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May 2014

Remembering Adventures at the Baths: A Gay Rite of Passage


Stackwhitetowels Vaseline Rush


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 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 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.





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 ...



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.







The Surprising, Sudden Downfall of Christine Quinn




Nearly a year has passed and yet it's still hard to believe how quickly New York City politician Christine Quinn fell from her ivory tower.  During the first half of 2013 she was the clear favorite to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York.  But despite receiving countless endorsements, she steadily lost ground to underdog Bill de Blasio, and when voters pulled their levers during September's primary, she finished a distant third.  And although polls had indicated this result, they seemed too unbelievable to give them much credence.  This was the scenario of a nightmare you might expect Quinn to have had in her sleep during the campaign - but it unfolded in her waking life. 


There have been other gay politicians who have fallen, but their troubles were caused by sex scandals (e.g., Gerry Studds, Jim McGreevey, Mark Foley, Barney Frank, Sam Adams).  That wasn't the case with Quinn.  Instead, she fell out of favor because of policy matters: 1) She had a reputation for being overly deferential to real estate interests (a mini-Bloomberg); 2) She infuriated many residents of Greenwich Village for not going to bat for St. Vincent's Hospital; 3) She was instrumental in overturning term limits for the office of mayor, something voters had approved just a few years earlier, thus enabling Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term; and 4) As part of the Bloomberg administration, many voters may have wanted a clean break after 12 years.




When asked about these issues it was puzzling that Quinn didn't have good answers ready.  It suggested that her campaign staff was unconcerned about voter discontent and exemplified Quinn's imperious manner.  (Reminiscent of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.)  However, the fact that she was a lesbian didn't appear to be a big issue.  Perhaps it would have been an issue for some Republicans, but they never got the chance to vote against her in the general election.


We also discovered the limits of Neil Patrick Harris's charms as his endorsement didn't provide any boost whatsoever.  (Cynthia Nixon and Alan Cumming were two gay celebrities who supported de Blasio.)









Favorite Musical Numbers from Hollywood Movies

MoviemusicalsAsking a gay man to choose his favorite musical numbers from movies is like asking a woman to open her closet and pick out her favorite shoes (of course, it might be a challenge for a gay man as well).  It's fun and agonizing all at the same time.  And no matter how dreadful the movies themselves are, the musical numbers from musicals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s are immensely entertaining.  They tend to be inane and over the top, filled with thousands of frenetic singers and dancers.  Some have extravagant sets, others feature great dance routines, but all revolve around a wonderful song, often with delightfully zany lyrics.


I've divided the numbers I selected into two groups - those from the "golden era" and those of more recent vintage (post 1975).  Each performance has a link to a You Tube clip.



I Only Have Eyes for You (Dames/1934) - Mesmerizing and yet a bit creepy, this is one of hundreds of dazzling productions staged by the legendary Busby Berkeley.  In this clip the rather mousey Ruby Keeler is the object of Dick Powell's affection/obsession.  The New York subway system also plays a prominent role.




A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody (The Great Ziegfeld/1936).  This is one wild number.  It was shot on a huge revolving sound stage.  I'm still stunned at the end of the number when the camera pulls back to show the enormity of the set.  I would have loved to have been there to watch it being filmed.




Waiting for the Robert E. Lee/Babes on Broadway (Babes on Broadway/1941) - This number comes in the final minutes of the movie and is part of a 15-minute number titled "Minstrel Show".  The men in blackface is a bit jarring; even Judy Garland's skin was darkened (but not blackened).  I love the catchy lyrics of Babes in Broadway, and the line "We're milking applause instead of milking a cow" always amuses me. 




You Stepped Out of a Dream (Ziegfeld Girl/1941) - The handsome and debonair Tony Martin sings to the likes of Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland, among other Ziegfeld Girls.  (The clip, from TCM, is frustrating because the audio doesn't play and it's the only clip available.)




Pass the Peace Pipe (Good News/1947) - Halfway into the number it becomes a dance extravaganza done to Indian drums.  Broadway star Joan McCracken (who was married to Bob Fosse in the 1950s) is the featured dancer.




