You know what’s disappearing big time in today’s scene? The Sleaze Factor. Today, too many bars are interior designer sparkling, like they were the “after” of some Bravo house make-over show. Christ, you can even smell the fresh coat of Sherman Williams. One famous leather bar in a minor league metropolis once oozed with the S Factor but lost it recently to a mutilating, emasculating redo, and now sports perfectly purple walls and nicely stained railings straight out of a Home Depot commercial.
No, no, no! I want the smell of piss to savor, cheap yellow lights to leer under, peeling black paint to smudge against my torn T-shirt, scraped, crumbling concrete under my boots, pool tables stained by Bud Lites, pre-cum and sweat.
And though only a few bars dared to sport them, backroom dark corners where shadows sucked and fucked in porn brazen brilliance.
I want the real raw deal, the kind of dark, dank atmosphere that made your dick quiver even before your first grope of the night.
There was a sign stenciled in white on the black wall of the tight, SRO-style john at one of NYC’s sleaziest West Village bars, the Spike. “Don’t Flush for Piss.” That sign said it all.
True, you can still find the S Factor at Lauderdale’s Ramrod leather bar and our town’s Slammers sex club (though the S at both is more a re-creation like the Wild Wild West in Disneyworld), and echoes of the glory days at Philly’s Bike Stop, D.C’s Eagle, Chelsea’s Rawhide, and Christopher Street’s Ty’s. But for real authentic sleaze you’d have to take a time machine back to New York City’s West Village Sleaze Alley threesome, the Spike, the Eagle and the Lure.
For anybody in the leather/levi scene of decades past and living in New York, visiting these bars on a Friday and Saturday night was a given. You wouldn’t just visit one of them even if essentially the same guys frequented all three. You’d have your early evening beer at the Rawhide in Chelsea (for those of us who came in from the ‘burbs parking in the West 20’s was saner). But by 11ish you were trotting your levied ass (or bare one if you were wearing chaps under your trench) down to West Street. The streets were dimly lit and kinda scary to be honest, but you didn’t care. You were butch (with no shirt under your leather jacket on a 10 degree NYC January night so your tits were all perky for your grand unveiling in the bar) and about to enter Manhattan’s Butch Zone. The S bars were all within reasonable walking distance of one another, so making the circuit was easy even with the wind blowing in your face.
And when you’re Saturday night horny, four or five blocks in sub-zero weather means nothing.
So what separated the real Mc Coy Sleaze Factor bars of yesteryear from today’s S wannabes?
- Dress code: You didn’t see any polo shirt types with $100 designer jeans. Or flip flops or Bermuda shorts. The more ragged the better. At the Lure, it didn’t matter what you looked like; if you were wearing sneakers or, Jesus, after-shave or cologne, Mr. Bouncer would turn you away.
- Wall-to-wall men: There was no place, I mean NO PLACE, to move except against another sweaty body in bars the size of the men’s section at any Macy’s. Show me how many men’s bars that size are that crowded on a weekend night today.
- The smells: Sweaty arm pits and chests, beer-laden piss, even carcasses (The Lure, in the heart of the now chic Meat Market, was once a meat packing warehouse).
- Cruising – Big Time: You walk into a bear bar today shirtless and no one gives you a glance. Then, that was the ONLY reason you were there.
- A sense of history: Even if it was more illusion than reality, these holes had the dingy, dreggy look as if they had been there from the early days of NYC’s pre-gay liberation when being queer meant belonging to some truly secret society of men, not a sub-cultural demographic dissected by Congress and wooed by Corporate America.
And on Summer Sunday late afternoons from 4 until about 8, the Sleaze torch was handed over to the Dugout at West and Christopher. There, sweaty men, half naked men flooded the corner, searching for the one last fling or two of the weekend before Monday morning reality came crashing down on all our respective little shitty worlds.
If they hadn’t become victims of the real estate boom of the last decade that transformed this abandoned sector of New York into a new Soho, (though I understand it’s still called the Meat Packing District), NYC’s gay sleaze alley might still be with us. But alas, that was not to be. While City dwellers and tourists can still point to places like the Rawhide and Ty’s (sorry, guys, I don’t put the current Eagle in that league), it just ain’t the same without the West Village threesome, smelly corners of the world that every leather/levi bar today, whether it realizes it or not, is seeking to emulate, replicate, recreate.
Today, the Dugout is an abandoned rusting relic up for sale, where the Lure once ruled is now a sleek physical therapy center, and I understand an art gallery now occupies the space that the Spike called home.
I’m just hoping some gay historian had the smarts to save the“Don’t Flush for Piss” sign in the Spike’s john before they painted the wall over mauve.
Tomorrow: An Olympics Observation; Black Clergy Against Obama on Gay Marriage; Excess Baggage
And starting Sunday: a multi-part series by guest blogger Jim Binanti: Cruising and Making it in Berlin