'We Didn't Want You To Feel Alone': NPR's Ari Shapiro Recalls Time In Orlando

Jun 17, 2016
Originally published on June 18, 2016 7:46 am

While covering the aftermath of the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Fla., NPR's Ari Shapiro realized he had gone to the nightclub more than a decade ago.

"We saw you there by yourself and wanted to make sure you were, you know, part of the group," recalls Nathan Jokers, a former Pulse bartender. "We didn't want you to feel alone."

You can listen to their conversation at the audio link above.

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Since the shooting at Pulse nightclub, a lot of people have offered essays or remembrances about the importance of Pulse specifically to them and the importance of gay bars generally, in creating community, creating a safe space, creating connections between strangers and giving people a place where they're comfortable being themselves. I actually have a story like that from Orlando that took place a decade ago. And at the end of this week, when I was reporting from Orlando covering the shooting, I thought I would just tell you about it.

I was based in Miami for NPR at the time. I was on a reporting assignment to Orlando, and on a Monday night, I went to the nearest gay bar. It was virtually empty. I sat at the bar. I had a drink or two, and I made friends with these two bartenders. And they were so friendly, the next day, they said, hey, it's our night off. Why don't you come out with us? So they took me to this club. We had a great time. Turns out, I left my jacket there, and the next morning I had to fly back to Miami. These guys were so nice they actually went back to that club, they got my jacket and they mailed it to me in Miami.

So this week in Orlando reporting on the shooting, I was interviewing the editor of the gay magazine Watermark. His name is Billy Manes. I told him this story, and he said, what was that club that you went to on Monday night? And I said, I'm sure it closed a long time ago. I have no idea. And he said, what'd it look like? I said, you walked in the central door and to your right, there was sort of a white cocktail bar. To your left, there was sort of a darker room with dancers. And he said, that was Pulse. And I went back in my phone and I looked up the name of the bartender who I had met that night, and there it was, Nathan Jokers from Pulse. I haven't talked to him in 10 years, but I got in touch with him and gave him a call.

NATHAN JOKERS: Hi. This is Nathan.

SHAPIRO: Nathan Jokers.

JOKERS: (Laughter). Ari Shapiro. How are you?

SHAPIRO: I can't believe I'm talking to you after more than a decade.

JOKERS: It's been a long time. It's been a real long time.

SHAPIRO: So you still remember that specific night when I was in town? I wasn't just, like, one of a thousand random people passing through the bar?

JOKERS: I remember that very well. We saw you there by yourself and we wanted to make sure you were, you know, part of the group. We didn't want you to feel alone.

SHAPIRO: Here's my memory, and you can correct me if I'm wrong. We met at Pulse, and I was basically the only person in the bar and so we just started talking. And the next day was your night off, and you guys were like, come out with us.

JOKERS: And then we brought you to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my God. That's right. It was, like, a country-western cabaret kind of Disneyfied...

JOKERS: Exactly. It was a lot of fun, you know? It was so great to meet you and get to hang out with you and bring you into our friend space.

SHAPIRO: And you and - what was your friend's name?

JOKERS: Bobby.

SHAPIRO: Is he still in Orlando?

JOKERS: He is, and he still works at Pulse.

SHAPIRO: I've got to jump in here and say we can't play my actual reaction 'cause it's a swear word we could get fined for playing on the radio. Back to the conversation.

JOKERS: You know, I've been doing my best to be, you know, a friend from afar and I know that there is a really solid support system for him and everyone down there.

SHAPIRO: I've seen so many people write in the last week about what a gay bar represents to a community, what a gay bar represents to a person who finds safety there. And I think the fact that you and I would not know each other if it were not for this gay bar and after 12 years of sort of following our separate tracks this reconnects us in some way underlines how much more these places are than just a venue to, you know, go have a drink.

JOKERS: Right. It's a home. It's a family. It really is a place for us to connect and feel safe. You know, I couldn't tell you how many stories I've seen of people who have, you know, walked through the doors as their first gay bar they've ever been to and really felt welcomed. It really allows a lot of people to feel safe and to feel warm when, you know, on the inside, their feelings are conflicted and confused and they don't know how to feel.

SHAPIRO: Nathan Jokers, it is so good to talk to you after all these years, and I'm sorry it has to be under these circumstances.

JOKERS: No, I know. And, you know, it's so good to hear your voice and it's good to connect after all of these years, and we need to make sure that the silence doesn't last this long again.

SHAPIRO: Nathan Jokers now lives in Chicago where he works in advertising. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.