Life, Death & Danceteria Mash-Ups
20 odd years ago, Jonty lived and almost died in New York City, suffering a horrific lift accident at seminal 80s club Danceteria (where he worked at the time). Crushed and literally dragged between the base of the lift and the wall of its shaft, he suffered six normally mortal injuries, receiving the Last Rites some 40 minutes later as he waited outside a hospital operating theatre for the anaesthetic to kick in . . .
Danceteria, West 21st Street, New York City
‘I don’t want to break my legs!’
I’m hanging by my fingertips from the base of the still rising elevator, looking down at the garbage-packed floor of the shaft, some 15 feet below and I’m thinking fast- incredibly fast. At this precise moment, time appears to be standing still as I calculate the options between hanging on or jumping what’s already a bone-breaking distance to the bottom.
‘The top of the shaft is 12 stories higher’, I think, making the decision pretty simple; ‘I’ve got to jump (‘but I don’t want to break my legs!’) and I’ve got to jump now (‘I DON’T WANT TO BREAK MY LEGS!’)
So I jump.
As I tumble down the elevator shaft my mind effortlessly trawls through my (astonishingly) crystal clear memory banks, conjuring up a childhood TV show I’ve seen in my youth called Blue Peter, which one day featured parachutists demonstrating landing techniques. With razor sharp recollection I note how they collapsed and rolled, then do exactly the same thing myself, collapsing and rolling to take the force of the fall on my arm.
The technique works almost perfectly and though my left wrist is fractured, I haven’t broken my legs (though now I’ve landed I no longer know or even care) and instead I curl myself up into the coma position (another previously unknown nugget of wisdom my mind’s just recalled) and stretch out on my side.
Almost immediately, my workmate Micky is peering into the floor of the open shaft, just feet above me, drawn by my screams from moments before (or rather gurgles, my lung’s been punctured by some of the fractured ribs). We’re both employed as Danceteria day staff/ jack of all trade boys and we’ve been in the basement loading ice before I’ve slipped and been caught.
‘What the fuck happened’’ he shouts, looking up the shaft at the still rising elevator ‘Fucking lift’s fucking crushed me, fucking hell,’ I gasp. ‘I’m fucked.’
Micky is worried the lift’s going to reach the top then come back down and finish the job but I’m actually not worried at all: I’m in far too much pain to care and my inner voice is also telling me ‘don’t move’ (‘your back might be broken’).
As it is, my back isn’t broken and the elevator reaches the top then stalls, so I’m no longer in any more immediate danger, though as I’ve already told Micky, I’m definitely, definitively fucked.
Moments before, I can remember being crushed between the elevator’s steel platform and its concrete shaft wall like being tugged beneath the wheel of a steam roller though other bits of what happened are already blank. I can recall being dragged into the tiny space and my belly’s contents being physically forced up my throat, with the elevator base crushing my waist (my arms, chest and head are inside; my hips and legs beneath).
And then I’ve been literally switched off like a light-bulb, only regaining consciousness when I’m hanging underneath the elevator’s base moments later, after somehow slipping through the gap.
In later years, this part of the accident will pre-occupy me intensely (‘Am I really dead’ have I been reborn/Am I the same person or a different spirit’) Logically, I can deduce that from the second degree friction burns up and down my spine, my torso’s been gradually pulled into the grinder. Yet somehow my chest, shoulders and head have ended up passing through unscathed.
Guesswork tells me that I must have been dragged up to where the ground floor fire doors are (they’re set back six more inches) then been disengaged from the lift, allowing my shoulders and my head to slip through (completely unmarked.)
Back in the bottom of the shaft, I’m cursing and seriously in pain (though surprisingly the pain is weirdly tolerable, it’s bad but not that bad) when a stranger appears as if from nowhere, and says ‘I’ll call an ambulance’.
Smartly dressed and impressively calm, he disappears up the stairs never to be seen again (my guardian angel?) and soon after, a mobile intensive care team arrives and the paramedics begin immediately scissoring off all my clothes.
‘A glamorous death’
As usual I’m wearing my regular daytime street gear of black combats, slashed T shirt and seriously distressed black Doc Marten boots (they’re held together with masking tape). Nothing too extreme, though my heavy liquid eyeliner, jewellery collection (over 100 bracelets, necklaces and chains), nail varnish and wing mohican haircut with braids prompts the ambulance men to write me up in their accident report as a ‘white male transvestite.’
This will later cause much amusement to my real drag queen friends- I might be in the habit of wearing fishnets, leather miniskirts and full make-up by night, but I’m not really a tranny- I’m a dressed up punk with the attitude of ‘if I’m gonna’ wear a little make-up why not a lot’.
And if I look better in make-up occasionally why not wear liquid eyeliner all the time?
Firing questions at me (‘what happened? what’s your name? where do you live? do you have insurance? DO YOU HAVE INSURANCE?) the ambulance guys are TV (television) style slick and efficient, quickly, if uncomfortably, sliding a hard backed stretcher under me, strapping me onto it then carrying me out through the club’s main entrance. A small crowd of clubbers have gathered (Danceteria’s opened just minutes before) and it’s as I exit the club that I first ponder death.
‘I’m dying a glamorous death, I look fantastic,’ I realise, observing the ring of curious faces surrounding me. The blood bubbling out of my mouth is surely complimenting my makeup and presumably ivory white complexion, I think, though as far as the actual dying is concerned, I don’t care at all (all I want is to stop the pain). And to this end, I’m cursing, or alternatively, begging the ambulance men.
