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“Be careful, ya hear?” warns William Arrington. “Be very careful.”xxxxxx Arrington, a 68-year-old Adams Morgan community activist, is trying to convince me not to venture into a mysterious social club at 1718 1/2 Florida Ave. NW, a couple of blocks from his home at 16th and V. “Those people will cut you up, now.”
Actually, “those people” may want to suck me off, but they have no interest in cutting me up. They are attendees at the “Men’s Parties,” as they are advertised, held four nights a week at the Florida Avenue address. And boy, do these men party.
I had seen the ads for the past two years in the adults-only pullout section of the Washington Blade. “Our group meets several times weekly for social get-togethers,” the ads say. “One of our activities is massage. You could join a group of five and be massaged by four men simultaneously. You could pair off with one other man or just hang out….No experience is required, and we can show you all you need to know.”
I had always assumed (and, admittedly, hoped) that while one of the activities might well be massage, other activities were even more…well, hands-on. I got a couple of friends to admit that they had attended, and one of them described the parties this way: “It’s sort of like a bathhouse without the baths.”
Recently, city officials supposedly cracking down on violent clubs have targeted certain gay bars, which aren’t violent but which do commit occasional sex violations. Some far less bawdy-sounding establishments than the Men’s Parties have been hitthe city fined the Green Lantern bar $10,000 in March because some of its patrons were simply groping each other. But the Men’s Parties have been virtually ignored. City officials could recall no visits to the parties, although a group of inspectors apparently went one night when no one was home. (The parties are held only on weekend nights plus Wednesdays until 1 a.m.)
“I have told city [officials] about it more than one time,” Arrington says, “but no one will go there.” I decided to see what his fuss was about.
The stretch of Florida Avenue between 17th and 18th streets isn’t inviting. Kilimanjaro, the old reggae club, sits dormant on one side of the battered street, next to a car-repair garage. An elementary school slouches across Champlain Street nearby, and the 3rd District police station looms a stone’s throw away, down V Street. In March, the Washington Post published a sunny article about what a friendly, integrated neighborhood this is. All in all, it’s a strange place for a sex party.
Indeed, the bland building at 1718 1/2 Florida betrays nothing of the activity inside. It’s a two-story brick edifice with large windows. On one side is a barber shop, on the other, an architecture firm. In the middle are double doors marked only with the address.
Around 10, I walk up to the doors and see no lights. With some reliefI’m feeling a little shyI decide that there will be no partying tonight. I try the knob to make sure. It’s locked, but a man sitting on the other side opens the door for me.
“Welcome,” he says with a smile. He’s about 45, has salt-and-pepper hair and a beard, and wears a blue Oxford shirt. He smiles a lot, and for some reason I am reminded of Don Knotts. “Have you been here before?”
“Uh, no.” I feel as though I’ve made a grave mistake. I hear nothing but faint music inside, and I can see nothing because just behind Don is a curtain covering the doorway. The curtain creates a 2-foot-wide cubby where he crouches with a checklist. “Am I the only person here?” I ask.
“Oh, no,” he answers, looking down at his list. “There are about 35 people hereactually, there have been about 50 tonight, but there are about 35 right now. People are arriving late tonight.”
I move to enter, and Don pulls out a giant roll of cash. “We ask for an $8 contribution,” he says flatly. (That computes to a $400 take, even on this weeknight.)
“What does ‘contribution’ mean?” I ask.
The spinning begins. “Well, if you have some severe financial hardship, or if you have a big hang-up about money, then…” he trails off. “I don’t know what your situation is.”
I suppose I could lie and tell him I have a financial hardshipor a “hang-up” about money, whatever that meansbut I simply hand over the eight bucks. A sex party is no place for hang-ups.
He draws the curtain for me, gives me a lock and key for the downstairs lockers, and offers a worn white towel, which I decline. “Have a good time,” Don beams.
Here’s the layout: The Men’s Parties are held in a split-level home that, in a parallel universe, would make a nice place for a young couple with kids or a group of friends just out of college. Upstairs, there’s a small kitchen and what would be a large den/dining room combo. But there’s no dining table, just a few mismatched chairs and a couch. A padded matperhaps 20 feet by 20 feetcovers part of the floor. The only light comes from the flicker of two big televisions, both showing men either preparing to fuck, in the process of fucking, or having just fucked.
I take a beer from the fridge (Keystonethey don’t splurge here, at least not on beer) and look around. Only five men are upstairs, and all are silently watching the pornos. One is naked save a baseball cap, and he’s wanly fingering his semihard dick. Two others are wearing only towels, and the remaining two are fully clothed, though one has opened his plaid flannel shirt to reveal a pair of doughy pecs. A large, hairy man wearing a leather cap and a towel enters and plops down on the couch. Another man follows, sits on the floor in front of the leather man, and begins an earnest blowjob. Now that’s massage.
