Spring 2021: We’re in Arizona looking in on my mom’s condition for a while. It has been an opportunity to revisit my coming-of-age life from the late 1970s to 1980. Things really accelerated after this.
After a swift escape from the confines of high school life, I couldn’t imagine committing to four years of study when there was a wild world out there that I wanted to be part of. After a few months in a converted garage apartment on the west side of sleepy Phoenix, I landed in the middle of the city, where, if anything was happening, it would be happening there.
My new apartment was walkable to the two jobs I had, making it easy to get to work without driving since my old Dodge station wagon was overheating regularly, and I eventually just left it somewhere and moved on.
The Sombrero Playhouse was a half block away and was a very cool scene. Patrons would gather and parade their looks in a front desert courtyard before heading in to see the avant-garde films of the day. Of course, there was Harold and Maude, Eraserhead, and Andy Warhol reels, but there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show for my growing awareness and toe-tipping into gay culture. I remember the surprise at seeing so-and-so there with a gaggle of their eccentric friends. The crowd I was running with blossomed in this environment.
Two Jobs and Liberace
At job one, Aaron Brothers Art Mart, I quickly tuned into the skills I needed for the constant visual adjustments, x-acto knifing, and final fussy touches of framing. I loved it. The staff was packed with artists doing their own thing led by an inspiring manager guy (another artist). I remember him telling me not to take people too seriously who found me different, because many were.
The B-Movie actress Aquanetta Ross came in regularly to frame her schlocky southwestern art in gaudy frames, but she was something to behold dripping in big turquoise squash blossom necklaces.
By night I’d cross the street to bus tables at a very Italian restaurant owned and frequented by some sketchy east coast characters. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but it was very clubby. The grandfather cooked over the steaming pasta pots with a lit cigarette dangling over the plates he was preparing.
The self-titled maitre d’ and senior waiter character was a grand queen. He would throw a tablecloth over his back and walk as royalty in the short path behind the view of the dining room. I would laugh with him from the time I clocked in until we cleaned up at night.
There was a great buzz one week. The restaurant had received a call to see if Liberace could have a reservation after a performance. LIBERACE! All hands were on deck for cleaning and polishing everything in sight for the big event. The flamboyant waiter set expectations for me. There would be no room for error.
From what I can still remember, it was a very cool scene. “Lee” had his “protege” Scott as his only guest. They were both dressed in over-the-top stage clothes. I remember saying”Hi” to Lee and he returned the gesture. I was dazzled. Showbiz, huh?
I remember walking through the dark entrance to His Co. Disco aka Maggies onto a dazzling dancefloor that flashed a grid of lights with well-dressed dancers swirling each other around as if from an old Hollywood movie. It didn’t take long for my ad-hoc group of leftover high school pals and the new eccentric crowd we were accumulating to make Maggies the center of our worlds.
We’d spend our Saturdays thrift-shopping for “Annie Hall clothes,” – vintage pants, big dress shirts with skinny ties. There were rubber shoes called Candies, which added a touch of resort wear to our looks. Then we were ready to descend on the dancefloor to Thelma Houston, Donna Summer, some Bowie, and other music that swirling lights, poppers, and pure excitement would leave us in a heap of sweat.
This group of regional dance legends would regularly be featured on American Bandstand in far-off LA. These stories would filter back to we mere mortals trying to copy the dance moves they were showing off to the world. (Nice) pants tucked into boots dude.
I remember the night the in-crowd descended on the dance floor after attending the opening night of Saturday Night Fever. You could tell things were changing in a big way with that single film.
My crowd was more than a little snobbish about the music that was played (not that it stopped us from dancing), but we would pontificate on how much cooler it would be if the clubs were playing Bowie, Talking Heads, and the other punk leaning bands of the time.
A Public Acting Debut:
As part of the summer of discovery, I stumbled onto a group of highly dramatic actor-types and joined their troupe which produced old west, over-acted melodramas at the local, then aging, Legend City Amusement Park. My role was a Dudley Do-Right character, in a flannel shirt and dungarees. I was forever saving the day, with much swooning from the female lead.
Books, Fashion, and Music:
My local strip mall was the stylish Uptown Plaza, with a grocery and a nice bookstore that was my go-to for the many books I was devouring in those days. I especially remember going on a Lillian Hellman jag.
Besides the thrift shopping, I stumbled into a vintage shop on my strip called Sunset Blvd. (after the movie). There, I walked into a very cool scene with a guy I remembered from my shoe-selling days at a local mall. He was hipper than anybody I’d come across in Phoenix and he and his partner had an eye for vintage and the very 80s look we’d see in the next few years.
To this day that guy, Ed Briggs, is one of my closest friends. We’ve been through many adventures together first in Phoenix, then in San Francisco, then in New York. It always involved art-making, music, and laughs.
I had my high school stereo and didn’t have much money to buy music. Plus, this playlist was either in the clubs or on the radio. Some strong indicators of what was to come next.