Together // a chapter from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book
In one of my early club moments, I was inspired by a beat I hadn’t heard before to climb up onto a black dance cube in the red, green, yellow, blue spotlights and that’s where I first heard the deep droning voice in the song that went “People are still having sex. Lust keeps on lurking… Nothing makes them stop. This AIDS thing’s not working.” This was high school, often in the evening I was having sex with men in public bathrooms but I didn’t call it that, it was a secret world, at the clubs I just wanted to smoke pot and drink cocktails and dance—I needed to get away from everything that’s what dancing was about. It wasn’t true that “All the denouncement had absolutely no effect,” but I could pretend when the floor was shaking with the bass.
That was back when you knew the drug dealer was the one with the bleached white hair and the lunchbox with smiley-face stickers on it, you didn’t really have to hide your drugs yet, not even in DC and I could just go crazy on the dance floor it was my space my place to go crazy I needed that. At the beach with my sister I played something by New Order from Technique I was showing off all my dance moves I mean I didn’t have special moves I would just go with it. My sister looked at me like I was crazy, I said that’s how people dance at clubs. And then we went out on the balcony with the boombox echoing off the cement leading out to the ocean and we danced for the echo, for the cement, for the other balconies, probably not for the ocean as much because by the time we remembered the ocean we were just dancing.
Later, after I got away, there was Cajmere’s “Brighter Days” with that track clack bringing you right into the vocal hold and then back to clack track but always building. By this point it was all about something clanky, something banging, give me some horns but mostly just that pounding bass layering drums repeating sample layering bass pounding drums yes yes please more yes. Screaming when the beat got knock-you-down overwhelming and breathe-deep soothing at the same time or that sample came at the exact moment when you couldn’t possibly handle it or just because you saw the wrong person at the right time or the right person at the wrong time or because there was something missing I mean there was nothing missing for just that moment with the sweat pouring down your face your eyes bringing the beat into your body your body taking it.
So I’m starting conversations with everyone on the way home or at least saying hi and waving. They advertised minimal techno but then it was that beat throwing me into stumbling grace, the way you watch people’s moves and build into and away from collapse like anything is possible and then at the end when that guy came up and said thanks for dancing with me. A straight guy doing the raver jock thing oh that was so sweet I mean I wasn’t exactly dancing with him except that I’m aware of the bodies in the room and how we interact until I’m not aware of anything except this breath.
But the endorphins, like I’m asleep and awake at the same time because of all the sensation in and under my skin. Then it’s the next day, and I’m sitting outside the movie theater because I can’t figure out how to sit inside without too much pain—I’ve tried moving around and even getting up to stretch, then taking off my shoes because my feet feel swollen, then even my socks because it feels too humid and stuffy in the theater. Then someone gets the person working there to tell me I can’t eat the food I brought, so I go outside and stare at literally hundreds or maybe thousands of ants crawling up six metal water fountains on the edge of what looks like a miniature sports field. It’s art, or near art anyway, and in four of the water fountains there’s pigeon shit in carefully delivered rows.
I think about eating while sitting on the toilet because the bathroom has a better cooling system than the theater anyway, but then the same employee who told me not to eat in the theater follows me into the bathroom—I’m guessing there’s no rule prohibiting me from eating in the privacy of a bathroom stall, but I feel strange and conspicuous so I go back outside. I’m sitting on the steps, but then there’s so much burning around my neck and down my shoulders so I decide to stand up. Although I don’t want to eat standing up so then I sit down again and Derek comes out, he says oh you’re eating—I was just checking to make sure you’re okay.
He goes back inside, and then I start crying because I’m not okay, I’m really not: I hate that doing something so simple as dancing brings me here to all this pain. The way the beat bends forward and back, hands up into flip twist around the floor just another platform, hands into hands so many hands into bodies another floor around bodies into eyes stretching eyes stretching light into air. And yes, this song where the light is purple, green, red winding out of the dark into all these bodies, me, on the dance floor, and I wake up thinking I should start a club except wait, I can’t even dance for more than seven minutes in my house without hurting myself, sometimes even the seven minutes hurts, I mean it usually hurts something. I can’t decide whether it’s better to do it anyway.
