By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Before he got involved in the Vault, Waxtel's chief diversion was playing organized war games with antique toy soldiers that he collects as a hobby. Although he still owns a piece of a successful downtown gay bar, he says he was badly out of his league when it came to the sex club. As part of his deal, Waxtel was supposed to get $1,000 a weekthe same figure the wiseguys were supposedly taking out of the place. But Waxtel soon realized that his partners were steadily dipping into the till and putting their relatives on the payroll. "The stealing was so brazen," he says. "I walked into this world and it was a nightmare. An entertaining nightmare, but a nightmare. Here I am, this naive businessman, surrounded by these professional criminals."
Then Waxtel got lucky. "Thank God I was able to get my money out," he says. "The only thing that saved us was that condemnation. No matter how much we made, the Mafia guys, everyone, was stealing from the place. My own brother-in-law. They were desperate to get that money."
Marini, a big guy from the north Bronx, was a lot savvier about how things worked at the club. He had started out providing security and worked his way up the ladder. Like Waxtel, he liked the excitement of the place, even if he was wary of his associates. He first heard about the state's takeover plan from Rotondo, who showed up one day with the news. "He was all excited," says Marini. "He says, 'This will be great. The state is a cash cow.'"
Marini estimates that the $1,850,000 that the state ultimately paid in compensation for the club's fixtures wascharitably speakingabout 10 times what they were worth.
"There just wasn't much there," says Marini. "The sound system was just a stereo setup that cost $500 new. It was worth maybe 50 bucks if you could sell it. For the porn movies, we had this shitty old VCR hooked up to the TVs. Everything else was stuff Frank assembled out of scrap."
Aside from four bars, a few sinks, and refrigerated coolers, the rest of the fixtures in the dungeon-like outpost consisted of the basic tools of the S&M trade. These were designed to assist imagination more than performance and were several notches below standard gym equipment in sophistication and expense.
There were hitching posts, wood beams with metal rings bolted to them; a couple of "spanking horses," essentially sawhorses clad in padded vinyl designed to tilt riders' posteriors heavenwards; and narrow iron cages just big enough to fit two or three customers eager to experience that intimate jailhouse feeling.
For sophisticates, the club had a pair of what are known in the trade as St. Andrew's crosses, X-shaped metal bars with straps for the wrists and ankles. (One version spun the strappee on a large Wheel of Fortunestyle contraption.)
The club's only possession of any real potential valueat least to aficionados of late-20th-century sadomasochism toolswas a twin-seater electric chair capable of delivering nasty jolts when attached to body parts. The chair was donated to the club by Andrew Crispo, a wealthy art dealer who made S&M history when he beat sordid kidnapping and torture charges in 1988.
High-stepping at the Vault
photo: Efrain Gonzales
"That was the word that came down: Nail everything to the floor to make it look permanent," he says. "The rule was, the state was only going to pay for permanent fixtures, so we had to make them permanent." Marini says Cooke spent hours bolting and welding everything he couldtables, chairs, cagesto the floor.
Waxtel agrees that the club's wiseguy owners pushed the envelope to up the compensation fee. "They had the state pay for every light bulb in the place," says Waxtel. "Then they had to pay the estimated cost of a professional electrician to install that light bulb at 'x' number of hours. That's how crazy it was. Every water fixture, every sprinkler headanything that could not be removed they had to pay for."
What's most astonishing about these accounts is that state records, unearthed through a Freedom of Information request, show that things went down precisely as Marini and Waxtel describe them. ("Oh, yeah, the Vault. I've heard about this one," laughed a state aide when queried about the affair.)
Records show that the state comptroller's office, charged with reviewing all payouts, cut an initial check in 1996 to Frank's Emporium Inc.the club's corporate monikerfor $229,000. That was supposed to be the entire amount the fixtures were worth. It was a number reached only after two separate appraisals were conducted by state consultants. Judging from their accounts, the first appraisers who went through the place don't seem to have missed much. Their reports duly noted each spanking horse, hitching post, and St. Andrew's cross.