I miss the ’80s even more than I miss my twenties. I was really famous then. I was glamorously swept into clubs with my entourage—yes, I had an entourage—and never once wished I was home vacuuming my stamp collection. The boîtes were filled with entertaining eccentrics, people taking your picture (with real cameras), and others anxious to farm out various forms of attention as if they were ego dealers. What’s more, the second I reached the upstairs VIP lounge, an employee always stood there dutifully holding my cocktail of choice—vodka-cran—with a simpering smile. The ’80s were so great that you could down several of these every single night and never know it might be a problem.
Everything wasn’t processed, addressed, labeled, hyped, and mass-digested. Things could be secret, dirty, undiscovered, and even scary. I miss not only the large, zany clubs, but the muggers, the questionable neighborhoods, and the idea that going below 14th Street actually meant something. I miss the mom-and-pop stores, the super-cheap prices, the counterculture, and the culture itself. And yet, even with all the changes that have made New York so very rich and sanitary, there are glimmers of ’80s black magic still happening—if only you’ll hold your nose and believe.
Traipse around parts of the East 20s at night and you’ll find that although some old welfare hotels are now three-star boutiquey getaways, there’s not much else studding the area except for unsavory-looking people and piles of garbage so fetid that even the unsavory-looking people won’t touch them. This is my home, and I love it!
Craving some more substantial playmates? Hang out on the outskirts of Madison Square Park—across from where Shake Shack snacks up the area—and you’re guaranteed to be greeted by a rat who’s way larger than your forearm and who’s no more afraid of you than you are of a gift bag. It’s weird, but every single time I go there, I seem to see the very same rat—I’ve seen him thousands of times!
And have you noticed that homeless people seem to be back, just like in the ’80s? Faboo, darling! But how to deal? I know just what to do—don’t give them a cent! That’ll make you feel like ’80s greed and opportunism are really back with a vengeance.
Want to save even more precious moolah? For inexpensive clothing, ’80s prices still abound at Jack’s 99-cent store (115 West 31st Street) and Weber’s discount store on the same block (119 West 31st Street), if you’re bold enough to be cheap enough. Yes, 20 years after the Brat Pack era, 99-cent stores still manage to charge 99 cents! I never understood why anyone would throw dozens of dollars away at fancy department stores when you can get fringed ponchos, talking greeting cards, toilet cleanser, 2 percent milk, and kitsch decorations at these places for a fucking buck! If you run into someone you know there—and you won’t—just say you’re doing research on the ’80s economy. And, by the way, Jack’s doesn’t always have all the great stuff all at once, so when you do find something special, grab it in bulk. That explains why you’ll see me balancing 20 boxes of waffles on my handlebars as I toddle home with a shit-eating grin.
Nearby, Conway (11 West 34th Street) also teems with both household and clothing items, and though we’re not talking 99 cents, this isn’t exactly Bergdorf’s either. Not long ago, I bought a pinstriped shirt there complete with patterned tie—all flawlessly packaged together in plastic—for only $6.99. The outfit makes me look like a refugee from a dinner-theater company of Guys and Dolls, but frankly, for conversation-breaking sake, it’s the only outfit I’ll ever need.
There’s cheap food, too, even in Times Square, if you bother to vault over the parade of theme restaurants that greedily poison tourists’ minds and stomachs. Crawl into the food court on the west side of Eighth Avenue between 44th and 45th streets—you heard me—and look beyond the Nathan’s, Arthur Treacher’s, and Subway, which you can get just about anywhere. Come on—don’t act like you’re above this. Keep prowling until you find a glorified counter there called Kabab & Curry, which serves dirt-cheap Indian food with a minimum of fuss (or, admittedly, ambience; this place is really squalid).
Amazingly, you get a couple of perfectly delightful pieces of tandoori chicken, plus rice, daal, naan, and the vegetable of the day, for only $6.50! That’s even cheaper than my Guys and Dolls outfit—and I can usually guilt them into throwing in a couple of extra vegetables, too.
By the way, to cap off your meal, the best ice cream in town—and by far the most piss-poor in price—is at another hallowed shrine to anti-snobbery: McDonald’s! For a mere buck, you get delicious soft-served shit on a cone, and the extra 29 cents must be for the lovely serving of attitude. (“I think he’s an actor,” a cashier once mused to his co-worker about me right in front of my face, as the pal insisted: “No, he’s giving me an insurance-salesman vibe.”)
Actually, I’m just a critic—and I’m here to tell you that old-style New York performance art isn’t exactly dead either, even though the stuck-in-’84 set likes to claim it is so they can sit home and watch Lost. Please! Drop by P.S. 122 (150 First Avenue) or Here Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas), and then try to tell me there aren’t still a zillion underground performers out there who are as zany, brave, inventive, and even boring as ever. Sure, they all have to live in the outer boroughs to stay alive, but at least they’ll schlep over the bridge to put on a show for you. And, of course, you can always go there, too.
For some real ’80s-style edge, there are still places catering to potentially risky gay sexual business, reminding you of the first saucy wave of AIDS denial, way before the current one. In Chelsea, you’ll see all kinds of shady-looking people (and occasionally some cuties) running back and forth between two adult emporiums, Blue Store (206 Eighth Avenue) and Rainbow Station right across the street (207 Eighth Avenue), as if it were the dick decathlon. These are basically the Jack’s and Weber’s of cheap sex. Both places have adjoining rows of booths in the back, which feature age-old “glory holes”—slots in which you can deliver your package and wait to see what response it provokes from the boy next door. If that’s a little too impersonal for you, feel free to sweet-talk the person through the slot and take them home, but I know people who’ve done that—and they’re still looking for their laptops.
Of course, if you really want ’80s New York to come back, you’re going to have to take some serious drugs, put your head underwater, and dream on, because it’s just not going to happen, honey. Things change, and you eventually have to embrace that or you’ll end up rabid and running around on all fours near Madison Square Park. So celebrate the new Gotham! Swat away imaginary bums and panhandlers as you enter the Bowery Hotel and order some Reverse Osmosis water. Savor every drop of it, darling, because your only other choice is to move to a red state.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 15, 2008