Downtown Society

“Never, ever acknowledge anyone famous while walking down the street (you all knew this already) because, after all, you’re a New Yorker, which makes you famous in a way, too.” From the Beauty Papers Archives, for Issue Four ETIQUETTE Jennifer Clement shares the rules of New York’s East Village in the 1980s.


I grew up in Mexico City where the word etiqueta meant to wear formal dress. Engraved invitations would arrive by messenger with the words “vestir de etiqueta” engraved in black ink. When those missives appeared I knew my mother would soon be opening her box of pearls and pressing her long ballerina-pink gloves that went all the way up the length of her arm. My father’s tuxedo would come out of the closet and be laid across the bed.

It was only in my early teenage years that I understood that, in English, etiquette also meant a code of manners. One summer holiday in the United States I discovered several old etiqutte books in the attic of my grandparents’ homestead farm in Nebraska. The book that I found most fascinating was one bound in brown and blue leather with browning pages. Published in 1916, it was called Poise: How to Attain It by D Starke. According to the book, poise is not about holding your head high and gazing into the distance with a sweet, closed-mouth smile. Rather, the author claimed, it is a lack of timidity: “One cannot be too insistent in asserting how harmful the lack of poise can be, and when once this weakness has reached the stage of timidity it may produce the most tragic consequences not only so far as the daily routine of our lives is concerned, but also with reference to our moral and physical equilibrium… the timid man, in his moral isolation, is like the hare, who, crouched in its form, sleeps with one eye open in constant terror of the passer-by or of the hunter… poise can not exist without coolness.” Towards the end of the book there are a series of exercises to help the reader attain poise. Breathing, training of the eye, the motions, the carriage and speaking exercises.

Also in that attic was Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler, from 1922. Chapter titles included: Servants, Dinners, When the Bachelor Entertains, Speech, Dress, The Business Woman, On the Street, At the Theatre and the Opera, Hotel Etiquette, Travel Etiquette, Tipping, and Etiquette Abroad.

In its chapter on The Business Woman, the Book of Etiquette states that, in order for women to reach equality, “one of the seemingly small, but really vital things a woman can do is to dress so well and so wisely in business that the most exacting man can find no excuse to condemn her as a ‘slave of fashion’”.

Book of Etiquette also taught me that: “When leaving the ship, no one who has been of any service whatever should be forgotten. The porter who helps you with your hand luggage and sees you safely down the gang plank should be rewarded with no less than twenty-five cents.”

One day, at our home in Mexico City, a fancy card arrived inviting my parents to the ball being held in honour of the visit to the country by President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. At the bottom of the card it said “vestir de etiqueta”. My mother took out her long pink gloves and looked into Emily Post’s Etiquette, which was always on the book shelf alongside Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the Merck Manual of Medicine.

My sister, Barbara Sibley, who moved to NYC in 1980, told me: “You’d never, ever go up to a celebrity and talk to them or ask them for an autograph. This was one of the reasons the murder of John Lennon was so shocking to all of us. He felt safe from fans in NYC. The code was broken.”

In 1978, I left Mexico City and moved to New York and learned about the etiquette of runaways – as it seemed that everyone I knew in the city had fled their homes. The arrival in NYC was as important as what was left behind. Immersed in this community of runaways, I wrote the book Widow Basquiat, which is about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s girlfriend, Dr Suzanne Mallouk, but also a portrait of the city in the early 1980s. There’s a chapter called Downtown Society, which had rules and a downtown etiquette.

My sister, Barbara Sibley, who moved to NYC in 1980, told me: “You’d never, ever go up to a celebrity and talk to them or ask them for an autograph. This was one of the reasons the murder of John Lennon was so shocking to all of us. He felt safe from fans in NYC. The code was broken.”

When I think of runaway etiquette I think of how there was an unspoken rule that we all had to take care of each other. If someone was sick, you took them matzo ball chicken soup from the Second Avenue Deli. If someone had spots on their face, you shared your tetracycline (in those days we popped that antibiotic as if those pills were mints). And there was, of course, the strict etiquette of drugs, cigarettes and lipstick: you always shared. ­­­­­­­­­­­­

I asked three of the many friends who appear in Widow Basquiat to write me their recollections of the time. I expected a runaway etiquette rule or two, but their answers were so playful and elaborate – with rules that were often overlapping – I chose to include them here verbatim.

