On a Friday night at Badlands in midtown Sacramento, a bridal party — in white dresses, cowboy boots and sashes that said “Bride Tribe” — have their hands swinging in the air as they dance in their front-row seats at the outdoor show cleverly called “COVID is a Drag.”
Apple Adams, the night’s red-haired emcee who had just finished a rousing performance set to Kesha’s 2010 bop “Your Love Is My Drug” in what used to be the back parking lot, points a finger at the brunette bride-to-be in a flower crown and asks for the name of her fiancé. The drag queen whipped around in sparkly red heels to face the DJ, who was livestreaming on her phone.
“Matt, are you watching?” Apple Adams scolds. “Matt, she settled for you.”
This is Lavender Heights, on a breezy June night. It’s different than what you remember, but also kind of the same. The cover charge is gone and everyone’s coming back out to party.
The last year and a half has been devastating for all businesses, but for night clubs here — where shameless, sweaty, intimate dancing and boozy fun are kind of the point — the pandemic was a nightmare, said general manager Johnathan Cameron. Now, as California eyes a June 15 economic reopening, Cameron wonders what a return to the old normal will look like.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” Cameron pauses. “We don’t use the word drunk, we call it festive. Because legally you can’t have drunk people at a bar. But I think people are going to forget how to behave. We know we’re going to be packed, so we’re just being very careful about it.”
The trays of jello-shots are still gone, as are the go-go boys. Dancing must be contained, preferably to one’s seat. The way Cameron puts it, “We are still in Footloose territory.”
Outside, a group of young women lined up at the door. Some had forgotten masks, leading to a brief shuffle as another door person scrounged up some surgical masks for the group.
“Cash only, no dancing, no table hopping, masks on at all times,” the door person, Dana Hartson, told the group of young women. “Have fun in there.”
Inside a Sacramento night club
Inside, patrons sat at tables lining the dance floor, a disco ball twinkling yellow and purple lights across the walls as a Kanye West song filled the bar. “At least the music is the same,” said Sierra Smernes, having finished a Moscow mule with her friends.
Out on the patio, Kathya Juarez sat with her friends across a couple of tables, excited to see the drag show later that night. It was her first time “out, out” since the pandemic began.
“One thing I forgot to do since it’s my first time coming to a bar is, I forgot to pull out my ID,” Juarez said. “They were like, ‘Do you have your ID?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, right, yes I do.’”
“Right, because you’re like drinking at your house,” chimed in her friend Kat Almond.
“Yeah, and no one asks me that,” she replied.
Nearby sat Avery Anderson, wearing orange feathers and blue eyeshadow, and Matt Blarer, in a nude latex-like top wearing long, sparkly pink nails. Both had turned 21 last year. Two days after Anderson’s birthday, she, of course, went to see a drag show at Badlands.
That was when it was still inside, hot and thrilling, everyone packed in “literally back to back.” Before COVID-19 was “on everybody’s radar,” she said. The next day, stay-at-home orders dropped on the state.
“Before this, I didn’t hang out with anybody. I didn’t go out. I had bad corona anxiety,” Anderson said, “I feel like I came here and was like, ‘It’s fine now.’ ”
At 9:02 p.m., DJ Lady Char began her set. A man wearing sunglasses shimmied his shoulders to the music, while someone walked by pushing a baby stroller, a scruffy chihuahua-like dog perched inside. A man was turned away at the door because his ID had been expired for a year. The alley smelled like urine and Dua Lipa’s “Rules” was reverberating off the brick buildings. A group of women pass a line of Lime scooters strewn across the sidewalks, wearing T-shirts that read, “Warning! The girls are drinking again.”
In front of the outdoor bar, man in a white button down shouted a greeting to a man in ripped jeans and a silver dangly earring. They hugged a moment, laughed, then one pulled back and asked, “Wait, we’ve met?”
“I feel the most comfortable here,” said Daniel Hernandez as he waited in line to grab a cider from the bar. Before the pandemic, this was his place.
“Even though this little corner is like where the gay bars are, I feel like this is the only real gay bar,” Hernandez added. “Faces is like, gay-friendly, but this is a gay bar.”
Then the drag show began, complete with fans and twirls and dips. Smartphone lights recording the acts twinkled in the background. A latecomer in a blue leotard and white gloves swore when they saw how packed the patio was.
During one performance, a drag queen in black latex spun in circles on impossibly thin heels, slinking through the crowd as the song “Villian” played over the speakers: “I’m a straight up villain, straight up villain, yeah no feeling, yeah no feeling.” After, red plastic bins, the kind used at diners to serve fries and onion rings, were passed around to collect tips from the audience. Apple Adams returned to the mic.
“Are we ready for a second round?”
“Wooooooo!” the crowd replied.