I had just moved back to New York after a grievous summer of heavy drinking and was in desperate need of a job to supplement my depressed aimlessness and reckless spending. That day, I had been rifling through the Craigslist gigs section and found an ad promising $12 an hour plus tips to stand in a closet and hang coats. With the sweet, heroin-like high of anticipation coursing through my veins, I applied and heard back within hours. The place was located on the corner of a corner on Doyers street in Chinatown. Had I walked there at night by myself, I’d have feared kidnapping.
In typical fashion of the frightfully hip cocktail bar, there was no sign, no indication that a swanky leather-clad lounge was behind the graffiti-marked metal door that adorned so many storefronts in Chinatown.
The initial interview left me speechless, as I was promised a myriad of perks including endless free drinks, exclusive access to the hottest parties in Manhattan, my very own work space (later to be re-classified as a freezing cold closet by the door) and the chance to mingle with the elite (later to be re-classified as morally-bankrupt sewer-dwellers).
My first day was blockaded by Hurricane Sandy, but after the city flushed out the excess water and the lights came back on, I was a coat checker. In so many words, it was everything I expected. The first night, I left with 190 one-dollar bills in in my pocket, lipstick on my collar, and an entire staff more than happy to supply me with whiskey, cigarettes, and any illegal drug I wanted. I remember the owner—a fine looking gentleman with a handlebar mustache—walking up to me as I typed away on my phone in the dark.
"Hey man, we don't want you on your phone while you’re in here."
"Oh, I'm sorry!" I said, embarrassed as I fumbled to pocket my phone.
"Naw, I'm totally kidding,” he laughed as he took a sip from a Big Gulp-sized vessel of booze. “Hey, you smoke weed?"
I laughed, unsure how to answer the question I deemed a potential trap.
"Sometimes, but not that often.”
"Cool man, let me know if you want me to smoke you up."
I wasn’t myself in the coat check room—at least, not the man that I am now. I was the debaucherous parody of the person I thought I was at the time; happy to jump at a drink bought for me by a beautiful woman and never one to turn down easy sex. The only light at the end of the tunnel was a flickering bulb of a bartender I’ll call Elle. She was ripped out of the pages of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I was sure she couldn’t fathom a life without the type of problems men want to flock to and help solve.
Calling Elle dramatic would be akin to calling Godzilla a slight distraction. She was an atomic bomb of mystery and upper-class Americana drama.
“I almost lit my damn head on fire.” She said one night.
“How’d that happen?” I asked.
“Well, I was smoking a cigarette in my bathroom when my hairspray got too close to the flame and ‘poof’—I almost all went up in flames. I was almost well-done steak tonight.”
Stories of her sex life kept me going as I shuffled through the avalanche of coats, shawls, and capes.
Friday through Sunday had me leaving the club close to four in the morning, drunkenly swaying through Canal Street and kicking the newspaper tumbleweeds that would come across my path. The clientele were the worst human beings on earth. Disorderly, impossibly rude, hidden behind the safety net of untouchable beauty. What do you call it when you’re simultaneously disgusted and horny? Sometimes I felt like Jane Goodall with exceptionally-dressed apes. They would react as if I told them the Holocaust was a hoax when I informed them that the coat check room was full.
I couldn’t pay my rent with the money of men who called me “kid.”
One evening, a corporate event brought every angry mid-level yes-man into one room at the same time. Among the sweaty, mingling crowd of coked-up execs was one man who threw his briefcase at my face and left before I could hand him a correlating number. When the night drew to a close, he was the first in line with a crumpled up $1 bill in his hand. I remember his tired shouts to me as I rummaged through the identical black briefcases: "Kid, I've got a goddamn car waiting!" I regret not spitting on the handle.
They tore into my soul, even though they were the ones supplementing my income. The women were a trip, as if they’d never seen a man working such a curiously low-class job as that of a coat check. The combination of my ‘other side of the tracks’ status and the vodka-soaked atmosphere rendered me inexplicably desirable. And I didn’t complain. I had never experienced such a ferocious thirst, but always acquiesced their advances with vigor. I would leave some mornings with my face a fine shade of pink from smudged lipstick.
I wasn’t the nightlife guy I thought I could be. I couldn’t spend every Saturday making out in the back of a closet while drunk customers impatiently tapped on the little door separating me and them. I couldn’t pay my rent with the money of men who called me “kid.” And I certainly didn’t have the stomach to drink designer cocktails every night.
The last time I saw Elle was New Year’s Eve. I made it vehemently clear that I didn’t want to have fun, but when she came up to me and planted those blood-red lips upon mine, I could manage just one more night. I never announced I was quitting, but that last evening was everything I had come to expect, with the added bonus of a coat the owner told me to steal. I wrapped it around me and walked out of that old life: never to see anyone from the club again. Sometimes I think it was all a figment of my imagination, but then I’ll walk by Doyers street and hear the faint hum of music and remember Elle, the feel of a zipper against my palm, and the last licks of a cigarette on my lips.
Photos by Andy Ryan/Getty Images