Facade of Cuties cafe in Los Angeles.
Cuties cafe in Los Angeles, where the author, Carmen Rios, found a home that gave her the strength to leave it. Molly Adams

I Found My L.A. Self at an LGBTQ+ Cafe

At a cafe in Los Angeles a transplant finds a new home, one that gives her the strength and support to “lay down her swords.”

This piece is part of our Finding Community series. Find previous entries here.

When Ariana looked at the cards, she sighed. “Carmen,” she said, shaking her head, “you know what you have to do.” She pointed to the wheel of fortune, smack-dab in the middle and upside-down. “And until you do it, your life won’t move. You’ll be stuck.”

I remember exactly where we were sitting: inside and to the left, in the chairs surrounding a small, circular table that was peppered with dirty plates and half-full coffee cups. I was facing the stairs that lead up to a small lounge space, with the front door and the stacks of promotional materials and community announcements pinned to a cork board behind me. Ariana was facing the windows and the patio outside, looking toward the row of metered parking spots that kept us running back and forth with coins in our hands in between bites of quiche.

Carolyn was on my right, with a wide aisle for passers-by between the back of her chair and a long counter lined with espresso machines and baked goods ending at a bookcase filled with donated titles about gender theory and feminist praxis for borrowing.

It was fitting that Carolyn and I were there together, watching each other get put on blast by the universe. We were both transplants to Los Angeles who had decided that this place belonged to us—the city, sure, but also this cafe. Two years into my new start in L.A., this had become our spot.

These were the same seats we cozied into when we gave and received difficult truths before we started our work days; this was the place we came to confess to one another and to relish in each other’s dramas, to spill tea and drink endless coffee.

To the left of my upside-down wheel of fortune was the seven of swords, bearing the image of a man trying desperately to run toward or away from something. It didn’t matter, because he would never get there—he was holding five swords in his arms, and he had already left two behind him.

The advice that Ariana dispensed next sounded like every piece of advice I had heard and ignored before from people just like her in the very same place: “Lay down your swords.”

That was one of the last times we ever met up at Cuties.

***

Cuties opened its doors in 2017, after a largely successful IndieGoGo effort gave Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle the resources and momentum they needed to transform an ongoing series of queer community events into a flagship space for the LGBTQIA+ community in Los Angeles.

“Bars, nightclubs and LGBT centers have been important venues for queer activism, and we want to see more local spaces for queers and allies to interact,” the co-founders declared during the fundraising campaign that ultimately raised $30,000 in seed money for the cafe. (The space remains community-supported: hundreds of users send thousands of dollars its way on Patreon each month to help keep its doors open.) “We want daytime businesses where we can see familiar and friendly faces from our community behind the counter serving us. We want spaces where we know our identities will be respected and understood. We want spaces where we can just be.”

There is much to be said about the urgency and parallel impossibility of creating and sustaining physical spaces for the queer community. So many LGBTQ+ people walk through the world feeling alone, and to even be able to find one another sometimes feels like a miracle. But Cuties offered me more than a safe space. It provided me with room to grow.

It all started, like most things in Los Angeles do, as a comedic bit. My friend Brittani invited me to a meet-up in which basically every queer woman I had ever known or heard of since arriving in Los Angeles decided to converge at the community-oriented, LGBTQ-owned and operated cafe in East Hollywood and turn it into The Planet from the show The L-Word, dressing as wannabe-Bettes, Tinas, Alices and Jennys. (For the record: No matter where I go and how I’m dressed, I’m a Dana, and nobody can tell me anything different.)

When I arrived, people I’d known for years and people I was desperate to know better greeted me at the window-paneled entrance. I made new friends and shouted out to old ones, absorbed updates on people’s projects and smiled for Instagram photos. For the first time since I’d moved to Los Angeles, I started wondering if maybe I belonged there.

For the next six months, I went to Cuties almost every week.

I began to hold certain tables for a series of rotating, standing appointments: one right outside the front door with Keely and Carolyn; inside to the left with Brittani and her friend; even once or twice at the table inside to the right for myself (and a magazine).

It’s worth noting that during this period of time, I was also making a mess of my life outside of the shelter of those pink walls: pursuing women I couldn’t be with, burning bridges with my long-time employers and driving the Pacific Coast highway with the windows down and a cigarette in my hand. I had dreamt of moving to Los Angeles for what felt like a lifetime, had spent years counting change and juggling jobs in order to get myself to the other side of the country, but adjusting to the city was lonely and isolating, and more than a year after I’d unpacked, I was starting to worry that I’d never find my people or my places.

I wanted so badly to put down roots and become part of this magical place, to stick my flag in the ground and call it mine, but a nagging voice in my head didn’t know if I belonged.

I proved myself wrong by returning to Cuties over and over again—and making it my place in the process. Everybody there knew my name, and my dog’s name, and probably the names of my exes and my best friends, based on the close quarters we kept there. I watched seasons change through the windows. I was constantly posting selfies from the patio. When I was there, I could exhale and be authentic, stretch out and take up space. I knew that no matter who I met up with, I’d be surrounded by queers, feminists, and weirdos just like me.

Being at Cuties reminded me that I had people and I had places. My mornings there made me feel seen, recognized, known. Every single time I climbed out of the driver’s seat on Heliotrope Avenue, I felt closer than ever to the person I hoped I’d become when I packed up my car and drove to California from the East Coast—and more sure than ever that I’d finally found home.  

The heaviest thing I carried on my back to Los Angeles was my guilt. How could I leave behind the people and places that raised me? I’ve since realized that home is a training ground, a sort of boot camp where we can prepare for the wild world that lurks beyond. Home is where we get ready to brave the cold and the blistering sun. Home is where we grow strong enough to leave knowing we can find our way back. Cuties was my first home in L.A.

The morning Ariana unstuck my wheel of fortune was one of the last in which I walked into work late with a Cuties’ pink-sleeved coffee cup. That night, I went back to my apartment and took out the same three cards she’d drawn, laid them out on my altar, lit a candle and started reading Women Who Run with the Wolves. The next day, I began chasing myself across the city, determined to finally find my way through it.

One year later, just like magic, I’m someone else—all because Cuties gave me the space to lay down those swords, and enough coffee and donuts to satiate all of the people willing to help me unburden myself of them.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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