Nobody’s Business: Peeling the Blue Banana
A notorious gay bar inserted into Praterstern’s underbelly has a long tradition of tolerance for Vienna’s least-understood
When you’re moseying on home or up to no good, a hole in the wall is often just what you want to plug into, with a few other souls, kindred or otherwise.
For years, my hole has been a dive in a crook of the Schnellbahn at Praterstern. Its sign – Blue Banana Café Bar – is prominent enough facing the Prater Hauptallee, but not visible from Praterstern, nor from the bar itself, which you enter from the concrete underbelly of the railway overpass.
In fact, until five years ago, BB consisted of two crooks, or a crook and a cranny – tiny rooms of about 10 square meters each. Its saloon, if you will, had saguaro cacti painted on the walls. (What could be gayer?) A curtained slit led to a second chamber, ostensibly a storeroom but with enough space for ecstatic contemplation and manipulation.
Blue Banana used to be a gay Austro-Yugobar with music from Abba to Haris Dzinovic. You could have danced all night with regular Dragan, who raised his crossed eyes to heaven at the refrain of "Zar sve ove godine?" Dragan even got his buddy Livius into it. Livius worked at a supermarket under his real name (perhaps also Dragan), but prowled the male world at night as he imagined a Roman emperor would, appropriating and disposing of human flesh…
There seems to be no early in this bar, and the customers have always provided plenty of surprises. Gypsy lady Remsi had a broad angelic smile, a whining laugh and a forthrightly expressed need to be fondled by homosexuals. Her gold teeth flashed as she popped open her bodice, skipping the fortune-telling.
There was a mother/son pair, she a waitress nearby, he rumoured to be a prostitute even nearer by, with his homespun acne. Then there was the civil servant and amateur flautist who stopped by Tuesdays after rehearsing with the "Orchester der Wiener Linien". The guest I saw most was Tommy, a deaf-mute who was under the employment, or protection, of a Greek Kaffehausbesitzerin up Praterstraße. Tommy, too, had a courtly, beatific smile, where he showed off his gleaming yellow teeth. He understood more jokes than I, howling soundlessly, slapping his knee in soft mirth.
Vincent, the young apple-cheeked, double-chinned bartender from Manchester: "Mir ist egal was die Leute sagen, ich liebe Abba." He would rise up dancing from behind the bar wearing a blond girlie wig, perfect for his strategically soft-focussed internet trysts with heterosexual men. About uncouth guests, Vincent always said, "He needs affection". One night, a dark-eyed, furrow-browed regular who worked for Amnesty International by day and drank at Blue Banana by night got so violent, he punched right through the front door – nobody ever did figure out why. Vincent sighed and gave him Lokalverbot (banished him from the bar).
Cramped space and the lugubrious Schnellbahn overhead conspire to make you believe the life stories people tell. A former missionary from the States grew up in the boys’ orphanage in Hershey, Pennsylvania, was fired here by his church for preaching that priests should have other jobs (he then became a successful businessman), and was now on pension after his head was injured in a bar-room brawl! And heterosexual at that!
Stiff drinks in sometimes unclean glasses give the comforting illusion that hanging out is work, too. Holding your liquor, and/or passing it around. Space becomes time as solid becomes liquid. In a dive, you can talk to anyone.
O tempore, o mores. Once, on a relatively-quiet eve, a policeman paid BB a call. His mission, so diametrically opposed to that of us guests, was to control whether BB had: EITHER enough paper napkins, OR a toilet inside the place. If BB were defined as an "Imbiss", it needed a sizable stack of those paper napkins, and if it were a "restaurant," it needed a toilet inside.
Well, guess what? BB’s ongoing quest for self-invention had neglected these criteria. Since the eats only consisted of a few peanuts in a bowl or gummy bears, napkins were not in evidence (or were possibly in use in the back room). The pissoir was across the passage, and actually larger than the bar itself. The policeman stayed a full 20 minutes in heated debate with the bartender, while unspeakable acts were most likely occurring in Room 2 just inches away…
Around five years ago, the saguaro cacti gave way to a comfy noodle imbiss, and Blue Banana proper moved into what was formerly its back room, halving its space but retaining its no-nonsense, shabby mystique, albeit with fewer Balkan accents. Last summer the passage was painted a deep green, then almost immediately a shrill, chaste white.
Now, there is some dicey art project going on: on a chalkboard by the bar can be read, "You construct rituals to touch men’s bodies!" (In English, otherwise it couldn’t possibly be art.) There is no chalk in evidence, and on a recent visit I still espied no paper napkins. Plus ça change? Although still on its quest for self-invention, Blue Banana doesn’t need anyone to bless its heart.