A NIGHT OF SORDID DEBAUCHERY AT THE PENN-POST BATHS!
The mid-town neighborhood west of Herald Square was more interesting in the early Sixties. Two architectural behemoths – Penn Station and the main Post Office – “faced” each other on 8th Avenue. Actually, it was the rump of the old Penn Station that faced the massive colonnaded facade of the main Post Office on the west side of 8th. (For the benefit of the neophyte, there is only one “old Penn Station,” and it is the one modeled after the Baths of Caracalla.) The feeling was that you had entered a time warp on 34th Street and ended up back in the Forum in Rome. Nowadays, of course, it would have all the impact of yet another plastic and styrofoam theme park.
These two classical building marked the northern edge of a very small enclave of Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants known that the Casbah. I recall Port Said well and still have a picture snapped by the photogal.
In the Casbah, Port Said 1959.
There are four of us, all looking happy: my lover (a recently divorced man with three kids for whom I forsook family and the liberal arts — briefly); June, a small-town Jewish girl who had converted to the Methodist church in order to slip into the world of the goyim, and who later married a Jewish diamond merchant from South Africa and found it convenient forget about Methodism; Patty, a very buxom, gypsy-looking woman who played Anna Magnani type roles in productions which would have been utter failures otherwise (she once played Mary Magdalene in a play by Madelyn Murray O’Hair — no, that’s not a joke) and myself, who had yet to learn that divorced men with kids and alimony payments don't have a lot of slack to cut for self-engrossed college boys. However, there we are till this very day, frozen in the poses of fun in a souvenir snap.
The restaurants weren’t horribly touristy, Greeks and Lebanese and Syrians were a major part of the clientele. The belly-dancing and music was abandoned and the regular customers were a boisterous but friendly crowd, and eagerly concerned that “foreigners” have a good time. The Britannia was the jewel of the Casbah, as I recall.
Across from the south side of the P.O. (think it was that and not the south side of the Caracalla repro) was a quaint establishment on West 31st Street whose name is buried in a few gay archives, and perhaps at this point an even fewer number of gay hearts. It was a very tiny, very sleazy baths, whose clientele was as exotic when I went there as that of the Casbah a few blocks away had seemed.
This baths was referred to as the Penn-Post from their location in the basement of a fleabag hotel of that name. I went there a couple of years after I had disengaged myself from the gay, but not very happy, divorcé, during the era of the Wagner purge of gay bars.
Detail from Charles Demuth painting of a Turkish Bath,
the man on the right is a self-portrait of the artist.
A twenty thousand watt naked bulb lit the entrance to the baths, which was simply a beat-up metal door which opened onto a flight of stairs. At the bottom, as I recall, you entered immediately into the dorm style “sleeping” area, which also had open showers at the far end along one wall. You walked across the room and got a towel from some bored pensioner, and stuffed your street clothes into a grungy locker after evicting any reveling mice. The place had nothing whatsoever that might have suggested the remnants of decor — bare pipes crossed the ceiling and naked light bulbs created merciless deserts of honesty at random in what was otherwise Stygian gloom — it had the amenities one might expect at the landing for Charon’s Ferry and it smelled like a subterranean inlet of the Hudson. The place was Dantean...Dickensian, perhaps, if you took a more upbeat view of it.
There were only about twenty beds or so in the place and they were all jammed in together, and oddly, I thought, most of them were bunk beds — cheap metal affairs that swayed perilously when even one person was aloft and simply being meditative. Private sex was not an option. Though some of the patrons just snoozed, or were deceased perhaps, any sexual activity quickly attracted would-be participants or at least a claque of masturbating fans if you were particularly inspiring but selective with your favors.
If the Poseidon Adventure made you uneasy, the steam room at the Penn-Post would not have been for you. It may have measured twelve feet in length, at best, and was about six or a little more feet wide, though almost half of its width was taken up with a hip-high, tiled shelf which covered the pipes. Six people was a considerable crowd; when a dozen or more wedged themselves in you abandoned fantasies of a bordello near the Roman Forum or in the Casbah for a foothold on Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.
