noun. A district or an establishment offering lascivious pleasures
or entertainment. Often used in the plural.
Itís the last Sunday
in July, the sun is beating down and Iím surrounded by a welter
of sweaty, naked men. Whatís a nice crip like me doing in a place
like this? Letís back up.
Francisco. Fleshpots. The former famous for the latter since the
fabled Barbary Coast. After a ten-year love affair with my adopted
city Iíd begun to feel as if I hadnít been doing my part to support
a local tradition. Was a trip to the fleshpots in order? Were there
any left? But when a photographer friend suggests we pay a visit
to the Dore Alley
Street Fair I balk.
Up Your Alley, as itís
also known, raises thousands of dollars for charity every year (the
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence shake you down at the gate);
more to the point, itís a playground for thousands of leathermen
and their admirers. My own idea of leather is a pair of Dockers.
Could Buttondown Me be more out of place?
Fashion aside, thereís
the question of bodies, my peculiar one and their countless perfect
ones. Nonetheless, with the promise of a potential BENT story leading
me on, I tamp down my misgivings and agree to tag along.
Anticipating sun, I grab
a hat before leaving home, my forest green billed cap, the one with
ďCentral Park ConservancyĒ
embroidered across the front. It strikes me that this hat must be
the most inappropriate piece of clothing I own for this particular
occasion, but then, what in my closet would be appropriate? Itís
not as if thereís a pair of leather chaps hanging there in wait
for their annual outing on hot asphalt.
Am I trying, with this
hat, to advertise how out of place Iím convinced Iíll be? Setting
yourself apart is one easy means of self-defense when you sniff
danger (a variant of the old, You canít insult me because I do it
better). My obvious limp and ďbadĒ
right hand guarantee that I never need to do anything special
to set myself apart anyway. But hereís the thing. After an initial
pass through the crowd Iím struck by something unexpected, something
I almost never experience. If anything is making me feel out of
place it really is the hat, not my body. Usually Iím aware of subtle
vibes, explicit stares; here, I swear I feel neither, a phenomenon
worth reflecting on.
first, some on-site observations. For openers, what about those
countless ďperfect bodiesĒ? In reality, thereís not a single one,
if you insist on literal accuracy. (Well, OK, that mega-cute kid
with the ideal torso and the killer grin might qualify.) Instead,
what I see is a cross-section of gay urban life indistinguishable
from the crowd I ordinarily find milling around the intersection
of Castro and 18th. Itís just that here there are more men wearing
outlandish (to my eyes) outfits, more men with fewer clothes, plenty
of men with none; but the bodies, well, the bodies are just what
you imagine when you mentally undress those guys in the
Castro: some taut, some slack, a handful that advertise every
waking hour spent at Goldís Gym.
Iíve got to believe that thing doesnít get any bigger.
Why is it that most of
the men letting it all hang out are the men who should be keeping
their clothes on, not taking them off? These are not the men of
your masturbation fantasies. I start out being embarrassed by some
of themóor for them; others Iím tempted to laugh at. Why are they
doing this? Donít they see how ridiculous they are? Donít they get
it? Most of the men who do qualify for your fantasies are so intent
on showing it off that they end up being unsexy. One guy, tanned
orange and oiled like a greased pig, dances solo, with a hardon
that wonít quit. I hear myself asking, aloud, ďHow does he do that?Ē
and immediately feel like Iíve betrayed the mindset of a grandmother
from Iowa. ďEver hear of Viagra?Ē
answers someone at my elbow.
The dancerís body is
pleasant enough, accessorized with what anyone would agree is an
impressive dick, but Iím convinced I detect something mean about
his expression. Maybe what I see is nothing more than thoroughgoing
narcissism. Whatever it is, itís libido deflating. But enough about
him. What about me? I feel free to stand here and watch, I realize,
without feeling watched myself.
the men with a sense of humor that strike me as sexy, like the guy
wearing nothing but a fig leaf, like the guy with a white towel
wrapped around his waist, the perfect embodiment of all your adolescent
locker-room jerkoff fantasies. Occasionally he pulls the towel aside
to reveal your fantasy realized, in the form of what I now recognize
as one more Viagra advertisement. This guyís not only got the goods,
he is, clearly, having fun. So Iím having fun watching him. Watching
him makes me feel so liberated from my own body that I forget about
feeling liberated from my own body.
But is he a pushy bottom?
my way through the crowd Iím surrounded by bodies that threaten,
in my mindís eye at least, to break up into their component parts:
skinny arms, impossible pecs, bubble butts and atrophied asses,
cocks cashew-size and cocks salami-girthed. I remember a picture
I saw in an art book, Gericaultís
study of severed limbs; I think of the Chinese factories that are
human body parts for trendy public display. When I think that
some version of those dismemberments, that ultimate decay, awaits
us all, the flesh that jostles me seems suddenly fragile, pathetic,
anything but proud. Certainly not sexy.
Lighten up, I tell myself.
Whatís with the theorizing? Canít you just surrender to the moment?
Seizing the moment, after all, does not mean Iím obliged to line
up for the whipping booth, settle in for a demonstration at the
fisting sling, or step up to that friendly circle jerk that seems
to be organizing itself a few feet away. In this surfeit of bodies
I recognize what I am. Iím a sex tourist, like that clueless guy
carrying a shopping bag emblazoned with the ďGourmetĒ magazine logo
whoís got to look more cosmically displaced than I do; like the
penny-loafers-and-chinos clad man whoís now passed me several times,
looking more glassy-eyed on each pass; like the man and wife who,
without a doubt, have strayed from the Fishermanís Wharf-Union Square
circuit, already composing postcards home of the ďyouíre not going
to believe thisĒ variety.
Feel the breeze between your knees. Dress like a manly man. Buy
far Iíve spotted one man wheeling a chair, and one woman. Oh, and
one guy carrying a cane that appeared to be genuine and not a prop,
but after mistaking a leather daddy policeman for the genuine item,
Iím not sure I trust my assumptions any longer. For all my sense
of body ease, the alley is not exactly Crip Heaven. But neither
have I caught sight of any curb-service fellatio or leather masters
walking their human dogs, two of Doreís sure-fire crowd pleasers.
The sunís too hot. Doreís
charms are fading. Maybe weíre leaving too early, but we decide
itís time to go nonetheless.
You might say that Dore
Alley writes the perfect compact between voyeur and exhibitionist.
From what Iíve been told, ordinary bodies are far more welcome in
the interlocking worlds of leather,
SM, and Bears than they are in the world of A-Gays. If thatís
true it might prove the simplest explanation for my relative comfort
here. Maybe itís only that the naked are soaking up the stares,
leaving me in anonymous peace. Or maybe being able to see the full
spectrum of gay male humanity makes it easier for me to picture
myself falling somewhere along the continuum.
was expecting Bacchanal. The reality is more like a mixture of Carnival
and urban nude beach. That realization makes me take a second look
at the embarrassment and even scorn that initially colored my view
of the paunchy, the saggy and the withered, all eager for self-display.
If ďnude beachĒ is the most apt characterization of whatís going
on for most men here (or maybe nude-beach-plus), who am I to question
any manís pleasure in flaunting the goods?
Should I return next
year, I vow that Iíll check my bag of theories at the gate. Iím
sure I can park it with one of the Sisters, maybe Sister Anal Receptive.
In the words of a wise friend, ďDore Alley is about drinking beer
and looking at naked men. Period.Ē So whatís wrong with being a
Bob Guter / Photographs © 2006
Homo American Picture Works
more photos from Dore Alley in the Dore
Guter publishes and edits BENT.