How an Abandoned, Beloved Nightclub Saved My Life

Sherri Lewis
Sherri Lewis

Somewhere in a church basement, community room, rehab center or any space that will have us, there are a group of addicts and alcoholics who have miraculously crawled into a 12-step meeting in the hopes that they could stop using.

In 1985, I did just that -- only it wasn't a church basement, but an abandoned beloved nightclub and discothèque called the Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place in New York City's bohemian East Village. I had nine months off drugs and alcohol but I was smoking cigarettes like a fiend to make up for the loss. Miserable, single and no longer using, I forced myself to get to one of those 12-step meetings.

It's not exactly where I started my life journey. Two years prior, I was the toast of the downtown Manhattan music scene and recording my first album, fueled with cocaine and champagne.

But then my record label went bankrupt. Though I was considered a hot commodity and had offers, I had no manager.

My best thinking at the time was to take a break from performing, which proved to be disastrous. Now my addiction had me all to itself. Everything I did became about supporting my habit. Nothing else mattered. I even abandoned my apartment and my dog to get closer to drugs. I was smoking crack and shooting heroin in abandoned buildings, using my album and hit single to get to the front of the long lines for dope.

Someone once recognized me and said, "Didn't I see you play The Ritz? What are you doing here?"

"The same thing you're doing," I answered. "Coping."

I was wandering the streets homeless, spending nights in coffee shops nursing a cup of coffee for shelter. The streets smelled like urine and garbage and nights were full of gunshot sounds, flashing red lights and sirens, arrests and running like rats out of abandoned buildings to avoid getting busted. I carried around my hot pink Betsey Johnson shopping bag filled with Spandex and a tulle petticoat just in case I got a gig. I was now officially a crazy bag lady.

But that one moment of clarity, the one many of us who have hit bottom have and can't fully account for, led to my surrender. I was in a shooting gallery watching mothers sell dope and serve up syringes around the kitchen table while their infants cried in dirty diapers and filthy cribs. My stomach turned. My polluted mind whispered, "You don't have to be here, Sherri. You have a family who loves you. You just have to call and get help."

In withdrawal, I called my dad's New York apartment from a phone booth. He and his girlfriend came and wrapped me in a blanket in the backseat of his car and drove me through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey, where I crawled into a 30-day hospital detox followed by an upscale alcohol rehab for another 30 days. They confirmed what I knew -- that I was very sick and needed long-term treatment. I crawled into the next phase of my journey: an 18-month state-funded Catholic Charities Institution called Straight and Narrow in Paterson, New Jersey. I was the only Jew there and served nine months of a self-imposed sentence. I was desperate. No one would go there if they weren't.

The program had 12-step meetings, but only for the alcoholics. I identified as an addict, so I wasn't allowed to attend. Instead, I was subjected to months of confrontational group sessions: "Hey, you motherfucker! You're the lowerest form of life!"

The name-calling plowed my already shattered self-esteem into a nameless grave. I remember looking out of the brick building's window, the radio blasting Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," with my shriveled hands submerged up to my elbows in sudsy water as I scrubbed pots and pans three times a day. It was a hardcore work program for addicts, stipulated by the courts as an alternative to jail. I was the newbie, so others wanted to know what brought me in. When I told them I actually volunteered to be there so I could stop using, they laughed and mocked me. I heard they were stealing my urine for their drug tests.

Not being court-stipulated, I was the only one of the 300 men and 15 women who was free to leave at any time -- and I eventually did, after nine months. That's a long time to go without sex! Plus, I wanted to get back to my career and other things I cared about before I became saturated with drugs. I was awake again. It was time to go. Before that, I'd had nothing left to lose except my life, so I was grateful to have been there.

I temporarily moved into my mom's place in Montclair, New Jersey, took a bus into New York and got a job working for my friend, the costume designer Betsey Johnson, whose career had bloomed while I was in the rehab program. A lot had changed while I was away. Clubs I used to frequent were closed. My all-night party town was down. There were long lines around the Chelsea Clinic and I didn't know it was because of a dreaded new disease that seemed to target gay men and injection drug users.

My life was very different from my last stint in the city. Now it was other friends who had record deals and were hitting the charts, with their videos playing on MTV -- and here I was starting over! I got an apartment that I shared with a friend who was still drinking like me. One night, while I was drinking at a bar, another friend came in with her entourage and manager. It turned out she'd gotten sober and asked if I'd like to go with her to an Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting.

I said, "No, I can't. I'm drinking."

"That doesn't matter," she said. "You can still go to a meeting."

"No. It's OK. I'm good."

