Ghosts of Bygone NYC: Dan Ruth Recalls “A Life Behind Bars”

Dan Ruth, who wrote and stars in A Life Behind Bars. Photo: Kyle Rucker

My building shakes. It never used to shake before but ever since the Williamsburg Edge condos dug their roots into the bedrock on the East River, it shakes and there are lines forming on my walls and on my face. I need to get out in the open and it looks like good weather, so I head into the city to promote my solo show, which basically amounts to dropping off cards in bars and cafes in the Village and in my Brooklyn neighborhood. The L train is crowded but I maneuver my way in between the people and quickly drop cards on the seats as I pass. The train arrives at First Avenue and the doors open. As the train begins to crowd with people, I try and slide a card in between the long, protected train advertisements, looking for the ones without the hard-plastic edges. Sometimes I manage to shove a card in; other times, I just leave one hanging on the edge near the door where people might see it on exiting the train. I’m 51, I’ve been bartending in NYC for decades, living in the same Brooklyn apartment for just as many years, and I’m suddenly performing solo again for the first time since 1998. I still hand out cards in person.

I come up for air at the First Avenue stop and start down 14th street, passing a newish eyesore: Domino’s Pizza, where a pie with five toppings and a white plastic ouija planchette will cost you $9.95 if you pay with cash. Do I drop off some cards? I know I’m trying to get butts in the seats, but do I really want supporters of Domino’s Pizza? I suppose the bigger question would be: Do people who eat Domino’s support solo theater? They should. I drop some cards and make the turn onto Avenue A. As always, I glance quickly across the avenue to where Joe Truck’s Alphabet City tattoo parlor once stood. I peek into Obscura, drop off some cards and then grab a coffee as more ghosts begin to appear: flashes of Wigstock before it moved to the piers; and flashes of the Bijou and the backroom at Crow Bar, a spectacular and filthy haunt off Tompkins Square Park, where I occasionally appeared on The Hedda Lettuce Show, which was videotaped live every Tuesday night for Manhattan Cable Access. “Let’s go down.”

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Ghosts. I was tending bar at a restaurant/dance club called Metronome at 21st Street and Broadway that was too cavernous for its own good. When it operated as a restaurant, it always looked empty. The club only truly nailed it on the rare Friday or Saturday night when it managed to lure in the right promoter. Metronome was trying desperately to match the style and energy created by Limelight, Club USA and The Palladium, but it never came close. In the Clinton era however, the cash flowed and people were out to spend it — and to out-spend each other in the process. If you failed to gain entrance into one club, you’d simply try the next, and eventually a crowd would gather at Metronome. The most money I ever made there in a single shift was for a dance party called “Culture Shock.” The night was aimed specifically at a young, straight, bridge-and-tunnel crowd, but the promoter smartly evoked the fantastical spectacle of the times: fire eaters, strippers, drag acts, madcap characters draped in mesh and illusion lingerie, dancing and writhing in cages. And then…me, bartending in the VIP mezzanine by myself, accompanied only by a Spencer Gifts-quality, plastic, whore-red Bettie Page accent lamp. I’m in full drag, ready for the crowd, with a Dollar Store daisy in my chestnut brown, teased helmet wig, and a walkie-talkie strapped to my black leather skirt. Momma needed to make some cash.

The cozy mezzanine seemed more suited to bottles of Veuve Clicquot, shots of frozen vodka and private lines of cocaine than for the mad-dancing throngs below, but I didn’t give a shit: I was well lubricated with all the above and ready to get these bitches tanked. Like any club-bar shift, you only had four hours to make serious bank and I had no time for assholes. “Know what you want to drink and have your money ready,” I would snap. If not, I’d move onto the next bitch. Once, I’m gruffly interrupted by a voice appearing from somewhere toward my right: “Get me my beer, you faggot.” I looked up and see a sad bag of sand, barely able to stand. He wobbled there for a second and then took the Bettie Page lamp and smashed it into the bar. With pieces of plastic Bettie still up in mid-air, I grabbed the walkie-talkie, snapped it off my skirt and pressed the red button. “Security? Fat fuck in the black tee shirt, get him out of here.” I had already moved on to the next order and the next cash tip as I spied the homophobe in the distance, being carted down the staircase by security, drooling his apologies. The wig gives you the power; the walkie-talkie, the excuse. I’d start at the far end of my little mezzanine bar, work my way through and then start at the far end again, cranking out cocktails to a counter full of thirsty faces, alone in my zone, surrounded by broken Bettie Page, drowning in sweat, sound and soaking wet money. I never split tips when I worked alone.

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Dodging a puddle on East 9th Street, I drop cards in Doc Holiday’s, continue toward Niagara, then go west. My mind wanders to nights at Club 82, Save the Robots, The Bar, Wonder Bar, Dicks Bar. They’re all gone of course, save a few rare mainstays like The Pyramid Club or The (hetero-owned) Boiler Room. I enter The Boiler Room to see if there’s an area to leave cards. I’m surrounded by small herds of students in Izods and matching pastel canvas sneakers, drinking Bud Light cans and taking non-stop, hyper-giddy selfies on the green-felt pool table in the shadow of a spit-shined plastic Budweiser light guard. What the fuck happened here? Once a dark, loud, indie, gay-boy heaven bursting with sweat, cocaine and the occasional waft of poppers and CK One, The Boiler Room seems to have diminished into a flaccid, light-wood-suffocated NYU hiccup. I find no unalloyed joy witnessing the clean-living cornucopia for all the new people — this cyber-rich generation of privilege, claiming to be new in an NYCoff- they seem hell-bent on tearing down. All the while admitting little knowledge of the vast, magical landscape that came before them. It’s nothing new. I’ll take the dirt and danger any day.

