Jan. 14 2009 12:00 AM

An old GM bar encounters its first gay networking event.

Suits, shots

About halfway into a Suits and the City event last Wednesday at Harry’s Place, a west Lansing watering hole that a few years ago teemed with General Motors workers, it was noted that the neighborhood surrounding the bar is known colloquially as a "gayborhood" — or "Homo Heights" as one attendee noted. In short, the Westside neighborhood, which is roughly bordered by Verlinden Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Saginaw Street and Michigan Avenue, has many gay residents, making Harry’s a natural place for Suits, which is a networking club for the professional LGBT community.

Harry’s is a "classic" kind of bar — the kind of place that boasts an original Pac Man machine, sells Marlboros and Basics and serves a lot of American draught beer. So much so that Harea Bates, Harry’s manager (and granddaughter of the bar’s founder, Harry), fretted over the bartenders’ ability to mix alcohol in, perhaps, strange new ways. "

We’re so used to two beers and shots," Bates said. The Suits crowd, which numbered 90 at its peak, was seeking martinis and trendy vodka drinks.

Up till now, Suits has held its monthly mixers at the Radisson, The Firm, Troppo’s and the like. We were curious about the reception it would receive at Harry’s.

If holding a gay networking event at a good ole, blue collar grease and nails Michigan bar sounds volatile, trust that it wasn’t. There were several "regulars" at Harry’s during the Suits event, but they seemed to treat it like any fluke bar event, like a wedding shower or holiday office party.

Javier Dominguez was sitting in a back corner of Harry’s — which is more brightly lit than one would expect — munching on a steak, and he didn’t outwardly seem to mind the Suits event.

"Me?" Dominguez, a former materials handler at the Verlinden plant, which was torn down in 2005, and a Harry’s regular, said. "I just came here to sit and relax."

Another patron seated at the bar, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he’d been coming to Harry’s since he was an 18-year-old student at nearby Sexton High School (he graduated in 1972). He was a "little surprised" at the Suits event, but mostly because the place is usually very quiet.

"I guess it’s no big deal," he said. "It’s a great place; everyone knows your name. I come here when I want to get away from the rat race."

Emily Horvath, a Suits attendee, said that she lives in the Westside neighborhood but had been to Harry’s "only once."

"I always forget it’s here," she said. "I moved in here about 1 1/2 years ago and I thought that this bar wouldn’t make it (without the auto plant). I hope this will bring in more business — the food is great."

Monique Goch, a Suits leader, said that Harry’s has been on the waiting list for a Suits event for some time. She found the bar through a professional connection, which is kind of what Suits is all about. Suits was founded in 2004 (and yes, the name is a play on that popular HBO series) to help LGBT Lansing residents interact in a relaxed and collegial setting and perhaps drum up some business or romance.

Before Suits, said Mike Carter, a CPA in downtown Lansing, there was "no way to know what business was gay owned or gay friendly." It’s important for gay businesses to know each other out of comfort; because, sadly, you never know if you’re being treated differently for being gay, he said.

"I think it’s important to feel comfortable with the people you’re doing business with," he said.

Wednesday’s event wasn’t all business, however. A lot of attendees remarked that a Suits event is good because it allows people to meet outside the bar setting, but there were plenty of drinks and cigarettes going around. The event also had a theme — ugly sweaters and scarves. (The winner of said contest was Joe Luczak, who was wearing a Volunteers of Americabought pink number with purpleish geometric shapes, which wasn’t that ugly if you’re judging by nu rave standards. "I’ve been in two sweater contests, and this is the first one I’ve won," Luczak remarked.)

A lot of the Suits attendees quizzed about the event’s seemingly out-ofplace venue seemed pretty cool with it, and said that they would probably come back. "Dave" and "Gabrielle," two not-yet-out young professionals — who would seem more at home at a The Firm or Brannigan Brothers — said they would probably come back.

"It’s cool. It’s got a small town barfeel to it," Dave said.

Suits won’t hold an event here for the forseeable future — the event changes venue each month. This might be to the relief some of the Harry’s regulars, but not because they don’t like mingling with gay people.

"I just wanted to come to a quiet place!" one "regular" crowed sadly toward the end of the Suits event as he sat down at the bar and tried to order a beer.