Two Tales from Manhattan – Steve Turtell

1974Cher Needs Her Drink—Bus Boy at Le Jardin

I went to a lot of discos in my misspent youth:: The Tenth Floor in Chelsea  (precursor to the famous Flamingo in SoHo, or Flaming O as the habitués said), Paradise Garage in the West Village, the legendary Loft at both locations—on Broadway and Bleecker Street and later on Mercer in SoHo, Crisco Disco, 12 West, Les Mouches, but only one uptown club, i.e. above 42nd Street east or west: Le Jardin. And that only because I worked there for two nights as a busboy. 

As I rode the subway up to the interview,  I replayed a litany that was becoming a little too rote and much too familiar. “If I’d stayed in school I would have a degree already. I could get an office job. I could apply for one of the publishing jobs I saw all the time. I was smart. I had read a lot. What was my problem?” 

I had this internal debate dozens of times in my twenties, and then remembered I’d quit school after walking in on my mother’s suicide attempt and discovered my being gay was one of the reasons she’d lost her will to live. That plus my father’s gambling—he’d plunged us into horrendous debt, and to the mob again, right after the ten years it took to climb out of the last hole—ten years of $250 weekly interest payments on a $10,000 principle, all done on working class salaries. The family atmosphere was somewhat toxic, less than nourishing shall we say, for me at least, and a degree didn’t seem as important as getting out. I’d quit school, took a full-time job and left—for good. 

But I was floundering. I couldn’t seem to stick to anything. I’d hated the library job even though I loved being in libraries. When Paradox Bakery closed, it looked like the end of my becoming a baker; I was a miserable typist as my ex, Michael always reminded me, and two seasons as a dishwasher on Fire Island had taken the glow off living in a resort as one of the hired help—the lowest level of hired help. After Tony’s suggestion, I decided to improve my situation if I couldn’t change it immediately. Some of the hired help did well—the bartenders, like Tony, made the most, followed by waiters, then busboys. But I’d never done any of those jobs—as usual, I would have to start at the bottom and work my way up.

Tony had not mentioned any qualifications, but once I saw the two swiftly moving lines of applicants entering the room and the alternately glum or angry rejects walking out seconds later, I understood immediately. It was a cattle call and they were evidently not being tactful. My only question was would they think I’d look cute in a white tank top and skintight silver lame pants. That was the outfit I imagined I’d be forced to wear as a busboy at Le Jardin, the uptown disco located in the basement of the Hotel Diplomat on W. 43rd Street.  When I reached the head of the line three men in shirts open nearly to the waist stared up at me. They were not interested in the resume I’d typed up. One of them nodded to another and the third pointed to a group sitting against the wall. I walked over and joined them.

I’d dressed for a job interview, i.e., a jacket and tie—which I thought might be a mistake, as those I now sat with all looked like club kids: they wore then fashionable white hip-hugger jeans with wide patent leather belts, boots, platform shoes or cork wedgies, and printed shirts with cute patterned drawings of dogs, flowers, or horses. If anyone’s waist was larger than 30 inches it was only because they were over six feet tall and had wide shoulders. I was 5’6”, weighed less than 130 lbs., had a 28-inch waist and agonized over a one or two pound weight gain. If I had any flesh above the belt that moved I worried. One night at the baths, I asked the plastic surgeon I’d just fucked with if there was any way to keep the skin over my six-pack from folding slightly when I sat down. He didn’t answer and I can still wince when I think of the look he gave me—I imagine it’s one I’ve given to several psychotics over the years myself. 

While we waited for additional recruits, we compared notes about other jobs. I was a newbie. I’d never worked “the front of the house,” as  one of them put it when I mentioned washing dishes in Cherry Grove.. He made it sound like I was taking the first step in a long-established profession, which I suppose I was, even though I was only in it for fast cash and a twenty-hour work week. My work week ended up being much shorter than that. 