Raft of the Medusa.
Nevertheless, the New York New Year’s Eve for me was one that climaxed there, in several respects. It was goodbye to 1962, but it doesn’t really matter as the overall experience that evening still strikes me as one which should have taken place in Berlin circa 1929 with Christopher Isherwood in attendance.
I stumbled in with my best friend of that time, Alex, a Jewish Dubliner, a charming guy who believed that all of my peccadilloes were the result of a profound stupidity rather than an insensate and sordid nature. He had quite peculiar attitudes about sex. Much later, one evening in another place (the Barn, an after-hours place above the Triangle Bar), I saw him entering the “back room” and decided to surprise him with a sexual favor. After attending to him in a fashion that had elicited sounds of piggish delight, I rose from my knees to say hello and begin the evening’s more pedestrian activities.
Finding himself suddenly – and inexplicably to him – nose to snout with me; then realizing that I was none other than the recent bestower of bliss, he gasped something as silly as, “How could you?” I understood that he wasn’t inquiring about the mechanics of our recent connection, but rather — pointlessly I would have thought — the why of it. I said, “Oh, it was dark,” and left it at that. (I have no idea what ailed him, he was Irish, yes, but being a Jew he could hardly blame the nuns.)
This response seemed to satisfy him, and ever after that I had the feeling our friendship was like a two-way mirror where only one viewer really knows what’s going on, and in this case it certainly wasn’t our Alex. However, having pals who think that you’re slow-witted and guileless allows you to manipulate them into educative situations they would never dream of exposing themselves to if they had the slightest idea of what you were really about. Eventually, of course, this means you are surrounded by friends who are quite like yourself, and at that point any common sense you have tells you that you should probably be hanging around with a much better class of people. In retrospect it’s quite clear that for Alex Friendship had the same optical accessory as Justice, which, of course, is why he was with me New Year’s Eve at the Penn-Post baths.
koto and biwa
The place was jumping, there was even a bit of singing, or perhaps it was just rhythmical moaning, in addition to the usual shlook-shlooking sounds of sex. It often struck me, though, that there was music at the Penn Post Baths. The bunk beds were metal and the springs so rusted from the moisture of the showers at the other end of the room, that on an active evening it could sound as if a koto and biwa consort had been piped in for the patrons delight. I’d brought a pint of pernod with me — this was not a place where you drank the water – and after a half hour we were standing around chatting it up about Great Books with someone in a top bunk ( I'd no idea before that Alex was such a ferocious reader) while a man in the lower berth was giving him a good wash with his tongue.
As the death knell of nineteen sixty-two approached I took Alex into the steam closet. The only other occupants were a huge six foot plus individual we’d seen in a bar earlier in the evening in full leather — now revealing that Tom of Finland drew from life — and a very muscular dwarf, whose presence wasn’t as immediately apparent. (Imagine: “Arrangement of Sequoia and Bonsai.”) Introductions were handled with considerable ingenuity: the dwarf jumped up onto the tiled ledge. Later Alex remarked happily about what had been done to his hindquarters while we had all been playing Sink the Bismark, however as he didn’t have eyes in the back of his head I saw no reason to herniate his sensibilities by detailing the names and positions of the recent players. It suffices to say that neither of the two fellows who jumped his bones stood six foot plus.
The leather giant, the muscular dwarf, Alex-the-Trusting and I then went back to the rumpus room, where there were now two young English fellows who had a bottle of champagne and a little paper sack of Dixie cups. (Incredible what intrepid and resourceful travelers the English are!) They invited the four of us onto their double-decker suite, and we toasted what none of us knew was the end of an era — within months Penn Station was crashing to the ground, the Penn Post baths were closed and the Casbah vanishing. Sic transit gloria mundi.
"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
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