During one aberrant year of my life, in the late 90’s, I spent nearly every Thursday night dancing at Don Hill’s. I’d carve out a little space for myself and I would dance and dance, sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone. Men would approach, and sometimes I would dance with them, but mostly I wanted to be in my head. Don Hill had created a space where you could do that. I never felt like bait as I did at the other clubs.
I’d leave the house at 10PM, arrive around 11, then dance until I couldn’t anymore. Frequently, I’d walk out into the gray light of dawn, and would join people on the subway who were heading to work. I’d wear silk pajamas to the club, so I could crawl right into bed when I got home.
Thursday night was when Don Hill’s hosted BeavHer. Frankie Inglese, the master DJ, spun old songs, things from the 70’s and 80’s. Madonna songs would come on that I’d danced to in my bedroom in high school, pretending I was at a cool club in New York City. Now I really was at a cool club in New York City.
Don Hill’s was divey, rock and roll. There was no VIP section, no bottle service. There was a partial wall down the middle of the fairly small space. On one side of the wall was the main bar, on the other side was the dance floor, the stage, and a satellite bar. On either end of the wall were openings, making for a good flow between the spaces. The coat check was in the basement, which was not made up to look like anything but a basement, with a few coat racks and a table. I’d leave with burns on my arms from the model chicks trying to look cool smoking on the dance floor.
At other clubs, you’d go to be seen, but at Don Hill’s you’d go to dance. At least I would. It was dark, anyway, and there was nowhere to sit and pose, like at the clubs where you’d see Puff Daddy, and people from Jersey waited on line to get in.
Not that there weren’t celebrities there, because there were lots of them. One time, I turned around on the dance floor and found myself face to face with Eddie Izzard. I was a little drunk, and felt a little too comfortable. I poked him in the chest and yelled “You’re fabulous!” scaring him half to death. Even with platform heels, he was a good deal shorter than me. I still cringe at the memory.
One night, there was trouble. I’d fallen out with the friend I usually went with, but decided to go to Don Hill’s anyway, knowing she’d be out of town. I’d been there only a few minutes when some dull German guy I’d danced with the week before came in, with a bigger group than he’d been with the last time. I said hello. I’m polite like that. He replied awkwardly, and one of the women in the group glared at me. I wanted no part of whatever drama this was, and went off to get my drink, then took my usual position on the dance floor: right in front of Frankie, on the bar side of the pole supporting the ceiling. The pole gave me a certain amount of clearance on one side, and was great for leaning when necessary.
The group with the German came right up next to me. As they danced, the girl that glared at me kept bumping into me. Shoving me with an air of “oops” and giggling. After the fifth or sixth time, I was getting really pissed. I was in my space, dammit, and this wasn’t junior high.
I took a walk. I charged past the bar, hung a left at the end of the wall and started back across the dance floor. I had no plans, but as I got closer to her steam was building up. She met my eyes with a smirk as I was about to pass her, as if she’d triumphed and chased me away. Then, as I passed, without thinking about what I was doing, I hip-checked her. Sent her flying across the floor, skidding to a halt by the door, a few feet to the left of Frankie.
The look of astonishment on her face was fantastic. I’d countered her passive aggression with actual aggression. In this magical space Don Hill had created, I could do that. This wasn’t a place for wimpy girl bullshit. If your milquetoast boyfriend has a roving eye, you don’t take it out on the hotter girl who knows how to dance. She doesn’t want him anyway.
Eventually, I got a job that didn’t make dancing until dawn a good idea. I stopped going to Don Hill’s. I went to work in the morning, and headed home when it was dark. My time there had run its course, at any rate. I’d experienced what I needed to experience.
A few years went by. Then came The Attack. September 11th. Fear, smoke, fliers with the faces of the dead filling wall space, fluttering on light poles. Don Hill’s was only a few blocks from Ground Zero, and had to shut for a while.
Right after it reopened a friend was visiting from out of town. She had lived in New York for years, starting with her freshman year at NYU, but had left to go to law school the year before. New York, she said, felt different. Quiet, sad, tense. We decided we’d go to Don Hill’s for the return of BeavHer.
The glow from the lights of the recovery effort was visible from the club entrance. Inside was still dusty, and smelled of that Ground Zero smoke. Frankie was missing every cue. He was shaky, like everyone else, and we danced through it, but it felt weird.
Then Frankie threw on Under Pressure. It starts slow, kind of quiet. A little bass, piano, the melody comes in, Freddie Mercury sings some nonsense syllables. Then David Bowie:
It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends scream ‘let me out’.
And the crowd comes together. Freddie Mercury hits that high note. Then: Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love one more chance??? Why can’t we give love, give love, give love?
We’re crying, we’re moving together, our arms are in the air. We’re glowing. We’re reaching up to the sky. We’re sending up a column of light and rage and fear.
This is our last dance, this is our last dance, this is ourselves under pressure.
It was church, it was religion. Half naked women, gyrating men, we were pulling New York back, pushing against the evil ignorance of the hijackers. This is ourselves under pressure. We eat pressure for breakfast, motherfuckers.
And Don Hill was sitting there at the end of the bar, like he did, the quiet, slightly befuddled shaman. Giver of space, light, music and booze. The glorious man who made it all happen by letting it happen. Caring about our selves.