In with the out crowd

The way people recall college years, I recall my East Village. While friends were seeking BFAs, I headed north at 19 with a bass, landing in Manhattan to couch surf on February 1, 1985.

A few months after I arrived, Maggie and Doug, the proprietors of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, a bar on Avenue A and East Seventh, hired me. As a bar-back, then bartender, then manager, I became part of a lovingly tangled skein of folks queer, non-queer, and everything within that spectrum. We hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, turned each other on, played in bands, and could not have cared less who was intimate with their own gender, or how they chose to identify, gender-wise. People uptight at our lack of concern were the butts of our jokes. We laughed our asses off at them.

From King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, I can now trace every major event of my life. I met and joined the band with whom I would see the world, flirted with my future wife, and found the intrepid, often queer souls whose example would forever embolden me.  I learned more essential, useful life lessons in this bar than I learned in any classroom.

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At the Wah-Wah Hut, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.” Bands, performances, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. It was all fine, I daresay normal. Of course I see now we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant attention.

As a pretty hetero-normative guy in a sea of queer, I sometimes felt out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them, to honor my “offbeat” impulses.

I’d come to New York reeling from personal drama. I see now my intent was to find a way to be alone and enjoy a supportive community.

Within the Wah-Wah Hut, I struck that balance. I paid my bills and tenement rent from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can. No credit card. Fiscally speaking, I was poor, but I felt so rich. I wandered Alphabet City freer than I knew, intoxicated mostly by dreams, frequently happily solo. Wheat-pasted posters, squats, graffiti. Elderly Ukranian shoemakers repeatedly re-soled my Beatle boots for $5. Occasionally, I bedded down with a lover. I was careful. I was never mugged.

With the Wah-Wah Hut crew, I broke in after hours, laughing, to the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, where campfires scented the dawn air, refugees unmolested by police.

Unbeknownst to me, I was in the last wave of artists who could enjoy low overhead, good food, a reasonable amount of space, and an abundance of art and adventure in New York City. Within a decade, Giuliani’s reign would help usher those days into the past.

It wasn’t all fun. AIDS ravaged my community. It chills me to recall. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. Some marched – ACT-UP comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into lifesaving action, an unforgettable lesson in the power of love.

Eventually, almost everyone moved on, as folks do, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still. Forever young, grittily beautiful, exasperating, lusty.

I marvel ever more at the love. Even though some at the Wah-Wah Hut – like me – longed for stardom, at the same time we were loath to leave this love we knew in obscurity. A love infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and crushes, spiced with disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior.

Deep down, I think we knew how special this collective love was, but we could not articulate it. Even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been uncool.

Cool or not, it sustains me still. I have since crossed paths with friends from King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut who wonder if it all actually happened. I’m glad to report it did. I have the scars on my heart to prove it.

 

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.