Have I ever told you about the Mr. Gay Atlantic City pageant of 1984? I was 19, and I was working a summer job in uptown Manhattan at Uncle Charlie's North. This gay establishment borrowed nothing but the name from the better Greenwich Village institution. But I'd been working the phones at an escort service nearby, and Uncle Charlie's North needed a steady hand and a pretty face to walk around serving drinks in a 20- by 8-foot room, so I was it for a couple of weeks.
It rained a lot that spring. At night uptown looked like Paris, even though I'd never seen Paris. At night it looked like the cover of a John Rechy novel as I waltzed into darkness from 86th and Lexington to 78th. Ten blocks, but I was always late.
I was sloppy, and I didn't clean up after anyone. After a while I was expected to work Thursday nights, despite Thursdays and Saturdays being hot nights on the phone-sex line. Escorts made a bundle in those days. Scads, I tell you. But there I was, stuck in a no-future job in what could only be described as a tourist bar. Lots of Germans and English in the '80s, hotel men who flew in for work and found that the nearest watering hole was our dive. Meager tippers too.
One night the owner, who wore a wig, decided to spice things up by bringing in drag acts. The first was a queen from Long Island who lip-synced "Karma Chameleon" but had failed to memorize the words. If you transported that show to a stage in London today, it might be hailed as performance art, but in 1984 it was depressing.
That night I walked home flipping my booze-sopped earnings in my pocket. The next Thursday I met my first trans woman, Coco. I was pretty excited. I'd gone downstairs to the basement, now a makeshift dressing room, and she was standing there, getting ready, while I filled up the ice buckets.
"What's the matter?" she asked. "You never seen a man with tits before?"
No, in fact, I had not. I had never made love to a trans woman. I had never laid eyes on a trans woman. But I was certainly now transfixed. Later, when I was carrying drinks, I kept singing "Lola," despite, or maybe because of, the lame music behind the bar.
We had a bartender named Carlos, and one named Louie. The former was Puerto Rican, the latter Italian. Carlos used to tell me how much he loved his nipples played. I fucked Louie a lot in the tiny men's room, because I am a sucker for Italians. Carlos was on duty more often, and it had been his idea to bring Coco to the bar.
Coco hailed from Atlantic City. She was the queen bee down there at the seaside clubs, said she, but she had no competition at our bar. When Coco came into the room, she sang her song. She sang Diana Ross' "Love Hangover." She was on estrogen, so her voice was oiled up. And though she sounded nothing like Diana Ross, she sounded like something. And that something meant a few trips to Atlantic City for me. Coco drove a convertible, of course, and that summer, going back and forth across the George Washington Bridge, we never needed blow dryers.
I was backup beefcake in her boardwalk sideshow, sometimes holding her cape, sometimes taking her crown and putting it on a red velvet pillow -- basically, holding the flaming hoop for her to jump through while I wore a pair of tighty-whiteys or a black speedo.
On one such trip Coco asked me if I wanted to be her man at the Mr. Gay Atlantic City competition going on that weekend. Sure, why not. There'd be sex and drugs, and if I turned off the Hi-NRG music, I could find one hooker to rock it with. What I'd failed to ascertain, what I hadn't read in Coco's question, was that to be her "man" at the Mr. Gay Atlantic City competition meant I would have to be a contestant.
As we were leaving my apartment, Coco insisted that we stop and buy a few things. I got a new bathing suit (a speedo, sparky silver and two sizes too tight), some casual clothes, and one evening-wear outfit. I still didn't get it, not even when Coco swiped a hot credit card and we waltzed out of Bloomingdales with her whispering "now I gotcha" under her breath.
Coco was fun. Coco thought I was hot stuffin'. Coco's apartment was filled with Patrick Nagel serigraphs and silvered lamps; a fish tank with neon lights; and thick, upholstered furniture in Ultrasuede "greige" (grey and beige), with pink and blue transverse lines and small cubed boxes punctuating the cushions. You could move your hand one way over the fabric and write your name in the opposite direction just by using a finger. There was a big clock, maybe 3 feet in diameter. No plant life anywhere. She had a lacquered, faux-Oriental box filled with pot, and she taught me to roll joints the way she liked them. There was alcohol, but I didn't drink much back then. Even working the bar, I wasn't a lush at 19.
On competition day we got all stoned, and she had me try on all the new threads and layer. Speedo first. Casual shorts, khaki, very prep-school. Long, dark sharkskin suit pants third. For the upper body a polo shirt under a pink dress shirt, wrapped in a lavender tie, covered in a dark sharkskin jacket.
With everything stacked, we went out. I had my first inkling in the car, because now I was stoned, and by the blessing of paranoia, I realized that everything was amiss. I started to question Coco. Why were we going to the club so early? Why was I wearing everything at once?
"Just go with it, Mateo," she said. "You look fine."
When we got to the club, it hit me. She was signing me up, and there was blow involved, and the next thing I knew, I was stripping down from evening-wear to casual-wear to beach-wear to, finally, "personality."
Even gacked-out on drugs, I knew this competition was rigged. The winner was going to win a huge sack of blow and a lot of bread to wipe it up with. This was the '80s. And in Atlantic City the gay bars were run like everywhere I'd grown up: mafia-style. The boys, they need protection. So the godfathers I was meeting and greeting in my silvery speedo were happy to share what they had in the glassine baggie, but that fat sack of pure cane was going straight to the little punk who was getting porked by the Don. I was no fool, even gacked. But I started to smoke cigarettes again that night and did a few things differently.
There were five judges to impress, and I impressed no one. I'd like to blame it on someone else, but the truth is that I am a lousy contestant for a beauty contest. I do not do well on a skewer. And these boys could strut. Me, I just skulk. When it came to "personality", though, they asked who I admired most, and I said Vanessa Williams, the previous year's dethroned Miss America, who had just posed topless. I said I admired her values, and I won "personality." A judge told me later that it had been unanimous.
After I lost the main event, winners and losers alike all raced over to Coco's and cut open that bag of blow. We partied all night and into the next day.
Coco drove me home a sunset or two later, and I was still as high as a kite when we flew back over the George Washington Bridge and down FDR Drive. She had the bags packed for Bloomies, and we returned everything to the store with my drug-fueled stank on it. Do they even wash that funk before placing it back on the rack? A while later I got my answer. When she dropped me off, she handed me a bag, and in it was my losing speedo.
"I couldn't give it back," she said.
Coco was the tits. I needed a new swimsuit for the Y anyway.
I know there's supposed to be a moral to this story, but I can't find it. Life in New York City brought adventure and took skill to navigate in the early 1980s. I can't speak to what the kids are up to now, because the people in this story are all dead. That's just what the last runner-up of the 1984 Mr. Gay Atlantic City Contest wants you to know today. Had I won, maybe things would have been different. Maybe it would have all worked out, and the Don and I would be married in Atlantic City with our own reality TV show. But once upon a time, before there was an Internet, we used to go out just to dance.