The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Fire! by Mike Newton


Sirens roaring past my home in the early hours of the morning woke me up. Usually, I never even noticed them.  This time though, it seemed like they just kept on passing, one after the other> Probably a false alarm as usual, I thought to myself, turned over and fell asleep once again, my head buried in the pillow to try and drown out their screams.

The next morning a friend called me at work and asked if I’d heard about the big fire at Tiffiny’s, it was then I remembered the sirens from the night before, and realized now where the fire engines had been destined.

Early that same evening I walked over to the building where the bar-restaurant had been located and stood the, stunned, as I surveyed the damage.

Seeing the seven-story apartment building with its gutted windows, the walls charred and blackened from the smoke and fired damage, boarded up windows where once hung live plants, reminded me of an article I’d spent many angry hours writing and re-writing back in June last year.

I’d never submitted the story and now I was suddenly sorry that I’d not done so. In much the same complacency as I’d put the sounds of the sirens out of my mind, I had let my anger subside burying it in the pillows of my mind to file and forget

Tiffany’s was the result of an investment by two gay women in our community, to offer a place for the rest of us to at, morning, afternoon, and evening. In the very popular contemporary style of the day, the

restaurant and bar was decorated with much wood, brick,  and a good deal of plant life. Lighting was very soft, making the restaurant comfortable and intimate, through the windows surrounding two sides of the restaurant one could watch the busy stream of traffic passing by on Market Street.

Exactly how the fire began, I don’t know – it may have been accidental or it might have been arson – I don’t really know and I don’t really care, That it happened at all is what bothers me. The bar-restaurant must have been consumed as quickly s the logs were being thrown into fireplaces around the City, the cold past few days,

The apartments upstairs of the restaurant fell victim to the flames as well. All that hour of the morning the panic in those living quarters must have been unbelievable. With smoke filling the halls and flames leaping up through the floors, the people must have fled leaving their dearest possessions to perish in flames, but the panic…the panic!

And then I thought of New Orleans, June, 1973 and remembered a photograph.

He was just another human being on this planet – but no, actually he was a gay brother, (as were almost all of them), and that made me feel a bond existed between us. We shared some of the oppressive repression common to us all. He was rapped, his body, half in –half out of the window, one arm extended, reaching out to escape the terror of those frightening moments of his earthly existence as the heat, smoke and flames, took him from us.

With a group of friends, he had come here following services at the local M.C.C. to socialize – here to this Godawful firetrap that had, in some strange way, passed inspection by the local fire department.

I continued staring at the now-boarded-up windows, and I thought about the photograph again, and wondered –

Will it will happen again – and if it does, how many of my gay brothers and sisters will sacrifice their lives?

No different from other cities in the United States, San Francisco’s gay meeting places - the bars, baths, and restaurants – vary from the other only by their décor and clientele - elegant to grand funk. Saturday nights, the most sociable night of the week, some of these places are filled wall to wall with bodies, the atmosphere friendly, the hum of the voices drowned out by an often over-loud juke box.

“Fire!” someone shouts. The extent, the source of which, the reality, is never questioned, those nearest to   this modern-day Paul Revere shouting his ominous message, quickly look about for the nearest exit, and discover, much to their horror, that there seems to be only one – and it located at the opposite end of the bar, at the other side of the sea of bodies. They begin to push their way past the bodies surrounding the, heading for the doorway.  The other customers something is wrong and they too, panic. Now everyone is headed for the one door out – and there is no displacement. Everyone has replaced courtesy with panic as they climb over a pool table here, a fallen bar stool there, pinning one another to pillars and partitions that had somehow hitherto gone unnoticed.

The smell of smoke begins to fill the atmosphere, and now, for the first time, flames can be seen climbing up the far wall. The wall had been covered with posters, and they too catch flame, igniting the numerous bits of decorative bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling. Flames race across the ceiling and bits and pieces fall in flames down on the heads of the struggling patrons, all headed for the exit of this now suddenly not-so-fun place.

The bartenders scream, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” to no avail, as customers pin themselves at the exit. The set of double-doors, one of which is locked into place, allows only two people out at a time, and no- one thinks to back away so the other door can be unlocked. Nobody has thought to call the fire department or use the extinguisher that hang on the wall, When the fire department finally does arrive, the scene ain’t pretty.

Who’s to blame? We think to ourselves it might’ve happened anywhere. That it is a gay bar makes it no different than any other, but that the victims were our brothers or sisters suddenly brings us a lot closer to the situation.  Like lemmings headed to the sea, we patronize these bars and restaurants, the baths; some of hem out and out firetraps. The owners, absentee landlords sometimes, other conglomerates who have never even seen the property they own, are to blame as much as the  customers who support them. The managers are all too often more concerned with the sound of the cash register than the potential sound of sirens.

But it isn’t my intention to point fingers – I could probably do that all day. In San Francisco, at least one of the baths, one church, and several bars had fires in 1973. (One of these bars had not one, but three fires one each on a separate occasion!) Fortunately, in none of these instances, was anyone injured.

Whether it’s arson, or accident, we cannot afford tragedies of this sort. The economic loss (even though businesses are insured) and the potential loss of life is a situation we must prevent.

I’ve thought often about many of the places I myself patronize, and how unsafe some of them appear to be. Fire doors, both of which are unlocked and within easy reach by patrons, fire extinguishers or an overhead sprinkler system, unblocked passage through the bar (unhindered by cute dividing partitions), pool tables, wall and ceiling uncovered with flammable materials, decorations or bric-a-brac, well-indicated exits –all things I’ve been looking out for, but see all too seldom.  There is only one bar I know of that has almost all of these safety requirements. For the most part it takes just a little common sense on the part of management to acquire them. In some cases, simply cleaning up the bar would do the job.

Would you believe that in one bath I saw an exit door nailed shut? In a restaurant, enough candles and wood and fabric hanging all over the place to create human oven in just a few seconds. In a bar a lock and a chain preventing egress through a fire exit. It doesn’t require an inspection by the fire department to clean our own houses.  Simply  common sense.  Even more necessary these days though because of the numbers of not-too-well-balanced sick cookies roaming about playing God with matches and gasoline.

And tomorrow, after they’ve read this, the manager and owners of those unsafe bars, bath, and restaurants will hate me for bringing something like this out into the open. Whether they do anything about it remains to be seen.

The day after that, everyone will have forgotten this article.

And me - standing there looking at the boarded up windows of what once was Tiffiny’s and thinking about that photograph in the Advocate – I’m afraid, for all of us.

The February 1974 issue of the journal of the Society for Individual Rights, leading LGBT activist group in San Francisco at the time, publishes an article warning of fire safety dangers in gay establishments.
Source: Vector, volume 10, number 2  February 1974.
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