The author reading poetry at Danceteria circa 1980. by The Author
Everyone on the scene thought operating an after-hours club on top of a 14th Street theater was a good idea and Arthur Weinstein opened the Jefferson on New Year’s Eve 1980. During the week the loft was home to Arthur, his wife, daughter, and best friend, Scottie. On the weekend hundreds of revelers unwilling to call it a night crowded into the second-story space like it was the Noah’s Ark of decadence. Movie stars, musicians, models, bankers, politicians, go-go dancers, punks, gays, cops, and dealers called the Jefferson their home away from home, until the NYPD raided the Jefferson Theater in the late fall of 1981. It was 3am. Arthur Weinstein escaped out the fire escape under a black Halloween cape. Scottie slinked out the front door with the cash from the bars. Not everyone got away free.
Internal Affairs arrested 2 cops from the 9th precinct, a sanitation cop, a bag man for the fire department, two transvestites, a circus clown, two barboys, three female bartenders, and me. The sanitation cop put up a struggle. The cops hauled him into the back bedroom and broke his leg with a baseball bat.
“Anyone else want some.” A plain-clothed officer shook the baseball bat at us.
We shook our heads.
After 30 minutes an ambulance arrived for the injured cop and the officers led the other arrestees into a paddy wagon. We were arraigned in the morning and released without bail. Arthur and Scottie met me later that night at the Ritz. Arthur was wearing sunglasses and as nervous as a fugitive.
“What did Internal Affairs say?” Arthur had been visited by a psycho cop. A double blast from a shotgun was the 9th Precinct’s warning to keep his mouth shut. He was hoping that we had done the same.
“Nothing. They didn’t ask us anything.”
“No names?” Scottie wore the same jeans, shirt, and jacket as the night before. His hair stuck straight up in the air as if he had standing on his feet and in his unshaven state he looked like Charles Manson’s illegitimate nephew on the run.
“None. They booked us, arraigned us, and cut us loose.”
“Cool.” Arthur was relieved that none of us were in trouble. Not that he could do anything to help us.
The Jefferson closed its doors forever. I paid three months rent in advance. We never went to trial for the Jefferson. The story never made the papers. None of us had jobs. We didn’t deal drugs. We only did them. Mostly cocaine. Within a month we were broke. Arthur kept talking about opening another place. His wife thought he was crazy, but agreed to decorate the next venue.
“Think about how we can do if it was bigger,” Arthur told Scottie and me. Bigger meant more money. Investors thought the same thing and in the summer of 1981 Arthur found an abandoned garage on West 25th Street. He told the landlord that it was going to be an art gallery.
“It just needs a little work.” The floors were caked with oil. The walls sagged with mildew, and the ceiling panels hung down like limp tongues. “We don’t have to make it livable. Only good enough to serve drinks. We can open by Labor Day.”
“Who’s going to do the work?” I wondered. Scottie was a bartender. I was a doorman. The only time we used a hammer was to chip the ice out of the freezer.
“You guys and your friends.” Arthur said without saying how. “I’m no contractor.”
“How much are you going to pay?” I was only interested in money.
“Not much.” Arthur was living on the skinny edge of life same as us. “But you’ll have a job at the end of it.”
“Throw in lunch and you got a deal.”
“Deal.” Arthur’s word was good enough for Scottie, myself, and several friends.
Werthel, a lanky 19 year-old cokehead from the Five Towns, also wanted to join the work crew. During the last months of the Jefferson his use had gone from daily to hourly.
“Why don’t you go to rehab?” Scottie asked at the apartment that Werthel shared with our mutual friend, Richie Boy. “Your father has money.”
“I don’t want him to know about it.” Werthel was swearing off blow forever. He gave us the last of his stash. “Have a party,” he said.
“You mind if I take some change too.” Scottie was staring at the bowl of coins on a glass table. It was filled to the brink with quarters.
“Sure, but only as much as you can grab with one hand.”
Scottie snatched a handful and Werthel grabbed his wrist, shaking it so hard that Scottie’s take was decreased by half.
“You’re the meanest man in the world,” Richie Boy declared from the sofa. Richie was Werthel’s schoolmate from kindergarten. No one knew him better.
“What you mean by that?”
“If you have to ask, then what the use of explaining.”
“Do you guys think I’m mean?”
“I won’t if you let me take another handful.” Scottie was ready to go double or nothing.
“Get out of here.”
The coins covered a sandwich at the nearest deli. The cocaine went fast at AM-PM, an after-hours club abutting the exit for the Holland Tunnel. Free cocaine always had a funny way of making you too many new friends.
