The Hustle - My Cherry Lipped Angel
During our first semester at School of Visual Arts, and while living at the Greystone Hotel on West 91st Street, Ricky and I spent most of our time between four nightclubs...BUILDING, Limelight, Palladium and Pyramid. There were many other events and venues that we explored, but those were our weekly spots.
Everything about the city was thrilling. Each turn of the block was dripping with details and dynamics, things I had never seen or experienced before. The way people dressed, spoke and carried themselves was so unique and distinctive. The city felt renegade in it's immediacy and rawness.
My friend Ivan taught me so much about New York and how to navigate it. To give me an introduction to the streets and their layout, he walked me all the way from West 91st Street down to Battery Park, well over 100 blocks, and at NYC pace, which is about 10 times faster than normal walking. Everything was faster in the city, and I realized quickly that I needed to stay on my toes.
There was a protective etiquette that one maintained. You had to keep your eyes open, but at the same time be careful not to stare at anyone. A gaze that lasted too long in someone's direction, could be seen as a challenge, an invitation or an invasion of space. All of these could provoke attention that you might regret soliciting. There was always the potential for danger, or at the very least, you could become the victim of someone's street hustle.
If there is one thing that is paramount to New York City, it's the hustle. It's the thing that draws people to the city, and also pushes them away. If you don't find a way to ride it, manage it, or escape it, it can, without any hesitation, break you into pieces that can never be repaired.
Back at the hotel dorm, we met a black bookish queen named Kacy Pierce from Chicago. Ricky said we spotted him one night at Pyramid. He ran out of the club when he saw us, fearing he might be spooked as a fellow queen . As glaringly gay as miss thing was, she was still clinging to that closet door.
Ricky, even though I had known him in high school, had also just come out of the closet. He revealed it to me after developing a crush on some guy he met at one of the clubs. I imagine every kid that comes to the city, shares that grace period where they shake off all their unwanted baggage, allowing themselves to fully indulge in their identity of choice. I was no different, and as a gesture of my transformation, I changed my name to Waltpaper.
Upon request to SVA, the three of us moved into one dorm apartment together, citing that we were all gay and would feel safer and more comfortable being housed together. The school luckily accommodated our wishes.
Early in the game, we met Linda Simpson, an East Village drag queen who hosted the Saturday night party at BUILDING. She was tied at the hip to this freaky trans girl, named Page, who looked like a white, bleached blonde Grace Jones, and was a total eccentric in all the best ways. I later learned that Page came from a wealthy & well bred family in Connecticut. Linda and Page were incredibly sweet and welcoming to us.
I think Linda developed a little crush on Ricky, and as a result they became close friends. We met so many people through the parties she hosted. Her wit and work ethic came through in the organizing of events and the publishing her magazine, MY COMRADE. I've always been inspired by DIY people who create things from the ground up. It takes great courage to take an idea, cultivate it, and push it into the public sphere.
MY COMRADE highlighted, with great satire, a range of talented personalities from the East Village, a popular and affordable neighborhood that was heavily occupied by artists and performers. Her Wednesday night party at Pyramid, called Channel 69, was a hub of creativity, and we would stop by to see the show before heading to Disco 2000 at Limelight.
Linda snapped a lot pictures at her parties, and would use them as a promotional tools. If she took a picture of you, she'd make two copies, keep one for herself and then give you the other. I managed to save a number of her photographs, which have now become iconic documents of that time period. A few years ago she began showcasing them in a series of exhibitions, presentations and books under the banner "The Drag Explosion".
It was Linda who arranged for me to work at BUILDING doing painted illustrations for the VIP lounge, which led to me promoting and go-go dancing. She also gave Ricky and I the task of organizing a social section for MY COMRADE.
Every week at Channel 69, she would have a different drag performer featured, and that was our first time seeing and meeting many of those queens, including Rupaul, Tabboo!, Floydd, Mistress Formika, Sister Dimension, Mona Foot, Aphrodite, Sweetie, Ebony Jet and Faux Pas.
Channel 69 also hosted some of the cutest boys in NYC. Many of them were East Village guys that could be found around the scene, either tending bar or go-go dancing. If a drag queen needed a sexy male companion in a photo shoot or to make an appearance in a show, it would often be one of these guys. They didn't look like normal gay boys from the suburbs. They had a sexy and swarthy cultural ambiguity that was quintessentially New York.
