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Chasing My First Line — From personal, to artistic, to civil disobedience

A couple of years ago I was offered the chance to salvage the original Beatrice Inn furniture, the nautical-looking sofas that Paul Sevigny used in his infamous Manhattan club between ’06 and ’09. When I mentioned this to Anthony Haden-Guest, a man who defies categorization, he asked me, “Have you seen Visconti’s film The Damned?” Anthony—a British philosopher, art critic, cartoonist, and author of The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night—brought a smile to my lips. I was a Beatrice regular and, sure, I had worked hard to put some of the habits I picked up there behind me, but The Damned? Visconti’s decadent take on Hitler’s SS? Wasn’t the old chap stretching it a bit? Plus, by saving those sofas, I was preserving nightlife history, a piece of the bunker that depicted New York’s downfall during the last decade.

“What if they end up in MoMA someday?” I asked Anthony, with a nervous laugh.

“You may be surprised,” Anthony replied, leaning conspiratorially over our apple cider. “I was offered pieces of furniture from Studio 54 and I didn’t keep them. If I only knew then what I know now,” he muttered before cracking up. Anthony went on about the edgier side of America. He talked about the ’70s porn industry and how it affected American culture, and about the impact Deep Throat had. “How gay clubs became sex clubs, became dance clubs, and so on, until everything became…” He waved his hand uncomfortably. “Sounds like Beatrice continued where we left off. The fact that people smoked in the Beatrice is by itself a time capsule,” he explained.

I smoked at the Beatrice. I recall the first time I walked down its steps, in 2006, and how I immediately sensed a thrill that something spooky was about to happen. Beyond the cigarettes, the drugs, Joy Division playing in the background, the hookups and alcohol excess, there was an air of make- believe in that low-ceilinged basement. Lighting up, I felt like a Greek stud in a Marlboro commercial. Freaks, geeks, and even Upper East Side jerks were free to fabricate their own foolish images. Twenty-year-olds danced their asses off to Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols—I mean, who does that today? And where? That first night, my friends and I were hooked. The Bea became our living room, and any downtown elite, whoever that was at the time, would just have to come lounge with us. Passing Angelo, at the door—“There’s a private party tonight”—you felt confident enough to dance with, hit on, or pick up anyone. Royal sidekicks slouched with hustlers, bankers with hipsters, athletes with dealers. Within a season we were the new elite.

Somehow Anthony’s comparison started to make sense. Under Nazi-ish petit-bourgeois photos on Bea’s walls—Hitler’s personal art collection was full of postcard-like paintings—we, like the poorly-educated SS in The Damned, believed “morals are dead. We are in the elite society where everything is permissible.” We sniffed for simplistic escapes and partied like it was 1979. By 2007 I lived at the Bea, and interestingly enough, had convinced myself that people liked me for who I was and that swapping sex for drugs was just a byproduct of the new me. Tennis players and screenwriters were welcome to after-party in my apartment around the corner. How convenient was that?

By 2008 we were so busy making deals with the devil that when “Lehman Races Clock” hit the headlines, those of us with white-collar jobs skipped dinner for more booze. A new kind of acting-out took over: “Fuck 48 Wall,” I said when Citi traded for less than a buck. “The ship’s going down anyway. Cut another line.” The Bea became our version of Hitler’s bunker in its last days. Suddenly excess, status, and even debauched sexuality were issues for the recession-scarred West Village brownstoners. Police raids became routine, and the Bea closed for good, ending a run that took it from euphoric pride to shame, like the Third Reich itself.

My hangover was brutal. Soon after Beatrice closed, my firm laid off people and—surprise—I was one of them. Friends started moving out of New York as if it were 9/11 all over again. The Fed, Bush, Goldman, Bloomberg, Murdoch—pick whichever conspiracy theory you favor—turned having fun with the excess they enabled into sin. You learned to be silent about the recent past. Running into an ex-Bea-regular you lacked only a secret handshake. “Were you giggling with the Olsen twins?” a film producer asked, laughing in my face. “I never went there, and feel a little antipathy to that scene,” an editor e-mailed me after I pitched a short piece about the bunker. “Chasing cocaine-fueled bliss behind velvet ropes breeds decay and separation,” explained a Middle Eastern Studies PhD candidate to me mid-recession. “It’s high school hell all over again.”

Did cocaine soothe my personal descent? You bet. But it was part of my rebirth too. Once sober, I was done with my white-collar past. All I wanted to do was to write about New York’s separation pathology, and why I was so intrigued by it. To get perspective and try to understand myself, I traveled to Greece, where I grew up. And it was there that I saw what genuine social separation really meant. Union members, immigrants, tax-evaders, priests, and Nazi-sympathizers—real Nazi-sympathizers—beat each other up outside factories and theaters. This was a different hell, one that made me forget the Beatrice or, better, made me see my homeland as a giant Beatrice, made me want to grow up and try to understand how come 19th-century tribal lines were still drawn by third-generation politicians.

