Watch a musical performance of this story performed live:
I’ve visited three gay bathhouses in my life. I’ve also gone to regular bathhouses, like Korean and Russian spas, which I find restorative. Those spas prohibit any sexual interaction, though that didn’t stop the guy giving everyone a blow job in the sauna one Tuesday afternoon at King Spa in Niles, IL. Or stop what happens every “Men’s Only” day at the Turkish Bathhouses on 10th street in NYC. But this story is about bathhouses set-up strictly for the pleasure and purpose of gay male sex:
In Chicago, the legendary gay bathhouse is Steamworks. I went to Steamworks first when I was 23 years old after betting a bisexual magician I could figure out his card trick. The gambit was if I couldn’t explain how the trick worked, I’d have to go to Steamworks that afternoon. I couldn’t unravel the magic, so I got wasted and went to the bathhouse.
Steamworks is four floors. It is spotlessly clean top-bottom, pun-intended. It resembles a spaceship, the walls a gleaming, futuristic-like chrome alloy. You check-in with a front-desk man behind thick glass. He forces you to buy a membership to join. I imagine this satisfies some arcane law in Chicago permitting bathhouses as members-only “clubs.” You can rent a private room, if you like, by the day, for twenty something bucks. Your basic room contains a twin-size bed and a TV tuned to a variety of porn channels to satisfy every taste, including heterosexual intercourse. There’s no porn-free channels though, so don’t expect to just check-in and watch HBO or something. Those traveling on a budget can purchase a locker to house your stuff and rely on the public facilities for the sex part.
On the first floor of Steamworks is the sauna. You submerge into a frothing series of whirlpools with water so chlorinated it burns your eyes just sitting in it. There’s a reason for all that chlorine. Adjacent to the pools is what I call the Steam Labyrinth. A series of winding corridors covered with mist like the innards of Cloud City on Bespin from Star Wars. You can get lost in there, and test your resolve, and find someone who’ll say he’s your daddy.
You walk the stairs to the second floor, past the vending machines serving condoms and lube of all brands. There’s also a vending machine with non-perishable food in it, though it doesn’t get as much use.
Half of the second and third floors is just private rooms for play, but the other half is public spaces. There’s the lane of glory holes tucked in the back, and the den of chains and slings, and the public bunk beds that get more action than the test mattresses at Sleepy’s.
Don’t go to the fourth floor unless you wish to work out. It’s a brightly lit garish hell. All the equipment looks unused and is colored eggplant purple. If you go there, you could face your true self, like Atreyu looking into the Oracle’s mirror in The Neverending Story.
The silence throughout Steamworks is pervasive. No one speaks. Everything is done via eye contact. It is very dark, which gives a certain privacy to even very public displays of affection. You wear a towel or nothing at all except the bracelet with your room/locker key attached. You walk the floors, spine erect, posture bold, sliding your eyes from one person to the next. Bold men grab their cock to indicate they want you or sometimes just go up and grab yours. It is primal and strange, and you wonder what these people are like at their 9–5 jobs as investment bankers.
You cruise. Everyone is looking for someone just slightly hotter than they are. A game of chicken ensues against the countdown clock of dawn. The closer it gets to the sun rising, the lower everyone’s standards become. The ‘hot’ guys pair off bit by bit; everyone else starts taking what he can get. House music plays and bores into you and you make a decision.
Everyone I’ve hooked up with has always been very pleasant and kind, and I’ve only ever had a good time at Steamworks.
In Barcelona, I had a forgettable foray through a bathhouse whose name I can’t remember. I was very emotional at the time. Vueling Airlines had lost my luggage and failed to deliver it to me for three days, so I was wearing dirty clothes and had an overall shitty attitude. I decided to not venture with my friend into the dark room, preferring to talk shop with this Irish bloke at the bathhouse bar. Just as the conversation was heating up, my friend bursts out and shouts into my face, “My phone! They stole my cell phone! While I was getting a blowjob!” I pan to the dark room and see a sign above it saying, “Do not bring in any valuables” in both English and Spanish. I can’t remember how I responded, but I don’t think I was very kind about it. The situation was serious because my friend was a famous celebrity’s publicist, and he didn’t have password protection on his phone. He was terrified her Twitter account would get compromised by the Spanish thief. I half-heartedly looked through the dark room by the light of my cell phone, and we alerted management. But we never found his phone. We averted disaster by changing the password for the celebrity’s twitter account on my phone. In the mayhem, the Irish guy I was hitting on left, and I don’t remember anything else about that Barcelona bathhouse, other than a feeling of disappointment.
The final bathhouse I visited, if you can call it a bathhouse, was in Berlin. It was called Laboratory, next-door to the legendary nightclub Berghain. I went with two gay friends to try to get into Berghain. One of those friends was a candidate for the Mars One project — he’s among the final 100 people eligible to be in the first human colony on Mars. The other guy worked for the British Parliament. The plan was to party all night like Clare Danes did when she went to Berghain. The back-up plan was to go to Laboratory if we got rejected for not looking cool enough to enter. Berghain bouncers are notoriously picky. Sure enough, they rejected me and Parliament boy. They only wanted my friend from the Mars One Project. But he wouldn’t go in without us, so the three of us went to Laboratory. It was adjacent to and underneath Berghain, carved into the bowels of the building. It was a dungeon, and it terrified me.
You turn in all your clothes at the ‘front desk,’ except your undies and your shoes (for God’s sake, keep your shoes on). They wrap your belongings in a huge plastic garbage bag and write a number on it. Then they tattoo your trash bag number on you with permanent marker. This alerted every alarm in the Jewish side of my brain. At the very least, it seemed in poor taste, being Germany and all. Then again, maybe it was funny, and the joke was on me.
You walk in. The ceilings are low and made of rock. You step on slimy stone floors or across metal grates. There’s a central bar, blasting music that sounds both generic and specific to a gay sex dungeon at the same time. You order drinks via your trash bag number. They know you’ll have to pay up before you leave, if you want your clothes back. The drinks are dangerously cheap.
It is not dark. It is moderately lit, so you can clearly see the gay bear fucking the twink screaming for more in the sling up the stairwell. Or the man lying prostrate on a metal cot in a corner, ass-open, people taking turns fucking him over and over. He doesn’t seem to notice the change in member.
The only place that is dark is a purposely pitch-black room. You walk through an entryway into a forest of human skin and muscle and cartilage. The sounds swallow you whole — a chorus of moans and groans and some scattered German. You trip over limbs and struggle to find the exit. There is no exit. You must return the way you came. You emerge into the light and see your shoes are a new color.
In-between the urinals in the bathroom are older men sitting on the floor, some of them wearing diapers, their mouths open so you can pee in their mouths if you prefer. Nearby the bathrooms you find caged people underneath metal grates. They have elected to lock themselves in while people piss on them from above. There were many options to relieve yourself at Laboratory.
The whole thing was too much for me, and I left wishing I’d never come. I paid my tab and collected my trash bag at the front. My friends and I tried to get into Berghain one more time, after overhearing that the bouncers give preference to those with a Laboratory tattoo. Sure enough, a new bouncer allowed us to skip the line and immediately enter. Only at the last moment, the original bouncer who rejected us came out from the bathroom and kicked us all out. You don’t get a second chance at Berghain.
In retrospect, I think the main differences between Steamworks and Laboratory were about lighting choices, cleanliness, and access to golden showers. Whatever your preference, I just recommend you don’t bring any personal belongings or dignity inside the bathhouse.