First up is Michael Holman, who founded the early-1980s experimental art/sound group, Gray, along with his good friend Basquiat. He was also reputedly the first person ever to use the term ‘hip hop’ in print (East Village Eye, January 1982). He wrote me the following:

When people/Wall Streeters started wearing sneakers with business attire during the 1980 Subway strike (they had to walk long distances, you know) I took to writing ‘fashion police’ violation tickets for such brutal attacks on fashion. Later, I started wearing suits and sneakers together. But it looked good on me, not them.

If you were a Mudd Club regular, after being waved through by the doorman (say, Genaro or Richard Boch), you were expected to simply cleave your way through the crowd of squares, Auslanders and bridge-and-tunnel nobodies as if they weren’t there. Pushing aside anyone in your way was considered perfectly acceptable, polite even, in an educational way, as if to say: “See? If you can figure out a way to make yourself genuinely hip or cool, you can do as I do!” We were doing them a favour, in other words – which is a kindness, and polite in an oblique way, I think. Yeah.

Never, ever acknowledge anyone famous while walking down the street (you all knew this already) because, after all, you’re a New Yorker, which makes you famous in a way, too.

Sharing gender-specific nightclub bathrooms with the opposite sex was perfectly normal, preferably while having sex and doing drugs (or with the same sex – up to you).

Pushing aside slow-walking tourists who are in your way – even if you have nowhere in particular to go, but their speed is just too annoying to you – was perfectly acceptable. Wait, that still is perfectly acceptable!

Thinking you could dance with ‘cool kids’ at the Mudd Club, or wherever, just because you wanted to, and were famous, was frowned upon. Mick Jagger got thrown off the dancefloor for that, by two regulars (Abijane and Heather) who didn’t appreciate his presumption.

Back in the 1980s, bus drivers regularly physically threw people off their buses if they felt like it. I once saw a bus driver drag some guy off the bus and beat him up for no reason I could discern. The handling of the public by MTA workers has evolved some since. People today would have been beside themselves with shock at the behaviour of paid city workers back then. It was a lawless time, to be sure.

I was once mugged on E 7th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue late one night. When the gentleman motioned me across the street to where he was, while aiming a .38 Special in my direction, I complied, with my hands up. The first thing he said as I approached was: “Put your hands down!”, seemingly offended by my obsequious gesture of surrender, as if to say: “Hey, man! I’m only mugging you! Don’t be so dramatic!” If you’re reading this, Mr Mugger from 1981-ish, I apologise. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.

Another time I was mugged, the muggers, after relieving me of about $15, asked where I lived. I knew that there was a good chance that if I told them, they might want to take me home and murder me (this was not uncommon at the time – it actually happened to a female Scottish artist in 1981). I told them I lived too far away to bother, up in Harlem somewhere (we were on 6th and Canal at the time of the mugging), so they let me go. Was lying to them rude of me, do you think?

If you were a cab driver, who might pick up a fare of three hipsters coming out of the Mudd Club, early one Sunday morning, and decide not to take them to their requested destination, but rather literally kidnap them on a wild cab ride up to the Bronx, never stopping long enough for them to jump out of the cab safely, is that rude? Taking liberties? And once in the Bronx, where the fares/taxi customers are stranded, decide to force them to spend the next three or four hours at your crib, making them listen to your lame music, while offering drugs to the bewildered hipsters, turns out that is perfectly alright, and may even be considered big-city hospitality. It really happened to me and some of my friends! We were too high to think of calling the police. We ended up stumbling to the nearest Subway station, after the cabbie got bored and threw us out of his apartment.

10 is a magical number, I’m told.

Lili Dones, downtown society personality, Castro’s Cuba runaway. Rules of etiquette for (almost) every occasion.

