By Chris Lane
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It's hard to connect this kind of statement with what other people say about Bob and Kim. Joe Gunter, who's been working for them for three years and sewing for 30, can often be found hanging out in the back of the larger Black Hawk Leather next door to the Ripcord, listening to classical music and cutting leather. "This is one of the few places I've worked," he says, "where I haven't had a problem with the boss."
It's Thursday evening, Open Mike Night at Chances, a lesbian bar on Westheimer. Chris O'Toole sits at the bar nursing a Bud Light, chatting above the music. A woman on stage is belting out mostly girl-rock covers. Ladies wander up and drop bills in a tip jar that reads, "Feed the Kitty." Between songs, the singer calls to Chris, asking when she's going to play. "She's always got something tasty," she tells the crowd.
Chris waves her off, asking for another 15 minutes. She's talking about when she came out, during her junior year of high school in Texas City. "I was pushed into a corner, suffering from depression," she remembers. "My psychiatrist told me, 'You have to tell your mother.' But she knew I was gay all along." She says of her family, "They didn't judge me." Perhaps because the 27-year-old has been out for a decade, she plays down her sexuality. "If I don't make my sexuality a big issue," Chris says, "other people shouldn't either."
She sits next to a pretty woman she's dating who wants nothing to do with this story. On the bar in front of them is a stack of CDs. It's before ten, and the place isn't full yet. Chances is like a megaclub, and it gets seriously packed. It's really three bars in one -- Chances for live music and DJs, the New Barn for country dancing, and the G-Spot ("Don't ask," says Chris) for hip-hop. There aren't many lesbian bars in town, and this one dominates.
Chris started composing music when she was 12, and she first mounted the stage at Chances in 1999 to play what she describes as her "folk-rock-acoustic-blues" music. Nancy Ford, another popular musician and a comedienne, remembers that night. "That was back when I was hosting the Dyke Show, an open-mike every Thursday at Chances," she says. "Chris came up, and she was this cute little girl with her guitar, very reticent, very shy. She wanted to know if she could play something. My policy was always, if you haven't heard people, approach it gingerly, because you don't want someone clearing out the bar. Well, she got up there and did two, maybe three original songs, and she just wowed the crowd. The girls just went wild for her stuff She definitely got to be a favorite there."
Chris, who works at a guitar shop and at an art supply store, has twin passions: music and visual art. She's self-taught in both fields. Her artwork ranges from colorful, eyeball-heavy abstract works to graffiti-style compositions -- buried under one is a painting of an ex-girlfriend -- and intriguing portraits of her friends. Right now she's working on classical guitar compositions to accompany her paintings.
After several more calls to sing, Chris walks up with her guitar. She doesn't chatter a lot on stage, except for the occasional self-deprecating remark ("My bass player tuned my guitar," she says, "so if he's on crack, it's not my fault"). But her big voice speaks for itself. People compare her to Melissa Etheridge and Tracy Chapman. "I write about what I feel," Chris says of her songs, "like love, or the loss of somebody. Many of my songs are about losing someone that you love." That's not surprising, considering Chris was raised mostly by her grandmother and met her biological father only recently.
One of Chris's songs, "Ink and Paper," is about an ex-girlfriend she wronged in some way she doesn't want to talk about. Today she plays it, looking down as she sings, "ink and paper, letters sent, couldn't describe the pain I'm in." The lyrics are simple, but Chris's voice makes them sound profound. There are calls of "You rock, mama!" Chris plays several other songs, and when she steps offstage, several women approach to thank her. "You're making me blush," the freckled redhead tells them. Then she packs up her guitar and her girl and heads out the door.
Thursday night at Meteor. Charles Soloman sits by the door, holding court and sipping a melting frozen cosmopolitan. Screens flash images of pop stars at the self-proclaimed "urban video bar," and the music's loud. For a rainy evening, the crowd's not bad; patrons relax on the couches scattered throughout the sleek, airy space. A coed group is dancing in the middle of the room -- like many a gay bar in town, Meteor attracts its share of straight people.
Charles is surrounded by a group of guys. Most of them are his intensely loyal "Spoiled Boyz." They help promote his monthly after-hours parties of the same name, as well as his monthly DJ events. A few years ago, Charles left his finance job at ExxonMobil to start the party vehicle M2M Entertainment. He makes less money now, but he enjoys what he does -- going out at least four nights a week is part of his job.