The mood was shifting just as I made my way toward House of Yes around 10 pm last night. Commentators on NBC, CNN, and anywhere else were starting to look flustered– especially Wolf Blitzer (a guy who looks like he passed up coffee to stick his fingers into an electrical socket) whose discombobulated outbursts and spastic reportage were only adding to a slowly-building sense of panic. Many battlegroud states were still too close to call, but Trump and Hillary were now neck-and-neck. That menacing meter on the New York Times site, which measured the probability of a Trump victory, was jumping up from its position at “we’re cool” to “we’re so, so fucked.”
I rolled the cab window down and stuck my ear out to catch the incessant election chatter, like a super nosy, slow-rolling butterfly net traveling from Bed-Stuy to Bushwick, I picked up some telling chatter. Eventually I caught sight of the Empire State Building, now a throbbing, obnoxiously bright red.
An elderly woman said to her friend: “If he wins it, he wins it.”
“I told ’em, Trump is with the Russians,” said another man, shaking his head and wheeling a garbage can filled with brooms and mops.
Pulling up to House of Yes and seeing a line out front, I breathed a sigh of relief. The place was packed, and spirits seemed relatively up. Co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova pointed to her “private station”– a laptop with a glowing map of the United States, mostly red. “Thanks for joining us in this horrible time,” she said. The party had been raging since 8 pm, and it would continue on until the wee hours of the morning, when this thing ended, hopefully with our first female President.
I didn’t even have to ask. Everyone there was a Hillary supporter. The direction of their cheers and jeers definitely gave them away, but so did the fact that this community of theatre performers, artists, circus people, burlesque dancers and people who think that what they’re doing is cool, is inherently countercultural.
It doesn’t seem like an accident that the trajectory of House of Yes– from a tiny DIY venue crammed inside a 3,000 square foot loft, to an ashen rubble after a kitchen fire set the place ablaze and, finally, its rebirth as a totally legit, up-to-code, professional performance space– has paralleled the onward/upward progress of the last eight years. Yes grew into its own and, at the same time, life has become a little bit easier for the venue’s patrons too. But nearly everyone in attendance last night probably belonged to at least one, if not several groups that Donald Trump has singled out in his war on difference– which may have seemed like a paper tiger until today.
For many people, though, Trump’s racist rants, his homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, misogynist, and Islamophobic declarations, have always carried a very real sting. Last night was a reminder of how grossly these backward-isms are in general, and how gnarly they look in the 21st century, as if Trump and his cronies are doing their best to jam an imperial eagle-shaped plastic toy into a hole shaped like, I dunno, truth and dignity.
For both Kae Burke and Anya, throwing an election party with “poll” dancers, patriotic face painting, election results projected extra-large, and a whole lot of booze, was a no-brainer. “I think it comes down to having a safe space for people who feel really freaked out about the world, which is what we’ve been for a lot of people,” Anya explained. “It’s like, you’re weird and the odds are against you, come feel safe with us.”
Since the primaries, when HoY hosted a Bernie Sanders benefit show, the venue has started engaging with politics for the first time. Most recently, Kae hosted a Clinton campaign phone bank. But this is all very new territory for them. “Essentially we’re a non-political space,” Kae said. “Yeah, like it has to be that bad for us to give a fuck.”
As the night progressed, things started to look ugly– you could see the anxiety written all over people’s faces as they rushed to the bar to grab shots. Suddenly, there were loud cheers. For a moment, the screen flashed blue: Hillary was once again the projected winner, having pulled ahead with 209 electoral votes to Trump’s 172.
“Oh this is such good news, though!” a guy said, hugging his friend.
Around 11 pm, the self-medicating shots turned into overflowing glasses of champagne, and things were once again lighthearted. People danced freely, and “Uncle Scam”– a guy in a shimmering cape and revealing spandex number– adjusted his crotch while posing for a photo. “We’re getting fucked either way,” he said with twisted joy. “It’s just a question of how much lube we’re gonna use.” A minute later, he decided on a better one: “Or what color dildo.”
In the women’s bathroom, stress was still palpable. “It just means there’s more insane people than we thought,” one girl in a red-white-and-blue leotard said, comforting another, more panicky woman in heavy black makeup and sparkles. “I thought we were going to win,” the scared girl whimpered. “I really thought it would be done by now. Why is it so close? How is this not a clear choice?” The leotard girl continued with the reassurances: “It’s gonna be ok, no matter what we’ll be ok. We’re all bad bitches.” Everyone agreed.
I left to grab a drink and collect my thoughts at a quieter bar before I came back for the big finale, and found The Johnson’s, which had no TV, plenty of people but not much commotion (there were, like, too many Europeans or something). Compared to House of Yes, people here seemed already defeated. “I’m trying to think how this is actually gonna go,” one guy said, which made me wonder– you hadn’t thought of that before?
People continued checking their phones for minute-by-minute updates. “I’m moving to Florida,” the bartender told a patron.
“What?” the customer said, incredulous. “I’m moving to Canada.”
