A Laugh Threatening Situation
Chapter 2 – No Sleep ’til Brooklyn
New here? Start at the beginning.
I took a year off between high school and college and spent most of it in New York City.
My Dad went to Dartmouth and my step-father was a professor at Swarthmore, so I understood the importance and value of a college education. I just wasn’t clear on where I wanted to go or what I wanted to study.
So while all my high-school friends were applying to universities, I was applying to summer camps. I figured working as a counselor would be a good way to get out of town and earn some money in a place that came with free room and board.
I got a great gig at a great camp. But halfway through the summer, I hooked up with the head counselor’s girlfriend and he fired me.1There is no denying this was a dumb move. In my defense, it was summer camp and everybody was hooking up with everybody. Her best friend’s parents lived in Brooklyn and had an extra room in their house, so I packed up all my stuff and drove from the woods of Vermont to the concrete jungle.
The first night there everything I owned got stolen out of my car. So I needed a job. And quick.
Other than “fired camp counselor” my only previous work experience that wasn’t in restaurants was in clothing stores. I had mastered the art of the perfect fold at Benetton and learned how to lose friends by getting promoted to Assistant Manager at The County Seat.2This was not a government job. The County Seat was a mall chain similar to The Gap.
This experience helped land me a job at the most famous used clothing store in New York: The Antique Boutique. Mecca for club kids, punk rockers, and bad boys who dealt drugs in the basement.
Needless to say, my mom and stepdad were slightly concerned that perhaps I wasn’t living up to my potential. So they came for a visit.
They both love the Big Apple, so we went into Manhattan to museum hop and explore. And it was then that we walked past a cool-looking clothing store called The Loft.
I went in for a look and came out with a job. My parents were stunned. I was stoked.
That gig was a major uptown upgrade – from SoHo to 76th and Amsterdam
Turns out the store catered mostly to wealthy gay men. They sold high-end clothing that I loved.3I got voted “best dressed” in high school. True story. They also sold gay porn and poppers in a hidden upstairs alcove. That, I didn’t love.
I didn’t know this when I applied. But the incremental improvement in my paycheck and wardrobe was worth it. As was my immediate immersion into gay culture.
Every day at work was filled with stories about partners who popped too many poppers, AIDS scares, celebrities who were still in the closet, celebrities who should know better than to wear that, the latest person to get outed against their will, drag queens, and more.
I learned a lot about fashion, how to be a bit braver with your wardrobe, how to accessorize, and how to always choose clothes you can dance (or run away) in.
I learned why we stocked and sold so many colored bandannas.4Turns out there is a secret gay man’s hanky code. It’s not so secret anymore, and I think AIDS put a curb on sales, but you can still learn a lot about a person by the color of their kerchief.
And I learned enough that I could comfortably say things like “that’s so gay” and not only be right but be celebrated for having the balls to say it.
I had been made an honorary member of a club for which I didn’t technically qualify. And it was illuminating.
Working at The Loft created a bunch of interesting opportunities, including a brief modeling career, and, more memorably, a chance to work the lines at some of the hottest nightclubs in the city.
There was one other straight guy who worked at The Loft and we hit it off much to the disappointment of the other employees who were not so secretly hoping to turn us.
My straight brother got me a gig working for one of the city’s biggest party promoters. Back then if you wanted to get into a superclub like Danceteria, Limelight, Studio 54, Red Parrot, or any of the others, there were some pretty standard rules.
Firstly you had to be cool. Or at least look cool.
Secondly… actually that was pretty much the only rule.
But there were some standard protocols.
The first of these was getting past the door bitch. Armed with a sometimes bogus guest list, quick wit, discerning taste, and tons of ‘tude. If they didn’t like your look, it didn’t matter who you knew or how much cash you flashed.
Once you got past the door, you’d have to wait in the invite line, then the coat check line, then the payment line, and then finally you’d be in. And waiting in the bar line.
It could be really annoying to jump through all these hoops when you just wanted to get in, get a drink, and get dancing. But there was a method to the madness.
If you got past the door bitch and into the invite line, it meant you seemed or looked cool. That’s quality control.
At the invite line, you were asked if you had an invite. This was my job. People who had an invite were usually connected in some way to the promoter and got a discount. Head to the left. That’s looking after your best customers.
No invite? No discount. Head to the right.
Both lines led to a coat check where you had to tip someone to make sure your shit would still be there when you came back for it. It also meant that you were less likely to balk at the entry fee once you got to the front of the payment line.