On Monday we showed up to West 25th Street at 9am. The street was shimmering with heat. Arthur’s craggy-faced partner was waiting for us. We all recognized him as the coverboy for a Time Magazine article on Herpes. We called him HP.
“You were supposed to be here at 8.” HP was standing with his twin brother and a friend. The brother wasn’t as craggy and the friend was wearing a very professional carpenter belt. It was leather. “Any of you have tools?”
“I’ll take that as a no.” HP gave the carpenter friend $40. “Go get some hammers and shit. The rest of you I don’t want talking to anyone about what we’re doing. Nothing. I want you here on time. 8am. We finish when we finish. No overtime.”
“What an asshole,” Werthel muttered under his breath.
“As long as we get paid I don’t give a shit.” Scottie’s definition of paradise was a joint and Chinese take-out.
“Yeah, but he’s still an asshole.”
Within 30 minutes we were tearing down the walls. Scottie and I loaded up metal in a trolley. Werthel commandeered the sledge hammer and pounded the walls with a fury confirmed his status as the meanest man in the world. Decades old dust covered our bodies and sweat wet our skin. Arthur showed up at noon.
“Good work, guys. You look like coalminers.”
“Looks like lunch time.” Scottie was exhausted from the first physical work he had done in his life. I was out of shape. Only Werthel was ready for more, because his system was running on cocaine fumes.
“Who said,” HP countermanded Scottie’s suggestion. “It’s lunch when I say it’s lunch.”
“Who elected you god?” Arthur snidely demanded in our defense.
“I’m paying for this. I’ll tell them what to do.” HP was approaching the first stages of apoplexy.
“Shut up already. Don’t be such an asshole.” Arthur was our union rep. “Lunchtime, guys. Cough up.”
“Cough up what?”
“Lunch money.” Arthur had as little money as we did i.e. nothing.
“I never said anything about paying for lunch.” HP was as stingy as a 13 year-old boy on his first date. “These guys are on their own. You have thirty minutes.”
Werthel, Scottie, and I muttered “asshole” under our breath and Arthur rolled his eyes as if to apologize. Arthur and Scottie looked at the scrap metal. There was a junk dealer on 28th Street. The metal had to be worth something.
“We’ll get rid of the metal and be right back.”
Arthur and Scottie rolled the trolley onto West 25th Street. The temperature would have been 95 in the shade if there were any trees. The trip took them 20 minutes. They came back with two sandwiches. The junk dealer had given them $8. Arthur split the sandwich four ways.
“You done her.” HP was complaining about us taking too much time.
“I’ll talk to him.” Arthur was good with people, only HP wasn’t listening to anything Arthur had to say. He knew it all. By week’s end we wanted to quit. Arthur begged us to reconsider.
“This guy won’t hire you, if you do.” Arthur was powerless to stop HP from being an asshole, but we knew once the club opened we’d get our reward one way or the other and we stayed on the job.
Werthel was the only one who didn’t mind not having any money for lunch. His mother thought that he was in summer school and gave him a weekly stipend. Every lunch he’d get himself a good sandwich, while Scottie and I ate a $1 slice of pizza. Scottie and I were losing weight. Werthel was getting stronger. We tried to schnorr extra food. He would throw the half-eaten sandwich in the trash. Scottie and I were too proud to dig out his scraps. He didn’t deserve it, but we transferred our hatred from HP to Werthel.
The demolition got harder and dirtier. Things should have improved once we started construction, except none of us knew what we were doing. Werthel fell off the ladder and I smashed my thumb with a hammer. Arthur suggested that I should go see a doctor. HP wouldn’t pay for the visit, so I wrapped my thumb with a torn tee-shirt.
One day Scottie and I were starving and Werthel said, “I’ll race you for a sandwich.”
“Me?” Scottie was short, but very fast.
“No, you.” He pointed to me.
“Me.” I had been a cross-country runner in high school in 1969. My finishes were never in the top 5.
“Yeah.” Werthel was younger and taller. “You’re not hungry?”
“Then race me?”
“Werthel, just give us the money for a sandwich.” The previous night I drank until dawn with Richie Boy. My skin was sweating vodka.
“You want it. Run for it.”
HP and the rest of the crew stopped working. Arthur and Colleen got out of a cab.
“What’s the wager?” My stomach was growling from the lack of food.
“Okay, two sandwiches versus you being my slave for a day.” Werthel was wearing sneakers.
