My Last Dance with Auntie Brie is my testimony to coming out during the height of the Disco era. It is a tribute to all those who are no longer with us and to the survivors who lived the tale. Feel the reverberations of the disco beat as Auntie Brie seduces you on to the dance floor. Revisit some of the infamous clubs of the day including NYC's Studio 54 and escape to the Cape on a summer vacation gone wild with one of Ptown's most prolific houseboys. My tour de force delineates a 70's puritan society filled with fear and ignorance which ignited The LGBT civil rights movement to end violence and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. My Last Dance with Auntie Brie defines an entire gay generation who succumbed to the hedonistic lifestyle of that time which has now become legendary. It carries the universal message of unconditional love and acceptance, we all need somebody to love us just the way we are.
The place was old, dark, and damp; an abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere. It was a secret refuge of forbidden pleasure, and it became legendary to all of us who knew it. What I found there shaped my destiny...
Derek dropped his '67 Karmann Ghia into low gear and roared up the driveway. I ran out of the house to his car, afraid I'd change my mind if I didn't get into it soon. He had barely come to a stop when I opened the door and jumped in. I saw Mom watching us from her bedroom window, her hand holding the curtain, probably trembling at the thought of me going out with Derek, suspecting we were up to no good.
We headed down my unlit road that wound through the woods of Mansfield, Connecticut. Flashes of light from neighboring houses winked behind the trees as we raced out of safe suburbia and onto the interstate, Donna Summer's "Once Upon a Time" blasting away on his cassette deck.
"Are you ready for the time of your life, my dear?" Derek asked, a naughty grin on his face.
I was nervous as hell. Derek's midnight forays were his way of rebelling against his parents. He needed to uncover his innate personality, interests, and capabilities as well as his limitations, and he encouraged me to do the same. I was aware he had a secret life, a life that not even I, his best friend in high school, had ever been exposed.
He had asked me to go out with him on his after-dark expeditions before, but I usually flat out refused. Despite my severe skittishness, curiosity finally got the best of me so I decided to take this tentative step and enter his clandestine world.
We drove down I-84 to Hartford, took the Sigourney Street Exit, and ventured toward Woodbine Avenue, which brought us to an abandoned factory site. The asphalt parking lot was cracked and overgrown with weeds. Strewn about were various metal parts along with some discarded machinery. The faded brick warehouse windows were boarded up. A chain-link fence surrounded it, of which sections had fallen apart like the industry it no longer served, long gone and forgotten. The moon-lit silhouettes of tractors and other demolition equipment surrounded Derek's car like dinosaurs waiting to attack their prey.
We bumped our way over potholes and found a space to park. As we exited the car, traffic sounds rattled from nearby overpasses that pierced the misty night. The air reeked of gas, oil, and exhaust fumes, which added nausea to the butterflies in my stomach. It was a frightening place, and I questioned my decision to come here.
We entered the building through a door that was illuminated by a single red-light bulb, the kind one would see outside a Danger Zone that warned passersby of explosives or other hazards. The red "eye" pulled us forward, and I held my breath as I followed my high school chum into the unknown.
The building wasn't as spacious inside as it appeared from the outside. Only a portion of it had been reserved for public access. The odor of damp, moldy basement air mixed with cigarette smoke and booze greeted me as I followed Derek, who walked in as though he owned the place.
We stopped at the entrance to let our eyes adjust to the darkness, then I saw a bar on the right side of the room with half a dozen drinkers hunched over their cocktails. With as much confidence as I could muster, I walked up to it with Derek. We sat on a couple of vacant stools, and Derek ordered drinks. The bartender popped open a couple of cans of beer and placed them on the bar before us. Derek gave the scruffy man in an AC/DC T-shirt some cash, and we watched as he pecked on an old cast iron register with a cash drawer that wouldn't stay closed.
I was petrified and didn't dare look at Derek or anyone else. I focused on the row of booze bottles lined up in front of a filthy mirror and sipped my illegal brew in silence, hoping I wouldn't be caught for underage drinking. Then I realized the bartender or the patrons couldn't have cared less.
"Why'd we come so early?" I asked Derek.
"To avoid being carded," he whispered, and then it made sense.
While we finished our beers, people began drifting in. Most came alone, a few in pairs. Some of them were dressed like they'd just come from the office, others wore T-shirts and jeans. A couple of them were overly dressed in evening wear.
I gazed around the room. A group of guys were conversing with a woman who looked like Bea Arthur. Two other men were making out in the corner by the bathroom. A fat lady in a pink taffeta prom dress at the end of the bar yelled at the bartender for another drink. She looked like a truck driver who desperately needed a shave. She was not an ordinary woman, and this was not an ordinary bar. It was an underground gay club, and the unusual crowd frightened me to death.
Turning on my stool, I saw a three-tiered plywood platform that served as a dance floor. No one was dancing. Buried in the overhead rafters were dozens of loose wires strung between lights that flashed to the rhythm of thumping music from speakers chained to the ceiling. Spots of colored light projected onto the floor and randomly changed patterns, as though someone was running a slide projector and lost track of what they were doing.
