One afternoon a few weeks after I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I would spend the next four years teaching high school English, a friend and I were wandering around downtown, exploring the city without any particular aim in mind. We were crossing beneath the National Palace of Culture — a series of underground walkways, called podlezi in Bulgarian, connect the avenues on either side — when we saw with relief (we both needed to piss) the painted blue sign for a public toilet. I still don’t know what tipped me off as we began the long descent to the little booth at the bottom of the stairs where a woman would take our 50 stotinki; there was no one else around, and there was no graffiti scratched on the walls or sounds coming from the rooms around the corner, past the woman’s booth. Maybe it was some chemical signature in the air that made me turn to my friend, who was straight, and tell him that it was a bathroom where men were having sex, that he should be quick and use a stall, that he shouldn’t look at anyone unless he intended an invitation. I could barely speak Bulgarian at this point, everything about the mores of life above ground continued to baffle me; but as we turned into the three chambers of the bathrooms beneath the National Palace of Culture I was suddenly an expert, each man I saw communicating by nonverbal codes that were far easier for me to read than the Cyrillic of Bulgarian street signs. I read them without any effort at all; I’d been using them my entire adult life. As I returned to those bathrooms over the next weeks, the next months and years, I communicated by means of the codes I first learned in the parks and bathrooms of Louisville, Kentucky, the communities where I first came into a sense of myself as a gay man and where I first experienced queerness as a source not only of shame but also of joy. And it was the experience of cruising, though my adolescent self would never have guessed it, though I wasn’t writing at all in those years, that first prepared me to be a poet.
It was the experience of cruising that first prepared me to be a poet.
But really I want to say something stronger than that: not just that cruising made me a poet, but also that cruising itself is a kind of poetry, that the two phenomena, as I experience them, can serve as similes for each other. Cruising carves out intimacies in public space in the same way poetry carves out intimacies in public discourse; and cruising is also itself a kind of discourse, with codes that have to be secret in plain sight, legible to those in the know but able to pass beneath general notice, like one of Wyatt’s sonnets. Both poetry and cruising have a structure that is essentially epiphanic, offering the sudden, often ecstatic revelation of a meaning that emerges from the inchoate stuff of quotidian life. As poetry declares a system of value incomprehensible to the world of Yeats’ “bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen,” a value different from that of commerce and instrumental usefulness, so cruising depends on an idea of the value of human interactions shorn of the usual institutions that mark that value. And, maybe most profoundly, both poetry and cruising are arts of loneliness and the assuagement of loneliness.
I don’t have a distinct memory now of the first time I cruised or the first man I met, but I do remember the first time I understood what cruising was. I was at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, where I spent a few weeks one summer in a camp for kids who had scored well on a standardized test. We were left largely to our own devices in the early evenings after our classes, or at least that’s how I remember it, and one afternoon I happened upon a bathroom tucked in a corner of the student center. I didn’t see anyone cruising that day, or any other day — probably in the summer months trade was slow, or maybe seeing a kid hanging out there scared everybody off — but I did see the messages men left for one another, notes and obscene drawings in the stalls, a kind of hieroglyphics I pored over with an excitement I’d never felt before. There were huge erupting cocks and spread-open asses and scrawled promises and terms, dates and times and phone numbers and the occasional plea in a tone whose urgency I recognized: I sucked you off here last Wednesday, I want to see you again, please call me. Pre-internet personals. Those notes were the first real evidence I had that the world might offer some answer to the desire I felt. I went back to this bathroom again and again, each day choosing a different stall, reading the walls and feeling, as I jerked off, the easing of a deep loneliness. How natural, then, that years later I should feel an affinity for poetry, which also requires the tuning of one’s sensibility to catch occult frequencies. Cruising, the ability to find a hidden significance in a public place, gave me a feeling not of exclusion but election, and I felt something similar when I found meaning in Bishop or Hayden or Stevens that was lost on others. It was the sensing of a value made only more dear by going largely unrecognized.
This strange point of contact between my adolescence in Kentucky and my adulthood in Bulgaria, a feeling of homecoming in foreignness that occurred again and again in my years in Sofia, served as the spark for my first novel, which begins in the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, and traces a relationship between an American narrator and a young man he meets there and pays for sex. One of the things I want to do in my work is portray cruising places with something like the richness they have in my experience of them, a richness entirely lost in homophobic narratives that cast them solely as places of violence and disease, of a dirtiness ascribed not only to physical spaces but to the people who frequent them. There’s no room in these narratives for what I’ve sometimes found in those spaces, which is an intimacy whose value is independent of duration, a lyric value, I’m tempted to say, which seems to me inexhaustible: moments of mutual recognition that are profound and merit reverence.
I don’t intend to romanticize these spaces — or maybe I do, a little, and maybe they deserve a little romance after decades of denigration.
I don’t intend to romanticize these spaces — or maybe I do, a little, and maybe they deserve a little romance after decades of denigration. They can be dangerous, people are assaulted in them, or robbed, or used in instrumental or dehumanizing ways, all of which is to say that they’re spaces where human beings act in human ways. They’re also spaces in which the radical potential of queerness still inheres, a potential that has been very nearly expunged from a mainstreaming, homonormative vision of gay life. Part of the threat of queerness has always been the specter of rootlessness, not just because queer lives often form bonds outside monogamous, child-centered family units, but also because queerness itself is a kind of free radical, appearing willy-nilly in every population and allowing for identification across the usual lines of allegiance. Surely this is part of what makes queer literature and art so cosmopolitan, so vital and wide-ranging in its affiliations. In my own case, at least, Mishima and Cavafy and Baldwin and Guibert all addressed me with equal intimacy when I was a teenager in Kentucky. They all spoke to me the secret of myself.
