Finding My Tribe, Puberty and AIDS, Learning The Ropes / by Walt Cassidy


Finding My Tribe, Puberty and AIDS, Learning The Ropes

When I arrived to New York City in 1991, I was as green as they come.

Luckily I had a couple of informed running buddies.  I had two friends, Ivan Samuels, who I met at Kent State University and Ricky Zia, who was a fellow student at the Governors Magnet School for The Arts in Norfolk, Virginia.  

Ricky was beginning his first year at SVA, and I was in my second year, as a transfer student. We were both moving into the Greystone Hotel on West 91st Street, which was partially used as a dorm.

Ricky had been reading INTERVIEW Magazine and DETAILS all throughout high school, so he was much more informed about the particulars of the social scene in New York.  He was familiar with all the darlings of Downtown, from the Warhol people, to Diane Brill and he even knew about Michael Alig and the Club Kids.

I knew about Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, Those were the artists that I looked up to, and whose footsteps I wanted to follow in.  I had also seen Mondo New York, Slaves of New York, Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes on MTV and movies like 9 1/2 Weeks, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Something Wild.

I knew there was this funky freaky scene of creatives that existed in Downtown NYC, but how we were going to penetrate it, I wasn’t sure.  Like moths to the flame, we just flew directly towards the light and the heat.

We arrived at the end of summer, just before the Fall semester.  

Walking around the streets we saw this black and white poster with faces of drag queens all collaged together.  It was promoting an event called Wigstock, an outdoor music festival being staged at Union Square Park, with the band Deee-lite scheduled to headline.

Deee-lite was at the peak of their success, and we, like everyone else, were huge fans.  I had seen them perform in Cleveland, Ohio, while at Kent State, and they were incredible.  They presented a broad spectrum of international music and fashion references culled from various time periods.  Their mixture of wit, humor and style was unmatched.  They were the poster children of everything great that was going on in New York City.

So we made our way to Wigstock and saw all these incredible people dressed up, many in quite sophisticated costumes.  There was a sea of gay people, completely liberated and in full peacock mode.  We definitely stumbled upon the right event to welcome us to the city.

There was a back stage area that was fenced off with barricades, and Ricky and I watched with our eyes wide open.  The performances were so much more evolved than what I knew of drag queens from the bars that my mom worked in. 

These queens were so next level, and there was a distinctive “show biz” vibe to that particular Wigstock.  I imagine the great success of Deee-lite had a lot to do with this.  They had broken through and were holding the attention of the mainstream world audience, as well as, the music industry.  

Whenever a group or individual breaks through with fame and success, the various creative industries involved often look to the scene around that particular success story, in hopes of finding additional talent to cultivate.  Take for example Seattle and Grunge.

Deee-lite, Clubbing, the East Village and all things Downtown were having this moment and the queens showed up with their game faces on hoping to bite the next hook.

The Union Square Park Wigstock, was perhaps a graduation from the earlier versions Lady Bunny had staged at Tompkins Square Park, which had been closed that summer, after rioting ensued, as the city began a campaign to clean up the park and clear away the homeless people who had settled there.  Wigstock would eventually return to Tompkins Square Park, once more, before being relocated to the Piers.

The boys in the Wigstock crowd, were particularly stunning.  Where did all these beautiful New York boys come from with their full red lips and sparkling eyes? There was definitely something in the water.

I felt like after a life of seeing in black and white, I finally discovered full color.  There wasn’t a broad range of ethnicity in the areas where I had grown up.  Suburbia has a way of erasing cultural details and flattening out people’s perspectives.  The categories were Black, White or Asian. 

I was a freaky White kid from a Black neighborhood, and that was it.

I had grown up with a bi-racial brother and sister, who were, for the most part, estranged.  My Dad, having been raised in Chicago, had wonderful tales of culture that he had experienced as a kid.  He was very proud of being Irish and finding solace in other communities, in particular, with the Greeks, Japanese and Hawaiians.  

He did everything he could to introduce me to the richness of culture that he had experienced out in the world. However, the backdrops that I was given, as a result of where we lived, had been pretty stark, with very little gradation in color or culture.  It had been a high contrast black and white world that I knew of.

