People steal things from the bar all the time. That’s not the worst thing about owning a bar in New Orleans - we’ll get to that soon enough - but it still sucks.
I try not to get mad about it. I’m no saint, after all. My parents took a “souvenir” glass from every wedding they went to. I remember stealing an unguarded case of beer from in front of a liquor store in Philadelphia when I was in high school. Taking street signs or lawn ornaments was common practice among my bored, suburban friends. Even in the last few years I’ve snuck bottles of spirits from promotional events I’ve worked or attended. The point is, I don’t get mad about people stealing from me, because I clearly deserve it. It’s karma. It’s the chickens coming home to roost. It’s reaping what I sow. But yeah, it sucks.
People take all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s funny, like when a plush stuffed goat toy (which I was planning to display like taxidermy) was taken by some drunk girls who were caught on our security cameras playing the goat like an air guitar. Those girls returned the goat, who I had named Buck Henry, but he was stolen again a month later and his whereabouts are currently unknown. The popular game Cards Against Humanity has similarly been stolen, returned, and stolen again. A Christmas gift from an old high school flame, a framed print of a vintage dime-store novel cover that read Captain Satan: King of Adventure, was a particularly hard loss.
The Great St. Patrick’s Day Egg Heist is documented well-enough that I shouldn’t repeat the story here, but you may not know that after all the hoopla died down, someone anonymously left about a dozen eggs on the front step of the bar. That was nice. It also demonstrated the efficacy of online public shaming as a means of loss-prevention, and I have continued to utilize that strategy.
After I posted pics online, the people who stole the 30 pack of Rolling Rock sent an apology letter with a hundred dollar bill in it, which is significantly more than we would have charged for those beers. It was a charmingly indirect way to make a profit. Sometimes I worry, though, that by posting the pics I may be rewarding the wrong kind of behavior. When the girl who made off with Buck Henry (the first time) made my security footage her profile pic, it occurred to me that the kind of entitled brat who would steal willy nilly from a bar might actually thrive on the kind of attention that getting caught in the act would generate.
Again, this thievery is non-stop. On New Year’s Eve, just three weeks ago as I write this, a guest identified by witnesses as a young woman made off with the entire fishbowl of condoms that we kept by the door. I’m not mad about the condoms, as long as she uses them - they’re free and there to be taken, and far be it from me to tell anyone that they’re having too much safe sex - but I do wish she would return the fishbowl.
So many people, myself included, move through the world with a severe sense of entitlement, taking what they want whenever they think they can get away with it. This entitlement leads to more than just sporadically amusing thievery. It was also kindling in a recent confrontation I had with another unique human individual over the weekend. At the waning end of a busy Friday night, a girl I know flagged me down and told me that “some dude” just cut in front of everyone waiting for the women’s room, and when she confronted this person about it, they responded, “It’s okay. I’m trans.”
I am, now even more than usual, particularly sensitive to the threat of men invading women’s bathrooms. Twelve Mile Limit is one of a handful of bars that has hosted the monthly dance party called Heatwave!, and recently at one of these events, despite many explicit and overt attempts by the host to create a safe event founded on respect and consent, there was a man who, after openly exposing himself on the dancefloor, snuck into the women’s room and turned out the light.
This wasn’t at Twelve Mile, but I take no solace in that. There’s no reason it couldn’t have been. We’ve had to deal with the occasional deranged sexual predator, too. And the root problem is way more common, more pervasive than the kind obvious, outright villainy of a public masturbator. Every night, in every bar, women have to navigate uncomfortably-close-dancing strangers or infatuated drunks draping themselves like rapey afghans over women too polite or afraid to tell them to get lost. Trying to stop these constant assaults can feel like tilting at windmills. That might even be the worst thing about owning a bar, except it happens pretty much everywhere else, too. The world is often very hostile to women in a way that even the most well-intended cisgender men have the luxury of ignoring.
This was all very much at the front of my mind as I waited to confront this latest bathroom creeper. The women’s room door opened, and the person who emerged was about 6’2”, with short hair and a well-groomed beard, wearing khakis and a plaid button-down. They looked like me, only slightly taller and with a thicker facial hair, and I greeted them with a hearty, “What the fuck, man?”
“You can’t be in there.”
“It’s kind of a safe space? Also, you cut in line.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize there was a line.”
