I interviewed Saul in 2011 for a project about sex addiction that never came to fruition, at least in the form I had originally envisioned. A sixty-something native of Bensonhurst, he had the most delicious speaking voice, which I dare describe as a potion of equal parts Jewish, gay, and old-school Brooklyn. But it was his untapped authorial voice that moved me to develop our conversation into a monologue, unburdened by an interviewer’s questions, and strung together into a reflection on the intersection of sexuality, religion, and identity in the 1960s and 70s.
I didn’t have sex until I was already out of college, and was a social worker. I decided I wanted to have sex with men. I said, “I’ll try this and see,” and I went with hustlers who were—some of them were attractive, but it didn’t go well because they were on 42nd Street, and it was a very degrading area and it was only about money. And then I realized it’s really not what I wanted. But I started with the hustlers, because that was what was available. It was before Stonewall. So that was what you did: You went in a dark area. You can go to a bathhouse, which I didn’t do; you could go to a movie house, which I didn’t do; but you could go to 42nd and pick up people who were…that way, so that’s what I did.
I only got my information through reading gay novels like City of Night, and things like that, and I might take notes on that and use that as a reference. But that’s a novel; that’s not really historical, so it just didn’t fit when I would go to 42nd. The way I’d approach people was not…they did it in the novel—but they don’t do that in New York City that way, like saying, “Are you a hustler? How much do you want?” That’s what I got out of these books.
The first experience wasn’t very good, but I figured nobody knew about it, so… And I had some people that liked me, some hustlers that I became their regular customer. They liked me very much. They had girlfriends on the side, so, um, like once, one guy said, “You’re the only gay man I allow. I’ve broken off with this because my girlfriend doesn’t want me to do it, but I keep you—you’re the last one.” So I was sort of a privileged character.
Even if they couldn’t perform—some of them were on drugs, you know—I would just leave the money and not have sex with them. I felt good about that, that I just…the guy was so out of it, you could see. So I would leave the ten dollars and go. But we went to the shitty hotels, flea-bitten hotels. That’s where these hustlers would take you. The rent was so cheap, it was five dollars for the night, and I’d say I wanna have sex—and he’s already out, he’s on the bed sleeping, and drooling a little bit, and their noses all red from the drugs, you know. But I paid. Even where it was not dirty and filthy you could still get sick. This hustler had a beautiful apartment with fish tank and beautiful bed, you know, just like—and I caught parasites from him.
I moved to California to help my brother in Los Angeles, and I was living in Beverly Hills, and went on leave of absence from my job as a social worker. I was doing really well by the way—got very good evaluations—and I went on a leave to help my brother who was an alcoholic. He had that Los Angeles lifestyle of drugs and goofballs and liquor, and my family said, “Well, go out there and help him. He’s staying in bed all day and sleeping and drinking and drugging and all these women hustlers…whores. He had all these street girls—what do you call them?—prostitutes, those types, and he’s hanging out with call girls. Some of them were street, others were really high class. And go and see if you can help him out.” I couldn’t help him. I myself picked up on some of the laziness. I went to work at one in the afternoon. I used to go to these discos there that just opened up in 1968-69, and I went to the discos, and the guys in L.A. looked much better than the guys in New York. They took their t-shirts off, they had these beautiful bodies, and they had long hair. And so that’s when I started with the becoming a disco queen in L.A. There was a place called Zeros which, during the week, was a famous nightclub; it would become The Patch on the weekend. The Patch was an all-gay giant disco. And everyone had a car so I would drive there. I had a white Cadillac. And all these palm trees, the weather was nice. But I wasn’t happy because it the L.A. living wasn’t no love affair, it was just all pleasure orientated, you know?
