“Password?” a six-foot-tall bouncer asked from underneath the light-blue mask he wore. All around, the streets of downtown Manhattan were deserted—the new normal for New York City nights. Past the nondescript black door, down the rickety stairs, a red light softened the basement’s unfinished edges, blurrily illuminating a fully stocked bar tended by an unmasked barman, and a crowd of 30 there to have a good time.
Tequila shots and dry martinis were being passed around, sweaty hand to sweaty hand. Drinks were $10 a pop, cash only. A long-haired man snorted cocaine-and-ketamine swirlies off of mirrored platters lining the sides of a professional D.J. booth. Behind it, a D.J. maneuvered vinyl discs of tech-house records. A good-looking couple passed around props—cowboys hats, studded crowns; I even glimpsed a bright-pink wig—while a brunette girl sat on a floor pillow, licking magic-mushroom chocolate out of an artisanal packet. A supermodel and her boyfriend I recognized from Instagram downed shots—“Cheers to corona!” they said, glasses clinking. Two guys next to me did the elbow bump before laughing and embracing. “We don’t do that!”
The arrogance in the atmosphere was palpable, any talk of collective responsibility kicked to the curb by a group whose only commitment seemed to be to do justice to Sinatra’s ode to New York: Keep the city awake, no matter the cost. Underground, secret, and imbued with the seductive thrill that comes with misbehavior, gatherings like these can’t help but conjure images of the decadent speakeasy culture during Prohibition. The difference is the stakes—infinitely higher this time around.
“We Don’t Do That!”
New York’s lockdown has done little to deter underground techno associations, which have continued to organize parties despite the strict regulations now in place. Save the dates are sent to “friends and family” of the event organizers a few days in advance, while specifics go out only an hour or so before, listing the locations via encrypted-messaging apps. The parties start early—they’re everyone’s first and only stop of the night—and host anywhere between 20 and 40 people in basement venues across downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn; the quieter and more isolated the location, the better. Staff usually numbers two or three, and for the most part the crowd stays the same.
When I talk to people at the party, they are blasé: “Our neighborhood isn’t that affected,” a cocky guy with a mustache says to me. “We’re young. We’re not the target,” says a blonde girl in a crop top. “I don’t see why not!” A handsome Spaniard in a floral shirt echoes this thinking: “What’s wrong with hanging out amongst ourselves? I don’t know any old people!” No one mentions the fact that what they’re doing is illegal, or that just going to the grocery store the next morning may very well mean coming into contact with at-risk citizens. No one mentions that a potential second wave of coronavirus infections in South Korea has been tentatively tied to nightclubs in Seoul.
A supermodel and her boyfriend downed shots—“Cheers to corona!”
Techno parties are just the start of a budding underground social life. In New York, some establishments—restaurants, bars, hotels—deemed non-essential and forced to close to all but takeout in mid-March have followed suit. A friend of mine described a similar scene at a popular East Village restaurant that is technically open for delivery and takeout only. “They host in the basement and tell the regulars—30 or 40 people, friends of friends,” he says. “They just switch nights every week. If the police come, everyone just says they’re there to pick up their to-go order.”
Another friend who went to pick up his food at a SoHo restaurant last week was greeted by the owner and hurried inside. Downstairs, 30 or so people sat at tables, eating food served from the kitchen like they would on a regular night. Later they turned up the music, and booze and cocaine flowed until the early hours of the morning. “The front door of the restaurant is closed off,” he said. “No one can hear what goes on downstairs!”
Even my friend who works at the coffee shop around the corner—open for pickups only—invited me to an impromptu “cigar gathering” that’s been happening weekly at a well-known Lower East Side hotel rooftop. “Come, bring a cigar. Performers come and everything! We’re all buddies—30 people came last week,” he said. “Saturday night is still Saturday night.”
This isn’t only a New York City thing. The organizers of a party associated with Burning Man camps are currently in talks to rent a secluded house upstate. “We’ll make 40 to 50 people pay for chefs and D.J.’s and have a long weekend of partying, festival-style,” says my friend from Madrid, one of the organizers. Near Careyes, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, a beach restaurant hosts crowded parties with a D.J. and a candlelit stage.
“Come, bring a cigar. Performers come and everything!… Saturday night is still Saturday night.”
In Milan, one of the world’s hardest-hit areas that entered its containment “phase 2” less than two weeks ago, a famous actress I’m acquainted with recently received an invitation to a “Phase 2 Party.” (In Italy, social gatherings remain banned.) The card was sent to her home address, characteristically listing the location as “To Be Announced.” A friend of mine in Paris recounts a similar story—stopping by her local café to greet the owner, she ended up at a party hosted in the basement.
Having spent weeks on end alone at home, I would be lying if I said going to a techno party wasn’t exhilarating. Many of the young people whose chances of dying from the virus may be slimmer than getting into a car accident would rather take their chances. They feel far away from the problem and as if the world still belongs to them. Wailing sirens brought me back to reality as I walked home through empty streets after the party, and with them came feelings of responsibility and guilt. Would I do that again? Probably, I thought to myself. But it was just the martinis talking.
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor at Air Mail