I started to question myself. Maybe I’d misjudged the situation. Was this person a male-bodied trans woman, like they claimed, who just didn’t notice the line? Then, when confronted by the woman who was next, thought their outwardly-male appearance was the issue, hence the quick, “It’s okay I’m trans”? A male-bodied person may have all of the markers of my gender and still identify as a woman, and if that’s the case I don’t have a problem with them using the women’s room. Gender binary is something of an antiquated notion. I wouldn’t even bother having gender assignments for the bathrooms - the one with the urinal in it just says “Mail” on the door, and I like to refer to it as the “Mail Room” - if it weren’t for the need to create a safe space for women in the bar to escape from male harassment. The women’s room is supposed to be that place, and when men, or people who look outwardly like men, violate that, it takes something away from the women who might be looking for that refuge.
Our conversation continued at the bar, where our mounting mutual hostility and the ambient commotion forced clipped, terse sentences on both sides.
“I’ve never had a problem using whatever bathroom I want before.”
“Did you tell them you identify as trans just so you could use the women’s room? Do you really identify as trans?”
“I don’t really identify as anything.”
That was a flag. If you don’t identify as any specific gender, more power to you. Like I said, gender binary is a dated concept. But if you tell strangers that you identify as trans one minute and non-gender-identified the next, I’m not going to assume that during the time you were in the bathroom your identity suddenly became more fluid. I’m going to assume that you’re the type of person who thinks that being trans and being non-gender-identified are synonymous. They are not, and that is not the kind of casual mistake that I would expect a trans person to make.
Still, I could be wrong. Maybe this person just used “trans” as a shorthand, since saying “I don’t identify as any specific traditional gender” would be a mouthful when you’re in a rush to use the bathroom. People who don’t conform to society’s labels must grow tired of being asked to explain the intricacies of their identities to every passer-by irked by their desire to use the bathroom they prefer.
“Seriously, I use women’s rooms all the time. This has never been an issue before. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it.”
That was it - the line that cut through any reasonable doubt I still had that, regardless of their gender identity (or lack thereof), this person was an irredeemable dick. Okay, maybe, hypothetically, it’s possible that you’re trans, or that you’re a perfectly fluid non-gender-conforming individual with a male body, but I don’t think that’s the likeliest answer. I think it’s much more likely that you’re a spoiled, overgrown boy. If you weren’t, you’d probably be aware, or at least willing to admit, that someone who appears to be a man brazenly charging into the women’s room and cutting in line might make women in the bar feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and would apologize if confronted with that reality.
I’m 99% percent sure that this was an entitled white boy, unused to being called on his shit. It takes one to know one, after all. The same kind of mentality that leads someone to steal two dozen eggs or a stuffed goat might have led to this person proudly defending their right to use whichever bathroom they please, regardless of how it makes anyone else feel (or whose turn it is).
And just as my own petty thievery is not as far in the rear-view mirror as I’d like it to be, I can see a version of myself at a younger age that might have done the same thing. I might even have convinced myself that I was the hero, even as I perpetuated a subversive narrative that undermines the trans rights movement.
Remember how voters in Houston blocked a trans rights bill because they were afraid that men will start freely entering women’s rooms if trans women are allowed to do so? Because don’t we just have to take their word for it, and how will we know the difference? You’ve just proved those reactionary idiots right, which is infuriating. And, sure, maybe I’ve used a women’s room from time to time, but when I do I try to be discreet, and if someone confronted me about it I wouldn’t pretend to be trans Rosa Parks.
But that tiny lingering doubt; that 1% chance that I’m the asshole; that I picked a fight with someone about their gender identity, refusing to take what they said at face value; that by trying to protect the right of women to have a space in my bar free of patriarchal oppression I have accidentally, but knowingly, trampled on the rights of an individual to use the bathroom that best conforms with their gender identity, regardless of their outward appearance or the equipment they were assigned at birth? That these kinds of trials are all rigged? That tomorrow there will arise some new Kobayashi Maru, an ethical no-win scenario whirling this time not around gender identity, but gentrification, or environmental stewardship, or substance abuse?
There is no right answer to so many of the moral questions raised by this business. My hands never feel quite clean, my conscience is never fully clear. And, for me at least, that’s the worst thing about owning a bar, in New Orleans or anywhere else.
Cole Newton is the owner, general manager, head bartender, and, as necessary, handyman, bouncer, and janitor at Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans. This column was adapted from his advice blog Big Fat Cocktails, which you can follow at bigfatcocktails.tumblr.com.