Cruising is one of the oldest aspects of queer male culture.
Through the eyes of Friedkin or Maupin, vilified or glorified, it’s always been around. From a sideways glance to consummation, its intuitive ritual can be found everywhere, from on the street to a pew at Sunday Mass.
In my early 20s, I did my fair share of field work in this department. Somehow, it seemed marginally safer than hooking up online, based on the nightmarish accounts of my friends. My queer consciousness was groomed on early gay writings, and cruising seemed sort of a rite of passage, an entitlement that I received along with my desire for people with penises. Besides, I was in San Francisco, birthplace of the “hanky-code.” As the story goes, 49ers of the late-nineteenth century were the inventors of the code. Supposedly, due to female scarcity, they’d use a colored handkerchief to determine roles at dances, among other things.
These days, I’m not as motivated to engage in the outdoor athletics of my youth, and hooking up online still mystifies me. Maybe this is what my teachers in elementary school meant when they referred to me as an “old-soul.” But somehow I doubt it.
I’ve wondered if it was even still possible to hook up as our forebearers did. When everyone’s online, who the hell is looking for action analogue-style? I guess it was time to dig out the bandanas.
I've always heard people speak highly of the Castro sex club Eros. I’d actually been to the bathhouse before, for an evening of erotic lesbian lit, so if any place felt like a safe venue to jump back into the fray, it seemed like Eros would be it.
A guy I’ve been going with asks to come along, for “a much needed massage,” which I agree to, but in retrospect, seemed like a better idea at the time. We check into the place and the staff points us to the locker rooms to change. No street clothes are allowed except for shoes, but given the alternately wet, hot nature of the establishment, I suggest bringing flip-flops. Or do as I do, and buy the supercool neon green and black ones for four dollars.
It’s early in the night and the place is a little empty, but the people who are there were already getting busy. My companion and I split ways – he wanders into a private room with a masseur and I into the maze. Eros is actually well-lit, which has the opposite effect I anticipate. Yes, it prevents the possible sloppy interlude with the human equivalent of a Ray Harryhausen creation, but it also allows you to be on constant display, which I am not quite ready for.
Television being an easy fall back, I station myself in front of the porno playing on a screen. A tall extraterrestrial creature approaches almost immediately, rubbing my shoulders and back. At Eros it appears that everyone fancies themselves a bit of a masseur, so be prepared to be touched without being asked. I remove his hand and move on, but he’s a little hard to shake. The sauna and steam room seem like possible hiding places, but I’ve never been into feeling like a soup dumpling, so constant circulation is my only recourse. Eventually, he tires of the chase and finds solace in the lap of another dumpling in the steam.
A far more attractive suitor approaches me later, but I’m already feeling a little bored by the time he’s lauding my “Indian” good looks. As he starts sucking on my nipple, I very respectfully untangle myself, just as my gentleman friend appears fresh from his massage and, apparently, a blow job served with a phone number. Cute.
By the time I show up at the corner of Church and 18th Streets later that night, it’s past 2 a.m. I’m about to walk through Dolores Park to see if its claim among the rogue’s gallery of spots for illicit action still holds true. I’m alone, but it’s wiser to bring a friend, or at the very least let someone know where you are.
As I pass the bronze statue of Father Hidalgo, I stare across the bridge to the glen on the west side of the J Church tracks and feel like Ichabod Crane. No ominous cloud-hand eclipsing the moon though, so I cross.
Toward the clearing on the north side, I’m beckoned by a little guy who’s with two friends. He tells me he is obsessed with my face, which given his tone is hard to determine if he is complimenting me or telling me he intends to eat it. He very much wants me to lie in the urine soaked shrubbery with him, but his momentary distraction with his friend’s can of malt liquor gives me enough time to escape.
Further down, toward the bridge, I see a good-looking guy in a flannel and we do the nod, look back, “what’s up,” and decide to have a cigarette.
His name is Ken and he’s a mellow sort. He’s just come from the Hole in the Wall and likes to hit the park before going home because “it’s quiet and he can chill out.” We’re lamenting the late, great Eagle as other guys come and go, copping feels, before rejoining the thickening traffic on the path.
Ken and I talk a little bit more – about where we’re from, what we do, his community involvement, favorite parts of the city – and I feel like I’ve got enough of a read: not an axe murderer. After a pause he asks me over to his place. We decide to leave the undulating glade as the breeze whips up the melody of drunken hipsters cackling in the darkened park beyond.
I decide to go out one more night and check out one last spot. I head for SoMa’s Powerhouse on a Friday night for promoter Walter Gomez’ “Steam” night. This bath time, though, I take solo.
Bars are less intimidating by nature and there really isn’t any commitment beyond a cover charge and possible hangover, so parties like this are good for anyone who wants a trial run. The Powerhouse has been doing some swift business in the dirty party department these days, with its spacious, multilevel digs and its dark “back alley,” where all sorts of nonsense goes on.
As I walk in, there is Walter, like a little bumblebee in a jockstrap, buzzing about his garden of men. I also run into a friend, Brett, and we chat and knock a few back before checking out the alley. Brett claims he never sees anything go on back here, but last time I was here I saw someone getting rammed over a trash can. Although it’s a “bathhouse” night, not too many patrons seem to have utilized the clothes check, but a go-go boy gyrates in a hand towel on our way back. And, there are a few hankies here and there.
Tonight, it’s mostly hands and wayward mouths, although the majority of guys in the back are getting most of their oral gratification in tobacco form. A shirtless barback comes by every once in a while to blandly tell everyone to put their dicks back in their pants, which is something to bear in mind if yours has a tendency to escape your trouser.
The final event of the night is a wet towel contest at which time we are handed spray bottles of hot water. Brett and I join the rest of the crowd nearest the stage to play duck hunt with the guys on stage. Most of the performers, who seem to be under the power of some liquid courage, have forgotten they’re on parade and start wandering around like lost tourists. But one guy definitely has found his niche, and relishes in the sprays of water like so many flashbulbs.
As the clock nears one, the well-greased crowd begins to pair off or saunter out the door. Nights like this are more about priming the pump, and at this point, for some the pressure is at tilt. I came alone and am leaving so, but others are making their final calls, scribbling numbers, and giving those nods. Out to the parks, tearooms, or just plain old apartments, out into our own little city of night.
Eros is open seven days a week and features plenty of non-sexual activities. And, no, oral gratification is not a service offered. “Steam” is the last Friday of the month at Powerhouse and is one of a cavalcade of parties catering to dirty boys of various kinds.
Sex in public is against the law, but we live in San Francisco and so are lots of thing that people do in public. Though, their well worn days seem behind them, usual spots include Dolores Park, Buena Vista Park, The Queen Wilhelmina and Murphy Windmills, Land’s End and Collingwood Playground.
Remember to play it safe, kids, and pack more then just a hanky in that pocket.
Photos by Sasha Gainor & Nicholas Navarro