It is the dulled, flat end of the summer; a warm Saturday night in the West Village, September, 1982. It is 4 a.m. We who had fawned and flounced and guzzled and still received no takers in the gay bars this evening have resigned ourselves to last-minute comfort in the bowels of the Christopher Street Bookstore, a grotto at the corner of Hudson and Christopher where men cavort, mingle and spew.
I am watching porn film (still the era of good ol’ scratchy celluloid) being projected on the stone wall of the grotto. At my side is my Syracuse University college pal Mike, a career pessimist with ringed, tired eyes and a love for the absurd. He, too, has given up on romance this evening. The men around us are panting and loving with impunity. Eternal romances are igniting and sputtering out in the space of minutes. We are fighting the twin demons of alcohol and boredom. At one point, Mike breaks with backroom etiquette and says not-so-sotto-voce, “Look over there”. He points impertinently and I look through the gloom to see a dark beauty sitting in the corner. Caucasian, broad-shouldered, silky curls hanging to his shoulders. A regal savage with a hairy chest, bare save for a leather vest. I am just out of college and still think in terms of archetypes. I am intrigued. This is pure evil, I think to myself; I feel the need to embrace it.
I saunter over. He looks even more menacing and sexy in satanic goatee. I notice a thick, leather wristband on his arm, blooming with spikes. I reach out to touch the fur on his muscled chest. He looks at me with opaque eyes and a low, steady growl rumbles up from within his sculpted chest. I back off. He reaches for my fly and fumbles with my manhood. His intensity intimidates. I am unable to harden. Sheepishly, I disengage and slink back to Mike, still watching the scratchy footage of men having pre-AIDS sex. Unable to convey what has happened in just a few words, I opt for silence.
Perhaps fifteen minutes have passed. Mike suddenly breaks the dull silence by nudging me again. “Look over there,” he says, disbelief spiking his voice. “Do you see what I see?” I sigh and look again past his pointing finger. There in the gloom sits a man with a full bush of red hair, dressed in a white suit with multi-colored polka dots. It looks as if a Ringling Brothers denizen has lost his way. I am suddenly stone sober.
“Hey,” Mike coaxes me, “Go over to him.”
“And what the hell should I say,” I spit back incredulously.
“Uh – ask him what time it is,” Mike responds, displaying that brand of Syracuse pragmatism for which I love him.
Summoning my counterfeit nonchalance, I approach this clown in the corner of the gay peep show store backroom. “Hi,” I say jauntily, “Do you know what time it is?” The man in white greasepaint shakes his head and gestures with his left hand to his right-hand wrist, to indicate that he is not wearing a watch. I follow his hand to peer at his watchless wrist — and espy the aforementioned studded leather wristband.
I walk briskly back to Mike, grab him by the lapels and announce it is time to leave. He follows me as I clamber up the stone steps to the front desk.
There the manager stands, neglected teeth clenched around a big, wet cheroot. He stares us down.
I decide to go for understatement.
“Uh, pal… you have a clown down there,” I say.
“Oh yeah,” he shoots back with unfeigned disinterest, “We get a lot of clowns down there.” He gets paternal on me, adding, “No sweat. Just tell him you’re not interested.”
“No,” I yell back. All pretenses for calm are discarded. “I’m talking about a real clown… like in the circus.”
He gapes at me for a few seconds, appraising my credibility, then turns to his assistant, a dim short man and barks, “Will you go down there and see what he’s talking about.”
The lackey, all stoop-shouldered, descends the stairs to the basement. When he returns, the occupational confusion on his face has deepened tenfold.
He looks at the manager and nods slowly, “He’s right; there is a clown down there.”
“And what did you tell him?” the manager says, now visibly flustered.
“I told him we had a dress code and that he had to leave,” he beams, proud for having come up with his alibi on the spot.
At this point, Mike and I expect Rod Serling to walk in and give his typical epilogue to the surreal scene. But we have had enough heebie-jeebies for even a typical Christopher Street evening.
(All events recounted actually happened to me and Mike. Mike passed in 1992, so, alas, I have no corroboration.)