Erotica: Love on the run in Stephen Barker’s photographs

A world of bodies at Club 82.

Just the other day, I passed the building on East Fourth Street where so many of the scenes in the sixty-four-year-old photographer Stephen Barker’s pictures took place. At first, I couldn’t remember the name of the venue. New York will do that to your memory. The city is always heaving, jackhammering up its past to make room for so many uncertain futures. But I saw a black door, and then I remembered not the specifics of the nights I spent in that place in the late eighties, early nineties—I wasn’t a habitué there, more like a jittery tourist—but the longing I carried into it. I never entered that building on East Fourth Street without hoping that maybe, just maybe, he, the Platonic perfect he, was standing behind that black door, waiting for me.

Men having sex in a dark club.

As I passed that door recently, I felt the same shyness and embarrassment I used to feel when I went to that club—ah, there the name was in the back of my memory, Club 82—because public sex wasn’t really my thing, and I always considered myself a fraud in that milieu, where one’s value was contingent on a sort of obvious attractiveness or ability to role-play (daddy, boy, etc.) in the ongoing human drama of desire and, sometimes, love. All that I felt I had back then was my talk, and not even the kind of talk that got you laid: I wanted the complications of intimacy, not just the kind of touch that no one would remember. Not that anyone really asked me to participate in the goings-on at Club 82. Perhaps they could smell the dream of a white picket fence on me.

In any case, when I saw that door, I remembered that Club 82 was named for the street number of the building it occupied, and that it stood across from an Italian joint, and a few blocks away from a storefront where the late Greer Lankton’s dolls were displayed—figures that were about the body, sexuality, and transfiguration of shapes and forms. These markers—Greer’s dolls, and the Italian restaurant—brought other, more significant, details to mind, including The Bar. It was steps away from Club 82 if you were walking east on your way from the A train, or from one of the bars on the west side, where more men and women of color hung out. At The Bar—a small funky-smelling room with a pool table and a good jukebox—one could encounter various artists and members of act up, but the person I most often associate with the place is Alvin Baltrop. Long dead, Alvin is now a celebrated photographer, but back then no one would pay him a nickel for his pictures, black-and-white images that showed what gay life looked like in those days on the Hudson River piers—the cruising, the humor, the moments of touch, of love. What I adored about Alvin—what turned me on about him—was that he didn’t take any shit from anyone in real life, and if he didn’t like the way you were behaving at The Bar he’d toss your ass out on the street. Talk about Black Power!

A nude man in a dark club.

After The Bar closed for the night, or even before, if you were charged up from drinking and not so shy anymore, there was the black door of Club 82. Opening the door and walking down the stairs to the ticket booth, where you paid a nominal entry fee, felt like going to the sex-and-movie palaces around Times Square, like the Adonis, an old cinema that reeked of Lysol, where sometimes, when the movie on the wide screen fell silent, you could hear a gasp or a grunt. I remember noticing, in the half-light of the Adonis, one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen—a Native American man in a denim shirt, whose charming ears were pierced. Oh, take me away from the Adonis! Take me away! I thought. But all I could do was stare. At Club 82, I didn’t stare. But sometimes a man, drenched in perspiration from his exertions, would sit next to me and bum a cigarette, and I’d see his face for a moment in the match light. He’d smile, or I’d smile, but, before we could talk, he’d get up from his seat, spotting more potential as it walked through the door.

Men having sex in a dark club.

Men having sex in a dark club.

After you passed the ticket booth, you were in a sort of foyer. On one side was a small theatre where movies played on a warped screen, and on the other side was the entrance to the area where men met men. It was like a cotillion of cock. Some men were together out in the open, and some were in the booths that lined the walls. Some men sat on a chair or a stool in their underwear or nude, with the booth door open, waiting for company—the right company. Sometimes the door was closed, and through a crack you could see a lone figure, smoking a cigarette, or scratching his armpit, or looking up at the ceiling, listening for the sounds next door. The sounds were exciting because of what they inspired in your imagination. A scene of passion? Which would lead to what? Would there be love?

In those days, you could smoke anywhere, and the acrid smell mixed in with your dreams. Sometimes the activity at Club 82 was about reconnecting with old friends—guys you’d made it with in the past. In his 1999 book, “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,” Samuel R. Delaney makes the point that certain exchanges in some of the porn theatres were less about shared alienation than about reconnecting with people you had known for a long period of time—men who had become your family. I knew a few guys who went to Club 82 all the time, and it was always a pleasant surprise to run into them there. We’d share a cigarette, but their eyes were elsewhere. It was hard to take their distraction personally because if I’d had the nerve I would have been pursuing folks, too. I tried so hard to be “like” those other guys behind the stall doors, but what I wanted was to know this or that person’s story, and perhaps to become part of it. I couldn’t reconcile public displays of the act with what I considered the private expression of personal feelings. But who’s to say that those encounters weren’t personal? They were just unencumbered by expectations: no white picket fence, no shared bank account, only mutual admiration.

Men having sex in a dark club.
Men having sex in a dark club.
Men in a dark club.

It’s interesting to imagine Stephen Barker’s thoughts about those nights, to consider his interest in recording that world, those moments. The camera gave him a sort of license to look and to see; it pushed his shyness out of the way so that he could interpret this world of men and what they communicated—lust at times, exhaustion at others, desire always—in a world where sex, not convention, had the final word. There was no “dating” here, no promise to call tomorrow; there was freedom, the freedom to give and take whatever you chose to give and take, with someone who had chosen you.

I met Stephen many years ago through a mutual friend, and I think he showed me his pictures then, but I couldn’t really take them in because of aids, which remains the formative experience of my young life. Stephen’s pictures made me afraid for the men I knew who were H.I.V.-positive or might become so. aids was a thief that changed the world where I had come of age; it robbed me and so many others of a life that we can’t describe, and which the universe forgets more and more, year by year.

It’s taken me this long to look at these photographs again, and I am glad to see them. Because they are, first of all, strong images about movement—people moving toward other people, glances that convey the desire to connect. Stephen’s pictures bring back certain smells—the disinfectant that was used to wipe up come; the pleasant moments sitting in the movie audience at Club 82, smoking a cigarette with a friend and dishing, though you didn’t go to Club 82 to talk much, except to joke about the experience you’d just had with a cock in your hand or in your mouth. What people went to Club 82 for was to experience bodies in a world of bodies.

Men in a dark club.
Men having sex in a dark club.
Men having sex in a dark club.

Sometimes, I went to Club 82 just to observe people being at ease with what I wasn’t at ease with, and to admire all the moments that Stephen photographed: acts of rushing kindness framed by the ecstasy of being. Much has been made of the era when he took these pictures, when people lived in fear and yet felt the human need for contact despite that fear, or because of it. Stephen’s pictures are essential because they bear witness to a time when people were trying so hard to escape fear and death in a bid to survive and feel in life. Time has allowed me to revisit these images of a shadowy black-and-white world where there was no room for physical secrets, and, when I sit back and look at the subjects and think of the photographer, I see a boldness and a lyricism that frame life’s complications, the complications that keep us all going and going and going.

Hilton Als, a staff writer at The New Yorker, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He published “My Pinup,” in November, 2022.

All photographs by Stephen Baker.

Published for the first time in The New Yorker.

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