Still, balls reminiscent of the old ways live on. On a Sunday night outside of Escuelita, a longtime NYC club near Penn Station, the walk from the train to the bar feels like 1989. Kids lamp outside bodegas, vagabonds yell at one another by the bus stop and a creepy drunk old dude follows me halfway down the block until I double back and whiz past him. Inside the club, Kool Aid Givenchy prepares once again to holler the diva mantras: “Legendary!” “Work!” “Girl you are DONE!” Before the competitions begin, there’s a drag performance by Jennifer Evisu, who lip synchs to India.Arie’s cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” As she pantomimes the song, a procession of voguers unravel scrolls painted with the names of family who passed. They remember members of the houses of Ebony, Infinity, Milan. They remember the legendary dancer Willi Ninja. They even remember Sean Bell, the young, unarmed man murdered by cops the night before his wedding. This, too, is a reminder of the old New York, of communities devastated by AIDS, and a warning to its current children.
But soon, Vjuan Allure’s “Robobitch” is on the speakers and Kool Aid’s ready to get things poppin. It is 1:52 AM. Even on god’s resting day, revelers keep rolling in, eventually numbering five hundred. After an hourlong intro in which every house in existence is summoned to walk the floor, the battles begin. This time it’s not dance, but looks that catch a win and a cash prize. The categories include Butch Realness, Prettyboy Realness, Schoolboy Realness…It’s always realness, where competitors try to look the most like the actual thing, be it a woman, a gangsta or, indeed, a schoolboy (defined by Kool Aid as “a boy going to school that is real”). In the Queen Realness category, Lola Balenciaga, stunning and leggy in pum pum shorts, takes the prize. Realness indeed. The only thing you might ever mistake her for is a supermodel.
Oliver and his crew prefer the dance, and the culture around it, to the balls, generally operating outside of established clubs like the one at Escuelita. “We went to the gay high school and, like, those are, like, our Wonder Years. So of course we’re gonna appreciate it,” he says. “But we also transcend into other walks of life, trying to do things outside of the scene.” For now, they’re just trying to build Hood by Air into the go-to creative for the Banjee generation. “You know when somebody’s a banjee cunt,” says Oliver. “You know when somebody can turn, because even when they’re not dressed that way, it’s the way that they carry their body. You see the world in a certain way and so you act upon the world in that way. And it’s noticeable, in whatever you do.”