I approached the doorman out front, because I really wanted to know, so I ask him: “So, what happened to the fun? Just curious, where did all the sleaze go?” The gruff, bearded guy in his thirties looks up from his cell phone, quickly “otherizes” me and returns to his posting, snapping a selfie while flipping me the bird. Nice to see he can do two things at once. I do not give him a card. I head back east, stopping by small cafes and vintage bookstores. I grab a quick club soda at Sidewalk, placing cards throughout their very accessible and unattended basement space and restrooms. I pay my check and head down the street to Eastern Bloc, a throwback to the ‘90s where it’s usually so red and so dark that it feels like the entire establishment is a back room. Eastern Bloc always has gay porn playing on both of their discretely-sized TVs. It attracts a crowd that would have flocked to The Boiler Room back in the heyday but, again, there’s that constant barrage of cellphone flashes and selfies. Cellphones would have never worked in the NYC landscape of the 1990s or any other generation before it — especially if you went out to be seen. If you went somewhere to be seen, it was to be seen by those who were there to be seen and no one else. The fine art of the photo op has disappeared, vanished into the ether.

Ghosts. It’s Labor Day weekend and my friend Roger just called and left a message on my answering machine. My answering machine. He invites me to join his circle of friends for an event in Tompkins Square Park called Wigstock. I gratefully jump at the chance but, having no prep-time, I barely manage to muss together a quick costume. Roger and his friends create a satirical drag family known, simply, as The House of Pancakes. They all had names to echo the theme: Pat O’Butter, Eggo Waffle, Blueberry Pancake, Tutti Fruiti Fresh & Fruiti, Praline. I was the newbie so they call me Waitron. The House of Pancakes would meet at a disclosed apartment location for cocktails and other party favors and to witness the unveiling, since what one wore to Wigstock was a highly guarded secret. The joy, the fun of seeing each other’s costume creations for the first time made the magic. Superbly original, their costumes were a nearly edible array of eco-unfriendly, glued, duct-taped and spray-painted creative confections. For Wigstock, the hot-melt glue gun was a queen’s best friend, and so, after some last-minute repairs, we throw back our cocktails and off we go. I was living in New York Fucking City, tagging along with The House of Pancakes to Wigstock and it was delicious. With an air of complete ownership, we sauntered through the East Village en masse to Tompkins Square, stopping only to pose for people with cameras who looked like press, for people of importance, and for those dressed with as much…vibrato.

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The main element that made Wigstock such a monumental event, not only for the queer community but for anyone with a penchant for the bizarre and fabulous, was the element of surprise. Surprise no longer seems to exist.

When looking at images of NYC captured before 2000, you notice the veneer. Living in the moment meant being present, being in the soup. Being original required knowledge of yourself in the moment; how you fit enough within the complex, iconic past that surrounded you to avoid unnecessary repetition. There was originality and ownership everywhere. NYC was as wild as the souls inhabiting it. Nights at Don Hill’s Squeezebox; dancing with Lady Miss Kier. My co-workers at the bar I tended up in Hell’s Kitchen would steal liters of Colt 45 from the staff refrigerator in the back, and so dancing to The Circle Jerks “Wild in the Streets” with my newly minted beer bottle one Friday night, I dropped it in front of the stage and collapsed onto the shattered glass, a drunk, blood-smeared, catastrophic mess. My co-workers looked on in horror, picking shards of glass out of my knees as I sat, pounding back vodka, grinning from ear-to ear, enjoying a moment that made me feel alive. That’s how I garnered the forever nickname “Bloody Kneecaps.” No harm done. The city was also subtle when it wanted to be, and for me, the quieter, more sophisticated downtown magic lived at Fez. Witnessing the likes of Raven O and Joey Arias, who could mesmerize a captive crowd in the smoky darkness with nothing but a stand-up bass and a pin spot. I have a picture of Raven O in her pale copper negligee and glistening shaved head. I have pictures of Joey channeling Billie Holiday. I have pictures in my head.

I’m almost out of cards so I pass what’s left of St. Mark’s Place, back onto First Avenue, heading home to my delightful, shaking Brooklyn apartment. Walking toward me is a large young man wearing sunglasses, ankle boots and short shorts. He’s covered by an oversized tank top that looked more like a skirt, like something you might throw over yourself poolside. As he approaches, I notice he’s pinching the bottom of the tee, pulling it downward as if to cover the tops of his rather developed, shaved legs. He passes by in slow motion, it seems: his head is up but his eyes pierce the bright sidewalk as he holds down the tee, like the mainsail on a ship. As he passes, I look back to see him still holding down the tee, as if apologizing. I stopped to look around at the other people on the sidewalk. No one was following him, no one taunting him or bullying him; this was not an East Village take on Ruth Orkin’s “An American Girl in Italy,” although it shared the same air. “You walk down that street, honey, take your space! You pay rent here, you take your space!” I’d rather fall on broken glass than be rewired by apps, ads, disposable images, fake news and misinformed people. Somewhere there’s a person planning something incredible, something new, and it’s going to be real, a game changer for us all and it’s going to bring us closer together as a city, country and civilization. Keep the faith — it could be a long wait. But then, it could be you. And take a card? Come and see my work.

Dan Ruth’s A Life Behind Bars has two more performances — Tues., May 9 and Wed., May 17 — scheduled at the Laurie Beechman Theatre (407 W. 42nd St.) in NYC. For tickets, click here.