Memories of a Sanctuary

A September 1999 evening at the “Big Cup,” a swinging coffee-and-dessert hangout in the heart of New York’s Chelsea.

I find a seat at the very back, at a powder-blue, marbleized-Formica kitchen table, near the lavatories. Sooner or later, every patron will stop to wait on the bathroom line, along with various Chelsea-ites wandering in from Eighth Avenue for a pit stop, and to make a personal survey of Who’s Out Tonight.

At my left, on Charles Eames-like chairs, are two barely-20-somethings. One is dirty-blond, slight, and clean shaven, with mod, black, thick-framed glasses befitting the décor, and a single bar of music tattooed, like a bracelet, around his left forearm. He’s brought a notebook ruled for musical scoring, scrawled with treble and bass notes.

His cohort, with perfect skin, dreadlocks, and goatee, is lamenting blood tests, tremors, and his tribulations with the antidepressants he’s trying, at his doctor’s behest.

Despite the topic, they both exude a warming, giggly friendliness.

For the past half-hour or so, each has taken turns painting the other’s fingernails with silver-green glitter nail-polish. I overhear that second-coats are yet to come.

“Do you do pedicures?” someone waiting for the bathroom asks.

The Boy with Glasses giggles.  “Um, NOT!”

Across from us, a gaggle of boys sit under the huge, nightmarish, psychedelic Snarling Clown painting which dominates the chartreuse-and-red room.

The music is just loud enough and energizing. Madonna’s “Shanti Ashtangi” comes on, and one of the boys shrieks with delight. I feel his thrill—that satisfying start, when out and about, at the unexpected onset of a favorite song, like running into a favorite friend.

As the song suffuses the room with its pop-Indian rhythms, I watch him swaying and, in between snippets of conversation, mouthing the words. I’m impressed with his knowledge, at least phonetically, of the all-Sanskrit lyrics.

The Boy with Dreadlocks has to leave, but Glasses stays on, now writing tiny words along the staves in his music notebook. He turns to me, apropos the song:

“I love how she takes two Indian words and turns them into a pop mega hit,” he says.

“I’ve been watching that guy over there,” I say. “He seems to know all the words.”

“Oh wow, ‘Shanti, Shanti’” Glasses mocks, flakily bobbing his head side to side. “Like that’s really hard.”

“That’s just the refrain! There’s more words than that,” I protest, adding, “I actually love this song.”

“I know, I like it too,” Glasses confesses, “but really, there’s not much to it.”

I look down at his notebook. “No there isn’t, but if you’re a songwriter, you’re going to be much more critical than I.”

“You know that song, ‘Beautiful Stranger,’ from ‘Austin Powers?’” He goes on, focused on his Madonna deconstruction.

“I love that,” I enthuse, trying to thwart him.

“It couldn’t have more than two sequences. It’s all sugar.”

“It’s pop,” I remind him. “Bubblegum. You know… derivative of the ‘60s, with a ‘90s twist…”

He nods. “Yeah, I see what you mean…”

“…so it fits the movie perfectly.”

“But Madonna asserts she’s more substantive than that.”

“Well… I’ve seen her say herself that her talent is good, not great. I mean, I know what you mean about her. But I’m not over her, even after 15 years. Let’s face it, her forte is perfect pop, which is why she’s so hyper successful.”

Suddenly, I’m enjoying this dialogue. It’s as close as I’m likely to get to an ex-pat, 1920s intellectual debate at Café Flore in Paris.

“Oh, I’m not either!” Glasses concurs. “She’s been everything—whore, diva, goddess…”


“Yes! Whore, diva, goddess, mother. I admire that.”

“She’s the embodiment of the last 20 years of pop culture, really.”

“That’s a good observation!” I see him digesting my comment and feel pleased, surprised with myself for impressing this boy at least 15 years my junior. “I never looked at it that way.”

“Oh, thanks.” I feel oddly sage, even if the topic is Madonna.

