I was upstairs at the Eagle in New York City, standing by the bar and listening to the cruising tales of this fellow I met. He was wearing a jockstrap and a leather jacket, and was one of those people who naturally invites conversation: effortlessly relaxed, and with a friendly smile and laugh that could instantly put you at ease. He was telling me about the malls he’d cruise at back in Rapid City, South Dakota, when he was married to a woman. I was always fascinated by stories like these from older guys, to remember that there was a time when being gay made you an outsider and a rebel. When did being gay become so . . . boring?
“I would go to the washroom at the mall with empty Macy’s bags and bring them into the stall with me,” he said, taking a sip of his beer. “I’d sit down and put a bag on either side of me so when I gave a guy a blowjob, they’d put a foot in each bag so that people outside the stall would only see my legs.”
“That’s brilliant,” I replied.
I had a lot less experience to draw on when it was my turn to share my cruising tales. I told him about how I came out when I was 15, right when the internet was becoming a thing. I’d spend hours jerking off to pictures I’d find online — Steve Kelso was always my favorite. By 18, I had my first gay experience via Gay.com; it happened to be with a high school teacher from my school. I never really had to cruise in real life, I explained to him. I’d either meet guys on Gay.com or chat rooms. “I realized that I was having trouble meeting people in real life,” I said. “Then one day it occurred to me that all I need to do is make eye contact and smile. That’s it. You hold the stare and keep smiling . . . that’s the most difficult part, I find. I’m kind of shy. It took me 34 years to learn this.”
He laughed. “It is that easy.”
It’s sad to think that after a few more decades of online convenience, gay men might lose the ability to communicate with one another in the physical world. It’d be the death of cruising as we know it. I hope this is after my time.
“I recently deleted all the hookup apps off my phone. I only meet people in real life,” I continued. “If I see someone interesting then I just talk to them. I’m sick of all this online shit. And so many times you spend days talking to someone, then they just back out.”
He smiled. I ordered another beer. I was certainly drunk.
There weren’t many other people upstairs at the Eagle — maybe eight or 10, and a bootblack standing around in the corner. It was the bar’s code night, so only people dressed in leather were allowed at the upstairs bar. I checked the time on my phone — it was almost midnight. “Should it be busier at this time?” I asked him.
“Should be,” he said. “Problem is, people don’t want to make the effort to dress up in leather anymore.”
I was somewhat guilty of this — the only leather I had on were leather restraints, although I did plan to take off my shirt if there were enough people.
“I went to Paddles yesterday,” I offered, hoping he wouldn’t sense my guilt. “It feels like that and the Eagle are the only two places for kinky people.” He didn’t disagree. New York had changed significantly since the ’80s and ’90s. He was pretty active in the leather scene and made an effort to keep it alive with social gatherings.
In NYC, many gay bars and clubs have moved to the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood. Some say it’s the new and more affordable Chelsea, catering to a generation of fit, pretty boys who are into pop remixes and gawking. But frankly, it’s so boring. Where are all of the rebels? In a city as massive as this, there should be more than one leather bar — preferably with people inside who are actually wearing leather.
Beside the pool tables away from the bar, I suddenly noticed a small cluster of men in leather. They were huddled in close together and were jerking each other off. One man, after a few strokes, got on his knees and began servicing the crowd. I’ve seen bouncers break sex apart before, but either no one noticed them or no one cared. I hoped the sex going on would signal the arrival of more people, but it didn’t. Even the group of men headed back downstairs after they were finished playing with each other.
“I’m going to go see what’s going on, on the first floor,” I said.
“I’ll be here,” my barfly buddy said.
As I headed down, three guys in pressed shirts were trying to come upstairs. But the bouncer, who stopped them before they could go up, was explaining that they needed to be wearing leather in order to be allowed further. They seemed confused, but the bouncer held firm: leather only. The trio turned and headed back to the main room. I followed them in . . .