Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 11, 2017

FIRST VISIT TO A BATHHOUSE Cleveland, Ohio – November 8, 1975

It was our birthday, Jack’s and mine – I would turn 23 and he was 4 years older. He was much more experienced in the gay world, which I was only beginning, very tentatively, to enter.  It all frightened me, especially the idea that I might not just be “dabbling” or “experimenting,” but might actually be queer.


It was Jack’s idea that we should spend our birthday at a gay bathhouse in downtown Cleveland.  He had been there before and knew his way around but he didn’t really tell me anything that might have prepared me for what I would find there.  I don’t suppose there was anything he really could have said to prepare me.  I was about as timid and naive as you could get, so it took more than a little wheedling on Jack’s part to get me to go at all.  Jack and I’d had sex a couple times already and I was kind of hoping we would do it again on our birthday, but he had other ideas and I had a car.  So, after fortifying ourselves with alcohol, off to the baths we went.


Jack guided me through the arcane procedures and rituals of the bathhouse as a master might indulge a particularly slow initiate, from the speakeasy-like admission, through placing all of our valuables in a basket and turning them over to the guy at the front counter in exchange for a locker key on an elastic bracelet (which would later be placed around an ankle so as to be out the way). Then there was the locker room with its glaring, unforgiving florescent lights and all those other men getting undressed. Some of them, like me, averting their eyes and trying to be inconspicuous.  While most were already gearing up for the hunt, evaluating everyone else’s potential as sexual partners.  Their gazes were bold, cold and unafraid.  They were perusing a menu in an all-night diner, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, with an emphasis on meat dishes. Intimidated is not a strong enough word for how I felt being looked at in that way.  Never confident about my body in the first place, finding myself among so many attractive, naked men made me want to curl up into a ball and roll back out the door.  But I knew better than to try and talk Jack into leaving, it was much too late for that.  I was going to have to go through with this.


Although huge possibilities were opening up in front of me, instead of being excited my instinctive reaction was to turn tail and run, to close into myself and throw up armor. Why I was unable to view this as the incredible opportunity it could have been was certainly in part wrapped up in the image I then held of myself as an essentially heterosexual man who was simply “experimenting.” Or maybe I was a bisexual, I could almost deal with that. But that doesn’t explain it all because even a het-identified man, and certainly a self-aware bisexual, could have opened up, followed his dick and enjoyed himself.


Jack seemed so easy and comfortable with being gay.  The flamboyant costumes he would wear anywhere: black leather, calf-high boots, skin tight jeans, a billowing, lace-trimmed white blouse, make-up, sometimes including glitter (this was, after all, the glam rock era), and topped by a wide brimmed black hat with a large white ostrich feather reaching upward from the hatband (his “D’Artagnan hat,” I called it) while his beyond-shoulder-length, full, wavy dark hair exuberantly emerged from beneath.  This was not drag, it was “gender fuck” long before I ever heard the term. His tall, slender frame thus adorned turned heads wherever he went. His originality and openness attracted a group of wanna-bes and curious who followed him around to bask in the outrageousness of the spontaneous performances he could slip into at any time.  These admirers were mostly, but not exclusively, male and seemed to be a fluidly defined mix of straight, gay, bi and the intensely confused, of which I was firmly in the latter category.


I don’t think it ever even occurred to Jack that I might be straight, he just seemed to assume I was queer.  Did everybody presume I was queer?  My grandmother used to emphasize how important my reputation was, I must never do anything to damage my reputation, the family’s good name.  What had I done?  What was I doing?  Was it obvious to everyone but me?  So those kids in grade school who called me “faggot” and “sissy” while they beat me up were right after all? No, that I could not accept – not yet anyway. That would take another 15 years of drinking and denial.


Philosophically I carried all that well-intended 60’s hokum around inside me. “If it feels good, do it,” “love the one you’re with,” and “try everything at least once” were the guiding principles I had, at least outwardly, adopted as my own.  But I was then, as I remain, actively haunted by a small army of vicious Catholic guilt gremlins using every means possible to sabotage any pleasure I might get out of life which is not pre-sanctioned by the currently reigning pontiff and endorsed by my Italian grandmother’s ghost.  I would be unable to feel comfortable in a gay bathhouse for years.  And I never truly felt I fit in, even when doing my best to take full advantage of everything it had to offer.  Note that I refer to every “thing” not every “one.”  The bathhouse for me was not really an experience shared with other people, but a practically onanistic activity which happened to occasionally  involve other bodies – warm, active, and decidedly male bodies.  In the bathhouse it always seemed that we were essentially using each other as props and tools for masturbation – pornography as live, participatory theater.


