Oh, For My Bath! To My Psychotherapist, Dan
In 1989, poet and writer Dennis Rhodes wrote a series of candid letters to New York psychotherapist Daniel Bloom. In this essay, Rhodes reminisces about the New York baths scene in the mid-seventies. Rhodes has been living with HIV since 1991.
I always thought it amusing that to get to the Club Baths, one had to take the "F" train. While others (many others) found their pleasures via Mr. Ellington's "A" train, I, to paraphrase Robert Frost, took the train less traveled by. And that certainly made all the difference!
For me, the Club Baths represented perfect freedom, if there's any such thing. It was a young homosexual's equivalent of a bachelor party, or the infamous Chicken Ranch in Nevada.
The Club Baths was not the only game in town, but it was the best game. Had it been a casino, it would have been Monte Carlo, with its competitors strictly Las Vegas glitz. I never cared for the other bath houses. They were sleazy.
Let me paint a little picture of the Club Baths.
It was down in the ABC's (I think Avenue A at Second Street), right next to the Ortiz Funeral Home. Uneasy neighbors? Perhaps. Housed in what I'm sure had once been a run-down tenement, the Baths had five floors. There was a very small entrance/reception area and behind a window sat a clerk. It was impossibly crowded on Saturday nights. Invariably, I'd be in line, clutching my ten bucks, hoping the rooms weren't gone.
It was prestigious to have a room as opposed to a locker. The older, (past thirty) more affluent types all had rooms, and so did the handful of 21-year-olds like myself who liked to do things right, who had class. You could feel the sexual tension, the social electricity, the minute you walked in off Avenue A. It was palpable. As I waited patiently in line, I felt a thrill each time the door to the inner sanctum opened to admit another patron. Before the door slammed shut, I'd catch fleeting glimpses of lithe, lean young bodies draped in snow-white towels at the waist. Bodies in waiting. You see, this place was like an embassy. It was inviolate, sovereign territory. It represented the force, the feeling, the joy, the newly defiant state of being that was homosexuality. Once inside, you were not a stranger in a strange land. You were, in fact, a rare prophet honored in his own country.
For me, being there on those Saturday nights were the first firm, sure steps on what was to be a long road ahead toward personal liberation. Not sexual liberation. Emotional liberation. And more than anything, the sense of escape, of exotic abandon, was irresistible.
As a child, the adults "responsible" for me wandered off to do their thing: my father to die; my mother to get ill; my grandmother to explore carnal horizons; my brother to brood and nurse his own wounds.
BUT HERE WAS SOMEPLACE I WAS GOING. Me. A place that I, for the very first time in my life, wandered off to. AND NO ONE KNEW WHERE I WAS. I was beginning to turn the tables of my life. In the exhilarating, devil-may-care confines of the Club Baths.
There was a method to all of the madness. There was protocol; there was etiquette. There were unwritten codes of behavior. Since no Moses has yet let the homosexuals out of Egypt, no rules were inscribed in stone tablets. Nevertheless, those rules there were, were observed. For instance, when you could talk to someone, or when you could touch someone, or when you should just fuck off.
What I did, in fact what I do today, was find someone I liked, exchange pleasantries and induce him to come to my room. Isn't that simple? Sometimes it was, but sometimes I had to stand in one place in a narrow hallway for an hour while the Whirling Dervish of my affections passed by again and again. Finally, he'd stop to talk. And back in my room, which was really a small two-by-four cubicle, once the door was closed, I forgot I was at the Baths, and I acted as if me and this guy had just come home from a lovely night on the town, a fabulous date. Only the towels destroyed the pretense. Clearly, we had not just come in from the Opera!
No, none of the raunchy, down-and-dirty elements of the Baths for me. This was my Club, genteel, dignified. I was the friendly native who snapped the photos of tourists. In the basement of the Club Baths was the famed Carousel Shower, outside the steam room. It was a tall, stainless steel column, majestic, with a riot of shower heads on it. The Patrons, quite naked, would huddle around the Carousel to wet down before vanishing into the steam. On a Saturday night, it would be frantic. Dozens of men, hundreds in an hour, would observe the ritual. Like the Jacques Brel song says, "I followed a naked body, a naked body followed mine. Next!"
I used to wake up on Sunday mornings in the atrium of the Club Baths, having slept on a chaise lounge in front of the waterfall. It sure sounds like some lush tropical isle, doesn't it. Bora Bora. Or the home of Miss Sadie Thompson. "Men. They're all alike."
Please remind me to tell you of the night I ran into the Dean of Seniors of my College, at the Club Baths.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.