Episode 5: Mirror, Mirror – The Path to the Nightcage

by Jeff

I move in slow motion, trapped in the crowd after a concert at Music Hall in downtown Houston. My friends, Michael and Steven, slowly move in syncopation as we awkwardly descend the steps of the balcony, taking tiny steps to assure we don’t kick or trip someone else. I am wearing grey parachute pants, a button down paisley shirt, and black lace-up shoes. The crowd is mostly white and dressed in new wave clothes. I am elated after seeing the Psychedelic Furs, and especially after seeing the remarkable opening act, Talk Talk, but I’m also self-conscious since I’ve realized that parachute pants have become passé. Although my friends and I appear to fit in with the crowd of fans who are mostly older than us in their early 20s, I still feel like an imposter. Damn pants. We move along with the crowd as it shuffles through the tight doors of the theater, and all I see are backs of androgynous people, my vision obscured by masses of hair sticking up, mine included. It is August 3, 1984 and in two weeks I will turn 17.

Yours truly, age 16.

Yours truly, age 16.

Moments like this remind me of several years’ prior, bird hunting with my dad on a warm winter morning in East Texas. We were passing through a field ankle deep in water when we approached a barrier of reeds taller than us. I firmly held my shotgun in both hands as I’d been taught as we pushed on into the reeds. I instantly lost sight of my dad due to the grass resettling into the spaces all around. I’ve always been a bit claustrophobic, so panic started to rise as I called out. My dad would respond and I’d blindly follow his voice, trudging slowly through the reeds, having no idea when a path would finally open again. It was an inadvertent lesson about having faith that things will improve if you keep moving forward; to not give up. And it felt endless.

There were few examples to follow in becoming a New Wave kid. We only had a painfully small number of videos on MTV and a handful of publications, such as the British magazine The Face, to guide us. Subcultures like “goth” hadn’t yet been defined in Texas, nor were there enough kids to warrant it, so most of our choices were the results of trial and error. This lack of definition, along with the constant search, was what defined us. We were unique because we struggled to find something new, always mixing and matching clothes to find the right combination. It was a precursor to the type of paintings I ended up making 15 years later in New York, where I would cut out construction paper elements and tape them onto my paintings to see if they “worked” before permanently painting them in.

During that senior year of high school, David and I challenged ourselves to find clothes in our parent’s closets and somehow make them work. As always, David would push the barrier as far as possible, mixing a hideous blouse his mom wore with homemade bondage pants. That endless search made us into “diggers,” constantly mining for clothes, music, films, and art; anything that stood apart from the familiar and safe. Digging came naturally after so many years of searching for comics. I miss this creativity within modern music subcultures. These days, if you decide to be goth you simply go to the mall and buy goth clothes, or look online for examples to follow. Style is clearly defined and humorless, or if it is funny, it’s done with irony. The playfulness of getting ready is gone.

The path out of high school was tough. Kids today look back at the 80s as an era of fun clothes and electronic pop songs. We didn’t see it like that. The Cold War was still going strong, which is reflected in the underlying anxiety felt in many of the songs. The nuclear arms race was something I read about in the daily paper, as well as the alarming rise of AIDS, and as I shuffled through the halls during my senior year, I would repeat a mantra under my breath:
We are dead.
We are dead.
We are dead.

I finally see the exit doors to the Music Hall ahead of me as I stumble along with the tightly packed crowd, finally pushing through and into the still humid night. As people begin to disperse, I glimpse a pale, thin hand holding a small piece of paper held out for me. In the crowd, I don’t have a chance to see a face as I take the paper from the hand and push it into my pocket. Once we make it back to the car, I see it is a small photocopied flyer that simply says,
All Ages
followed by an address in Sharpstown, across Houston.

Over the following weeks, Michael and I decided that we had to see what the Nightcage was. Michael lived with his dad about 10 minutes from my house. I was fortunate enough to have generous parents who provided me with a car, which meant that whenever we did anything, I always drove. In high school, Michael had become one of the regular nerdy friends in my group, joining David and I (along with Steve and Lane) for marathon D&D sessions. We were also thrown together in school while taking the same fundamental drafting and architecture courses. Whereas David was sadistic, sharp-edged, and cynical, openly criticizing anything he found too mundane, Michael was more generous and friendly. David was always the “cooler” friend to have, because you instantly became an outsider when you were with him, laughing at the absurdities of the world. Michael was reliable, dependable, and knowledgeable about music, mainly through the influence of his cousin Bryan, who lived on the other side of Pasadena. He was also “safer” as a friend; less likely to take huge risks, push boundaries, drink or experiment with drugs. During that final year of high school, David evolved and experimented at a rate beyond my ability to keep up, which left me growing closer to Michael.

