When Grey Stephens opened up Crocker Bar in Montrose, he was looking to diversify his income by re-entering the bar scene. While the extra dough in his bank account was nice, it was the community that formed at his neighborhood bar that was the real prize. That same community would rally alongside Stephens after he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) 11 years ago. While the disease altered the way he navigates through life, he still has his razor-sharp wit and a passion for maintaining a fun, safe gathering space for the LGBTQ community.
Stephens, who has called Houston home for nearly 20 years, figured his experience as a bartender would easily translate into bar ownership. While the savvy entrepreneur has seen great success, he admits it wasn’t always easy. “It was a lot more work than I ever thought it would be.”
On June 1, 2008, Crocker opened its doors to the community. “Crocker is a neighborhood bar with a bit of a dance vibe to it. Nothing too fancy,” Stephens explains. “Everybody’s welcome, and my customers have always had our back. They have always done what they can to help the community, the bar, the employees. It’s been a cool ride, and we are coming up on 15 years.”
Stephens credits his friends and loved ones with functioning as an unofficial board of directors for his business ventures. “This community has provided for me. I have had some of the best people in the world work with me over the last 15 years, and they’ve helped build the business,” he says. “I have trouble matching two white socks, so I’ve had friends, family, employees, and everybody else offer their input—what the place should look like, what the music should be, changes and repairs—stuff like that.” His sense of humor shines as he explains, “I’m really good at listening to people. I hear them all. Doesn’t mean I follow all of their recommendations, but I hear them all.”
After getting Crocker Bar up and running, Stephens would go on to open Club 2.0, providing even more dance vibes in Montrose. But then, as bar-goers were enjoying the fruits of Stephens’ labor, he began his silent battle with MS. “I started noticing I had a problem in November, 11 years ago,” he recalls. “They diagnosed me with six or seven other things. They’ve tested me for everything for years—CAT scans, spinal taps, bloodwork, EMGs. I’ve had so many MRIs that my insurance card glows in the dark.”
Multiple Sclerosis affects the central nervous system, so Stephens has seen major changes in his day-to-day life. “It takes me 20 minutes to put my shoes on, and an hour to get dressed in the morning,” he admits.
“I spend 80 percent of my time in a wheelchair. I can’t go to the grocery store without an assistant. I have to do drive-bys before events to make sure the places are accessible. I have to pay attention to where I go and what I plan on doing before I get there.”
Despite the hand life has dealt him, Stephens maintains a “glass half full” perspective. “I make a decent enough living where I can afford to get help where I need it. A lot of people don’t have that fortunate situation. I’m not depressed about it, but I’m definitely not happy about it. I do my thing, I move forward. Sometimes my friends get mad at me when I do things myself. If I’ve got to change a lightbulb, I’ll pull up the ladder and do it myself, which is not the brightest idea.”
Despite the odds, Stephens rallies each and every day to defy the limitations that MS tries to impose on him. “I take things one step at a time. My goal—no matter what, no matter how good or bad I feel—is to get up, get showered, get dressed, and get out of the house every day,” he says. “I have to admit, I was just looking for an income when I opened the bars. I had no idea how much they would help the community with charity events and donations and everything else. It was a side benefit to owning a business that I never expected. I’m really proud that the bar can help the community and they can help the bar, all at the same time.”
Reflecting on the past 15 years, Stephens is humbled by the support he’s received from the community. The glowing neon sign at Crocker that reads “We are family” is indicative of who Stephens credits for keeping him in the game despite his diagnosis. “These bars have been a success because of all the current and past staff, employees, and customers,” he says assuredly. “There’s not any one thing that I did.”
December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
This article appears in the December 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.