An anecdote: When I was in graduate school (not very long ago), we were reading ZZ Packer’s short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (excellent), when my professor—at least 10 years my junior—remarked that she was surprised I had not actually read this book yet. I flipped to the copyright page, saw that it was published in 2003, and explained: “Oh, this came out when I was in da club.” Which was true.
Though I rarely venture out of the house past dark anymore, I spent much of my teens and 20s in da club. And by da club, I don’t mean a bar or a lounge or a music venue (I spent a lot of time in those places too), but a place with deep bass that you feel in your chest, where you dance till your legs hurt and commune with strangers because the DJ just played “that song.” And, while I was not of age for New York nightlife at its absolute best (the ’80s), I was definitely out on the streets to see the peak—when the Club Kids and the doormen ruled the day—as well as the decline, when we were forced to cede all that was interesting to all that was expensive, in the form of bottle service and tables presided over by investment bankers.
For the unfamiliar, a very brief history of contemporary New York nightlife: In the beginning, there was danger and despair and opportunity. The fiscal crisis of the 1970s left a lot of empty, undesirable real estate available at reasonable costs, and the creative got creative. Yes, there was Studio 54—which was all glitz, and celebrity, and production. But there were also the grittier, but no less exclusive, spaces—the Loft, Paradise Garage, Danceteria—places that were less about an expensive cover or celebrities, and more about gathering the most interesting assortment of people you could come up with and creating ambience and community. Yes, they were exclusive, but that exclusivity was based on who you knew, not how much money you made or what you did for a living. Eventually, AIDS put a major damper on this more freewheeling, heterogenous scene, leaving us only with iconic images of a New York where Basquiat’s world collided on a dance floor with Madonna’s while uptown socialites sipped drinks and Fab Five Freddy sprayed graffiti on a wall.