BUSHWICK-“I don’t really turn people on,” Max Steele said. The first time he go-go danced, someone complained to the DJ, who promptly turned off the music. This might have been because Max’s go-go dancing is a disturbing sight. He tends to dance in fits and jerks, his arms stiffly at his sides except when he suddenly draws one hand up towards the side of his face. He moves around a lot when he dances, his legs following his upper body, which spasms rhythmically to a beat slightly different than that of the music.
But it isn’t exactly true that he’s a turn-off. All of Max’s varied activities and productions-the convoluted maze of ways by which he’s gotten his name out there-are directly tied to his sexual prowess. The New York Press wrote that he is “that boy at the party who you really resent because you either want to be him or fuck him.” A blog called The INQUEERY cooed that he is “the type of guy that makes you want to try any drug he hands you, or the type of guy that will piss you off at one point just so you two can have amazing make up sex.” Interview magazine did a brief Q&A, accompanied by a smoldering black and white photo of Max in a leather jacket with no shirt underneath. He’s become the wet dream of the Brooklyn gay art scene, in which getting known is inextricably linked to getting laid. He needs more fodder for his zine, after all.
His “zine” is Scorcher, a compendium of his autobiographical porn stories. He also writes a blog, This Is Fag City, and a monthly horoscope column under a pseudonym, for “a free New York publication” whose name he won’t reveal. He is also a performance artist, a singer, a songwriter and an accompanist. His go-go-dancing work takes place at QxBxRx (it stands for Queers, Beers, and Rears, of course), a monthly queer punk party in a crowded basement on the Lower East Side. But that doesn’t stop him from playing a bit part on a Logo show with the Hells Kitchen gays or hanging with the poets.
Max sees it all as part of the same scene. He calls it the “New Gay Underground,” and he once wrote: “There is a real sense of gay art (music, theater, writing, performance, visual, talking, witchcraft) being made right now that is grappling with similar ideas… I generally feel not talented enough to be part of it.”
Last Saturday, at 11 a.m. in his Bushwick apartment, he just seemed tired. It was raining lightly. He drank coffee and coconut juice and took aspirin; he had a hangover. He paced around the kitchen in a faded t-shirt and tight black pants. He’s tall and fair, with a mess of curly, dirty blond hair. When he is calm and charming, his features are regular and his voice is deep and mellifluous. His friends had said they’d be up for brunch and he was worried about having something to do to entertain me.
When Max was in college he swore he’d never go to Williamsburg. But when he came to New York in 2006, you either went there or to Harlem. So there he went. He’s been in the same apartment, over a live poultry store near the Montrose L stop, for three years. Roommates have come and gone-he currently lives with Patrick, a graphic artist and self-described witch, and his best friend, Danielle-but he is here to stay. After all, where else would Max Steele make sense? Where else could he go? “Bed Stuy?”
We talked in his big, airy bedroom while the rain fell outside. We sat in chairs arranged side by side, like on a talk show. There’s a large picture of himself on the door. His sheets are covered in bright Day-Glo squiggles and he has punk band posters and pages from magazines pinned to his wall. He moved around a lot, folding clothes, adjusting the windows, changing the record on the turntable, returning his friends’ GChat messages. I looked over his shoulder and saw that my Facebook profile was open on his computer.
We left his apartment-still raining-and walked to Max’s friend Tommy Pico’s a couple of blocks away. He asked, as if we could now finally speak frankly, why I was writing about him. I said I was interested in artists our age, their role models and the career paths they foresaw. He didn’t reply.
In the living room of the long, narrow railroad apartment, a few people were putting together copies of the new issue of Birdsong, the journal Tommy edits. He was sewing the books together; another boy was stamping “birdsong 7” on the covers, letter by letter. It was painstaking, tedious work, probably not helped by the pot, but they had to get it done for a big reading the next day.
Max and I took the J train to the New Museum, where there was work by artists under 33 and a great many zines on display. Max giggled at Ryan Trecartin’s videos and was pleased but not overly impressed by the rest. He seemed relieved; the work of successful people his own age sometimes makes him sad. “I thought maybe I would be blown away by everyone who was really young, but there was nothing where I was like, God, I wish I’d thought of that.”
We went back to his place and napped, Max on his bed, me on the futon in the living room, under a poster for the William Klein film Qui ÃƒÂªtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? At a table, his roommate Patrick was cutting out hundreds of tiny images of beautiful people from what was obviously work by his boss, a famous photographer. Max woke up, and I opened my eyes to find that he’d changed into a purple t-shirt with big purple polka dots. He served us tea.
Then we walked again to Tommy Pico’s, and everything started happening much more quickly. We walked to Greenpoint, to the apartment of Jess Paps, the frontwoman of a band called PAPS. It was filled with Max’s fellow Sarah Lawrence alums-lesbians of all shapes and sizes, including one who was just boyish enough to be pretty, and a boy named Max Whitney, who was known while they were both at college as Pretty Max, while Max Steele was called, simply, Max.
