POZLife: Life from the Infected and Effected point of veiw.

Mike Goes To The Baths

Posted by pozlife on September 29, 2006

— Notes for a piece never written.

Editor’s note: There are several interesting things about these notes:1) They’re a rare report on what was actually going on in New York City bathhouses in 1984.

2) They’re written by one of the “inventors” of safer sex.

3) They coincidentally contain tantalizing fragments of unwritten history: Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On concentrated on the San Francisco gay male community’s internal and external battles in the early days of the epidemic, but largely ignored what was going on in New York City.

4) They make reference to a number of concepts central to Gabriel Rotello’s Sexual Ecology.

©1998 the Estate of Michael Callen

I cannot actually remember the last time I went to the baths in New York City before I was officially diagnosed with AIDS in the Summer of 1982. I am certain, however, that the last bathhouse I attended was the St. Marks Baths; but what I did and how I felt about it and what diseases I gave or got, I can’t recall. My last visit to this institution which played such a significant role in my life must have occurred sometime between December 1981 (when I was first diagnosed as being severely immunosuppressed) and say, March of 1982.


Club Baths located next to Ortiz Funeral Home: how convenient. Like Sweeney Todd’s recycling center.

Entered. $17.50 ($10 to renew membership; $7.50 for a locker). Monday nite, 7:30 to 9:30. 20 people. About 8 blacks, 5 Hispanics, 2 Asians and 5 whites.

There is a bulletin board. No risk reduction information. Glass display case: aspirin, vitamins (HIM…for the sexually active male…); Ramses; petroleum based lubricant (to dissolve condoms?); poppers; cock rings, etc. Suggestion box.

In fairness, except for man in sling being momentarily fisted, I saw no unsafe sex. But everyone who was in a room was lying on his stomach; I saw no takers. [No][?] sex going on. Masturbation in porno room.

I toured the place hoping to find some info. None. I showered; I sat in jacuzzi; checked out steam room. Labyrinthine. I spoke to a black man in a room on the third floor–in the room where I first got fucked, by a man named Caleb, on a trip to NYC from Boston. Historic. Weird feelings that this was where it had all begun for me–getting fucked, that is.

The black man I spoke with was nice. Seemed about 40-45. He asked if I wanted to smoke a joint. I said no. I asked him if he lived in Manhattan. He said he lived by Geo. Washington Bridge. I said, is that 59th street. He chuckled. l68th Street. He works for Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

I sighed real deep. He asked what was the matter. I said, “I feel weird. I hadn’t been to the baths in 2 l/2 years.” It was weird to be back. I blurted out: “Aren’t you worried about AIDS?” He said, no. I asked him why not? He said he could tell who was dangerous and who wasn’t. How? He said he could just tell: they looked tired, like they’d been into weird shit, fisting, drugs. He said he was selective. I asked him if he was limiting what he would do. He said, no, he still did all the things he always had. He said he hadn’t been to the baths in a long time either, but he just somehow felt safe; he said he could tell who was sick and he was selective. I felt weird about the irony. I wanted to blurt out: Can you tell about me? Do I look like someone with AIDS? I didn’t for a couple of reasons: I wanted to find out more…what he knew of AIDS and where he’d heard about it. I asked him if he read a lot about AIDS. He groaned and said, yeah, too much. But he’s stopped reading. It was too much. I asked him if he attended any GMHC forums. He said, no, but he’d attended one at Columbia Presbyterian which was “pretty comprehensive.” There was silence.

I told him I was gonna go and to take care. He got up to leave also and said that it was o.k. He told me to relax; he said I really wanted to be here or I wouldn’t be here and that all I needed to do was relax. He said I could come back to see him later if I wanted to. He was very nice.

I made more rounds.

[Another man] cruised me. Finally, I spoke to him in his room. I sighed. He said what’s the matter. I said, aren’t you worried about AIDS? He got frightened and pulled back. He said, “My English not so good. You got AIDS or something?” I said no (I made a quick decision; I thought if I said yes, he would totally freak out; he seemed very nervous). I said that I knew there were people with AIDS who were going to the baths and that some of them only had safe sex but others probably had unsafe sex. I’m not sure he understood much of what I was saying. I asked him where he was from. He said Israel. I asked him if they had bathhouses like this in Israel. He relaxed and laughed and said “No.” We talked about Israel and the [gay] movie from Israel I had seen (he hadn’t seen it or heard of it–I couldn’t remember the name…) Finally, after silence, I said “Take care; see you around.”

I was totally demoralized. I thought of my conversations with Dennis Altman. It really is a race/class issue. It is no accident that most of the people here were blacks and hispanics.

I thought about the importance of having the pamphlets and poster translated into Spanish.

