To the left of me, four men were having sex. Only two of them were actually looking at each other.
Romance didn't much enter into it.
The men, in their late 20s or early 30s, sat on wide stairs built into one wall of the dimly lit, high-ceilinged "erotic video lounge" at the Compound, the best-known gay bathhouse in the San Fernando Valley. About a dozen others, naked or wearing only white towels around their waists, sat around the room. Some casually watched while others, including two of the four men who were fondling each other, stared at porn films on video monitors high on the walls.
The sex on the screen, featuring three men in hard hats, was a good deal more vigorous than what was going on in the room. No one in the room talked.
I moved on. One gay man's erotica is another's boredom.
The Compound is a survivor. A decade ago, Los Angeles boasted slick, high-tech bathhouses famous throughout the gay world. But as the specter of AIDS darkened the mid-1980s, the baths came under fire as places where unsafe, multi-partner sex spread the disease.
Some in the gay community decried this crackdown as officialdom using acquired immune deficiency syndrome as an excuse to inhibit their lifestyles. Others countered with an argument that essentially said: It's an epidemic, stupid.
It was an argument with no easy answer for those of us who treasured individual freedom but also grabbed onto any measure that might curb AIDS.
Eventually, many of the high-profile baths closed. A new generation of gay men arrived at a time when bathhouses were neither chic nor a political statement. Less than a decade after their heyday, bathhouses seem old-fashioned, if not quaint.
The Compound in North Hollywood is low-profile and low-tech, more like a dowdy hotel than a pleasure palace. Windowless, with a plain brown facade, it sits in a drab industrial/retail area beside the Valley Community Clinic. Inside the front door sat a cashier, behind glass.
"This is my first time here," I said.
"Do you know where you are?" he asked.
I said yes, he explained anyway and told me the three cardinal rules: "No alcohol, no drugs, no unsafe sex." I slipped $13 under the glass.
He buzzed me through a door bearing a sign: "This club caters to adult gay men. . .If you are offended by any aspect of this lifestyle, do not enter."
Inside, disco music with an incessant beat and no discernible lyrics came from overhead speakers. The attendant directed me to a shelf of brochures on safe sex and two fishbowls of free condoms. Bathhouse owners under siege have long maintained their establishments are safe sex educational centers.
He gave me a locker key, checked my valuables and issued me the standard apparel--a towel.
Upstairs was the video lounge, which one suspects in past times was the orgy room. Most of the men that Saturday night simply sat with their towels wrapped around them, watching the video. There was some physical contact, but not much--and little apparent emotional interaction.
There was, however, a lot of "attitude" on display--it did not seem cool in most cases to add anything to the action that might be interpreted as affection.
No idle chitchat. Even a casual attempt at a journalistic interview would have been about as welcome as a Department of Health raid.
The more heavy-duty sex presumedly took place in 33 private rooms that could be rented for the night for fees ranging from $10 for a room about the size of a sofa to $25.
All the rooms had been taken. There was a waiting list for vacancies.
Men cruised the hallways in this section, peering into open doorways. What they saw, generally, was a man lying on the mat, waiting. If the cruiser liked what he saw, he might linger outside the door hoping for an invitation to come in and close the door.
One man, wearing a baseball cap, stood outside a room containing a man sitting cross-legged on a mat, smoking a cigarette. The cruiser stood there while at least two cigarettes were smoked, but no invitation came. Finally, he walked away.
Sometimes, the doors were left open while the sex was happening inside. In one of the small rooms, five men were engaged in a scene so crowded and convoluted that it more resembled the stateroom bit in "A Night At The Opera" than a bacchanal.
There was an important difference. In "A Night At The Opera," people seemed to be having fun.
Why would a gay man go to a place like this? The obvious answer is: for uninvolved, anonymous sex. But there is more, here.
Behind the walls of a bathhouse lies a totally homosexual world unlike anywhere on the outside. Even on the streets of gay enclaves such as West Hollywood, there are billboards showing heterosexual couples, straight love songs on the radio and plenty of reminders ranging from magazine covers to movie posters that to be gay in this society is to be different.
Except in the rarely visited TV room downstairs, where "Benny Hill" was showing when I first entered the bathhouse, there were no such influences inside the Compound. It may not be an edifying atmosphere, but it's at least one where being gay is not outside the norm.
On the way out of the bathhouse, I stopped downstairs in the TV lounge where some of the men seen engaged in sex upstairs were taking a rest. The nearby dry sauna was deserted.
Not so the steam room. The steamy atmosphere there had inspired at least a couple of men to get together. Here, partly hidden by the fog, the public display of sex did seem to have more an element of affection to it. But after a couple of minutes, one of the men turned and left.
He did not say, "We will always have the Compound." No one said anything at all.