Summer 1981. My twenty-second birthday. Midnight. Going to the Anvil, Downtown. The Big Apple! I am a newly minted gay man, exploring this new world, feeling free for the first time in my life, a whole new world opening up to me, a world I didn’t know existed a year ago.
Full moon tonight. Ed, Doug and I take the A train downtown, walk past the trucks parked on Hudson, past the fresh slabs of cow hanging from their hooves. The meat-packing district. Past the punks in their leather with their three-day beards, past the disco bunnies dressed in their hot pink shorts. Sweat pouring out onto a hot August werewolf evening. Past the garbage cans, burning from the day’s heat, sidewalk melting like a grilled-cheese sandwich, the smell of grass in the air. We get closer. Steam emerges from grates like fiery blasts from dragons guarding palace gates. We get to the door. Skinny man in his forties wearing a leather vest looks me up and down and grins.
“Mm Fresh meat.”
He collects five bucks from each of us and lets us in.
Hit by an immediate smell of sweat and poppers and sex, and it’s so dark I can’t really see, but I can sense. I have gone through the looking-glass. The song “Walk the Night” plays with its undulating rhythm and insidious innuendo. And then my eyes adjust to the light. And I see. Hundreds of shirtless men. Young, bald, black, leather, men over thirty years old! Eyes, some with pupils as big as saucers, others hidden deliciously by motorcycle sunglasses. Ed pours some powder into my drink.
Men in white t-shirts, men in leather vests, men in faded jeans, men with handkerchiefs and keys protruding from the left (or right) pockets. I make a note to myself——what is the hankie code? Is left the ‘top’ and right the ‘bottom’, or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. It’s my twenty-second birthday and I am here and I’m with my friends and we join the throng of dancing, twirling men.
The disco ball above the small, cramped dance floor spins above the sweating, humping, happy men. And there is a flag-dancer on the edge of the crowd, turning and twisting his colored flags. And the ball turns and the flags fly and the men gyrate and everything is colors and music and freedom, freedom, and it is the end of the disco era but none of us know it yet and we dance, we dance, we dance as if our lives depend on it.
The MDA is kicking in and I take another hit of coke. A muscular black drag queen in neon pink hot pants and an Afro nine feet wide stands on top of the bar and lip sync’s “Black Butterfly.” And then another drag queen jumps up and performs “It’s My Life”, and then they share the spotlight for the Shirley Bassey medley. I have no fear, no inhibitions. I approach a cute, muscular guy and shout above the roaring music, “It’s my birthday!” and I take him by the hand and we dance.
And the drag queens perform and the music blasts and the flags fly and the men sweat and the disco ball turns and turns.
And it is four hours later and I’m still dancing. I have lost time. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Because I am young and invincible, and life is a fantastic ride into the unknown, and I know I will never pass this way again.
And we keep on dancing, four, five, six A.M. Keep on, keep on, seven…eight…nine. And the lights come up and sure enough, it’s Donna Summers’ “Last Dance.”
I greet the morning sun. Sweaty, leather-clad men come swarming into the street that smells of New York City garbage and freshly baked bread. A bunch of us go to Tiffanys on Christopher Street, where the punks and the drag queens drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and eat omelets and whole-wheat toast.
Then I say goodbye to Ed and Doug, and I take a cab uptown with my new-found friend, to his studio walk-up on West 78th Street. And we fuck and we take Quaaludes to come down and we fall asleep, with the late morning sun streaming against his window shades, lying in each other’s arms.
And I am happy. I am happy. Because my life is beginning and I am free, and now is the time to dance, now is this time to shake, to ride, to leap, to fly, to move, now is the time to experience all of this. And I know that someday, someday soon, I’ll want to settle down and I’ll want that body next to mine to be the same one every night, to come home to every night and grow old together.
But not now. Because there’s time for that. There will be lots of time. Now is the time to dance.
Bruce Ward, A&U’s Drama Editor, has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and his recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His play, Lazarus Syndrome, and solo play, Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988. He was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. He has graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and The New School, and teaches creative writing and literature at all levels. Please follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.