Provincetown Sketches, Part 1

Provincetown by Tom Head

Before marriage, the gays had some nice things: bars without bachelorette parties, Pride marches without corporate logos, relationships without state recognition and straight expectation. We also had some naughty things: bathhouses and glory holes, poppers and polyamory, fabulous faggotry and a fucking sense of humor! These days, I worry that much of this is on the Acela train to extinction, that we are losing our liberation in the assimilation revolution.

At least there’s still Provincetown.

*   *   *   *

The Vault

My husband is not a big talker. That’s mostly my job. But he went all in that night—and things got real awkward, real fast.

In retrospect, the dinner was probably set up to be awkward. After our first two days of vacation in Ptown, we met my uncle and his friend at Front Street, their favorite restaurant. That’s what we called him—my uncle’s “friend”—not because we didn’t know, but because my Catholic, working-class family has a longstanding “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to those of us who could never seem to find the “right girl” (and for the girls, the “right boy”) to marry. Growing up, my uncle and I were never really that close, in part, because I was a bratty, entitled closet queen who resented him for not flaming a trail to make it easier for me when I finally came out in my late twenties. (As if that was his burden.) Ever since I moved to Boston for college in the summer of 1989—my uncle lives in the suburbs—my mother has been pressuring me to get closer to her brother. “You two have so much in common,” she would say. I always hated hearing that.

This was the first time the four of us had been together without other family members around to prop up the straight charade. And this was Provincetown, where you leave your closet, if you have one, on the ferry. We exchanged hugs, ordered drinks, and buried ourselves in the menu. My vodka martini barely hit the table before I swept it up and gulped a third of it down. I didn’t care that it tasted like the ocean.

“So, how did you two meet?” my husband broke the silence.

Are you fucking kidding me? We don’t ask these kinds of questions in our family.

“At The Vault,” my uncle’s friend said. “Have you two ever been?”

The Vault?

“No, where is it?” my husband was curious.

Was he trying to kill me?

Another third of the martini disappeared.

“It’s just down Commercial Street. You should go sometime.”

Thanks for the recommendation, friend!

“We met at The Vault,” my uncle chimed in.

We’ve established this already. Please just let our friends talk.

“We also spent a lot of time riding on the bike paths.”

Oh no. Not the bike paths.

My uncle looked at his friend with that kind of knowing smile that betrays a good metaphor: “He used to be a real slut!”

Not that. Not this. Not here. Not in front of us.

“Speak for yourself!” his friend shot back, both of them snorting loudly.

I ordered another martini.

The initial awkwardness did not result in the Armageddon I had anticipated. Quite the contrary, we had a lovely meal. My husband and I eventually shared our own bar and “bike riding” stories from the slutty years. Along the way, we learned that the two of them had been more than “friends” since the early nineties, dating back to my college years, when mom first urged me to reach out to her brother. Turns out they had been coming to Ptown for most of that time, had a place here. In other words, they had a history. They told story after story, shared a dessert, laughed at each other’s jokes, touched each other’s hands, and ribbed each other like those old couples sometimes do after a lifetime of everything. It was the happiest I had ever seen my uncle. His boyfriend—or partner, still not sure how they refer to each other—clearly brought out the best in him. They both seemed free. After dinner, we said our goodbyes, and my husband and I agreed that we want to be more like them when we grow up.

But we also had something else on our mind: The Vault.

I fired up Google on my iPhone: 247 Commercial Street. After running into two friends, who had just purchased new sex toys at Eros, and Tony Kushner, who was walking his dog—this is Ptown, after all—I turned to my husband: “We’re going.” He smiled, because he knew that not even my favorite living playwright could deter us from our destination.

There is perhaps nothing more pathetic than being the first two people in the leather bar just after it opens. Turns out “The Vault” is aptly named. The only light in the place comes from the small television sets showing filthy porn from a time when men used neither clippers nor condoms, and the bar-length string of red Christmas lights that illuminate the oversized dildos and assorted butt plugs that hang along the wall above the liquor. It’s hard to know how big The Vault actually is when you first step foot in the place, since the nether regions beyond the ends of the bar are terrifyingly, tantalizingly dark.

“Early bird special, boys?” the muscled, mustached bartender came to us. He looked like a vestige from a vintage era (circa the porn on the television sets). We must have reeked like rookies.

We ordered a Maker’s, neat, and a vodka soda. (Should have skipped the soda, because the bartender mostly did.) My husband nodded his head in the direction of an imposing wooden structure that looked like the early 20th century electric chairs I had seen in history books in graduate school. It was near the wall next to the bathroom. Or was that the entrance to a dungeon? Hard to tell. I squinted to get a better look. The chair had no proper seat; instead, there was a large orange pylon whose top six or seven inches protruded upwards, beyond the horizon of where one’s ass might sit, should one choose to rest it there. On either side, there were poles with what looked like adjustable wrist-sized straps. I couldn’t decide if all of this was hot or horrifying.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked my husband.