Max’s crew, overwhelmed by specters of the past, took refuge in Jess’ bedroom in the back. I had my own bottle of red wine and briefly lost track of time. There was a Hole sing-a-long, to a song released in 1994 (“We look the same!/And talk the same!/And even fuck the same!”).
And then Gio Black Peter arrived, a small, skinny twenty-something with big lips, bedroom eyes, and some acne scars. Gio played the cute boyfriend in last year’s Bruce LaBruce film, Otto; or, Up With Dead People. He draws virtuosic pictures of boys with big penises and performs his raucous dance music in his underwear. He’s one of Max’s favorite artists, and they’re collaborating soon. Gio spoke with an accent not quite British, French or Spanish.
Gio was drunk when he came but made a valiant dent in a six-pack of PBR. Also he finished my red wine. He talked about sex with trannies and scrolled through his cell phone contacts. Two entries were “buttmagnet” and “rape.” He talked about his boyfriend of four years, who lives in London and had taught him the word “badgered” earlier in the day. (Gio’s boyfriend had said, “You’re badgering me” and hung up.)
Then we were in a cab. We arrived at the corner of Ludlow and Rivington (“The far side… like the comic strip with the cows that talk,” Gio told the driver) and then we were on the roof. Boys milled around in the drizzle, plotting the rest of their nights. One named Scott, with close-cropped blond hair, came on to a guy by saying, “Isn’t your dick as big as this terrace?”
I found Max. He took a shot of triple sec and then fell down the stairs from the roof to the sixth floor. His voice had wilted in the boozy haze, and he would bug out his eyes and scream “I KNOWWWWWWWW” whenever anyone said anything resembling a fact.
Gio didn’t know I was writing about Max and when he saw my recorder, he shoved me, yelled “I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS,” and grabbed my pen and threw it off the roof. A fat boy silently threw up in the corner.
Then we got in a cab.
Max regularly says things like “I’m not a creative person” and “I don’t think I have an original bone in my body.” He is entirely comfortable dancing in his underwear, but gets scared when he has to read his work to people who aren’t his friends. He shies away from any aspiration to become a TV star or even Justin Bond. Instead, he wants to be like the Miranda July of a decade ago, when she was in her early twenties and doing small, weird performance pieces. He dislikes that she was “discovered.” Yet everything he does-the tireless performing, the zines dropped at gay bars and punk clubs all over the city, the relentless self-exposure-leads you to believe that Max Steele wants, needs, to be discovered.
After all, he was born in L.A. His parents were both actors. One of the zombies in the Thriller video was at Max’s bris. His mother starred in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Her stage name at the time was Laurie Zimmer, but after Assault bombed in the U.S., she changed it to Laura Fanning before suddenly abandoning acting entirely. A documentary called Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? has appeared on German television, but his mother doesn’t want to see it.
When he sent her a notice about a show of his, some sign that he was making it, she told him, “I hope you enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy it.”
We made it to Sugarland, the Williamsburg tourist stop for Manhattan homos looking for a Brooklyn night out. Max worked here when it opened in the fall of 2007, walking around in his underwear and selling cheap shots. None of the customers realized that the boys got to keep all the money, and with three or four dollars coming in per shot, he would leave with his briefs stuffed with cash.
The club was dark and sweaty and the boys were packed tightly on the dance floor. Others watched from a balcony. Someone crashed into his friend near the bar and they both tumbled to the ground. Max found someone he knew, a boy named Justin with dark hair swept severely across his forehead, and began making out with him. Justin smirked; Max had clearly pulled this stunt before. Gio had taken off his shirt in one fluid motion as he entered, and told me that he would show me how to hit on guys. (The secret is to talk to them.)
Max stumbled over to me. “Can you cheat on your boyfriend?” he asked me. I demurred and he said, “Good on you, good on you.” Earlier in the day, Max had said that he’s not in any rush to get married, “but I hope at some point I’ll pair up with someone and have a lasting monogamous relationship… well, maybe not monogamous,” he said, laughing, “but a family of my own, a partner.”
We got in a cab again.
Gio was straddling Max in the back seat while they made out. We went to Beauty Bar, in South Williamsburg. It was 2:30 in the morning.
Gio and Max made out at the bar. A bunch of straight hipsters stared. One guy behind me said to another, “I just want to finger a girl and go to sleep.”
Gio and Max were winding down, and Max said to me, “I think I’m going to go home with Gio. Do you want to sleep on his couch?” I was tired. He said, for the hundredth time that evening, “Please don’t write mean things about me.” I left the bar and got in a cab. It was 3:30 in the morning, and if Max Steele wasn’t taking me home, well, my night was over.