A DJ started playing "Supernature" by Cerrone. The tune had an environmental theme, an imagined future in which all the animals took revenge against humankind for mistreating Nature. The song was hypnotic, eerie, with synthesized minor chords and a lot of percussion.
I listened to the drum solo at the end of the song and flashed back to a time when all I wanted for Christmas was a drum set: a shiny chrome snare, red sparkling tom-toms that sprouted above a bass drum with a hi-hat and three shiny cymbals. How I fantasized about playing in a band like the ones I had watched on Don Kirshner's televised rock concert. My parents eventually bought me a drum set, and I played in the high school band. It was the one thing that helped me get through my senior year because I detested all my classes. Music was my only means of survival.
I looked at my glow-in-the-dark watch. It was almost eleven o'clock. I hoped my parents had gone to bed and wouldn't know I was out past my curfew. Derek was always out late at night, and I wondered how he got away with it, how he got away with everything.
"It's getting late, Derek. I think we should leave."
"We can't leave now; the place is just getting started." He ordered another round, which made us stay put.
The clicking of stiletto heels announced the presence of a beautiful woman who approached the doorway. She wore a Valentino mid-length, black ruched dress with a mock collar and a diamond-shaped center bustline. Elegant sleeves veiled graceful shoulders. Her dark curly hair, swept into a French braid, exposed a delicate pair of diamond earrings that caught the light from the entrance.
She pecked the doorman on the cheek when she turned to hand her mink, that was draped over her arm, to the coat check girl, a chubby tomboy. I saw that her backless dress opened with a cape-style drape.
She turned and placed the thin strap of her delicate rhinestone purse over her shoulder so it rested on her hip, then strutted over to the bartender, who gave her his full attention. She took out a cigarette, placed it in a jeweled telescopic holder, and breathed, "Light my fire, Sweetie."
The bartender flipped open a cigarette light, and when the flame shot up, I had a clear view of her facial features. She was beautiful, and her make-up was flawless. After taking a deep drag, she let the smoke seep from her nostrils while the bartender poured her a vodka neat and didn't charge her for it.
Derek nudged me and said, "That's Ms. Brianna Gabriella Dominguez, the Queen of Putnam Heights. Isn't he fabulous?"
I held my tongue and didn't comment. This perfectly coiffed woman was a man in drag. She didn't look like the stereotypical drag queens I had seen on Donahue. Brianna was meticulously put together and carried herself with style and grace. I stared at her strange elegance with intrigue. Her appearance was so unexpected, so startling in this old warehouse that reeked of darkness and destruction from neglect. It was as though a peacock had walked into a dungeon.
All eyes were on Brianna as she made her way around the room, sauntering from person to person until she reached the burly transvestite in the pink dress at the end of the bar. She helped her straighten out her wig that had shifted over one eye, kissed her on the cheek, then left her side.
"Disco Heat" by Sylvester began to tear up the speakers. The energetic song was infectious with a gospel influence that gave it a more unique sound than the usual disco songs. Brianna put her empty glass down on the bar and made her way onto the dance floor. A few flamboyant boys circled around her, and their attendant performance showcased her as the main talent. Together, they paraded around the floor like a well-rehearsed Broadway act. Brianna and her entourage twirled in the blinking lights to the pulsating music that captured everyone's attention. No one in the dance group was paired up; all were rapt in their own world. They danced individually, energetically, fluidly. I had never seen that kind of dancing before. Their movements were uninhibited, free-flowing expressions of joy, a sight that contrasted dramatically with memories of the stiff cardboard moves at my high school functions.
"Come on," Derek drunkenly hollered, "let's join them!"
He grabbed my hand and pulled me off my stool. I tried to break free from his grip, but before I knew it, we were on the dance floor and surrounded by the choreographed drag queen and her prancing boys! With speakers hovering above our heads, the boom of the bass reverberated through me. The music was so loud, I couldn't hear myself think.
A smoke machine generated dry ice vapor across the floor, and I lost Derek in the mist. Suddenly, I was within an eyelash distance of Brianna! As self-conscious as I was, she was incorrigible.
She spurred me on with, "Get into the groove, Sweetie!"
I began to mimic her moves and laughed at myself for daring to compete with her. I was thankful the artificial fog helped camouflage my amateur dancing feet. The music ”earth-shattering, primal, and contagious” became the fabric that wove us together. I experienced a mystical unity, an unspoken bond. It was as though I had always known Brianna and her fan club, those total strangers who were, at that moment, inviting me into their world. No one paid any attention to how I danced; they didn't care who I was, what I did, or where I came from. The important thing was that I had joined them.
An acceptance enveloped me, the kind that can only be found on the dance floor. I began to understand why Derek found the club so magical. The Warehouse was a very special place, and it was becoming a legend right before our eyes.
Derek suddenly appeared by my side and winked at me. I was as bewitched by it as he was. We continued to boogie to the next several songs while taking in the scene around us. I would no longer have to walk down that long boring corridor of the starkly mundane. I had discovered a new horizon, and my fate was guiding me to it. From this point on, my life would never be the same.