It took a thunderstorm and a bruised ego for me to discover that gay bathhouses are great architecture.
Two summers ago, I was showing a visiting friend the splendours of Montreal from a downtown bridge when the rain hit. Our city map disintegrated. So much for my junket. As we ran off the bridge to find shelter, I spotted Habitat 67, the gargantuan, LEGO-like housing project designed by Moshe Safdie for EXPO 67. Tourism saved!
We ducked under the 354 interlocking concrete pods, a structure intended as a model for future living in crowded cities. But no sooner did we start exploring than a security guard asked us to vamoose. We spent the rest of the afternoon slinking through the labyrinth, listening for his crackly radio and trying to stay out of sight. Sometime during our adventure, it dawned on me — when Safdie dreamed up this beast, he had a gay bathhouse in mind.
The bathhouse, it’s good design.
I’ve padded through the hallway mazes for over a decade, looking for cheap conversation, deceptively romantic sex, and closeted friends. I’ve stalked through the cellular grids of private rooms for the sole pleasure of eavesdropping on butt slaps and poorly translated sweet-nothings. The hiss of water splashing the hot rocks in the dry sauna, the roiling bubble of the Jacuzzi: the acoustics are perfect.
When bathhouse worker JP talked to me about customer behaviour, I was shocked to learn that patrons can be so negligent in these jizz palaces, and even more shocked to recognize some of my own transgressions.
“A bad customer will throw their used condoms on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling — everywhere but the garbage pail.”
“They’ll piss on the floor, smoking and butting out wherever they please, even though smoking isn’t allowed. We have adults committing a lot of childish vandalism, kicking holes in doors and breaking signs off walls, among other things. Would they do that at home? I don’t think so. I’ve even seen people steal showerheads.”
Can you blame a guy for coveting high-flow? What I mean is, Pardonne-moi mon Père car j’ai péché. This is no flippant break from my atheism — the bathhouse is as close to a place of worship as I’ll ever get. And bathhouse workers, indirectly, are ministers of orgasm. If they disappeared tomorrow, you’d have a much harder time getting off. Who else would give you free condoms and lube, anoint you with a room key, and bless you with cumloads of discretion? Not even your mom would do that for you.
Gratitude rocks. Offer to chisel the gum out of their treads, or buy them a soda (with a security seal, of course). They might be inspired to show you the bathhouse’s hidden attributes: the perfectly designed nook where George Michael once cornered a twink, showers secretly fed by an ageist fountain of youth.
JP gave me the key to my atonement.
“Show respect. Good customers tip when they come in. Most of them know we work for minimum wage. If they’re regulars, they’ll get to know our names, say hello, or give us some other form of communication. We enjoy the camaraderie, though some people abuse it. There was a guy who would ask for a dozen towels every hour, and it created extra laundry for us. Eventually, and for a number of other reasons, we had to ban him.”
For the record, I’ve never stolen a showerhead, and I’ve never asked for more than 4 towels. I have complained, however, about blueprints gone nightmarishly wrong: beds positioned under drippy water pipes and air conditioners, sex cubicles built awkwardly around structural pillars where good thrusting meant dislocating a limb. I hesitate, though, to bite the hand that jerks me off.
Louis Khan, unwitting architect of sex grottoes the world over, had this to say about his Trenton Bath House: “From this came a generative force which is recognizable in every building which I have done since.” Can the “generative force” of discreet blowjobs really have such an impact on world architecture?
The answer is shockingly obvious. The Habitat 67 housing template never caught on, and what were designed to be affordable, sustainable living spaces have since become million-dollar condos that require endless repair. Bathhouses, on the other hand, scatter the land, and lockers are available from $3 a pop.
Just don’t ask for too many extra towels, or you’ll have to get your rocks off at the Canadian Centre for Architecture instead.