Thursday, November 5, 2009
Originally published in NY Press, 1995
Photographs by Walt Cessna
Being no stranger to the after hours club scene back in the coked out early eighties, you can imagine how intrigued I was when a friend of mine clued me into the latest wrinkle in illegal late night pleasures; after hours gambling. My friend, a "dancer" who goes by the name of Charmin, agreed to take me out to one such spot since getting in on your own can be extremely difficult. Not only are these clubs a members only affair, all the members guests have to be approved at the door (sometimes in advance).
We met for a few drinks at the Pyramid on a Sunday night where Charmin prances her fucking heart out on the stage for a measly forty bucks and I knock back a few tequila's waiting. Around three A.M. we head over to Art Bar on the west side and hook up with one of Charmin's many ex-boyfriends, Shag, whom I discover during the course of conversation is a blackjack dealer at the club we're going to next. Shag is twenty-eight but looks forty and is given to wearing badly cut, unmatched warm-up suits with a tight v-neck tee perched underneath. He has a badly trimmed, too thin mustache and wrings his hands so much you'd think water was gonna pour out of them.
Art Bar is dead (it is four A.M. on Monday morning after-all), so we smoke a quick joint and have another drink before we walk over to Sixteenth Street, somewhere smack in the middle of the block between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Charmin pushes a lit, pink neon buzzer that says fourth floor.
"Who is it?" a curt voice croaks.
"It's Charmin. I'm with Shag, and we've got one guest."
"C'mon up sweetie."
We walk into a dimly lit, upscale but tacky lobby and proceed down a curved hall until we get into a spacious, completely mirrored elevator that takes us up to the "club". Upon entering I am consumed by a vision of late seventies/early eighties opulence run amok (a good description of the club's patrons I'll later discover). Remember the episode of Taxi where Latka rents a dee-luxe penthouse pad and all of his co-workers move in with him? This place has all the same trappings; curved, plush white furniture with chrome accents, plastic egg chairs, glass coffee tables with well thumbed copies of Architectural Digest, TV Guide and Blacktress strewn about them and silver potted gold fern trees spilling over a multitude of strangely chosen paintings and posters depicting everything from a very bad Patrick Nagel party scene to a velvet glo-in-the-dark poster of a bare chested soul momma with an afro that practically brushes the ceiling.
Nobody's here yet, and were suddenly greeted with suspicious stares from what must be the joints owners. One is a tall, skinny white dude with greasy black hair that looks like he combs it with Crisco. He has very bad, oily acne that spreads across his forehead like a streak of rotting margarine. He's dressed in a pair of Dockers with an oversized football jersey that says Washington across the front. The other guy is shorter, black, wearing a stiff white shirt, buttoned almost all the way to the neck and slim black trousers that barely conceal the bulge of his massive thigh muscles. While the other guy is almost stoned, this one seems pent up, ready to explode.
They walk over towards us from one of the three pool tables in the middle of the room and both immediately go to squeeze Charmin.
"Hey! Don't fucking squeeze the Charmin!" she wails as the two guys are forced into retreat by her manic caterwauling.
"Listen up Charmin," says the white dude. " That homey boyfriend of yours, that I didn't want to let into the club in the first place, still owes me five hundred bucks. You wouldn't by chance know where he might be?"
"Of course not! He fucked me over to. I got a case of crabs I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy! Not even you."
I'm getting uncomfortable, and have a feeling that neither of these guys is interested in making my acquaintance. They probably think I'm just another one of Charmin's fucked up friends, which is fine with me. Charmin must sense my nervousness because she grabs my hand and leads us over to the bar. As we sit down a beautiful Japanese girl with butt length, badly permed hair appears as if out of nowhere and takes our order.
As our drinks arrive, Shag comes over, climbs on top of the bar and grabs the Japanese girl in a bear hug while his legs dangle precariously by our drinks and at times, faces. Charmin bats his leg away and Shag falls off the bar and at the feet of the bartendress who gives him a good, swift kick in the ass. He climbs back over, gives Charmin a big, wet kiss, and casually strolls over to a table in the far right corner of the room from which he proceeds to set up his blackjack game. I pay attention to my drink for a minute and then sit back and get comfortable as I suck the whole scene in.