In behavioral science, they call this “loss aversion.” By the time you get to the part where you pay to get in, you’ve already made a substantial investment of time, patience, and money. So almost nobody turned around, no matter how shocking the entry fee was.
Despite all the money club promoters made in those days, I was paid a little in cash and a lot in drink tickets. And I wasn’t even old enough to legally drink.
My shift was typically from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sometimes I would try and sell my drink tickets, and get home. Other times I’d stick around and get my groove on.
And one time I got blind drunk downing vodka shots with Rick James. We drank a lot, but not enough to qualify for a near-death experience.
It was the trip home that nearly killed me.
You wouldn’t know it to ride the NYC subway system today, but back in the day it was not a safe place at any time, let alone 3 am.
In fact, over 250 felonies were committed every week in the ’80s, making the New York Subway the most dangerous mass transit system in the world.
So there I was, a well-dressed white boy, passed out on the hard orange fiberglass seats of a Bronx-bound 6 train.
I didn’t know it but I had been drifting well out of my comfort zone and deep into the danger zone.
A slap to the face woke me up.
I opened my eyes to see a gang of menacing mofos staring down at me, one of them was pinching at my pockets.
“What’s up?” I asked. Trying to be cool as I wobbled up into a seated position.
“Boy,” the biggest and hardest-looking one said, “you done missed yo stop.”
I looked around. We were pulling into the 138th Street station. No one else on the train but us.
They looked at each other. One of them showed me a kitchen knife in his waistband. His mom was probably wondering where it went.
“Loan me a dollar?”
The train squealed to a stop. The sliding doors opened. They circled, blocking my exit.
It is here that I would like to introduce to you the concept of the “throw roll.”
A throw roll is a wad of small denomination dollar bills, folded or rolled to make it look like more money than it is. The idea is to stash most of your cash in a sock or shoe and keep the throw roll handy in your front pocket. If anyone tries to mug you, just hand over your throw roll or toss it on the ground as a distraction and make your escape.
The P.A. blared. “Next stop Brook Avenue.”
One of the gang waved a box cutter in my face.
“Yo I need a dollar too.”
The wheels screeched to a stop. The doors banged open. I slowly stood up, reached into my pocket, and pulled out my throw roll. Their eyes lit up.
The P.A. blared again. “Watch the closing doors please.”
This was the do-or-die moment.
I dropped the decoy to the floor. As they turned to watch my money roll between their legs and down the car, I made a break for it, the rubber seal of the sliding doors just catching my foot as they closed.
I yanked free and watched them wave their blades at me as the train pulled away.
I don’t know why they didn’t try harder to stop me. Maybe they weren’t as hard as they looked. Maybe they were just surprised. Or maybe they thought I was gonna run some Bernard Goetz-type shit on them.5Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” by the New York press, came to symbolize New Yorkers’ frustrations with the high crime rates of the 1980s after he shot and wounded 4 black men he claimed were trying to mug him. He was both praised and vilified in the media and public opinion.
But as I made the long sobering trip home down through Manhattan and back into Brooklyn, I kept thinking, that throw roll might have been the best $5 investment I ever made.
Back then, people died on trains.
And I was pretty sure I was almost one of them.
Life Pro Tips
- If you want to skip to the front of the line at a club, dress cool, be cool, and ask them what the odds are of you getting in early so you can dance. Clubs love people who come in and start dancing right away since it sets the vibe. Palming the door bitch a $20 never hurts either.
- If a celebrity wants to party with you, go for it, just remember their tolerance is definitely higher than yours.
- If someone is hitting on you and they have a hanky, ask them what the color means. It could save you both a lot of time.
- If you’re on a train and afraid you might fall asleep or pass out and miss your stop, set a timer on your phone to wake you up. Also, sometimes springing for a taxi is worth it.
- If you’re going to a place where you might be mugged, carry a small amount of easy-to-access cash that you’re willing to trade for your life. Note that some experts say to avoid eye contact, and hand it over instead of throwing it on the ground which could just make your mugger angry.
- 1There is no denying this was a dumb move. In my defense, it was summer camp and everybody was hooking up with everybody.
- 2This was not a government job. The County Seat was a mall chain similar to The Gap.
- 3I got voted “best dressed” in high school. True story.
- 4Turns out there is a secret gay man’s hanky code. It’s not so secret anymore, and I think AIDS put a curb on sales, but you can still learn a lot about a person by the color of their kerchief.
- 5Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” by the New York press, came to symbolize New Yorkers’ frustrations with the high crime rates of the 1980s after he shot and wounded 4 black men he claimed were trying to mug him. He was both praised and vilified in the media and public opinion.