New York Nights: reflections under the disco ball

I’d done my fair share of nightlife exploring when I was in New York City, although I think it’s safe to say I barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s just too big, and there’s too much going on, that I doubt you could see it all in a year, let alone a month. However, one thing I think that I can safely assert from my brief time there is that you really have to have a plan of attack, and know where the parties of the evening are and where you want to go. Despite having a huge amount of fun on my birthday – probably due to the company I was with than the places I went to – it’s hard to deny that the night was in a relatively high degree shambles due to a lack of planning. We just drank ourselves stupid and gallivanted around Hell’s Kitchen hoping for the best. But the following weekend I was celebrating Ralf’s birthday with him, and since he doesn’t drink, I too drank considerably less, and therefore my experiences of the nightlife were substantially different. Possibly due to the fact that I simply remember a lot more, but what’s a few shots between four hour memory blanks?

Being the Berliner that he is, Ralf was never in a rush to get to any of the parties on time. I had to negotiate a happy medium of not leaving too early, but not leaving so late that we were stuck in hour long queues around the block just to get inside. In the absence of alcohol I ended up drinking quite a bit of Red Bull to keep myself pumped up until it was finally time to get going. I’d done some event scouting through some of the promoters who I’d come across on my earlier nights out in New York, which is how Ralf and I eventually found ourselves at VIVA – supposedly the biggest Saturday night gay party in Manhattan. It was where Jesse and I considered going the previous week, but… well… that obviously didn’t happen. Anyway, VIVA was supposed to be incredible, multiple floors full of hot guys, strong drinks and good music. Ralf didn’t seem as keen on the idea of pop music, but I gave him a playful shove and told him to leave his Berlin attitude at the door. He agreed that as long he could dance, he would be happy.

And for what it’s worth, it was pretty great party. As the evening continued on the place became packed, and under the giant disco balls and flashing lights writhed a sea of sweaty, shirtless homosexuals. Ralf and I started out dancing together, but during one of my excursions to the bar I lost him, and since we were both foreigners neither of our phones worked particularly well. I kept my eye out for him, but eventually resigned to the fact that I had lost him in the sea of hot and sticky flesh, so I continued dancing on my own.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

***

At some point in the evening I took a break from the dancing, and retreated to the upstairs level, with an open balcony that looked down over the dance floor below. I perched over the edge of the railing and peered down below, trying to see if I could spot Ralf among the crowd. There were just too many people though, and my efforts were futile. After a while of standing there, a man beside me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… I think I recognise your face. Did I see you here last week?”
I had barely paid any attention to the man standing there, so I turned to look at his face, which was completely unfamiliar.
“No… No, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Really? I could swear I saw you here last week?”
Internally I smirked at what was an obvious pick up line, but instead I just politely smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I wasn’t here last week.”
He laughed, almost a little embarrassed. “Okay, I lied. I’ve never seen you either. Though I’m glad I’ve seen you now…” It was also at that point, I think, that he noticed my accent. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. Sydney, Australia.”
“Ah, Australian. Nice.” He then turned to face the out towards the crowd. “So what do you think of the party? Having fun?”
I turned to look down at the dance floor, examining all the dancing bodes, still no sign of Ralf. “Yeah, it’s pretty a cool. Huge space.”
“Anything like this in Sydney?”
“Well…” I had to reflect back on Oxford Street, my nights at ARQ, and the countless nights I’d danced away there. “Sort of, but… not really. Not like this. This is different.”
He smiled to himself, then turned back to face me. “The go go dancers are about to start upstairs. Have you been up there?”
“There’s another level?” This place as bigger than I had realised. The man just chuckled at that.
“Would you like a drink?”

Dancing under disco balls.

Dancing under disco balls.

I’d given up on ever finding Ralf again this evening, so I decided to go with him and accept the offer. He was a bit older than me, and nothing that special to look at, but I was quite enjoying the banter we had going between us. On the way to the bar he said he had to make one more stop. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the DJ booth and sound control box while he was talking to a few people who looked like they were in control of whatever displays were going on out over the dance floor. It didn’t quite sink in at first, but in retrospect it should have been pretty obvious why this guy was asking probing questions about how much I liked the event – we was one of the major event coordinators and promoters. He gave me the grand tour of the whole venue, and we chatted to each other for a long time. He had a lot of questions, and myself and what I was doing, and he seemed to be impressed by whatever charisma I managed to exhibit.

