No More Badlands

Sleaze Culture

Three of my co-workers kept telling me about a bar they found on 11th Street and the West Side Highway. 

“It’s great, Alex, just the kind of place you’d like to hang out in.  The Rusty Knot is sleazy.”  

My interest was piqued.  Ever since I found the Saturday TV/TS party in Gramercy, I was giddy with the prospect of New York sleaze as I remembered it making a comeback.  If the Hudson’s waterfront was going to be the next place to regress, then I had to get over to see it right away.     

The waterfront in the Village and Chelsea was the one place I never walked around at night when I first got to the city.  The appearance of danger was all too real; always in your face, lurking in the ever present shadows.  I did check out West Street once after the sun went down in October of 1988.  While marching around the Village looking for Dylan Thomas’ haunts, I walked past the Badlands, a notorious gay leather bar, where the piers and Christopher Street came together.  Huge men with leather vests and chaps with bare asses hanging out smoking cigars would stand on the sidewalk with plastic cups of beer taunting those unfortunate straights who walked by.  That night, I was grabbed, taunted and had beer spilled on my Lou Reed style black jeans.  I took a right in West 10th Street and ran back to my dorm.  It took me years to realize I was terrorized by a bunch of interior decorators trying to act tough.

The waterfront was not immune from New York re-inventing itself.  Many of the buildings that had been there for over a century, catching the mist off the Hudson, were torn down for brand new apartment houses.  The esplanade reaching from Battery Park City to Riverside Park was completed and Chelsea Piers, a massive sports and entertainment complex was opened.  The gay leather bars, weird clubs and hookers that were forced over from the Meatpacking District were displaced again, moved somewhere else to become some other part of the New York City’s problem.

On my next day off, I waited as long as my excitement would let me and skipped towards West Street with my iPod blaring ‘Sweet Jane.’   I made my way down Christopher Street, waiting for the change over to the hardcore gay culture to take place.  Nothing.  Even the Boots and Saddle, an infamous 24- hour pick-up joint for men looking for men, had two women smoking outside its door.  They had to be fag hags, I thought and kept pushing towards the Hudson.

Two blocks from the water, west of Greenwich Street, I found the various theme and uniform bars that catered to members of the ‘underground’ gay community were gone.  They had now become either respectable establishments or bistros for the stroller crowd of the Far West Village.  The once fearsome Badlands had gone. The gates were drawn and ‘For Rent’ signs covered the brick walls.  Across West Street the piers where anonymous sex between men, women, prostitutes, trannies and some forms of life whose gender was destined to be indeterminate had been replaced by the family friendly river walk.

The Manhattan building boom had changed the look of West Street.  The three blocks between 10th and Perry Streets were now covered with angular high-end apartment houses that looked like office buildings in Midtown.  Finally, at the southeast corner of 11th and West Streets, I found the Rusty Knot.  The joint was a clean, well-lit place in a new building erected to look like an Upper East Side apartment building from the mid 1960’s.  Aside from the name, the only thing remotely seedy about the Knot was the stressed wood the owners installed to try and give the joint a lived in feel.  Several college aged kids sat in the place chatting, playing pool and watching ESPN.  I obviously had a different definition of sleaze than my younger co-workers.

My hopes deflated, I turned right on 11th and headed back into the middle of the island.  A block later, I saw a dark place with a faded sign in the window barely proclaiming itself as Turks and Frogs.  I crossed the street because I was impressed with the name only to find a curly haired brunette and the barman both watching the TV with mouths wide open.  I decided to forgo all other attempts to find anything sleazy that evening.

I now admit the futility of my quest.  No matter how much I Don Quixote my way through 2009 Manhattan the sleaze that I found so enthralling in 22 years ago is gone and will never come back.  Seriously, the whole idea I could find 1987-1992 New York again was making me do and say things that not even I believed.  At one point, I mentioned to Susan Crain Bakos that the Applebee’s on 42nd Street is the new Times Square sleaze.  Not only was I mixing up the concepts of suburban kitsch and urban sleaze, but I also gave Susan yet another reason to whack me upside my skull.  And as you all know, I don’t need to give her or my mother any more reasons to beat me.

What I have been doing is something my friend Rodney warned me against two days before my 40th birthday: living in the rearview mirror.  All of this makes me wonder what is sleazy now?



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