FLESHPOTS

by Bob Guter

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Fleshpot: 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.

San 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.

But 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.

OVERHEARD: 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.

Itís 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.

OVERHEARD: But is he a pushy bottom?

Threading 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 plasticizing 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.

OVERHEARD: Feel the breeze between your knees. Dress like a manly man. Buy a kilt!

So 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.

I 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 sex tourist?

© 2006 Bob Guter / Photographs © 2006 Homo American Picture Works

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Find more photos from Dore Alley in the Dore Alley Gallery

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Bob Guter publishes and edits BENT.

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2006