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."
Pictured: Untitled | Photography by M. Sharkey
In this windowless basement apartment on a block of lumbering row houses deep in Bushwick, the detritus of several wayward girls is on display in piles of indiscernible junk cascading from each room.
One guy slept on an air mattress in the living room for two months. Then, when someone else needed it, he slept on two chairs tied together in the kitchen. During that time last summer, a drifter from Chicago, a Lil' Kim impersonator, taught Mame how to beat her face.
She's since become buxom and polished, channeling broads like Vampira and Rosalind Russell, pretty girls who can hang with the boys. She's 22 and entrepreneurial. This year she began writing a beauty column for xoJane. She works two days a week as a receptionist at a salon. She co-hosts at Don Pedro's on Mondays and started her own night there on Wednesdays. She travels down the East Coast doing gigs. One day she hopes to open her own lending library for occult texts. She wants a web series.
"I refuse to stay around Brooklyn very long," she says.
Monday nights at Don Pedro's are a staple of this bursting scene. Macy Rodman hosts the weekly Bath Salts party, a loosely organized theme-based evening (last Thanksgiving's "Trail of Queers," Pride Month's "Gay Shame"). Tonight, Dr. Rodman's Office is a talk show set up to educate about bipolar disorder.
"Mixed episodes," her guest, a bipolar man, explains to the audience, "are when all the restless energy, fast thinking, impulsivity, and sleeplessness mix with all the sadness, the lack of pleasure, and blunted emotions. It's during these episodes bipolar people are most at risk of killing themselves."
A man in a biker jacket, greaser hair, and blue lipstick rises to toss a dollar on stage.
It's quiet tonight but the neighborhood buzzes with the anticipation of arrival. A new face is always about to show up. Increasingly, rubberneckers trickle in from nearby Williamsburg and Greenpoint, or from Manhattan. Tonight, one such group looks vexed and out of place in the back row, their faces buried in the blue glow of their phones.
Rodman is 6-foot-4 out of heels and has the warmth and levity of someone twice her age. One of the older kids on the scene, Rodman, now 24, grew up as Jacob in Juneau, Alaska. His father was a construction worker, his mother a substitute teacher. He lived in a trailer by the jail and had never gone to the dentist. His PS2 was stolen by Oxycontin addicts. He never thought of himself as poor until he got out.
After his mother's sudden death from an undiagnosed heart ailment when he was 18, he flew to San Francisco and met up with a photographer who drove him and eight others cross-country to New York, stopping at various points to pose nude in the wild.
"For me, the scene feels like a lot of disenfranchised kids looking for an outlet, sick of elitist nightlife and wanting something more inclusive," Rodman says out of drag, eyebrowless and bleached blond, timid yet mannered with a honking laugh. We sit on his tattered sofa. The clutter all around the apartment has a Buffalo Bill quality. He'd never been to a drag show before first donning makeup in 2010. It is now paying the rent; he makes about $50 a night.
Pictured: Macy Rodman | Photography by M. Sharkey
"Macy's look is always a little childish -- a teenage girl who's trying to pass off as cool but she's homeless. It's not quite working because all her stuff is from the trash can. Her shoes are made of tape," he says of his alter ego.
Twice a week, Rodman walks the two miles from this apartment down busy Bushwick Avenue to Don Pedro's, beneath railroad tracks, through the housing projects and past gas stations, bumping up with tough guys in hoodies and tricked-out Mazdas at the Lube Express.
In the '80s and '90s, Bushwick was burning. The crack epidemic decimated the neighborhood, and cops wouldn't go there. Today an errant gunshot still causes a group of queens smoking outside a bar to quietly assess its proximity. You can still sometimes turn a corner to find the smoldering frame of a burnt-out SUV.
But nightly, Don Pedro's, the Wreck Room, Tutu's, Tandem, the Spectrum, and Secret Project Robot have the drag queens who have settled here out in droves, in places the last generation would have called "straight bars."
On Flushing Avenue, the Wreck Room doubles as Sick Nasty's living room. He lives above it, in an SRO building that's like a college dorm for grownups, where tiny bedrooms with rickety, lofted beds shoot off of a communal hallway and you share a bathroom and kitchen with your neighbors.
Sick Nasty, 22, fled a strict Catholic upbringing in rural Pennsylvania. "I was a huge Bible humper, very devoted. After I graduated, I really reflected back and was like, Wow, people speaking tongues in my ear and passing out around me while listening to terrible music. That's really scary."
He's sitting in a lawn chair beneath his lofted bed wearing pink fishnets, a leotard, a full beard with glitter on his face, and a leather cap. He is drinking a beer before heading downstairs. The guy in the room next door is also a drag queen, and is one of his best friends.
"When I first came to New York I was hyperventilating, shocked by everyone around me. Then I met all these people I could relate to immensely," he says.
Not long ago I dated a guy who lived in this industrial stretch of Bushwick. We'd walk from the subway at night down the center of the windswept street so muggers couldn't get the jump on us, our keys protruding from our knuckles to use as weapons. That corner now hosts an organic food market, a planned shopping mall, and a restaurant patronized by Chelsea Clinton and Madonna.
Older friends describe the Key West or Provincetown of yesteryear the way the Wreck Room feels tonight, a Shangri-la for society's drop-outs: drag queens sitting on the laps of Hells Angels, drug dealers on the make, punk rockers slamming shots, Mexican busboys ogling the pretty girls, graffiti thick enough to cut with a serving knife, rows of loose women puffing on e-cigarettes.
Pictured: Severely Mame | Photograpy by M. Sharkey
Thursday nights are big here. Local queens Trey LaTrash and Cher Noble host the Bless this Mess party. I spot Rodman maneuvering the crowd dressed like a 1990s career woman a la stop-motion Tim Burton. She's wearing a blazer from the garbage and flared slacks that don't quite touch her masking tape pumps. Her face is nude and her blond wig dreadlocked with filth.
She checks up on me and offers me a drink. More queens are rambling in, a bearded one in polka dots twirls by me, certainly pleased by the statement of his underarm odor. I overhear a man in a puffer jacket ask his friend if he's packing. The friend nods. Outside, some neighborhood kids pull up on BMX bikes, bumming cigarettes from the drag queens.
"The Bushwick thing is about earnest self-awareness," says Rodman. "It's acknowledging that it's not meant to be the best thing."
Untitled Queen came to New York to be a working artist but has found himself doing drag around Bushwick many nights of the week. He takes a more cerebral route, seeing his drag as a living sculpture. He is often austere, entering the room like a ghost, and is much loved around here.
"I really do strive to make it a story every time. I feel like doing this is an extension of my artwork," he said in a brief documentary made about him.
The world is taking notice. The New York Times and Daily Mail have run stories on Bushwick drag. In a neverending series, the Huffington Post is attempting to pin down each queen in the neighborhood for exhausting interviews about the meaning of this new "experimental drag."
All the girls roll their eyes a bit at the sudden attention because, of course, none of this is about drag. It's a much older story. "Everyone's so fucking fascinated," said Timmy, sitting cross-legged on the bed that night at Mame's house, picking his nail polish. "It's just a bunch of kids running around, fucking having fun."
Timmy seems almost tormented by angst. He left Rochester two years ago. He's petite and full of piss and vinegar. He is also sweet and devious like a pixie, and deeply devoted to his new friends. They are a family, giggling between the sheets amid a ghetto of castaways. I remember all of that, back when.