Etiquette for Studio 54
It is acceptable for you to go in to Studio 54 and enjoy yourself even if your friends don’t get in. Club goers would gather on the sidewalk at the entrance to be handpicked by the bouncers. The plan B was that if some of your friends did not get in then they would go to Xenon. I never went there because I always got in to 54. Nothing secured this better than being on the arm of a handsome gay friend who knows the guys at the door, as it was a well-known fact that women in groups rarely got in.

Etiquette on being invited to the Hamptons or Fire Island or out of the city on summer weekends
Nothing was more coveted than to be invited to the Hamptons for a summer weekend. If you wanted to be invited back, have some fabulous exotic dish in your repertoire. My fallback dish was black paella, which involved squid ink.

Etiquette if Bill Cunningham ever asked to take your picture
Act nonchalant. Never, ever ask when it’s going to be published. In fact, you will likely never see it published as you don’t have daily access to WWD and the closest you get to the New York Times is on Sunday. Just hope everyone you know is within eye view of this magni cent assertion of your innate sense of style. Bill Cunningham was the remarkable person with a bike, a camera and a great eye who scouted around for interesting fashion for WWD and NY Times. He took my picture three times and I can tell you what I was wearing right down to the perfume each of those times.

Etiquette if you are out at a club with your gay best friend and one of you has the opportunity to further acquaint yourself with the heartthrob of the week
Have a handy catchphrase between yourselves so that your friend knows when to scram. Joseph and I had “the calla lilies are in bloom again” which was a Katherine Hepburn line from Stage Door.

Etiquette at restaurants
You can smoke at a restaurant but never if someone at your table is actually eating. Which didn’t happen too much, as there was nothing greater than going to restaurants and sitting around smoking and drinking and being generally fabulous for all to see. Best restaurants to smoke and drink in were Evelyn’s Kitchen, Odeon, Raoul’s and Mr Chow.

Etiquette with celebrities
Never, ever stare at a celebrity. (But notice everything so you can tell your friends that Kathleen Turner was ordering NY strip steaks at Jefferson Market or that Herman Munster banks at Citibank on LaGuardia Place, or that John Kennedy Jr was talking on a phone booth near Judson Hall). If they are shooting a movie or MTV video on your street and some girl with a clipboard makes you stop while Mick Jagger or whoever walks out of St Marks Bar & Grill, you must act like it’s a big imposition and waste of your time. You must do this enough so that they finally let you walk in front of them like an extra.

Etiquette if you go to an art exhibition and the artist is there
It is gauche to ask for an autograph. Of course, if it’s Andy Warhol, he is the one to approach you and ask if he can sign the copy of Interview magazine you picked up by the front door, then it’s OK. It’s also OK if he asks his friend Truman Capote to sign it, too.

Etiquette for other religions
If it’s Yom Kippur, you and other friends can offer to lift your Jewish friend into a taxi (preferably a hansom cab) so you will not have to walk the whole bloody way to wherever you are going just because she can’t.

Etiquette for parting favours
It’s perfectly acceptable to hand parting dinner guests your garbage bag so that they can drop it off outside. It is a greatly appreciated imposition – especially if your elevator is not working.

Dr Mallouk’s guide to early-’80s etiquette.

1. Never ever be seen waiting in line at a nightclub, or anywhere else for that matter.

2. When you are walking into a restaurant or nightclub never look at anyone. It doesn’t matter who is there. The most important thing is you have arrived.

3. Always stand under a light, as though on stage.

4. Never pay for your own drinks or dinner.

5. Always be very well dressed. Even in thrift shop clothes, you must look glamorous.

6. Never leave the house without red lipstick and hair done.

7. If a girl steals your boyfriend, ignore them both forever.

8. If you are a waitress and forced to wait on your boyfriend, who comes to where you work with his new girlfriend, be polite with a dignified distance and then spit in their food in the kitchen.

9. If you are an artist, never ask for a show anywhere. Wait until you are asked, but make yourself indispensable.

10. If you are a singer, always have bodyguards with you to light your cigarettes and keep people at a distance. is makes you appear famous even when you are not.

Published in Beauty Papers Issue Four