There’s so much piss on the seat. I can’t really be mad — that’s the beauty of all-gender restrooms. I give it a wipe before I perch. Other than that, it’s surprisingly clean for a club bathroom. The bathroom of a club. White-tiled oasis from the dirty stinky sticky sweaty jungle of the dance floor. Whatever your longing might be: a space to cry, a private spot to dip a finger into the baggie in your friend's bra, somewhere a stranger might attempt to help you get the wine out of your satin leopard print shirt that, of course, you were saving to debut on Thursday Campus Night, and which, of course, you ruined the second you stepped away from the bar. The sexy enby bartender definitely saw.
But the club you’re walking into isn’t the same that it used to be. ManRay NightClub originally opened in 1983, attached to another venue, Campus, which was a gay club. Therefore, at least initially, ManRay was LGBTQ+ adjacent. It was a place for the self-identified freaks and geeks, the goths and the sloths. They had more mainstream nights, New Wave and techno for the normies on Saturdays, but they also had nights for all kinds of weirdos (non-derogatory): BDSM and fetish nights, fashion shows, art exhibitions. It was a big deal. Nirvana played there once, and RuPaul took the stage years before Drag Race.
As Susan Welsh, ’87 puts it, “It was a little bit edgy for Cambridge back then. It wasn’t very edgy, it was a little edgy. Countercultural, subcultural, not mainstream. It was a little bit cool, and I liked to pretend to be cooler than I was.”
Welsh seems pretty cool to me, even just over the phone. When she was a student in Adams House — which she describes was “arty, gay, and hard-drinking” in the 80s — she was also a gogo dancer at ManRay. Every Friday night, she danced on the stage in an acrylic cage for four hours.
In 1986, Welsh was quoted in the Crimson saying, "I wonder, when I'm middle-aged will I still have this same fascination with nightlife and teen boogie?" And Welsh did keep boogying. Cambridge, not as much.
Two decades later, ManRay closed its doors. It wasn’t for any good or glamorous reason — the building’s owner wanted to turn the space into apartments. A 2005 auction ad in the Boston Globe listed the wares they were left to sell: nightclub sound and lighting systems, smoke machines, gothic decor, six disco balls, fetish/dungeon equipment. A month later, self-proclaimed club kid Emily Sweeney eulogized her favorite venue in the Globe’s “Last Word” column. She mourned their pregame rituals, their cab rides, the familiar crowd of drag queens, goth DJs, gay boys, and queer girls. She mourned the longest spiked hair anyone’s ever seen, the purple and black striped tights, the pinstriped pants and studded belts. On Sweeney’s way out of her beloved ManRay for the last time, she said to her friends: “ManRay, this exact place, will always be open… in our hearts.” She added, “I was shooting for sardonicism as I grinned and placed my hands over my chest in an overly dramatic gesture — but I meant it.”
Sweeney’s prescient optimism was an exercise in delayed gratification. There were a few false starts on the road to ManRay’s resurrection — it seemed like the club might re-open in 2009, and then again in 2013. Red tape got in the way each time. A recent editorial in the Globe credits owner Don Holland’s relentless persistence for ManRay’s long-awaited rise from the ashes, finally reopening in January of this year to those familiar throngs around the block.
Everyone was talking about ManRay. Obviously I was going to end up there. The first night I went, I didn’t know what to expect. The building itself is on an otherwise nondescript corner in Central. My friends and I are slaying down the block. We know where we’re going. We look hot. Slay past the boys smoking outside. Slay right by the bouncer and their mohawk. Slay through coat check, slay our way straight to the middle of the dance floor, through the double doors. A sparkly feeling starts in my tummy and spreads down my arms and legs. I see bodies and lights. Everything is happening inside me and outside me at once. We follow the light of the disco ball like it's our beacon. It is our beacon. We close our eyes and raise our arms and walk in time to the beat.
ManRay hasn’t been open for years, but the music is the same. The DJs are the same. The rules are the same. The feeling in the pit of your stomach is the same. The new is just the old and the present is just the past. Queer is no longer a slur. I like seeing the old queers! I think they like seeing us too. DJ Chris Ewens tells me outside between puffs of a cigarette that he’s ready to school us new kids on the block on the ManRay lifestyle and tunes.
It seems that Cambridge club kids, young and old, are relieved and enthused by the return of a genuinely popping spot to the otherwise sleepy Central Square. Welsh is certainly delighted to hear that there are still dancers on the pedestals. She tells me that her gogo application process was impromptu — she was simply recruited from the crowd. Yes, I did quake with envy to hear that. Somebody’s brother worked there, and helped her seal the deal. She loved taking on the personality, she loved the tease, but mostly she just loved to dance. She still loves to dance. When I asked her what exactly she liked about it, she couldn’t put her finger on it — maybe because it’s just so obvious. “I’ve always been a little bit exhibitionistic,” she says with a shrug.
The only thing Susan didn’t like about the job was the physical drain. When you’re up in the cage, you can’t just sit down when you want a break, or sneak off for a moment of solace in the bathroom stall. Welsh was quoted in her 1986 Crimson profile saying, “At times, I wonder if I shouldn't just blow it off and have normal Saturday nights like everyone else, go to Pudding parties or something. But this way I get $40, and that way all I get is a hangover.”
I’m pretty sure I’m going to be hungover tomorrow, but I don’t really care. I’m having a blast on the dance floor. My friend is having a blast on the dance floor. Surrounded by tall men, gays from (guess where) Provincetown. My friend looks so cute in their dark green T-shirt. They look happy but actually, mostly, they look free. Uninhibited. I want to eat them up. We go back-to-back and bounce our butts together. I want to take a shot. They want to take a shot. We get two shots. The bartender is out of salt. We grimace and toss them back. What can you do?
It’s the Art of Nightlife. That’s actually how ManRay has been describing itself since the beginning. I roll my eyes, but I can’t deny it. It’s the archetype. It’s the destination. It’s the piss on the toilet seat.
—Associate Magazine Editor Maya M. F. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.