A few years ago, an editor of the pop-culture site Consequence of Sound asked me to participate in a then-monthly, now-defunct feature where writers contributed personal essays inspired by the tracks of a classic rock album. It was a different album each month, and a different writer was assigned to each track.
I wrote a reminiscence in response to “Sweet Thing” from David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs. I tried to evoke the song’s mood—a mix of otherworldliness, seediness, and sex—by describing an awkward encounter I once had at Man’s Country, a seedy, otherworldly, and not very sexy bathhouse in Chicago (the business has since closed).
A lightly edited version of my Bowie-inspired essay is below.
[Note: I am aware that the coffee mug pictured above depicts Bowie in his Aladdin Sane guise, not his half-canine Diamond Dogs iteration. But I don’t have an Aladdin Sane story, so you’re getting this one.]
In ancient epic poems, there usually comes a point where the hero has to undertake a journey to the underworld—a moldering, mirthless place where shadowy figures shuffle around, speaking in hushed, doleful tones. To me, it sounds an awful lot like this one gay bathhouse I first visited in my early twenties.
It reeked of mildew and marijuana, and, except for the steam room, there was soggy carpeting throughout. You had to walk on it with your bare feet, too, because at bathhouses you’re not supposed to wear anything but the scratchy white towel they hand you at the front desk, presumably so that you can keep up the illusion that you’re there for nothing more than a therapeutic shvitz.
Odysseus and Aeneas get all fearful and weepy in Hades. I recall feeling repelled, horny, and deeply embarrassed, all at the same time (and there’s my twenties in a nutshell for you). The interior was eerily silent, not because it was devoid of patrons but because they had reverted to the pre-Grindr mode of wordless cruising—lots of smoldering glances and sustained eye contact.
The exception was a garrulous, fiftysomething guy with the build and head-to-toe auburn fur of an orangutan. When I passed by him, he launched into a carnival-barker pitch about his unseen boyfriend. They had a private room, he said—a key was dangling from an elastic band around his bicep—and the boyfriend was about my age and the orangutan would love to introduce us. “Maybe you’ll think he’s attractive,” he said with a little who-knows shrug. “I think he’s attractive. Maybe you will, too.”
He opened the door to their room with an air of showing me the merchandise, and I saw that the display of modesty in the hallway was a sham. Because the boyfriend was flat-out beautiful—blond, beamish, and way out of my league. I did not, however, dive right into the three-way implicitly on offer. I felt put on the spot and a little put off by the prospect of joining the orangutan as he genuflected at the feet of this god from Olympus slumming it among we shades of the underworld.
I said I had to go. Like I was running late for a 3 a.m. dental appointment or something.
The orangutan was annoyed. “What do you want, roses and violins?” And he made a sawing motion across his chest to indicate fiddling.
Not knowing what to say to this, I just sort of slinked away, rejoining my companions aboard our ships and setting out once again upon the wine-dark sea.