For several weeks, I’d scouted fast food joints in the area with the hope of finding one with a locking bathroom. One Friday night in late August, I told my parents I was going over to Michael’s to watch a movie, but then drove to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Spencer Highway near his house. This was my first attempt at what soon became routine.

I parked as close to the door of the KFC as possible, then quickly headed into the bathroom and locked the door. The grey bathroom was lit by a small florescent bar overhead, which barely illuminated the room in a blue haze. I nervously pulled black eyeliner out of my pocket that I applied while carefully avoiding my new contact lenses. Occasionally I’d hear someone tug on the door, to which I’d yell out, “Busy!” Once I was satisfied with my makeup, I’d take a deep breath and put my head down before opening the door to dart as quickly as possible through the restaurant into the car to quickly lock the doors.

During the year or so that this ritual occurred, I felt like it wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with my parents and attempt to explain the appeal of the makeup. I was also fully aware of the danger of being trapped by someone who felt threatened by my appearance. I was already cautious about being caught alone in the bathroom at school since one of the popular athletes on the varsity football team had been spreading rumors that he didn’t like how “I looked” and was therefore going to kick my ass. He sat in the opposite corner of my English class, and I’d catch him staring at me like a schoolgirl with a crush whenever I’d glance around the room. I joked with my friends about how this jock was fixated with me, but I knew that whatever he felt could easily result in violence.

A few weeks after the concert, Michael and I looked up the address on a map before we made the long drive across town to The Nightcage. We arrived at a nondescript storefront in the corner of a bland, beige strip mall with an empty parking lot. I was certain the glass door to the club would be locked, but it swung open to reveal the sounds of “The Caterpillar” by The Cure along with the recognizable smell of clove cigarettes. Sitting at a desk in front of a black curtained doorway, a hairy, overweight, balding man smiled and said “Five dollars.”

After paying, we pushed through the curtain and into a dark room that had probably been an old cubicled office complete with dingy carpet and a low, drop-tile ceiling. Carpeted benches were arranged around the room, similar to the type you see at a skating rink, and off to the side was a small, round raised dance floor with a swirling ball of lights hanging above it, along with a podium/DJ booth tucked in against the wall. A snack bar was hidden in the back corner, draped in old Christmas lights, while the center of the club had a dark gazebo with some sparse strands of plastic flowers draped around it. I watched a somber teenage couple wander past in the dark; one girl wearing a leash and collar being led by another. In the shadowed corners of the room I’d glimpse the occasional couple or group, motionless, just watching from a distance like animals with glowing eyes in the depths of a forest.

One forlorn, stylish couple stood out from the others: a cute brunette girl with short pixie hair and heavy eyeliner, along with her boyfriend wearing a military cap with long bangs covering one eye like a veil. Months later, after running across the couple several times and seeing Jacob always wearing the same cap, I heard a rumor that he wore fake bangs attached to the inside of his cap. At the time I thought it made him a poser, but it was actually a perfect example of the creative lengths we were going to for style. How was that any different than me sneaking into the KFC restroom to apply eyeliner away from the prying, confused eyes of my parents?

As Michael and I grew accustomed to the habitat, we pulled in closer to the dance floor. It was the modern version of a campfire; a focal point in the dark, drawing us near to share a song with our fellow strangers. The music was ideal, filled with the bands that have now become standards (Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants, The Smiths, Soft Cell) and I’d catch someone offer an occasional smile, although most people remained shyly quiet like me. Soon, my awareness of the foreign place was overpowered by the music, and as my self-consciousness faded away, I slowly walked onto the dance floor. Losing myself in the rhythm, time ceased to exist as I moved through the songs.

As the evening grows late, I hear a familiar tune.

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”
Said, “Hey, honey,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

As the song plays, I see the people who’d been hidden in the corners slowly emerge into the light, as this communal embrace of outsiders draws us together. The small dance floor fills up as everyone sways in time, glowing electric with Lou Reed’s voice luring us to escape into his unbiased, decaying New York world.

Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash
Said, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”
I said, “Hey, honey,
Take a walk on the wild side.”
And the colored girls say,
“Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”

As the song ends, Michael and I walk out of the club and into the damp, polluted air, ready to make the long trip home. As we drive down the freeway, a car passes with several girls who’d also been at the club. I catch up and we roll our windows down as the wind tears through the car, making our voices difficult to hear. Yelling out the window, we are shocked to discover that they also live in Pasadena, but attend a different high school. Michael asks for a phone number and jots it down on the Nightcage flyer as they take the time to gesture it with their fingers. We can’t anticipate that two of these girls, Catherine Scruggs and Sheri Terry, will eventually become some of our closest friends and fellow adventurers. Satisfied, we roll up the windows and drive home down the half-empty freeway in the night.