With a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other, and various critical parts of his body glued to a dark-haired woman with whom he is ostensibly dancing, Michael Barrett looks like a happy man. It's 1:30 in the morning and we're on the VIP deck at the China Club, the raucous, legendary staple of New York nightlife, which Barrett owns with his partner, Danny Fried, who's standing several feet away.
While Fried watches the crowd with the eyes of a Secret Service agent scanning a rope line and spends much of the night pacing, smoking, and prowling the club, Barrett has more immediate business. It's not hard to see why he's probably the only guy who's ever been thrown out of his own club.
"I almost never do this anymore," Barrett says, screaming the words directly into my ear so I can hear him over the pulsating thump of the music. "I really don't. There've just been too many nights and too many years. Besides, I'm married now and I have absolutely no self-control. If I'm here, I'm gonna get into trouble. So most nights, I leave the club by 6:30."
On this night, however, he is in no hurry to go home. He's moved around behind the mystery woman now, grinding his hips with the enthusiasm if not quite the dexterity of Ricky Martin. She is sheathed in a silvery slip dress that covers her leopard thong only when her arms are at her sides. Barrett glances at me and shrugs, and a big smile spreads across his face.
In truth, Barrett has a lot to smile about these days. While he may not be the unrelenting wild man he once was -- now that he's 51, his pants almost never come off in public anymore -- maturity has clearly not hurt business.
"Bowie's group got up and played," Barrett says. "The whole music thing was an accident. It was total luck."
Sure, there are better-known club owners, and there are certainly hipper places to go. But in a business of highly perishable commodities, a business in which the average life span of the latest, of-the-moment club barely seems longer than the shelf life of a quart of milk, Barrett and Fried have accomplished something extraordinary: longevity.
It's Monday night, which has been the China Club's signature phenomenon for years. Tonight, the place is packed with more than 1,200 people, dancing, screaming, drinking, talking, mating, and smoking. Downstairs in the club's Shei Shei lounge, which has its own D.J. and its own bar, several hundred more people take advantage of the slightly less frenzied atmosphere. Upstairs, amid the controlled chaos, nine bartenders work the 60-foot-long, oval-shaped mahogany bar where the crowd is three deep all night long. Twenty security guys provide the peacekeeping beef, four waitresses ensure the uninterrupted flow of Cristall around the VIP deck, and a Vanilla Ice look-alike wearing a headset over his postmodern DA hairdo controls access to the VIP area. Out on the street, at two in the morning, more than 50 people are still standing in a soft rain waiting to get in. The club is full.
The China Club's VIP deck sits several steps above the club's main area so everybody can see everybody else. What's the point of having celebrities if they're sequestered in a back room? And on the deck this night are Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, Tyra Banks, the guys from 'N Sync (Joey Fatone, in a sleeveless T-shirt that says freak-a-zoid, desperately wants to meet Jeter, which he does), and assorted other notables. Along with the stars, there are people like Lenny "Häagen-Dazs," a homely middle-aged guy who owns a dozen or so ice-cream franchises around the city and who's been a China Club regular for years. There is no shortage of pretty women in leather pants, a clutch of topless dancers out on their night off, and a sprinkling of guys who look like the losers in a Sopranos-sponsored Big Pussy look-alike contest.
China Club has never been a hypertrendy, downtown kind of place, a club that makes all but a handful of people feel inadequate. It's less judgmental, a place where different kinds of people can find a comfort zone, where regular guys feel like celebrities and celebrities feel like regular guys. "The whole universe could be stone-cold dead on Monday night," says Geraldo Rivera, "but you know the China Club is gonna be packed with attractive, energetic people. It's a place where you can let your hair down with a reasonable expectation of privacy. I've never once gotten into the papers for anything I've done there."
Rivera became so attached to the club that he thought seriously about investing in it when it moved from the Upper West Side three years ago to 47th Street and Eighth Avenue. Well-known as a guy who likes to have a good time, Rivera says he's spent many "amnesia-inducing evenings" at the China Club. But he declines to discuss the details of any particular nocturnal escapade. "Let's just put it this way," he says. "The China Club is a place that's never disappointed."
A couple of days later, the club's Shei Shei lounge is dark and quiet. It's the middle of the afternoon, and the large empty room looks like an unlit stage set. Danny Fried and Michael Barrett are sunk deep into the crushed velvet of a wingback sofa. Fried lights a Kool and Barrett dumps his sneakered feet on the table.
Not far from where they sit, in the club's offices, people are doing the payroll, working on the books, ordering liquor and food, and handling all of the back-office detail work required to run a business. Up on the roof, workers are building a 6,000-square-foot addition.
Perhaps because of their background (Barrett was a cop and Fried a clothing salesman), it is a point of honor for them that amid the glitz and celebrity, they've managed to keep their bearings. "I love it when these other guys call themselves impresarios," says Barrett. "What the fuck is an impresario? I can assure you we're not impresarios. We're working guys."