriage ceremonies, or the ability to adopt children--the only real issues which were cited to me by Abbey patrons as being of the moment--are ones which are, if you like, proactive, and lack the immediacy of an outright, active attack on the gay world about which one could take up arms.
In one important way, such desires are really quite traditional, about further infiltration into mainstream society. One guy at the bar made constant and somewhat insistent references throughout our conversation to his "husband"; the pride and deference he showed in using the term could have placed him in the Eisenhower era.
Subjects such as drug and steroid abuse, or the apparent increase in the alarming practice of "barebacking"--anal sex without condoms--remain, it seemed, more or less not talked about. Instead, the main preoccupation seems to be with relationships and the never-ending, same old, same old search for Mr. Right.