We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
I’m worried about my trip up to New York to attend a party.
I worry that I am not traveling with a young assistant who is far more skillful at pushing the buttons on my iPhone (or laptop, if I hadn’t drowned the keyboard in coffee and lost the damned thing even before I became that comfortable using it) than I am. I worry about the latest Theory of Everything (this decade it’s ADD) which does such a good job of holding people in their various social tracks, so that someone who is dyslexic (like me) is also said to have “a form of ADD.” My friend Bob Woof tells me a third of the people who will be at the party have it too. Our mutual friend Eric says Bob is practically a hoarder, which makes it likely he has a touch of it himself. But despite both of those worries, I’m on the bus and headed north.
Bob has invited me to one of his Prime Timers parties on Sunday evening, March 5, 2017. He’s been inviting me to these gatherings for more than a year, but this time I’ve decided to accept and write a few notes on it as well. (In a notebook. I can’t handle them any other way.)
I’m combining the trip with another visit I’ve been wanting to make for several years, to see my old fuck buddy, Maison, and his husband, Fred, who live further upstate near Poughkeepsie: I’ll continue by the Metro-North train and stay with him and Fred Monday night, March 6, and Tuesday night, March 7, before returning to New York City by train and, after a walk across town from Grand Central Station to Port Authority with my grey plastic rollaway and my grubby white Zabar’s bag, back to Philadelphia on the morning of Wednesday, March 8—on a Peter Pan bus.
I’m known as a sex radical, but the fact is I am nowhere near as radical as many. I felt there was a world of experience that had been slipping away.
But that’s getting ahead of things.
The Prime Timers is a group of older New York City–based gay men who have a sex party every month. This time it is at the DoubleTree hotel on the southeast corner of Forty-Seventh and Seventh. The party is in room 3905—two rooms actually, both given over to sex from 5:30 pretty much till midnight.
While I was not particularly nervous sexually about what would happen, there was my worsening ADD: the shattering of my self-confidence last year had left me with exactly the kind of uncertainties that Bob prided himself on being able to take care of in the elderly men who came to his parties. Would I arrive with phone and luggage intact? Would I be able to get back with everything I started out with? Would I be able to negotiate my medications, food? Sleep? With ADD wreaking havoc on logic and focus, would I be able to document the trip as I hoped?
About a year ago, Bob brought a car full of guys to have lunch with me out at a mall restaurant in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, where Dennis, my partner of twenty-seven years, and I were living with my daughter and son-in-law. The guys Bob brought were civilized, seemingly well off, and friendly. One big fellow in jeans and a jean jacket was driving the group back to New York City from somewhere.
One man, John, in a navy pea jacket remarked on what a nice guy I was. Bob sucked my fingertip at the restaurant table. Nobody else in the restaurant seemed particularly interested in us. Dennis didn’t come that day, I remember, for whatever reason.
I’d met Bob at an academic convention on gay comic art, at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he’d walked up to me, put his arms around me, and began to kiss me. He was fifty-six and I was seventy-two. He told me that he was really mad over “silver daddy bears.” He was a guy with glasses and a short white beard, who traveled in jeans and plaid shirts, as I did. My beard was notably longer, and white.
Through the rest of the program, he hung out with me even though I had come with three younger friends (Mia Wolff, Ann Matsuchi, and Alex Lozupone); it was the day I met Alison Bechdel, and we mentioned my part in the formation of “The Bechdel Test,” and met a number of other folks. While Bob verged on the annoying, his brazenly direct sexual come on was intriguing.
What has always interested me about gay male society is the way it seems to operate differently from what one might call normative heterosexual society.
I learned that Bob ran a group for men such as myself—the Prime Timers: gay and over fifty. (What this had to do with gay comic books, I never really understood; but, well, there was some connection. . . .) For better or worse, however, I felt I could learn something from him. He seemed naturally kind, concerned and caring.
I’m known as a “sex radical, Afrofuturist, and grand master of science fiction,” but the fact is, I am nowhere near as sexually radical as many, and for all my interest lots of things have passed me by. I felt there was a world of experience that had been slipping away. I wanted at least to know something about it, to write about it.