Jack obligingly gave me the guided tour.  From the locker room we entered a sort of central lobby with a bar where one could purchase soft drinks, snacks and, if memory serves, beer and maybe wine. Some café tables and chairs were scattered about and off to one side against a wall was a large, sunken hot tub with a small fountain gurgling and steaming. From there we entered a series of corridors lined with doors, each of which opened onto a small room equipped with a single bunk and tiny side table (with small dark bottles of amyl nitrite on most of them) and nothing else except a few hooks on the walls. Some of these doors were open and the men inside were seductively displaying themselves on the bunk or posing in the doorway. Everyone was cruising everyone else and making instant decisions about momentary encounters.


Throbbing disco music permeated the place like the stink of a dead skunk under the house. The black walls seemed to pulse to the hip-thrusting, bass heavy rhythms that made the floor seem as though it were undulating, urging my feet forward toward the next potential partner.


We walked through orgy rooms where men were engaged in acts and combinations of acts of which I’d only read descriptions or, at best, seen as photographs in porno magazines.  Confronted with all of this open eroticism I found myself trying not to get a hard-on.  Was my body remembering the humiliation of Miss Schwartz calling on me in 7th grade and being required to stand up with my pants tenting out from the erection I couldn’t suppress and knew everyone would see?  Or maybe I was just afraid that I wouldn’t measure up to what was already on display.


So there I was in this distinctly strange place, barefoot and wearing nothing but a thin white towel wrapped around my waist, which I frantically held together lest it come loose and fall leaving me exposed – which was, of course, the idea. I followed Jack around like a frightened five-year-old in a crowded department store holding tight to his mother’s skirt for fear that she might disappear into the mass of mindless shoppers and never be found again.  I’m sure I was being a pain in the ass and seriously inhibiting his abilities to score and I knew that eventually he would have to separate from me, after all if he’d wanted to have sex with me we’d have just stayed at his place and saved our money.


Finally he took my arm and said, “Let’s go in there,” pointing at a darkened doorway.  I followed him into a crude labyrinth of increasingly darker passages lit only by very dim bulbs (of which, in retrospect, I was clearly the dimmest) shedding weak red light and which were crowded with the deeply shadowed naked bodies of men in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages.  Here Jack managed finally to elude me, vanishing into the crowded darkness like the ghost of a shadow.  I imagine he thought that this darker and even more anonymous setting would be sure to break through my determined and unaccountable reluctance to have fun.


Thus did I find myself abandoned, unable to move without touching another naked man somehow, somewhere – and they were touching me back.  But while I was touching them because I could not find a way to move without doing so, their hands danced upon me with more experienced intent, seductive and determined.  There were strange hands stroking my back, chest and arms, foreign bodies rubbing languorously against me like two-legged cats passing. There was no place to withdraw, no unoccupied corner into which I could back up and fight them off.  Then one of them grabbed my towel and yanked it off.  I spasmodically clutched and held onto it like the last tatter of a childhood security blanket – which, in a twisted way, it had become. Hands were now aggressively exploring my cock and balls and ass in ways I had always desired but been too terrified to admit even to myself. I half-heartedly swatted at them like flies or mosquitos, but they just kept coming. And this was where terror won out over desire.  Fear of this overt and very available sexuality all around me, of being intimately touched by all these strange men, suddenly met my claustrophobia and ignited.


Claustrophobia.  I am not paralyzed by it.  It is not a major factor in my life and only certain situations seem to set it off.  I remember, in the fall of my 10th grade year, my then-girlfriend, Dawn, and I went on a hayride which was organized through a school group. In order to try and keep us from making out in the back of the hay wagon, we would stop periodically for various off-wagon activities.  One of these was a large enclosed maze made out of hay bales.  The passage through the maze was just big enough for us to crawl through. I found myself leading a group of four or five other students through this maze, my girlfriend directly behind me.  It was completely dark, navigation was entirely by touch.  But everything was going well, we were laughing, joking and having a pretty good time when I bumped up against a dead end. This is, after all, the nature of labyrinths, many dead ends and a single exit.  There was no room to turn around, the top and sides so close I could touch them all at once.  I could feel the terror rising within me like a pot of potatoes boiling toward foamy overflow and was immediately seized by an uncontrollable panic.  I knew I had to get out of there right now.  Without thinking I immediately began to move in the only direction available, reverse.  As I did, I planted my foot squarely in Dawn’s face causing her to jerk away and setting off a chain reaction of panic which quickly spread back down the line.  This was the first time I had experienced claustrophobia. I have tried to avoid any activity likely to land me in a similar situation ever since.


I had not anticipated that bathhouse labyrinth, tightly packed with bodies, lacking sufficient light and dense with hot, moist air.  The smell in there was an intricate mélange of sweat, piss, semen, alcohol, chlorine, poppers and a soupçon of shit.  It all had me so disoriented I no longer had any idea how I had gotten in and by implication how to get out. I could feel the panic beginning to rise just like in the hay maze. I wanted to leave and I wanted to leave right then.