Waiters and busboys work hard. Carrying five to seven plates on a tray balanced on your shoulder and then setting them down on the collapsible stand you’re carrying with your free hand, all the while smiling at customers who are carefully judging your performance as either enhancing or decreasing the pleasure of their dining experience, but mostly eager to get back to their conversations, requires physical strength, emotional control and tact. I had physical strength. And fortunately, we were not serving dinner. I was not even serving the drinks. My job was to walk around to the various tables and pick up the empty glasses—which were not always considered empty by those nursing a single drink as long as the ice held out and who sometimes snatched it back. (I sympathized. I’d sometimes gone into the bathroom and refilled my empty beer can with water when I didn’t have enough money for another and was waiting for someone to think I was cute enough to buy me a drink and take me home.) When my tray was full, I was to bring the glasses to the end of the bar and deposit them in the rinse sink. 

This all sounds easy enough, even with the glass snatchers. It’s not as easy when you have to make your way through writhing dancers swirling to the deafening beat of Soul Makoussa by Manu Dibango. Under strobe lights. On a dance floor separated from the tables by tall sparkly white free-standing balsa wood columns covered with nothing more than paint and glitter. Or in the sudden pitch black the DJs used to heighten the effect of eardrums vibrating like subwoofers in an expensive sound system. Pure sound. Pure motion. Pure confusion. I was amazed I managed to get to and from the bar every time I did it. I became expert in predicting when an arm was about to punch the air as a dancer got carried away. By the end of my first night, I even did a little dancing myself while balancing the tray overhead. 

The second night was less smooth. Sometime past 1:30am, when the crowd suddenly got much thicker, there was a commotion in the corner and it was impossible to get past the first column with the tray of glasses I was carrying. The music changed—there was an awkward transition to Cher’s Gypsy, Tramps & Thieves which wasn’t a disco song. The dancers looked perplexed but adapted to the new rhythm and proceeded to boogie to a rock & roll beat. I made it back to the bar and one of the waiters excitedly told me that Cher was in the room. He had Cher’s drink. Cher had to have her drink. 

He seemed to think I was supposed to do something about this. I didn’t give a shit if Cher never had another drink in her life at that moment. But I was supposed to get a share of his tips and if I didn’t help him deliver Cher’s drink I would go home with less cash. Which was the only reason I was there. I attempted to force my way through the crowd and he followed. We made little headway and were unable to deliver Cher’s drink because she was trapped behind a horde of fans pretending not to see her but dancing for her benefit. 

The waiter seemed to hold me responsible for this. And at that point I gave up. 

I’ve walked out on only a few things in my life. I usually stay till the end, sweet, bitter or somewhere in between. I like knowing how things turn out. Even if I don’t have a dog in that particular fight. And I didn’t have so much as a dog collar in this one. Cher could die from dehydration for all I cared. I  couldn’t accept my wages being at the mercy of someone who could blame me for his failure to pay sufficient homage to one of his prized divas.  I made my way back to the bar, put down the tray, and left. I didn’t collect my pay and my reward for the two nights was the $15 in tips I’d taken home the first night. But at least I’d learned something. I’d always known, in theory, that I did not have whatever it took to serve people. I used to joke that one wrong word from any customer and the whole table would have their food in their laps. I was a hot-head. But I now knew that the waiter/bartender fantasy was only that—a fantasy. 

A few weeks later I ran into one of the other busboys at Tye’s on Christopher Street. We chatted about that night and he laughed when I told him the story.

  “That wasn’t Cher,” he told me. It was a drag queen dressed up as Cher. Most of the people there were too stoned to tell the difference. 

“But she was good; I have to say that. She’d just come from a gig at some drag bar where she lip-synced to Cher’s music and she knew the DJ. When he saw her he put on the only Cher song he had.”

And so, yet again I needed a job. An ad in The Village Voice led to a job as nighttime janitor at The Bottom Line, a nightclub near NYU. For the next six months I alternated between cleaning apartments, cleaning up after the patrons when the club closed, gawking at musicians and movie stars, but mostly scheming, trying to figure out a way to get unemployment and enjoy a summer off like so many of my friends in the arts.

Collage Visual poem celebrating NYC Queer theatre artist Charles Ludlam. Background distorted elongated text from NYT and added collage lettering; centre figure Charles Ludlam in drag from one of his productions at the Ridiculous Theatre; lurid red and yellow -- "Warholesque"  (c) Robert Frede Kenter (2023)

“Camille’s Hairy Chest” – House Electrician for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company Production of Camille — 1974

I sat in a narrow, pitch-black booth at the Evergreen Theater, a flashlight clenched between my teeth. Two strips of black gaffer’s tape covered all but a thin horizontal band of the flashlight’s face. The meager light provided only  enough illumination to see ten small levers the size of piano keys. They controlled all the lighting instruments aimed at the tiny stage on which Charles Ludlam as Camille, asleep on a chaise lounge, woke to gradual daylight at the beginning of Act III. 

