Gay advocates disagree about the dangers of bathhouses.
A tour of Club Body Center includes a trip downstairs, where David D'Amico hopes to create an orgy room out of a currently unused pool, and a stop in the laundry room, where high-tech computer-driven washers dispense just the right amount of detergent to keep sheets sanitary and costs low. "You find all kinds of things on these sheets," he says, lowering his voice. "Blood. Feces. It's all part of the business."
D'Amico spends more time with the business now than ever. For years Philadelphia's last gay bathhouse was presided over by a manager who reported to unseen owners. But D'Amico, 45, took a hands-on role at Club Body Center about six months ago, after he began hearing what he calls unpleasant "buzz."
In June PW printed an article in which local men claimed they could buy crystal meth from dealers inside the bathhouse. Federal prosecutor Tom Hogan even said the feds had rigged the place, a nondescript row home in the 1200 block of Chancellor Street, with hidden video cameras, hoping to record meth use.
D'Amico reacted to the PW story angrily at first. He flew to Philadelphia believing the reports weren't true. But then he started asking questions, and he soon saw the problem. "I kicked three people out for dealing drugs," he says. "I told them they weren't welcome."
Whether D'Amico can eradicate drugs from the property remains an open question. Local addiction and mental health therapist Albert Luciano says his clients say they can still score meth at Club Body. D'Amico says vigilance will be ongoing and that he's clearly needed onsite.
Bathhouses have received much attention in recent months, and the reason is crystal meth. National Public Radio sent a reporter into a bathhouse for a story on meth use, and interviewed D'Amico at a Club Body Center in Miami. Well-known activist Peter Staley caused a huge stir in New York's gay community by exposing the amount of unprotected sex, fueled by crystal, happening in that city's bathhouses. And Philadelphia's Jay Dagenhart, who appeared on PW's cover in February, recently taped an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show (scheduled to air next week), where he discussed the nexus between crystal use, the bathhouse and increased incidence of HIV.
During his own meth addiction Dagenhart spent entire weekends at bathhouses in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York City. By the time he came down, he was HIV-positive.
D'Amico had heard stories like Dagenhart's before but acted only after he realized the drug could threaten his business. "People can still get this drug in many other places," he says. "But I have to protect my interests."
Getting into the bathhouse is easy.
Open the nondescript row house door, sign in at the counter and present ID. The man behind the counter hands over a key, a towel and a condom. Room 453, he says.
The downstairs area is outfitted like a tropical resort, with deck chairs and bright colors. The upstairs is dark and utilitarian, a plywood cave. The steps leading upstairs are narrow. And the private room is no bigger than a prison cell. An average-sized man could stretch his arms and span its width. The mirror across from the bed bears a single footprint where someone fought to gain traction. An empty condom wrapper lies on the floor.
The lighting is low, and the bed is a thin, plastic-coated mattress mounted on a wooden platform. The room's front wall, which incorporates the door, is only about three-quarters high. So conversation and the sounds of men having sex occasionally drift in. But the club music from the sound system drowns out most everything except the heavy footfalls that pass in the hallway outside the door. Those steps indicate someone is doing the bathhouse shuffle-a slow walk past the private rooms, looking for someone to hook up with.
The basic rules are fairly easy to divine: Men wear only towels for the most part, though a few add baseball caps or flip-flops. They either amble through the darkened halls prowling for a sex partner, or sit in their own room with the door open. Some men lie on their stomachs, advertising themselves as "bottoms" or receivers for anal sex. Others sit up in bed as an invitation to those who walk past.
|Rest area: The Center's downstairs is decorated like a resort.|
Hookups happen quickly. A man pokes his head into a room. A few mumbled words are exchanged. He steps all the way inside. The door closes.
In the halls men walk past, making eye contact if they're interested. They raise their eyebrows as they slide by, careful not to touch. Turn to watch them go, and they look over a shoulder, motioning with their head to be followed.
The setup includes a lot of room for rejection. Men make unwanted passes at each other and move on, some of them failing to find a partner all night long.