When the High Line Was for Lowlifes
I was in my friend’s apartment at the magnificent new Caledonia on 17th Street a couple days ago. His joint is one flight above the grand new High Line, which was being readied for its opening yesterday. That affair, which attracted the mayor and all sorts of dignitaries, is a proud moment for this town. The energy and flavor the new park will bring to the West Side will be a much-needed shot in the arm for our city’s culture and economy. When I was standing there watching the workers, I realized that I couldn’t hear the drills and heavy tools they were using. I asked about the glass and got a rather long technical answer which I think meant it was thick. The insertion of mega habitats like the new Caledonia into the club ecosystem of the West Side will not be without conflict. It reminds me of all those people who build in suburban Los Angeles. They put up a gaggle of homes in a desert and are flabbergasted when a coyote grabs the cat. It seems that in this case, the surroundings — which include 1Oak, Avenue, and The Park — were thoughtfully considered. Traffic problems seem to cause the most beef with cabbies and other drivers blaring their horns trying to enter 10th Avenue, and a crane added to the congestion for eons.
The High Line was unrecognizable from the last time I was this close to it. Michael Alig had an after-hours club called Lotto which was all the rage. We were doing Redzone together and needed to have a place to service our friends and clientele after the club closed at 4am sharp, as they did back then. Peter Gatien won a lawsuit that allowed clubs to stay open after the bars were closed. His argument was that the places that had cabaret licenses should be allowed to have dancing at any hour. He argued that the city-issued cabaret license had nothing to do with the regulations of the state-issued liquor license. He won the case which makes the late-night boogies at Pacha kosher. Anyway, back to Lotto, which was located in an old Meatpacking office. When Michael showed me the place, I went through papers strewn everywhere ,and there wasn’t one newer than 1975. The building had an old rusted door leading to the abandoned railroad tracks which have since been upgraded to the High Line.
Michael thought of lavish dinner parties up there long before someone with clout got it done. The concept behind this place was as follows: about $1,500 was spent, some went to doorman Kenny Kenny, some to a security guard, some paid for the booze, and the rest was given to various artists who would decorate the rooms daily so that each time you went it would look different. Everybody paid five bucks to get in and paid five more bucks for a cocktail, and when the money was recouped, the front doors were closed, the drinks became free, and it was fun fun fun till it wasn’t. One night — er, morning — a particularly unsavory character known to all and feared by many arrived past the cutoff. He made a great deal of noise and brandished a serious weapon. Myself and a few friends eventually persuaded him to go away, but we unfortunately made a little bit too much noise in our persuasion, and the authorities arrived in numbers. Someone barricaded the doors, and I was told that the loud banging sound was a fireman breaking down the door to get us. I didn’t know what “get us” meant, but I elected to join an eclectic band who were going out the rusted door onto the tracks. I didn’t believe that the unsavory character would go to the police and accuse me of “persuading” him, but the tracks seemed fun anyway, and the banging seemed to indicate the authorities were upset. I was the only one wearing a suit, so I might have been assumed to be in charge and, well, it was a beautiful dawn. So I headed north on the future High Line. Our band — which included a few club kids dressed a bit like characters from Munchkinland — must of looked very odd to the birds and squirrels who lived up there. I loved the flora and fauna, but I wasn’t there to camp out and I wasn’t seeking the Wizard of Oz. I needed a way down.
Lotto was on 12th Street, I think, and when we got to 14th, there was a massive building — derelict then, really neat now — and a homeless man a bit startled by our legion. I asked him how to get down, and he pointed north and said 34th Street. Tall grass and birds nests lined our yellow brick road, and we were a merry band on this beautiful day. Dogs went nuts at us from tenement apartment windows, and there was barbed wire at every possible escape route. Finally I found stairs leading down to a little yard with more barbed wire over the top of a chain link fence. Early-bird hookers were harassing me as I tried to climb in cockaroach-killer shoes (I used to love them impossibly pointy). I climbed anyway, and when I got to the top, I threw my faux leopard sports jacket, which I had bought at Pat Field’s that long ago day before, over the barbed wire. The cop car that pulled up was alerted by the hookers trying to buy their way out of a jam with my skinny ass. The cops looked up, but some urgent call sped them away. The hookers told me incessantly as I dangled how lucky my skinny ass was. I carefully climbed over the wire and, feeling like James Bond, snapped my new jacket to safety. The barbwire took the lining, and it fell apart in my hands. For years I would drive by and watch that lining gradually disintegrate.
The rest of the crew got down in the 30s; I went back to the club and was told that the cops just laughed at the club kid crowd and told them never to lock the door again, then went away. Somebody alerted the landlord, and Lotto was done. Looking down from my friend’s window, I realize how much of a jackpot I hit when I lived and worked in that golden age of clubs. What was that line from Some Like It Hot? I think Osgood Fielding III, played by Joe E Brown, is picking up Jack Lemmon, who is in awful drag. Osgood points out his yacht The New Caledonia. It had replaced the old Caledonia, which went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras. The old railroad track has been replaced by the brand new High Line. Let’s hope that all the new buildings have thick windows, and the city can navigate the eventual storm as development of the High Line encroaches on the giant club strips in its path. I understand that at the new Caledonia — for the most part — the neighbors are embracing the vibrancy of their new neighborhood with very few grumbling politely. To me, it’s a great place to live and eat and play, to visit art galleries and the river. I love it, and I’m sure almost everyone will, as some like it hot. I suggest Long Island, the Upper West Side, or thicker glass for the rest.
Photo: Jonathan Flaum