At BUILDING one night, on the VIP balcony that overlooked the main dance floor, I met a young boy named Donald. He was the most extraordinary looking human being I had ever come in contact with. His bone structure reminded me of a pit bull. His face was broad and similar to that of Lauren Bacall.
He had dark brown hair that was tightly curled and cut into a caesar, and eyes that looked like deep pools of black liquid. His skin was pale and smooth, like porcelain. And his lips...oh my god...those beautiful lips. They were full, soft, and the color of cherries,
I was wearing a purple tutu that night, and feeling pretty cute with my antennae hair and big hoop earrings.
We got to talking and he randomly mentioned that his urine was purple, like my tutu. I couldn't believe that this guy was even talking to me, let alone flirting with me, and to top it off he had freaky colored urine? My hormones were zooming around so fast in my body, that I could barely breathe.
He went on to explain that his urine was actually more of a deep red color, than purple. I blushed with anticipation, paused, and then asked him to prove it. I was hoping that by challenging him, I might get a chance to see more than his beautiful face. Without hesitation, he happily obliged.
There was a large rubber garbage can nearby for empty drink cups and beer bottles. He pulled out an empty cup, unzipped his pants, urinated into it, and was quick to show me the color, among other things. Sure enough it was bright red, and by that time, so was I.
In the early days, it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept that a number of boys would find Club Kids, in all our freaky ways, attractive. It's important to note that the massive venues where we worked, were not exclusively "gay" clubs. At Limelight for Disco 2000, there was a "gay" lounge upstairs in the Chapel, promoted by Mark Berkley, but Club Kids would not be caught dead in that area. The gay boys and gay promoters usually had separate nights, often on Sundays.
The main parts of the mega clubs were always mixed, with a large serving of straight boys, many of whom were open to exploring unchartered territories. High levels of youthful hormones, alcohol and E certainly played a role in opening people's minds and facilitating connections .
We were all so young at that time. I was working in clubs before I was old enough to legally get into them. I guess that was one of the advantages of pumping a look, you could disguise your age pretty easily.
The Club Kids had a Disney-like appeal. For many of the club patrons, going somewhere like Disco 2000, was probably a bit like that book, "Where The Wild Things Are", with us being the 'party' monsters. They would come into our world, play with us, then return to their normal lives.
I had to differentiate between real friendships, and people who just wanted their name on a guest list or a drink ticket. There were certain privileges that came with being a Club Kid, and there was no shortage of people that were keen to attach themselves, in order to access those benefits, including easy entry into the venues.
The front doors to the mega clubs were often mobbed with crowds of people trying to get in, many waiting for long periods time. I would always get a surge of adrenaline up the back of my neck upon arriving to the club. The dash from the taxi cab, through the velvet ropes and into the space required a certain amount of choreographed precision and technique. The key was to move fast, keep your head down and avoid making eye contact with anyone other than door people and security guards. If you lingered too long at the door, you'd be bombarded by people tugging on your clothes and asking for assistance in gaining entry.
After someone secured entry into the main part of the club, the next challenge was getting access to the VIP lounges, which were roped off and guarded by another set of ferocious gate keepers. Inside the VIP lounges, there were often dinner parties and open bars, as well as, access to drugs, seating, private bathrooms and whatever celebrities might be in attendance on any given night.
For a cute boy, there was certainly no shortage of perks to cuffing up with a Club Kid, but in all fairness, it was a two way street.
Let's face it, any good queen knows that being surrounded by a handful of cute boys, always comes in handy. I seemed to have good luck attracting interesting and very good looking guys. Early on at BUILDING we met this crew of sexy latin boys, named Chris, Chris(tian) and Charlie, all of whom lived Uptown near our place at the Greystone Hotel. They were not only stunning to look at, but their friendship seemed genuine and sincere.
Chris was a sweet, sparkly eyed, teddy bear with curly hair. Charlie had a sharper, svelte, street look with a gelled up fade. Christian was smokey, handsome and looked like a model.