I’m telling Derek about how I get nervous when I decide to go out. Like yesterday I paced back and forth across the street from this one scenester bar, but there were too many people smoking outside—I couldn’t deal with walking through the crowd and what if someone wanted to talk to me, then I’d be standing in the middle of all that smoke. But sometimes I get nervous about just the idea of going out and then I keep rushing to the bathroom to shit. Or I’ll get to the door of some club and I’ll get that sinking stomach drama, well that’s always happened but there used to be more of a chance that once I got inside I could walk into the music making my eyes close and it would send me to the sky.
Tonight I’m thinking of going to this disco revival night, even though I hate disco, mostly because it’s taking place in the basement of 1015 Folsom and years ago I went to a club in that basement every Tuesday, it wasn’t like the rest of the club all fancy just a basement finished in a kind of unfinished way, with a low ceiling like maybe you’d hit your head on the pipes if you jumped too high, and everyone would dance like crazy. It was a Tuesday night so we were dedicated and I’d always get that calm rush from dancing except I remember standing outside at 4 a.m. after they closed and all these people were getting into fancy cars and I was trying to find a ride, no one would give me a ride. The club was called Together.
Then, just a few months ago, this guy on the bus asked me if I went out to clubs a lot, I used to, then it turned out he remembered me from Together—he started going on and on about how it used to be all about the dancing you could be anybody and just dance it didn’t matter whether you were straight or gay, who you knew or what you looked like, what kind of clothes you wore it was all about the dancing. And if I let my eyelids flutter a bit I can remember him too he used to spin around and jump up and down he was a straight guy who wasn’t afraid.
But then there’s that certain kind of nostalgia so specific to club life, like you can take any horrible place and suddenly it was the place where everyone got along when the drugs were great when there were no drugs when the drugs were actually fun when everyone was different when everyone was the same before the straight people the yuppies the suburbanites the tweakers the tourists took it over when the music actually built it hit you over the head it was soothing it knocked you down it was all about the vibe when the DJs actually knew how to spin when two hours was a warm-up not a whole set when DJs would play for the music not for the crowd when DJs would actually play for the crowd when DJs would actually spin records when people would actually make out when everyone wasn’t just interested in sex when there wasn’t so much attitude when there were freaks when there was attitude when people were interesting when people actually had sex when the music was actually good when it wasn’t about who you knew when everything was cheap when everything wasn’t tacky when you knew everyone when people actually dressed up when everyone wasn’t so dressed up when you could have a conversation when the music wasn’t so loud when clubs actually had good sound when people would stand in line when there wasn’t a line around the block when they didn’t frisk you when things were safer when everyone wasn’t worried about safety when people would talk to one another when people had fun when everyone got along.
But anyway I’m thinking of going to this disco revival night, even though I hate disco I like that it’s in the basement of 1015, which I’ve just heard was originally one of the big bathhouses in the ‘70s, so I’d like to look for evidence, maybe those pipes. Plus, there probably won’t be smoke, 1015’s a big club with too much to lose, they wouldn’t risk letting people smoke. A big club with only a few doors that seal like a fortress and this night is in the basement so there’s no way for everyone’s smoke from outside to get in. And even though I hate disco, I’ve heard these DJs can actually spin.
But I was talking about my nerves, so of course I’m not there yet. Derek wants to know why I get so nervous, so I think about it and it’s strange because either I can’t engage and I end up feeling claustrophobic, or I get too excited and then as soon as I’m out of the public eye I can’t function I’m just my own head caved in. I wish there was another option—Kid Koala’s on now, and when Derek goes to the bathroom I try a few moves and when he comes back out he’s looking at me with a mixture of excitement and sadness. I’m sad too because even a few spins and twirls the look in my eyes it’s that space I miss the head side to side hands flinging I mean I’m feeling it. And then, just when I’m about to joke that I’ll probably hurt something just from these few moves, I notice a pain in my side I don’t want to say anything because it’ll make me feel hopeless.