He smiled and turned his attention to the bareback gang-bang on TV.

“First time here?” the bartender placed the two drinks down in front of us, and leaned in.

“Actually, yes!” Then I proceeded to unleash the world’s longest run-on sentence about how we had come to pay our respects (wrong phrase, I know) to my uncle who used to come here (maybe still does?) with his friend (oops, I mean partner) and they met here back in the day and they have a place in Ptown so this is my husband and we’re here on vacation from Boston for the first time and we got married last year but we’re definitely not boring and we decided we wanted to see where it all started for them and also The Vault sounded cool and we know it’s early but we were in the neighborhood for dinner down the street and we’re always up for something new and blah etcetera yeah fuck stop talking.

My husband looked at me as he often does. So I shut up.

“Are they dead?”

The bartender looked confused.

“Oh, no! We aren’t ‘paying our respects’ like that. They’re still alive. Very healthy! We just wanted to visit the place where they first met. We just found out they were more than ‘friends.’ Well, not really, but…we just had dinner at Front Street. Delicious! They went home, but we…they said we’d like it here.”

That look again.

“Oh, they’re just old,” the bartender’s laugh came as a collective relief. “Well, welcome to The Vault, where fantasies really do come true! That’ll be eighteen dollars, gentlemen.” He winked, slapped our twenty on the bar, and shoved it inside the drawer of the old cash register, the kind that sings when it’s stimulated.

We didn’t stay long enough to indulge any fantasies. Between the pylon throne, the old-school porn, and the dildo-butt plug holiday decorations, my ass was starting to get a little nervous. And other folks—mostly bears and daddies—were starting to arrive, looking at us as if they smelled rookie, too. We sucked down our drinks and slapped a couple more bucks on the bar. I knew we’d be back, though. My husband and I like a little dark and dirty from time to time.

For whatever the reason, as we were leaving The Vault, I felt a peculiar urge to call my mother and tell her all about our evening. Over-sharing is something of a vocation for me.

“Mom, we had a great time at dinner! They told us all about their life together! Did you know they’ve been together since the early 1990s? Did you know they met at a leather bar in Provincetown? It’s called The Vault!”

My husband just shook his head. He married a hopeless man.

“That’s great, honey. I’m so glad you and your uncle are spending more time together.”

I didn’t tell her about the pylon or the porn. It would have been too much.

*   *   *   *

Tea Dance

“Tea Dance” takes place outside, in broad daylight, with boys and booze as far as the eye can see. As long as the weather is good—and in the summer months, even when it isn’t—Tea Dance is on, 4-7 p.m. daily, at the Boatslip Resort. “Resort” might be something of an overstatement, unless it means that if every other place in Provincetown is booked, you may have to resort to staying here. Still, I love the double entendre. The gays are famous for this. We really are witty.

I discovered “Tea” during my first trip to Ptown many years ago—before I got gay married but after I got old and fat—and I’ve been coming ever since. I’ll admit, as a middle-aged academic who is also a former college athlete, I am sometimes susceptible to the worst of our prejudices about age (the younger the better) and body type (the fitter the better). Whenever I enter a gay space—especially one dominated by gay men—I worry about whether I’m too fat, too old, and/or too ugly to be there. (Years ago, one of my favorite queens tried to comfort me by saying, “Yeah, but it must feel good to be so smart,” which offered little consolation.) I am not proud of this, of course. But it does help to explain why I always try to surround myself in such venues with loved ones—straight friends, my lesbian sisters, other queer folks like me, people who won’t judge—to serve as an antidote to the chronic self-loathing that sometimes threatens to tear me apart even when I should be having fun. Even when I have every right, as we all do, to be as fucking fierce and free as any person alive. Herein lies my love-hate relationship with things like Tea Dance. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

That day, I did the unthinkable: I went to Tea alone. What’s worse, I arrived early. I planned to meet some folks there, but they were running late. Party of one, your place by the railing near the outdoor bar is ready.

As my friends know, I am never early. So when my hand was stamped by the bouncer at 4:15 p.m., as I walked out onto the nearly empty Boatslip deck, I decided to go to the bathroom—mostly, to bide a bit of time and do one more mirror check before things got crowded.

In Tea terms, “fashionably late” has little to do with fashion, per se, because fashion usually requires clothing, which is often in short supply during Tea. Ever since the bulges in my arms and chest and legs migrated to my belly, I’ve had to be very careful about what to wear, especially during the summer: busy shirts that absorb the sweat without showing it, baggy shorts that are more the former than the latter, colorful sneakers that might distract attention, cool accessories that might start a conversation. It all sounds so pathetic (especially now that I’m writing it down) but at least I know I’m not alone. The struggle is real, people.