At some point, my new drag queen friend, Miss Guy, came sniffing around my crew, and pointed out that I was always surrounded by the cutest guys. She took a liking to Christian, and introduced him to photographer David Armstrong, who shot some pictures of him. Guy was a makeup artist, and also introduced him to Liv Tyler at some point, and they began dating for a brief period of time.
I really loved Guy, and was grateful for our blossoming friendship, but I also became mindful that I needed to keep my eye on her. This wouldn't be the last time that she would harvest from my surplus of fellas.
Queens have very blurry boundaries, and ravenous appetites. They have no reservations about sneaking in and trying to steal your piece.
One of the reasons that I connected with so many cute guys, was because I spent a lot of time on the main dance floors of the various clubs. I didn't like hiding out in the VIP rooms. I loved all my friends and peers who were dressing up, but I got bored standing around with a bunch of queens that I saw every night. I craved new blood and new experiences. It was validating and refreshing to be a part of such a distinctive group of people in the scene, such as the Club Kids, but the wandering loner in me, kept me on the move pretty frequently.
On those journeys, I collected a lot friends, acquaintances, and a sprinkling of lovers, that I might not otherwise have acquired. Another advantage to staying in circulation, was that part of my job was as a promoter for the different clubs nights that I represented.
Back in those days, we were given boxes of card stock invitations to pass out to every interesting or sexy person that we could find. During the daytime we would scour the town, placing invites around various shops and colleges. These cards were pretty hot commodities to the bridge and tunnel kids, as well as, college students because they offered discount admission to the sometimes costly entrance fee.
Keep in mind, that there was no internet, no mobile phones, and no social media in the early 1990's. We were living in an analog world. If you wanted to reach people, you physically had to use your feet and hands to do it, staying on the move constantly. It was all about networking everywhere you went, whether it was the flea market, walking down the street, makeup shopping, or to another event or venue.
Your power, at that time, beyond being fabulous, was your guest list.
Each invite was marked with your identifying stamp or initials. After the cards were returned to the club for discount entry, they would be gathered by management, separated and counted. For invites that came in with your mark, you would be paid between $1 - $3 each.
Many of the bigger promoters, would enlist smaller focused crews of sub promoters to do the footwork and distribute invites in exchange for guest list or drink privileges. There was a pretty intricate racket going on behind the scenes of these big clubs, and I fell deep into this machinery of nightlife pretty quickly.
In my personal life, I was still young and naive. I had very little sexual experience with guys, partially due to the lingering devastation and fears surrounding the AIDS crisis. That virus was never far from my mind.
My mother and aunt were both bartenders at the local gay bars in Norfolk, Virginia where I attended high school. Many of my mom's friends and patrons died from AIDS, and she was quick to tell me, "Don't drop your pants for just anyone."
I dated and had sex with a handful of girls in high school. I even winded up with a girlfriend's name tattooed on my ankle. I never hid my sexuality, but the reality was that there weren't many opportunities for me to have sex with guys. I was certainly looking, crushing and hoping, but I never seemed to bag any action.
When I was seven, I first experienced intimacy with another boy my age, named Jade. We hid under a draped dining room table, and showed each other our penises. Years later, when I was about 15, I had sex for the first time with a guy that had been my best friend throughout grade school in Missouri, where I lived with my Dad.
We took to playing Truth or Dare on occasion, which led to us exchanging kisses, oral sex and eventually anal sex. He was an aspiring drummer, and during one of these games, I dared him to stick a drum stick up his butt. He countered my dare by suggesting that I allow him to penetrate me, and I did.
He was a beautiful boy too, with honey colored skin and a giant uncut penis. His sweetness and loyalty to me as a friend resulted in my first sexual experiences with a guy, being very positive.
We continued to rendezvous, even after I moved away to live with my Mom. I would meet up with him while visiting my Dad in Missouri during the summer breaks from school. We even hooked up the day before he got married to a young woman, and after he was married, as well. Eventually, his wife caught us making out in the yard one night, and had a fit. I never saw him again, and shortly after that my father moved to Ohio.
I got off once with his brother too. We talked about having a three way, but concluded that it was just too weird, since they were brothers. I guess I was a bit of a jezebel, my first few times out the gate. It must have been all that porn I would watch from my Dad's satellite dish.