I made one last round and discovered that in the orgy room, it was very dark and a fat man was in the stirrups being briefly fisted. Others started to come in to watch. The man fisting stopped. Others milled and malingered. One man dropped to his knees to suck another, but was pushed away. I left.

As I was checking out, I decided to ask the cashier if they had GMHC’s new safe sex pamphlet. He looked at me funny and said ‘Why?” I said I was just interested, that’s all. He sighed and started pulling out drawers, moving boxes, looking for the brochures. Finally, he found one and handed it to me, took my key and towel and I left.

I felt really weird about going. In the first place, I hated giving the $17.50 to these death factories. I thought, Jack Campbell was on the board of NGTF! Some political consciousness. I thought, the Club is where most out of towners–those who most need the information–are likely to come because CBC advertises so heavily. I thought, even if they don’t have the Safer Sex Committee Poster, GMHC has been saying that they’ve had the Physicians for Human Rights poster up in bathhouses for several months. Bullshit.

I thought finally about Roger Enlow’s refusal to require bathhouse owners to display the posters and brochures. He’s wrong, that’s all. What to do? Do I go to the straight press and blow the lid off? What is my goal?

Review: I have spoken wherever possible about the dangers of promiscuity in NYC. I took my own income tax return and published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. GMHC refused to distribute it. The State of New York refused to distribute it. I attended the first secret bathhouse meeting over a year ago. I am on the Interagency Task Force and have emphasized the need for appropriate education. I am on the Bathhouse Subcommittee of the Institute’s advisory panel: should I ask for reimbursement of the $17.50?

The question is not whether or not to close; the question is how they’ll be closed!

WEDNESDAY: The East Side Sauna

I had never been to the East Side Sauna, largely, I suppose, because of its name. I had a West Villager’s chauvinistic disdain for anything even vaguely upper “east side.” I had lived for close to a year on Third Avenue and 77th and had been quite miserable. Looking back I can now see that I was unhappy during that period because I was constantly sick and desperately lonely, but at the time, it was easier to blame my malaise on geography.

Taking the E train up to 53rd street, I tried to distract myself from the pressing question of motivation by reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Still, I wondered uncomfortably, why are you going to the baths? I can only speculate and try to draw the confusion which prompted me to tour the ruins of my health and youth. First, let me confess that there was indeed an erotic component. Although I was as positive as any weak-willed human can be that I was not going to engage in any sexual activity which involved the exchange of bodily fluids (how clinical!), I was on the one hand eager to have at least some sexual response; it has been so long since I’ve felt anything approximating genital sexual desire. But on the other hand, I have been publicly asking those who still go to the baths a question which I now asked myself: how is it possible to have any health sexual response in a setting in which you know–or reasonably believe–that others around you are engaging in acts which are killing them. In his inimitable style, Richard B. compared a gay man going to the baths for unsafe sex in New York in 1984 to a Jew who returned to Auschwitz to masturbate. In my apocalyptic railings against bathhouses in recent months I had been equally reductive: bathhouses are little more than death houses; to enter a bathhouse in 1984 is suicidal and arguably homicidal. So, I wanted to have some sexual response but I was, at the same time, horrified that I might. What would it all mean?

These subtextual issues aside, the reason that I stated to those who asked was that I was going to determine precisely how responsive and responsible bathhouse owners were being in terms of educating their clientele. After having spent 6 bloody months reaching consensus (how I’ve come to hate that word) on a risk reduction poster and brochure, it had finally been produced; gay pride weekend, a contingent of concerned citizens–including Roger Enlow acting not, he assured all ad nauseam, in his official capacity as director of the Office of Gay and Lesbian [sic] health but as a private citizen–had delivered posters and brochures to all the bathhouses and a number of backroom bars. I had heard, second hand, that all of the owners had welcomed these concerned citizens–one even asked them into his office for coffee–and had indicated with great enthusiasm a willingness to cooperate in community-based educational efforts. I was suspicious.

I had also had a fight with our good Dr. Enlow at a forum on the “bathhouse controversy.” I asked him if the City Department of Health was prepared to compel bathhouse owners to put up posters and to make brochures available. He muttered and sputtered and hemmed and hawed; much to my amazement, he daringly attempted not answering the question. After much slathering about civil rights, he responded to my rather simple question with “I won’t dignify that question with an answer.” Since, as I soon confirmed, San Francisco’s Health Department does require bathhouses and backrooms to make risk reduction information available to its patrons, I am sure that the most in the audience believed that by “ludicrous,” Dr. Enlow meant “of course we will require bathhouse and backroom bar owners to make information available.” Since I knew that this was not the case, I chose to press the point again, finally compelling Dr. Enlow to admit that he believed that even requiring owners to cooperative with community based educational efforts would be “inappropriate state intervention.”

I digress.