New York, New York (On the Town/1949). This number perfectly captures the bustling energy of the city it pays tribute to.  And Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, as Chip, Gabey and Ozzie look snazzy in their sailor suits.  One of the all-time great song lyrics is "The Bronx is up, the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground."  In a big change the number was filmed on location rather than on a Hollywood set.




Good Morning (Singing in the Rain/1952).  This is an incredible dance performance by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor.




Triplets (The Band Wagon/1953).  Yet another number with just three performers.  It has clever lines such as "MGM has got a Leo, but Ma-ma has got a trio."  One of the triplets is Fred Astaire.




Sing Hallelujah (Hit the Deck/1957) - This is the movie's closing number with Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and .... Ann Miller dancing up a storm on a battleship.




Stereophonic Sound (Silk Stockings/1957).  Compared to earlier choices with a cast of thousands, this routine used just two people.  And one of the two is Fred Astaire





The Time Warp (Rocky Horror Picture Show/1975) - We're not in the "Golden Era" any longer!  Wild, orgiastic energy ... and tap dancing!




Summer Nights (Grease/1978) - This has got to be one of the most carefree numbers of any musical.  Many years later I was in heaven when I went to see Singalong Grease at the Ziegfeld Theater and eagerly participated in the singing of this number.




Xanadu (Xanadu/1980) - This is easily the worst musical of all that I've chosen, but its closing number is wonderfully cheesy.  When Olivia Newton John appears in her goddess regalia (pictured below) she looks embarrassed to be seen in it.  And at the beginning of the clip Gene Kelly is on roller skates at a roller disco!  Whenever this video came on at Splash the crowd would squeal with delight.




Love is Good for Anything That Ails You (Pennies from Heaven/1981) - All of the music in this dark musical is from the 1930s and the numbers were lip-snyched.  This seems particularly odd since one of the stars of the film was Bernadette Peters.  This glitzy number, all in sparkling white and silver, begins and ends in a dreary school room during the Depression.




Hindi Sad Diamonds (Moulin Rouge/2001) - From one of my all-time favorite movies, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.  I saw it at least half a dozen times during the summer of 2001.




Happy Working Song (Enchanted/2007) - Amy Adams already had one of her three Oscar nominations when she appeared in this Disney musical.  This number, which she sings to rats, mice, pigeons, flies and cockroaches was nominated for an Oscar.  Adams sang it on the telecast - but not dressed as Cinderella.




Without Love (Hairspray/2007) - A sweet song that builds to a nice climax.  I got a kick when the photo of Tracy Turnblad came to life whenever Link (played by Zac Efron, below) sang to it.




Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire/2008) - This selection is unique in that it was shown interspersed with the closing credits.  Also, the dancers didn't sing, they just danced over the recorded track.  It was filmed on the platform of Mumbai's main train station with a cast of hundreds.  At the Academy Awards the movie won for Best Picture and this song for Best Song.




Cinema Italiano (Nine/2009) - This long delayed movie version of the Broadway musical starred Daniel Day Lewis in a singing role.  This particular number was written exclusively for the movie and features Kate Hudson.  With a cool '60s/La Dolce Vita vibe, it managed to temporarily rouse me from the stupor I fell into during this dull movie.




With thousands of other numbers to choose from, I'd like to hear which are your favorites ...




Fire Island Memories: The Pre-Share Years (1978 - 1995)


The first time I ever heard the words "Fire Island", they came from the mouth of Joan Rivers.  It was during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960s, when I was still a child.  I don't remember exactly what she said, but whatever it was left me with the lasting impression that Fire Island was a rarefied place frequented by men who weren't part of the mainstream (to which Joan might add, "winky-winky").





Ten years later, I was in my junior year at Penn State.  I was just coming out and starting to embrace disco music, and in the spring of 1978 I bought the debut album by The Village People.  It had songs with titles that were gay destinations, such as San Francisco, Key West ... and Fire Island.  Not being familiar with Fire Island, I could only wonder what the lyrics of Fire Island were referring to (e.g., "don't go in the bushes, someone might grab ya").  I was also unfamiliar with its geography, and thought it was a tiny island, perhaps like Gilligan's Island.  (Paul Jabara also released an album in 1978, with a song on it called Pleasure Island, which undoubtedly was a tribute to Fire Island.)   