So here I was standing on the balcony at BUILDING with Donald, the beautiful cherry lipped boy with bright red urine. We exchanged phone numbers and he eventually came to see me at the Greystone Hotel.
Still, as I write this, I have to pause when I think about how stunningly beautiful he was. To my eyes and sensibility now, he was not particularly muscular. He was starting to build up his body, and would sometimes drop to the sidewalk to do pushups, or nab some pull ups on a bit of scaffolding, but he wasn't a gym bunny, and was still very much a young boy.
It turned out that his red urine was the result of eating a strict diet that involved tons of beets. He was obsessed with them for some reason.
Although, he was this incredibly sexy boy, and I was this incredibly strange looking queen with no eyebrows and antennae hair, I don't recall ever feeling self conscious. I never thought about my body as being deficient in anyway. All that body obsession anxiety arrived into my life later, when I hit my 30's.
Through my late teens and early 20's, it was all about getting myself as close to the edge of freakiness as I could possibly manage. I never felt made for this world and I became dead set on creating my own.
Nowadays, young gays seem to be all about body and sex, which I think stems from the pornification of the culture at large, due in large part to needing to get those LIKES and validation on social media.
For me, in the early Nineties, I wasn't overtly focused on my physical body or on having sex. A big part of that was my anxiety about AIDS. Sex felt off limits to some extent, especially in a big city like New York. We still didn't know much at that time about how it was transmitted, and the drug treatments were not yet firmly in place. At that time, I still thought I might get AIDS from a toilet seat or kissing the wrong person.
So my focus was on dressing up, dancing and taking drugs. My hormones, were of course boiling over, but sex was pretty far down the line in priorities. So when Donald came along, all bets were off. I couldn't resist the risk.
When he came up to the Greystone that first time, he seemed really comfortable and familiar with sex. He quickly put me at ease and asked me what I was interested in doing sexually. I honestly didn't know, because I wasn't that experienced. Just the feel of another boy's body next to mine in bed was more than extraordinary. Kissing his beautiful lips sent sparks cracking through my whole body.
It's strange, because I don't remember many of the details of us having sex, probably because it wasn't anything wild or off the wall. It was just two tender young boys being intimate.
I distinctly remember taking a shower with him afterwards, observing, again, how incredibly beautiful he was. He also did a snot rocket in the shower, to clean out his nose. I had never seen someone clean out their nose that way. He also urinated in the shower. Both of these gestures I found oddly charming, and they added to my growing perception of him as this tough streetwise angel.
One of the things Donald loved to do was Whip Its. I don't even know if people still do these, but in the Nineties you could buy these little metal canisters of nitrous oxide, also known as Laughing Gas, and crack them open in a special canister to inhale the gas. I never really liked them too much, because I got a distinct sense that by doing them, I was completely frying my brain cells. Donald would buy a whole box of them, and do them all in one night.
Much like I didn't have any consciousness about my body at that age, I knew nothing about addiction, and very little about hustlers and prostitution.
When I got to New York and involved with clubs, I became more familiar with prostitution because a number of the trans girls would talk about tricking, and at this time, you still saw a lot of street walkers in the Meat Packing District and on 10th avenue and 27th street, en route to Tunnel Nightclub. These were proper cinema style hookers....fishnets, lingerie, thigh high boots and beat up fur coats.
I didn't know anything about male hustlers. Sometimes I would to hear the mention of boys turning tricks down by the Christopher Street Piers and at the Port Authority Bus Terminal near Times Square. I was not seasoned enough to be able to distinguish what a hustler even looked like. Female hookers, at least street ones, were much easier to identify, because they dressed like the hookers in the movies.
I found out many years later that Donald, my beautiful cherry lipped angel, was a well known and somewhat notorious hustler. There was a story about him handcuffing some queen to a radiator, then stealing all their stuff. I was shocked hearing all these things. That was not at all the person that I knew.
Donald was so sweet and protective of me. Perhaps because I was of no threat to him. I was completely oblivious to the ways of New York.
My fondest memory of Donald was of him calling me up one night to let me know he was coming Uptown to see me. Even though it was an off night from clubbing, he insisted that I get all dressed up in full Club Kid regalia, antenna hair and all. He didn't explain why, but eventually arrived to the hotel.
