Monday, March 8, 2021

My First Bath House

Rock Island, June 3, 1983

I'm 22 years old, home from grad school in Bloomington, along with my friend Viju.  We've seen most of the sights in the Quad Cities, and I'm running out of ideas.

"We could go to the Amana Colonies, or to Starved Rock State Park...."

"You know what I always wanted to do?" Viju says.  "Go to a gay ghetto!"

I knew the term from The Advocate.  A neighborhood, a place where gay people can live in freedom, not hiding,   With bookstores stocking only gay-themed books!  Community centers!  Organizations!  Gay people walking hand in hand down the street!

According to The Advocate, there are seven gay ghettos in the U.S., in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, and -- Chicago -- the nearest big city to Rock Island, about three hours away.

June 4th, 11:00 am

Viju and I take Interstate 80 to the 94, get off at the Loop, and drive up Lake Shore Drive to the North Side, to a sliver of streets between Clark and Broadway that our Gayellow Pages tells us is clustered with gay places.

We check into our hotel and walk around.  It's a little disappointing.  No gay couples walking hand-in-hand, or newsstands cluttered with gay magazines, or...well, anything.  It looks like a standard suburban neighborhood with small shops, restaurants, gas stations, a drug store. A lot of male-female couples.

You have to look carefully to see the gay presence.  Same-sex couples walk in pairs, close together but not touching.  Young single men are walking dogs, buying groceries, jogging.  

There are bars with closeted names: My Brother's Place, Closet, Carol's Speakeasy.

I want to go into Yosemite, which has a placard outside with  Yosemite Sam pointing a phallic gun in the air.

"Who is that?" Viju asks.  "Is he gay?"

"He's a cartoon character, one of my childhood icons.  On the placard of a gay bar!"  The gay and straight worlds are so complete separate, with such impermeable boundaries, that it is shocking to see an icon of one in the other, like seeing a unicorn on Main Street.

"Sounds stupid.  We'll go to another bar, something hotter, like the Glory Hole."

12:00 pm

It's too early for the bars, so we have lunch at Hamburger Mary's, a restaurant listed in The Gayellow Pages.  It has a picture of a big-breasted woman on the placard, but inside it's crowded with young buffed men, many reading Gay Chicago magazine.

Then we go to Gay Horizons, a community center, actually a small storefront.  There are fliers about AIDS support groups, drug and alcohol support groups, a political club, the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay synagogue, clubs for runners and square-dancers!

I grab Viju's arm.  This is amazing!  A year ago, I had no idea that any gay organizations existed except for bars.  This is a whole gay world, open, out there, only slightly closeted.

Of course, none of the groups meet on Saturday afternoon.  

2:00 pm

Seven hours until the bars get busy.

"Let's go to the Museum of Science and Industry," I suggest.

"No!  We came to see a gay ghetto, and that's what we're going to do."

"But there's nothing open on Saturday afternoons."

"Here --"  he showed me the listing in The Gayellow Pages.  "Man's Country.  A bathhouse, open 24 hours."

I read about bathhouses in gay novels.  "No way!  They're dangerous.  Old guys grab you while you're sleeping."

"So who says we'll be sleeping?"

It's an older 2-story building on Clark Street, far north of the gay ghetto, almost in Evanston.  We pay for two lockers and go through a green door into a vast expanse of black and chrome, dimly lit, with a musky smell.  

2:30 pm

We take off our clothes, wrap towels around our waists, and walk through a maze of small cabana rooms.  Some of the doors are open; we peer inside at guys with their penises or butts in the air, waiting.

Therer's a sauna, a steam room, a small gym, and a room with glory holes.  Guys in towels kissing and going down on each other.  A couple doing anal while a crowd watches.

2:45 pm

An older guy -- way old, probably in his forties, with a hairy chest and beard -- is receiving oral sex from a kid our age.  Viju and I watch.  Suddenly the Kid reaches out, pushes my towel aside, and goes down on me, then both of us in turn.   Hairy Chest pulls Viju close and kisses and fondles him.  

When Hairy Chest finishes, he walks off without a word.  The Kid stands and walks off, too.  

I glance at Viju.  "Not a lot of conversation, is there?"

3:00 pm

I say "hello" to a very young guy, college age or younger, sitting by himself in the lounge.  He says "I'm resting."

3:15 pm

In the steam room, I go down on two guys without learning either of their names.  While I'm working on the second,  an anonymous hand starts fondling me from behind.  I turn and say "Hi!" to a buffed blond in his 30s.

He looks flustered and walks away.

"What's the point of being around a bunch of gay men if you never talk to any of them?" I say in a loud, angry voice. I stomp out.  Viju, who has been working on a thickly muscled Hispanic guy, follows.

"Do you want to go?"

I put my arm around him.  "No.  I came here to meet guys, and I'm going to meet some."

"Maybe they're just here for sex, not talking."

"Well, I'm not leaving until I have a conversation with someone."

3:30 pm

I lower myself into the hot tub, where two middle-aged men are chatting, and introduce myself.  They give me bar-style Attitude.

3:45 pm

I go to the front desk, where an older guy is browsing among the sex toys and lubricants for sale.  He's in his 30s, very muscular, with a hard smooth chest and a military-style buzz cut.

"Hi, I'm Boomer, from Rock Island."

"I'm resting," he says without looking up.

"Me, too.  But my friend and I are visiting, and I was wondering if you could recommend a nice bar?'"

"That depends on what you're into.  Leather, bears, twinks, hustlers?"  

"A bar where you can actually sit down and have a conversation with someone."

"Oh, a piano bar!"  He glances at me, smiling.  "You don't look old enough to be a daddy.  Let me give you a taste of the real Chicago.  You and your friend meet me here at 9:00."  He writes an address down on a slip of paper.  "My name is Mike, by the way."

The address he gives is for Yosemite.  It turns out to be a cowboy bar, actually named after the park.

10:00 pm

Yes, we did go home with Mike, but I don't remember much about the bedroom activity.  My biggest memory is seeing a cartoon character from my childhood in the gay world. 

See also: The Shy Boy at the Bathhouse; Three Days of Cruising in Chicago


  1. Thanks for sharing a great memory, my blogging buddy! Love and naked hugs!

  2. It was actually Viju who made contact with Mike, but I thought it would work better for the story to give myself the honor.

  3. I pretty much assume all of Bugs's antagonists are secretly gay. They all go on dates with him.



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