Co-owner of The Pillow Café Lounge, Brooklyn, NY
April 8, 2018, 4:30pm (Smoking Monkey, Brooklyn, NY)
Gwen Shockey: I’ll start off by asking you to tell me a little bit about the first place you ever went that was primarily lesbian. It could be a bar or a different gathering place.
Biola Odunewu: Oh, that’s a good one. So, I left Atlanta and came to New York. When I got here my best friend decided she was moving to D.C. She got an opportunity and I was like “Alright… bye!” I decided to go out alone and I was deathly afraid of New York City. I was looking through Time Out Magazine and they had this thing called the Clit Club. I was looking for a place with mostly women and it said in the magazine that it was a gay place and that nobody would bother you. They described it as having “lipstick lesbians” and that a lot of straight people go there but there wouldn’t be any men driving you crazy! So, I was like “Perfect!” I thought, alright. Let me see if I can pull this off. Nobody’s going to bother me. So, I got there and I saw that there were guys there too but it was still called the Clit Club. I went in and sat at the bar and the bartender, Carly, who is now one of my closest friends said in a British accent, “Darling, you know this is a gay bar?” And I was like “Yeah…(laughing)” She said “Ok, you seem a little afraid.” And I said, “Oh, I’m fine.” She started talking to me and I met her friends and this girl was like “Do you wanna dance?” And Carly said “You can dance!” So, I danced.
I started going there often because I knew Carly now. I met all my good friends there. I got more confidence and I met this girl who told me that her friends all hang out at this place called Bar d’O. And I said “I’m not gay!” but she said “It doesn’t matter!” and I decided to go. I said I found this other place that I like to go it’s called Life and they said they’d go there too. So, anyway. Life was a club. There was a girl who started a night called Bitch. It was mostly gay but also very ambiguous. All of those people were fluid. It was on Thompson Street in SoHo. Clit Club still holds a place in my heart though and everybody I met was from the Clit Club. That was my favorite place that I first went to. I went every weekend. I can’t remember… was it Sunday? Bar d’O was Monday. I remember thinking “You people don’t work?”
GS: How old were you when you moved to the city?
BO: I was 32. I’m 50 now but I was 32 when I moved and I was straight apparently. I guess… I don’t know what was happening (laughing).
GS: How did that shift happen for you?
BO: Well, I went to Bar d’O and I’ve always said “live and let live” you know, but I was just sure that I wasn’t into that. One of the reasons I left Atlanta was to leave my ex-fiance behind. Well, he insisted on coming to New York and so we were still going back and forth. I was at Bar D’O one night and this girl was staring at me, staring at me, staring at me. And I was like “Oh!” and my friends were like “Oooooooh see!” (Laughing) They were making fun of me being like “You’re going to get bitten…!” and I was like “Nah.” So, she sat with me and she asked me if I was African and I said yes and she told me she lived in Kenya for so many years. We started talking and we were going to be friends. She asked me if I was in the [lesbian] life and I said no but I have a lot of friends who are and then she came to my house and… we made out. (laughing).
GS: And then you were converted (laughing).
BO: Then I was like “Alright…” (laughing). Funnily enough before that I had gone to Life… I guess that’s when I first realized that maybe this is a possibility for me… My partner now, Robin, she walked in. Before that – this is the craziest thing – I was living in SoHo and I went to Pottery Barn and I saw this woman standing in the middle of the floor. It was obvious that she worked there. She was so… my ignorant, straight self was asking “Is she a boy or a girl?” But I found her very attractive and I was surprised. I can see her now with her hands behind her back like this, very pensive – she likes to make fun of me and still says “You were stalking me.” (laughing) Then I went to Life and she walked in with the most beautiful girl. I took a picture of her. She was giving my friend a hug and I took a picture of them but it was mostly her face (laughing).
GS: Aw! You were smitten from the start! You know it’s so interesting that the first thing you noticed was her posture and intensity.
BO: Yes! I found it so beautiful and I wanted to get inside it and figure out what that look was about. I still can’t figure it out. (Laughing)
GS: So that was Robin!
BO: That was Robin. 18 years later…
GS: Wow ok so you’re coming into the bar scene, you’re figuring everything out and it seems like you found community right away when you moved here.