In the following year of untoward suburban isolation, I found myself phoning Bob for knowledge of a different way of living than the one Dennis and I seemed to have fallen into. (The move into my son-in-law’s house turned quickly into a disaster, until after ten months, first me, then Dennis and me, were asked to leave.) Dennis and I were back in my old Philly two-room pied-à-terre that my son-in-law had redecorated for me a few years before.
What I wanted was not so much an experiment, but to keep up with what I’d already done to see if it’s still satisfying. I first availed myself of public sex when I was eighteen—though I went out looking for it and almost found it in Hubert’s Museum on Forty-Second Street when I was fourteen or fifteen. Did Bob think I was out of my mind? “No, it sounds more like what you need,” Dennis told me. “Check it out, if you want.” And so through a number of repeated phone calls, and then with a set up with a friend of Bob’s, I went out on a trip to do a reading and lecture in Santa Cruz. I spent the night with Bob’s eighty-five-year-old friend that same afternoon, and to my surprise, I had the best sex I’d had in more than a decade.
Bob continued to invite me to Prime Timers parties. I finally accepted. Unless you count some of the adventures I had when I first met my Maison back in 1983 when I was forty-one and he was twenty-seven, this would be my first sex party.
I remember thinking it was an interesting sexual network, but had no sense at the time that I was part of a stable social structure.
Maison and I met in NYC in the balcony of the now-demolished Variety Photoplays Theater on Third Ave just below Fourteenth Street. He had first gone there with his “uncle,” Johnny, his father’s best friend since the two had been boys together; Johnny was gay and took it upon himself to bring Maison down to New York to sample the city’s gay movie cruising—and generally expose him to working-class gay culture.
At the time we met, Maison also had an older lover, named Eddie Redick, a black man like myself, only in his mid-sixties. They’d been together a few years. On a couple of occasions, Maison took me to see Eddie, who worked as a church organist and lived in upper Manhattan. At least twice I was invited to Eddie’s apartment along with Maison, and the three of us ended up in bed together. It was always fun. Once Eddie took us to a small gathering of his older friends (three white friends of his, who were his age or older). Clearly Maison and I were both supposed to have sex with them—so we did. I was good at doing what I thought was socially expected of me, and I hope I still am. I also remember thinking that it was an interesting sexual network, though I had no sense of it at the time as a permanent or stable social structure of which I was a part.
Three years later, Eddie died. A veteran, he was buried in a sprawling veterans cemetery.
I have failed to mention two things about Maison: he could not read or write (and still can’t). As well, he had been born with a decided harelip that went all the way through his nose, and because he had an extreme speech defect, he had compensated with what he described as a pronounced “country” accent.
Once Maison asked me to visit the cemetery with him where Eddie was buried, and to run interference for him and help with the names that had to be looked up and the work that had to be done to find the grave. We found it. And as we were standing there, Maison began to cry softly. Eddie had been very generous to both Maison and his family. I remember he’d brought Maison’s mother a television, which lived in Maison’s parents’ trailer park home. As we stood in the vast cemetery, and I held weeping Maison, fourteen years my junior, I realized I had a much closer friend than I’d thought—and over the years, though both of us went on to partner with other people, we still saw each other (almost always at Maison’s prompting) for sex at least once or twice a year, and this extraordinarily loyal friend regularly phoned me every few weeks. He still does.
The bus has skipped Mount Laurel and is going express to New York City. The trees on the far and near sides of the fields beside the roads are all bare, and remind me of underwater sponges. Despite the bursts of warm weather, there is just old grass—some dull green—amidst browns and tans.
How did I get from a more or less monogamous heterosexuality in my childhood, which I thought all people lived in, to, at age seventy-four, an open marriage to Dennis, with the trammels of ADD, with the death penalty repealed and reinstated, no ERA passed, but Roe v. Wade the law of the land, abortions tentatively protected but not by much?
All the cars speeding in the opposite direction are grey, black, or white, with a few eccentric reds or blues. My old friend Abe, when we were young, would complain I wrote using too many colors. And yet, back then, the colors were what I loved. Now, true, they don’t seem as interesting as they did, if only because this is no longer an intensely colored land. If anything, it’s the opposite. We pass a billboard on the other side of the road for Hooters, a chesty young white woman in a summer halter standing at the side of the yellow sign.
As we stood in the vast cemetery, and I held weeping Maison, I realized I had a much closer friend than I’d thought.
Box cars to the right of the bus. Newark Airport to the left, and I can see the skyline of Manhattan briefly with a single tower that has replaced the twin towers. It really is dull and ridiculously phallic—even more than the great tuning fork in the sky ever was. (That was my personal nickname for the twin towers in the years before they came down.) We are getting closer to the tunnel from which Bob said I ought to call him. (Phoned Bob in New York. Phoned Dennis in Philly. I am relieved that everything is on track.)
As I was getting ready to leave our Spruce Street apartment, Dennis came back from the Green Street Cafe, bundled up. After a few ridiculously warm days, it’s below freezing again. We’d been out with my daughter and my cousin Nandi the day before.
On Ash Wednesday, one of those warm days, I only saw two people with the traditional cross of ash on their foreheads in the Gayborhood streets of Philadelphia. It seemed fewer than in former years. Are activities of the sexual sort, the real subject of this meditation, replacing it? Is there any connection at all?
Am I taking this trip for sex, for friendship, or just to be able to spread information to people who need it or might benefit? Or all three? Some of them all, I suspect.
• • •
Party manners, Bob explained to me, are that when the dozen-plus guests (from age forty-five to age eighty) arrive, every one strips off their clothes and has sex with each other. Between 7:30 and 8:30, there’s a dinner break: pizza plus whatever Bob’s cohost, Chuck, can put together. The people who attend, save for Bob and Chuck who host the party, pay thirty dollars apiece. (That includes me.)
Bob stays over at the hotel, and has invited me both to help him set up for the party and, afterward, to stay there for the rest of the night once the others have gone home.
We decorate the place before anyone else arrives. I put large sheets of red tissue over two of the lamps, set out dishes of cookies, peanuts, potato chips, popcorn, candy, and soft drinks for the taking, even before Chuck comes with the bowls of food, which, during the dinner break, would be microwaved.
Before the party Bob and I went up to a pizza place about five blocks to the north and carried back four boxed pizzas, which we also put out shortly after people got there and began to strip down.
Bob says there were thirteen or fourteen guys at the party. I didn’t count. They were pleasant and all trying to have fun: Paul, Joe, Rich, Chuck (cohost of the party with Bob), Larry, and George are some of the names that stick. All of us, with the exception of Chuck and Bob, for the first half of the four- to five-hour party were naked and barefoot. My shoes were in the corner. Eventually Bob’s clothes came off as well. Because I was there as his friend, I got my own drawer.
There to help Bob out with the logistics of food and cleaning up, Chuck (easily fifty or fifty-five) was the only person who stayed in his jeans, studded belt, and tank top from beginning to end, though he was free with his hands with everybody else and very good-natured about people touching him. That night he brought some tasty black-eyed peas and a green curry of Brussels sprouts and rice, both of which were pretty good. He and Bob put out a dish of almost tasteless fettuccini with a green sauce that was not a success, but edible. Still naked, we ate on paper plates and stood around or sat on the edge of the pulled-out sleeper couch, talking about . . . well, to be honest, I don’t remember. Some of it was about a lecture series one of them was putting together. And there was a general agreement that had been reached to the effect that we would not talk about Donald Trump, who had been president for six very uneasy weeks. People stuck to it.
For a while I sat with Paul while he jerked off beside me and gave a monologue of his petty crimes, the telling of which kept him very excited.
I got the impression nobody knew or cared who I was, possibly because they were not expecting me here and possibly because Bob hadn’t told them. No one said science fiction writer, although I used my real nickname Chip, and I think at least once gave my last name.
George was the only person there who was probably older than I was. It was hard to tell, but the youngest and, by my lights, best-looking character was an extremely fat young man of perhaps forty, who was very active but seemed slightly slow. He was certainly over 300 pounds and with a working-class face and demeanor and one of the several people who, at least to me, seemed unremittingly masculine. From time to time, I managed to get a few stories. For a while I sat with Paul, ignoring his claw-like big toenail while he jerked off beside me and gave me a fifteen-minute monologue of his petty crimes that, according to him, continue to this day, the telling of which apparently kept him very excited. My part was to listen, seem interested, maintain physical contact, and not leave. I’m not sure whether it was true or whether it was just a sexual fantasy. He was lean, swarthy, and with glasses and said he was in his sixties.
There was a good deal of sucking. (I did my share.) Mark, who was fifty-four, again traditionally masculine and very good-looking, had recently lost a lover in his nineties, and apparently had severe ADD, according to Bob. He was very forward sexually with me and with everybody else in the group. I really enjoyed being there and having sex with him and several others at the same time. He did, however, hang around the longest, and next to very heavy Joe was the last to leave and I think put Bob out a bit by not taking the hint that the party was over.
I spent some time with Larry, who misplaced his shoes at one point. Then we spent some time on the bed together while he talked about some lectures he was planning to give in a couple weeks, again with sexual play all through. I wondered if I was going to have a similar shoe problem, but I found mine pretty easily in the confusion of clothes in the corner. Besides me, there was one other tall obviously black guy, not by my lights particularly good-looking, but he was, rather like the cliché, the tallest and best hung in the group. At one point I was talking to him while he was being serviced by someone else. His name was Philip and he explained that he had started coming to these parties when he was thirty-five, and he was now forty-three. Clearly he was having fun and lots of guys wanted to play with him. Among other things, he was shaped rather like a bowling pin and had a deep, irregular, fourteen-inch-plus scar up his belly. He wore large, black-rimmed glasses, and whenever he looked at me, he seemed dazzled. I don’t think it was drugs. In fact, I got the impression that, other than Viagra, there were no drugs involved. (But I suspect I wasn’t the only one there who’d had cataract operations.)
Now, as one after the other got dressed and said goodbye to Bob and Chuck, Joe seemed to be passed out and having some trouble breathing. In the other room, Bob mentioned that Joe probably needed a CPAP machine. Actually, I’d brought my own in my rollaway, though I’d decided not to use it, but Joe’s weight seemed to militate for it as something necessary. Finally, we got him up and more or less into some clothes. I went to hug him goodbye, which he returned very good-heartedly. “You know,” I said, “you could probably use a CPAP machine.”
Still in the hug, he said, “I have one, but the mask is so uncomfortable, I never use it.” Moments later, he pulled a wheelchair from behind the door and got into it. (I hadn’t realized he had been using one when he came.) He let himself out to roll away down the hall.
At least two people had made it known that they had come twice. While I had fun and generally enjoyed the sucking and affection and some of the stories even more, I had not had an orgasm at all nor was I particularly looking for one.
My general take on the group? They seemed like nice guys trying to have fun. I have no idea whether I will seek out this kind of entertainment again or not.
The next day over breakfast in the hotel—Bob had a coupon that allowed us both to get the hotel buffet—he explained that he hadn’t started to play till he was thirty-five. Ten years ago he’d run into an older gay guy who’d taken him to Houston, when he’d started the parties. Events like Charon Rising and the Celebration of Friends, which are well-known annual sex parties for gay men, had interested him, but he had also always liked older men.
Friendship, affection, sex, physicality. . . . Bob wants to care for the old men he finds sexually attractive, in order to allow them to enjoy sex with men like himself as well as each other.
I didn’t take any pictures of people, but I took a few of the two rooms themselves, the bathroom, the abandoned bedroom after the fact around 3:55 in the morning. I was up several times that night. Red lights were blinking on the hotel’s CO2 detector. Bob was asleep in the other room.
• • •
The next day I managed to get to Maison and Fred’s mobile home. Maison was waiting at the familiar train station, down from the platform. He was heavier by maybe twenty pounds—and I have lost more than eighty, without particularly trying. But he seemed sincerely happy to see me, and neither his nor my sexual interest seems to have flagged.
I slept in the back room, which is a total chaos of clean laundry but in piles along three walls and almost to the ceiling. It seems to be all the clean laundry in the house. On the one hand it’s not unfamiliar: much of Dennis and my clean laundry is in piles on top of our bureau rather than inside it, but at Maison and Fred’s, in the back room, this has gotten to hoarder proportions. On the bed is not really a sheet but a mattress cover that is presumably clean but so ragged one hesitates to lean on it for fear it’ll come to pieces. At home, Dennis and I for many years have slept on towels. I dug out a towel from the piles around the bed and spread it over the ragged mattress cover so that at least I was on a surface that felt familiar. And there were a couple of pillows and something like a very thin duvet as a cover in familiar patterns that I pulled over me to block out the light directly from the bulb in my eye outside the open door.
Then I called Dennis on FaceTime and got him and talked to him about the strange place that I was sleeping in and living in. Afterward I felt better and got to sleep, but was up before either Fred or Maison. I went out in the cool damp yard. To test my abilities, I try to take notes on their cars: Maison’s car is a brown mustard, probably called gold, four-door Jeep hatchback with green and white New York plates: XFD-549. In his yard, there is a six-door Chevrolet 3500 with orange and black New Hampshire plates (HYI-5903), and two other utility trailers with blue, white, and yellow Pennsylvania plates, one chained to the trunk of a tree in the yard. I take four trips to ascertain that much data. The second night was easier than the first. I only made one call home.
I describe Dennis’s fears that the moment something happens to me, he will be homeless again. Maison and Fred volunteer that they would take him in.
Maison’s is the only mobile home I’ve ever been a guest in—I can’t even give you how many times. When we first began to see each other, we spent afternoons in Johnny’s house—then overnights at motels that catered to truckers.
In the two days I have been here, I have already gotten one friendly load of Maison’s semen and I am quite happy with it. I’ve received a fair amount of hugs and dispensed both to Fred and Maison. (For comparison’s sake, this is the only direct orgasm I’ve been involved in since I’ve left home, though I sucked off half-a-dozen cocks at the party.) Maison’s taken to smoking electronic cigarettes, STEAM brand, which means his mouth no longer tastes like an ashtray. Fred smells strange enough to put me off doing more than hugging him. He is basically the same age as Dennis. I’m sitting in their living room, Maison gets up in grey undershirt and blue underpants and lumbers in. Fred comes in, rubs my head and I nuzzle his belly. He tells me to call them when I get home.
Last night I had been describing Dennis’s fears that the moment something happens to me, he will be homeless again. This morning, Maison and Fred volunteer that if anything should indeed happen, they would take Dennis in. To me this is a surprise, and I send it in a text message to Dennis, who messages back for me to thank them. Maison and I are now sitting on the couch. Fred has returned to their bedroom.
Maison brings me a cup of coffee. We sit on the couch. Dennis has an upper plate, but his lower teeth are mostly his. Maison’s teeth are all gone. I really enjoy kissing him.
No one has yet put on the TV in Fred and Maison’s bedroom or in the living room, but the four-screen security cameras have already been turned on below the high-definition TV screen.
Maison has told me about his own family stealing money from him, which is one of the things that after Maison’s mother’s death broke his family apart. Maison thinks that his twenty-seven-year-old cousin Lige (Elijah) was murdered by his own wife. Fred thinks that Lige actually committed suicide by letting his wife poison him with his heart medicine—an overdose of Plavix—which she was responsible for giving him.
Lige was Maison’s cousin, whom I met when he was five years old at a Memorial Day celebration. My next strongest memory of Lige was when he was sixteen, and I had come up to see Maison. Lige and Maison, at the time, shared a room in Maison’s mother’s mobile home. Lige’s cat was very sick, and while Maison and I were out doing errands, the cat died. Maison and I found out when we got home. I remember trying to urge Lige to come out with us to have pizza to get his mind off his dead pet, but he was too depressed, so Maison and I went out by ourselves. I remember Lige as bright and lively. By sixteen, he was depressive and into drugs. By nineteen, he was married with one child before marriage and a wife with two children of her own. At twenty-seven, he was dead.
Maison says, “There’s no middle class, only rich and poor.” I don’t think that puts me in rich, but I am in a lot better shape than Maison is.
In the living room, Maison explains: oil has gone up from 87 cents a gallon on the first of the year to $2.10 in the subsequent months. Gas has gone down, but Maison uses a wood stove now to heat the house. Every spring, he explains, he burns a cleaning log, which keeps the creosote down.
