Pamela Harris

The Saint February 28, 2013

(photo by Mark Ackermann)

After I moved to New York and got a job with the ex-Rockette, I had to look for a new job one year later when her business closed. I had no savings and started applying for anything that had 'entry level' in the title. My favorite place to job hunt was a bank of phone booths in back of the Time Life Building on 6th Ave. and every day I'd put on my one suit and matching shoes and hoof it on over. The phones were private yet thick in the hustle and I had enough room to open the New York Times or Village Voice and make notes. I had a dream forming in my head: I wanted to wear high heels and hear them clack clack clack across a marble floor in a skyscraper where I hurried to my windowed office because my job was important yet creative, like maybe a photo editor at Life Magazine. At the time I was taking a lot of photos, but I was overwhelmed with still being new to New York. Less than a year out of art school, when to paint or even what to paint was white noise with no discerning sound.

I interviewed with a headhunter, with a belt maker, with a salesman who sold boxes, then saw something for a 'creative type' at a pre-press house in Hell's Kitchen. I got an interview and met with the secretary, a 30-something curvy blond with soft eyes that held hurt. She told me the company was owned by a Brit named Mike, a genius she whispered, a man transforming the way images were reproduced. Moments later Mike entered, a chipper 50 y.o. who never stopped moving. The way his secretary looked at him told me they were sleeping together. The wedding ring on his finger told me it was an affair.

The company prepared print material for advertisers and books (back then it was mostly still done by hand) and after Mike gave me the tour we walked back to where I entered. Here, an alcove held a very clean table with three computer terminals on it. Mike looked at the terminals lovingly, as if they were his children, then turned and stared at me for a long moment. "Have you ever heard of Scitex?" It sounded like a bra company and no, I hadn't heard of it. "We're -- I'm funded by them. I'm creating imaging software that will revolutionize the way pictures are created and reproduced."

I didn't know much about what he was talking about , but since I needed a job asap I smiled, wide, hoping I didn't look stupid. "I'm looking for a few new employees I can teach the basics to, then you'll find your own level and see where you fit. I don't manage. I want you to manage yourselves." It was a perfect Lord of the Flies opportunity and without asking me a single question he offered me a job. I must have looked surprised. He grinned. "I read people extremely well. You'll fit fine."

Print images are made up of thousands of dots. Depending on size, shape and placement, the dots create the image as well as effect color and tone. Three of us had been hired and within a few weeks we learned all the stations of Mike's cross. That's how we saw it, since not once was he in front of the computers. Instead he was always furrowed with his secretary, her office door closed, though from my seat I could see them gesturing anxiously through a window.

The other hires weren't interested in managing the work flow or dealing with the sales guy so I was organizing and distributing the work and handling the long term projects. The day I started a new Garfield cartoon book came in and I learned how to cut rubylith, work the darkroom, make films for printing, check color and fix color. I worked on watch ads, crappy catalogues, Chanel print ads and learned to dot etch, burn and dodge to soften lines, take elements out of film and put elements back into film. It was a sweet job since I had no boss, lots of freedom, liked my co-workers and loved cutting cartoons. As long as jobs came in and went out on schedule, the sales guy and Mike loved me.

"Think it's shady?" Another new hire was a girl named Martha, a chain-smoking beauty who dressed like a boy who had a boyfriend who dressed like a girl. She was at my desk watching Mike frantically gesture with the secretary who was trying to calm him down. Martha was from a wealthy Main Line family and her father ran a top Fortune 500 company, something almost no-one knew. (I found out when she asked me to finish a project for her. Her father was being honored by a museum, a museum opening a wing with his name on it and she had to leave work for the ceremony.) Martha and I were the same age, both art school grads new to New York, and though she had a boyfriend and best friend neither of us knew many people and spent a lot of time alone. Her best friend Jeff was gay and single and would come and meet us for lunch, and in short time we were all becoming friends.

Jeff was a member of a gay club called The Saint, a giant club in the old Fillmore East. I had never been -- I had barely been anywhere -- and one night he asked us to go dancing with him. Martha and I dressed up in chains and lace, I put on pointy leopard print shoes and ate a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then close to midnight we met Jeff.

We entered the Saint and walked passed what looked like standard ticket windows for a theater or concert hall. We then went through a large set of doors to the dance floor. Disco was pounding, but it wasn't like anything I had heard on the radio. Nor was the dance floor like anything I had ever seen: it was huge, bigger than a skating rink, and it was covered by a massive dome. In the center of the dome was a pole that held a sci-fi looking contraption filled with lights and it slowly moved up and down projecting stars and swirls and blasts of color onto the top of the dome. Hundreds of men, mostly shirtless, many in leather, danced packed in.

We worked our way to the corner of the dance floor and danced for a while, then I left to check the rest of the club out. I had been to a couple of dinky discos outside of New York, but this - this was out there. Off the dance floor it was dark and made my way to the bathroom, figuring I'd freshen up a little. Right when I entered I saw three bear-like men near the sinks, wearing leather vests and chaps. One held a small metal gadget to his nose and was inhaling a popper, one was laughing, and the third was giving a blow job to the guy laughing. I tried to look casual, like I see this on the subway all the time, and nonchalantly walked to the first stall. In it two men were jerking off. Looking unfazed I walked to the next stall. It was filled with cocaine and cocks and for some reason I nodded hello, my face a blend of boredom mixed with did we go to Hebrew school together? I suddenly acted like I forgot something and strolled on out.

I roamed through the club to a metal spiral staircase and climbed up. This floor had an industrial staircase to the side and I climbed that. Up here it was dark, the music was pounding and I stepped onto a landing to adjust my eyes. Around me I could make out chunky benches that in the dark looked like blocks. I suddenly remembered an art history class about ziggurats, which is what they looked like, but carpeted.

The dome on the dance floor opened and light shot up through the club. I glanced around to better see where I was. Everywhere around me men were fucking and sucking and man handling each other with a practical determination of getting down to business. This wasn't romance or urgent release and I didn't even see lust. One guy saw me and smiled, friendly, kind of like 'welcome' then turned back to the four-way he was part of. I stood there looking around awed, my cool gone. I was still frigid then and sex was complicated, but around me it was as uncomplicated as sex could get. No hang ups, no cares, no anything. This was fucking, straight up, as far as I could see.

The dome closed, the lights dimmed and I headed back downstairs. I found Martha and Jeff and we danced till the next morning. I was heavier on my feet, stomping them into the dance floor, being a part of something that was so foreign to me yet felt like home. Some time later I went to work one morning and couldn't get into the office: Mike had driven the business into hell, absconded with the funding and left the country to avoid arrest. The secretary was devastated, positive he was going to leave his wife, desperate since he had been paying for her apartment. Martha and I looked for new jobs and kept going to the Saint. I found another club, Area, and started going there. A lot of artists seemed to be at Area and I got a glimpse of the art world. It gave me the same feeling The Saint did, of being foreign yet so familiar, so right. I lived in a shit hole and was broke, but New York was starting to feel like home.

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