This place sure ain't no Vegas. There are no slot machines or roulette tables. No tacky tourists in bad floral prints. No entertainment. No cover charge. Not even a fuckin' attendant in the john. Instead, the place seems scaled down, almost like a clubhouse, full of assorted weird and scary characters
In the center of the room are three pool tables, each with a suspended light that resembles an alien spacecraft hanging overhead. The black guy from before was now playing a game with himself at the middle one, and doing rather well I might add. To the far right was Shag's blackjack table and to the left was what looked to be a round poker table at which the greasy white dude was sitting and placing multi-colored chips into a chip holder. Several, small round mirrored tables with pink fuzzy covered seats were oddly placed all over the room. A curved white wall with a mirror shaped like a tidal wave sits at the end of the bar, hiding a room I would have to check out later.
I slug back the last drop of my Tequila and turn to Charmin who has been steadfastly reapplying her all-ready immaculate make-up for the past ten minutes. The rouge only camouflages the truth however, for Charmin is a great example of how to age yourself in a hurry. I remember meeting her at The World when she was eighteen. She was breathtaking. Almost translucent. Now at twenty-five she still looked pretty. From a distance. Up close she resembles an almost childlike forty-year-old, desperate to conceal her coke wrinkles, alcohol lines and every fucked up blemish on her face that would require a sandblaster to do away with.
Her body was amazingly still amazing, tonight decked out in a brilliant turquoise spandex dress that barely covers her pantyless crotch. Her bright, naturally red hair is a mass of dwindling curls competing with her overdone make-up to see which will get noticed first. She watches me staring at her and smiles, then orders us another round of drinks which she pays for with a twenty pulled from one of her overstuffed bra cups. She leaves a ten-dollar tip and leads me to the first pool table where she proceeds to whip my ass for the next forty-five minutes.
As we shoot the shit and a game of pool, the place gradually fills up and each of the tables starts to become full. As I look a bit closer I notice that almost all of the players pull out large wads of cash at the beginning and end of each hand or game. It's so out in the open, it doesn't appear that this could actually be illegal. Then I notice a few Guido’s from Brooklyn playing pool with the black owner. They obviously just lost big as I notice a grand payout of ten one hundred-dollar bills begrudgingly changing hands. Those who aren't gambling are sprinkled throughout the room at the small, round mirrored tables from which I notice more than a few people bending down and snorting up lines of blow (it could be K. but I doubt it. How can you gamble when you're in a K. hole?).
"Isn't it going to look weird if I'm not gambling?" I ask Charmin.
"I never gamble! I just pick up guys. It would look weirder if I left here alone!"
Charmin breaks out laughing, then notices a short, pale white guy with jet black eyes and fuzzy, shoulder length black hair bounce into the room. He has an entourage of assorted loser types with him, the most noticeable being a once slightly big fashion model who got lost in the super diva mix and blew her career on cocaine. She's holding his hand and practically dragging herself on the floor to stop him from arriving at his destination, right in front of Charmin.
"What the fuck do you want Trent?" Charmin asks impatiently.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I've got a little present for you."
"It better not be her!"
The model casually lets go of Trent as he motions her and the rest of his anxious looking crew towards the bar. Then he looks at me and, trying to be cool, I comment on his obviously brand new Comme des Garcons glitter striped suit.
"It's cool. Yeah. Who are you?" Trent asks as he looks right through me.
Suddenly, another redheaded woman who eerily resembles Marilu Henner catches my glance. I excuse myself as Trent and Charmin go off to the toilet together and go looking for "Marilu", canceled morning talk show goddess and "best friend of Burt". Upon closer inspection I realize that I must need glasses, for this lizard skinned woman is no more than a scary, dehydrated imitation. She walks over to the curved wall at the end of the bar and disappears behind it. I follow her and find myself in a small room with two pinball machines and a crap table at which two black beauties are slinging the dice as another Oriental chick, this one with a shaved head and a pierced chin, scoops them up after each toss.
"Marilu" is wearing a straw fedora with a bright pink band and has on a tight yellow tube top over her raisin like breasts. Her acid wash jeans are belted with a mans tie and stick away from her shrunken gut like a clenched paper bag. Her stick-like figure is punctuated by several, thick gold bangles that snake up each arm past the elbows, and huge gold hoop earrings that a large Parrot could perch on if it were so inclined. She motions me over and pulls a vial of coke out of her Prada bag. She lays out five, neat lines on the edge of the pinball machine next to her and we each suck up two with a rolled fifty that smells like bad perfume and has something sticky at the tip that I keep getting stuck to my nostril like a fly in shit.
