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I imagine that there are many good reasons why you should never attend a swingers’ club. With the opening of Bowery Bliss—a 4,000-square-foot, multilevel sexploratorium at the nexus of the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Nolita—an unfashionable location need not be one of them. The strip formerly known as skid row continues its lurch toward reinvention in scattershot fashion. Whole Foods, Pulino’s, the General, DBGB, the New Museum, the Bowery Diner et al. are so cozily nestled between lighting stores and commercial-kitchen outfitters that the newcomer might assume this is the way it’s always been. Now the prospective residents of the new 250 Bowery, which offers “boldly inspired living” at even bolder prices, will have an entirely new way to dispose of their money sensually (and locally).
Traditionally, sex clubs simply don’t pop up in New York’s hipper, younger neighborhoods, and that made me wonder why this one has. Maybe, just maybe, Terry Richardson will pop in with a flock of nubile foals ready to do anything in front of his Kyocera T5, I thought. European models might teeter in on the way back to their Mott Street garrets! I allowed myself to become excited by the possibilities. YOLO and all that.
Bowery Bliss has parties on Friday and Saturday nights. I R.S.V.P.ed online for the next Friday, and a day or two later, I received an e-mail confirmation with the rules and regulations. Some of these fed my anticipation, like the request that those arriving via limousine be discreet and instruct their drivers not to wait outside the front door. How fancy. Would I be rubbing elbows, at minimum, with Suriname’s ambassador to the U.N.?
Owning a penis is fantastic fun, but when attending any straight sex event, it’s going to cost you. At Bowery Bliss, a single woman pays a $20 cover. The single-man tariff is six times that. Couples pay $100. I decided to try to bring a female friend and attend as a couple. Not because I’m thrifty—it’s just nice to have someone to talk to at this sort of thing. I invited four different female friends—including K, a girl I’m dating—hoping that at least one would join. Incredibly, all four said they were curious. At $20 a pop, I guess they didn’t have too much to lose.
I anticipated dropouts and confirmed with all. Imagine my surprise when Friday night rolled around and one by one, A, P, K and M strode into our pregame spot, an inviting little Turkish tapas bar on Elizabeth Street. M even brought along a female friend, N. I gave a brief speech in which I tried to absolve myself of any responsibility should the experience be anything less than awesome, while claiming any and all credit if everyone had a wonderful time in a throng of beautiful naked young people. They all seemed to be on board. As we left the tapas bar at 11:15, the evening was brimming with promise.
Through a door, up some stairs, behind a curtain went the six of us. The maître d’ seemed taken aback by the influx. “It’s definitely warming up in there,” said the girl taking the coats. “I don’t know,” said M peering beyond the reception area. “I may need to go out and have another drink, then come back, okay?” “Sure,” I said, and off she went, taking N with her. The maître d’ asked if I’d been to any swing clubs before, and I said that I had. She asked which ones, and I told her. In exchange for this information, she waived my $20 annual membership fee.
A, P, K and I were given a tour. The first room, a sort of lounge, was long, skinny and windowless; exposed brick was at the far end and old wood paneling on the room’s long sides. It contained about ten sallow souls, mostly men. The scene was barely illuminated by flaming logs in the hearth—technically, the coat-check girl wasn’t lying when she said it was warming up—along with shimmering disco lights, color-morphing wall sconces and a neon beer ad. The room said seedy without saying sex.
Bowery Bliss is BYOB. I checked my bottle of vodka at the bar. The next floor up contained three king-size mattresses, each separated by curtains with palm trees on them. On the top floor, a radio interview with the party’s management was taking place, and beyond that was a collection of mattresses shoved together to make a sort of megamattress.
We went back to the lounge. My remaining companions sat by the fire, and I went to get drinks. “Will it get busier tonight, you think?” I asked the woman behind the bar. “Maybe,” she said. “It depends on how many people show up.” I gave her the benefit of the doubt and just assumed that she was a comedian with truly arid delivery. “We’re still new so…word has to get out, y’know? Last week it was rammed in here. Tons of hot people, you couldn’t move.” This all sounded promising.
John, a fellow Englishman, and I started up a friendly conversation that resulted in my inviting him over to meet the girls while we gamely waited for the cast of Sleep No More to barrel in and fuck everyone. He was just in town for the weekend, he told us. “When I’m in a different city, I usually check out the local swing clubs. Wicked in Toronto is amazing.”
