In Montrose, there's no holiday that can't be celebrated in a pair of tight white briefs. Tonight it's Easter, and the go-go boys in bunny ears, white sneakers, and cottontails pinned to their underwear are exiting the stage at JR's Bar & Grill. It's last call at Houston's most popular gay bar, owned by Houston's most famous employer in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community: Charles Armstrong.
As the bar closes, the side door swings open. Out files the entire staff of JR's, brooms and dustbins in hand. Their day isn't over yet. It's the beginning of the mandatory nightly neighborhood cleanup, where they sweep the wide swath of Montrose that Armstrong owns until it's spotless. Much of Pacific Street belongs to Armstrong, including three clubs next door to one another. (His fourth club, Meteor, is only a bus ride away on Armstrong's direct shuttle.) Onlookers giggle: "You're doing a good job; you can come to my house!" someone mocks from the street. Another man says he thinks it's cute that they're recycling. The men keep sweeping.
These are the Charles Armstrong boys, fiercely loyal to the boss they serve. Over decades, 57-year-old Armstrong has built an empire of four of the most successful clubs in Houston's gay scene. Though he's rarely spotted inside his bars, many people have seen him feeding the feral cats that roam his property. There's no mistaking Armstrong. With immaculate wavy brown hair and a perfectly trimmed matching mustache, he's utterly distinguishable.
Armstrong doesn't want to be the subject of a story. "Now if you want to write an article," he says over the phone in his assured, booming voice that practically drips italics, "here's a good one for you." A dramatic pause. "What in the hell is killing the palm trees in Houston?" Armstrong says he's losing some of the $20,000 palms that surround his clubs to airborne bacteria, an issue he believes has mass appeal. "A lot of people would love to read more about something like that," he says.
After finally tabling the tree fungus, Armstrong goes back and forth on whether or not he will answer questions. Skeptically, he agrees to an in-person interview. This changes in the following days. After consulting his attorneys, he decides he will only respond to questions via e-mail. ("'You're the millionaire!" Armstrong says his lawyers warned him. "They all want to bring you down!'") Still, he answers questions over the phone again and again — sometimes warily, usually charmingly, and often in the third person. He insists, however, that he not be photographed. Charles Armstrong is a private person.
Armstrong isn't here tonight, but his employees don't need to be reminded of the schedule. Most have closed the same way for years. As cigarette butts disappear into dustbins, stray cats start to wander into the parking lot, right on time. Three cats walk to the back door of the bar and sit in a straight line, waiting. Others perch on JR's parking barriers or lie on their sides.
They're here for dinner, which is diligently delivered each night by the staff at Armstrong's orders. Piles of wet and dry food will soon be spread out around the lot. Armstrong tries to be cagey when speaking about feeding the cats, saying he shouldn't talk about them since "some people just hate cats." But he can't seem to help himself. "I like to think they're going to Luby's," Armstrong says. His smile is almost audible from the other end of the phone line. "They get a choice." Armstrong always sets out a buffet of poultry, beef and seafood. "How heartbroken would you be if you got to Luby's and all they had was fish, and you hated fish?"
Some people in the neighborhood think the world of Charles Armstrong. Some wish he'd get "clawed to sh#t by one of his many feral cats," if Facebook wall posts are to be believed. Regardless, Armstrong's clout has kept employees sweeping the streets and feeding the neighborhood cats for decades. Though opinions on the man vary, one thing's undisputed. From happy hour on, Armstrong is the most powerful man in the neighborhood.
But that might be changing. With the huge success of a brand-new gay bar in town, F Bar, some of Armstrong's staff has quit to work for his adversary. Armstrong has a soft spot for kittens — not, however, for disloyal employees. Their two weeks' notices have been greeted with lifetime bans from all of his bars, or worse. Then again, mutiny against the Mayor of Montrose was never expected to come without a few casualties.
Montrose wasn't always Houston's gay Mecca. LGBT activist and longtime Montrose resident Ray Hill, 70, says that before 1970, the gay population and its bars were spread out across downtown and Midtown. After the bars closed, however, there weren't many places to hang out where gays wouldn't be harassed. Hill and others found a welcoming 24-hour restaurant in Montrose, Art Wren's. "Since we were going to go there after the bars closed, people looked around and said, 'You know, this Montrose neighborhood's a nice place,'" Hill says. At the time, Montrose belonged to widows and empty nesters. The gays moved into their vacant garage apartments and redecorated the neighborhood, helping the elderly widows with the upkeep of their historic homes. "We became the gentrifying generation," Hill says. Gay bars began to spring up.