I’d read about the place in the gay city guide that I’d been furtively thumbing through in the bookstore. This, of course, was pre-internet; a time when you had to make a concerted effort to seek out information, to listen to the whispers of other gay men in order to seek out those hidden, dark places that are a part of gay folklore: cruising grounds.
One night I finally went there. It was a large square in the centre of the city, shrouded from the pavement by tall, wrought iron fences and thick trees. Concrete paths lay on the outskirts. Then there were the man-made paths, the ground trampled down to mud by thousands of footsteps, insistent with desire, as they made their way to the walls around a small hut, which held an electricity generator, its sinister purr mingling with the growls of men who pawed at one another under the glare of a half-smashed street light.
On that first visit I’d stay all night, until the birds started to sing, the dawn light rose over the office buildings and the train home began to run again. I became borderline addicted to what I found there, returning night after night, like a child who’d found the keys to the candy store and simply couldn’t believe his luck. It all came to an end when the authorities locked the gates and redeveloped the place. Three years had passed and these kind of anonymous encounters had largely come to define my sex life. Yes, there had been one or two short-lived relationships, but each time I would return to the thrill of the night time hunt. Did it matter that I rarely exchanged names with those I met? What did I care if no one called me when I passed my number on to them? I was young and hungry and exploring my body – and everyone else’s.
After the cruising ground came the sauna. My first visit came because someone I’d met in the cruising ground suggested we go there. This too became habitual, and I think it’s fair to say at some point or another I’ve been mentioned in the fire instructions of most of these establishments across town. But it never seemed to be a problem. I was enjoying myself, escaping from reality – wasn’t I?
The problem is that once you’ve done something for too long, the old escape mechanisms don’t always work so well. As I hit my thirties I found that I was leaving these places feeling increasingly empty – crawling home alone after no sleep, then unable to sleep, with only dim memories of men I would never see again; or, if I did see again, it would be back in the sauna, where we’d barely exchange a glance – a sideways, slightly shameful look which said: “we’ve been there. Do either of us need to do this again?” But then there were also moments I wouldn’t wish away for anything (and, no, I’m not just talking about sex). I mean those times that you visit these places and see the people who you know, the people you begin to talk to, share confidences with, listening to their stories. Yes, it’s fragile idea of community, but a community nevertheless.
In the last few years the saunas in the city I live in have been getting quieter. Is this because people have been dying in them? Drug overdoses scaring the customers off? I think not. Desire is an unstoppable, irrational emotion, after all. It’s easy to blame the online apps – but, I think, there’s some truth in this. Why go out and meet people in the real world when you can hook-up online? Or, as I usually find, not hook-up at all but just spend days exchanging meaningless messages full of titillating pictures and empty promises – frequently made out of boredom – with men you’ll never meet face-to-face. And here lies the difference between a cruising ground or sauna and the apps. At least you’re present in the former. At least you have body language, speech, eye contact and some chance of something bordering on meaningful interaction, something other than sending endless cock and torso shots and beginning every dead-end exchange with the ubiquitous: “u hung?”
I’m probably sounding my age here. Perhaps it is nostalgia; the longing for a misspent, burnt out youth. But there are times I yearn for those “old fashioned” ways of cruising. The excitement and the danger. The three-dimensional humanity that can be found in the unexpected touch from another person, half-hidden, like you, in the shadows. And, to be frank, I’m wrong when I say that I never found anything more lasting than a fleeting encounter though cruising. No, I didn’t find a long-term relationship, but I still think of the faces I found in these places. Some of the people I then went home with; some of those short-lived affairs which, were probably all the more special for being short-lived.
Sometimes they come to me in dreams. Paris, who I saw on and off for a few months, always in his baseball cap, his voice so nonchalant, as if he didn’t care what anyone said or did to him. He’d disappear and a year later I’d see him again, out cruising – in the same place that we met – still in that baseball cap but floating about like a ghost, his cheeks all sunken in, his brown eyes - shallow pools of defeat and longing - melting into the darkness. And Jamie, the bar manager - one of the most handsome, cockiest men I’ve ever met. He was the sort of guy I could fall in love with and lose myself completely, so I backed away never seeing him again.
We’re often told that intimacy can only happen in longer relationships, but I believe it can also be found in the ephemeral; in those moments that you lie in someone’s arms in a sauna cabin, talking quietly – hesitantly – about your dreams, your fears, your losses. “There’s nothing wrong with a cruising ground or a sauna,” someone once said to me. “They can be magical playgrounds. It’s what you take into them that really matters.” That’s something I’m still learning.
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