On the last Saturday night in the life of Tracks, a million- jillion-square- foot, gay-straight-whatever disco in a Navy Yard warehouse in Southeast Washington that for 15 important years catered to the genetic dollop of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone inside each of us, there was a woman in the crowded mass of flesh and spandex, leaning beside one of Tracks' eight bars, and she was complaining about how fat she had gotten. ("I can't fit into anything I used to wear here in the '80s, I'll have you know," she shouted over the Human League's "Don't You Want Me?") And she complained how all the nice men, all her life, were always gay. ("That was always my gripe.")
Ultimately her gripe was this: "I'm sad. Does everything good have to end? Do we have to grow up?"
Her vodka tonic arrived and she vanished before supplying an answer, into a sea of what is known in this era as All da Party People in da House; into one last fabulous re-creation of the sexually ambiguous, ironic, wee-hour, thump-thump-thump nightlife feeling you get from another Bret Easton Ellis novella that thankfully was never written.
For at the corner of First and M streets SE, Tracks had cheated death time and again, several years and incarnations beyond the natural life cycle of Big Gay Discos. It lived until people didn't really go there much anymore, and until the Navy decided this year to finally make good on the always-looming blueprints for a drab office building on the site. The bulldozers will start clawing at Tracks as early as next week; the party people will have moved on. (Some far away; some to the owner's next club, a few blocks away.)
Although a number of quietly gay, speakeasy-ish cocktail lounges preceded Tracks (and big '70s-era discos like the Pier and the Lost & Found paved crucial ground), this was the first gay-oriented megaclub to really roar. The fire department never budged from a firm occupancy limit of 980 patrons, yet typical crowds in Tracks' heyday exceeded 2,000 or even 3,000. (Saturday's farewell throng, each paying a $20 cover charge, topped 5,000, until you could no longer squeeze coolly or provocatively from the bathrooms to the dance floor. You simply squeezed.)
Perhaps no other nightlife institution did more to acquaint certain kinds of Washington with other kinds of Washington: Legions of Georgetown coeds in the late '80s dragged their boyfriends to a neighborhood not usually included on a tourist map. Thursdays were traditionally college nights, with hundreds of slightly depressed, wan, Morrissey-from-the-Smiths look-alikes dejectedly swaying to pop dirges--Depeche Mode, or the Cure--conjuring up lines of poetry and nose candy. Fridays you just never knew who was who, or what was what, and that was the point of Fridays, even during the most terrifying years of Washington's puffed-up gang-culture wars. Saturdays, conversely, belonged to the GWM--the gay white males in Benetton sweaters and acid-wash jeans pegged at the cuff, from Northwest, with insatiable needs for Abba and enough twenties in their wallets to buy all the young guys a drink. Sundays, invariably since the beginning in 1984, were mostly black, and two-thirds women.
But what was crucial about all of this was the likelihood of comingling. Here is where Wonder Bread discovered the soul diva inside. Here is where, allegorically, Will met Grace, and Americans of a particular age learned to color outside the lines, and see a bit beyond sexual orientation. Tracks was a field-trip destination--only some stayed and played forever. It was one of those places America fine-tuned its "gaydar."
Heart of the Party
At a contemplative, older-but-wiser center of Tracks' final party was a man named Ed Bailey. He is 33, lean and balding, wearing shiny black carpenter pants and a fleece pullover. For a time he ruled the club. He first got here as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, caught on the dance floor when the power failed. In that darkness he found the joy of belonging to something. "I wasn't the only gay person in the world after all," he recalled.
He came to Tracks every week for a thousand years: "I had my favorite spot out here on the patio," he said, giving a tour of his old haunt early Saturday evening, stepping outside to the legendary volleyball court. "What I truly remember--watch out, there are lots of rats out here, so don't be scared--what I truly remember was being out here. This was my spot. . . . You'd make a few laps, but you'd always return to your spot, and basically we were all on one side and there would be the cute boys over on the straight side who weren't quite ready to be over here yet."
Bailey met every boyfriend he's ever had at Tracks ("that would be a total of five, by the way"), but more important, he found a calling as a deejay and marketing whiz. In the club's golden era, he was hired permanently to plan elaborate shows and theme parties. Nightlife took on a corporate savviness; it wasn't only about playing the right records. Deejays became underground legends in the '90s, and the mixing of the right music with the right kids became a kind of surgical science. The deejay booth 10 feet above Tracks' main dance floor had come to resemble, in the late '90s, the intricate bridge of a starship boldly going--with a Mr. Chekov on the right tinkering with a control board and Dell computers that run the disco lights, and a Mr. Sulu deejay on the left, spinning three turntables and interjecting digital sound into a simultaneous and frenetic cacophony; below them, the wild-eyed aliens of Planet Everybody writhed around.