BO: Right away. It’s so amazing. I say this all the time – I have a particular friend who always said I don’t want to hang out with all of you because then everyone will think I’m gay. I replied when I go out with you and all your straight friends I don’t worry that everyone thinks I’m straight! We’re very accepting people. So, when I got into the Clit Club and Bar d’O there was no question. And at that time, I didn’t know anything – I kept telling myself “I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight.” And they were all like “Ok. Congratulations. We just think you’re a nice person and we want to be friends!” I found community right away and I’m still friends with a lot of those people.
GS: That’s so inspiring to hear. Finding community right away not only seemed to instigate your coming out process but did it make it easier to come out?
BO: A lot easier. Actually, let me not say that. It didn’t make it a lot easier. It made it a lot easier to hide. Because I was accepted and nothing was demanded of me I could hide from the Nigerian and Muslim sides of myself… Like I’m supposed to be fasting right now. But anyway. It made it easy for me to just say “Ok. If they say no, then I have this other family that has opened their arms to me.” Knowing that was comforting.
GS: Is your family in Atlanta?
BO: No, they’re in Nigeria.
GS: Are you out to them?
GS: Part of the mystery of so many of these lesbian spaces especially the bars from the earlier decades is that there are very few photographs of the interiors. Could I ask you to describe what it was like to walk through the Clit Club and Bar d’O?
BO: Clit Club was interesting, I actually see it now in my mind’s eye – I see that little bar in front and then there was a back room and when I first walked in I remember thinking “Oh my god, it’s so dark!” (Laughing) But there was something very sensual about it you know? And something very mysterious also. Maybe for me being new to New York. That bar was packed full with a lot of stuff. There was stuff everywhere. Dark and mysterious and sexy. I don’t know why but the darkness of the space made it easier for me to feel comfortable. I was by myself mind you it’s not like I went with a friend or… some friends now say “You went because deep, down in your mind you were looking for women.” (Laughing) Maybe! I’m sure there were many other bars I could have gone to. I was expecting something New York-ish: very modern and cool but it just had it’s own thing going on. I don’t know how else to describe it but as sexy. The third time I went in there, there was some sort of show and I was like “Oh! Wow!” Bar d’O was tiny. But gosh! The first time I went to see the drag show. People just packed in everywhere. I had so much fun you know? Those two places really shaped my view of New York and how I adjusted to this place.
GS: It’s my understanding that these bars and parties were in part created to provide an alternative to the smoke-filled dive bar. As someone who created an alternative to the dive bar with the Pillow Café Lounge what are your thoughts about spaces that kind of acknowledge comfort and beauty or provide a different environment for the lesbian community?
BO: Nowadays you see that so much everywhere. But it was also very different back then. I mean there were places like Life. That was like on another level. I saw Janet Jackson there, I saw Prince there in that room. It wasn’t like we had the whole club, just a room. I saw so many celebrities there. It was on Thompson Street in SoHo. The party was called Life there and just coming to New York I was like “Oh my godddd”… There’s something to be said for those places too right? That are seedy and dark and make shitty drinks you know? There’s something to be said for that but it was also good to have an alternative. We’re not all cut the same way. I don’t like a seedy bar and I like to have a good drink if I’m going to drink and I love to see all different faces if gayness. It’s been beautiful watching all of the different gay bars popping up. It’s just better, and better, and better. Like when we went to MeMe’s Diner the other day I said to Bob Alotta, who is the director of the Astrea Foundation, this is even better! They just keep getting better and better.
It’s not like you see it and think “it’s gay!” you just know… Like when people would come to Pillow some would say “Oh, this is gay-owned?” and then you never see them again. Once in a blue moon that would happen where someone would say something and you’d have to tell them never to come back. One day there was a situation at Pillow. Two women were sitting by the window cuddled up and this guy walked in and said “Oh, you lesbians…” and because we didn’t only have lesbians in there but parents and kids and customers who know us and love us – everybody looked at him disapprovingly and he said “No, no, no – my mother is a lesbian!” And I said “Ok but watch what you say my friend.”
