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AutoBARography 7: MY SHORT CAREER AS A GAY BARTENDER/PART THREE

DISCO FEVER

NEW YORK, July ’73… Discos have exploded out of the hard partying gay sub culture. Everybody wants to wear glitter…Get loaded…Dance with wild abandon…

Everybody but me. I want to get a pastrami sandwich and go to the James Cagney festival at the Bleecker Cinema.

It’s a drug culture. Booze is not a factor. Most places just serve juice to wash down the drugs. And the drugs are all about sex. “Poppers” (amyl nitrate inhalers) which were developed to treat angina, generate frenetic energy and explosive orgasms. Quaaludes, promoted as a malaria cure, produce relaxation, euphoria and what the doctors call “aphrodisia,” the desire and the capacity to have endless sex. Women and gay men report incredible results. Not me. I gulp a ‘lude one night and wake up in a chair six hours later. Cocaine, originally used as an anesthetic for eye surgery, is reputed to make the user fatally attractive and non-stop horny. People on cocaine spend a lot of time admiring the way they look and the wonderfully clever things they have to say.

Not me. After ten years of hallucinating and learning things about myself that I didn’t need to know I’m off psychedelics and back on the booze. I just want to get crocked and wake up the same person I was the night before.

Music drives the scene. The British Invasion, Motown, The Philly Sound and the first stirrings of Disco keep people on the dance floor as much as the drugs. There are no B- sides. One great song is replaced by another. Soul Makossa is played over and over with the dancers chanting “Mama-ko Mama-sa Maka Makossa.” DJ’s are the new celebrities. Cutting between two turntables they can extend a dance beyond the normal length of a record. They change clubs like ballplayers or Chinese chefs and take their followings with them. Songs are personal anthems– Everyday People, Papa Was A Rolling Stone. In two years Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive will become everybody’s life story.

But not mine. While Diana Ross and The Supremes are going platinum I’m sifting through the bins in Colony Records looking for old Lester Young sides.

Everybody participates in what one writer calls “the democracy of the dance.” Stockbrokers, drag queens, suburban couples, bikers—everybody’s out there “shaking their booty” on the dance floor.

The clubs intimidate me. The dancing is athletically demanding and everybody seems to know the steps. The girls are insanely supple, in hot pants and halter tops. The guys look like they could do triple pirouettes in the Dance of Theater of Harlem and then beat me one on one. The only klutzes are the silent partners–the scowling wiseguys in the Armani suits with the pinky rings. And they don’t dance.

I’m a poster boy for the space-time curve. I share a material world with these people, but I’m in another era. I hang out at the Blarney Castle on 72nd and Columbus—a buck for an ounce and a half shot; corned beef and cabbage with a boulder-sized boiled potato. The only dancing I see is the pas de deux as Tom the bartender rousts the geezers who have drunk up their Social Security checks.

I’m working at the Hotel Diplomat in a dance hall for Italian immigrants, downstairs from Le Jardin, the newest, hottest disco in town. The place has been open three weeks and already it’s in Page Six every day with a new celeb sighting. But up until a week ago I didn’t even know it existed.

One Saturday night I’m in the liquor room scraping rat hairs off the lemons when Lester, the night manager comes to the door. “You wanna work Le Jardin tonight?”

A dark guy in a white suit is standing at the door.

“This is Mr. Addison,” Lester says.

Addison looks me up and down and is not impressed. “At least he’s young,” Addison says. “You’re going to make a lot of money tonight,” he says. “Don’t be greedy…”

In the elevator Lester confides: “The Saturday bartender Dennis got beat up at Riis Beach. I told them you could handle it…”

A narrow vestibule opens onto a room decorated with palm trees and potted ferns. The interior is white—white banquettes, white tables. Waiters on roller skates are laying out bowls of fruit and cheese. A guy with with a gelled goatee stops counting the bottles behind the bar.

“You from downstairs? What’s your name?”

“Woody,” I say.

“I’ll be judge of that,” he says. “I’m Ira…”

Ira takes me into an office room. A muscular guy in jockeys is combing his hair. “This is Jimmy, your partner for the evening,” he says. He steps back, squinting like a tailor. “Do you mind showing your legs? The bartenders wear uniforms…” He gives me blue sleeveless basketball shirt and shorts. Pinches my biceps. “Did you ever hear of the Y?” Groans at my work boots. “You look like the Bus and Truck tour of the Village People…”

“Ira’s a snap,” Jimmy says, getting into his uniform. He seems straight, but I’ve been fooled before. “This is a cool job. They do all your prep, cut the twists, make the sour mix, even wash the glasses…” His voice drops. “They’re paranoid about stealing. Don’t buy drinks, they hate that. If a customer buys you a drink make sure to take his money. They’ll be watching so don’t get cute. I think they’re connected…”

We go outside. It’s nine-thirty and the place is empty. A skinny lady with wiry red hair looks at me with hostile surprise. “Where’s Dennis?”

“In a urinal at Riis Park,” Ira says.

“That’s Fifi,” Jimmy says. “She’s Addison’s wife or hag or something…”

Ira shows me a tupperware container full of twists and lime. “In case you want a fruit…” He opens a box of stirrers. “Do you have a sizzle stick or a fizzle stick?”

Now he’s all business. “Two dollars for speed rack, two-fifty for call, three for cocktails. Pour a good shot, John wants happy customers…”

I’m strictly a dive bartender. The thick goblets and the sharp edged glass tiles on the bar make me nervous. “You could kill somebody with one of these glasses,” I say.

“We don’t feature brawling here,” Ira says. “Everyone’s a friend of the house…”

It’s ten o’clock and nobody’s there.

“The place is dead,” I say to Jimmy.

He smiles. “It’s a late shot. It’ll pick up.”

NEXT: IS THAT REALLY BIANCA JAGGER?