Like those books, cruising zones are staging grounds for boundary-crossing identifications. The bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture attract men of all different backgrounds, men unlikely ever to meet in their workaday lives. In Cherokee Park in Kentucky, I met men everything in my life seemed designed to separate me from: men of color, men from different parts of town, from different class backgrounds, all drawn by desire to a space where the usual categories by which we organize our lives — race, class — can be scrambled by desire. Of course those categories didn’t fall away in any permanent way; we went back to different worlds, with different horizons of possibility, after the moments we spent together. But the days and nights we spent in the park perforated lives we often work to seal off in communities that seem ever more narrowly construed. Cruising spaces enable face-to-face encounters across gulfs of difference and privilege, encounters that take place beyond the structuring gaze of authority and often, at least initially, under the liberating cover of anonymity. Anytime you have a face-to-face encounter, I think, you have a moment of possibility that can engage the whole range of emotional and moral response; you have the potential for a kind of ethical spark, tenuous, fragile, almost certainly destined to fail, just possibly transformative. “The erotic functions for me in several ways,” the great poet Audre Lorde wrote. “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” It’s a Romantic idea, fantastical, surely untrue. And yet the hope of it seems valuable to me.
“Physical joy” is a good phrase for what I’ve often found in these places, and maybe it’s part of what explains their durability. Like poetry, cruising zones are constantly said to be on the verge of disappearance. Cruising communities were responses to circumstances of oppression that have passed, this prediction goes — a claim both parts of which seem dubious to me — and so they will disappear now that they’re no longer needed. But it’s hard to sustain this argument in the face of the reality that they haven’t disappeared, that they persist even in the places of greatest queer privilege. In Midtown Manhattan, just blocks from the slick, commercial gay bars of Hell’s Kitchen, the video stores on 8th Avenue are thriving cruising communities, where regulars greet one another by name, chatting when trade is slow. Maybe if these communities persist even in the zones of greatest freedom for gay people, they serve a function greater than the need for secrecy — maybe they aren’t merely havens for shame, maybe they have their own undomesticated joy. Another argument would have it that apps like Grindr have made these communities obsolete. But again it’s difficult to explain the persistence of analog cruising, or the fact that often enough offline and digital cruising happen side by side: Go to a cruising place today and you’ll see men cruising with their phones in hand, on- and offline at once.
Physical cruising, as I experience it, is more valuable, richer both sensually and ethically, than online cruising. If the kind of cruising I grew up with is poetry, then Grindr isn’t just prose, but Strunk and White, prose stripped to function. The circulation of bodies in physical space allows for a greater possibility of being surprised by desire, of having an unexpected response to the presence of another. In online cruising, as in pornography, the reality of another’s body is to a very great extent erased in its reduction to an image. When I cruise in real life, a man whose framed torso might have seemed unremarkable catches me by the way he moves, or the way he smells, or by the tone of his voice or heat of his glance or by any of the million other traits we lose when we reduce ourselves to a short list of a stats, a little boxed image on a screen. Online cruising allows us to determine too much, to search or filter by age, body type, race. Swiping left, it seems to me, is always a degraded response to another human person. Distance-based apps, especially in dense urban centers, often offer nothing beyond a particular neighborhood or block, canceling out much of the radical potential of cruising zones. Most fundamentally, staring at a screen of profiles I often feel deadened, inattentive, dazed, full of a longing for which there’s no satisfaction, at once in need and desperately bored. In a bathroom or park or video store, with the reality of other bodies around me, fucking or longing to fuck, I’m almost never bored, I feel quick with animal alertness.
I feel physically alive in these spaces, in my body and attentive to the bodies of others; I also feel more acutely than at any other time the proximity of the physical and the metaphysical, the way our bodies are keys to something we sense lies beyond them. This is what makes them lyric spaces, I think. I don’t really believe in any realm beyond the physical, but I do believe in art, which is what I do with those intimations of metaphysics. Art is where I try to put the overflow of feeling — wonder, gratitude, maybe it’s fair to say love — that sometimes fills the bathroom stalls or video booths where I experience the body of another. At times it seems to me as if, as in some 17-century poem, all the value of the teeming world is concentrated there. What does it matter if I don’t exchange names with a man, if I never see him again, why should that lessen the value of the pleasure we give one another, a bodily pleasure and also a pleasure of knowledge and recognition? “Now we have met, we have look’d, we are safe,” says Whitman, our great poet of cruising, who doesn’t hesitate to use the word love for transient encounters between otherwise strangers. Like the stanzas of a poem, which offer such unlikely, durable shelter from the crash of public speech, the cramped spaces of back rooms and toilet stalls serve not to lessen value, but to concentrate it. As is the case for poetry in the valley of its making, cruising offers an experience that might look like privation but feels like luxury, a hidden richness, a secret world.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
To learn more about What Belongs to You, click here.
For the UK version, click here.
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