So, to answer your question what I want to see more is us all supporting one another. There were several times we were going to close Pillow. Do you know that those women and men who supported us got up and held a fundraiser for us and collected so much money for us? Toshi collected money at the door, YK and Bob cooked, Maine performed – I was overwhelmed. So many people came together to keep the place open. When I see young gay people that want to open a business I’m like “What do you need? Let’s go for it!”
GS: Part of the reason I started this project was out of a place of fear hearing around the country how so many lesbian bars and lesbian-owned businesses are closing and feeling as though we weren’t supporting each other as a community, not going out to lesbian-owned bars and restaurants but the more I talk to people the more I realize it is actually happening. My fear is so not necessary because there is so much support and love.
BO: Let me tell you something that is happening right now: so we are moving to Newburgh. When we closed Pillow we got a call from a woman who wanted to partner with us to open a bar in Newburgh. So, we went to visit and it turns out we know a bunch of people who live there now. I was like “Oh, I know that girl, I know that girl!” We said we are going to call it a new lesbian town. I was like “Ohhhh, so this is how places gentrify!” Because all of my gay friends are saying let’s all move together! So, we do support one another it’s just a matter of sustaining it. I think the culture is what makes it hard. We like to have drinks and party and if you open a bar in the city now there are noise complaints which is I think mostly why places are closing down and landlords raising the rent. When we had Pillow we would have parties once in a while like on Pride or something and people would complain that it was noisy and that there were all these people on the street.
GS: Can you tell me how Pillow originated?
BO: Before I moved to New York, I worked for CNN in Atlanta. Once I got here, I worked for a new media company during that boom when you were just making too much money and getting too many stock options (laughing) and you were just living large. The company lost a lot of money and at that time Robin was working at a bar and I didn’t love the way they were treating her. I had a feeling it was because of her sexuality and her looks. I always make this joke and it’s kind of a terrible thing but I’m passing, you know, I’m like the things that Robin goes through on a daily basis… everybody knows she’s beautiful but she has a more masculine energy or whatever you want to call that and people have their own notions of what she is or isn’t. So anyway, I didn’t love it and I knew my company was going to shut down so I said to Robin why don’t we open a café. I always wanted to open a café so while I was at the other company I was working already on a business plan and thinking about it… I do that – I just write shit you know? (Laughing) The bar Robin was working at wasn’t making any money and she threw a party one night there and it was packed. The bar wanted Robin to keep throwing the party but asked her to pay them a ridiculous portion of the earnings. So, I was like “You know what? Quit. Let’s open our own place.” She was like “Are you crazy?” And I was like “Yeah!” (Laughing)
GS: Just crazy enough! (Laughing)
BO: I thought why not! We can do it! Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up here but I just thought why not! Who’s going to stop us. We didn’t have a dime. I got laid off and received six months of severance and Robin quit. We spent a while putzing around look for space that we only had two thousand dollars for. This was 2004. One day Robin told me that there as a place on Myrtle that said it was two thousand dollars a month and I said we should go look at it. When we got there, there was this little old lady named Linda sweeping the floor and the place was like a white-box – totally clean. When we walked in she was like “Hi girls! So, what do you want to do?” We told her what we were planning to do and Robin told her she used to work in the school system which she loved because she was a teacher and she loved the idea that we had in our head and unbeknownst to us her best friend and roommate was also a lesbian who Robin knew (because Robin knows everybody). So, she said if we wanted it, it was ours and we thought “Oh no… what have we done!” (Laughing)
We saw her on December 28th and we told her we would come back with the check on January 1st because we wanted to ring in the New Year with a good thing. I don’t know who makes plans on January 1st but I thought by then my severance would kick in and I’d get my 401K which I was planning to just cash in. Anyway, we met her, wrote her a six thousand dollar check when we only had two in the bank which is not how we would normally behave (laughing) that was just on that day! Luckily the money came through but we still didn’t have any money to build out the space. I called everybody we knew and we found one guy who could build our bar, one girl who paint, someone to make cushions – that’s how we did it!
GS: It was really a community effort.
GS: Why did you decide to open a café rather than a bar?
