Whenever I visit the granary of art that Renzo Piano designed for the Whitney, I make certain to pause at 69 Gansevoort Street and pay my respects.
Surrounded by landmarked abattoirs, on a Native American footpath paved with Belgian blocks, the address is currently the home of a Madewell store. Large chrome letters against a green background have advertised the long-gone R&L Restaurant since 1955. But the building’s most famous occupant, from 1985 until 2008, was Restaurant Florent.
To the uninitiated, Florent was a retro diner posing as a 24-hour French bistro in the middle of nowhere. To the freaks that frequented the place, it was a beacon in the night, a pit stop before, between and after openings, dinner parties and nightclubs. It was a clubhouse that welcomed the discussion of politics in a world of war, AIDS and the religious right. Food never mattered at Florent and a full bar wasn’t available until the mid-90s. What made the restaurant inimitable was its ambience: a cocoon-like space filled by loyal diners who fed off each other. Where else could one eat an Evelyn’s goat cheese salad and moules frites with club kids, leather men and slumming celebrities at 4:30 in the morning?
I started working for Florent, the restaurant and the man, in August 1990. I was at home, tuned into CNN, watching infrared imagery of bombs falling on Bagdad when my former roommate, Raven O, called. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Watching the war.”
He asked if I was still looking for a job. I looked at the clock. It was nearly 1 am. “What kind of job?” I asked suspiciously.
“Florent. Butcher shift. New queen didn’t show. We’re slammed and we need a busboy.”
The Stars and Stripes morphed into the flag of Kuwait as Iraqi tanks stormed across a red line in the desert. Block letters filled the screen to the thunder of kettledrums: “PERSIAN GULF WAR.” Commercial.
“Bus boy? How much does it pay?”
In the background I heard the clatter of dishes, a disembodied bass line, laughter and screaming. “How much you making now, queen?”
I told him I’d be there in a half-hour.
Overnight was called the butcher shift because, as we served customers from midnight until 8:30 in the morning, men wearing blood-stained knee-length coats loaded carcasses into idling trucks outside. A pink neon sign that spelled out the owner’s name in lower-case letters hung in the window at the front of the restaurant and cast a lurid light on the proceedings.
Working at Restaurant Florent was like doing time in a home for black sheep. More to the point, it was orchestrated chaos in an Airstream trailer driven by a crazed drag queen with a Napoleon complex. The music was reliably good, even though Florent was always trying to get us to turn the speakers down. On the walls, between quilted panels of stainless steel, hung framed maps of obscure countries and mythical places, Florent’s own cartography.
More than a restaurant, Florent was an ongoing art installation that ran for 23 years. Success was its downfall. Its own existence and a gung-ho mission to landmark the neighborhood created a tourist magnet, full of fancy hotels and pricey restaurants: the perfect place for the Whitney Museum of American Art to relocate its holdings.
Recently I went to the Whitney to see Human Interest, a show that explores the range of American portraiture.
As I wandered the Steichens, Hoppers, Warhols, and Arbuses, the opening strains of Madonna’s Vogue echoed through the warren of bright white galleries. Beside Deborah Kass’s 1992 Warholian silkscreen, 6 Red Barbras (Jewish Jackie Series), hung a flat screen tv playing a video called Butcher’s Vogue by Charles Atlas, shot in 1990, the same year the song came out.
“Let your body mooove to the music …”
As Madonna’s catchy ditty plays, a pair of downtown legends, Connie Girl and Chiclet, slink down dark, deserted Gansevoort Street in leather, denim and sheer black lingerie. They contort to the music, lipsynch the words and re-appropriate the choreography Madonna snatched from the ball queens who once vogued along the Hudson River with abandon.
Connie and Chiclet enter Florent, followed by a john (played by Cunningham dancer and long-time dinner host, Joseph Lennon). They strut past the cigarette machine and the pay phones in the entryway, then bust through the slit, plastic curtains that lead to the dining room, where Richard Move and Rebecca Weinberg — and a number of patrons who happened to be dining in the restaurant — add a Jacques Demyesque dance routine to their twisted noir.
Past unisex bathrooms, through a door that leads to a greasy, wet staircase, the trio winds up in the bowels of the restaurant. As the song ends, Connie and Chiclet knife the john and take his money. Police arrive and pull their guns at the final echoes of “Vogue, vogue, vogue, vogue, vogue.”
European tourists and suburban families walked by absentmindedly. A woman approached the screen and furrowed her brow when she realized it wasn’t the original David Fincher video, the one where Madge frames her face with stiff fingers and flails about like a rag doll in a hurricane.
I wanted to shout, “Stop, people! Look! This took place out there! Twenty-six years ago. On fancy Gansevoort Street. This is a document of how raw, dangerous and fun the neighborhood was. When the Highline was an overgrown eyesore littered with chicken bones, condoms and syringes. When sex clubs and dive bars reigned supreme. Before Sex and the City. Before foodies. Before Uber.”
Nobody would have cared. Drag queens are streamed regularly into living rooms these days. The meatpacking district is a giant mall for trust fund kids. And Florent is just a fond memory for those who survived the fin de siècle, a winsome reminder that nostalgia’s for pussies and time marches on.
Charles Atlas's video Butchers' Vogue is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until February 11, 2017. Florent Morellet's maps can be viewed on his website. Showtime is developing a series based on Florent starring Alan Cumming. Restaurant Florent appears in Issue #13 of Put A Egg On It.