By the mid ’80s, the Big Apple had lost most of its shine, but I was still living large and loving it as a free-drink-ticket-holding, drag-queen-worshipping denizen of any nocturnal den available. Whatever squalid shape the city was in, clubland was lush, diverse, and filled with fun people on the edge of the brink of the tip of the volcano. It was a place I wanted to live in—a land where once you got in, everything seemed permissible, except for boring people to death. This was before the Internet and hundreds of cable channels helped the mainstream subsume the underground, allowing the alternative to become the norm and shock value to virtually disappear. At this point, the underground existed, and as annoying as some of its habitués could be in all of their aggressive edge-of-the-brinkness, they certainly never threatened to lull you to sleep.
As the author of my new Voice column, La Dolce Musto, I became even more able to justify my frothy party lifestyle. After all, I had to go out every night now—it was my job. A misfit almost everywhere else, I fit right into this jigsaw of Downtown after dark, where you could enter a club in fishnets and a shower cap and not only not have anyone deride you—most of them didn’t even notice. This was my family, I decided—one that doesn’t know from disapproval or dismay—and the palette of places to join them at was so astounding that my entire day was spent preparing for the next batch of fearless fun. Waking up at noon with an ultra-fabulous headache, I geared up for more by sifting through a towering stack of invites to decide which clubs most deserved my poofter presence. For some raw East Villagey mischief, the Pyramid gave performers a stage and a spotlight with which to exalt or embarrass themselves. On West 21st Street, Danceteria had multiple floors for dancing, screaming, watching bands, and showing off big hair. A block away, Limelight had found its niche as a celebutante haven with a V.I.P. room filled with glamour and possibility. And down in Tribeca (which was truly a wasteland), Area was a magical mecca that debuted a different theme every month, the club’s top-to-bottom look changing from “Confinement” to “Sci-Fi” to “Art” as my agog expression stayed the same.
Whatever the club, I’d generally pull a hoop dress out of my bag, fling it on backward, and sashay through the dancefloor to get to the V.I.P. area, where I could alternately pose and take notes. The object was to write about other club press people who could write about me writing about them photographing me. The resulting scene was incestuous, denial prone, and self-absorbed—it was the underground, but laced with a press whore’s striving to rise beyond it—and if you wore a loud, funny outfit, you got photographed, so you did so and made room for the clipping.
AIDS was robbing us of our Rolodexes, but none of the night people seemed to know what to do about it, so the party kept getting bigger and more distracting. As crime and racial tension soared and the epidemic kept ravaging, everyone I knew found an escape hatch by reveling in the glittery likes of Trump, Joan Collins, and Robin Leach’s upscale carnival barking. In 1985, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager matched the mood by opening the most blinding state-of-the-art circus of all—the Palladium, a high-ceilinged hedonism complex with an arty upstairs Mike Todd Room and a downstairs psychedelic recreation area. (The Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf works have long moved on, and the building’s now the most potentially edgy place of all, an NYU dorm.)
In ’86, an eager-to-be-fabulous Downtown restaurant threw me a free birthday dinner for 100 in hopes of getting some mentions. Andy Warhol—who defined the scene with his cool, knowing presence—showed up as everyone was leaving, and I was thrilled but thought, “Fuck! If he’d only come 20 minutes earlier, my party would have been a smash!” Even with 100 people feting me on command, I ended up in a very ’80s depression spiral, especially when the press write-ups turned out to be far more minimal than my outfit.
Soon enough, all the press rolled over and died. As if everyone got the memo at once, the scene imploded from overexposure, and I was left standing alone, still looking for drink tickets. Gabriel Rotello’s talent-filled Downtown Dukes and Divas musical revues at Limelight suddenly stopped. Vito Bruno’s heart-thumping outlaw parties—where the invited danced around a pier or sanitation dump until the cops came and busted it—stopped. Andy Warhol stopped. And though I didn’t stop, I did panic. I wrote the 1987 Voice cover story “The Death of Downtown,” assuming it was all over, but fortunately enough for my livelihood—and sanity—it was just taking a ballsy breather.