Once upon a time, Chicago had Cellblock and Touche’s, two bastions of Leatherdom.
At Cellblock, a “leather only” dress code was enforced in its back bar. Just a few years ago I tried to get in with an open flannel shirt, but the bouncer wouldn’t let me. I had to hightail it back to my guest house, four blocks away, thank you very much, and switch my flannel shirt for my leather vest.
Well aging leather men is one thing; virtually no leather men is another, and that’s what I found at the Cellblock when I revisited my Chicago haunts after a four year hiatus. Just a few old timers trying to relive their youth in the backbar which no longer enforced any kind of dress code and had all of seven people in it on a Saturday night.
Up front in the main bar were a few young bears and twinks, yes twinks.
And Touché’s is no longer worth the $20 cab fare from Halstead where I was staying. What I found was as alien to its sexy leather man logo as homeless guys are to Palm Beach society. Big bears and old men, many effeminate, their nips so twisted by years of abuse that they looked like earrings hanging from their drooping tits. And on a Saturday Bear night when they offer food, I was told by a few of my web dates to keep my hands close to my sides since I might lose them in the feeding frenzy. Its backroom was not for me.
The one saving grace was the bar next door, Jackhammers, whose “backroom” basement bar, a throwback to the days of old, still had dick and ass action going til after 4 in the morning.
Then there was my trip to Seattle and its infamous Cuffs. I knew something was wrong with this picture when a drag queen decked out like Bette Davis collected my cover at the door. I counted the guys in leather like me on one hand. Most of the clientele were young gays and their girlfriends, there for the music. Atlanta’s Eagle was a notch better but not by much and its Bulldog which I remembered as a levi guy bar where you had a warm up drink before you strolled over to the Eagle was now a str8 black club.
One leather mecca certainly resting on its past laurels is San Francisco. For my long weekend in SF, I opted to stay South of Market where the bear hangouts and levi/leather bars were concentrated. My motel, a pretty sleazy Best Western, looked nothing like its website pic (we all know about web pics, don’t we guys?), but was at least 50% gay. It was abnormally warm for San Francisco, Christ, in the 80’s, and the ceiling fans (none of the rooms had a.c.) just didn’t cut it, so a lot of room doors were kept conveniently ajar. Get the drift? Walking down to the postage-stamp size pool, I realized I could have played without ever leaving the place. But the caliber of guys I spied sprawled on their beds, their sagging ass checks up or, sitting slovenly in an arm chair, swollen beer bellies pushing the sides of their leather vests out like wings, somehow didn’t justify the airfare.
Surprising to a bar fly like me, the bars were, well, kind of empty for a Friday night. So I headed – where else? – to the neighborhood sex club, and half the world’s, Blow Buddies on Harrison. I admit I had my fun, but the energy level just wasn’t there, and most of the guys acted like having sex with you was an act of charity. Could it be I had discovered a bunch of fags more jaded than me? Where else than in the City that practically invented modern gay sex, and, when AIDS raised its ugly head, nearly brought it to its knees?
Saturday night, I grabbed a cab (since Muni, their subway, stops running early) to The Castro, but what I found were not the hordes of sexy gay men I had remembered fondly clogging the sidewalks, but young straights and twinks with their girl friends lining the streets to get into glitzy clubs. It was actually hard to find the stand-up gay guy’s bar.
When I returned the following day, Sunday, for brunch, daylight revealed yuppies with their baby carriages, and pairs of older gay men shopping at the local overpriced supermarket. I imagined these guys had rented their apartments or bought their townhouses back in the ‘70’s for a song and knew that if they left now they could never return. Option 2: take the money and move to Palm Springs. The crazy prices in the ads posted on real estate office windows said it all. Castro was no longer the bohemian, live-cheap refuge of old but an upscale mainstream neighborhood. I heard later how many of the kinky shops no longer peddled their soft porn wares in their windows since the Nouveau Riche Straights had found the stuff “offensive” for their kids to see.
Sunday night saw me back in the bars near the motel. This time they were packed with bumper-car beer belly bears whose jeans were so baggy they looked like they had taken a shit in them, radical drags dressed like nuns, and a lot more non-lesbian women than I had expected.
In the end, the most indelible memory I had of one of South of Market’s leather hangouts was the two guys in radical drag dressed as nuns
Like residents of a neighborhood who live there all their adult lives, listening to “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on their deathbed ipod, San Francisco, the once fabled hottie, is aging in place.
But sadly New York City which competed with SF and Chicago as the gay leather capital of the country, is no better. The Spike, Eagle and Anvil of the notorious West Village are long gone, victims like the Lure of a changing real estate market where areas once considered shit holes were reborn as new Sohos for the chic and the moneyed and the young. Ironically, it was places like the Lure that lured people down to these once abandoned areas of the City in the first place.
Sure, I know the Eagle technically moved further up to Chelsea. I even hung out there before I left the City in 2002. I heard it’s improved since those “genuine vinyl” days and there is even some “backroom” shit going on on the roof. Hell, let’s hope so.
About the only place stateside that has reminded of the good old days is L.A’s Eagle in Silver Lake that was one of my gay tourist stops on a visit to the Left Coast in 2012. The Eagle was my second home when I did my graduate degree at the University of Southern California two lifetimes ago. The bar had changed location since those years.
Barren with only a handful of bearish graying bikeboys on Thursday and Friday night, the place was transformed to the leather haunt of my memory Saturday night. And on Sunday afternoon, its Beer Blast overflowed its outdoor patio and an adjoining lot with men, men, men, yea, some sagging, ancient leather guys, pseudo-guys who talked like girls, and a sprinkling of twinkish gawkers, but here and there the genuine article, at least for me: forty, fifty something, well put together masculine, furry bearded men.
In fact, I prided myself on Saturday night in getting picked up, with all that intense competition, by a 6 foot 2 rugged, hairy guy who told me he had a hard-on as soon as he saw me enter the bar – shirtless, as always. Yep, that hotel bed of mine did get some overtime use after all.
Next time: Is Canada’s Leather Scene Any Better?