The Missing Children of Clown Alley

4.22.2014

By Chadwick Moore

Bushwick or Budget-wick, the new home of NYC drag is not for the fainthearted.


From Left: Sick Nasty, Untitled, Severely Mame, Macy Rodman; Shot on Location at Don Pedro's | Photography by M. Sharkey  

They’re the old guard, the children of the aughts, that lost decade for youth culture in New York, sidelined and stymied after huge swaths of the city have been reinvented for the super-rich. Under New York’s last mayor, Michael Bloomberg, 40,000 new buildings were constructed in the city, about nine for every day of his administration. The poor kids left, rents skyrocketed, and would-be artists resorted to full-time employment. The rich got richer, and everyone knows the rest of the story.

I’m watching Baby Kween rise, giraffe-like, from the passenger seat of a black cab that has just reared up to Don Pedro’s, a Mexican restaurant turned dive bar. It’s a bone-chilling January night and she clutches her sarong against the wind. Her friend Timmy, resplendent in last night’s hangover, springs from the back seat, tosses a spent can of Natural Ice to the street and bounds for the door. Baby Kween surveys the riffraff huddled outside while her roommate pays the driver: dykey girls, boys in dirty frocks, metalheads. A new generation without a name.

“She can’t afford fabric, so she uses whatever she can find in the apartment,” Severely Mame, her roommate, says of Baby’s dress. It’s cut from a Little Caesar’s delivery box.

“Fuck Bushwick. This is Budget-wick,” says Timmy.

Behind her, mammoth cooperative housing towers soar into the sky, ensnared by Brooklyn’s overland J train, which screech- es in the distance. Baby’s head balances a towering red wig. The pebbly texture of her makeup resembles the spray paint on the sidewalk before her. Her ankles, in a preemptive move, are wrapped in packing tape, just in case she has to bolt from street thugs at some point tonight.

Three weeks ago, Baby Kween was just Todd Ennis, working the night shift at the print warehouse of the Frederick News-Post in suburban Maryland. It was a good gig at $10 an hour, loading stacks of coupons into a hopper that fed them between the pages of newspapers whirling by on a conveyor belt.

At quitting time, Ennis would take out his phone and scour the social media pages of some drag queens he had discovered gallivanting around Bushwick, held rapt by the nightly orgies of punk rock, glitter, and sleaze being broadcast from this rough, little-known Brooklyn neighborhood. It was like nothing he’d ever seen.

At home, tension built over the fact Ennis wasn’t in college. For his whole life, his mother had worked to save up for it. A gaunt 6-foot-4 with beluga-white skin, pale eyes, and a broad, heart-shaped face, Ennis had once aspired to a career in fashion. Life with mom was good, if Grey Gardens-like; a colorful and loving codependency blossomed between the two. The Friday before Christmas he took a weekend bus trip, wanting to see New York City in wintertime. That Monday he put on drag for the first time, met Severely Mame, took a room in her apartment, and called Mom to say he wouldn’t be coming back.

Earlier that night, I sat on Mame’s bed and chatted while they dressed. “Our home is a house for wayward girls,” Mame said without looking up from the brush gliding along her eyelid, her septic-green hair pulled back in a headband, her feet on the cold vinyl floor. Mismatched table lamps on her vanity double as prop stands for an eye patch and a black veil, and various weapons hang over her head — novelty cleavers, butcher’s knives — along-side Satanic iconography, wigs, a signed portrait of Dita Von Teese, and a Morrissey poster. “Morrissey’s eyes,” Mame says, “light up at night like Morticia Addams’s.”

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