But a major part of my motivation for doing the grand tour was to expose the utter disregard which I believe/d bathhouse owners had for the health of their patrons. I did not believe that a majority of bathhouse owners would willingly cooperate with the community’s efforts to educate people about the risks of the kinds of activities which bathhouses make a living out of promoting. To cooperate would, in one sense, simply be bad business and for all the faults of bathhouse owners, a bad business sense is surely not one of them. But cooperation was patently ludicrous on its face. What owner would willingly put up a sign right at the entrance which effectively said: “Warning: What you have come here to do–what you have just paid $10 for–may lead to your death from a horrible, mysterious, disfiguring disease.” The poster is at once blunt and equivocal: it warns “Don’t fuck without a condom, don’t get fucked without a condom; don’t suck, don’t get sucked; and don’t rim,” which by process of elimination means that masturbation and fucking with condoms are all that are considered safe.

Although the story may be apocryphal, a bathhouse owner in New York was said to have said, in response to a suggestion made early in the epidemic that bathhouses be “modified” into community centers with dance floors, libraries, t.v. rooms, etc.: “A disco is a disco and a bathhouse is a bathhouse, and people choose to go to one or the other for very different reasons.” There is a certain street wisdom here.

We announced in “We Know Who We Are” that “The party that was the ’70s is over.” Walking the halls of this bathhouse, I was more than ever convinced that this is true. The point missed by many formulating “safer sex” guidelines–and I include myself in this criticism–is that what a subset of us eroticized in the ’70s was spontaneity and abandon. In addition to the 1,000 or so gay men who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice as soldiers in the sexual revolution, we have lost a way of life. The equation has changed, but we have not–the settings have not. A demoralization and anguish of untold proportions hung in the silence of the halls at the East Side Sauna. The image that struck me was one of little boys lost–each wondering around aimlessly, looking for mommy or daddy, holding on to his penis for what small comfort might be left in this hostile, frightening world. Each seemed utterly selfish in his despair: two men approaching one another in a hallway would, in an instant, search the face of the other for some sign that contact, comfort was possible and not finding it, would pass without a word onto the next candidate. The eyes seem to beg: is it you? Are you the one who will love me?

Perhaps I project. But perhaps not. The expressions haunted me. I had seen them–or expressions quite like them–somewhere before. It was only later that I remembered where: in the endless Life magazine photos of children of war. The look is one of innocence incongruously overlaid with a profoundly adult sense of loss–the loss of a culture, a way of life.

Anyway. Back to motives. It’s interesting that as I was walking to 56th street from 53rd street I passed someone that I know. He, naturally, asked me what I was doing on the Upper East Side. Instinctively, I lied. Furtiveness, as an aphrodisiac, is an old trick. “I’m going to see a movie.” “Oh, what movie?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I lied. “I thought I’d see what was playing.” I’m sure he thought me odd, but ultimately believed me. Why didn’t I just tell him: I’m going to the baths to see if they have a poster up?

I didn’t tell him because I assumed he would smirk and smile as I’m sure some who are reading this will do: “Yeah, and if you believe that…” It was simply too difficult to explain and it sounded so…cheesy. Spying? Voyeurism? Sex? Most people, I’ve found, want to believe the worst about others; it seems only natural.

* * *

The East Side Sauna is 70’s high tech–which means grey industrial carpet covering platforms and walls, tasteful indirect (is indirection the hallmark of gay style?) lighting and the artful use of mirrors. All bathhouses are labyrinthine and the image of experimental rats running a maze for some imagined reward only to receive an electric shock for a wrong turn would not be inappropriate.

Since there was no price difference between a locker and a room purchased for 4 hours (as opposed to 8), I purchased a room. Or rather a cubicle. 6 x 5, plywood walls (painted grey, of course), and the ubiquitous dimmer. I went from 7:30 to 9:30 and the place was packed. At certain bathhouses, you can get some sense of how crowded it is by counting the number of keyholders which have keys hanging from them (representing empty rooms) versus the number which have signature cards with check-out time noted on them (representing rented rooms). I counted 15 across times 6 rows, with some miscellaneous key holders for a total of approximately 100 available rooms (this excludes lockers). Of this, I would estimate that 60-65 were occupied. In short, the place was packed. After undressing, I headed for the “wet area”–which, compared to the facilities at other bathhouses, is a pathetic shower area approximately 8 x 8′, a steam room (without much steam, of course) and a dry sauna (without much heat) and a toilet where water drips on you from the ceiling. (A towel on the floor is supposed to soak up the dripping water, but instead is squishy and gross with urine.)

I showered (two of the 6 showers didn’t work–tradition must, after all, be upheld). I entered the steam room and chatted with a man who must have been 50. He seemed like a businessman. He was wearing his glasses in the shower. I told him that I had never been here before. I asked if this was unusually crowded. He said, no, that actually I had missed the peak crowd. The best time to come, he instructed me, was between 4:30 and 7:30 when the businessmen come in before going home.