In New York, I was immediately intoxicated by this vibrating palette of cultural distinction.  All of a sudden there was a full spectrum of flavors to choose from, each one just as delicious as the next....Jewish, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Greek, Japanese, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese, German, and Russian.

The city had also not been gentrified yet.  So every block that you walked down, had it’s own specific cultural flavor.  The streets were lined with small local and family owned businesses.  The mafia was still very present in New York, and that created specific distinctions too.

Things like K-Mart and 7-11 didn’t exist in New York at that time, not to mention the stream of corporate run chains that have now come to dominate the city.  The commercial language of suburbia was completely mute in New York City.

I felt alive and free for the first time in my life.  All the imposed boundaries had been erased.  The terrain was wide open and the possibilities were endless.

I had only had a couple sexual experiences with boys growing up, and a handful more with girls.  Most of my desires were cashed in on fantasizing about some unattainable straight guy that might have been friendly to me at school.  There just wasn’t much fruit to pick from the vine where I grew up.

Arriving to New York, was like arriving to an orchard, spilling over with the brightest, freshest and sweetest fruit.  There was one hitch though.  We were smack dab in the middle of the AIDS crisis, as it continued to wipe out huge volumes of men from our community.

Condoms and safe sex were heavily promoted.  Every gay bar, bookstore and coffee shop had bowls of free condoms, but there was still a tremendous amount of uncertainty about how it was transmitted and if there was ever going to be a successful treatment.

You could feel the heaviness of AIDS in the air, but by the 90′s, we had been processing it for a decade.  Being gay and living a full life didn’t seem to be on the menu.  The image of the gay man, had become an image of a sick man, punished for his lifestyle and fighting to stay alive.  Many of my mother’s friends from the gay bar where she worked, had passed.  She used to say to me, “Don’t drop your pants for just anyone.”

To me, sex, kinda felt off limits at this time. Not because I had any shame or guilt about being gay, but because I was still grossly uninformed about the details of HIV and AIDS.  I had anxiety using public bathrooms, fearing I might get it from sitting on a toilet seat.  I wasn’t sure if I could get it from kissing someone. There was just so much that I didn’t know.

I believe this is one of the reasons why my focus became dressing up, going out and taking drugs.  As much as I was stimulated by the wide range of beautiful boys in the city, I was terrified to have sex with any of them.

It seemed like the only thing I could do, was try to have the time of my life in that moment, and to be as safe as possible.

After I had established myself as a club kid, I remember going to Sound Factory where Junior Vasquez was the DJ.  It was a massive open square space with bleachers on one side and a giant disco ball in the middle.  After all the other clubs closed, the people who worked in them would go home, freshen up and then head to Factory for after hours dancing.

Junior would build people up with the music earlier in the night and into the morning hours.  The crowd was incredibly sexy.  The male go-go dancers were the most stunning examples of New York beauty.  Each dancer was perched on the various speaker stacks surrounding the dance floor, wearing only white towels and red spot lights.

The crowd was predominately Black and Latin at that time.  The music and the tonality of the crowd would shift over the coming years, so I am glad I got to experience the earlier incarnation.

The music Junior was spinning in the early days of Factory, was the deepest I had ever heard.  It soaked into your muscles, and there was no way you could not dance.  

There were still a lot of vocals in the music at that time, and there was no auto tune.  The singers really sang and had distinctive voices. You could also hear real instrumentation in the tracks, and often live drummers and musicians would play along over the set being pumped from the DJ booth.  It was a transcendental experience.  

Within the Gatien clubs, where I worked, there was a distinct hierarchy, complete with VIP areas.  It was territorial. There were different areas for different crowds. 

The Club Kid’s didn’t really mix with the muscle queens, for instance.  We each had our own sections of the club, and then there was the main dance floor, where people would dip in and out throughout the night, mixing with the filler crowd.

At Sound Factory, the playing field was completely even.  No one was given special treatment, and everyone paid to get in. There was no guest list.  There weren’t separate lounges, it was just one big space with a giant dance floor.  