So I turned to artists. Betting on their clinical process, I determined to comprehend Greek pain. Primal Matter, the latest work of choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, and recently staged in New York, showed a consummate but crumbling ruler—performed by Papaioannou himself dressed in a black suit—grappling, objectifying, abusing, and getting abused by his absolute counterpart: a frighteningly perfect, stark-naked human Kouros played by Tadeu Liesenfeld. In EMPAC’s asphyxiating studio, the body friction between these performers jetted toward us, the audience, before rebounding back to them with an energy so palpable that I sweated the actors’ pain, petrified in my seat. Primal Matter is not an explicit reflection of today’s Greek struggle, but of course it’s all there. Dressed as a conspicuously affluent Greek, Papaioannou looked as though he were coming back from a night at bouzoukia, resembling the ghost of Athens’s 2004 Olympic Games. He found himself confronted with both the ancient Greek spirit and the perfectly ripped Northern African immigrant. Liesenfeld transformed Papaioannou from a mere custodian into a codependent Nazi-like abuser. But Primal Matter mirrors other global touchstones as well. At various points during the show, I read Papaioannou, under a table, as a lifeless Damien Hirst formaldehyde-suspended lamb; as a handicapped Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, lying in bed and reaching out to touch Primal Matter’s representation of the monolith, a wooden door; and as a contorted Dalí figure, fisting Liesenfeld’s armpits and crotch.

The staging was a wonder, and after an effective blackout finale, it brought home the realization that intelligence is a fatal disease. The suited man kills both the animal and the human spirit. And I wasn’t ready to give up on Greece or mankind—yet. A few days after the performance, I met Papaioannou for dinner at the newly reopened Beatrice Inn, now an upscale restaurant co-owned by the editor of Vanity Fair. “So this is where it all happened,” said Papaioannou, referring to my old Bea days.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, and elsewhere.” I laughed and got us drinks. “First things first, I’m crazy in love with Primal Matter,” I said, quickly changing the subject like a coke-dry drunk.

“Did you really like it?” Papaioannou asked, his eye wrinkles betraying skepticism. We rarely know where we stand. We switch from being highly predatory to being brotherly. “I’m so thirsty for validation from thinking people,” Papaioannou added, paying me back for my excitement over his work.

“For a fifty-year-old—”

“Forty-eight!” Papaioannou corrected me.

“What you guys did was a freak show. Technically, balancing two bodies by a single calf is paranormal. I was suffering watching you. We all were. We were seated practically next to you.”

“You felt that?” he asked. I had grabbed his attention. “Because what you experienced hit right back to me. It was like there was no ventilation. In Greece we had high ceilings; there was a release. It’s as if EMPAC closed a circle. It was too much.”

Once we were seated, I tried to engage him in a discussion about the symbolism of his work, and about abuse and disobedience in Greece. “Theorize as much as you like,” Papaioannou said, busy reading his menu. “Will you order for me?” He asked, looking up. “Do you do that?” His face revealed a faint suggestion.

I leaned in an inch closer. Sometimes I hate artists. It’s as though they’re not even trying. Papaioannou’s work is not that different from his life, his restless performance similar to his no-strings-attached being. He never denies. Never confirms. Then again, maybe his silence is a necessary part of the knack that made him an avant-garde choreographer. Will I order for him? Do I do that? Here’s what I do: “How about we dissect Primal Matter on the original Beatrice sofas, which I now own?” I asked with a wink and smile. “You’ll be the middle act in my next article, between my personal hell and civil disobedience.”

“You can put me in any act you like,” Papaioannou said.

Was he already drunk, indifferent? Making fun of me? How about I put you upside down? I decided to ask Papaioannou, “What do you think about what happened at Terrence McNally’s play in Athens?” This fall, deputies of the far-right political party Golden Dawn, together with Greek Orthodox priests, turned violent outside a performance of McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play that portrays Jesus and his Apostles as gay men. Protesters beat up audience members, and Golden Dawn had everyone involved with the play charged with “insulting religion” and “malicious blasphemy.” “I’m brainstorming with Greek-Americans about bringing the Greek Corpus Christi to the US,” I added.

“Are you doing this as an artistic effort or as a political statement?” Papaioannou asked.

It was a fair question. “Both,” I said.

I wanted to know what Terrence McNally, one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, thought about this work causing such a stir in the Athens and Greece of today. In his bright, curtains-wide-open Greenwich Village apartment, Terrence at the age of 74 looked like he had nothing to hide. His husband, Tom Kirdahy, an activist-lawyer in his late 40s, joined us, giving off a warm Terrence-guarding air. Over coffee, Terrence discussed his need to live an open, honest, integrated life, and told me how saddened he was about the general suffering and upheaval brought about by Corpus Christi in Greece.