BO: We weren’t sure how it was going to go for us and if we were going to make enough money. The space was very tiny and I wanted a café and Robin wanted a bar. She was like, “Ok baby, (because she spoiled me) you start with your café and then when we make some money I’ll have a bar.” So, we didn’t have a bar for the first three years. Linda sold the building after three years and then we bought a bar. Pillow was first down four blocks from where it ended up from 2004 to 2007 and then we moved and had the second Pillow from 2007 to 2017. 275 Grand was open the first couple of years we were open which was the lesbian place in this neighborhood. This was Carmen’s place. Grand was the place where everybody went, all the lesbians. We still miss it to this day. By the time we opened a bar people went between Grand and our bar.
So, for the first couple of years we had a mixture of the neighborhood people who we had already known from the small Pillow, friends and neighborhood moms. Pillow was a different kind of place because in the day we had all the moms and in the afternoon we had all the Pratt students and in the night we had all the margarita-people we called them. (Laughing) That was how it was most of the time for us, we were also a safe place for Pratt students, gay or straight. There was one transgender kid and every time somebody messed with her she would just walk into Pillow and we would make sure she was safe. I miss that.
We had this older lady who was 75, she’s an artist. When Stonewall happened she took pictures. She is amazing, I’ll leave her name out of this interview. She gave me a picture that I will show you one day of the first gay pride of two drag queens putting on lipstick. She was 75 when she first started coming to us and she would bring her gang of old-lady lesbians. We would set up a table for them and they would ask us not to tell anybody. I was like, “Really?! You’re 75!” They were in the closet and I couldn’t believe it. Last year in 2016 I noticed that she started trying to pay twice. Most of our employees were gay – it’s not like we were discriminating it just happened like that. One day Jason told me that he thought something might be wrong with her. Robin who is a real caretaker started watching her and it turned out she was getting the beginning stages of dementia. Every time she paid the kids twice they would give the money back to her and then we would walk her home.
When Pillow closed we went to her house and she asked us if we were going to be open later. The lady who was taking care of her told us that she kept walking in front of where Pillow used to be trying to go in and I just burst into tears. Robin told me not to cry in front of her but her caretaker kept saying she keeps trying to go find you! She said she takes her to Dunkin Donuts in the morning – but let me tell you something about our friend. She is so fancy, she does not go to Dunkin Donuts. She was learning Japanese at 75. Robin told her caretaker to take her to Mike’s the neighborhood diner because they know her at Mike’s but she wouldn’t have gone to Dunkin Donuts. I was just like, “Fuck!” This is what happens! Those are the things you really miss when places like Pillow close. That was her safe place you know?
GS: This seems to be such a reoccurring theme through all of this: the bar tender, the bar owner, the café owner – you are a community leader, a therapist, and that loss is huge. I can’t imagine how that felt for you to lose the Pillow in the end.
BO: Oh my god… I felt a great sense of loss. More for the people who relied on it. Now we are hearing about so many people committing suicide and there were times I felt we could offer a place for people to feel safe. Even in times when I felt emotionally drained I would go sit with somebody. I hugged a woman one day who burst into tears and I didn’t know that her husband was leaving her. So, you become a lot of things but you also get a lot out of it, it’s not like I was just giving all the time.
GS: So, it seems like there is a difference in a way from opening a really obviously lesbian bar and a place that can also function as something else for people where you can maybe be kind of out but not really, you can be seen but also hidden – so your space seems to be this middle ground.
BO: Oh, definitely. My friend Chelsea always said, “I’m bringing somebody to the recruitment center today!” (Laughing) It was always an on-going joke because as soon as somebody would walk in I would always think, “Ok! How long before they realize they’re gay?” (Laughing) Obviously, that wasn’t always the case but that’s what made it great for me. We never said this is only a lesbian space, but during Pride we would always put out our pride things and we’d say, “It’s our time!” Of course, every day was our time and one of our employees asked us to hang a pride flag permanently in front of the café but I said no because I felt we just are who we are, you know?
GS: And you and Robin were there a lot right?
BO: Robin was there every day. Two years before we closed she fired me (laughing). Not really, but I was doing more work from the back end.
GS: Whenever I hear about a couple who works together I’m like… wow.
BO: Oh yeah. We would close the gates and fight it OUT. She’s an Aries, I’m a Taurus…
GS: I’m a Taurus too!
BO: Oh yeahhhh! Taurus nation! I mean we’ve been together 18 years and let me tell you… working together… (whistles). Now that we’re opening that bar together in Newburgh I told her I will help but I can’t be part of it.
