The Shoulders I Stand Upon
By Big Mike Phillips
Many years ago, Nigel Mayer and I worked together as bartenders, and over time, we became best friends. We worked together, partied together, traveled together, spent the holidays together, and always celebrated each other’s birthdays together.
On Nigel’s birthday in 1996, I took him to Peohe’s on Coronado Island, which was his choice to celebrate. I remember as if it were yesterday, we had just finished eating our lunch, sitting on the patio overlooking the beautiful skyline of San Diego, when our server brought Nigel his slice of birthday cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to him as he blew out his candle.
As we sat there talking, Nigel said to me, “I have been thinking a lot about Ruth Henricks and Special Delivery.” (From their website: “Special Delivery San Diego, founded by Ruth Henricks, is a nonprofit, 100-percent volunteer organization that feeds men, women and children with AIDS that serves a hot lunch and dinner five days a week.”)
Nigel said Ruth had recently talked to him about the need for more money or they may have to shut down the entire operation.
Just so you know, Nigel had been putting together bus trips to the game show “The Price is Right” in Los Angeles every year to help raise much needed money for Special Delivery, but they still needed more. So Nigel looked at me and said; “You know a lot of people in our community just think that we bartenders make all this money, but we never give back. So I have this idea and wanted to see what you think about it and if you think it could be done.”
Nigel always had good ideas, so I was really interested in what he was going to say.
“I was thinking about taking what we are already doing with our tips during the fundraisers held at the bar while we are working, how about if we create our own fundraiser event? We would invite all the bartenders in all the gay bars and ask them if they would donate half of their tips to help Special Delivery to continue feeding those with AIDS.”
I looked at Nigel and said, “Hell yes, what a great idea. I would be happy to help you, it’s such a great idea.”
By now our minds were racing a hundred miles an hour, we were so excited. You see, neither one of us had done anything on a scale as large as this and needed to really sit down and figure this entire process out. How would we go about making this a reality? Who would we get to help, or who would want to help work with us to make this idea come true?
That afternoon we talked about a few things we should concentrate on, but we both needed to go to work, so we agreed to start the next day on our game plan and how we would make this happen.
Both of us were looking forward to taking on this new adventure, and our goal was to find a way to include every single bartender in every gay bar in San Diego’s then gay and lesbian community. First, we wrote down our ideas so we could explain our goals and what we were trying to accomplish. We would be asking all the bartenders to give up half of their hard-earned money for a charity and we had no idea how they would respond to that. After a few hours writing and rewriting our ideas, we called every single bar in town and asked for every bartender’s name, and then documented it all so we could put packages together.
Then with our own money, we went and “xeroxed” all our paperwork, bought 8 x 10 manilla envelopes, and put together a personal package inviting every single bartender from every gay bar to sign up. Nigel and I started laughing after we had created over 130 packages to hand out and looked at each other and said they are either going to think we are absolutely crazy asking for half of their money for one night’s work or they will love the idea.
Luckily, Nigel had a column in the Gay and Lesbian Times newspaper, and we both had a great relationship with Michael Portantino the publisher, so we decided to approach him for help with getting the word out. We were hoping he would donate advertising space so our community would know what we were planning. In those days, we did not have the luxury of social media, so we relied on our local gay newspapers to see what was going on in our community and in our bars, gatherings, charities, fundraisers, and major community events. We really relied on our news outlets to provide us with all this information.
Well, Michael loved our concept so much, he offered us a cover story in the Gay and Lesbian Times, suggesting we get a photo of all the bartenders together on the cover to help kickstart our event. Not only did he give us the cover, but full-page ads until the week of the event.
At that moment, Michael Portantino became our very first sponsor and would continue to be our biggest sponsor until the end. With his support, ads, stories, and even money, he was able to tell our community our ideas, story, needs, and goals. It also encouraged others to get involved, and even attracted other major sponsors to be included.
Michael and his paper truly opened the doors we needed to become as successful with our goals as we could, by getting all our information out to the entire community, over our five-year mission and it brought our community together as human beings to help save lives.
First thing we did was go back and tell Ruth how Michael had agreed to sponsor us through the newspaper. Then we set a date for a Saturday morning at 10 am with Michael, and in our packages we invited everyone who would like to participate to come to the large fountain at the end of the Prado in Balboa Park in front of the RH Fleet Science Center.
Everyone who wanted to join in could come and register and also be in the photo for the cover of the paper, which would help promote our new fundraiser and star all of our participating bartenders. It also created a way to get our customers involved, just by showing up to support their favorite bartender and tipping them.
One of the very first people in the bar community who loved what we were doing was our very close friend Michael Lunsford. After Nigel and I hand delivered all those manilla envelopes to each bar, it was Michael Lunsford, Nigel Mayer and myself who showed up that Saturday at 9 am, with a six-foot table and three chairs, a handful of pens, extra sheets to sign up to participate, and sat down and waited for people to show up.
Now remember this was a big ask, because we bartenders work till 3 or 4 in the morning, so to get 130 bartenders to show up that early was going to be a challenge. Remember this was long before social media the three of us had no idea who – or if anyone – would show up.
Well, it was 10 am and not one soul had shown up, and by 10:10 am, still no one. Then Nigel said, “Looks like this may not be such a great idea after all, what will we do if no one shows up?”
To which I replied, “Then the three of us will do it, it may not be much but it’s still more money than they have now.”
Then out of nowhere, they started showing up! Needless to say, the three of us were overjoyed to witness all the support headed towards us. We had over 100 show up, though not everyone wanted to be in the photo.
Even Ruth showed up that morning with Special Delivery Christmas T-shirts that she was able to get donated. So, we did have our photo for the cover taken with all the bartenders that wanted to be in the picture. Out of a total of 130 bartenders, 125 did commit and sign up before the actual night of the fundraiser.
This photo session marked the beginning of an adventure of kindness, compassion, inclusions, and something that would turn into something bigger and better than any of us could have ever imagined.
Unfortunately, because of the limited space I have to write in each issue, I will stop here and in future issues I’ll be writing about the growth, people, sponsors, donors, businesses, and the joy that these years had not only on myself, but how it brought a community together in a time we needed each other most. I invite you to follow me on this journey that helped change and shape so many lives for the better, just by being involved and giving of themselves and their hard earned money from the heart.
These are the shoulders I stand upon.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].
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