Glasses begins to pack up his things.

“It was nice chatting with you,” he says, smiling, extending his hand—a sign that he’s somehow escaped the spreading evaporation of civility.

“You too.” There’s that awkward moment of potential name or phone number exchange, which passes. “See you again sometime,” I conclude, smiling.

“Good night.”

And he’s off, wending his way through the boys, men, bright-red columns, dance music, and dappled light from the whirling mirrored-ball.

I return my focus to my laptop, and my own creative endeavors. Evening advances; the place empties out.

Two men lounging on a beat-up sofa catch my eye. One is clean-shaven with short, curly brown hair, glasses, a blue sweatshirt, and tan chinos; the other, younger, with jet-black hair, angular, Mediterranean features, and a charcoal sweater. Presently, Charcoal Sweater leans one arm against the sofa back, propping himself up over Blue Sweater, who responds by reclining back a bit. Charcoal gently proffers Blue a light kiss; eyes closed, he accepts. A more extended and affectionate kiss follows.

Charcoal looks at Blue, kisses him on the forehead, then looks at him again for a bit, and brings his lips to back to Blue’s. They exude a fond, nurturing kind of sweetness that overrides a more fevered, passionate subtext. They’re more like attendees at a thoroughly enjoyable gourmet tasting than candidates for a porn shoot. At least at this stage in their evening.

And surprisingly, I find myself responding more to this unfolding romantic scene than to the usual, juicy, ass-pumping video clip.

The two take a respite and converse for a bit, noses together for whispered endearments. Charcoal absentmindedly plays with Blue’s sweater, looking into his eyes, as they both smile and laugh, taking sips from their beverages.

The music stops, and Big Cup is officially closing. I can better hear their muted voices now—the quiet baritones of males exchanging intimacies. Blue lifts Charcoal’s sweater a few inches with a finger, momentarily revealing a young, black-fur-grazed tummy. Then it’s lights up.

Charcoal and Blue exit, on to bigger and better things, no doubt. But I feel strangely sated myself. Men will be men, and a good, raunchy tangle is a wonderful thing. But that far-too-elusive, kind tenderness between men is, for me, the most awesome wonder of all.

I head home through Chelsea, walking in the brisk night air, feeling pensive, but not cynical, as my recent disconnected state of mind might warrant.

It’s easy to get lost in New York; to become disoriented and isolated by the general angst and urgency that seem to curl in thin shrouds around people. It can be tougher still, in a gay capital like Chelsea, where we gay men tend more often than not to perpetuate earlier, suffered abuses, recycling our mistreatment at the hands of society by mistreating each other in our own societies.

Tonight has me recalling old anticipations of what gay life might be. I used to imagine a culture steeped in mores unquestionably superior to those of the non-gay world—chiefly, I think, I looked forward to kindness and spontaneous acceptance by my fellow gay brothers.

Of course I’d temporarily forgotten that these brothers, like everyone else in the world, are humans first and foremost, not in any way immune to the values of our greater society, however twisted these values may be. It took me a bit to figure that neither acceptance nor kindness is readily available from those who themselves have received precious little of either.

Yet tonight’s Boy with Glasses and the two sofa guys in tender consort offered real-life glimpses of my original naïve and wishful fantasy—men can commingle with kindness and affection, not to mention wit, warmth, enthusiasm and dignity, instead of the cold, competitive, often combative interactions society holds up as “truly” male.

Yes, this is Chelsea, and some guy may look down over his nose (and, perhaps, mountainous pectorals) at you. But he probably won’t bash in your skull with a baseball bat for making him uneasy about his own masculinity.

He may even turn to you and smile an unguarded “hello.”

I find refuge in such moments, like those at Big Cup tonight. They’re a kind of sanctuary from the madness that serves to keep us allMemories of a Sanctuary

By CORY BENETT separate. What a great place to be, however temporarily.