I became addicted to disco, and I stopped with the hustlers because I met somebody who was walking on the street, who was very good looking, and I didn’t know he was a hustler. I thought he was a student or something, and I talked to him and said let’s have lunch together. So he went home with me to my house and we had sex and he was very handsome: blond hair, blue eyes, a hippy with the long hair. Thing was, I didn’t realize he was probably hustling to survive, and he joined the Marines to straighten out, and he became my boyfriend. He’d be in the Marines and visit me, come flying in from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He would fly in and I would pay for the airline tickets and we would stay the whole weekend together and then, after the weekend was over, he’d have to go back. And so that was like what I consider to be my boyfriend because he was the only one I had, and I was the only one he had, so he and I hit it off well. But in the end we broke up over money. I couldn’t keep up sending him to his family—airline tickets—he needed to go to visit his mother who was very sick, and his brother who was in a car accident. So I’d send him to Louisiana and then bring him back, then send him to North Carolina and bring him back, and I couldn’t keep it up, you know? And so he went back into the straight world, but I knew for sure he was gay because this lasted for about three years.
I was a little blue but I didn’t go back to the hustlers, I just went to the disco world, which was now flourishing in New York. Sybil’s had just come over from England. It was Sybil Burton’s, the ex-wife of Richard Burton—she took the divorce money and she opened up Sybil’s, and I used to go there with my straight friends. Then, I went to another one Andy Warhol had: Electric Circus. This is before I came out as gay, and I would go in and be dressed to kill: sequin jackets and glitter and white fur coat and large platform shoes made in Brazil, and silk pants, you know the look—the look of the Bee Gees, but all super hyped up, and I would go and I would have a good time dancing and all that. I never found Mr. Wonderful on the dance floor, but I did show up. I went to all those discos including Studio 54. After all, if movie stars go there it must be ok. Everything the movie stars did was good for me.
I went back to being a social worker—this time they needed me as a probation officer. I took the test and I got a very high score and they hired me on the spot and I started to work with teenage kids and I was very good at it—got very good reviews—and it lasted about fifteen years, and the only thing was, that at night, I’d go out cruising these gay bars and go to the gay discos, but during the day I’d be very straight with these kids, telling them that they shouldn’t go out dancing and all that. I was still a religious boy going to synagogue, but I’d also be going to the bathhouses and to the back rooms, which had opened up.
The Anvil. International Stud—I went there, it was my first one. I went with my friend, and he disappeared the whole night. Then we went to the Toilet. We went to Crisco’s. These were the names! Toilet, Crisco’s, and, uh, there was Asstrick—A-S-S-T- R-I-C—the Vault. Each one kinda had their people would ejaculate—no full sex, only ejaculation wearing jock straps. The worst one, one I would not go to, was the Mineshaft because Mineshaft had tubs where people would defecate into the tubs with men in them, and there were levels of, like, Dante’s Inferno, so you went lower and lower, and some men wore masks because they were doing such terrible sex acts they wanted no one to see.
The bathhouses had fantasy rooms, some with trucks inside of them—giant trucks inside a room, because the meat trucks along the West Side Highway were popular sex spots. They’d have other fantasy rooms with pillows and cushions—Arabian Nights. I’d go up and down the staircase—couldn’t wait for the elevator. I would just run up and down and up and down. There were like fourteen flights of stairs, different levels of the bathhouse, and I’d go to each one. Run up and then down and up again to see if I would meet somebody, you know?
When you went to the back rooms you could hardly move, your arms were just jammed against you. There were people fisting each other, there were people in swings, going back and forth naked in swings. It looked like Berlin in the thirties—it was so decrepit. Downstairs there was regular sex. That was gay men who were not necessarily addicts. Underneath there, there was another floor that was the addicts—those were the ones who weren’t doing well with, you know, normal sex, so I went there where people stayed till eight in the morning, and I was very unhappy, and I would always have trouble leaving. I’d say, “Ten more minutes and I’m gonna go,” until it’d be eight o’clock in the morning. That was when I knew I was in trouble, because I couldn’t leave until they closed the place up! We’d come out; the light, the sun would get us in the eyeballs. The sun. Like in a movie. It was grueling and exhausting, just to get somebody you think is going to make you happy, and all you got was a little more sex.
I prayed to god to save me in certain places when I could not leave. I was able to finally get out of these places because I turned to God instead of the guy next to me. I said, “Help me out.” I said, “God, you gotta get me out of this place. I’ve been here ten hours and I still haven’t met Mr. Wonderful.” So, that kind of discontinuity, this brokenness of one’s life ‘cause you’ve been in a dark place all night—and the smell is awful. Urine, smells of urine and poppers and marijuana got into your clothing. Some people liked it.
