The Streets are Paved with Diamonds
by Andrew Sarewitz
At 30, you think you’re old. At 60, you forget you’re no longer young.
There is a Manhattan bar called the Monster that has sustained for decades. It’s a flashback relic to the emigrated gay population of Greenwich Village in the 1970’s. On the main floor is a long, four sided bar that anchors the space, as well as a lounge area beyond the liquor station where a grand piano lives. At certain hours, it becomes a spot where wannabe and wish-I-had-been Broadway performers sing songs accompanied by the pianist, not unlike the horror called Karaoke has become to pop music. (Once, in a drunken state, at an Upper East Side Karaoke bar, I sang “Love Child” while lying on the floor — something Patti LaBelle used to do.)
Down a curved staircase, is a low ceilinged time machine of a dance club. For a few years, Warren Gluck, one of the “famous” disco deejays who has passed away, played bygone dance hits every Tuesday night. Not the radio songs anyone would recognize, but the short lived, heavy beat disco that laid the groundwork for a finite period of night life in New York City from the late 70’s, bleeding through to the early 80’s, now dead and obsolete. Thirty years after the fossilizing of disco music, twice a year, I returned to the memory of 12 inch pressed vinyl. The dance floor would fill with young black and Latin boys as well as seven or eight older men, 50 (plus) in age, mostly white, that appeared like out of place warriors to be immersed in a forgotten fraternity. I’d dance alone with a glass covered pillar as my partner, losing my mind willingly, like an over-the-hill patient reveling in shock therapy. We, meaning the older crowd, didn’t know each other, but we smiled and acknowledged our mutual connection when certain songs revived visceral reactions survivors share.
I would dance for hours, as if I was still in my twenties. That sounds like a fun idea. After my last uninterrupted transport to the past, every bone in my body ached for weeks. I’m thankful I didn’t have to have knee surgery. That ended it for me.
When the lights are up full, you can see the dance floor at the Monster is a downsized replica of the once famous gay disco, Ice Palace 57. Either the same person designed both spaces or the Monster copied Ice Palace after the fact. I’ve never met anyone who seems to recognize the similarity. Maybe no one but me would even care.
As iconic as Studio 54 remains, Ice Palace played a flagrant role in New York City’s acceptance of gay men in the late seventies. On Thursday nights, it was a difficult choice: whether to go to Studio or Ice Palace.
During that era, 57th Street was an elegant thoroughfare. Henri Bendel was at the corner of Fifty Seventh and Fifth Avenue, across from Tiffany and Co. Bonwit Teller was housed in a beautiful Deco building (torn down by Trump in 1980). There was a Chanel boutique in a 57th Street townhouse as well as Maude Frizon, one of “the” women’s shoe lines before Jimmy Choo and Louboutin. The sidewalks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, glistened like rivers of cut diamonds, thanks to mica chips folded into the paved asphalt. Whether by sunlight or street lamp, the illusion gave unintentional credence to the refugees’ belief, “the streets are paved with gold.” It was like landing in Oz. On that same block was Ice Palace 57.
The entrance to Ice Palace itself was arguably discreet. A glass door opened to a small foyer landing, only a few feet wider than the staircase leading to the subterranean club. But on Sunday afternoons, the human line down West 57th Street for Tea Dance was anything but. Gay men in shorts or ass hugging jeans and tight tee shirts waiting for entry to Ice Palace in the daylight hours, just yards from the windows of Van Cleef and Arpels.
The first time I walked down the steep staircase into Ice Palace, I was a freshman student at NYU. Brought there by a straight woman named Randi, I had never experienced anything like it. I didn’t become addicted to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol but this was undeniable. I had tasted my heroin. I admit the population of men dancing with other men was a big part of it, but it was also the atmosphere: dark, smoky, humid, music so loud, it enveloped my whole system, like a drug. I never outgrew that love. Even though it’s now only a sense memory.
There were gay bars and clubs scattered throughout the city and connected boroughs, but Ice Palace was a pinnacle. After a few weeks of multiple visits, Carl, the old man standing at the bottom of the stairs by the box office, let me in without charging me. I never paid after that. In my eyes, I had made it to the plateau of elite gay nightlife. My drink at the time was a vodka stinger that was served to me in a tall water glass by a hip-twisting waiter named Timmy. I had perfected the skill of dancing without spilling, dropping or knocking into another on the crowded dance floor. If a song came on that required out-of-control dancing, I’d put down the drink and completely let go. Back then almost everyone smoked. I often got cigarette scars or had a hole burned into my clothing.
I was never employed by Ice Palace, but as tends to be my habit, I was more interested in befriending staff than clientele. It’s ironic, since almost all employees I know working in bars and night clubs can’t wait to get the hell out and go to the next level in their lives, even though some of them earn more money than orthopedic surgeons. In the case of Ice Palace, I did become one of the boys; sort of. It was debaucherous Nirvana.
In the corner of my living room, is a stack of 12 inch vinyl singles from that time. I don’t listen to them anymore, but I’ll never sell or give them away. It’s not that I’m a hoarder. Where I may discard other physical memories, these are practically the only objects I’ve kept from the time. Knowing I have them is private confirmation that I was part of it.
In 1985, Ice Palace closed.
20 years after the club opened its doors, Ice Palace alumni reunited. We met at Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street (across from the Monster), re-established by previous employees of Ice Palace. Some couldn’t come, some couldn’t be found, and a lot were no longer alive. My best friend and Ice Palace comrade-in-crime, Brian Poole, had died a few months before the reunion. He was 42 years old. That was the last time we all got together — or at least the last time I was included.
The perfect storm of time, place and identity, my nights at Ice Palace were the first I remember letting go of what I thought I was supposed to be and embracing who I am. Whatever mistakes and stupid decisions I’ve made, it was, for me, the school of life. And it was the time of my life.
About the Author
Andrew has written several short stories (links to published work: www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. His play, Madame Andrèe (based on the life of Nancy Wake, The White Mouse) garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, opening the festival in August, 2019. His play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition. Andrew’s spec script, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition.