Saturday, January 28, 2012

An Overlooked Gay Movie Couple

In Celluloid Activist, Michael Schiavi's biography of gay film scholar Vito Russo, he points out that "Orson Welles's latest movie The Stranger opened the weekend of Vito's birth [in July 1946]."

This film about a Nazi war criminal (Welles) hiding out in a small Connecticut town has a scene mid-film in which two young men briefly appear. Edward G. Robinson, the FBI agent hunting for Welles's character, enters Mr. Potter's store. As Robinson seats himself at the lunch counter, these two men (obviously gay) leave the counter and exit the scene. Each man has a lustful smile on his face. Their exit happens so quickly, the censors back then probably missed it.

More importantly, Russo doesn't mention this scene in The Celluloid Closet. Maybe he missed it like I did the first few times I saw it on television.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Showing Your Laundry At The Comfort Zone

The Comfort Zone is located on the second floor of a nondescript office building; just a few doors from two Broadway musicals, Chicago and Spring Awakening. A short distance away is the glitz and clamor of Times Square. Its proximity to the two theatres seems fitting since this underwear party mostly for young black gay men on the down low is like a theatrical performance or a fashion runway display, with hip-hop and R & B music blaring from wall-mounted speakers. The customers, in underwear of various types, colors, and patterns (a few prefer to go without underwear), parade the dark maze-like corridors and drift in and out of rooms called suites, in search of a sexual connection.

If the late black singer and actress Ethel Waters (a lesbian) were around to walk these corridors, she would be tickled pink--well, tickled anyway--to witness such a steamy scene. It would probably remind her of her early days as a stage performer when it was part of her song-and-dance act to give the audience a peek at her lingerie, otherwise known in 1920s Harlem as "showing your laundry."

At the center of this latter-day laundry-showing spectacle called Harlem World is E. J. Parker, the master of ceremonies, you might say, who sees the Comfort Zone as providing a "community service," and not being a part of the sex industry. Clearly sex is the primary attraction, as it was for the long-departed Mount Morris Baths in Harlem, where this writer was an employee for nearly three years. Aside froom their 24-hour operation (except Sundays for the comfort Zone, to give thanks to the Lord, says Parker) and the sexual liaisons, there are no other comparisons. The Comfort Zone, which opened in its present location August 31, 2007, is like stepping into someone's home--carpeted floors, spacious rooms, expensive couches, and freshly painted walls. Whereas the environment at Mount Morris was dirty and rundown, with the added smell of mildew and dead rats. Or as one patron once summed it up to me half jokingly, Mount Morris was "part whorehouse, part crackhouse, part shithouse, part flophouse, and part nut house."

Plus, at the Zone there are no surly staffers, no leaky ceilings, and plenty of free sodas and munchies. (No coffee is served because Parker fears that if an argument occurs, someone would be tempted to throw hot coffee at the other person. At Mount Morris, where free coffee and donuts were served every morning at five, nothing like that ever happened.) All of this for one sawbuck (pardon the lingo, that's ten dollars, folks).

The Comfort Zone attests to what social critic Daniel Harris has stated in the essay "The Origin of the Underwear Revolution," published in his 1997 book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion). According to Harris, "underwear now reenacts a kind of striptease in which it shamelessly 'exposes' itself."

In the new family-oriented Disneyfied Times Square district, the Comfort Zone is an anomaly, a throwback to another time when sex in theatres and strip clubs was up close and personal.

Perhaps the Comfort Zone's existence is an indication that the rumors of the old Times Square's death were greatly exaggerated; that its resurrection is coming about in small, quiet baby steps. The only difference is that it won't be as wild and in-your-face as before, but existing on a less obvious level, as the Comfort Zone is doing.

The Comfort Zone encompasses Harlem World (aimed at the young hip-hop crowd) and Mix Bag (a more racially and age diverse party) that run concurrently. The only ones not welcome are the drag queens. "They bring too much drama," explains Parker. Despite this attitude, he readily acknowledges the role drag queens played during the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

One could quibble with Parker's notion of community service. After all, Mount Morris Baths for all of its decrepitude and antiquity, hosted an annual health fair, offered space to AIDS outreach groups to set up manned tables that displayed condoms and safer-sex brochures, provided health literature that was easily accessible in well-lit areas, gave an annual New Year's Eve buffet (that included the serving of beer and liquor) and sponsored a GED program. At the Comfort Zone there is safer-sex literature available but its presence seems like an afterthought. It's placed on a table beside the TV set that plays porn videos. Since the location is in a dark corner of the main lounge, it is not easy for the customers to see the literature.

But if by community service Parker--a youthful. soft-spoken, and jovial middle-aged black man--means that he has provided an alternative space for other black gay men to indulge their libidos without fear of police harassment or gay bashing, as would be the case in a public park or some other public space, he has succeeded.

And like a mother hen, Parker keeps a close watch on what goes on at the Zone, eagerly greeting new arrivals and urging those leaving to visit again. Being a constant promoter, Parker reminds them of the days and hours when the establishment is open. Since he wants to make sure they are enjoying themselves, he keeps a constant supply of snacks, condoms, and lube on hand.

Parker would have been a good secret agent. Whenever he's asked to reveal something that he considers sensitive, his response is always "I don't know anything" or "I don't know, I just work here."

And like a secret agent, he is on the look out for spies from other underwear parties who want to size up the competition. The first night I met him, he wanted to know if I had a camera in my bag. I told him I didn't. If I were he, I would be more concerned about city health inspectors masquerading as customers, looking for any infractions. That was always a major concern at Mount Morris Baths.

When customers first see the decor, says Parker, with obvious pride, they exclaim, "I can't believe it!" That's the reaction he wants to hear. For so long, black gay men, having few places of their own to go, settled for second and third-rate places to frequent. It's understandable that they are shocked to find a place offering them something better, that doesn't make them feel as though they didn't matter. However, it may take a little time for some of the patrons to get used to all of this good treatment. During one visit, I found a shoe print on the wall of one of the rooms and in the mini-lounge, there was a potato chip bag with some of its contents scattered on the floor beside one of the couches.

There are two inconveniences not mentioned on the Comfort Zone website or the print ad--lack of a restroom and a shower inside the premises. If a patron needs to urinate, he has to go into the pantry and pee in a plastic cup. "military style,"as Parker terms it, and then empty it in the stainless steel sink. If he has to defecate, he has to get dressed to use the communal restroom located outside in the hall. Washing up is done at the sink with a hand towel that is given out free of charge when the customer first checks in.

Parker, who grew up in Harlem and attended author James Baldwin's alma mater, De Witt Clinton High in the Bronx, claims that his underwear parties were the first; that they had "never been done before." With his entrepreneurial spirit that dates back to age ten when he organized a baseball team called the Harlem Royals, Parker used as his inspiration Doug Holley, a black gay man who opened the first sex party called Afrodeeziak in his Harlem brownstone. It was a financial flop. Parker surmises that Holley started the policy of excluding anyone who did not fit the masculine ideal--an in-shape physique, not fat, not fem, not old. But it was difficult to find enough men who fit that ideal.

But nevertheless Holley is considered the father of Harlem sex parties. Soon others, Parker included, began to imitate what he tried to do.

Parker, who plans to write a book about his experiences in the music business and as the proprietor of a sex party, began Ndahoo (a gay sex party for young men) in 1996. The 1991 film Boyz N Da Hood inspired the name. Its first location was at the Wall Street Sauna and then moved to Harlem, where it was first situated in a housing project and later a studio apartment.

In a society that has traditionally marginalized and stigmatized black men, black gay men especially shoulder a triple burden--race, sexual orientation, and the misperceptions and stereotypes surrounding black masculinity. Some survive the ostracism; many, unfortunately, don't. those who don't survive often engage in such self-destructive behavior as drugging and boozing. That's why it is important that the Comfort Zone exists. I hope that consciousness-raising groups and other self-help opportunities will be provided to establish and strengthen the self-esteem of scores of black gay men. Maybe the Comfort Zone can be one of those places where such a transformation can take place. As film critic David Ehrenstein has written in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, "Gays played pivotal roles in African American history, but the [black] community continues to wish away their sexuality."

The Comfort Zone has no intention of doing that but instead offers its clientele a safe haven or, as Parker puts it, "a chill out spot," where these men can unwind and take refuge from societal and familial pressures, if only for a short time. As the online ad suggests, "CUM before work, CUM at lunchtime, CUM after work." Hopefully, E.J. Parker and the Comfort Zone will offer them guidance in other realms of their lives and deemphasize the sexual part of their existence.

Will Parker set up a franchise of Comfort Zones? "I've thought about it, but I haven't done it."

This article about the now-defunct Comfort Zone was originally published in the Gay City News, December 20, 2007.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Harlem, Pre-Gentrification

"To me, as to most white New Yorkers, Harlem was essentially unknown and very nearly forbidden territory. ....Coming home from a trip to Connecticut or Westchester, I would sometimes get off at the 125th Street station instead of going all the way down to Grand Central. Given the crime in Harlem, it was always a nervous experience, looking for a taxi to take me home. After a while I decided that the time saved was not worth it."--from One Man's America: A Journalist's Search for the Heart of His Country by Henry Grunwald (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1998, paperback).

Grunwald is describing Harlem as it existed in the 1950s and 1960s. No one then could have imagined the profound changes to the community that would take place 40, 50 years hence with the emergence of multi-million-dollar condos and co-ops and upscale boutiques and restaurants. Even black celebrities of the time who lived on Sugar Hill would have been dumbstruck.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Newsroom Adversaries

Chain of Fools: A Donald Strachey Mystery by Richard Stevenson (Harrington Park Press, 184 pp., paperback)

In Richard Stevenson's Donald Strachey mystery, Chain of Fools, two newspaper chains, described as "the good chain and the bad chain," are bidding on the Edensburg Herald, an upstate New York daily. The family that owns the paper is divided on which chain should acquire it.

Janet Osborne, its editor and lesbian daughter of the Herald's late publisher, brings Strachey, an Albany, N.Y., private investigator and his partner, Timothy Callahan, a state legislative aide, into the situation. She favors the good chain that would uphold the paper's traditional standards and liberal philosophy.

Her gay brother Eric, also pro-good chain and a "famous eco-freak and prize-winning nature writer," is dead. She and his lover, Eldon "Skeeter" McCaslin (hospitalized with an AIDS-related illness), suspect that Eric was murdered. Relates one character: "Eric's death means one less vote for selling the Herald to a quality newspaper chain at a loss to the family of eight million dollars." And to make matters worse, an attempt has been made on Janet's life. Could one of the conservative, pro-bad chain family members be responsible? Strachey's job is to find out before another life is lost and before the paper falls into irresponsible hands.

As a longtime mystery fan, I prefer the hard-boiled, two-fisted, testosterone-drenched, noirish storytelling exemplified by John Morgan Wilson in his series of mysteries featuring Benjamin Justice, a gay former newspaperman ousted from journalism because of a Jayson Blair/Janet Cooke-like plagiarism scandal.

To be fair, I have not read the other Strachey books. But this one is as tame as a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew book.

Chain of Fools does have splashes of humor like this observation by Strachey: "In some of the venues my line of work had taken me into, 'Brandy' was more likely to be the name of a transvestite I was questioning than a beverage being served."
I have one major complaint--the reader never gets to see the day-to-day workings of the Herald. Janet Osborne is never shown at work. For someone who edits a highly regarded paper, she spends a lot of time out of the office. How does she manage to maintain the paper's integrity if she's hardly ever there?

All in all, Chain of Fools is a quick, pleasurable read. its main premise is what happens to family values and relationships when greed and materialism enter the picture. It is a book especially suited to readers who like the violence and mayhem kept to a minimum. There is nothing in its pages that will disturb one's sleep.