We often talk about club exit strategies in the context of how an aging bartender or waitron can get the hell out. Like prostitutes, strippers, and milk, nightlife has an expiration date. Some ignore it and toil on long after it looks good, and some make a real living at it. Some enter the “real world” without a viable means of support. I rarely hired a professional bartender. I hired artists, actors, or students—even an Olympic hopeful or two who would work the night on their way to someplace else.
I myself lingered way too long, but I just couldn’t help it. The night, with all its possibilities, became the second greatest addiction of my adult life. Nick Kardaras was an owner of a highly successful place with an exit strategy that should have been “retire in Hawaii with a great life.” Life, however, carves its own path for all of us, and circumstances took Nick to a new place. I asked him all about it.
Tell me about your club career. You mean my journey from Ivy Leaguer to bouncer to high-profile nightclub owner? I had been a creative middle-class kid from Queens who felt trapped and stifled by the tedious grays of life in the outer-boroughs. It’s so cliché, but I would literally go to Astoria Park, sit by the water and stare across the East River at the seductive Manhattan skyline, dreaming of the excitement that I just knew existed over that damned 59th street bridge! When I attended the Bronx High School of Science in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was turned on to a whole new and exciting world of the downtown club scene; Danceteria, CBGBs, the Pyramid Club. It was exhilarating. But when I graduated from Cornell in 1986, I was stuck working a job that I hated as an “Executive Trainee” at Bloomingdales. God, I was miserable! So a friend mentioned that the Copa was looking for clean-cut martial artists to work the door on weekends. Bored and looking for a little excitement, I thought “why not?” I had a black belt in Karate and had been a national AAU karate champion; plus the Copa was only two blocks from Bloomies. So that’s where it started: at the Copa where I met John Steel and was hired to run the door. Like Alice going through-the-looking glass, when I walked from Bloomies to the Copa that day back in 1986, I had no idea that I was about to go on a ten-year odyssey in a world full of colorful wiseguys, flamboyant drag queens, self-absorbed glitterati, self-righteous literati, vacuous socialites, never-were wannabes, sleazy promoters, hard-partying musicians, synaptically challenged models, misguided misfits, corrupt lawyers, Haitian hit squads, and, of course, the ever-present drug dealers of all shapes and sizes. Within three years after I started working at the Copa I opened up Horatio 113 in the as yet un-gentrified Meat Packing district. That club took off like a rocket: JFK, Jr., Tom Cruise, Brooke Shields—they all showed up within the first few weeks as we helped usher in the new era of smaller “loungey” clubs that became very popular after mega clubs like Palladium, Mars and the Underground had ruled the scene for so long. Over the next few years my former partner Mark Morgan (God rest his soul) and I went on to open Big City Diner, Big City Southampton, and Mr. Fuji’s Tropicana on lower 5th Avenue. The latter, from what I understand, is a club name that you’re not too fond of! For me, the party as a club owner ended in 1995 when Giuliani’s goose-stepping inspectors revoked our liquor licenses.
What life-lessons did you learn from the experience that perhaps outsiders couldn’t learn easily? That the club business is a rough and tumble business not for the feint of heart. That what seems glamorous and fun is a shark infested and dangerous game. Look, we had one of our clubs robbed on Christmas Eve by machine-gun toting Haitians in the early 90s. I had a contract put out on my life. My best friend and former business partner died from an overdose. My other best friend, my former bartender, also died from his chronic drug use. And addiction almost killed me as well; after my clubs had closed I was left with a horrible, soul-crushing, and life-zapping drug habit. Eventually I also OD’d and was what doctors call asystolic (without a heart beat) for over an hour as I miraculously survived, but was on life support and in a coma for over a week at Cornell Presbyterian. So I guess the lesson to outsiders is one of caution, that the sensitive, creative people who gravitate to the bright light of NY nightlife are also the most vulnerable to addiction. How did you transition out of the nightlife world? When did you know it wasn’t going to be the answer? That probably would be when I opened up my eyes as I emerged from my coma. I think I got the message at that point that I needed to make significant changes in my life. I guess a coma will do that to a person! Since then, I’ve done a lot of research on the transformative potential of Near Death Experiences; it’s not just the white light thing that we read so much about (and, for the record, I didn’t see any white light). But when you come so close to non-existence, you’re forced to re-evaluate things, and also to try and make sense of things—to find the meaning and purpose in your life. So I started reading voraciously. Anything that I could get my hands on about philosophy, comparative religions, psychology, the nature of consciousness, cosmology. I was obsessively driven to better understand nature of things. I also got clean and sober via 12-step programs. Last week I celebrated 10 years of continuous sobriety. And, finally, I had also gone back to school. I had discovered that my life felt more meaningful when I helped people in my 12 step program so it made sense to me to go back to school so that I can train myself in the helping professions. First I got a masters degree in social work, then in 2007 I completed my Ph.D. in psychology. Today I’m “Dr. Kardaras”, a clinical professor at Stony Brook University and an adjunct professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. I’m also a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in the treatment of addiction. Quite the career turnaround for this formerly addicted nightclub owner, no?
Tell me about the writing—your projects and goals. My first book, How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life (Conari Press), just came out last month. One part memoir and three-parts self-help/philosophy primer, I tell my story and describe how living a life informed by the do-right/think-right wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers can be truly life-changing. I’ve had a great reception for the book and have done interviews on Fox News, NPR, the Gary Null Show, amongst others. I also write a regular blog for Psychology Today which is quite popular (“How Plato Can Save Your Life”). But what I’m working on now that I’m really excited about is a TV series about the 80’s NY club scene. My dear friend Matt DeMAtt and I have collaborated on a dramatic series called “Slaves to the Rhythm” which chronicles the story of how two clean-cut young guys from Queens trip and stumble into the surreal club scene in “pre-Giuliani” NY. We’re in talks with some of the major Hollywood players and hope to be able to make an announcement soon.
Do you still go out once in awhile? What do you see that makes you happy? Sad? I don’t go out clubbing anymore. Very occasionally I might go to an old friend’s venue to say hello. But, I must confess, I still read Page Six every day and keep abreast of the club going-ons. Look, as you know, there’s nothing like NY nightlife; everyone should at least taste it once in their lives. But it can be a very seductive trap that doesn’t call to me anymore.