In 1979 I moved to New York and that summer I met a fellow at the Club Baths, Joe from Bay Ridge Brooklyn.  He was probably around 40.  He had a share out in the Pines, but told me he wouldn't be comfortable taking me there because I was too innocent (true) and he was a different person when he was out there.  This only added to the place's mystique.





Two years passed and I was dating another fellow who was also 20 years older than me.  On the Sunday of Memorial Day (1981) weekend we took a day trip to Cherry Grove.  The weather was glorious.  That evening we had dinner at the Monster (a year before it opened in the Village), where we were greeted by a lively host, who was wearing a muumuu.  We didn't venture to the Pines.  On the trip home the scheduled train didn't arrive so we waited more than an hour on the train platform in Sayville for the next one.  To make matters worse, I was coming down with a cold. 



I made my first visit to the Pines in the summer of 1982.  It was with another boyfriend, Rick, and we went at the end of July as part of his birthday celebration.  We stayed at the house of a friend of his, and we all went out on Saturday morning (to Shore Walk).  The "house mother" was a short, bald-headed fellow from Argentina whose name was Chin Chin.  He had a huge Great Dane, named Gandhi, who was larger than him, and Rick and I joked that Chin Chin probably had sex with him.  This was my first taste of decadent Fire Island life, which involved taking a "disco nap", then doing some drugs before going to the Pavilion in the wee hours of the morning.  On Sunday, we were recovering on the beach, where I was smashed into the sand by a huge wave when we were playing in the surf.





My next visit to Fire Island wasn't until 1986, but I made three visits on three consecutive weekends, all with different friends, all in the Pines.  The first visit was just for the day.  My boss, David, and I went to visit friends who had a share at the house formerly owned by Tommy Tune.  It was on the ocean side of the Pines.  Before leaving I took a shower on the deck, which afforded me a beautiful view of the ocean.


The next weekend I spent it with people I had never met, but they were friends of my elderly friend Jim who had died in June.  I met Jim through SAGE which had paired me up with him as part of its "friendly visitor" program.  After he died his friend Bill, who owned a liquor store in the Pines harbor, contacted me and invited me out.  His house was at 568 Driftwood Walk, which, 10 years later, was the walk my summer share was on. 


The third visit was over Labor Day weekend and my friend Tom and I stayed on Fisherman's Walk with a couple he knew, Donny and Dennis.  The weather was unseasonably cool but sunny.  One memory is of the four of us lying on the beach one night and gazing up at the stars and looking for shooting stars.  Donny was feeling under the weather that weekend and within a year he succumbed to AIDS.    




INTO THE 90s ...

Six years passed before my next visit, but that visit on Labor Day 1991 was just for a few hours.  My boyfriend Tom and I took a trip out and made an unannounced visit to say hello to friends of mine who had a share on Beach Hill Walk (that's me, pictured below).  They weren't home so we hung out on the deck for half an hour before getting on the ferry back to Sayville.  Two years later was my longest stay (before I took a share).  A former roommate, his boyfriend and I rented a house for a week in early August 1993.  The place seemed to be overrun by deer, even on the beach.





It was during this vacation that I made my first venture into the Meat Rack, but my late night exploration was thwarted by the pitch black that greeted me upon entering "The Enchanted Forest".  It would have been wise to get the lay of the land beforehand in the daylight.  That happened the next afternoon.  But there would be plenty of other opportunities to "explore" once I took a summer share ... 


Battle of the Disco Era's Double Albums (1977 - 1978)

Discowallpaper21977 and 1978 were the halcyon years of the disco era.  The 10-month period between October 1977 and August 1978 was particularly frenzied as four double albums were released: the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It's Friday and two by Donna Summer


SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Release Date: Nov. 15, 1977)

I bought it in June 1978, seven months after its release.  After more than 30 years I've tired of Night Fever, How Deep is Your Love? and Stayin' Alive, but my ears still prick up when I hear other hits such as If I Can't Have You; More Than a Woman (both versions); Disco Inferno; and You Should Be Dancing.  And I always had a soft spot in my heart for KC & the Sunshine Band's Boogie Shoes.  The extended instrumentals were worth listening to as well.




THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY (Release Date: May 19, 1978)

With the exception of Last Dance (and to a lesser degree, the title track), this wasn't packed with big hits like Sat. Night Fever.  This was probably the reason I didn't get around to buying it until five or six years after it was released - and then only because it was at a discount record store on 5th Ave. for $1.99.  But it was quite a find because it was packed with great dance tracks by Diana Ross (Lovin', Livin' and Givin' - not to be confused with Journey's Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin' ); Thelma Houston (Love Masterpiece);  Pattie Brooks (After Dark); Donna Summer (With Your Love); Cameo (Find My Way); and Love & Kisses (You're the Most Precious Thing).  These tracks all got plenty of attention at gay discos.




ONCE UPON A TIME (Release Date: Oct. 25, 1977)

I have a special place in my heart for this album because it was my first by Donna Summer, bought in the summer of 1978, when I was coming out.  I was somewhat familiar with only the single Rumor Has It, but I had a feeling I'd love the other tracks - and I was right.  It contains lush, swirling songs such as Fairytale High; Trip to Nowhere; I Love You; and Now I Need You.




DONNA SUMMER LIVE AND MORE (Release Date: Aug. 31, 1978)

A powerhouse of an album anchored by the 19-minute MacArthur Park Suite, which had the songs One of a Kind and Heaven Knows embedded in it.  The other three sides were live and included most of the tracks from Once Upon a Time, a way to expose mainstream audiences, who embraced the album as much as "the gays."  At the Monster in Greenwich Village they still play MacArthur Park Suite in its entirety every Tuesday at their classic disco night.




And my favorite of them all?  Once Upon a Time, followed by Thank God It's Friday, Sat. Night Fever and Live and More.  Don't get me wrong I like Live and More but because a lot of it was tracks from Once Upon a Time I played it less.  





Paul Jabara Pays Tribute to Fire Island with "Pleasure Island" (May 1978)




Songwriter Paul Jabara (1948-1992) is best known for Last Dance, the Oscar-winning song Donna Summer performed in the disco-themed movie Thank God, It's Friday.  Besides being on the movie's soundtrack, a version sung by Jabara was on his album Keeping Time, which was released in May 1978.  The album also included another song from the movie, a throwaway titled Trapped in a Stairway.  However, the album's hidden gem was his 10-minute paean to Fire Island, Pleasure Island:  


                Get on a boat, take a train

                    If traffic's heavy we'll charter a plane

                    Come to the island, Pleasure Island, with me


                    Walk on the beach, sit by the bay

                    Let the sunshine burn your worries away

                    Come to the island, Pleasure Island, with meeeee!


                 There's nothing like the Island to give you what you need 

                     Time, space, fantasy for free

                     Nothing like the Island, you feel so good inside

                     You're feeling satisfied


The lyrics are concentrated in the song's first few minutes, followed by moaning that is gradually overtaken by a slowly building, Giorgio Moroder-like beat.  The moans of ecstasy are somewhat reminiscent of Donna Summer's in Love to Love You Baby, except that Pleasure Island's moans come from a man.  It's an absolutely beautiful song that perfectly captures the mood of languid hours spent at the beach followed by dancing and nighttime conquests.


The Village People had released their debut album the previous year, and it also had a song that saluted Fire Island.  Simply titled Fire Island, it was an over-the-top, campy romp.  Pleasure Island, by contrast, was far sexier and had a more complex song structure.    


I didn't make my first visit to Fire Island until 1981, so these two songs, as well as Larry Kramer's novel Faggots, served as the inspiration for the images created in my mind of the place.  And, as it turns out, they were quite accurate.  (A great companion piece to this post is photographer Tom Bianchi's coffee table book of photos, Fire Island Pine Polaroids, 1975-1983, published in 2013.)