Chapter 22 – Quaaludes and MTV

I worked at the Palladium during the height of its popularity. I photographed many of the bartenders in NYC and played a significant role in helping start some of their modeling and acting careers. Richard Grieco was a bartender there. I photographed him in Central Park, two weeks later Elite signed him and he got the 21 Jump Street gig. The bartenders were mostly male, as Steve Rebel, the owner was more into guys than girls. He gained a reputation for being flamboyantly gay, but more so as a, tax-evading, drug addict despite the fact he created one of the most amazing nightclubs the world had ever seen. Quite possibly it was the availability of drugs that made those clubs so popular, worldwide.

He would come to the main bar and impatiently say, “get me a glass of vodka.” It had to be Stoli or he would fire you on the spot. We were all coached that if Steve came to the bar to give him anything he wanted. And, if it was vodka he wanted, to give it to him quickly so he would calm down. It seemed he would always come to me when I was working the main bar. Typically, I worked the second level bar, for the celebrity parties in the Michael Todd Room. That was where Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd screened movies before the venue became a nightclub. On this night, the place was slower than I had ever seen and Steve was not in a good mood. He literally dumped what looked like an eight ball on the bar, rolled up a one-hundred-dollar bill and snorted it right there. Not that I had all that much experience, but it appeared to be several grams of blow. I don’t know how anyone could do that and survive. He also dumped a handful of pills onto the bar. As he was going through them, he shouted, “where’s my vodka,” many times, even when it was sitting right in front of him. Not that he was mean or even loud just totally drugged and typically intoxicated. Most nights you would never even know he was there as he was back stage with a celebrity or a musical performer. No matter what else he was, he was as cool is it got back then. He was the host of the most popular night club in the world twice. First with Studio 54 and then with the Palladium.

In any case, I quickly poured him another glass of Stoli. He downed the first one like it was water. I served them up and chilled the way he liked them. Shortly afterwards he downed many of the pills and then asked who the bartender was next to me. I said I had no idea. He said, “he’s fucking ugly, fire him right now.” The guy was one of the new bartenders. He was friendly and most of us thought he was a good bartender and co-worker. I did not want to see the poor guy fired. I heard that he screwed around with Steve to get the job. It was obvious what was going on. The guy was not putting-out for him any more so he was going to fire him. I told the guy to hide, but Steve called the manager who fired the guy on the spot. I was pretty shaken up, so when the manager asked us if anyone wanted to leave early, one of the female bartenders and I accepted the offer. She saw the entire incident and wanted out of there. We knew that Steve was messed up and didn’t want to take the chance that we would be the next one fired, especially me, as I ignored his demand to fire the guy. We were kind of spoiled. When you are bartending six or seven nights a week and you get the opportunity to get a Saturday night off, knowing the cash is going to be limited that night, you look for an excuse to go out yourself.

We decided to go on a date and went back to my apartment to freshen up and get ready. I just moved into a third story walk up on Thompson Street between Spring and Broom, just down the block from the Manhattan brewery. I was relatively new to New York City, so she was going to give me a tour of the underground nightclubs. Not the commercial places, the underground clubs you couldn’t get into unless you knew someone. She knew everyone, partially because she was ridiculously sexy. She had a downtown, New York City, Latino look. They also knew her because she was exceptionally talented.

Most people didn’t even know these clubs existed. We took a cab back to my place. She brought a big bag of clothes so she could change out of her work outfit. After work, I would generally go home with a random woman. She would go dancing. We never hung-out before. I didn’t think she liked me. After she saw me protect the other bartender, especially because I was straight and he was gay, she seemed to change her opinion of me. I think it moved her. She went on and on about how brave I was. Frankly, I was just very naïve as to how many bartenders lost their jobs on his impulsive drug induced mood swings. Even with my naiveté I was a cocky guy who knew I was ringing up almost twice what the other bartenders were ringing up most nights, and never thought he would lose a cash cow like me. I simply put more effort into the job than most people did.

After a few drinks at the Palladium to calm us down, we made it back to my apartment. I just finished moving in so I had a bed laying on the floor and a closet filled with clothing. Other than my photography equipment and a fireplace, there wasn’t much else. She was in the bathroom and came running out screaming, “Where did you get this?” She had two bottles of prescription drugs in her hands. She was freaking out. I said I had no idea that they were even in the apartment. I never opened the medicine cabinet. I thought it was just a mirror. She found a bottle of Quaaludes with about 200 pills in it and a bottle of Valium with just about as many pills. She was flipping out. She told me that they were worth thousands of dollars and that we should sell them and split the money. I said, “You can take them. I’m not selling drugs.” I didn’t want any part of it.

