Michael Rumaker's short book is a straightforward account of his first visit to the Everard Baths. The style is clear-headed journalism interspersed with several densely poetic passages.
On the day in question, shortly before the Everard burned in 1977 and killed 9 people, Michael is 45 years old. "The baths had always nagged me as some undone experience in my past gay life. Now, with directions in my head from one of my friends who had been going to these same baths for years (and who, in doing so, had become in my mind a kind of courageous and sexual hero), I walked at a fast clip down 33rd, not so much acting out of impulse as from the realization that the right time to do it had arrived."
The deftness with which he describes the ensuing hours of both disgust and delight makes for a revealing and entertaining narrative, and I never found myself doubting the honesty or completeness of the story. He sees a great variety of human types: "The unwanted are here, too, and the too wanted The beautiful on the outside who are poisoned inside; and the physically ugly who keep close and quiet a loneliness within that many are blind to, often even themselves."
His worst fears are quickly confirmed by sights of psychological impoverishment. One man who reaches out to fondle him and is rebuffed whimpers in masochistic self-pity. He tells the man to try and enjoy himself, only to feel embarrassed and down-hearted at how lame that sounds. In the pool area he finds a youth strung out on a bad drug trip, his hands pressed flat against his face. Across from his cubicle an Oriental breaks into a grin but freezes when Michael tries to talk to him, his face etched with "the acid of disillusion and lost hope." Another youth is lying flat on his back in rigid apprehension. Michael wants to say something but decides he should probably just go away since "humanism can be inhuman."
As the hours go by, not without some comic moments, he stops trying to get involved with people and begins focusing on the sensory transactions. Finally he sucks somebody off, or to put it another way, I hurried to paddle the tide of rising peony flush now running like fine rivers of heat down the whiteness of his flesh, flooding there to gorge out the bulging knot, bringing with it the pungent snap of river-bed minerals, and cartwheeling silverfish in millions, the out-rushing tide suffusing me in a sunup of invigorated rosiness.
The man whispers in his ear, "'If this secret gets out, it'll revolutionize the world.'" Michael laughs, and agrees.
The descriptions of sex, so different from the factual tone of most of the narrative, are wonderfully suggestive without being specifically arousing. This is only the first of a number of sexual encounters, including one with a very old man. The first time Michael comes, "An inward irradiation of sunshine flooded me, and on the surface of my skin, like freshened fields, a surge of renewed aliveness I hadn't known since childhood."
As each partner blends into the next, his capacity to distinguish them becomes whimsical. The head of a black youth his fingers are stroking becomes "the sun-blackened brush of African mountains." He may think such an image would flatter a black, but how many Floridians would blush to hear that their blond locks shine like sun-ripened oranges? Michael keeps his thoughts to himself, and his partner never finds out that he thinks he's caressing a continent.
Michael closes his eyes for a minute and sees "every hometown in America with a free public bath, but, unlike this one, airy and light, open to everyone [thereby] emptying the mental hospitals and doctor's waiting rooms, depleting the populations in prisons, cutting the death-by-broken-heart rate to zero."
Finally he finds himself in the center of an orgy. "These faceless men surrounding me on the bed in the dorm, faces, bodies, anonymous, androgynous, were dextrous and insistent participants in the self completely subdued, impersonal: the will, the ego, falling away." Soon after this, the story ends. Michael's time is up and he exits to the cold city streets and the trip home.
My gut feeling about this intelligent book is that the style is all Michael's, but the ideas have come from somewhere else. I don't think the premise about orgiastic sex being good for people is something he has really thought through. He believes in sexual freedom, but never refers to the part sex plays in love, in having a lover, or in growing. A sort of uncritical allegiance to the mood of gay liberation has taken hold, preventing his questions from going as deep as the subject matter of human sexuality warrants. The beautiful descriptions of sex depict acts which are removed from any frame of reference to the ongoing lives of their participants. Sexuality doesn't need to be split off like this, and its fracturing is one of the saddening sights that Michael's sweeping eye oddly overlooks.
Michael has a real desire to help other human beings, but he has gone through a debilitating drug addiction at some point in the past. This is why he cannot take any of the many drugs offered him. He wants to see in the baths a religious rite in which individuality is lost in a releasing commonality of feeling: "We were our naked selves, anonymous, wearing only our bodies, with no other identity than our bare skins Here was the possibility to be nourished and enlivened in the blood-heat and heartbeat of other, regardless of who or what we were." He smiles at the experience while it is happening. We can only guess how he will feel about it later.
Michael's suspension of judgement regarding the baths for me impairs his credibility as a truth seeker. To take seriously his optimism about the social benefits of free public baths in which parents have sex with their children, for example, requires a leap of faith quite beyond the flights of the most modern of gays. Personal development has to entail more than asking positive energy to overcome negative energy. The love that can cure criminality doesn't grow just like apples on a tree. And courage, which he ascribes to his bather friend, had better mean something more than bending to the code of a men's club.
The questions he needs to ask once the psychedelic peaks of bathhouse sex are gone are: Am I a better person now? Has this ecstasy improved the quality of my life? Am I better prepared to take constructive steps forward in the months ahead? He is not likely to care for the answers he finds, for they will expose the fact that his public baths fantasy is only a metaphor for a kind of psychological liberation he has yet to find in his waking life.
After having very tender sex with a honey-haired youth, it hits him that "it didn't really matter that I would probably never lay eyes on him again." You could say the same thing about the Everard. Perhaps by this time Michael has already taken that step.