“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell
RBW, Chuck, and Grace, 1985, by Tom Berry
Queer folk shaped my 80s youth.
Many who shepherded me through crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.
It took a village, indeed. An East Village.
In the way most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope. I headed north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. Those who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were, shall we say, offbeat. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them – usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank – than I ever learned in any classroom.
Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985
While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”
In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. For the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it. They liked having a secret.
These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the It Gets Better movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of these shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave, and it would make them fight back.
Of course I see now that we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them. When anyone thought or assumed I was gay, I took it as a compliment.
Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, turned each other on, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or pierce something or other, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.
Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.
I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.
With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.
Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.
It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn. With the Wah Wah Hut crew, I broke into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last Manhattan park with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.
Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply, enjoying a distinctive quality of life that included good food, a reasonable amount of space, low overhead, and an abundance of art and adventure. Within a decade, those days would be over, or at least they would be prohibitively expensive to all but a few.
Of course it wasn’t all fun. As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. The pride and power, in fact, intensified. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.
There was so much love. Some at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, were loathe to leave the love we knew in East Village obscurity. (Although a couple did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.
This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.
When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now nineteen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.
My short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Sally, Vinnie, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Tom, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Pam, Deb, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.
King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, circa early 90s
(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)