I counted one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, all the way up to thirty, as I slowly raised eight, then nine, then all ten of the levers from zero to seven, from eight to nine, and even as high as ten, depending upon which part of the stage received illumination. Charles, a superb artist, and the control-freak’s control-freak, once complained about light spilling from the booth during this scene, hence the near total darkness. If I tipped my head back even a little I’d fuck up the cue. Just past my ghostly reflection in the one-way glass, I could see over the heads of the audience and gauge how well I was managing. 

Despite the difficulty, this was my favorite moment. In sixty performances, I never tired of seeing the light come up behind Marguerite—La Dame aux Camelias—and gradually spread over the back of the chaise, sending pearlescent shimmers across her ivory satin nightgown. Any lurching, however funny, would destroy the illusion, one of the most beautiful in the play, a delicate rendering of night yielding slowly to a daylight that wasn’t poured so much as sifted, soft as talc, through the scrim-covered back window, and onto shapes that became furniture in a room, drew doors on Bobjack Callejo’s witty, false perspective set, and finally brought sleeping Camille into focus, alone on the chaise on which she would die in approximately twenty minutes—all set to the music of the last act of Verdi’s La Traviata. And all of it done with about fifteen lights controlled by me, slowly lifting the levers from below while holding the flashlight in my mouth so I could use all eight fingers—a finger placed under the gap between levers allowed me to raise two at once, even at slightly different rates if I tilted it and had sufficient self control, or remembered to put out my cigarette before the cue began and didn’t have to stub it before it fell from the ashtray. 

Once Camille was awake, there were no more major cues until the curtain calls: a series of tableaux vivant. The whole cast surrounded dead Camille’s chaise and in the last tableau, Armand, her thwarted lover—for whom she gave up happiness—bid her goodbye: “Toodle-loo, Marguerite!”

This third theater job I’d had in four months, was yet again, and as would be another–and my last a few short months later–a result of a casual suggestion. My friend Sydney met Charles Ludlam at a bathhouse, began an affair, and one night at Syd’s apartment, Charles finished a delicious monologue about the superiority of Todd Browning’s Freaks to “all those Fellini models” in Satyricon and knowing I’d worked on both Palm Casino and Glamour, Glory, Gold, and Syd having told him that I was (or would be in a few weeks anyway) a theater major at Brooklyn College, asked me if I’d be interested in running the lights for his revival of Camille. Steve Crohn, the current house electrician was leaving and he needed someone immediately. I’d be working five nights a week and he could pay me $25, or $5/performance. For the following week I sat in what had been a projector’s booth, as the Evergreen began as a cinema. As I was learning, typical of many buildings in New York City, the Evergreen, located on 11th Street between Broadway and University Place has had a varied life. Between 1964 and 1967 it was an off-Broadway theater, the Renata. Grove Street Press renamed it the Evergreen Theater in ‘67 and showed Warhol’s I, A Man, followed by I Am Curious Yellow. From ‘71 until Ludlam moved into the theater in 1974, it was the Soho Theater showing gay porno. Not really designed for live shows, The Ridiculous managed, with the help of cleverly foreshortened sets, to work effectively, despite the lack of the usual fly or wing space. The Baha’i church was the next and final tenant (they’re still there today) and the Ridiculous moved over to Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square Playhouse where it remained for many years.

Steve assured me that yes I could manage not to drop the flashlight until after I’d completed the cue. Part of the difficulty was the booth, built for projectors with barely enough space for a single person to operate them.