So my friend walked back to her table while I continued to drink at the bar alone. Meanwhile, another friend who owned a big rock venue I used to play invited me into the club. "Come on in tonight," the friend said. "Tina Turner is playing."

So I went and passed on the coke, but I drank -- until I passed out. (At that time, I had no idea that I was an alcoholic, or that alcohol was a drug.) I woke up on a bench in Washington Square Park to the sound of leaves crunching under the feet of eager early morning joggers, dog walkers cheerfully doing circles around me before their classes at NYU, or whatever those normal people did. I couldn't do what they were doing and I didn't know why. I had surrendered to my addiction, hadn't I? I went to that horrible program in New Jersey for nine months -- and this is where it got me? I really wanted to get my act together but I didn't know if that was even possible. I just wanted my old life back without the drugs.

So my life was still unmanageable but there was one very big difference: I was not using drugs. One day after work, I got off the train and walked down St. Mark's Place and saw a crowd of people with crazy-colored hair hanging out on their motorcycles, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Then I saw a familiar face. It was my old friend Carol, a well known hairdresser and part of my rock'n'roll scene, when we would model for Betsey Johnson shows and be fabulous.

"Oh my God, Carol, it's so good to see you!" I cried. "Where have you been?" I asked, momentarily forgetting that I was the one who'd been away. "Did you ever marry that guy?"

"No," she laughed. "I ended up in Bellevue Hospital!" (That was the city's infamous public psychiatric hospital.) "I go to these meetings now," she said, pointing to the run-down Electric Circus building behind us, its iconic psychedelic paint still on its exterior.

"The same kind of thing happened to me!" I cried.

The fact that Carol and I were both squealing on the street after discovering we had both been in psychiatric wards was proof that we were still crazy even without drugs. I felt better already!

The HOW Club on St. Mark's Place, NYC, 1985
The HOW Club on St. Mark's Place, NYC, 1985
Sherri Lewis

It turned out that the old Electric Circus had found a new purpose and a new name. It was now The HOW Club, which stood for honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. Twelve-step meetings now ran all day there, with even a "Midnight Miracle" meeting for former night owls who partied late.

"Come on, let's go in," said Carol. "There's a meeting about to start."

As we walked through the double doors to what was once a huge nightclub, my heart began pounding. Not knowing what to expect, fear was my constant companion. Conversations were buzzing around the room, there was a strong aroma from the coffee pot, and clouds of cigarette smoke were so thick it was hard to see. Suddenly, I felt like I was in the right place. I even saw one of my drug dealers there who used to sleep in his car!

An old acquaintance in the front of the room called out to me, "Sherri, we've been saving you a seat!"

"You have?" I thought. I felt a flush of embarrassment on my face. How did they know I had a problem? Who'd told them?

Carol and I took seats in the front row. "This is where the winners sit," she said.

That night there was "a birthday" -- what 12-step folks call the anniversary of the day someone got clean. A young woman -- ah, we were all still young in that meeting! -- looked beautiful behind the congratulatory flowers piled up on the table in front of her. As was customary, she was the speaker because that night was her anniversary. She had one year of sobriety! She told her story of what her life had been like before and her experience of recovery so far.

I was in awe of her and wanted to be able to do that too. I was mesmerized. I hadn't felt anything in so long and now I was full of feelings -- mostly fear that I would not be able to do what they were doing. But I desperately wanted what they had: sobriety and a full, functional, happy life back.

That night, May 15, 1985, I "claimed my seat" when the meeting chair asked if there were any newcomers in the room or anyone coming back from a relapse. Carol elbowed me to introduce myself to the group.

So I raised my hand. "My name is Sherri and I'm an addict and I'm back," I said nervously.

"Welcome back, Sherri!" everyone in the room replied.

OK, saying "I'm back" wasn't exactly true, since I was never in the program before. But a lot of people were saying they were back, so I said it too! I had no idea what I was doing.

From that day forward, I was in. Two years later, in 1987, I got news that likely would have sent me back to drink and drugs: I was HIV positive. But I didn't pick up a drink or drug then, and I haven't since.

I attribute it to the love and support I was given by those alcoholics and addicts in those meetings, many of whom later died of AIDS. The thought of it always brings tears of gratitude to my eyes. As I was facing my darkest, most terrifying and hopeless days, facing a diagnosis that was then considered a death sentence, I was given nothing but hope -- something doctors didn't have in their repertoire.

"Don't pick up alcohol or drugs before the miracle happens, Sherri!" people told me. "It's just around the corner. You're going to be OK. God doesn't make junk."

I got something in those meetings I didn't get at that tough-love program in New Jersey: the understanding that by accepting my powerlessness over alcohol and drugs, I became empowered to walk away from them. I wasn't a victim anymore.