Assault at the Midtowne Spa, Los Angeles; Or, How Sex History Can End With a Bang

Things had been going downhill for quite a while, and I say this not just because of my age (I was born in 1960), but also because of a historical trend: back when I got started being active, way back in 1980 just before AIDS when Greenwich Village was still at its peak, there used to be great bars and the Great American Baths; no one had heard about condoms; people like me would think nothing of finding ten partners a night. Now we are in 2019 (happy new year) and the trend that was all set to last forever in a perpetual delirium-bath of orgies, fizzled out, and it wasn’t just AIDS that did it; what finally killed off the old style was the Internet and especially the Smartphone. Now everyone is on an app called Grindr sending nude pictures to fifty potential partners a night in the hope of reeling in one of them. Some people under thirty spend most of their lives on Grindr.

And then one day I saw that the great Hollywood Spa had just shut down. It wasn’t a surprise. Business had been lousy and it was like a ghost-town. But that was a moment: when I walked up to the front door of the Hollywood Spa and saw a note: Closed For Business Please Try Our Other Facility in North Hollywood… I knew that was the end of an era. You’d think people would get the message and make the long trek from Hollywood to North Hollywood, but it didn’t happen. The crowd never moved anywhere except to oblivion. Then, three years later I noticed one of the world’s last remaining sex clubs, the Zone, had let all their valets go—it wasn’t worth it to keep them around because business was so slow. It’s just a matter of time now…

And the online thing, to which I was addicted for so long, that died too. How? After I got a dog who was not fooled by “Dog TV” (to entertain him while I was away) I realized that I myself was not fooled by screenfuls of youths from New Zealand who wouldn’t show their faces and just typed me messages. Yes, there was a camera, but after a while even the camera got old. Even the chat rooms started losing business and we (I) started living life as a sort of Incel.

The last remaining place  (until last Saturday night) was the Midtowne Spa, located literally in the middle of Skid Row, outside downtown L.A. And not the Midtowne Spa any night of the week, but only once a month when they turned the lights out—literally, and the males partied in the dark. I could almost make believe it was 1980 again. Until I was assaulted.

It happened last Saturday. I got there late at night hoping there wouldn’t be a long line to get in, because who wants to wait for 30 minutes on Skid Row? I was right. There was no line, and I found parking safely in the structure next door. But: inside the bathhouse, the crowd had thinned out drastically compared to the other times I’d been there on lights-out night. After a shower I walked through the dark just in my towel, just like 1980. I walked into the darkest room. I approached two men doing the deed of darkness in the dark and hoped to join in (by this time my eyes had adapted a bit so I could make out something). One of the two seemed interested and motioned for me to join. The other one pushed me away. When I tried a second time, he pushed me away more forcefully, and in front of everyone in the almost dark, I fell down a small set of stairs within the room. A bit shaken and without any clothes I just sat there, hoping I hadn’t made too much a fool of myself. But I was naked, so I reached for my towel, which I’d left up the three steps where the couple was, and as I reached, one of them held on to the towel and wouldn’t let go. We had a tug of war for maybe five seconds, and then I felt it: unlike anything since  the seventh grade. It was like a baseball bat hit me in the face, it was that hard, like bone-crushing strength. I didn’t know what hit me. I just sat there shaken. I was so shaken I said “Sorry” (for trying to reclaim my towel?). I sat there dazed and the two abruptly left. I never saw their faces. And: my towel lay there, so someone had realized “his mistake” after all.

Later, I looked in a mirror. Nothing. No blood, no bruising–on the outside.  I could feel it though, and I still feel it, like when I kiss my dog on the nose I still feel where the fist or bat or foot slammed into my face.

For the first time in almost forty years I have nowhere to go. Except maybe Barcelona…

Or: an angel spoke? God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself? If  I weren’t in the midst of reading all these Enlightenment philosophers, I might almost believe that.

 

 

 

Requiem for Squirt City, Phukenburg

This 35-minute play is about a typical night in a chat room. Zulima is a camgirl, surrounded by hungry men. Late in the evening, an old man appears and tells the crowd he’s just taken thirty tablets of Ambien and wants to confess his life’s secrets.

