Monday, June 17, 2013

Danceteria and Liz

My mother has been saying for the last few years that many people are choosing to leave the planet because of the energy shift, that they either are not prepared to deal with the changes at this time or they have bigger fish to fry on the other side. Either way I have lost a lot of friends. But I'm also at the age where this is going to happen naturally. When I was young and wild we lost a slew of friends to drug overdoses, suicide, and AIDS. Then things sort of calmed down and the rest of us worked out that we weren't going to die young and leave beautiful corpses as once assumed, so we had to get on with quitting smoking, root canals, and the purchase of non-futon grown-up style beds. Now, as middle age lumbers on, my friends are dying of things like heart attacks and cancer. 

It's weird. I have always known deep down that I will live a long life, and I worry that I will be the last one standing, in orthopedic shoes, the ensuing funeral sparsely attended. As my friend Kim Montenegro likes to say, "Vanity, not sanity!"

Anyway, we lost a good one this week, the beautiful Liz Connor Bursis, to cancer. I spent a lot of time around Liz when I worked at Danceteria in the mid-80's, then lost touch, and then found her again on Facebook. We conversed briefly on there, exchanged rants about Monsanto and the like, and I took comfort that she was in my orbit. But, as with many people, it never went deeper than that. So I didn't know she was sick and then all of a sudden she was gone. So I'm kind of sad that I didn't take advantage of the convenience of the internet to reconnect with her on more than a superficial level.

I would have liked to tell her that she was lovely and a great influence on me at an early age. She showed that a woman could be rock and roll and classy at the same time, and I still look to her energy to this day when I want to channel a peaceful elegance. She was highly intelligent, patient, gentle and almost maternal toward me at a time that I needed some grounding energy. She lived an extremely interesting life, she was a member of the Eulenspiegel Society and told some very interesting tales from her days as a dominatrix. Her story would probably make for a fabulous book or movie, but she never bragged or dramatized.

I have already been writing about my time at Danceteria for the dreaded book, so I thought I would pull this section up for you, which includes my first real interaction with Liz. It's more about me than her (as per usual), but this moment with her is such a vivid memory that I thought it would be appropriate to share.

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1984
Betsey Johnson was a total wash, but I still needed work to survive. It occurred to me one night that a job in the warm cocoon of nightlife might be the perfect situation in which to rub up against rock stars and reside most happily. I turned to Michael Schmidt, as we stood posing on the third floor of Danceteria, and said, "I think I want to work here."

One of the owners, Rudolf Pieper, walked by at that moment. Rudolf was a tall, handsome, urbane German, the official figurehead of Danceteria. His girlfriend was the “celebutante” Dianne Brill, an amazonian nightlife personality with tons of blonde hair, a charming personality and the talent to look booming in a red rubber dress. They were both larger than life personalities and when they entered the room you knew you were in the right place.


Michael touched Rudolf's arm as he strolled past regally, pointed to me and said, "She wants to work here."

Rudolf stopped, looked me up and down and said, in his elegant accent, "Dat's fabooluss. What would you like to do?"

I replied, "Um...I dunno...bartend?" Bartending looked like it could be fun, most likely more profitable than standing in one of the elevators all night moving a switch back and forth, and definitely more comfortable than shivering outside at the door holding a clipboard.

Rudolf said, "You're hired. Come see me tomorrow afternoon at 3."

And with that I was in bartending at one of the hottest clubs in the city. Many people clamored for this job and I stepped into it completely oblivious to the ease of entrance. I was so green that I assumed everyone could just walk up to the owner or manager of any place and get a job they desired. I had no clue about the world I was entering and how my looks played a part in my success and failures; I naively, and truly, just thought it looked like fun and that people were usually nice and gave you what you wanted if it was in their power to do so.

Since I rarely drank anything other than the occasional shared white Russian with Michael, I had no knowledge of spirits or how tips worked, and no understanding of the heavy caste system under which clubs operated: bartenders and DJ's at the top of the food chain, barbacks next, then busboys. The elevator girls were cute filler and doormen and security were respected in their own class.

