I walked down Eighth Street with a tallboy of Budweiser wrapped in a brown paper bag. I was celebrating — I had handed in my resignation at work for the end of January and decided to take a trip to New York City for a few days. My friend Cameron let me stay at his place in Brooklyn since he was away on business. And besides wandering the NYC streets with an open container, I had a better way to celebrate my departure from work: heading to Paddles, the BDSM sex club in Chelsea for its Wednesday night underwear party.
It was just after 10pm as I wandered the streets in search of Paddles; it felt like the city was sleeping, which was an odd feeling for New York. Emptiness aside, I couldn’t find the club. I walked both sides of 26th Street again — I was sure this is where the club was. Maybe it had shut down? But on my second lap around, I noticed an inconspicuous grey door propped open,“250 Club” written on its face with adhesive lettering. It felt so forbidden — not the sort of place that middle America would care to understand.
I’d first heard about Paddles in the New York Times. They described the space as “fallout-shelter chic,” which I would come to learn was an accurate description. The article, however, was mainly about a unique strain of bacterial meningitis that was mainly appearing in gay and bisexual men in New York City and had left seven dead. The disease could be contracted via kissing, cuddling and other means. With such easy transmission, the strain wasn’t particular to a sex club like Paddles — but it probably made for a more sensational read, I guess.
After reading the article, Cameron suggested we see the place ourselves. Paddles was also the only BDSM club in New York that’s open to the public and caters to straight, pansexual and gay men. The queer afterhours party — the one the Times article mentioned — was on Saturday and Sunday mornings, from 2:30 to 7am. It also hosted a bear party on Sunday afternoons, a “Jacks of Color” underwear party on Mondays for men of color and their friends, and a men’s spanking party on the fourth Thursday of the month. Cameron and I hadn’t the chance to go together, so I thought to check it out on my own.
I’d known Cam for the better part of 10 years. We first met when I was living in Europe, which developed into a week-long fling. We kept in touch after that, connecting in different cities over the years. It was extremely sexual at first — we fooled around all over Barcelona, from restaurant bathrooms and backrooms to bars and sex clubs — but the last time I was in New York, we decided not to have sex. It’s not that I didn’t find him attractive, but we were both in different head spaces, so it seemed like a good decision.
I saw a lot of myself in him. Having moved from Chicago, he wasn’t close to many people in New York. Like me, he was just kind of floating through life, finding meaning in whatever came his way — he was an adventurer in his own right.
He’d been traveling a lot for work, so I had decided to tidy his place before I went out to find Paddles. As I went about his bedroom, gathering the mess around the floor and bed, I found it strangely intimate to be folding his clothes. I could almost feel his body on my fingertips, imagining his biceps and pecs in his large-sized shirts. I smelled one of them, but realized I was being a bit creepy, so I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. Still, the scent reminded me of his warm and delicate persona. He’s such a powerful looking man — tall, hulking chest, an all-American blonde. He reminded me of a navy officer from TV, but there was a fragility in him too. To me, he was the epitome of the modern gay man, and I loved him for being so genuine.
Cam was on the forefront of my mind as I entered the gray door leading into Paddles. I can’t wait to tell him about this, I thought. I slipped down the hall — with its white-painted brick walls and fluorescent lights, it looked like a crime scene. The kind of place the Times would warn you to stay away from. But I kept going, being led to dark hall with black bricks and a strange light fixture that cast a purple shine. Then down and down a staircase, to the depths of New York City . . .