“So, what brings you to New York, Robert?”
“I’m just travelling around. Backpacking. Only here for one more week.”
He seemed genuinely disappointed. “That’s a shame. You seem like a really cool guy. You know, if you were staying, I think there’d definitely be a place on my staff for you.”
I scoffed at that. “What, really? As a promoter? Why?”
“I think you’d be great. You seem interesting, but real. Not pretentious. We try to throw great parties, but the one thing we’re not is pretentious.” The conversation was partially lost in the music that throbbed in the air around us, but I found his assertions a little hard to swallow. All throughout my numerous nights out in New York, ‘pretentious’ was definitely a word that stuck out in my mind as a perfect adjective to describe what I’d seen, especially in the gay bars and parties. The way everyone in these clubs and parties seemed to carry themselves, the way they talked, the way they danced like they were God’s gift to gay men – there was just something about the nightlife I’d experienced that almost turned me off it completely. It was almost as though everyone was trying too hard to impress everyone else to even have any real fun. But perhaps that was just me overanalysing everything, because this guy seemed completely genuine when we assured me they were all about keeping it real.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a comparatively small city – not everyone in Sydney has moved from the suburbs in a dreamy pursuit of fame, fashion, riches and glory. At a previous night out with Jesse and Georgia, at an event that I guess had been organised by the guy I was now speaking to, I’d chatted with a guy who was attending.
“Yeah, I didn’t really nice Sydney. It was boring,” he told me when I mentioned where I was from.
“Oh, well… yeah I guess sometimes you just have to know where to go, right?” I maintained composure, but tried to come to the city’s defence. “Some places are better than other at certain times. I mean, I’ve had some average nights out here, just because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
“No,” he just replied, with a sour, bored look on his face. “It was just wasn’t very good.”
And that really annoyed me. Sure, Sydney is no New York, but it had been my home for the past 22 years and I’d had some amazing nights out on the town there, and had more fun than I could possibly quantify. And I certainly wasn’t going to let some perpetually pouting wannabe model who probably grew up in Nebraska tell me that my hometown was objectively boring based on his sole experiences. I think it was at that moment that I was well and truly over the attitude of arrogance that I was finding among so many people that I met in New York, particularly in these gay venues. There was so much inflated self-importance that you could have gathered the heads of everyone in the room and used them in place of helium balloons at a child’s birthday party.

But here, at VIVA, I found myself with a guy who seemed so genuine in his belief that there was nothing pretentious in the way they flaunted their parties, and that they were just there to have a good time, and not necessarily impress anyone. I guess it really is a subjective matter, and I won’t claim that all these parties or all these people are the same. This was just my experience. He was a nice enough guy all the same, and at the end of the night I even got a behind-the-scenes tour of the building before heading back to his place in Chelsea with him to crash. I slept there for most of the morning and afternoon, mostly because it was so unbelievably quiet compared to Melissa’s apartment in Midtown.

***

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The following evening I headed out again with Ralf, this time settling for some of the regular bars rather than any big parties that were going on for the Labor Day long weekend. The guy I’d met last night offered to get me on a list to whatever party he was throwing that night, but I politely declined, mostly knowing I wanted to spend more time with Ralf, but also because I don’t think I could take another event like that. I met Ralf, and he told me how he had ended up at some after party the previous evening. We ended up going to Industry, where I had been at some point on the night of my birthday. I have to admit that as impressive at the big parties and been, I much preferred dancing to trashy 90s pop – cue eye roll from Ralf – in a regular gay bar, there the resident drag queen started a conga line and interrupted the regular DJ program to host yet another twerking contest, a fad that was taking the world by storm at the time. But it got me thinking that maybe the party promoters weren’t pretentious. Maybe it was just me, and that simply wasn’t my scene. Maybe I was just a simple boy from a relatively modest city who likes a simple bar and the simple pleasures of dancing with a friend without feeling like I’m competing to be the hottest piece of meat on the dance floor. Maybe I’m just not ready for the likes of New York City. But if that’s what I was missing out on, then I guess I’m okay with that.