I tried to find Jack, the only person in the whole damned place I knew and thought I could trust.  I called out for him, quietly at first, hoping he was near, but  Jack, probably long gone, failed to respond and as the panic intensified my calls grew louder, more frantic, more desperate – that was when it began.


First one or two of the guys closest to me began to echo my cries in a fey, mocking fashion: “Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…” Then it was picked up by others until it seemed that the whole dark, red-tinged labyrinth was full of naked men mocking my fear.  The air was filled with bouncing echoes of “Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…” in an endless range of vocal timbres, tones and inflections mixed generously with derisive laughter and underneath it all punctuated by murmured comments like “come on over here honey, I’ll jack it for you.” Swirling all around me: “Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack…Jaa-ack….” like a primitive special effect from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”


To make it worse the intoxicating smell of all those male bodies in that narrow space, their fluids rising toward eruption, and the ever-present groping of eager, anonymous hands left me, in spite of my fear, denial and best efforts at suppression, with a major boner which humiliated me nearly as much as the taunting. These days I’ll bet that bathhouse smell could elicit a nostalgic erection all by itself, but that night it only added to my panic.


I had to get out of there.


Eventually a kind soul appeared, took my hand and led me toward the exit, which had not been all that far away.  I’m sure the labyrinth was much smaller than my memory insists and those horny minotaurs therein nowhere near as numerous, but at the time its passages felt endless and its habitués innumerable.


I found my way back to the central lobby area, a gathering place for those seeking rest and respite from the constant sexual activity and cruising.  It was better lit than most of the place, though not as garishly as the locker room, where I made a quick dash for cigarettes and cash, got myself a beer, and settled into the hot tub, trying to relax.  I closed my eyes and pretended I was alone, despite the occasional inquiring foot stroking my legs.  When I began to prune I got out and moved over to one of the tables where I could chain smoke and drink and try to forget the humiliation of what had happened in the labyrinth.  I figured that at least, as dark as it was, it would be unlikely that anyone from the labyrinth would recognize me out here, or anywhere else for that matter. I was angry with Jack for abandoning me and considered leaving him there and going home. But I couldn’t really stop looking at all the beautiful male bodies casually on display, even there, on more-or-less neutral ground, men would sit with their towels draped over one knee or over the backs of their chairs leaving themselves completely exposed.  I kept squirming in my seat and adjusting my towel to try and conceal the aching boner that just wouldn’t go away.


And that was how Jack found me, morose with my beer and cigarettes.  He was glowing and grinning, satisfied but still up for more.  He got a beer, sat down and listened as I related my traumatic labyrinth experience, which seemed to both puzzle and amuse him.  Of course, I wanted to leave but let him talk me into staying a bit longer, after all maybe if I got drunk enough, maybe… When I did begin frequenting bathhouses in San Francisco in the early 80’s it was always under the generous auspices of alcohol – I could never bring myself to do it sober, of course I was seldom sober at all back then.  We agreed to meet in the same spot in another hour and Jack returned to the hunt.


I recall making small talk with a couple of guys after that, including the bartender, but I have no recollection of what might have been said nor of having sex that night in any way, shape or form other than the groping in the labyrinth. Of course, as dense as I was, any one of those guys could have been coming on to me and I’d never have figured it out – I still can’t.  When Jack returned, finally sated, we had one last drink and talked for a short while before getting dressed and leaving.  We didn’t have much to talk about at that point.  He found it difficult to believe that I had not engaged in any sex that night at all – wasn’t that why we were there?  I dropped him off at his place in the early morning hours and then headed back though the nearly deserted Cleveland streets to my parents’ house in the west side suburbs.


I’m sure I disappointed Jack that night, with my clenched refusal to indulge in the carnal pleasures he had offered to me as a birthday present. It is more than possible that he took me to the baths that night as a way to get rid of me.  Until the mid-80s to early 90s, when I became more acclimated to casual sex, I tended to fall in love with nearly everyone I had sex with, panting around after them figuring that if they’d done it once, why not twice, why not three times, why not forever?  I suppose that it was another manifestation of those little catholic voices lodged within me like inoperable tumors trying to have their way.  It just seemed that sex was OK if you were in love but not if you weren’t – right? So if I wanted to have sex with someone it followed that I had to be in love with them.  But while he certainly fascinated me, I’d never met anyone like him before or since, I don’t remember ever thinking I was in love with Jack.


In the end I disappointed myself that night.  Since an erection is hard evidence to refute, it appeared that I really might be a queer, it just looked like I wasn’t going to be very good at it.


  1. As often is the case with you, it’s all so familiar.

  2. Thanks for sharing this memory, which might be a more-detailed nightmare about what my first time might have been like had I gone to the baths at a younger age.

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