I recognize the smell of wood stoves from my other old friends Leonard and Sam’s place in the mid-80s. Sam was also a sex buddy, though he died of asthma some years ago. And Leonard, who was diabetic and by that time in a home, we’ve lost track of, though we’ve tried to locate him. Dennis and I visited them frequently in the 80s. (At one point Leonard inherited $5 million, and supported Dennis and me for an entire summer.) The smell is also something I associate with my family’s four-room summerhouse with an unfinished basement and attic in Hopewell Junction back in the 40s and 50s.
Maison says, “There’s no middle class, only rich and poor.” I don’t think that puts me in rich, but I am in a lot better shape than Maison is. Maison gets $18,000 a year for his disability. Now he turns on the oversized high def screen. The sound is broken—there’s no way to turn it up past a whisper. It would cost more to fix it than to buy a new one, though. I recognize the “writing” in the cartoon that the characters are doing as the forerunner of the writing in Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. My sciatica has begun to kick in. I am trying to keep my Aleve down to two per day.
Last night, Maison had made dinner: a big pan of sausage and peppers and tomato sauce. Some of it was still out. I put some on a slice of bread and found a peach, which I wrapped up in a plastic bag to take home with me for my lunch on the train. More hugging, affection, a bit of sexual play, and finally it was time to leave. I had taken a few shots of the mobile home from the outside and posted them on Facebook. Hovels and barracks. I don’t remember where I came across the distinction, but for years I’ve thought it was a good one. A barrack has one or more single rooms for single functions. A hovel is a single room with living functions carried on in the center and more marginal things consigned to the walls. We live in combinations of the two, but you can still see the principle at work. In Maison’s house, the back room, which is the clean laundry room and the guest room both, is also quite marginal to the rest of the house. The living room and the kitchen are basically one, which happens more and more these days in all but mansions. Some areas are clean. Others are unbelievable filthy, and still others, it’s hard to tell which is which.
It is very easy to divide the world into binary groups and then a supplementary group is postulated as a mediator: friendship, affection, sex, celibacy. Raw, cooked, boiled, burnt. Hell, purgatory, paradise. Conscious, unconscious, dreaming.
Maison drove me to the train station, but the train coming back from southeast was an hour late, so I called him again, and he returned and took me all the way down to the station in his hometown. (This, I believe, has happened before.) He remembers when everything in the city was different. He remembers structures that are no longer there: restaurants that are gone. Fred had told Maison to make sure that he saw me onto the train, and he did after parking his brown-gold hatchback on the other side of the tracks.
When I walked across from Grand Central to Port Authority, I missed the bus I had booked online, so I had to pay another twenty dollars to get on a local bus home, which took three hours instead of two. Across and one seat ahead of me was a kid (somewhere between twenty and thirty) leaning forward on his knee jutting into the aisle, texting on Facebook voraciously. He was far more adept at thumb typing (and everything else!) than I was. In the bathroom at the Filbert Street bus station, we bumped into each other again, and I said something about his enjoying his Facebook, and he looked up and nodded. Then I came out and snapped a picture of Dennis, who immediately began to grump at me for taking pictures of everything, and we walked home while I dragged my rollaway and my white tote bag through a pleasant Philly night, and Dennis had sandwiches and ice cream waiting for us both at home.
New kinds of social formations are always growing up, even within the most rigid that already seem to contain us.
The clean, clear ending that society keeps looking for is impossible to find. New kinds of social formations are always growing up, even within the most rigid that already seem to contain us. I do not know whether I am ever going to see Maison or Fred again. I hope I do.
What use will I put what I have learned from Bob and his older gay male circuit party that I attended? There are people more radical than I am, more alert to what is going on in the social interstices between cultures or seemingly marginal communities, such as science fiction, which are changing day to day, or just those who know what buttons to push.
I think of myself as somebody who is interested in the differences, the differences between straight society and gay, the differences between male and female, but all of those presuppose a set of similarities on which those differences have to be marked out. Beginnings and endings are the hardest parts for thinkers who utilize such structures. Perhaps that means the best way to end this essay is to say, as of yet, it is not finished.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.
Though a means of escaping and undermining racial injustice, the practice comes with own set of costs and sacrifices.