It was the first undeniable indication that the worst would, in all likelihood, come true. Florida, America’s dingle dongle, the home of Florida Man, Jeb Bush, gator wrestling, and Daytona Beach, officially belonged to Trump. It made sense, after all– the guy already owns Mar-a-Lago (located just above the tip, off the coast of where foreskin meets veiny flesh). The girl next to me had removed her felt Uncle Sam hat, presumably after feeling a flush of shame. The race was almost surely lost for Hillary, and meanwhile it looked like the machines were finally breaking down, the lizard people were preparing to crawl out of their flesh-suits to reveal their scaly, cold-blooded selves.
Running back to House of Yes, I found an emptier place than I’d left. The floor was littered with party remnants and patriotic schwag. Anyone who was left had their eyes fixated on the screen, spellbound between outright horror and disbelief.
HoY may not be a hangout for City Council members, or a place where people come to discuss the finer points of zoning regulations. Still, the space is ripe for politicization, seeing that HoY was not only founded by a pair of sex-positive feminist-types, but appeals to an incredible array of people– queer, trans, people of color, immigrants (Anya herself is from Russia)– all of whom were in attendance at last night’s party. That diversity is quite impressive in a city where block-by-block segregation continues to divide communities by skin color, religion, ethnicity, even sexual orientation.
In fact, the crowd at House of Yes last night looked a whole lot like Hillary’s “most diverse coalition in history,” which many experts assumed would trump, well, the Trump supporters. The partiers were the same people who have seen an enormous change in prospects and opportunity in the last eight years, as gay rights, trans awareness, the relaxation of marijuana prosecutions, and a push toward prison reform and community policing (to varying degrees of success) have inspired a sense that maybe we can overcome.
Millennials, especially, have convinced ourselves that our generation is different. For us, real, substantive change isn’t far off. Movements like Black Lives Matter are hardly radical, but rather totally reasonable demands for equality and things like freedom from tyranny and abuse. Trump followers aren’t the only ones who believe that politics as usual is bankrupt.
“We’re not lobbying or writing letters, but we believe that their should be more representation of people who are gay, trans, immigrants, minorities,” Anya said. “They should have a place to party. It’s never been about the government, it’s about partying and nightlife.”
Kae even argued that HoY’s nightlife ethos itself reflects a kind of leftist attitude. “In a way, we’re socialist, we don’t make people pay for parties if they can’t afford it, we tell them to come early and it’s fine,” she said. “We make space for people, even though we’re trying to make money. We understand that. We want people of all kinds here, not just people who have money. And that’s a political statement in itself.”
Sam Vitale, a public defender based in the Bronx who had spent the day working at a hotline answering questions about voter rights, before his girlfriend convinced him to ring in the election at the House of Yes “Erection Party.” In 2012, he was still a law student, watching the results come in from his dorm room at UVA. This time around, the race, which he called “immensely important,” was different. “I felt like I was very much experiencing that election alone, by myself,” he said. “At least here, I feel like, on some level, I’m experiencing this election with other people.”
But Sam was also enjoying the opportunity for escape. “I really believe in the stoic philosophy of, like, you should accept things that are outside of your control,” he said. “And, bizarrely, this seems like the most stoic thing I could do. I’ll accept that whatever happens, happens, I’m gonna deal with it. But I’m not going to stress about it. I don’t know if that’s avoiding the problem or dealing with it as a healthy person, but I think we have to accept that, at this point in the night, an orange president might happen and we’re all gonna have to live with it.”
Ana Walsh, a regular at HoY, shared a similar view. “Here, you can kind of distance yourself,” she told me as we waited in line for drinks. “No one is really paying attention to politics all the time.” In fact, she preferred to spend her time doing “deep house yoga” at the venue.
However, Kae and Anya both agreed that the night indicated a dramatic shift in the country’s political climate. “Women’s rights and gay rights [have been] at the forefront, now to see that all be reversed, is really making us realize that we are political,” Anya said. “Now that it’s all about to get taken away, we realize that this is our fight.”
That might even mean a change of pace is about to happen at HoY, as the owners hinted that they’re reconsidering their role as a community space. “I dunno, I’ve never been involved in local politics,” Kae admitted. “But it might be time to actually start as a venue. You need a community to care with, or else it’s really hard to activate activism.”
Sam Vitale, the public defender, understood Trump’s victory (which was still uncertain when we spoke) and the sea change that’s shifted the country toward stark division, as a long time coming. Surprisingly, he pulled something slightly optimistic out of all the gloom and doom.
“For a long time we thought we were different, but many democracies have had the experience of electing an illiberal president, somebody who doesn’t really believe in the underlying values of that democracy. It just happens,” he said. “In some ways, I feel like the Left gets stronger when there’s somebody like Trump in charge. Because you know that if you want something to happen, you have to do it yourself. I think with Obama, a lot of us got lazy. Maybe this is an opportunity for all of us who spent the last few years being complacent, to get really active.”
Things might be uncertain now but, if anything, last night was proof of the resiliency of the sort of nightlife and countercultural ethos that House of Yes represents, as well as the tenacity of their patrons. As the party died down, one woman continued to dance, she drifted across the floor completely alone, but also unhinged to anyone else, she moved wildly, ecstatically, flipping her hair around and shimmying faster and faster.
Even the pole dancers gyrated with greater fury, especially one guy in a hoodie and short-shorts who leapt up in the air, grabbing the top of the pole and fluttering his legs outward, contorting his body into the shape of a star.
Anya said it best: “It’s like, the world is fucked, we might as well make art.”