Evidently, shit was also getting real in the Boatslip bathroom at 4:15 p.m., where I encountered two young men huddled against one another. They both looked vaguely like Justin Bieber. At first, I thought they might be kissing, which would have been sweet enough, or jerking each other off, which seemed unnecessarily premature given the hour.

“Hey, daddy, do you mind if we do a little coke?”

Daddy? Damn. Not helping.

“Far be it from me to breakup a bathroom bump,” I said with every ounce of alliterative intention (and “Sex and the City” realness) I could muster. I figured: If I have to be a Daddy, godammit, I’m gonna be the cool Daddy.

As I pretended to pee, I heard them snickering, then a few short sniffs, then silence. Finally the bathroom mirror was all mine. I sucked my stomach in and stuck my chin out, pulled my shirt away from the waistline in the hopes that it would stay there, and then walked with over-compensating confidence out onto the still mostly empty deck. I ordered the signature Boatslip rum drink and took my place, alone, by the railing near the outdoor bar.

By the time my friend got there, I was two rum drinks in. They call it “Planter’s Punch,” and I often wonder if “plant” refers to face plant, as in: “if you drink too many of these during Tea, you are likely to do a face plant before you get to Spiritus Pizza.” (I’ve seen more than a few queens meet their demise this way over the years.)

My friend was actually a former student. He was clearly in his element—a charismatic 20-something with just the right mix of smarts and sass to be a big hit in these parts. Truth is, I both admired and envied him, so out and proud at such an early age, with the whole world ahead of him. I suppose he felt similarly about me, given that I had survived the world so far and seemed to be flourishing despite it all. Such is the dynamic, sometimes, between queer professors and queer students—looking backward and forward from the same present, lugging different baggage around in a difficult world that still demands solidarity. I hugged him.

I also bought him a Planter’s Punch of his own as he introduced me to the friends he brought with him: a roommate about his age, and two older men who were probably mine. His roommate, unusually energetic from “pre-gaming,” asked me why I wasn’t “mixing and mingling.”

Without thinking, I said what I always say when random folks approach me at my perch on the margins of a gay club: “Because I’m a Gore Vidal-in-training—aloof and cranky, yet fabulous and well worth the effort.” My student, God bless him, laughed loudly, as did the two men-of-a-certain-age. Blank stares from the roommate, though, who had no idea what I was talking about and definitely needed a good lesson in gay history and Gore Vidal.

After several more rum punches, we were all having a lovely time, soaking in the warm June sun, swaying to the loud pop music, talking politics—which in gay circles usually amounted to a coronation of President Obama—and throwing some shade at the drunk twink who better watch himself tonight and the grown-ass queens who should’ve known better than to wear those tiny lime green thongs and not a damn thing else. (So much for not judging!)

The thing about the rum punch is that you have to pee more than usual. Half hoping I would run into my bathroom bump buddies again, I found myself at the back of a very long line for the loo. When I finally got to the urinal, as if choreographed, Cher’s “Believe” started playing, and I overheard the following exchange:

Young Gay #1: “Cher is playing.”

Young Gay #2: “I thought she was dead.”

Young Gay #3: “I think she’s still alive. She Tweeted something yesterday.”

Feeling fabulous and free, I shouted: “Cher will never die!”

As I turned, an older gay man—older than me—raised his hand in solidarity, gave me a high five, and shouted back: “That’s the best conversation I’ve heard all day!”

When I returned to the deck, the vibe had shifted. I suddenly realized that the four folks I was hanging out with were, well, something of a foursome. One of the older gentlemen leaned in and whispered to me that he had recently met my former student online. The other older gentleman—like me, a college professor—had his hand firmly attached to the roommate’s waist. I was definitely the fifth wheel.

You know what, good for them. But it was clearly time for this professor to grab a single slice at Spiritus and go the hell home.

*   *   *   *

Dick Dock

I learned about the “Dick Dock” in a T-shirt store during my first trip to Ptown many years ago. I knew what “dick docking” was, of course, but I suspected this particular tank top—the color of original Gatorade with big black letters—was referring to something altogether different. So I asked the cashier a rookie question: where is it?

Turns out, the Dick Dock is located right under the Tea Dance deck at the Boatslip. Convenient, I thought: top by day, bottom by night. Made perfect sense.

