“The `80s were the last identifiable period. If you see a picture from that era, you know it instantly. The art, the clothes, the hair; they were unique. After that, everything started to look and feel the same.”
That’s what the author Jay McInerney said (or something close to it) when I saw him at a book reading here in La Jolla. He seemed wistful. And why he wouldn’t he be, having hurdled like a latter day F. Scott Fitzgerald into the New York literary scene with his 1984 bestseller, Bright Lights, Big City? As he spoke, I too waxed nostalgic for the time, the scene, and recalled a woman who once leaned against the bar of the Surf Club on the Upper East Side. It was 1988, and I thought it was her birthday.
The Surf Club’s preppy, Wall Street trader vibe wasn’t for me – I preferred the scruffier downtown scene – but there she was: button nose, sneakers, shoulder-length blonde hair and looking like she knew something the rest of us didn’t.
I angled next to her and asked if it was indeed her birthday. It wasn’t, though one of her friends had just told me that. But we were talking, that was the important thing, and then we were laughing, even as the bouncer escorted us to the exit at 4 a.m. The next day, as we cruised the empty summer streets in my beat-up RX-7, with the broken sunroof tossed in the back and 10,000 Maniacs on my cassette player, we were laughing still.
You had to be lucky in New York. Ally and I had the wisdom to know when we were. For the next few months, that smoldering and potholed city was our playground. We closed the clubs, scarfed down midday breakfasts and prowled East Village galleries. We lazed on the marble steps of museums, inhabited SoHo installations and drained Rolling Rocks on fire escapes. We never spoke of the future; we had no interest in it. We were too busy having fun for anything but the fun.
Almost three months after we met, Ally called to say that she was moving back to Illinois. She’d offered no warning or prelude, and I thought it was a joke. Then, for the first time, Ally started to cry. She thanked me for sharing the best time of her life and hung up.
I never saw her again.
Six people were murdered in New York City every day that year, crack vials popped underfoot like bubble wrap, and more than 6,400 new AIDS cases were diagnosed. A friend was mugged and beaten, and two times my old Mazda was stolen and subsequently abandoned, presumably when the thieves discovered how little it was worth. Like many of my peers, I treated the danger and the damage in the streets the same way I treated the dealing and sniffling in the bathroom stalls – with cool resignation.
A few weeks after Ally left, I ran into her friend, the one who had falsely told me it was her birthday. I bought her a drink and eventually got around to the question that had been plaguing me: Why had Ally left?
“She went to rehab,” her friend said and then asked incredulously, “Don’t you know how much blow she was doing?”
No, implausible as it seems (then and now), I didn’t. Maybe I’d been foolish… or deliberately blind… or maybe she hid it well… or, and most likely, it was a combination of all these things. Even in the coke-crazed clubs of the times, I’d had the fear or foresight to stay away from it, and with Ally, I’d assumed or imagined the same. I suppose that was the privilege of being young in the late `80s: to assume or imagine that the club will never close, and that even at 4 a.m. the dawn with its attendant hangover and accruing debts will keep holding off, and that what you don’t know, or can ignore, won’t hurt you or anyone close to you.
The assumptions are wrong of course, dangerously wrong, and all of their time. But the time — that menacing and distinctive time — it resonates. On occasions, I can still feel it… the hard bucket seats of my tiny Mazda, the broken sunroof removed, dusk weighing on the steel towers of the city, and ‘Like the Weather,’ a catchy song about depression playing on my cheap speakers. Ally’s bare feet are on the dashboard, and her head is thrown back, and her short blonde hair is fluttering, and she’s laughing at the fact that we have absolutely no idea where we’re going. And we don’t.
Because we’re already there.
My novel is available here: The Last Island
3 thoughts on “An Elegy to the New York City Club Scene of the late 1980s”
Nice, evocative post! You enjoyed the 80s in NYC, or perhaps you enjoyed your youth. But I much prefer the City today with the violence tamped down. Still possible to have a really really good time!
I worked the doors at several of the clubs in the 80s and left the city in 1990. I periodically visit with family and friends and find the city mudane, tired, and bland. Wall to wall banks and no more independent stores,restaurants, and mom/pop business. Will it is safer….so are the people with their safe attitudes and pompous politics. Not the same fun crazy city…..NYC is dead.
This article perfectly summed up my 4 plus years of city life…..great crazy friends, awesome memories, creative lifestyle
We probably have crossed paths a few times at those clubs you worked at. I find the city so much less inspiring myself. I was there recently and realized that I no longer knew a single person who lived in Manhattan. Everyone I knew had moved away and with them, it seems, something vital.