Truthfully, I liked the challenge. I bragged about the difficulty and about working for Ludlam, comic genius,  brilliant playwright, and a great, if idiosyncratic actor and director. As at the Palm Casino, theater life was a revelation, not just about his company and his own quirks, like directing mid performance between scenes, and even once, when they were amplified at a college theater festival.  Jack Mallory, who played Nanine, Camille’s nurse, made his entrance at the beginning of act three and Charles/Camille asked loudly enough for the audience to hear, “Darling, have you given up acting?” Everyone laughed, thinking it was part of the script. I also loved the backstage banter and the bitchy remarks as the actors disected each other’s (or my) sex lives in great and hilariously graphic detail. But the real revelation came when I walked downstairs to the dressing room to find Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Lotte Lenya chatting with the troupe. I watched John Brockmeyer, all six-foot-four of him, nearly bow to the waist as he told Lenya how honored he was to meet her. She was gracious and laughing and full of admiration for Charles and the company, whom she’d followed since Bluebeard. I stood off to the side, not daring to intrude. I may have been an arrogant little shit at times, but at others I knew my place. My sense of Charles’s importance was confirmed when Lenya complained “Now I have to go back to shitty Broadway.” I had to hold my tongue when the professor in my Shakespeare class at Brooklyn College informed us that “the Elizabethans had a theater; we do not have a theater.” I held my tongue but quit the class. I could read Shakespeare and learn about his plays without the help of this pretentious dryasdust. And as happened in Oakleyville, working for the Ridiculous had unexpected social benefits. I went in one night only to pick up my check and everyone was excited. Sydney, now having taken over the role of the butler said ”You can’t go to the party looking like that!” Frank Zappa had invited the Ridiculous to his birthday party in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Diplomat on W. 43rd Street.

“I have an 8:00am drafting class tomorrow, I’m not going to a party when I still have a lighting plot to draw.”

“Sit down.” 

Syd forced me into a chair, began applying makeup, and when satisfied, added the wig Lola Pashalinski wore each night as Prudence, and then had me put on her gown. In the mirror I saw a nineteenth century French courtesan and off I went to the party with the rest of the company. I don’t know where Lola was that night and I hope she’s forgiven me. Zappa’s party was wonderful. We danced until 2am and watched “fancy people go drifting by.” Carly Simon did a double take when she realized I was a man, or maybe it was just the 19th century costume. James Taylor proved much more broodingly handsome than  his photographs. A not yet famous Fran Lebowitz, whom I’d met at Peter Hujar’s loft was oddly chilly. I mentioned it to Peter who told me he thought she didn’t like drag queens. “The nerve! She looks she’s wearing Oscar Wilde drag.” 

Many other downtown types had made their way to midtown and as many updown types in dinner jackets and evening dresses had risen from elegant tables to drive below 59th Street and step out of limos to mix with the hippies, freaks, drag queens, rock stars, and whoever else Frank Zappa’s amusing brain decided should help him celebrate his 35th circle round the sun. It was a time in New York when different worlds mixed with a freedom that I learned later was as unprecedented as it was short-lived. It may have been 1974 but what we think of as the sixties didn’t really begin until 1963-64 and lingered on into the early years of the next decade. Peter Hujar told me that there was a period when what he called “high hippie drag was the height of chic.” 

I got home too late to finish the drafting assignment, and soon found myself three weeks behind on my assignments. Nor did I finish the semester. For years I claimed that it was because I was ”on the road with a dance company.” After The Palm Casino Review, Bobby Diaz  left the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater to develop his own choreography. He invited me to design the lights. I took my little learning and worked up basic cues for the three pieces in the repertory. Our “tour” lasted a single weekend during which we performed in high school auditoriums in New Haven on Friday, New Rochelle on Saturday, and were back in Manhattan by Sunday evening to perform at NYU.  The high point was dazzling a few teenage boys who were thrilled when they saw me lock and unlock the levers on a control panel exactly like the Palm Casino’s, raise all the lights simultaneously, then just as quickly unlock a few and bring down everything but the blue lamps. As I well knew, since I was still one myself in most ways, teenage boys are very easy to impress. At Brooklyn College I felt vastly superior to students a mere two and three years younger than me who lacked the “professional experience” I now claimed. Manuel paid nothing—but then the dance company earned just enough to cover expenses. I justified working for free by putting everything in the experience column. 

I worked on an interesting musical at the Thirteenth Street Theater, A Lean and Hungry Priest, and now and then did more work for Bobby. A few years later, at the request of a boyfriend, I “designed” the lights for a community theater production of Jean Anouilh’s Time Remembered, and a few years after that, H.M. Koutoukas asked me to do the lights for his play The Butterfly Infusion at the Theater for the New Season. A career may be nothing more than a succession of jobs in the same field, but this was less a career than an extended tryout. And I should have stopped after the shortest job I’ve ever had.