Guzzling my beer, I head downstairspast a washer-dryer combo that is actually running (cleaning dirty towels, I assume)and find darkness. My eyes adjust to perceive a tight hallway where several men are standing in various stages of nakedness.
The reason I heard nothing at the door is that no one utters a word at the Men’s Parties. Sure, there are soundsthe squish of hand on flesh, mediated with lube, is the most common. But voices are rare, which is especially awkward downstairs, where more men are packed into a smaller space than upstairs.
The first room on the left is where the hard-core action takes place. Humid and smelly, it’s the size of a kid’s bedroom and is furnished only with some sort of table covered with a mat. On top is a man on his back, his legs splayed over his head. He’s moaning as a companion thrusts firmly back and forth. Five others are jacking off onto him, and still others are watching, some masturbating and some merely staring blankly. No one says a word.
Feeling equal measures of pity, disgust, and horniness, I skulk back into the hallway and then into the “smoking room.” It’s predictably smoky and, unpredictably, decorated with a nice, artsy photograph of Heidelberg, Germany. The room is split by a black curtain, and behind it are more men partying.
Over the next half-hour, I walk up and down the stairs, getting groped here and there but mostly avoiding any insistent glances and hands.
At one point I bump into Don, who has come from behind his curtain to toss some towels into the wash. “Are you having a good time?” he asks.
“Oh, yes,” I lie.
“You know there are condoms available if you want,” he says.
I don’t want. It’s not that I would mind a little anonymous sexmy boyfriend just moved to New Yorkbut not with anyone here. The ads give the dimensions of the “average guest” as “29 years-old; 5′ 11″, 155#, 41″ chest, 31″ waist.” But tonight must be the Chubby and Wrinkled Special. The average age is probably 45, with a fair number of sixtysomethings sprinkled in. I see far more 40-inch waists than 31-inch waists.
Though I’m not sure, I imagine most of the guests to be closeted, and a fair number married. With their conservative styling, I can also imagine most of them in K Street law firms or federal office buildings or Northern Virginia computer companies. Strangely, I can’t imagine them at a sex party, even as I watch them have orgasms.
I choke down another Keystone and head for the door. I’ve had enough. “Well, thanks for coming,” Don says. “Feel free to return if you want to. We should be here until about 2.”
Don Knotts turns out to be named David, though he won’t give his last name. I left messages at the number given in the ad, and David calls back a few days later, identifying himself as a “volunteer” who helps run the parties.
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) spokesperson Janet McCormick had told me that 1718 1/2 has no “certificate of occupancy” to run a business, but David assures me that the Men’s Parties are not a commercial enterprise. “We’re just a private party,” he says.
A private party that advertises, serves alcohol, and charges at the door?
“We don’t charge at the door,” he insists, adding that he makes it clear to all visitors that they don’t have to pay. “The vast majority of people don’t pay.” (I guess they all have financial hardships or hang-ups about money.) “We just sort of stumble along,” David says. “The night you came was very unrepresentative of the way we function. We usually have only about 10 to 15 people, but lately we’ve had this influx of strangers”probably because of the recent crackdown on other gay establishments, he reasons.
David first says one of the other “volunteers” keeps the books and that he has “no idea” how much money is involved. When I ask for that volunteer’s name, he relents and estimates the parties’ budget at “under $30,000 a year, certainly.” All the beer, he adds, is provided by the guestsso the parties aren’t in violation of any liquor laws.
David says the parties have been running “intermittently” for 14 years, and the Florida Avenue home has been one of several party spots for the last four years. David claims that the renteralso apparently named Davidcharges the Men’s Parties nothing for the use of his house. David the Renter apparently lives in Virginia with his lover.
David the Volunteer says David the Renter is so generous with his home because he’s too afraid to live there himself. David the Volunteer says David the Renter has received stacks of hate mail, including letters that read, “Die Faggot.” The one David says the other David is too fearful even to call me to tell me personally about the hate mail.
David the Renter’s landlord, Dudley Cannada, refuses to give his tenant’s name. I ask Cannada whether his tenant runs a social club from the house. “I rent it out to him as a single-family residence. What the guy does with it, I’m really not sure,” he says.
Meanwhile, Arrington has begun a new round of complaints about the parties, and my inquiries with the city will, rather regrettably, probably result in an inspection or two. “There’s no license to run a place like that,” says McCormick. “But until we get in, we can’t really tell what’s going on.” David the Volunteer called last week to say the Florida Avenue parties would probably end if this article ran. “[The tenant] just doesn’t need that,” he said.
Local activists say the Men’s Parties aren’t the only sex clubs in the area. “We think there are probably several others,” says Ward 1 Democrats President Peter Schott. “Adams Morgan is getting much more of a reputation of getting sleazy, as far as the clubs go.”
And that’s just fine with me. I like a little sleaze, although I would prefer a slightly more appealing incarnation of it. When Arrington calls me back, I tell him I went to the party. “It’s dangerous there! Don’t you go back there,” he urges. Don’t worry, I tell him. I probably won’t.CP