At precisely 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a crowd waits outside a black door with a peephole on a brownstone-lined street in Alphabet City. The mostly young group is strapped into Prada Velcro bags and wears expensive orange Nikes; there are a few cowboy hats, and one woman wears a baby-T that reads BOYS SUCK. "Let's wait till these losers get turned away," says my friend Joe, a 30-year-old musician who is considered a "member" of this particular club. "Seriously, I'm warning you that this place is a disgusting pit," he says, puffing on an unfiltered Chesterfield. "You were there till noon twice last week," says his friend, a 28-year-old novelist. "That's why you think it's nasty."
"Yeah," Joe admits. "But the coke there is like Ajax, man. You're better off using it to freshen your fridge. I don't know why I even come here."
Twenty minutes later, all the hipsters have given up and dispersed. When the street is empty, a hulking white guy in sneakers and sweats motions us over. "Remember, no swearing!" he warns, opening the door. It's a quaint but strictly enforced rule imposed by the owner, a religious man who often sits at the end of the bar drinking vodka out of what regulars call his ''crystal chalice.'' While he doesn't seem to mind drug use, those prone to profanity are quickly shown the door.
Inside, about four dozen people are crowded around a dimly lit, red-walled room the size of your standard New World Coffee -- with a pool table in the center. No one is talking. A hand-lettered poster for a party last spring is taped up near the bar, and Halloween decorations like plastic skeletons and hanging cobwebs are all over -- seasonal decorations are put up here year-round, so that if there's a bust the management can claim that everyone's just there for a "party." Billy Joel's "Christie Lee" plays, pianissimo. "This is like your personal Martin Scorsese movie!" says Joe excitedly.
Behind the bar, a plump bartender dispenses $5 Heinekens and $25 half-grams of cocaine to a sullen crowd of men three-deep. "Yo, bro, catch you later," says a white guy in a do-rag to a black man selecting a song by Morrissey. "I couldn't pay the bill for my pager, so I'll see you when I see you."
In most after-hours clubs, as in most high schools, the bathrooms are the social nexus, but here, right on the corner of the bar there's a little ceramic cup with straws cut into thirds -- the bottom of the straw is cut on an angle, so lines can easily be snorted off the tallish bar. "I love this bartender," says a self-described "model-actress-scenester" with close-cropped hair. "One time I had a couple of rails laid out right here, and she warned me to pick up my drink so the condensation from the bottle wouldn't dilute my drugs. Cool, right?"
It's not for nothing that New York got the reputation as the city that never sleeps, though invariably everyone you see in places like this has a lot of help staying up. While Mayor Giuliani's war on nightlife has turned large nightclubs like the Tunnel into armed camps, the drug scene has moved underground, spread across dozens of of illegal underground clubs that open at 4 a.m., don't close until noon, and cater to every imaginable vice.
There is a lot of lore about after-hours New York, most of it improbable: People say if you stand outside Scores at 4 a.m., a limo will transport you to a gambling den nestled inside a midtown office building; in the West Twenties alone, there are rumored to be several after-hours gambling clubs where you can bet up to $10,000 per hand of blackjack; in Greenpoint, a Polish after-hours place allegedly serves up a gram of coke along with blintzes.
Always hard to find, often unmarked little holes that are just a few steps ahead of the cops, after-hours clubs are the nineties version of speakeasies, where the few people who find their way in immediately feel like they're part of an elite club -- indeed, at some you must be accompanied by a "member" (someone who's met the bouncer before). Models talk to mafiosi, bankers sidle up to banji boys: In New York, only AA meetings draw a more diverse crowd. "Getting wired at after-hours focuses the night," says a 27-year-old actor. "Suddenly you have not only a goal but a band of people who are bound to spend the night with you. It's an adventure."