I have never been a “bar person.”
When I first moved to New York City, fresh and fearless from the Midwest, I had my sights set on making it to Broadway. I was a musical theater performer, and self-serious in the way only the truly young can be, and I found bars to be annoying—hot and claustrophobic and, worst of all, loud. When you have to sing at an audition at 9:30am, you don’t want to have blown your voice the night before, shouting to be heard at a bar.
And so I’ve never been a bar person.
A decade and a half later, I’ve hung up my tap shoes and picked up the pen to become a writer and an occasional audiobook narrator, usually of my own titles. My first two books—Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate!—were semi-autobiographical accounts of a young, probably-gay kid’s quest to land a role in E.T.: The (fictional) Broadway Musical. Simon & Schuster published the novels and I was asked to narrate them, which was a joy. I was back to performing again, a routine I actually knew better than writing: wake up at 8:30am, warm up your voice, and head to work. (Not that it felt like work. When you narrate your own audiobook, you already know how the story builds; you know which characters are larger than life; you know where you’re supposed to cry, and where the audience is supposed to laugh.)
So when the team at Penguin Random House audiobooks asked me to come in and narrate Ann Bausum’s remarkable Stonewall—about the riots at the famous and infamous bar in Manhattan’s West Village—I was thrilled but trepidatious. What if I read another author’s work “wrong”?
My fears were unfounded. Ann has written the definitive and extremely accessible account of a civil rights movement that is still moving, in every sense of the word. I found myself choked up several times when reading her words—or those of the many men and women she interviewed and researched, whose lives were forever changed by that unseasonably hot night in 1969.
Beyond the pleasures of Ann’s writing—which has a gripping, true-crime style that should capture the attention not just of the intended YA audience but really anyone interested in a good, occasionally shocking story—I also learned ways in which our world remains nearly as segregated as it was in the late 60s. (Turn on the news.)
But maybe the most important realization I had is that, as a gay man living in 2015, it is a privilege to “not be a bar person.”
The internet connects us all. So do apps. My parents have known and been cool with my gayness since just after high school. I have not always needed a gay bar—a (relatively) safe place, a haven—to seek out like-minded individuals, the way my LGBT ancestors did.
Narrating Ms. Bausum’s Stonewall reminded me of something else, too: that hearing a story read aloud has a primal quality. Think: camp fires. Think: ghost stories. I hope listeners of this audiobook connect not just to Ann’s words, but to the generations of men and women—whether “bar people” or not—who came before us, and knocked down doors (literally), and whose own ghost stories live on through the power of books.