“One day.” I had on cheap work boots.
“I’ll take some of that bet.” HP yelled to Arthur from the loading platform. “But you have nothing to bet.”
“I do.” Arthur pulled $100 from his pocket. Colleen slapped his hand. The money was probably for an over-due bill.
“Straight up.” HP was giving no odds.
“Straight up.” Arthur looked at me. “You can do it, kid?”
“No problem.” Arthur was 35. I was almost 30. His saying ‘kid’ made me feel younger. “The bet’s on.”
“Scottie, you hold the money.” Arthur handed his c-note to Scottie. HP did the same and stared at Werthel. “If you throw the race, I’ll welsh on the bet.”
“I’m not throwing any bet. I’m the meanest man in the world.” Werthel threw his sandwich in the trash. This race was a test of his drug treatment. “You ready?”
“100 yards.” He was definitely faster than me for 50.
“100 yards.” Werthel dropped his tools. Colleen was berating Arthur. Scottie was the referee. Werthel and I walked off the distance in the middle of the street. Workers from the rest of the street stopped what they were doing.
“You know we don’t have to do this. You could give me the money for the sandwiches and I’ll be your slave.” I was more hungry than proud.
“No, this is a race.” Werthel stopped at a manhole cover. “This 100?”
I nodded yes. He crouched like Jesse Owens and I stood at ease, both arms at my side.
Scottie shouted from the finish line. “On your marks. Get set. Go.”
Werthel and I burst down the street. He pulled ahead instantly. One yard. Two yards. I dropped my head and pushed harder. My feet slapped onto the hot pavement. Shouts filled my ears. We were neck and neck. Scottie was only ten yards away. I leaned forward and beat Werthel across the line by a foot. Colleen screamed with delight and HP called for a rematch. Arthur grabbed the 2 $100 bills.
“No rematch. He won fair and square.”
I thought so too, then he winked at Werthel. I turned to him and he said, “What? You won your sandwich. Enjoy.”
Arthur gave Scottie and me $20 each. The sandwiches from the closest deli were terrible, but victory was a tasty condiment. That Friday HP said he’d pay us at his apartment. We went to One 5th Avenue. The doorman told us that he had flown to Paris to shoot a commercial about acne. We didn’t see him till the following week. After HP paid us, Werthel called him an asshole.
“I don’t need to hear that. You’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me. I quit.” Werthel chucked a hammer at HP. It travelled too fast for him to duck, but Werthel’s aim was off. The hammer quivered in the wall. Werthel stomped off the site and HP said, “Don’t even try to come to this club.”
“Asshole,” Arthur muttered.
He was a good judge of character. Later that night we went to see Werthel at his apartment. Richie Boy had a good laugh at everyone’s version of the story and Scottie asked, “Werthel, how it feel to lose to an old man?”
I might be beat up for my age, but not old, but before I could say anything, Werthel put down his Diet-Coke. It was the drink of recovering cokeheads. “I didn’t lose. I threw it.”
“You don’t like losing at anything. Even checkers when we were kids.” Richie Boy had all the answers.
“I made it look like he won.” Werthel folded his arms across his chest.
“Shut up already,” Arthur sat forward on the sofa. “I saw your face. You wanted to win and thought you could win against a drunk and maybe if you hadn’t eaten your sandwich before the race you could have beaten him, but not on a full stomach. He won, because he was faster.”
“I could beat him now.”
Werthel was right. I had already drunk 5 beers. My feet and legs and heart were out of the competition.
“Maybe.” Arthur wasn’t letting Werthel slide. “But not then. Who was faster? Tell the truth?”
Werthel waited several seconds and grunted with an off-center smile.
“I have a good eye for winners.” Arthur was looking at Werthel with a sly grin. “And an even better for losers and no one’s as big a loser as HP.”
“Asshole.” We clinked glasses and drained our drinks.
“But not Werthel.” Arthur added, because where Werthel might be the meanest man in the world to his friends but he would always be one of us and to this Werthel had nothing to say. He could only smile.
Peter Nolan Smith left New England in 1976 for the East Village. The nightlife became his vehicle for traveling the world; Paris, Hamburg, Nice, and London. His career ended at the Milk Bar in Beverly Hills in 1995 and devoted his years to traveling in the Orient, supporting by his new profession as diamantaire. Most of his 21st Century has been spent in Thailand, although economics forced his return to the USA in 2008. Peter NolanSmith currently lives in Brooklyn and Sriracha, Thailand. He is the editor and writer of www.mangozeen.com.