I politely countered that what I knew of his work—including Master Class, Corpus Christi, Golden Age—involved suffering and fatalism in the most dramatic fashions. “So where is the light?” I asked Terrence. “Where is the hope for gay and other marginalized people in places like Greece?”

“I never thought I was bad for being gay,” Terrence replied. “We are all sons of God. We are all divine. With Corpus Christi, I wanted to include myself in Christ’s story. I wanted to see myself in the eyes of God. Why couldn’t those men be gay too? God is everywhere. God has a gay gene too.”

“Terrence fought his war for social justice by writing plays,” Tom said tenderly, defending his husband. He was right. What made Terrence marginal in the 1960s also made him enduring.

I asked the couple to sit on their sofa for some photographs. They worried whether the weekend sweaters they had on were good enough for me. They are a beautiful, inclusive family. They welcomed me into the photos. Halfway through the shoot, Terrence placed his hand on Tom’s head and I felt jealous. With this single act, he was protecting his protector. As if this role-reversal turned one man into the other. Terrence seems the artist closest to God in the sense that he doesn’t accept God is here while I may be over there. For him, there’s no heaven or hell; there’s no separation. He works and lives as if God is in all of us.

But what has to happen before all people learn how to live like Terrence and Tom? Until we realize that we are all divine, minorities in Greece will continue to live in terror. We are going to need some social martial arts in order to survive.

Seeking a social blueprint for Greece, I went to see How to Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary about the early days of AIDS activism. Ten minutes into the film, as startling as it may sound, I saw something bigger than AIDS. France’s exceptionally well-told story includes a change-the-world message. “Movements build on each other,” France told me over coffee. “Feminism, ACT-UP, Pro-democracy, they all leveraged each other. Go around the world and you’ll see.” Bingo! This is just what Greece might need right now.

To collect transferable grassroots practices, I had better understand my newly discovered heroes. Where did their courage come from? How did they fight so many uneven battles in the face of social stigma, sickness, obsolete clinical trials, drug access, and exorbitant costs? How did they win so much, both clinically and socially? In awe, practically star-struck by their game-changing achievements, I met Jim Eigo, who introduced How to Survive a Plague in Athens. He provided the fundamentals: “We were very organized, we became scientific experts ourselves, and we were self-funded, so we owned no favors.”

“How did you fund yourselves?” I asked him.

“Peter Staley, coming from Wall Street, helped a lot on that. Artists donated their work for auctions, too. We were very active,” Jim said. “I joined ACT-UP by accident. I was passing outside their meeting and felt the passion, the energy, how vibrant people were in the room. I remember telling myself that this is where I belonged. We were arrogant—we needed to be—but we were not violent. We used the power of our bodies. We were considered toxic at the time. They used gloves to arrest us. In a way we said: Deal with this, deal with our bodies on the street. This was powerful. This is the power of civil disobedience.”

“We were lucky,” said Peter Staley, the daredevil poster boy of ACT-UP who climbed walls and debated CEOs on national TV. “Think about it. We were young, dying, and the media loved that. The question was how to sustain that interest. Well, we were very creative. I mean, gay people are creative,” he said, smiling. “You can’t recreate conditions, but movements have definitely learned from us. Occupy Wall Street did.”

“So far, so good,” I told Peter. “There’s international interest in Greece. There is lots at stake, both financially and symbolically. And we are creative, if not gay.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “But we did our homework,” he said in a scolding way. “We were realistic. We knew exactly what we were asking for.” There was still so much assurance in the way he talked. And that’s when it hit me that the common denominator for all those rebels was one thing: confidence.

“Taking control was an aphrodisiac,” Charlie Franchino, who joined ACT-UP in 1987, said to me. “There was a sexual energy in those meetings that had to do with us getting power.”

“Helping each other, helping the guy next to you became instinctively stronger than self-preservation,” said Michael Barr, another early ACT-UP member.

“I donated my own lymph node. These things come easy when you believe in the cause you’re fighting for,” Mark Harrington, ACT-UP’s intellectual firepower, told me.

The more I talked to them, the more I saw the attributes of a 19th-century romantic movement that fought unfair and uneven wars. I left each meeting ready to live and write differently. I felt like a kid again, wanting to re-read The Mutiny on the Bounty. I romanticized standing up for social justice the way one should. In Greece we are fighting for survival, but I’m not sure how much we believe that we are fighting for justice too. We’ve had too many years of silent convenience, of looking the other way when it came to tax reporting, public-sector productivity, and racial profiling. Visconti’s damned were not only the abusers but also those who turned a blind eye. Regaining our purity seems a prerequisite for solidarity in social causes. Going public with our past will take guts, but can also mark the beginning of a powerful bliss.

Published by Naked But Safe, March 2013.