In fact, the only reason I was living in SOHO was because my uptown roommate hid over a hundred kilos of hash in his sock drawer. When I found it while I was looking to borrow a pair of socks, I flipped out, realizing that I was the fall guy if anyone discovered the hash. He was never there. I liked hash. He gave me a several thousand-dollar chunk of it when I left. As far as I knew, hash was just condensed cannabis. All the same, I wanted out of there. It was a risk I never signed up for when I sublet the place. She convinced me to take a Valium. That relaxed me. She took half a Valium and a full Quaalude before we went out. By the time we hit the street she was all over me, hanging onto me like I was her boyfriend. We kissed a few times. I wasn’t sure if it was the pills that were increasing her affection, or true admiration. Ten minutes after we left my apartment, she said she had to get something to eat. She was so fucked up and I thought that food would help.

She took me to my first health food restaurant. I remember her ordering a sprout, peanut butter and sardine sandwich, on homemade, dry multigrain bread. Even the thought of it was disgusting. As she ate, the sprouts were sticking to her tongue and lips. She was smacking her lips together because the peanut butter was like glue. It was hilarious to see such a beautiful woman smacking her lips with sprouts stuck to them. After a while her mouth was so sticky and covered with sprouts, she couldn’t even eat properly. We left to go to the White Bar which was a very exclusive underground basement club that movie stars and celebrities would go to, so they wouldn’t be hassled by paparazzi or the press. It was almost impossible to get in. When we got there, it became obvious that she knew the security team. We had to walk down a long flight of white steps. Inside, she introduced me to the owners and got the ok to bring me in. She slid down the stairs one stumble at a time in her giant high heels. She literally slid across the floor, at the base of the stairs, into a group of VIP’s. Everyone ran over to check on her. I held her tightly after that, as we went to our table.

We ordered champagne, as that was the cool thing to do back then. Jack Nicholson sat down at the table in front of us, in the middle of the room. He was with two incredibly beautiful models. I could swear the models were doing lines. I kept seeing the girls put their head down and then come up sniffing. I was so drunk, or possibly it was the Valium, that I pulled my chair over to his table and told him that I loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I also told him that my schizophrenic, uncle spent time in Creedmoor undergoing electric shock therapy, just like his character had in the movie and that his performance moved me because of it. He thanked me for sharing my experience and we had a drink before he left with the models. I remember he was so much shorter than he looked in his movies. He was also much more handsome.

My date thought that I was going to be thrown out of the place. It had the opposite effect. We instantly became the coolest people there. I really only sat down to him to thank him for making people aware of what was really going on in mental hospitals. They were mistreating our family members and experimenting on them with unproven very radicle procedures at that time. They were treated more like inmates then they were sick people in need of help to manage their lives. In any case it was a great honor to meet him and for him to invite me to sit with him after I shared my gratitude. My friend was speechless. Shortly afterwards, she was slobbering on the table and spilling drinks, so we decided to go back to my apartment. She wanted me to take a Quaalude. She promised me that we would have great sex if I did. When we got back to my apartment she took off all her clothing and got into my bed. She made me take one of the pills and then off came my clothes.

We woke up the next morning in each other’s arms, naked. I remember her looking into my eyes and asking me if anything happened the night before. She didn’t let go of me until I told her the entire story. She remembered nothing. After I took the Quaalude, things got fuzzy for me so I couldn’t remember anything after we took our clothes off. When she asked me if we had sex, I said no. She was not the type to sleep around and the thought that she had, troubled her. She was, as far as I knew, quite conservative in that area. My package was sore so we must have done more than simply hug.

I gave her both bottles of the pills. She gave many of them to the other bartenders and to many of the actors and famous models that were regulars at the Palladium. She told everyone that they were a gift from me, so I became even cooler. It was not long after that the FBI raided the club and focused on the bartender’s cash registers and tip buckets. Steve Rebel was known for having gone to prison for tax evasion and the FBI thought he was cheating again. As it turned out, most of the bartenders were stealing from the club by not ringing up expensive drink orders and taking huge tips from the patrons. As we didn’t always pool our tips, they could get away with it. I think she along with almost every other bartender failed the lie detector test the FBI gave us. I don’t remember if she lost her job along with so many others. They asked us about drugs and what we knew about stealing by the other bartenders.

I lied about using drugs. For some reason the polygraph didn’t pick it. I thought I was going to be fired. I was actually promoted. I was not only getting the best shifts and more celebrity parties but also working the VIP list at some of the more prestigious celebrity events. I don’t believe she made the cut. I never saw her again until she got her big break as a video jock. Rumor is she gave the casting directors some of the Quaaludes. She was a short but memorable chapter of love and the evening was one of the funniest of my entire life. She is still incredibly beautiful. We bumped into each other on the street in New York City, when she was on a date. It was rather awkward. We never spoke of that night again. It was several days before my package felt right again. Whatever we did, it must have been intense.

I stayed at the Palladium for months. I left after I became involved in a fistfight with one of the other bartenders. The guy dripped acid on chewing gum and gave many of us pieces without telling us. But, that is another chapter. As for this chapter of love, the strangest thing about it is that I can’t remember anything about the evening, from the time we got back to my apartment and our clothes came off.