Before the onset of AIDS, bathhouses were very popular with gay men. After graduating from college in 1979, I moved to New York and, being a frisky 21-year-old, I felt like a kid in a candy store whenever I'd go to "the baths" - with a variety of different venues to visit. I went on a regular basis for a little more than a year, from the spring of 1979 thru the summer of 1980. Besides being exciting, it was also a learning experience. Most of the time I went to the Club Baths, but I also experienced Man's Country, St. Mark's Baths, the Everard and the Big Apple. Besides being a place for anonymous hook ups, the baths, like bars, also served as a place for making friends. (I can think of the names of eight guys I met there who I saw outside of the baths on a number of occasions.) What follows is a synopsis of the venues I went to.
THE CLUB BATHS
The Club Baths was part of a chain with locations across the US. New York's "franchise" was on 1st Avenue near Houston St. next door to an Hispanic funeral parlor. It had a lounge with a bar and TV, and there was a swimming pool and sauna downstairs. The price of admission got you a locker; for an additional charge you could rent a cubicle-sized room (with a cot and a door) for four hours. I never rented a room since I preferred walking about the complex - and I didn't want to deal with the hassle of rejecting those I wasn't interested in (and there were many, especially since I was fresh meat and everyone wanted a taste). For those looking for groups to play with there was an orgy room, a movie room with bunks, and a maze. Patrons walked around with a towel wrapped around their waist and opened it, or dropped it to the floor, as "opportunities" presented themselves.
Mark Beard, "Man in a White Towel"
My first trip on a New York subway was made during a visit to the baths. I usually went on Saturday night, arriving around 9 PM and staying until daybreak, when I'd fine myself on the subway with people who looked like they were going to church. Since I lived in New Jersey at the time, it wasn't an easy trip, but the fun that awaited easily motivated me.
Disco station WKTU played throughout the complex. Whenever I hear songs such as Put Your Body In It (Stephanie Mills); Harmony (Suzy Lane); Street Life (The Crusaders); or Yellow Beach Umbrella (Bette Midler), warm memories come to mind. The music would be regularly interrupted by the desk clerk announcing a room number whose four-hour rental was about to expire.
THE BIG APPLE
The first bathhouse I ever went to was The Big Apple in the Times Square area - on Good Friday. My first encounter was with a lawyer from Mexico City whose name was Javier.
ST. MARK'S BATHS
Located on St. Mark's Place in the East Village, the St. Mark's Baths had the reputation for attracting the hottest men. The one time I went there was on a balmy October evening and the roof deck was open.
Man's Country was on West 15th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. Like the other bathhouses, it was multi-level with long, narrow floors. What made it unique, however, was that upon entering one of the floors you came face-to-face with the front of a red semi with a trailer attached that guys went into to have sex. This floor also held jail cells for more role-playing scenarios. A famous billboard for Man's Country was in Sheridan Square, with the word "Come" dominating.
It was infamous for a deadly fire in 1977 that killed nine patrons. Located on 5th Avenue south of 34th St., I went there in the winter of 1980 (it relocated a few blocks after the fire), and met a fellow named Gordon who I dated until the end of the summer. I'd take the train up to his place in Poughkeepsie on weekends. He is just one of the men I saw outside of the baths ...
NOT ALL ENCOUNTERS WERE ANONYMOUS
Perhaps the most interesting experience I had with someone I met was with Joey, owner of a car dealership in Westchester County, who took me out on his boat in the town of Harrison on Long Island Sound. He picked me up on a Saturday morning in August 1979, and there were two children in the backseat of his car! It turns out he was married, and while he and I went out on the boat to "relax", his wife and kids were back at the boathouse.
Dennis was a Catholic priest from Douglaston, Queens, who I met through a personal ad in the Village Voice. Although I didn't meet him at the baths, I introduced him to the Club Baths on a Friday when it was "Buddy Night", and two gained admission for the price of one. Another fellow, Tom, a librarian from Scranton, PA, invited me to visit him, but with the caveat that since he lived with his father we'd have to have sex in his car in the garage. We spoke on the phone a few times but I didn't take him up on his invitation.
Bill was a guard at the US Embassy in Iran on Tehran's Teleghani Ave. I met him in the summer of 1979, just a few months before embassy personnel were taken hostage. Then there was Bruce (at first he told me his name was Rick), who was a chef at a restaurant on Cape Cod during the summer in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard. On one date he came to my apartment and made Coq au vin, and showed me how to prepare asparagus. Phillip, who lived in Inwood in northern Manhattan, was the first black guy I was ever with.
Mel was a former copywriter at McCann Erickson and lived on Staten Island. I've only been to that borough a few times in my life, and the first time was to visit him. He took me to see the Broadway musical Whoopie and we also saw the Woody Allen film Manhattan. His was the first uncut cock I ever "encountered." One more thing - he was in his early 50s, my father's age.
Bill, originally from Milwaukee, was a temp at Touche Ross (before it became Deloitte Touche), and lived at an SRO on West 12th St. off 6th Ave. called the Ardsley House. He took me to the Russian Tea Room for dinner. He was smitten with me, but I wasn't ready for a serious relationship. His was the first of many hearts I've broken.
Don lived in Bethpage on Long Island and I visited him there on Memorial Day weekend 1979. Upon coming back on Sunday I went directly to the baths and ended up meeting Joe from Bensonhurst Brooklyn. On one of our dates we saw Alien in Times Square and while we were in the theater his car was towed. He had a share out in the Pines but he wouldn't take me because he didn't think I was ready.
My adventures at the baths ended once I started seriously dating someone in September 1980 (we didn't meet at the baths). Many bathhouses closed by the mid-80s due to the backlash caused by the onset of AIDS. Today there are a few in business (e.g. The West Side Club in Chelsea), but they aren't nearly as popular as they were back in the carefree '70s.
Poster for a 2013 documentary about the iconic bathhouse, which had its heyday before I moved to New York.