I was wrong about the music it was great. I was wrong about 1015 because everybody was smoking I mean everybody it was like no one had ever passed a law. I’m not in favor of the legal system but smoking destroys me. I wish other people would realize that, not about me just about other people but they refuse to. There’s plenty of room outside to smoke but no it was inside, everybody was smoking with excitement like they were committing an incredibly transgressive act. Years ago I used to smoke and maybe I smoked that way too. I was wrong because I stayed I mean I knew people were smoking right away there was no way not to know but I couldn’t turn around. I mean I didn’t.
The place was beautiful—they’d remodeled it so it’s a circle with booths on the sides no pipes on the ceiling now there are little lights hanging down, hundreds of them almost like glow sticks in different colors, somehow it looks elegant and everything shimmers and almost the whole place is the dance floor in the center. I even loved the music when the beats got layered like house or dissonant like broken electro except it was disco don’t get me wrong I know where house came from. People were festive on the dance floor, sure the ‘70s look was everywhere but it was more styled than usual and it’s sad that the only way queeniness trumps masculinity is when it’s high fashion damage, but I’ll take damage over masculinity any day.
Maybe I could have left if I hadn’t been so surprised—I was surprised by the space it was gorgeous like a cabaret but bigger like a crazed spaceship landing pad. I was surprised that I loved it, even with all the smoking I wanted to dance and once I started dancing I was there. On the dance floor everyone was sweat-drenched letting go I even knew some of the crazier ones and I liked that. I remembered how much I can love clubs all that concentrated energy like you’re in a different world where you can watch people watching people watch me I love looking in their eyes and dancing slow and close and fast and far and faster and closer and smiling everywhere and I knew I was wrong.
Dany was working these beautiful queeny dance moves somewhere between vogueing and disco diva and ‘90s clubkid she was in white, white in the white room so much sweat it was fun to sweat and shake then John who said I haven’t seen you in a while and we hugged in all that sweat. I kept thinking I should go before I get tired but really I didn’t get tired I just kept dancing or sometimes walking a little and trying to find the air but there wasn’t much air. Running into people and then dancing again, this one boy with scenester stubble who was maybe the hottest in the room for me I mean in the sexual way those big eyes he kept staring right at me and I stared back but I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong for staring. I wasn’t wrong because I didn’t get closer to him, I mean maybe I should have gotten closer but I was feeling that place of everywhere at once with my body moving into calculated collapse using falling to find falling apart I mean I am falling apart but not now this is what it means to dance.
I was working the sweater Steven sent me from a thrift store in LA, this gorgeous old sequined wool sweater, sequins in blue yellow purple magenta green teal diamond shapes. I hadn’t found the right event for it because wool’s usually too warm for me I mean too warm for a layer I don’t take off. Tonight was the night for this sweater because it was cold out really cold for San Francisco and I figured it would be cold at 1015 too. I almost turned a whole clashing outfit with a torn part of a prom dress around my neck but decided on the pale green corduroys and sparkly purple belt I made the right choice. Even though I was wrong, I made the right choice about my outfit. I felt like I was sparkling. too. I mean I was sparkling, but I should’ve taken one look around and walked right back outside into the fresh air, the drizzle everyone’s complaining about oh the air felt so fresh but I couldn’t turn around.
“Together” is a chapter from The End of San Francisco, published by City Lights.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels and five nonfiction anthologies – and, most recently, a memoir, The End of San Francisco. The book launch for The End of San Francisco will be Friday March 29, 7pm at Elliott Bay Book Company, so please come out and say hi!!! Mattilda loves hugs, and is also the editor of Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, a Stonewall Book Awards Honor Book and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.