Shop Boston Art Review Magazine
Essay by Christopher Streat
The soft glow of starlight warmed Bella’s tables and halls as their iconic astral light fixtures swayed just above our heads. Illustration by Rico St. Paul.
Being queer, being gay, has been like raising a dragon in the hollows of my chest. It spent many of my formative years breathing sparkling, beautiful fire; I was constantly, horribly ablaze. I was not supposed to believe in drag-ons, let alone be harboring one inside me. I tried to kill it. I tried pouring liquor into my gullet hoping it would drown, tried hurting myself in the hopes that I could hurt it too. It took me twenty years to realize that I was as much a part of that dragon as it was a part of me. It took me twenty years to realize that when that dragon breathed fire, I was breathing fire too, if only I allowed myself to be seen. Being gay is much like breathing: denying it will kill you.
A Black dragon made his way past lilacs and sunlight and sky into a space that would change him forever. He didn’t know it yet, but he had been cooped up his entire life. He had skinned his scales and swallowed his fire to fit into the spaces he was in, like a sunset drowning itself in dreams of gray. He was always too gay, always too Black, some days not enough of either. He had never known true freedom until Bella Luna.
There was so much sunlight that day. Lilacs hung in the air several feet above me, hanging off a slick white picket fence that sat atop a concrete landing. Their violet petals peeled into the soft blue sky, and thin strips of clouds came and kissed their petals as they floated by. I brought my head back down from the sky and looked around. I had completely forgotten I was in a Jamaica Plain parking lot. Before me sat a long walkway, set at an incline so that it eventually became level with the lilac-bearing concrete patio beside it. I looked up the incline to the emblem on the waiting door, hidden behind a flurry of flyers from local shops, bands, and organizers: Bella Luna and the Milky Way. Sounded nice. I walked up the ramp on that sunny weekday afternoon and clutched the handle of the door. I swung it open, and sunlight trailed behind me as I entered. I briefly chatted up the host and asked for an application, and I was hired shortly thereafter. It would be quite some time before I realized that I had just changed my life.
A young me stands outside of Bella Luna staring up at the moonlight. For the first time, he has found something in the world that is reflective of himself. Illustration by Rico St. Paul.
In November of 1993, a small pizza shop opened its doors in Hyde Square, Jamaica Plain. Bella Luna and the Milky Way would grow and expand in numerous ways, from moving to Centre Street, where it held a bowling alley and restaurant, to later moving to the Haffenreffer Brewery, where it continued to serve as an event space and restaurant. The Bella Luna legacy is long and beautiful, and I am grateful to have become a part of it that summer of 2016. I was a college student looking for a job, and am so grateful to have also found a home. I was nineteen and had spent most of my life in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in Boston’s southernmost tip. I had never really explored anything north of Forest Hills and was excited to be rediscovering this city I’ve long called home. During my time working at Bella Luna, I grew and evolved in numerous ways. Bella always grew with me, teaching and loving and embracing me at all the right moments.
Rent is what floated me into Bella on that fateful day, but it is not why I stayed. No, it was a shift from one of my first weeks. It was Friday and I had just finished hosting for the night. My hands were tired and dotted with specks of old food and flour, and my mind was sore from puzzling the night’s guests into the restaurant endlessly. I sat in the back at table forty-one with a glass of water and a slice of pizza, letting out a gust of relief as I propped my feet up on the exposed brick ledge in front of me. The table was nestled behind one of the server stations in the back, not great for a customer but perfect for a staff member looking to get away for a little. The low warm light kissed the warmer red walls of the space, and I felt at ease.
An intimate chat between friends saddles a sensuous stare that slices through the dance floor. Love, friendship, lust, and laughter all exist in tandem at Bella Luna. Illustration by Rico St. Paul.
