New York’s clubs are back, and with them a sense of community I’d forgotten existed | Larissa Pham
In 2018, upon her return from a trip to China, my roommate gifted me a pack of black surgical masks. Affixed to the plastic packaging was an explanatory note: RAVE MASKS 🙂
I knew the look – the masks were purely aesthetic for certain ravers; dressed and masked in serious black, drifting past me at warehouse parties in New York, where I live. But it was a hard look to live up to, and my rave outfits leaned more toward sweaty efficiency, anyway.
The pack of black surgical masks lived on my dresser, gathering dust. Then the news reports began to speak of a virus, highly contagious, that was spreading. In March of 2020, not headed to a rave but to the grocery store, I took off the sticky-note, slid open the plastic packaging, and slipped a mask over my face.
For the next year, I didn’t dance. I found other ways to listen to music: I biked up Bedford Avenue in New York, blasting Aurora Halal on my portable speaker; drank wine with my boyfriend while we streamed sets from Hör, a storefront turned radio station in Berlin. I left NTS open on my computer, filling my headphones throughout the day. But I was lonely. My body stilled profoundly. Now, in New York City, nightclubs are finally open again.
For some of us, the party never stopped: there were clandestine raves under bridges, in parks, on the beach. But the clubs – the indoor spaces, the sound systems, the bathroom lines and bar queues – are finally back. And with them is a sense of community that I’d nearly forgotten existed.
One rainy night I take the train to Ridgewood for my first party back in the swirling, reopened world. Inside, it’s full of people, the energy palpable. We run into a friend, then another, touch forearms and squeeze hands; we order spiked matés at the bar. It’s one DJ playing all night, promising to take us on a journey; the music is heavy, deep and lush.
The sound feels bigger than before, bigger than it ever was, or maybe I’ve just learned how small my life is without it. Maybe there’s something in me that grew to be adequately prepared to receive it – I had a conversation about this the other night, at another party, about how we’ve had to make room in ourselves for all the space that reopening fills. Takes, perhaps.
The night out in Ridgewood doesn’t feel like just another night: it feels like a homecoming. I dance on my own, front left, eyes closed, letting the music fill me. But I’m not alone. I can feel the crowd around me, the glancing touches, the body heat, the sweat. Months ago, I would have been frightened by all the contact – double vaxxed now, I feel that there’s less to fear. On the dancefloor, the beat suddenly sinks: desperately, audaciously sludgy, rumbling through my chest, making my nose tingle. The music swoops low, thunderous, and we cheer. It reminds me of why I love electronic music: it’s not just about the journey, but about the company. It’s one thing to follow where a DJ takes you; better, even, to share it with others.
Wandering through the club, I find a year of pandemic has made us all grateful. Gentler with each other: no shoving, no pushing. Girls smile daffily at me in the bathroom line and I smile back. I want to compliment everyone’s outfit – I mean, I always did, but now I feel it bodily, like it’s a practice I’ve missed. I find where the toilet paper is stored and replace a missing roll: this, I think to myself, is mutual aid.
And in that spirit, I’m tipping more, remembering the fundraisers that sprang up when the clubs and bars and restaurants shut down. Suddenly each vodka maté feels like a bulwark against an uncertain future. If we don’t reach a certain threshold of fully vaccinated people across the world, Covid variants will continue to develop and propagate. Nightlife has always been a little underground by necessity, lax on liquor laws and zoning concerns, but now the danger feels acute in a different way. If there’s another lockdown, the clubs could very well be shut down again, and everyone will have to find their own ways to get by.
But that’s not now. I push the thought away. Now I’m back in the party. I’m in Ridgewood, I’m in Bushwick, I’m in Bed-Stuy. I run into friends I haven’t seen in over a year, draped in mesh and black latex. We’re all touching. We know what we’ve lost this year, and how much. Only the sound seems to hold that immensity. Under the lasers and the fog machines, the strobe lights and the ceilings, the interiors that shield us from the rain, a testament to being indoors together, we dance and celebrate all we’ve survived.