Most of it’s gone now, the West Village scene I knew and played in for so many years, and while Manhattan remains an international gay mecca and something of a gay marriage capital as well to the tune of over two hundred fifty million dollars in business last year alone, the sleaze and dark, dank atmosphere that made your dick quiver even before your first grope of the night is now just a memory tract.
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.
The Spike was part of the West Village Sleaze Alley threesome, which included the Eagle and the Lure, all just a few blocks from one another. For anybody in the leather/levi scene, visiting these bars on a Friday and Saturday night was not just a given, it was like going to Mass. 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 Corporate America.
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 like me 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) 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. After all, you were about to enter Manhattan’s Butch Zone.
And what awaited you was homo heaven for us rough and ready rebel boys. The smell of piss and sweaty hairy armpits to savor, even carcasses (The Lure, in the heart of the now chic Meat Market, was once a meat packing warehouse), cheap yellow lights to leer under, peeling black paint to smudge against your torn T-shirt, scraped, crumbling concrete under your boots, pool tables stained by Bud Lites, pre-cum and sweat. Hell, and all that was just the foreplay
The men, wall-to-wall men, not twinks or girls, but men, they were the draw, they were the drug, and an art lost to hook-up sites and phone apps – cruising – was alive and well. You didn’t see any polo shirts and $100 designer jeans. The more ragged the better – after all, your T-shirt usually ended up in your belt loop ten minutes after you walked in. And 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.
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.
And if you didn’t score in the bars or one of their backrooms, there were always the baths.
Plenty of ‘em.
Ionic places like the dreggy Everhard Baths on the lower Westside, practically there for eons and probably originally a str8 Turkish bath, that in the ‘90’s was sold and turned into some kind of Korean trade mart; St. Mark’s Baths on the lower East Side, shuttered as a sacrificial lamb to the Health Department when the AIDS crisis hit; a short-lived, no name cubby hole you could walk to from the Spike for an after-bar quickie without even taking your 501’s off, that is if you didn’t stop to visit “the trucks” parked right there in the Meat Market; the West Side Club (still there), a hang-out in my day for a younger, more stuck-up crowd; or the East Side Club (also still around), way up in the 50’s whose more seasoned men were worth the cab ride, at least some of the time.
But probably the best sex bargain in town was Man’s Country, open for only a short time in the 70’s, where everybody was young, just like me, and where, on a Tuesday night, $2 could buy you a locker and four hours of almost nonstop fun. It was there that I was introduced to poppers which I have been psychologically addicted to, and associate with sex ever since.
Twenty years later, Wally, who founded and owned the late beloved Lure, NYC’s premiere leather bar, turned a warehouse in the West 20’s into a whorehouse for men par excellence. There you could play on a Wednesday or Sunday evening (after hitting the Village bars) and leave ninety uncivilized minutes later like a choir boy with caked cum on your goatee.
The Lure and his sex club died when Wally did just before I left NYC for SoFlo in 2002, but if they hadn’t become victims of the 2000’s that transformed the Meat Packing District into a new Soho, NYC’s gay sleaze alley might still be with us. While today’s City dwellers and tourists can point to survivors like the Rawhide and Ty’s (sorry, guys, I don’t put NYC’s 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.
The last time I visited the Village was in 2010. I had a two hour break between Amtrak I had taken up from Lauderdale as a lark and the next train on the Metro North that would whisk me up to my PA summer home. Sure, I still saw some gay boys among the nouveau riche who could afford the six hundred thousand dollar studios, or old farts like me still hanging on to their rent control apartments. But where the Spike and Eagle had reigned now stood high rise condos, and where the Lure once ruled was now a sleek physical therapy center.
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 tore the place down.