As a child of the early '90s, I got a brief whiff of dating before there were smartphones. But as a closeted teen, there was one facet of LGBT nightlife that terrified me the most: gay bathhouses.
Gay bathhouses are gay sex clubs. Traditionally, they are divided into shower rooms, steam saunas, smoking patios, locker rooms and lounging spaces—nooks where men with towels around their waists can free their willies.
Then came Grindr. Gay bathhouses started delivering. And like many millennials who have recused themselves from organic hookups, I began to favor my phone. Who still went to bathhouses? Was it mostly middle-aged guys or were there other young men like me?
Besides a sleazy excursion to notorious sex club The Cock in New York City, where I walked into a circle jerk, and an early-morning field trip to Berghain in Berlin, the world's most tourist-heavy sex club, I had never visited an old-school bathhouse and have avoided public sex. To me, gay bathhouses—explicitly sexualized spaces—became so outside my comfort zone that I feared their parking lots.
But Portland still has two bathhouses, and I wanted to check one out.
So I talked to my friend T, who used to work at Hawks PDX on Southeast Grand Avenue and is a frequent flyer over at Sandy Boulevard's Steam. I let him choose between the two. We ended up going to Hawks, because there's a "Bisexual Night" on Sunday and my friend Jane wanted to tag along. (Women are generally discouraged from visiting gay bathhouses, which is daunting if you're gay with all-female friends.)
Around 10 pm, the three of us arrived at Hawks. Behind two ominous glass doors, there was a small stucco room with a ticketing booth. It struck me how entering a bathhouse felt like walking into an arthouse theater. We paid our $25 for a ticket spanning the entire night, though we only stayed for about three hours.
Upon entering the locker room, T was the most comfortable. Jane was a little less comfortable. I felt panicked.
We undressed and fumbled into the lobby. There, I caught a familiar sight cutting a corner: a recent Grindr hookup who works at Steam. He was here as a guest.
He saw me and ushered me into a private room with baby-blue brick walls. There was a rectangular mirror glued behind a cot. We hadn't so much as exchanged "heys," and there we were, alone together.
Typically, I find each repeated hookup with the same person to be more fruitful than the last, but this time I experienced something unexpected: a tinge of romance. Entertaining pillow talk, he expressed wishing to move to South America. I gushed over the new David Sedaris diaries. We asked a lot of questions.
The mundanity of our conversation juxtaposed with the surreal setting left me feeling dazed and slightly euphoric. I wondered if the mechanical nature of our introduction was why I hadn't considered this Grindr hookup more romantically.
Eventually, we said our goodbyes. Bounding out of the room, I saw T gliding up a distant staircase.
Hawks is a maze. It's a scatterplot of dressing rooms with netted ceilings that allow you to peer in from the tops of curvy landings. The glass doors of the steam room and the silver shower faucets dotting the walls make for funhouse mirrors.
I asked T about Jane's whereabouts. He said he had had his fill and was ready to leave. Having encountered something sentimental, I also felt fulfilled. We set out in search of Jane—he said he thought he saw her last in the middle of an orgy with a gaggle of older men.
This was believable: I estimated that out of 50 or so people, the average person at Hawks was about 45. On bi night, the split was about 70 percent men and 30 percent women. Most men were lone wolves.
For whatever reason, my resistance to the hypersexuality was rapidly wearing.
Nude bystanders tried their best to pinpoint when they saw Jane last and with which guy. Most of our peers sympathized with our impossible quest.
T and I resorted to the information desk. A suave, 40-something gray-haired guy pulled up beside us, clothed and ready to check out. He overheard our dilemma, and offered to help.
The three of us belted Jane's name through every door until one swung open. Jane's glasses were missing and her hair was damp; she was accompanied by a guy who loosely resembled her ex.
The gray-haired guy gazed at me and asked if we all wanted to grab a drink. I surprised myself by asking him if he had any interest in pairing off.
"Sure," he whistled.
I signaled to T that we would be quick. The gray-haired guy and I started making out around the corner when an earlier hookup of his found us and proposed a threesome.
I opted out of the ensuing romp. Watching from the sidelines, I fought back chuckles against the theatrical war cries. Unlike my perception of the disco days of gay and the height of the HIV epidemic, everybody at Hawks was cautious about using proper protection. (With the possible exception of the guy Jane hooked up with, who claimed his vasectomy was all he needed to stay clean.)
The gray-haired guy thanked me for our brief, but decidedly spiritual experience. The camaraderie was akin to having tripped on acid in a storage unit with someone for 12 hours. Gathering T and Jane, we fled to the car, proudly chanting, "Now, that was a night!"
Looking back, I continue to debate the online hookup apps that many people, especially non-millennials, seem offended by. These same people tend to look down on physical manifestations, like bathhouses, as being archaic or unsanitary.
It's easy to denigrate a bathhouse as a human buffet, but at least nobody's eating alone. When ordering Postmates for one, you dislodge from the subtle intimacies: the dinner table chatter, the polished silverware, the cooking, the bond formed through the process.
If anything, Hawks is a potluck. It's not about selfishly piling up your own plate—it's about bringing something to the table to be shared. In this case, it happened to be genitalia.