Doll décor, dancing, and sleeping on the bus: My first night out in Soho

Come the following weekend, I had done my dabbling in the close-to-home gay scene of East London and was ready to hit the city. Soho was apparently the main place to be when it came to gay London, in general gay culture as well as all the nightlife. By day, I strolled up and down the streets, popping into clothing boutiques, book stores and sex shops, and stopping at a bunch of different eating spots that had either been pointed out to me by Giles on my first few days in London, or I had noticed during my solo exploring. I had also scoped out a bunch of the bars in the area, and had heard mixed reviews about a variety of places, so really the only thing left to do was to head in there one evening and try it all out for myself. At this point in my trip I had gotten in touch with Tim, who I had met and befriended during my trip across the Trans-Siberan Railway. We had actually been in several European cities at the same time over the last few months, but through the blur of parties and day to day travels we’d never managed to catch up again. Tim had finally settled down in London, where he planned to live and work for two years, and given that I was also here for a short (yet extended in my case) period, we’d arranged to catch up for drinks on one Friday afternoon. “Anywhere but Vauxhall – it’s a seedy, drug-filled crack den,” Tim had said when we were discussing where to go. Okay then. Good to know, I suppose. I told him I was yet to go out in Soho, so that soon became the obvious decision, and in the end he had another friend who was going to tag along as well. “We’re starting early because we’re probably not going to have a late night,” Tim had said of him and his friend. Famous last words if ever I heard them…

***

I headed into Soho and made my way to the bar where Tim had suggested we meet, a relatively small bar called The Yard, which was built with a focus around a main courtyard and beer garden area (not dissimilar to the Beresford Hotel, for any readers familiar with Sydney). I would return to this venue during the next few weeks with Yativ and Guy, to have a few Sunday afternoon drinks when the bar was relatively quiet. However, on a Friday afternoon the place was packed wall to wall, and personal space became something of a sweet, distant memory. I shuffled my way through the crowds to the bar, bought myself a cider, and then made my way upstairs to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard, where Tim was waiting for me with his friend Dean. There was a brief introduction, and then Tim and I reminisced about our time on the Trans-Siberian and caught each other up on all our travels around Europe since we had last parted ways in St Petersburg. Tim told me all about the trials and tribulations of finding a place to live in London, and how he was settling into his new job. When we were properly caught up, we decided to move on from the now ridiculously crowded bar so that Dean and Tim could show me some of the other iconic Soho watering holes.

The next stop was around the corner at a pub called Rupert Street, whose namesake was the street that it was located on. It was a little more relaxed there, and considerably more spacious than The Yard, so we all sat down and had a few more rounds of cider as we chatted and gossiped away about all sorts of things, but nothing really in particular. I was quite surprised to find that I recognised one of the bar staff – and even more surprised to find that he recognised me. He was a guy named Kyle who I had met back in Sydney, and despite having a large handful of mutual friends back in Australia I could probably count on one hand the number of substantial conversations we’d had. I knew he had moved to London quite a while ago, but I’d really had no idea what he’d been up to and had not been expecting to see him there, but I guess randomly bumping into anyone familiar is really the last thing you expect when you’re on the other side of the world. Of course, it had been quite a while since any of those previously mentioned conversations had taken place, so we just exchanged a few small-talk pleasantries before I headed back to Tim and Dean with the round of drinks I had just bought. It really is a small world after all.

***

“Where else can we take him?” Tim said to Dean as we were getting ready to leave Rupert Street. “Something a little more exciting than the local pub.”
“How about The Friendly Society?” Dean suggested, and they both seemed to think that was a very good idea because we downed the dregs of our beverages and high tailed it out of there. We rounded a corner and walked down a short street before coming to the beginning of Old Compton Street, which I suppose is comparable to Sydney’s Oxford Street (but definitely not London’s Oxford Street) in that it seemed to be the main hub of nocturnal gay activity in Soho. The surrounding streets were littered with clubs and pubs, but it all kind of culminated and spread out from this main street. The Friendly Society was located at the very end of the street though, and I only caught a glimpse of it before I was descending down a stairway with Tim and Dean and into the bar below. I have to admit, the décor alone made this place one of my favourite pubs in London.
“Look at the ceiling,” Dean said to me as we entered. I looked up to find that the roof was decorated with perhaps the most bizarre ornaments I have ever seen in a nightclub – or anywhere really, for that matter. It was covered in dolls. Barbie dolls, those little colourful haired trolls, and a bunch of other strange plastic figurines. I guess there was nothing inherently weird about them – it was just the fact that they were decorating the walls that made them so peculiar.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

We had more drinks at The Friendly Society, where we started alternating bourbon and Coke’s into our rounds of cider, and maybe even a couple of cheeky shots. We talked, laughed, drank and danced in the tiny little disco bar, and we must have been there for a lot longer than we realised because suddenly it was 11pm and the bar was closing and we were all struggling to scull our drinks as we were being ushered up the stairs and back out onto Old Compton Street. I did love Old Compton Street because, unlike the pink mile back at home, it’s a street that is relatively light on traffic. In fact there is almost always more people on the road than there are cars, and most of the taxis and minicabs have to patiently nudge their way through the hordes of drunken pedestrians. The street itself is quite physically small and narrow, so it makes it the perfect kind of place for nightlife like this, and I have to seriously wonder how more drunk people haven’t died trying to cross the four lanes of traffic on Oxford Street in Sydney on a Saturday night.