As the dinner crowd waned, the bar picked up in speed and the air began to thrum. A comfortable din danced through the room as people laughed and ate and drank. Suddenly, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” burst from the back and the comfortable din transformed to a joyous roar. From my right strutted in a drag queen dressed to stun. She stood tall over the crowd in her sleek white pumps and glowed like the moon in the night sky as she danced in her ornate white dress and silver crown. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I started to dance without meaning to. “I wanna feel the heat with somebody!” I whispered along to the music, moving my shoulders to the beat. The queen strutted around the bar, the crowd making an aisle for her as she headed towards the dance floor in the back. Several more queens walked like lightning behind her, and suddenly this restaurant was no longer a restaurant, and whatever it had become. . . it was alive.
The room flooded with people upon people; queer people, Black people, dancing people and laughing people. A coworker-now-friend leaned across the booth and whispered in my ear: “The guy in the button-down by fifty-two is checking you out.”
She giggled and leaned back into her seat. I glanced up to see the mystery man. My eyes swam across the crowd, seeing intimate conversations nestled amongst dancing bodies. I scanned until I found him. He was wearing a checkered button-down with the last two buttons undone, with beautiful hair and a perfectly square jawline. He looked good. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I had never talked to a guy at a bar before. I had never talked to a gay guy as… well, as a gay guy. How’d he even know I was gay? How did she?
She looked at me, then whispered into my ear again, with a question this time: “Do you like men?” I hesitated. She must’ve thought I didn’t hear her, because she repeated, “Are you into guys at all?” I nodded yes. She smiled. “And are you single?” she said with a wink. “Yeah, I am,” I answered. “Then you are too good- looking to just be sitting here. Let’s go dance!”
Before I knew it I was dancing with her, laughing and smiling and gay all at the same time. The crowd and the music and I began to thrum in harmony, and the warmth of the room swam onto my fingertips and rushed through my body. I had never felt so good after telling someone that I was gay. I had never felt so safe in public. Gay clubs in the city have always been so white; nonwhite clubs have always felt so hypermasculine. I’m always holding my breath, always waiting for someone to spot me, to notice just how much I don’t belong and antagonize me for it. I looked around and broke into a huge smile, not even thinking to stop myself in fear of looking goofy or weird. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, queer people of color. They were all like me—I couldn’t believe they were all like me. For the first time in my life, I danced without fear of being attacked. I let myself breathe fire because I was not the only one. I let myself be Black because I was not the only one. For the first time, I was not the only one.
A weary me looks out over an emptying restaurant. Even on quiet nights like these, this place seems to be alight with magic. Illustration by Rico St. Paul.
It is not often that a job becomes a home. Four years of joyous laughter, secrets spilled over server stations, nights spent finding freedom on the dance floor and discovering friendships in unexpected places…that is what made Bella home. Last spring, Bella Luna and the Milky Way closed its doors forever in the wake of the pandemic. I often think about what I would have done differently if I had known my last shift would be the last time I set foot in my home-away-from-home. I often think about where I, and people like me, will set foot next.
Bella Luna and the Milky Way taught me what humanity felt like. It taught me what love and home and breath felt like. As a young gay Black man, I needed a home like Bella to show me that not only was I allowed to exist, I didn’t need anyone’s permission to smile or laugh or sing in my own skin. All I needed was a community. Bella made only one demand of those who walked through its doors: you must be all of yourself, and you must be willing to be loved. As Boston’s cultural landscape continues to change, the loss of establishments like Bella Luna and the Milky Way and Machine serves as a stark reminder of the importance of continued placemaking in our cities. Cultural and artistic infra-structure thrives only when a community has spaces that actively reflect the people who inhabit it and encourages respect for and the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and ways of being.
If you don’t happen to stumble across a Bella of your own, create it. If not you, then who? Bella Luna and the Milky Way taught me that I did not have to look far to find a place to call home. I hope you know that neither do you.
Christopher Streat is a Boston-based writer, performer, producer, and aspiring city planner, aiming to connect the cultural dots of Boston’s ever-changing landscape through physical and artistic placemaking.