The ensuing staff hatred and outrage was palpable. Many years later I spoke to a former co-worker about the job and he told me that he had never seen the kind of open and hysterical female outrage that my appearance created, and that he asked to be scheduled with me to see what the fuss was about. But it wasn’t just the women, most of the lesser-employed males wanted my head on a spike as well. The barbacks expressed their disdain openly and generally would not acknowledge me with any kind of greeting or eye contact above a sneer. The bartenders ignored or snorted at my questions, which in retrospect were pretty dumb. Then they would give orders for me to obtain various liquids or items from the barbacks, knowing full well that any request I made would go unfulfilled.

I was absolutely at sea behind the bar. I wore fingerless lace gloves that caught on everything and got soaked. For a short while I was very into the idea of having a tail and fashioned a horse tail with a belt and a faux ponytail, which then got caught on the bottles as I moved back and forth. I went through a platform shoe phase; platforms weren’t available in stores so I had had some custom made in Times Square, very cheaply, and I would wobble uncomfortably around on them behind the bar. A request like "White Label and soda" would necessitate a panicked hobble up and down the back of the bar, poring over the bottles looking for something called White Label, not knowing that it was the same thing as Dewars, which I wouldn't have been able to find anyway. I dropped three ice cubes in a cup, using my hand instead of a scoop, poured three times the proper amount of alcohol, then fumbled with the gun trying to figure out which button gave me which liquid. It must have been dreadful to witness.

A half an hour into my first night Karen Finley took pity and showed me how to pour a drink. Karen was famous at the time for her blistering performance art, which featured acts like smearing canned yams on her nude body and shouting about getting accosted on the subway. She was/is amazing and brave and well-respected in the underground art community. I didn't know that at the time, she just seemed like a really nice, sort of ordinary pretty girl with long brown hair who was willing to help me.

Karen sighed and said, "You fill the cup COMPLETELY up with ice." She scooped ice into the plastic cup. "Then you count to four quickly: one, two, three, four. Then you add soda, then you add a lime, then you add a stirrer. It's not that complicated. If you need to know what's in a drink just ask one of us."

I fumbled through, immensely grateful for this scrap of kindness, while the staff continued to complain about me openly at every opportunity. Rudolf, God bless him, offered to have the club pay my tuition to bartending school, and handed me the number to call. This made the barbacks even angrier. They were spending long nights lugging cases of beer and buckets of ice for the opportunity to serve drinks on any off occasion, and I had teetered to the front of the Saturday night line in cheap lingerie and a bondage cap.

One night, fairly quickly into this career and on a night off, I needed quarters for the cigarette machine. I asked a serious, heavy-set barback named Matt if he could make change for me. He threw me the usual look of disgust and said brusquely, "Change it off the bar."

Liz was bartending that night. She was a beautiful former-dominatrix with a mysterious past who seemed extremely exotic and dangerous to me. Liz was soft-spoken and articulate, with short, close-cropped black hair and a tattoo of a cross with a heart on her arm, which was a big deal as women weren’t tattooing their arms yet. She was in her mid-30’s, which seemed so old to me that it was almost an alien concept to try to wrap the brain around, and had a stern, strong demeanor that intimidated most people. I adored her and was absolutely terrified of her.

As Liz worked, appearing unaware of my presence, I set my two dollars down onto the bar and gingerly picked up quarters from the tips that lay strewn in the slightly dipped well that ran around the inside of the bar. At the third quarter Liz manifested in front of me and snatched my wrist in her hand. She held it, looking straight into my eyes. I nearly peed.

She spoke in a low and menacing tone: "What are you doing?"

"Um...I need quarters for cigarettes. I was making change?" My voice squeaked upward into a question. I'm sure I was blinking and flinching.

"If you need change, you ask. Don't ever touch another bartender's tips."

She quickly collected quarters and dropped them into my shaking hand. As she did so I noticed a slight smile on the fat barback's face as he stood behind her, and realized then that it was a set-up. It was evident at that moment that some of Danceteria didn't love me as much as Rudolf did. This was a whole new territory of meanness that I had never explored before.


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 You are unforgettable. See you on the other side, Darling.