GS: So, your clientele saw you and Robin every day and it seems like the Pillow was a pivotal part of the community.
BO: It was, it was. It was also because we had been in the neighborhood for so long and we live in the neighborhood so we would run into people a lot at, say, Olea. It was just natural you know? I miss it a lot. I get to see Robin but I miss that sense of community. It’s different from going to Ginger’s or Cubby Hole. At Pillow everybody came in you know?
GS: This is another thing I’ve been thinking a lot about… what it means to maintain a space that is very clearly on women’s terms and queer people’s terms and lesbian’s terms. And even though it may not be advertised as such you feel it when you enter.
BO: You definitely felt it when you entered.
GS: What will the transition be like to Newburgh?
BO: It will be interesting because we have soooooo many friends there. They have already said they have nothing like Pillow and they want it. I don’t know really, we’ll see! It will be interesting. I always say you need to feel the spirit of the space. We found the space already we just need to see how the spirit is.
GS: Well, it’s exciting and I’m just so grateful to you for sharing your stories with me.
BO: I actually wanted to say something along the lines of what you brought up before and how it’s interesting to create a space which is obviously lesbian or gay. So, a guy that started off as a customer of ours ended up being a friend and he came in one day and we were all hanging out. First, he said to one of my friends, “I’m selling vibrators.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. It was rather weird for me. It felt a little yucky. I asked Robin to tell him it was inappropriate. Then he started drinking and I was standing talking to my friend’s girlfriend and he grabbed her butt and then it was over. Then it became a thing. Robin and I stepped back and let her say what she needed to say to him as long as it wasn’t violent. I thought he needed to hear it and hear how angry he made her. Afterwards I pulled him aside and said, “Listen, this is a very accepting place and we don’t tell anybody not to come in here but you need to be respectful! It’s like me coming over and grabbing your balls.”
GS: So not only are you the therapist for the community but the nanny too.
BO: Oh my god! I am mostly the nanny!
GS: You see that everywhere though, even in spaces like Cubby Hole and Henrietta’s.
BO: Totally. Last weekend we went to a party where a friend was deejaying and there was a straight couple there that was almost at the point of sex, right? And I was like, “Ok. Does this mean he’s getting off on all of us? Does this mean that she was in the life and now she’s, as I say, a has-bian?” (Laughing) What does this all mean and why are they here doing this at this time? I wasn’t comfortable with it so I went to another part of the bar.
GS: Well, I feel like if anything it is really, deeply disrespectful. Sometimes I see straight couples coming into Cubby Hole or other queer spaces clearly trying to pick up a third person and I just think, you can go anywhere else! This is the one space we have. You can literally go anywhere else! What gumption do you have to be in here doing what you’re doing and to not feel like a jerk. It’s complicated because the lovely thing about lesbian-owned spaces is the acceptance and the openness, right? I would never go up to a straight couple and tell them to get out!
BO: Yes! I mean we’ve told people to get out but not because they are straight, because they are assholes! (Laughing) So is your book mostly about lesbian-owned bars?
GS: Well, it started out mainly being about bars and nightlife. I was trying to find every space I could in the city that was lesbian dominated or queer-women dominated but then it’s morphed into so many other things because I keep being introduced to people who have been major community leaders and who have created these spaces where people felt safe and themselves and protected and so it’s opened up into this whole other thing. The other part of it is that most of the bars I’ve heard stories about from the 1960s and 70s were mostly for white women so I wanted to find out where Asian women went and Latina women, you know? I wanted to know more about house parties and clubs and places where people went to dance and hear music. So, I need to talk about all that because if I don’t I’m just talking about one really specific population of women.
BO: There is so much! That’s the thing about writing about this community, right? There’s so much. Remember [Crazy] Nanny’s? I don’t know how old you are but I used to go to Nanny’s and 40 Below and that’s where you would see Latifah and all those people. We threw a party at a place called Casper Jones before we opened Pillow. The party was called Boudoir. Casper Jones was on Bergen.
Well you know I’m here if you have any more questions! You should talk to Robin too. She’s way more interesting than me! (Laughing)
GS: Thank you so much Biola. I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.