NYC’s Leather Scene: Gone But Not Forgotten
Once upon a time, there was a sign stenciled in white on the black wall of the tight, SRO-style john at one of NYC’s sleaziest West Village bars, the Spike. “Don’t Flush for Piss.” That sign said it all.
True, you can still find vestiges of the Sleaze Factor and echoes of the glory days of the seventies, eighties and nineties in Manhattan’s new Eagle, which opened shortly before I moved to Florida in 2002, or Fort Lauderdale’s Ramrod leather bar. But for real authentic sleaze you’d have to take a time machine back to New York City’s West Village Sleaze Alley threesome, the Spike, the Eagle and the Lure.
For anybody in the leather/levi scene of decades past and living in New York, visiting these bars on a Friday and Saturday night was a given. You wouldn’t just visit one of them even if essentially the same guys frequented all three. You’d have your early evening beer at the Rawhide in Chelsea (for those of us who came in from the ‘burbs parking in the West 20’s was saner). But by 11ish you were trotting your levied ass (or bare one if you were wearing chaps under your trench) down to West Street. The streets were dimly lit and kinda scary to be honest, but you didn’t care. You were butch (with no shirt under your leather jacket on a 10 degree NYC January night so your tits were all perky for your grand unveiling in the bar) and about to enter Manhattan’s Butch Zone. The “S” bars were all within reasonable walking distance of one another, so making the circuit was easy even with the wind blowing in your face.
And when you’re Saturday night horny, four or five blocks in sub-zero weather means nothing. Remember these were the days long before you were able to connect naked in your bedroom on the web.
While the other bars of the triumvirate were a bit kinder when it came to dress code, at the Lure it didn’t matter what you looked like; if you were wearing sneakers or, Jesus, after-shave or cologne, Mr. Bouncer would turn you away.
And once you entered these temples to sleaze, there was no place, I mean NO PLACE, to move except against another sweaty body in bars the size of the men’s section at any Macy’s. The smell of man-drenched arm pits and chests, beer-laden piss, even carcasses (The Lure, in the heart of the now chic Meat Market, was once a meat packing warehouse) was everywhere. While it was nice to socialize with some buddies, cruising was the main reason you were there in this world before 24/7 cybersex. And even if it was more illusion than reality, these holes had the dingy, dreggy look as if they had been there from the early days of NYC’s pre-gay liberation when being queer meant belonging to some truly secret society of men, not a sub-cultural demographic dissected by Congress and wooed by Corporate America.
On Summer Sunday late afternoons from 4 until about 8, the Sleaze torch was handed over to the Dugout at West and Christopher. There, sweaty men, half naked men flooded the corner, searching for the one last fling or two of the weekend before Monday morning reality came crashing down on all our respective little shitty worlds.
If they hadn’t become victims of the real estate boom that transformed this abandoned sector of New York into a new Soho, (though I understand it’s still called the Meat Packing District), NYC’s gay sleaze alley might still be with us. But alas, that was not to be. While City dwellers and tourists can still point to places like the Eagle or the Ramrod, it just ain’t the same without the West Village threesome, smelly corners of the world that every leather/levi bar today, whether it realizes it or not, is seeking to emulate, replicate, recreate.
Last fall, I visited New York City for the first time in thirteen years, and one afternoon took the subway from my two hundred dollars a night hotel in the garment district down to Sheridan Square and the West Village, my old stomping grounds. Christopher Street, the catwalk of my youth, was now more trendy than sexy, and where my seedy hangouts, the original Eagle, the Spike and the Lure, once catered to the whims of the leather/levi crowd, high rise condos sliced into the sky. The crumpling West Street piers, the site of decadent night time liaisons, were now a sleek urban park, complete with a jogging trail and tourist ferries. Ah, if only the sidewalks could talk.
As for St. Vincent’s Hospital, once a City landmark on 12th Street which ran the health care system I worked for till I left for Florida in 2002 (the system went bankrupt a few years later), it was being converted into luxury apartments.
Somewhat of a sentimental fool, I’ve used the leather motif a few times in my books like “Not In It For the Love” (Totally Bound Press) and “The Czar of Wilton Drive,” (Kokoro Press) but the philosopher was right.
You can’t go home again.
I’m just hoping some gay historian had the smarts to save the “Don’t Flush for Piss” sign in the Spike’s john before everything came tumbling down.