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Respectable Street Café opened in West Palm Beach in 1987 as the city was falling apart. Corporate giants like Walgreens and Burdines were fleeing, leaving room for the suburban kids who flocked to Rodney Mayo's first nightclub. Respectable Street — "Respecs," regulars called it — played new wave and goth music and offered an intimate space for live shows with then-up-and-coming bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who played there in 1989.
One of the first on the scene was a guy known as "Dumpster Dave," who declines to let his last name be used in print 20 years later. He sneaked into Respecs the year it opened, when he was 17, a year shy of the admission age then. A dentist's son, he earned his nickname, he says, after a night he spent tripping on acid in a pasture, which left him looking as though he'd been Dumpster-diving. He seemed to have a grudge against the world back then, like a lot of the folks who congregated at Respecs, myself included. We were trying to shake ourselves awake from the Reagan years and our bourgeois ennui, using anything at hand — drugs, music, tattoos, piercings. We became the generation that brought body art into the mainstream. Respecs gave us a soundtrack of dark, sometimes-industrial music that mirrored our feeling of alienation. It was one of the few places where we seemed to belong.
Most of us survived those years somehow. I wouldn't have bet on Dumpster Dave to make it, but there he was on a Wednesday several weeks ago at Respecs for an informal reunion. "I've been banned for life from this place more than anyone," he said. He'd put on a few pounds, and he seemed happy. "I own a house now!" he said, as though he'd surprised himself. Then, prompted by the DJ's nostalgic selection, he screamed/sang along with the Skatenigs: "I don't take shit!"
Nicklas "Nick From Space" Jennings was there too, a guy who back in the day used to sculpt his hair into an abstract form; now, at 39, he has soft brown hair threaded with gray. He reminisced about a time when, for a period of about two months, he was at Respecs every day from opening until closing, whereupon he asked Mayo to give him a diploma. Respecs gave us a club kid's education.
Jomarie Porcelli, a 35-year-old salon owner, had once been a Respecs regular too. She still visits the club, she said, but no more frequently than once every two or three months, because "they don't play the same music anymore, and I always feel old." She had a point. Although admission had been raised from 18-and-over to the legal drinking age, Respecs seemed — to me, anyway — to be filled with its youngest denizens ever.
On Thursday nights, Respecs hosts the dance party Flaunt. I checked it out recently with my 20-something friend Kyle Ashby. I was old enough to have been the mother of at least some of the kids there — a teen mom, maybe, but still. And yet I had fun at Flaunt. People were dressed much more casually and less uniformly than we did in our Respecs heyday. They wore printed T's and skinny jeans and sneakers, and when they danced, they seemed completely unselfconscious, even though their random moves entailed a lot of flailing and bobbing and spinning. I was content to note this from the sidelines, yellow pad in hand, until Ashby nudged me.
"This is gonna be your lived experience — your Black Like Me," he said as he pulled me onto the checkered dance floor. "Except this will be your Dance Like Me. Now you're entering the native habitat of hipsters."
Since there were no real moves to master, I didn't feel self-conscious either; dork chic I could do effortlessly. To the dance remix of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," I thrust my finger heavenward and sang out "in the niiiiight!" — just like everyone else.
"Hipster dancing lets today's kids use muscles they don't exercise blogging," Ashby said as we mindlessly bobbed with the rest of the crowd to new takes on the worst hits of the '80s.
"A lot of old-school people don't really approve of what we do, but they come out and have a good time," said John Vincent, the DJ, who wore a pink button-down with "PANIC" in block letters on the front and "Kill the Deejay" on the back.
West Palm is slower to embrace new music than some other places, but slowly Flaunt works it in, said Shanon Sapienza, the 26-year-old founder of the event, which she named after a favorite magazine.
When I wondered whether the bandanna hanging in a triangle around Sapienza's neck and her peacock earrings were part of a new trend, she told me I was missing the point. "No one really gives a shit," she said. "That's the best part about it: What you wear tonight you won't be judged on tomorrow."
Where our generation was concerned with strategy and defense, this one embraced randomness and hugging. It wasn't just a new crowd; it was a whole new scene.
And there was more to come. "Clematis used to be good ten years ago. It's coming back," Sapienza said, citing Mayo's newest clubs-in-the-works as proof: a reincarnation of the alt-rock pool hall Lost Weekend and a joint venture with Vince Neil called Dr. Feelgood's. The latter, set to open January 18, will feature "hair metal [and] glam rock with modern rock and a little touch of hip-hop and dance," Mayo said.
Even at the reunion at Respecs, the old angst seemed to have dissipated. To the music that once incited a mosh pit, people just swung their arms and stomped a little. "No one's angry anymore," said James Cacace, who served ten years as a Respec bouncer. And Respec has endured.
"It's always been about the music," said Mayo, looking more like a beach bum than a nightclub kingpin, in shorts and a T-shirt, his wavy hair the same mess it always was, just a little grayer now. "We're true to our form. We're honest... like pecan pie," he said, adding a droll "heh-heh-heh."
John Harris, a 30-year-old sound engineer for Panic at the Disco, offered his perspective as he peered through ladies' rhinestone-studded Versace glasses. "I don't think it ever changes," he said. "I leave, tour the world, come home, and Respectables is always the same — free-thinking people hanging out in one spot."
That's the heart of it, no matter how the beats change. Or the writers.
For you see, this is my last Night Rider communiqué. I'm not moving to Finland as I'd once planned, but I am moving on. I'll be a free agent from now on, pursuing new opportunities in my own evolution.