He said, "Come on, were are going out." I asked him where, but he insisted that I just come with him. We got down to the lobby of the hotel and I went to hail a taxi cab. He said, "No, we're taking the subway." I protested, explaining to him that I couldn't get on the subway dressed the way that I was.
In those days, New York was still quite dangerous, especially the subways at night. You really had to watch your back and make sure you didn't call attention to yourself. It was at that point that he revealed to me where he was taking me.
He said, "I am taking you to Times Square." I gagged again, insisting that there is no way I was going to Times Square, fully dressed up in Club Kid drag, where it was dangerous and filled with all kinds of drama. Keep in mind, this was before Disney bought up that area and turned it into a tourist trap.
He insisted again, begged me to trust him, and began to lead me to the subway station, while explaining to me what his plan was.
He told me that I was so beautiful, and should be able to dress any way that I wanted to with out being harassed or harmed by anyone, in any place, at any time of the day. He wanted to escort me on the subway to Times Square to prove that, as long as I stayed with him, no one would harm me. He would protect me.
So I trusted him, and I followed him.
He walked me onto the train and took me directly to Times Square. The whole time he walked a couple steps in front of me, with his fists cocked, ready to swing at anyone that dared to looked at me funny.
Not one person looked at me. Not one person laughed at me. Not one person taunted me.
I fell madly in love with him instantly. Dreams that I didn't even know I had, were coming true. We eventually bought a box of Whip Its and headed back to my place and spent the night together.
After that, Donald started going missing. He just wasn't around as much, and I lost track of him pretty quickly.
One night he turned up at the Michael Todd Room inside of Palladium, but he had completely changed his look, and it seemed as though he had also changed his personality.
He talked differently and dressed in this really dowdy way, with a flannel shirt and grown out unkept hair. The shine and the tenderness that he had, was all gone. I don't even remember noticing his cherry lips.
He was wearing these John Lennon type glasses and carrying around a sketch book, doing doodles of different people, similar to John Lennon's drawings. He seemed completely shut off from reality, and I didn't really know what to do with that behavior. That was the last time I saw him.
I didn't have any pictures of him, and my club life kicked into high gear soon after that, with numerous experiences occupying my focus. But I always held the sweetest spot in my heart for Donald and the odd tenderness that he shared with me.
After the big nightclub fallout in 1996, I went to go work in galleries to escape all the drama. One day I opened up Time Out Magazine and there was a beautiful picture of Donald on the street. It mentioned that Donald was a famous Christopher Street hustler, and that was the first time I understood a lot of the details of our experience together.
I now had some insight into why he was always numbing himself with Whip Its, and maybe why he eventually went mad. But I still never knew what happened to him.
In 2005, upon returning to New York, after living in London for a few years. I took up a job managing the studio of photographer, Jack Pierson. As I was going through his collection of artworks, that needed to be inventoried, I came across a beautiful framed photo of Donald.
I explained to Jack, that Donald had been my first lover in New York, and I had no pictures of him, and had lost track of him. He gave me that picture as a gift, and told me a photographer named Mr. Leonard had taken it. He purchased it from an exhibition titled, "Three Musers, One Muse" at the Tom Cugliani Gallery. The whole show was photographs of Donald by three different photographers.
I realized that the image I saw in Time Out must have been from that exhibition. Jack suggested that I contact Mr. Leonard, who was now in Florida, and see if he had any more pictures of him.
Through social media, I was able to track down Mr. Leonard, and told him my Time Square story about Donald. He said the last time he saw him, was on Greenwich Avenue leaving St. Vincent's Hospital and he was in very bad shape. He had gotten heavily into crack abuse and died from AIDS around 1996.
A few weeks later, I received a package from Mr. Leonard, containing a number of his portraits of Donald. He said that he might have more, but that those were all he could find at the moment.
I continued my dialogue with Mr. Leonard, encouraging him to organize his archive of photos, and perhaps I could help get them into some exhibitions. I fantasized about going down to Florida and picking through his archive to discover even more pictures of Donald.
I never got the chance to get to Florida, and sadly, Mr. Leonard also passed away.
I keep Donald's picture above my bed, and always hope that his spirit is near and protecting me, the same way he did when he took me to Times Square.
Waltpaper - October, 2018.