‘Drug me, fuck, drug me, shit, knock me out, fuck, drug me, please,’ I plead, though they either ignore me or say ‘we can’t, not until you’re at the hospital, you’re going straight to surgery’.
Otherwise they keep on firing questions;
‘Do you take cocaine’ (‘No’), Who’s your next of kin? (‘Micci [my girlfriend], ‘What’s your address’ (Ludlow Street and Houston’) Do you have any last messages’ (‘No’), Are you sure you haven’t used cocaine tonight’ (‘No!’)
Apparently, if I’ve done cocaine that day, they can’t give me anaesthetic straightaway (meaning they can’t operate immediately so I’ll die) but fortunately I’ve never really enjoyed coke and quit speed since being smashed in the face at a Clash concert in London. Alcohol is my drug of choice, though normally much later.
Five minutes later we’re at St Vincents Hospital in the West Village, hurtling through floodlit corridors on a gurney, which reminds of being on TV again, though the pain remains real. And then I’m outside the operating room, waiting to be gassed.
‘Count back from 10’, the anaesthetist says just as a white-haired nun shuffles into view.
‘Are you Catholic?’ she demands.
‘No’ (I think about her religion with that razor sharp clarity of thought again; I was raised Catholic, but at this precise moment, her faith and her God mean absolutely nothing to me at all. Nothing.
‘No, I’m not’, I truthfully reply, ‘not really”.
‘Do you want the Last Rites?’ she continues, undeterred.
Her persistence sparks another flood of thoughts about religion which conclude with the comforting revelation that death, at least mine, doesn’t matter- at all- it’s actually somehow strangely appealing: release!).
‘No, I don’t want them’. The nun starts praying anyway. (‘I said, No. . .’ ) Then I’m switched off again as the anaesthetic takes effect.
‘That’s one way to get out of a date’
My next waking moment is three days later, when I find myself in an intensive care unit, tubed up to a life support machine and surrounded by friends. Micci my girlfriend is there plus Laurie- my planned secret date for the night of the accident.
Micci had been out of town, Laurie’s a gorgeous, if moody, model I’ve been flirting with, who years later ends up an LA grunge star. Right now though both look concerned and lovely though immediately, I understand I have to make a choice.
Knowing I don’t actually know Laurie, I grab Micci’s hand, prompting Laurie to depart saying ‘that’s one way to get out of a date’- ouch!
I soon learn that I’ve survived six usually mortal internal injuries (liver, spleen, pancreas, gall bladder, colon, severed bile duct), and I am something of a medical miracle (additional injuries include one broken arm, three fractured ribs and loads of second degree burns all over my back- the flesh has been literally burned off by friction).
A team of world specialist surgeons have cut and diced me for over eight hours, taking no less than four different body parts out, though they’ve stitched me back together, somehow, into one fully functioning piece. And pain, I understand, is relative; I feel a bit better.
For the next seven days I remain in intensive care, bolstered by the dazzling kindness of friends and even strangers from the city’s nightlife world who continually visit and raise my spirits.
I’ve been playing guitar in a garage/goth band called Latex Sex Camp, whose last gig was at Danceteria just 5 nights before the accident, so I know lots of the punks and characters in New York clubland and lots of them (far more than I’d imagined) know me.
And every night, when the visitors and nurses have gone, I enter a strange netherworld (presumably courtesy of the fantastic Demarol/ morphine shots they’re giving me every four hours) in which I surf above the city, hanging out at clubs and stealing crates of fruit juice off of the backs of lorries.
I’m on a Nil By Mouth diet regime and end up going without liquid for seven days, so I’m bursting with thirst, both in my nocturnal dreamworld and daytime reality. Each dawn I return to my hospital bed, where I’m joined by visitors I regard as distinctly unwelcome guests; unknown silent waifs and strays who I assume are recently deceased clubbers, waiting around to see if I’m going to join them.
New York nightlife at this point is plagued with death; AIDS is just starting its horrific cull, while drug overdose fatalities and murder rates are at historical highs.
Out of danger
One week on, I’m out of danger, the night ghouls have vanished and I’m (somewhat grudgingly) having to re-engage with life and all its day to day struggles. Spiritually, I’ve changed irrevocably, understanding death (‘there’s nothing to fear’) and more importantly life (‘make the most of it, while you’ve got it’).
Saved by the skills of St Vincents’ truly magical doctors and nurses, I’m also aware of being part of some bigger force (hopefully) that’s kept me alive to fulfil some destiny.
Days before the accident, I’ve been startled by a huge black wolf dog, watching me from the roof of a tenement building on the Lower East Side, so much so that I’ve warned a friend at the scene; ‘that dog’s looking at you, take care’.
Years later, I learn (via Google) ofancient folklore of black dog apparitions being harbingers of doom, though in hindsight, I believe I already knew that the dog was looking at (and coming for) me.
I’ve also been saved by my desire to rediscover the sheer wanton pleasure that I’ve previously been indulging in, 24/7, since arriving fresh off the London plane just four months earlier.
My British accent and punk lifestyle have opened the doors to a fantasy club world that’s come close to my definition of paradise on Earth and I’m keen to rediscover it as soon as I can.
Of course, like The Eagles’ New Kid in Town fable, I’ve already lost paradise forever, though some years later I’ll find a similar sense of excitement and possibility when I dive headlong into rave culture. In fact, rave culture will quickly inspire me to take up music journalism and eventually to set up Skrufff in 2001.
20 years later I’ve renamed myself Jonty Skrufff after the world’s prettiest Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Skrufff. And speaking of dogs, I haven’t seen any otherworldly canine apparitions yet though I always keep an eye out, for when the Black Dog returns.