I stare at her for an adrenaline charged second, transfixed by her long, cracked fingernails stroking up the last line and darting up to her red painted mouth from which a tongue, that I swear is split at both ends, slithers out and sucks away each tiny morsel it comes across on her finger tips. She grabs my surprised hand and we walk back into the room where we sit down at Shags blackjack table next to a young looking Spanish couple who keep touching each other as if they might never see one another again.
She opens up her bag and pulls out a wad of fifties at least an inch thick, wrapped in a single, threadbare rubberband. She looks over at me and smiles, revealing a mouthful of perfect, sparkling white teeth, most likely capped. "Marilu" counts out four fifty-dollar bills and throws them on the table. This is a modest bet by today's standards, when it isn't uncommon for a big time casino to allow a player to place bets in excess of $10,000 or more.
Shag eyes the lady suspiciously for the briefest second, then gingerly, deals out the cards. I notice that he's playing with four decks, just in case anyone was smart enough to keep track of the face cards that had fallen. Obviously, no one has come up with a hand of twenty-one, so the game proceeds to the next phase.
"Hit me," Marilu demands after inspecting her hand. The Spanish guy next to us asks the same and each are dealt additional cards. They are both looking down at their new hands and the Spanish guy is obviously annoyed because he looks at his girlfriend then throws down his cards in disgust. Shag looks at "Marilu", who just smiles and drops down a king, queen and an ace as she simultaneously declares 21. Shag collects the cards and doubles her money, leaving her with $400. At the same moment I notice Charmin fall out of the john with Trent in tow, and they make their way behind the mirrored tidal wave wall to do only God knows what.
I excuse myself, much to "Marilu's" dismay, and leave the blackjack table to find Charmin. It's almost eight A.M. and to tell you the truth, I've just about had my fill. The taste of cocaine dripping down my nostrils fills me with a mixed dread. One side of me want's to go for broke and get as out of it as humanly possible. The other is surveying the situation around me and not getting thrilled by the evening's onslaught of illicit propositions.
I turn the corner of the curved wall and come face to face with the sight of Charmin propped up on the pinball machine while Trent fingers her vagina with one hand as the other is cutting up a few lines. Charmin opens her eyes just as I walk into the room and motions me with a flick of her well-mascaraed lashes to wait for her outside by the bar.
I get a beer from the bar and go sit down at on one of the fuzzy pink seats where I take a long sip off my bottle. My stare fixates on two blonde girls playing pool with a large Russian looking guy in a very well tailored black suit and the shiniest shoes I've ever seen. The girls flock to him between shots and smile intensely as he lights their cigarettes and palms them hundred dollar bills for one drink. It’s now ten A.M. and the place is still hopping, a feverish mix of people from every walk of life imaginable saying fuck you to the nine to five world happening just downstairs as they drink, snort and gamble the morning away with wild abandon.
Charmin ain't showing her face, so I get up and leave the club, sailing down on the elevator in a drunken haze of incapacitated fascination. The bustle of the people on the sidewalk is annoying, but the glaring sun beating down on me even more so. I avoid eye contact with everyone on the street as I look for signs of a cab. I turn back and look at the entrance to the building I just exited and notice a swarm of blue uniformed policeman buzzing into it. After a few minutes, the occupants of the club upstairs come sauntering out, many of them lighting cigarettes and squinting from the morning suns blaze. Charmin and Trent stumble out, a smear of cocaine dripping from her nose, his fly still open from whatever they had been entangled in upstairs.
Charmin spots me and waves over in my direction. I'm still walking down the block, amazed and alarmed that the cops haven't arrested anyone. It appears that all they did was shut the place down. I ignore her and pick up my pace until I'm on the corner signaling a cab. I turn and watch Charmin and Trent flop into the backseat of a Lincoln town car and smile as they drive past me. From the back window Charmin flips me the bird as a cab finally pulls up and helps me make my exit.
Taking a final glance behind me as the cab begins to pull away from the curb I see a lot of the people are still lining the pavement, smoking, talking, laughing, bullshitting. Shag is sitting on the curb with "Marilu", the lizard lady, who is sticking her long tongue in and out of his ear as he gropes her emaciated body with stained, sweaty fingers. The owners are arguing with a cop who seems to be not pissed enough if you ask me and the two blondes are now talking to the two black beauties while all four ignore the leering advances of the Russian guy in the black suit. I close my eyes and wake up just as the cab pulls up to the Port Authority, jarring me back into the reality of those who go to bed after Late Night and thought sex, drugs and rock-n-roll were for kids.