The five of us chatted for about 20 minutes, but the fact that I rolled in with three beautiful girls was creating some cognitive static for John. “Why are you three here?” he kept asking. “We came with him,” they said. “Right, but why are you three here with him?” This circuitous and mildly hurtful inquiry ended when we all caught K looking into a corner of a room and seeing a standing man getting a blow job from a woman as another man looked on at point-blank range. This went on until the recipient saw that three women with younger, prettier faces than the one his member was stuffed in were watching his fellatio session, agog. He removed himself, zipped up and sauntered over. “Mind if I join you guys?” he asked. “Sure,” we each said. It seemed rude to say no. Unlike John, Carl didn’t want to chitchat so much: “What do you girls want from tonight?”
After they politely evaded Carl’s questions for several minutes, I suggested that the girls and I explore upstairs some more. We got onto a mattress, pulled the curtains tightly around us and talked freely.
“Guys, I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed at having blown a huge amount of social capital with these women. “Let’s just stick it out for a little while longer and see what happens.”
“I was pretty horny before, but I don’t really feel very much like having sex now,” said K.
“I have to go soon,” said P.
Then John, who’d been hovering around outside the curtain, asked if he could come in. “Oh, he’s harmless,” said A, and in he came. “I heard Le Trapeze is good,” he said, keenly. “Fancy going there?” We told him that we were probably going to call it after one more drink downstairs in the lounge. P left us for the evening, practically running down the stairs.
A half dozen more people inhabited the lounge now; the new arrivals were on the older side. We’d barely taken our seats by the fireplace when two more guys in their forties swooped in. One, Marcel, was French but lived in Boston, from whence he’d driven down to “party.” A relished the chance to talk some partially remembered French with him. He put his hand up the back of her shirt while they spoke.
“Vous…recontrez beaucoup de femmes sexy…à des clubs comme ceux-ci?” said A.
“Oui,” said Marcel. “Beaucoup.”br />
The other guy, Peter, started to chat with K and me. He too had driven for hours to get here and seemed exhausted. When the club closed at 4, he’d be driving back. “Unless I hook up,” he said, hopefully yet solemnly. After asking K the same question three or four times, Peter put his hands in his lap, bowed his head, closed his eyes and dozed
This sort of broke my heart. They just wanted to connect in a way they thought would make them happy. They’d driven hundreds of miles and paid $120 to sit in a windowless room with mostly other guys. I was filled with pathos and felt bad that this had to be the way of the world. There’s got to be a solution.
K wanted one more look around. “I don’t know if I’ll be in a place like this again,” she said, leaving me with Peter, the intermittently dozing guy. She came back about ten minutes later. She’d been watching two middle-aged couples have sex on the megamattress. “Do you think wearing shoes and socks is a thing here?” she asked me when she returned. “Both couples were naked except for shoes and socks.”
“Great meeting you, John,” I said as we stood up to leave and the Frenchman was forced to quit his relentless rubbing of A’s back. “Oh c’mon! Le Trapeze!” said John. “It’s supposed to be good.”
Undeterred, we walked out onto the Bowery, where well-dressed young people were prowling thickly in the street. A beautiful couple made out hungrily on a corner. They kissed in that way that only people who have just met do. I tipsily wondered if they knew what some people had to go through, or thought they had to go through, to find a reasonable approximation of that same incredible, essential feeling.
“I wanna know if those guys will just say fuck it and jerk each other off at the end of the night,” said A, as we partook of Bowery Diner’s onion rings and milk shakes at 2:30am. “I mean…there’s gotta come a point, right?”
From the diner, A walked home. K declined my offer to stay over and took the 6 uptown. I’d gone to a sex club with five hot, cool, adventurous women and didn’t so much as loosen my tie.
Somewhat echoing John’s charitable thought, I think it’d be harsh to judge a club on its third weekend. I’m not sure what the rationale behind setting up shop on the Bowery was, but I’d like to believe it was to create a space that exists in the imaginations of people not unlike myself: the slim, the savvy, the under 40, living the neighborhood. I’m still imagining what Bowery Bliss could and should be: American Apparel–model types performing Caligula’s-court-grade depravities in a Welcome to the Johnsons setting.
What makes any venue “good” is ultimately its patrons. Specifically, how much we see of ourselves in those other patrons. Okay, put more bluntly: When we’re going to a swing club, we want to fuck roomfuls of ourselves. Until they’re united with their natural crowd, new clubs, whatever they are, must surely endure a period of being a bit shitty. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. If, as I suspect, young, slim, savvy people also want to get wild on occasion, Bowery Bliss could be the hub of something really quite awesome.
Follow Grant Stoddard at grantstoddard.com and on Twitter: @grantstoddard