Director’s Statement:

In our current post-truth world, where the sifting, delineation, and dissemination of information through social media platforms has blurred the lines of what is considered fact or fiction, the idea of masks, where an individual can hide behind a particular character and persona, has translated to the dark corners of the internet in an almost inhumane capacity. People now feel emboldened to say whatever they want without repercussions, whether one agrees or not with what is being said. And if there are repercussions, what is the actual resolution without muddying the outcome more? Relativism at its finest. There are no absolute truths. Where does that continuum end? My hope is to show the character Natasha representing the one shining light in this play within an already dark world, to combat the distortion of facts and truth.  – Jed Alexander

A few observations now that the Hollywood Fringe Festival has been over for two months…

I was inspired to write down these thoughts, and post the pictures below, when I found out that I might not be able to get access to a video recording of my first play. A video was done by my co-producer but, due to my lack of experience as a producer and my carelessness, I didn’t inquire about it in a timely way. When I finally did, two months after Fringe was over, it was too late: the co-producer, Justin Key, and the director, Jed Alexander, both gave me the cold shoulder. And when that happened, I panicked: “Maybe it was all a dream. No video. Disowned by my collaborators. Did it really happen? Crying for Squirt City!”

The play—Nights in Squirt City, Phukenburg—was, in my book, a success. Jed did a fine job. He was complimentary about my writing. He worked extremely hard. He assembled a fabulous group of actors. When we really started rehearsing, it was a joy to see it all come together.

And yet..

There were three big issues as we prepared our project. First of all, since it’s a festival with four hundred shows, rehearsal spaces and times for the shows are inconvenient and limited. Second, people kept dropping out due to the shocking and dark nature of the story. Third, I never really developed a great rapport with Jed.

This happened the night of the table read: I arrived at his apartment building early. We were supposed to use the community room for our reading. Since I was early and didn’t feel like waiting in the street, I asked some neighbors if they would let me into the building, and they said yes. I walked into the community room, and a few minutes later Jed saw me as he came in from another entrance: “What are you doing here? Why did they let you in? It’s outrageous that people off the street are being let in! Hold on, I’m going to text the management …” And for the next five minutes that was all he could think of.

Once, I  wrote a five-hundred word email explaining my intentions in a scene, and he wrote back, “All very unclear.” In some basic way, we never clicked.

What  drove me crazy was that Jed kept referring to the setting of my piece as the “dark web.” It’s not the dark web by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a chat room.

But after fifty to a hundred lengthy messages, he finally understood and ended up with a good show. I was pleased with the result (with one flaw I won’t go into now).

In other words, the finished product was an island of perfection in a sea of chaos.

It came as a blow to me to realize that not only did I not have a video of our play but that both the people I’d worked so closely with have moved on and washed their hands of me. Maybe when you’re Done in Hollywood you really are DONE.

As for that Justin Key…He’s got 9,000 Facebook friends plus six hundred followers, and every little bit of show business wisdom he imparts to his fans (mostly former and current students at AMDA) gets at least 150 likes (“You rock, Justin!” “Dope!” “Yeah!”), but there’s no substance behind the glitzy façade. During the months we worked together, he’d occasionally vanish for days on end. “Justin will work magic for us, you’re gonna love it!”  Our Justin may be a popular and charismatic mentor at his junior college, but he did next to nothing when it came to social media, promoting, getting postcards and posters made, reaching out to other shows, coming up with creative ideas to attract an audience, or going to Fringe workshops and meetings.

The cast couldn’t have been more different: the lovely Zulima, the enthusiastic Andrew and Jonathan, the loud and funny Arnie, the profound Joe… I miss them. What happened to our little community? With every day that passes, the lines these actors spoke disappear further from memory…

I’m now in the midst of my next project, Revocable Trust. Of course I will make sure to hire a videographer. But, beyond that, I find myself rebelling against the fleetingness and maybe even the futility of theatre. All that work. All those meetings. All that time. For what?  On the other hand, now that I’m working with a pro—John Coppola—I’m beginning to sense that the process as well as the product can be fulfilling and satisfying.

That’s me with Jonathan Moreno.

The full cast. Clockwise: Jonathan Moreno (Chorus 2); Arnie Ellis (Moderator); Joe Hulser (WishMaster911); Andrew Moreno (Chorus 1); and Zulima Tristancho (Natasha).

 

Zulima Tristancho as Natasha, a Russian camgirl in a chat room.

Jed Alexander (left); Zulima Tristancho (center); Arnie Ellis (right)

Arnie Ellis, Jonathan Moreno, Zulima Tristancho, and Andrew Valenzuela.

Justin Key, Alex M. Frankel, Jed Alexander, and Brandon Molnar (projectionist).