"There's a moment when you're up here, looking down at 2,000 or 3,000 people who are down there having a good time," mused Tracks general manager Patrick Little, who has worked at the club for 12 years, first as a bartender, "and then it doesn't matter how much it cost to produce, or how hard it was to put together. That one moment, when all those people are in the palm of your hand . . . it's all worth it."
Bailey agreed. He was back in Tracks for one night only, and he tried to lie low. The ownership and history of Tracks is naturally complicated over 15 years. The original owner, Marty Chernoff, sold it to other investors in 1990 and then bought it back. When tensions flared, Bailey left the club three years ago and started his own nightlife scene nearby, with Velvet at Nation, taking thousands of customers with him. "You don't know how it hurt me to hurt this place," Bailey said.
Chernoff and Tracks' management asked Bailey to come back and plan the final night, making a kind of peace. "I am a control freak," he said. "Ask any of my ex-boyfriends. Being here tonight and not being able to boss people around is hard for me."
Anyway, he was home. There was J.D. Wily, who had decorated the club almost through its entire life span, hanging giant white disks from the ceiling, each emblazoned with Tracks' trademark lightning bolt. "I'll bet anything, as always, he'll leave as soon as he's done. He never stays to see people enjoy it." A red-haired bartender named Jay walked by Bailey and gave a curt hello. "That's the most Jay has said to me in three years," Bailey observed, sadly. "He blames me for what happened to the club. He's been bartending at the front bar since the day Tracks opened--the joke was always that he was sitting on the street corner in 1984 just waiting for someone to open a gay bar here. And he's one of the nicest, best people you would ever meet. I'm sad he won't speak to me. I hope when this is all over, he will."
An avowed nondrinker and non-drug user in a frequently boozy, druggy milieu, Bailey said running a club "is a slimy business. It's slimy people." The reason he keeps doing it, then? "I like to run a party. It's going to sound so conceited, but I wish someone did what I do, so I could go to that party."
A Final Toast
Ann Wachtel, the club's first manager in the mid-'80s, showed up. She looks like someone's funky aunt, with gray hair, wearing a black blazer and dangly earrings. She came back to play a selection of classical music as an overture to the pounding disco, "like we did in the old days." Wachtel remembered the drag revue shows, the time the cast of "Dreamgirls" did a fund-raiser, Effi Barry (then the mayor's wife) coming to the grand opening ceremony, all the wedding receptions held in the club. "It was such a privilege to work here, I really believe that," she said. She took a look around the old joint, marveled at the layers of paint and history. As the crowd doubled and tripled, she was in a corner, alone, looking over a railing at the dancers.
"Oh, Mr. Washington Post Reporter Man," she called out in a voice ground down by years of cigarette smoke, "Hello? One more thing. What if you please, please mentioned all our friends who died and aren't here? I'm thinking of so many of them. . . . There was Frank Barbarino, he was in his thirties, he was the assistant general manager. Oh, and Jimmy Logan, and Craig Heckathorn. Gosh, so many I can't remember. But here's to them, wherever they are."
End of the Party
At midnight, Ed Bailey took over at the turntables. The '80s music became a complex melange of the '90s. There were people who are still too sexy for their shirts, and people who aren't. There was that familiar, pounding command--"Everybody dance now!"--and the sweaty bodies obeying the rhythm.
Bailey had a banana and Pop-Tarts in his backpack because he planned to play all night. His groupies--an endless parade of thin, beautiful boys in tank tops and cargo pants--sneaked into the booth to pay homage to him.
By 9 a.m. Sunday, the crowd had dwindled down to 40. Bailey was still playing music. All week there had been the question of the very last song. Some people said it should be "Last Dance" by Donna Summer, which Bailey thought horribly trite. Someone thought "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" by Cher, which is hardly a classic from that goddess. Bailey finally chose "This Used to Be My Playground" by Madonna, "because the words are just so perfect, even though it's a slow song." People took parts of the club off the walls. There were tears. When the building was empty, Bailey stood in the booth and listened to the silence. I heard somebody say burn, baby, burn, and that silence blared forever.
Bailey would like to come back and watch the bulldozers. He would like to see the main dance cavern exposed to the blazing light of day. Just for the weirdness of it. "Come on, hello, I guess that's closure. . . . I don't expect anyone out there to understand any of this." There is the possibility, beyond his deejay career, of designing Web sites for a corporation. "It's a 9-to-5 job," he said. "It's just on the wrong side of 9-to-5."
CAPTION: Losing Tracks: A crowd of more than 5,000--of all stripes--squeezed into the D.C. dance club for its farewell bash.