I moved to New York City in the fall of 1980 and quickly landed a job at a top corporate design agency, making $15,000 a year. It wasn’t much to live on, but, fortunately, my rent was only $250 a month for an Upper Eastside tenement—a 3-room railroad flat, complete with bathtub in the kitchen.
My typical workday would start with a walk through Central Park down to St. Bartholomew’s Church for a morning swim. The place had (and still has) an amazing Olympic-sized pool in its basement. Membership at the time was free to young newbies to the city, like me.
Then, I would be off to work at my company’s offices at 57th and Park. After work, I would have “dinner” at any of the many happy hour buffets in midtown Manhattan. This was before gyms became the after-work norm, so the bars were always packed with people. Many offered amazing free buffets with sides of beef, turkey, ham and other foods. This really helped budget-wise, given the meager salary I earned.
After eating my fill, I would head to Bogart’s, my favorite of the many gay bars in midtown, which was always crammed with grey-suited daddies. In the corner, there was a piano whose jaunty sounds of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” mixed with the sappy (but everyone always sang along anyway) “Memory” from the musical Cats, which had just opened in London. There was always a healthy crop of good looking men and, after a few drinks and some socializing, I was usually able to snag one and head to his apartment for a quick roll in the hay, before making my way home for a pint of ice cream and 11pm Star Trek reruns.
On weekends, I would patronize the numerous gay bars and night clubs that proliferated across the city—Uncle Charlies Downtown, Uncle Charlies North, Uncle Charlies Downtown, The Works (packed most nights of the week with shoulder-to-shoulder shirtless men), Cahoots (my first gay bar), Private Eyes, and night clubs like Danceteria, Area (which changed its decor every three months) and, of course, Studio 54. But, the mother of all nightclubs was the all-gay totally-hedonistic Saint.
I had heard stories about the fabulousness of the Saint, but I had been too intimidated to go there by myself. Also, I was committed to becoming a top high-paid corporate designer and feared that, once I discovered the debauchery of the Saint, I might fall into the depravities of “gay culture” and never re-emerge.
I had heard stories about the place from my co-worker, Michael Caradonna. The all-night dancing and the activities that went on in the dark upstairs lounge area surrounding the dance floor were legendary.
Michael and his boyfriend, Dennis, would often go to the Saint on Friday night and not reemerge until Sunday afternoon. On Monday mornings, Michael would then tuck himself into his cubicle, with his face to his drawing board, and barely mutter a word. By Tuesday, he’d begin to emerge, slightly grumpy and seemingly resentful that he even had to be at work. By Wednesday, he would be functioning normally once again. On Thursday, he would eagerly start telling me about his plans for the weekend, which, of course, included returning to the Saint. By Friday, he was positively giddy about his weekend plans.
I, on the other hand, was still learning the city and exploring the culturally enriching activities Manhattan offered—museums, galleries, and opera. Yet, secretly I hoped Michael would invite me to go with him to the Saint one night.
Finally, the invitation came. Michael and some of his friends were going there on a Sunday night and I was welcome to join them. That sounded good, as it would be less intense than on a Friday night—baby steps for me.
After drinks, a few lines of coke and a joint, we made our way to the Saint, located in the East Village in the old Filmore East building (a former 1960s rock concert hall). The insides had been gutted and a large planetarium had been installed, complete with a gigantic mirror ball, reflecting up onto a domed ceiling. The dance floor was built in such a way that you walked in under the scaffolding that supported it. Amid the scaffolding, several bars were located with big bowls of bright red apples and oranges (it all seemed so healthly!) as well as lockers in which you could put your stuff or change into your outfit for the evening.
We walked upstairs and onto the dance floor. A fog machine had flooded the floor in mist. Amid spinning lights, which cut through the mist and reflected off the ceiling in a galaxy of stars, hundreds of hot, muscly shirtless men, dressed only in tight jeans and gym shorts, were dancing a slow dance arm-in-arm. I was bowled over. Instead of the disco music I had expected to be blasting from the speakers, “Liebstot” (one of the most sexually imbued opera songs ever composed from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) wafted across the silhouetted intermingling bodies. I had entered a gay Valhalla.
I stared in wonder, wishing to be wrapped up in some burly man’s naked arms. After the music picked up, we danced. Then, Michael took me on a tour of the upper lounge area, a series of wide tiers circling the dance floor. The area was covered in industrial carpet, which you could sit or lay on, looking down through the screened dome at the dancers. It was dark and I could barely make out the grunts and groans of God-only-knows-what going on. Hands grabbed at me, trying to pull me into an inferno of debauchery, but St. Michael safely shepherded me back down to the dance floor where I danced until midnight, before stumbling home alone.
The next day, I, too, remained hidden in my cubicle with my head down, reluctant to look up at the world, which now seemed so much more drab, less colorful than the dance floor at the Saint.