For those who don’t know, Dick Dock is Provincetown’s version of the myriad public spaces across the United States—parks and truck stops, bathrooms and back alleys, libraries and locker rooms—where gay men and other folks (some queer, some trans, some closeted or “discreet”) go to fuck around. I’ve been to more than a few in my lifetime—the Rambles in New York City, the Fens in Boston, other places I can no longer name—usually late at night, but not always. (One of the best blowjobs I ever got was from an Irish guy on a Sunday morning when both of us should have been at Mass.) These are not safe spaces, in the strictest sense. They are heavily policed, increasingly so over the years, and prone to some dangerous behavior. There is sometimes violence and other criminal activity. People have been beaten and murdered there. But they are also places that promise some degree of sexual freedom, delivered in the dual form of anonymity and promiscuity. Even the occasional politician or celebrity risks power and privilege to visit them every now and then, and one can hardly blame them (unless they are anti-gay Republicans, in which case you should always blog about it). For those of us who are more ordinary—and this was especially true before the Internet—these are places to release sexual tension, find social connection, even make some money in a world that often stigmatizes us for doing any of these things on our own terms.

During an early trip to Ptown, I decided I would visit the Dick Dock. Not to have sex, necessarily, but to check out the scene. I know this must sound ridiculous—and perhaps it’s a lame justification for what didn’t take place—but it’s true: that night, I was more curious than horny. Still, I’ve always maintained that if you’re new to town—even in Ptown—you should make every effort to get to know the lay of the land (so to speak). And that meant getting to the bottom of Tea Dance, after dark.

Following last call at Crown and Anchor, I walked, heart racing, chain smoking, down Commercial Street to the alley on the west side of the Boatslip. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I figured if I ended up in the ocean, I had gone too far. The nearly full moon was reflecting hard on the water. It was brighter than I expected, or wanted. I tried not to get distracted by the terrible beauty of it all. And I kept my head down hoping that the lowered rim of my Yankees hat would hide my nervous eyes. Just before I reached the water’s edge, feet sinking into the shoreline, I began to hear the familiar sounds—the unmistakable grunts and groans, slurping, sucking, stroking—that I had heard in Central Park and the Fenway, and in the other places, usually cities, I had visited. I turned left and made my peace with the sand in my sneakers.

The first thing I saw was a dick. Pretty good dick, actually: thick, pink, good head, getting hard in his hand. He reached to see mine. I waved him off without speaking, like some kind of gay Obi-Wan Kenobi: this isn’t the dick you’re looking for. On any given night, I might have sucked or jerked him off—or asked for the same. But honestly, as I was getting older, I was also getting smarter (if that’s what you call it) about whipping my dick out in public. And that night, I had promised myself that I was there only in my role as cultural anthropologist—the Margaret Mead of mutual masturbation.

(Speaking of smart, I can’t help but contemplate how much has changed in the age of smartphones. When I first started having public sex in my mid-twenties, we didn’t have the luxury of the treacherous technological threesome of cell phones with built-in camera and internet. Hell, we barely had cell phones or internet! Back in the day, if you wanted to have sex with a stranger, you either had to call someone and have phone sex, chat with someone on your home computer and then arrange a time and place to meet, or roam around the park and hope for the best. Clearly I’m no prude—and I’m certainly not at all interested in policing anyone else’s behavior or good time—but damn if smartphones don’t freak me out when it comes to fucking. Nowadays, I feel like you really do have to be smarter about whipping your dick out—or just not give a fuck—lest you find yourself in a Facebook Live porn shoot accompanied by Instagram stills and Snapchat play-by-play. It’s enough to make you want to stay home, fire up RedTube, and jerk off like old school. But I digress.)

The scene that night could only have happened during lower tide. Dozens of men, perhaps a hundred or so total, strewn all along the underbelly of the deck: some in larger groups doing their thing; some in pairs or threesomes getting it on; some alone, still—or just—looking. Among the latter, I walked along the shoreline, trying my best to avoid eye contact, taking it all in but talking to no one. The things that struck me about the Dick Dock are the same things that always strike me about spaces like this: it was the most diverse group of people—in terms of age, race, ethnicity, class, body type, everything but gender—that I had seen in any one place all day; many of us had seen each other at various bars and clubs earlier in the night, which didn’t seem to faze anyone; no one appeared to want anything more, in terms of a “relationship,” than what they were getting in that moment; and the sex was both ample and consensual. On that night, at least, the Dick Dock seemed like a genuinely safe space, protected and un-policed, a local myth I accepted without question until I heard that a dead man’s body washed up on that very shore several years after my visit.

As I walked east to the opposite end of the Dick Dock, away from the masses of men, a cute young guy approached me—broad chest, short hair, tall as me, cautious smile, the kind of man I might have invited home if I were in a different mood and place.

“Where you going?” He was a smoker, too.

Then he grabbed my crotch through my shorts. I hesitated, but it felt good. I closed my eyes and leaned into him. He kept his hand there for a minute or two, rubbing, until I started to get hard. I was about to return the favor, but when his warm breath touched my neck, I pulled away. I looked right at him, almost smiled, and fumbled for my cigarettes.

“Need to go, man. Good luck.”

I meant it. Because sometimes, when you’re lonely, you go home alone.


Photo ” Provincetown” by Tom Head ; licensed under CC BY 2.0

Timothy Patrick McCarthy
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