Yet people have died in other ways on Old Compton Street. “The next place we’re going to is called The Admiral Duncan,” Dean said to me as we set out onto the street – clearly Tim’s words of having an early night were long forgotten. “But, I should say this before we get too close,” he said as he peered up the road, as though he was gauging how many seconds he had before we arrived at the pubs doors. “This place was bombed back in 1999 by Neo-Nazi’s.”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, being quite excitable in my inebriation. “Was anyone hurt? Did anyone die?” Dean gave me a quick but solemn nod that answered my question, but also indicated that I really shouldn’t say anything more about it here in public. We had just reached the doors of the pub, so we proceeded on into the warm, crowded room. We got another round of drinks before finding some space at the back of the bar, and when the jukebox started playing some fun pop tunes, we climbed up onto the low elevated platform that served as the venues stage and began to dance amongst ourselves. However, the resident drag queens did not like that at all, and we were probably up there for less than a minute before who were scolded and shooed off the stage. We just laughed at the old queens and scampered off to finish our drinks before moving on from the the bar that may have been rich with history, but was a little lacking in the way of fun energy that evening.

***

Tim had intended on taking me to G-A-Y, but by the time we arrived it was getting close to midnight. “It’s late enough already, we could probably just go to G-A-Y Late, right?” He said to Dean. G-A-Y was just down the road from the Admiral Duncan, and outside there were several guys handing out flyers for another club called G-A-Y Late. Later, it would all be explained to me that G-A-Y had become something of a gay bar franchise in London – and even in some other parts of England – with three separate and distinct venues. G-A-Y was a regular gay bar that was open until midnight, G-A-Y Late was a nightclub that was open until the early hours of the morning, and G-A-Y Heaven was yet another bar several blocks away. G-A-Y Late was just around a couple of corners though, and so it was there that I followed Tim and Dean with my free entry flyer that I had picked up from one of the cute guys standing around the original G-A-Y.

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late.

G-A-Y Late was everything you would expect from the nightclub that was the place were everyone migrated to after all the surrounding bars closed had for the evening. It was a long and wide space with a big bar, plenty of podiums and floor space, the interesting aromatic mix of booze, sweat and other bodily fluids, and a general sheen that you just knew couldn’t be sanitary. Regardless, it was a lot of fun. The drinks were cheap and strong, and the music was trashy pop that you could really dance to all night long. Classic hits by the Spice Girls were probably over represented, and I don’t think you’ll ever hear a single complaint about it. Tim, Dean and I all got busy dancing, but by this late point in the evening we were incredibly wasted. Truth be told, I don’t even remember saying goodbye to the two of them, but then it is entirely possible that that never even happened. One moment they were there, the next I was dancing on my own. But I was fine with that, and I kept dancing until I felt like I was sweating cider and I could hardly keep my eyes open, let alone stand up. I couldn’t even tell you what time it was when I stumbled out of G-A-Y Late by myself, but considering it closes at 3am I can safely say it was before the sun came up.

After a pit stop at McDonalds, I made my way to the buses and luckily didn’t have to wait too long before one came along that would take me close to home – I had studied the routes very carefully and committed those numbers to memory so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it too much when I was under the influence. It was a good thing that the buses were a 24 hour service, otherwise the penny-saving backpacker in me would probably have attempted to walk all the way back to Hackney in the now crisp nighttime air rather than catch a taxi. Though getting on the bus was just the easy part – it was getting off the at the right stop that was to be somewhat of a challenge. I had studied the map and everything, so I knew where I was supposed to alight. The problem was that I was just so damn tired. I could feel myself nodding off, almost dropping my McDonalds drink a couple of times. And then I actually did fall asleep. It can’t have been for long, but it was enough to have spilt Coke all over my shoes, and of course it had been enough for me to completely miss my stop. I was jostled awake by the bus coming to a halt, and I looked down at the GPS map on my phone in horror, realising I was already at the stop after the one where I was supposed to alight. I jumped up and sprinted down the steps of the double decker bus just in time to tap my Oyster card and jump off, and on that hit of adrenaline I ran almost the whole way back to the previous bus stop. From there it was still another 10 minute walk home, and I was drunk, cold and severely out of breath. Despite all that, I had had such a fun evening with Tim and Dean out in Soho that I was almost sad that it was all over, although when I eventually got home I slept like a baby.