I was reigning at Table 28 as usual.
The Inferno in Huntington, West Virginia was the area’s premier disco. Sleek, sophisticated, trendy – or at least as much as it could be in an old warehouse on a crumbling street near the river.
Its claim to fame was that each table had a red phone on it with a light fixture overhead emblazoned with the table number. You could call from table to table just by dialing that number. It was a new era in pickups.
My best friend and I weren’t even old enough to be in the place when we first started going. But we each dressed to the nines as was traditional with disco and pretty much behaved ourselves as far as the rules went. Donnie was a guy. We had an unlikely friendship, but a very close one. We were inseparable. Folks thought we were dating, but we weren’t. We were just good friends. Perfect friends. Completely accepting of one another.
Most evenings, we sat on the porch of my parent’s house and watched the traffic roll by. We would make up stories about where they were going and what they were doing because there was nothing much we knew of to do.
But every Saturday we were at The Inferno. Often, we went on Friday nights as well. We had part-time jobs at the newspaper selling subscriptions over the phone. Yes, I was a telemarketer. I’m still kind to them – folks just trying to make a living. Or get enough money together to hang out in style with their best friend.
Our paychecks went to iced tea and snacks during work and outfits for Saturday night. Me in my Quiana dresses and strappy heels, he in a polyester shirt, gold chains and platforms.
We danced until the last song. Unlike other discos, the last song was not Last Dance by Donna Summer. It was Katmandu by Bob Seger. Go figure.
But oh, how we danced to that rocking song about escaping to someplace exotic.
But this one time at the disco, we were sitting at the table. Drinking one of our customary two Tequila Sunrises. We were both two-drink drunks—impossibly thin in retrospect – the alcohol just went right through us. Three sips and I was buzzed. One drink and I was Abba’s Dancing Queen. Two drinks and I had to be helped to the car across the gravel parking lot in my high heels.
Behind us at another table was a guy sitting by himself. He had dressed up — you could tell — but not in disco fashions. More like going to church clothes. Dress pants and shoes, tailored shirt. I thought it obvious it was his first time at The Inferno.
I called him.
“Hello?” he sounded puzzled as if the refrigerator had just started ringing. I guess the phones on the table were surreal.
“Hi, “I said. “Would you like to dance?”
“Who is this?” he responded in his thick Appalachian accent.
“I’m Connie. Table 28” and with that statement, I stood up and waved to him.
“I don’t know anything about disco dancing.”
“Well bring your drink over here and sit with us. You look lonely.”
And he did.
Turns out he was a coalminer from Paintsville, Kentucky. New to the job, he was the first person in his family to have any money to speak of and coal miners at that time earned a good wage. He was probably rolling in cash. Donnie and I were barely getting by. College students with part-time jobs don’t usually equate with a big wallet. But I think we were having more fun than he.
Until he joined us.
He was quiet and shy. Talked softly in the din of the disco and I repeatedly had to ask him to say it again.
I danced with him. He wasn’t bad – he had rhythm and a basic understanding, but it was clear he’d never danced to disco before. I started teaching him the Latin hustle. He caught on fast. A natural. We had a ball. Between songs, he bought shots of Amaretto. My selection. Yeah, I don’t understand it either, but that was the cool thing. Those and kamikazes.
Donnie and I were getting sloppy drunk. He was unaffected. Or so it seemed.
He was older. Donnie and I couldn’t have been more than 19 at the time. I’m guessing he was 25 or 26.
The lights flashed–the signal for last call — Katmandu started playing. Donnie and I raced to the dance floor pulling him along. The three of us danced in frenzy loudly singing along. The whole place was dancing and singing. At some point, the coalminer began clogging.
I’m quite sure he was the first person to clog to Bob Seger in a disco. The crowd parted and gave him room to dance. It was the first time I had seen expert clogging. You could tell he’d been clogging since he could walk.
Oh, we laughed and laughed and laughed. And then laughed some more. Giggled even.
After the place closed and the table lights were turned off, we three stood in the parking lot, talking and laughing and sobering up. It was late. About 3 am. It was a soft summer night — perfect — and the fresh, cool air after the heat of the Disco Inferno dried our sweat. Refreshing.
We sobered up. We said our goodbyes. He promised he’d see us next week.
But he didn’t show. Or the week after. I have always wondered what happened to him. Maybe he went to Katmandu.
I wonder if he thinks about us. 1978 was a long ago. We were fresh-faced, energetic, and not yet trapped in old bodies with young minds. I have lost track of Donnie, but on Saturday nights, we danced and longed for new horizons. Maybe he, too, went to Katmandu.
Note: The photo below is of The Inferno courtesy of Patrick Morris. As I recall the disco had a few names — Disco Inferno, The Inferno, and perhaps something else. If you look closely, you can see Table 28 in the background. Though I’m not sure when this photo was taken, there’s a good chance I was sitting there.