Friday, January 20, 2006

Catching The 12:55

In 1982 I found myself immersed in the social scene in Philly. I was knee-deep in various projects and working to create a brand-new weekly newspaper to serve the gay arts/culture community. I was swimming in a sea of new wave, punk, disco and drugs. It was messy and it taught me a lot in the decades to come.

Besides the normal party favors that were scattered across the nightlife at the turn of the decade, one that was treasured by many was MDA, the parent to MDMA (ecstasy). It was a powder that was put into capsules and you would take one of these things and then go lay down for like an hour or so, while your body sweated out the drug's effect. Once that part of the trip broke, you were good to go for 12+ hours of fun dancing enjoyment. My friends and I would save these special moments for weekends - we'd toss on some 12" singles, plan out our wardrobe, drop-n-sweat and then get a shower and get dressed and grab a cab to rush us to 30th Street Station, where we would hop on the 12:55am Amtrak to NYC.

Nothing like 4 queens tripping their tits off on a train going 70 miles per hour through the armpit of New Jersey to get a party started! (haha) As soon as the train hit the tunnel into The City, we were ON! The doors opened and we floated to the street and got into a cab and, whichever of us was the most clear-headed, simply told the driver "The Anvil". He knew. We all knew.

The Anvil was my home away from home. I must have gone there at least monthly, if not more between 1982 and 1985. The Anvil was already a notorious spot in Manhattan - which says something in those decadent days of the 1970s. The Anvil was a groundbreaking gay club which opened in 1974 and was located near the waterfront at 10th Avenue and 14th Street.

It was as famous for its graphic onstage 'performance' shows featuring some of NYC's hunkiest square-jawed and macho young men as it was for its freewheeling basement backroom action. It's biggest claim to fame was Felipe Rose, the "Indian" in The Village People, who had danced on its bar before his ascent to Village People-fame.

By the time 1982 came around - and I was making my first visit to The Anvil - a certain level of fear was installed into me by my elders, who spoke of this macho space where nothing but jeans and flannel were allowed - and especially, no women! We get to the bar, which was the street level of a triangle building deep in the meat-packing district of Manhattan. As sexual as that may sound, it truly was a meat-packing district where boatloads of cattle carcasses were unloaded and delivered to refridgerated warehouses - between these warehouses you would find the darkest gay bars and clubs of the 1970s. If I felt Christopher Street was seedy, this was way beyond.

So, we pour out of the cab and get in line - the most fascinating thing was that - here in the middle of a dark neighborhood - there was this building that was literally pumping with life; you could feel the bass from outside. Cabs came and went as well as limos and such. We get to the door and the first thing you did was pay the cover ($5) and then at the next window you had to purchase drink tickets for $2 a pop. You'd by a string of em for like $10 or $20 and that would hold you for the night. The reason you purchased the tickets was simple: the place has no liquor license, so it couldn't "sell" booze - but it could sell "tickets". No money could exchange hands between you and the bartender - there was no register behind the bar - instead, the bar [which was a square wooden bar where you could stand next to any of its 4 sides] had a small cut out hole in the center of the bar. You'd drop your tip into that and they would gather it at the end of the night.

The space was a triangle, just like the building itself. At the widest point was the square bar - above the simple bar (and I mean simple - like it was made in shop class and never treated) there was a series of pipes and hooks. From the hooks were ropes and the ropes helped the male dancers swing from one end of the bar to another - or sometimes cross over diagonally. There was a small performance stage that jutted out onto the simple dance floor with just the basic of disco lights. The money was put into the sound system. Kick ass.

So, we have our tickets and we enter this 'seedy' place and the first thing I see is a drag queen on the stage!! WTF!?! My elders are a bit surprized and I'm a bit relieved. Well, we found out that all the dark sleezy crowd had moved over to The Mineshaft a couple years back and this place had lost its reputation. But, thankfully for me - The Anvil was moving into the more performance art / new wave / disco world and I was home!

So, I ripped off my flannel shirt that I was forced to wear to fit in - and left my t-shirt on and danced the night away. That first night I met Conrad - the manager of The Anvil and we became good friends. He would tend bar downstairs - which still had the seedy element the upstairs had lost. It was a similar laid out room - but with cheesy porn playing and men just having sex wherever or with whomever. There was a little bar that had a water pipe going through the center of it from above, and Conrad, who could barely fit behind this little bar, would keep one hand on the pipe and swing himself from one side of the bar to another to reach everyone who wanted a drink. Every so often he would loudly yell "Gentlemen, watch your wallets in the back room, please!" My friend Chico and I were so into that, we actually had t-shirts made with that saying on it, during a trip to Asbury Park in the summer of '83 and EVERYONE on the beach knew what the shirt meant! HAHA!

Besides Conrad, I met The Amazing Uba - a 6'8" dark-skinned albino drag queen. She performed upstairs at The Anvil -- two shows, 4am and 8am. She was ALL ABOUT Grace Jones and would do her whenever she had a chance. I'll post about Uba another time, since there's a great story to share about her in 1983.

Also, I met The Amazing Electrifying Grace [amazing seemed to be the catch phrase back then!] - she was the Diva M.C. at The Anvil and was a riot! She stayed until the space closed in '86 and then moved over to Sally's in Times Square (the home to many of the girls featured in flick Paris Is Burning).

I really enjoyed knowing her, since she knew everyone and made sure I got to meet them as well. For a while, Grace was a guide for me as I stumbled about in the city that never slept. I miss her. (this is her in the pic)

The Anvil, which had opened it doors in 1974, on the tide of sexual liberation, after a spectacular 11-year run, was forced to close its doors in the late fall of 1985, as much a casualty of the disease itself as of the homophobic hysteria that began to grip the country.

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