While working for the Ridiculous, I met a stage manager at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Because I worked for Ludlam, and attended school to study lighting design, he hired me to help hang the lights for a new production in the Harvey Theater. When I joined the crew, already hard at work, I saw instantly that I was out of my league. They were all seasoned professionals who knew each other and had worked together before. They had the speed and confidence developed only by experience —which I soon demonstrated that I lacked. I held out for three anxious hours. Standing on a tall ladder, I strained to hear the directions shouted to me from below and adjusted the focus on lamps. Next I was asked to lift the extendable ladder lying in the aisle and prop it against the wall. I tried to lift it while fully extended. I should have collapsed it first. I couldn’t handle the weight and as I tried to get it upright lost my grip when it was near vertical. I watched it slowly fall towards the stage. Instead of yelling to alert the crew, I panicked and froze. A cable strung across the stage kept it from hitting anyone. Everyone looked up to see the ladder bouncing above their heads and quickly moved out of the way in case the cable gave. I was asked to leave before I did any real damage. After the disaster at BAM, I reassessed my commitment to the theater and lighting design. Other than the job at BAM, I had demonstrated to myself and a few others that I could do it and that if I applied myself I could probably even become, if not a great, at least a professionally competent designer. It could be a more than satisfactory career in the theater. But I realized that fun as it was, my heart would never really be in it. Like Paul’s suggestion that I become an art restorer, it was a substitute, meant to support me while I did my “real work,“ whatever that might prove to be. 

Before Christmas I’d ran out of money and was in debt to most of my friends, several of whom, Peter Hujar especially, were poorer than I was. A short term solution came in an opportunity to work in a midtown nightclub. Yet again, a friend rescued me, this time a casual acquaintance. Every summer Tony earned hundreds of dollars in tips behind the bar at The Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. He was very good at his job–fast and friendly and of course it didn’t hurt that as one fan stated “I’d do him on a Saturday afternoon in Macy’s window if he asked me.”  He gave me an address and a phone number and said to mention his name. I called and was asked to come in for an interview. I had no idea what to expect.

Steve Turtell is a poet and writer from New York City, where he has lived and worked for most of his life. He has been writing, editing and publishing articles, reviews, and poems since 1979. His first feature article, Energy at the Emerald City, about the first gay cable TV show in New York, was published in The Advocate in 1978. Since then he has been a staff writer for Gaysweek, LGNY, and Gay City News. He has written reviews for Publishers’ Weekly and contributed articles to the SCRIBNER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN LIVES (Scribner’s, 1998). His first collection, HEROES AND HOUSEHOLDERS (Orchard House Press, 2007), drew praise from Marjorie Perloff for his “subtle and charming poems”; his chapbook, LETTER TO FRANK O’HARA (P&Q Press, 2000) won the 2010 Rebound Prize from Seven Kitchens Press and was reissued with an introduction by 2011Academy of American Poet fellow, Joan Larkin. He has taught creative writing at Brooklyn College, where he was editor of Brooklyn Review 14 and taught in the college’s Theater in London summer program. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and included in the anthologies BLOOD & TEARS, Poems For Matthew Shepard, (Painted Leaf Press, 1999), THIS NEW BREED: Gents, Bad Boys & Barbarians 2 (Windstorm Creative Limited 2004), and COLLECTIVE BRIGHTNESS: LGBTIQ Poets On Faith, Religion & Spirituality, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011). He can be found lurking in various well-lit corridors of the Internet, teasing people with his mouth-watering pictures of freshly baked bread and luscious desserts on Facebook, blogging on the Huffington Post, and delivering the occasional tweet at @rdturtle.

Images: 1) Banner — Cher a visual poem collage. 2) Ludlam, a visual poem collage. (c) 2023 Robert Frede Kenter. Robert Frede Kenter is the EIC/publisher of Ice Floe Press, a writer, visual artist and editor widely published in Canada, US, UK and Ireland. Twitter: @frede_kenter; IG: @r.f.k.vispocityshuffle, @icefloe22

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close