I asked him if he was afraid of AIDS. He said, yeah, everyone is. I asked him if he had changed at all as a result. He said, he he makes his partners wear condoms. They don’t always like it but he insists. He also said he has cut down on the number. He was very friendly.

When I left the shower, this Asian man (drunk?) came up and started fondling my penis. I pushed his hand away and said “No thank you.” He persisted. I was more forceful: “I said, no thank you.” He persisted. I pushed his hand away again and said “I said, stop!” He looked at me and smiled and then said “your dick was too small anyway.” And turned and left. I thought here is the paradox: One second, you are trying to have intimate relations with a stranger and the next second you are insulting him. How gross! Women, of course, endure this kind of shit all the time when they tell men who are whistling and clucking and making suggestive remarks to fuck off. The men immediately say: Dyke. You were too ugly anyway. I wouldn’t fuck you if you were the last goddamn….

I recalled from the secret bathhouse meeting that the managers of the East Side Sauna had seemed particularly eager for any risk reduction information. They had asked for a copy of “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.” And so I was surprised not to find any AIDS materials. In the TV room there was a Greater Gotham Business Council brochure and the hepatitis B brochure. On a bulletin board just outside this room there were various community announcements (an ad for tickets to an Alvin Ailey concert, the gay Front Runners, etc.) but nothing about AIDS. I found out subsequently that the East Side Sauna had not been given the materials, but still, they could have/should have had the GMHC NYPHR posters which GMHC has been claiming have been available for 3 months.

The only “unsafe” sex I saw was one man fucking another without condoms in a room with the door open. I heard grunts coming from behind the doors to two other rooms and I saw two men embracing in the hallway and then disappear into a room, but on the whole, I would have to acknowledge that there has been a significant change in behavior, judging from what I remembered about bathhouses from the past.


On Saturday, June 31 [sic], I went to the Everard. I called up R. Berkowitz to ask him to go with me but he refused; he was candid. He was afraid he would be tempted to do something and he didn’t want to be tempted. Honest enough. But somehow I didn’t want to go alone. And I could hardly ask Richard Dworkin to go and not do something.

So I went alone. Although I’m sure that those who know me will find it difficult to believe, it is nevertheless true that I had never been to the Everard. I recall going in search of it once and being unable to find it. I must have been looking on 27th Street rather than 28th Street. Or else I must have looked between 6th and 7th rather than between 5th and 6th,.

Anyway, the Everard has the reputation for being the serious, get down, hot-sex-pig bathhouse in the city. The serious pigs go there. It was, true to its reputation, filthy. I recall particularly how greasy were the stair rails (but then that was true of all the baths). It is mostly concrete, painted an institutional grey. The smell of mildew and mold actually overtakes the smell of poppers and sex. This is quite unusual and owing, I’m sure, to its age. The interesting history of the Everard is recounted in the opening section of Larry Kramer’s Faggots and is the location of the infamous felching scene. To be unkind, my impression was: so this is where the dinosaurs come to die. The clientele was old and ugly. I saw the fattest gay man that I have ever seen, dead to the world and snoring with his door open at the end of a hall. In what must at one time have been an orgy room, a dozen or so men slept, also snoring loudly. I was startled to notice heterosexual porn pinups taped to the inside of the attendant’s station on the third floor, more or less confirming the rumor that the Everard is owned and run by straight men. My first impression was that I was lucky I had never discovered the Everard before because if I had, I would undoubtedly be dead now. It’s atmosphere is so…serious. The reputation is that St. Marks is full of poseurs while the Everard is for those who want to get down to action with others similarly disposed. I did notice that gentlemen who I considered to be more attractive welcomed, or at least did not rebuff, the advances of men who were, by any standards, much less attractive. Such unselective assignations would have been out of the question at St. Marks.

I was startled upon entering to see numerous signs from “The Management.” No drugs. We reserve the right to refuse admission to anyone… (Get exact language.) Most intriguing was the right reserved by the management to refuse admission to anyone with “a rash or open sores.” It also encouraged patrons, “in the interest of hygiene,” to shower “between contacts.”

Down in the steam room, the smell of mold and mildew were overpowering. The swimming pool was deserted and did not look particularly inviting. I wondered if anyone swam in it. In the steam room, one man was fellating another; the man being sucked was fingering the other’s asshole. Without a word being spoken, he allowed the man who wanted to fuck him to push and twist him into whatever position he found pleasurable. The man getting fucked actually seemed distracted and disinterested. Then, without the benefit of lubrication or even spit, the man being sucked began fucking the other man.

I CAN’T TAKE THIS MUCH LONGER. I’m depressed and grossed out.


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