Palagia was the queen of the baroque sex parties which were a phenomenon in the Manhattan of the early oughts, but I had been studying the geography well before I went to Palagia’s party, familiarizing myself with a narrative which swiftly resolved itself into vivid vignettes and surreal sound-bites.
The room at Webster Hall was furnished with a couple of pool-tables at one of which I saw a five woman group, one wearing a tutu and space boots, another torn fishnet stockings and a skull on the seat of her knickers.
At another a beefy guy wearing black vinyl hot pants was playing pool with a troll.
Outside the pool room an elvish man was leading a giant female slave by an illuminated leash, she being wholly dressed in white. Even her flesh was white as if powdered. Both were stone-faced.
At another event I arrived with a cane, borrowed from a Brit friend as protective coloration. A woman asked me at the door whether I wanted to have it used on me or to wield it myself.
“I’ll use it myself,” I said quickly.
“Aha! A fundamentalist,” she said, indicating approval.
So finally to the main event. Palagia had directed me to a building in that tangle of streets on the West Side that New Yorkers continue to call the Meat Market (otherwise known as the Meatpacking District).
This was back when a meat market was what the area still was, both in the sense that it was not uncommon to see a guy in a white coat carrying a side of beef outside that much-loved outpost of foodie glamor, Florent, and in that there was visible street traffic in dressy and specialized sex.
Indeed when we saw a white stretch pulling up as we approached, my co-explorer, Thea—not her actual name—was unconvinced. “Perhaps it’s just a rich john cruising the trannies,” she suggested. But a couple got out, rang the bell. This was the place.
We walked into a loft, thrumming with disco, with rosy lighting and furnishings that included, yes, a swing to which a sign reading ‘NO MORE THAN TWO ON SWING’ had been attached either by a spoilsport or by a sly joker. Palagia had insisted “I don’t call my parties swinger parties. I hate that word. Women are fearful of that word.”
Palagia knew that I was on a writing assignment for Black Book, that I found it interesting that these events were no longer just organized by guys such as Larry Levenson of Plato’s Retreat, but that much of the Manhattan action was now being run by women, such as two other operations, Cake and Flirt and, most famously, by Palagia herself.
She had grown up in strict Greek family in Washington D.C., which is what had driven her, she said. “I love giving people the opportunity to feel safe, secure in an environment that is natural."
She moved to New York in 1996, which was the end of the Disco Era, but a handful of clubs like Mother were still going full blast. “Mother was one of the best parties you could go to. Every night was different. You could get away with a little frolicking,” she said.”
All of them are gone now or dying out. These were precedents that were set by Giuliani. You can’t reverse them.”
This was the great lack that Palagia set out to make good, the hole that had to be plugged—hence Palagia’s parties. Now it was 2002 and Palagia ruled.
Thea and I stripped off our outerwear, gave it to the businesslike coat-check, and wandered around.
The crowd this evening was at least up to the standard of that at any good nightclub, fully at ease semi-clothed and in the underwear department there was a predictable gender distinction.
Yes, there were a few show-offs amongst the guys, strutting around to show that they had been putting in plenty of gym-time, and one fellow was in a shiny boxer’s cape but for the most part the male look was basic locker-room.
Not so the gals. “Looks like everybody got their boyfriend to take them to Victoria’s Secret,” Thea said. The crowd also looked well-to-do and by no means bohemian—more Madison Avenue than Downtown. They were served the liquor they had themselves brought in at a professional bar.
A young woman alongside me was wearing a feathery slip, like a flapper, as drawn by Edward Gorey. I complimented her on her look.
“I didn’t know what to wear. It’s my first time,” she said.
An older blonde woman announced that it was her first time too.
The flapper said she was from Baltimore and would be going back the following morning. The blonde would be returning to New Jersey.
There were eddies of action in the main room. A couple was now using the swing, and a woman with a mane of reddish curls was listening unmoved as a hefty guy harangued her until she marched off.
A blonde woman stood next to a table set with helpful toys.
“I recognize you from before,” she said, cheerfully. “You had a cane. That was the only thing I forgot to bring.”
Miss Baltimore was being helped out of her feathered slip outside a small, darkly lit room. The woman with the reddish mane was grappling with another woman so fiercely that they kept hitting the light switches, making the lights go on/off/on. The air was resonant with protests from the writhing groups within.
“Fifty-two couples,” Palagia told us, as we left. “It’s a great fucking party. But are there too many people? Nobody hasn’t showed up. A hundred and two people!”
“A hundred and four people,” I said. “Does too much fucking affect your math?” A joke.
“There’s no such thing as too much fucking,” said Palagia.