Junior really took you on a journey.  He would go high and low, fast and slow, and there was a tremendous sonic dimension to his sets.  There was space to move around inside the music.  It was narrative.  He was articulating the story of our reality at that time.

As we moved towards the morning, the sounds would build and surge.

Then there would be a point when he would completely stop the music and the whole club would go black.  Everyone stood in silence, and I noticed that a number of people often got down on their hands and knees and began to weep. 

We all knew what the silence was for.  It was to acknowledge all the people from our community who had passed, who were struggling and were continuing to die from AIDS.  It was to mark that within this one silent moment, we were all still very much alive. 

The silence seemed like it would never end.

Then a tiny white pin spot would slice through the black air, and shatter into a million beams of light.  Off the mirrored skin of the giant disco ball, a sea of stars cascaded around the entire room.

From the absence of sound, a whisper acapella track of “Make It Happen” by Mariah Carey would emerge. Triumphant horns would rise up through the escalating vocal, and a burst of colored lights would throb down onto our skin.

Out of the sorrow came ecstasy.  Out of darkness, came light.

Those type of moments at Sound Factory is what the early 90′s and New York City was all about in my mind.  We were all terrified for our lives, so we dressed up, threw parties and did shows.  We danced as if our life depended on it, because, in a sense, it did.

Here is a link to that Mariah Carey remix:

I remember one night at Factory, I headed to the water fountain after dancing for a long period.  I was really high on acid, which was a popular drug at that party.  After grabbing some water I turned around and there was this tiny freaky lady staring up at me.  It was Cyndi Lauper.  She had followed me to the water fountain to stop and tell me how amazing I looked.

She so sweet and complimentary, but I was tripping so hard, that I was unable to have a proper conversation with her.  I graciously thanked her and rushed back to the protection of the dance floor.

I crossed paths with a lot of amazing people back in the day.  I’ve always been a little dismissive of celebrities.  Some of that was shyness, some of it was arrogance, and some of it was just living in New York. 

I was interested in artists and good energy.  I didn’t, and still don’t, care if is comes in a celebrity package.  Cyndi did seem very cool and very sincere, and I wish I had spent some more time talking with her.  

In retrospect, there are so many situations that I dismissed or took for granted.  Half the time, I didn’t even realize how amazing the people really were, that were around me, or I thought they would always be around and I could catch up with them some other time. 

Leigh Bowery was one of those.  He was around quite a bit, and I never invested any energy in getting to know him or talk to him.  I thought he was incredibly talented, and still do, but a number of the Club Kids, including Michael, heavily referenced him.  So kinda like clown makeup and white face, I stayed away.  I wanted to find my own thing, and it wasn’t about big drag or cumbersome costumes.

But that is something I regret.  I missed out on getting to know a great artist.

On another night, after taking mushrooms, I headed over to Palladium.  It was quite cold out and I was wearing a black marabou feather jacket, fishnets, hot shorts and suede platform shoes.  I still had my antennae hair.  I must have looked like a giant black moth.

As I approached the velvet ropes after getting out of the taxi, a beautiful and funky black lady was leaving the club.  She saw me headed towards the entrance, and stood there staring in amazement. 

She rushed up to me before I could get to the rope and put her arms around me in a tight embrace.  She stared into my eyes, and she said “Do you know how beautiful you are?  Can you see it? Can you see it? Do you know how beautiful you are? Do you realize?!!”

This was still my early days as a Club Kid, so I wasn’t used to being acknowledged or getting compliments.  I was still earning my keep and trying to figure out what my angle on all of this was.

This woman seemed very familiar and possibly famous, but the mushrooms had kicked in and I was so surprised by her approach and what she was saying to me, so passionately, that I couldn’t pin point who she was.  

I thanked her, wished her a good night, and walked into the club.  I then realized it was Nona Hendryx from the band LaBelle.  Wow, how amazing was that?

She had come to me like a mother spirit, encouraging me to fly...higher and further, than even I could imagine.

I was, in fact, breaking through, and finding my way.


March, 2018.