But it was very dangerous. People got stabbed. I got robbed several times. They got my jewelry ‘cause I wear jewelry. I wear a lot of jewelry because when I was kid we just lacked it. We didn’t have any jewelry at all, and it was nice to have. Now I can wear jewelry if I want to. It’s inexpensive stuff but it’s flashy, you know? And I find it very comforting for some reason. It’s just like, ‘cause I didn’t have it when I was young, you know? And I have some very very beautiful jewelry. I only wear it on the weekends. Like, I have gold and diamonds that people gave me. Gold necklaces. I wear that on Friday and Saturday for the Sabbath. That’s good stuff. This is just inexpensive jewelry I wear during the week. So that, that gives me a sense of, like, abundance? Something like that, you know? But my friend had his wallet stolen. I had someone put the mark of Zorro on my shirt with a razor blade. I went outside and I felt a little draft and sure enough, this big Z—this beautiful shirt, silk shirt, and somebody had taken a razor blade and put a Z like that on the back. I once met these two kids there, they were about 12 years old, having sex there with a man, and it was just, oh my gosh, they’re letting anybody in.
I didn’t realize…I thought that was gay life. We didn’t know. We thought that that was what being gay was: Party at somebody’s friend’s house, disco, bathhouse, afterwards we’d eat ice cream sodas at one of these places on Sheridan Square, and then go to the trucks, and then go to the piers, and after the piers, go into the bushes in Central Park, and that was the gay life. It was nothing; it was just pure sex. Loads of sex, sex, sex on top of sex, but all in the dark, and I remember praying at the baths, “God, get me out!” ‘cause they’re all skinny shaved-headed guys on these bunks, and it looked just like Auschwitz, and, “Oh, God, get me out of these bathhouses, I hate it!” I thought gay and slut and addict is all the same thing, and it’s not. I realized that, in South Dakota, a backroom was where you keep the beer. I thought everything was a backroom for gay men, you see?
But there were human moments. Sometimes people used to tap me on the head when I was having sex with them. Tenderness was important—male-to-male tenderness. But what I went through to get that was really not.Was it worth all that effort to get that tenderness? A tap on the head is nice, but let’s face it, after paying ten bucks and going up the twelve flights of stairs to the fantasy room, and ten flights down again…
I had sex with a man once and he was having a wonderful time and he—it was funny because he jumped off this box and landed on a dolly—he had no legs. So he rolled himself outta the back room. I said, my gosh, he has no feet, this man, you know? I said, “Well, he had a good time…that’s, you know. Always looking for some positive. He had a good time. But my point is that’s how little we knew about people.
What really bugged me was the utter discontinuity in my life between my values and principles and my behavior. Once, friends of mine were getting married, I had just been with a hustler on 42nd Street, and all I had time was to run from the hustler, which was very unsatisfying sex, you know, and it was only twenty bucks in those days, and I remember I went to the temple and the rabbis were all blessing the people, and I couldn’t go right in because I had to check my face for pubic hairs. There’s holy people, weddings, and me coming from a hustler—this clashing of different worlds that didn’t seem to fit. There’s this kind of like, something’s happened, I’ve fallen through a crack in the universe and I can’t get out. This sense of sordidness, living in the life of sordid degradation—this awful feeling like you have this filthy rag on your body because you know what you’ve really been doing. Some people love that, but it wasn’t for me—to live a sordid nightlife, which in New York was very easy to do because they had regular bars and mafia bars and regular bathhouses and specialty bathhouses and fantasy bathhouses, and it was very easy to just go from one to another. That’s not what I really wanted, but I thought happiness would be found there, and it was an illusion. Happiness is never found in a back room.
And I’d go home so unsatisfied because the real beauties were not interested in me. The real beauties were interested in the other beauties, you know? They’d have, like, the Greek bodies and blond hair and blue eyes and tall and handsome. So, in other words, you go out for a positive experience, and you would endure rejection after rejection, but even that would feed my addiction because I would say, “I’ll have my revenge tomorrow. I’ll be back again!” So, you see, that was the pull. That was the pull of the gay life.
Matt Siegel is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He has previously written for Gawker, The Hairpin, The Huffington Post, and Flaunt Magazine.
Photo captured from here