In the early '80s, before I could drive and long before the Bay Area's warehouse districts had been whitewashed by a digital economy, trips into these gray expanses were like outrageous treasure hunts. I'd have a map crudely sketched on a crumpled piece of brown paper bag with street names I didn't recognize and wouldn't remember, and an X to mark the spot -- approximately. By the time the directions reached my hands, there was no address included, just speculation and rumor, but the journey was always worth the attempt. On the best nights, X was discovered -- a riotous warehouse-wonderland where bands played all night long and pianos or mannequins or swings hung from the rafters amid red lights and billows of cigarette smoke, and where drugs and booze were in such ample supply no one would notice if a couple of punk-ass kids slipped through the door and helped themselves; on less lucky nights, X was elusive and the evening was spent breaking bottles, hopping fences, and running like hell whenever we encountered someone crazy, which was nearly every time. Either way, those nights, like this one, felt charmed.
So I am not surprised by the grizzly bear of a man who emerges from between two trucks, only to offer me a stiff-backed sentinel's bow before returning, with great dignity, to his post near a shopping-cart mountain crowned by half a plastic elephant head. Beyond the vagrant sentry, the neighborhood is utterly still.
As promised, I spot an orange door and begin to feel the unmistakable vibration of bass, but there is no evidence of revelers in the street. As if in answer to my uncertainty, a young man with a security jacket steps silently from the shadows and, with an analogous half bow, pulls open the orange door. The stairwell is saturated by warm light, music, and the smell of sweat, flowers, smoke, and what I come to learn is Moroccan mint tea.
"Please understand that once you enter, you may not leave," says a soft-voiced security guard as she pats me down at the first landing. At the top of the stairs, a devilish ingénue with a long red wig, bright red fan, ruby-encrusted horns, and crimson pasties proffers a small, pale hand.
"Good evening, I'm Bonnie," she purrs. "Welcome.
Bonnie Duque, aka "The Bonster," is an interior designer and winsome wild thing known for lavish proceedings, such as the Red Light District Pornoment Party and the White Hot Scorpio Snow Ball, which began as intimate house parties but grew into highly anticipated yearly underground galas. Miss Duque offers me a warm smile and swishes off to greet the next guest. At once, I am engulfed and propelled down the hall by a flock of giggling nymphs in sheer white gowns and ivy-leaf crowns, past handwritten signs that read "I you he she we/ In the garden of mystic lovers/ These are not true distinctions" and "Gamble everything for love," into the "Temple of Aphrodite," which is awash in red streamers, cushions, parachutes, and rosy pink light. The nymphs fall on the cushions amidst a crowd of faeries, amazons, Gypsy girls, and robust young men in loincloths who lounge on the sofas like opium den denizens while hypnotic beats fill the room like sand. I am beckoned into the softly lit massage room but head instead to "Mount Olympus," where a colossal Greek mask looms over a space framed by faux marble pillars, tree branches, and reams of billowing white cloth. On the dance floor, great horned goat men and silver-faced Weird Sisters writhe and ripple through the otherworldly Eastern European electronic folk of Lumin, which performs on the low stage. The Romani Urban Tribal Belly Dance troupe, one of the most potent and organically sensual groups of belly dancers I have yet seen, takes to the floor, undulating and ululating like delicate snakes. The crowd gathers in a circle and watches as if moonstruck. A grove of men wearing tree bark and moss wanders through the crowd, offering fennel seeds and flowers; a bit later, another faction arrives with lavish trays of white chocolate filled with raspberry, which they feed to guests by hand, all unplanned and unsolicited. This is the sort of spell woven by Soulsalaam, founder of Future Juju Productions and Hypnomadic Music and organizer of the annual Tropicalia held at El Rio.
"It's as if they were just called upon," says the percussionist/DJ, who brought Duque aboard to transform his annual Duality party into tonight's fete, "Love 'n' Hades."
Stepping across a winding blue tributary meant to represent the River Styx (one of Duque's more subtle details), I descend into the "Underworld," lower levels of the building transformed into caves bathed in ruddy light. Here, men and women in latex and fiendish attire smoke cigarettes and guzzle liquor while the members of Turn Me On Dead Man tune their guitars; lovers make out in cages, and lost souls writhe in agony while chained to the walls. Two demons sip martinis under the flicker of faux torches and gleam of homemade stalactites. Hell's chill-out room is splattered with blood and limbs; the words "I will always love you" trail across the wall, but the subterranean revelers don't mind the blood or the heat.
"Let the gods enjoy the climate," sneers a harlot in an impossible gown. "The real action is always in hell."
Late into the night, I am still discovering more environments -- the "Dragon House" where a variety of teas is served with live dub on Persian carpets, the feasting room where spring rolls and hummus and fresh fruit juices and thick bread can be had along with handmade devil horns -- and more wonderful music: Siamese, Diamond Galaxy, Aphrodesia, and Playground. There are ritual dance performances and tantric priestesses and orgies of fruit and sweets, and in the seclusion of the warehouse, it extends well past dawn. And I am glad, very glad, such things still exist.