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Yellow means you’re into water sports, red signals an interest in fisting, robin’s egg blue pertains to 69ing, mauve is for navel fetishes, union jacks are for skinheads, black, of course, advertises BDSM.

This is a bit of what I know about the hanky code, a sartorial semiotic approach to cruising for gay sex that went out of style 30 or 40 years ago. A man would put a bandana of the appropriate color in his back pocket (left if he’s a top, right for bottoms) to quietly declare his sexual proclivities and availability. It was a necessary game to play at a time where society sneered at Queers and the law enforcement breathed down their necks (in a non-sexual context. Mostly.) Though usually flagrant with their hankies since only gay men knew what they meant, you’d also find a fair few of these butt flags flying at places like The Ramble in Central Park, or the Meat Rack on Fire Island, or the dunes on Jones Beach: notorious breeding grounds for public, anonymous gay sex.

Coming of age in the time of Adam2Adam, DList, and later Grindr, I never needed firsthand experience with things like the hanky code or bathhouses. The biggest hurdle to exploring my sexuality was my own self-consciousness, that was the only work I had to put into having sex, especially when I was younger. But the thrill of the hunt always appealed to me, not just the exhilaration of having sex in public with a stranger, but exploring a landscape that felt almost indigenously Queer. An area of nature carved out for gay men to copulate with animalistic abandon. A place, as it were, untouched by the fetid fist of heteronormativity. It’s something I always wanted to try and, sex being the only discipline I’m particularly enterprising in, inevitably occurred. Several times over.

The Ramble
As an undergrad at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I developed an obsession with Angels in America so potent that I had the original Milton Glaser-designed logo tattooed on my wrist. Making a pilgrimage from FIT to Bethesda Terrace (where a pivotal scene of the play takes place) during breaks between classes became routine, until one day when I veered off the path.
Missing my usual subway stop uptown, I got off the C at 86th St and entered the park, thinking I’d work my way down to the Angel of the Waters. Of course I wasn’t extremely familiar with New York geography at 19, and Central Park seems to have an intentionally circuitous design made to distract people from the fact that they’re in a giant manufactured agrestic rectangle plopped into the middle of a city. So I got lost.

The area I ended up in was heavily wooded, veins of thin, bare branches reaching out into the sky, paths interlocking to break up long stretches of seclusion. A woman with a baby stroller seemed to be running away, a cop was stationed on his motorcycle, but drove off once I appeared. I heard a rhythmic thumping as I got further into the bosk, finally noticing two men having sex off the trail, partially concealed by some trees. I realized I was in The Ramble.

The Ramble is a dense ecosystem located behind the lake behind Bethesda Terrace. There’s a scene in Angels in America where one character, Louis, goes to have anonymous sex with a leatherman to divert his attention from his lover dying of AIDS. Since at least the turn of the century (the 20th, that is), it was a known trolling ground for gay men, probably the most popular in New York City, a site that was marked Queer long before Christopher Street or Fire Island ever was. Post World War II, societal panic overtook most of the country, so the perception of effeminate men and other undesirables in a heteropatriarchal society went from eccentric fops to threats to humanity. Arrests for homosexual behavior skyrocketed, and by the 1960s Central Park became an object of fear for all of the rapes, muggings and homosexual sex that occurred there. Being that it was so dangerous to be openly gay at the time, The Ramble became a literal breeding ground for men who had sex with men.

I had figured the advent of Grindr and more visibility of the LGBT community had quelled the surreptitious activity in The Ramble, but evidently I was mistaken. Well, partially.

I sat down on a bench, just a few paces from the men engaged in carnal activity. I saw a husky guy, maybe in his 50s, muscles wrapped in a tight denim jacket, at the end of the path in front of me. He cleared his throat a couple of times but, thinking he just had a cold, I ignored him. I wasn’t really planning on hooking up–this was, after all, an accident–but I stayed out of sheer curiosity.

The gentlemen to my side had finished, one running off, the other coming towards me, taking a seat at the other end of the bench. I could feel his eyes on me even with my head down. I looked over and smiled. He rubbed the crotch of his sweatpants, still sticky from his last encounter, aggressively tilting his chin up at me.

“Hi,” I said, still at the other end of the bench.

“Hey.” His tongue slipped through the noticeable four-tooth-sized gap as he spoke. He seemed very eager, nodding his head towards the clearing where he just was.

“Oh, no, I’m not looking,” I said politely, as if I just refused a piece of gum.

“Oh, all right,” He didn’t put up much of a struggle, which put me at ease. Even if I felt like I were in any danger, The Ramble isn’t as secluded as I had thought. In fact, it’s pretty open.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“So…how does this work?”

He perked up and moved a bit closer. “Well, not a lot a guys come round here no more. But when they do, you can tell who’s looking. You don’t say nothing, just sorta size em up, give em some hint you interested.”

“Have you ever gotten caught? There was just a cop over there.”

“Used to, cops now are a little more vigilant, but I never got caught recently. Back in the day, there was cops sittin’ in a tree, waiting to find us. When we came, they’d jump down and beat us with their sticks. Never arrest us. Just beat us.”

“Jesus.”

“You sure you don’t wanna do nothing?”

“No, I’m okay, I should really get going actually.”

“Okay then, kid, you take care.” He reached his hand out, and I shook it, thanking him. Then I realized where it’d been.

The Backroom
An underwear party is not, as one might assume, like a tupperware party, where you go to someone’s house for nibbles and tipples whilst picking out underwear to purchase. I don’t know why I’d been so naive when a friend, we’ll call him Gabriel, invited me to an underwear party the night of his going away drinks. We’d worked together at an advertising agency in the Flatiron district and, after everyone was finished bidding their farewells as he left to a bigger agency, we were to go downtown to meet some of his friends at an underwear party. Of course, being the trash bag I am, I had to run off to American Apparel to pick up a pair of pink briefs between cocktails.

An underwear party is a lot of things, but mostly a front for an orgy. You go to a bar and strip down to your knickers, shove your phone and wallet in your socks, and enjoy $2 well drinks for being in nothing but your skivvies in public. Appealing enough, but for the most part the bars that hold these parties have a back room where you change, a dark dungeon-like space, that inevitably raises 30 degrees from all the body heat towards the end of the night. Drinks are nice, but anonymous cock is better.

Once we arrived at the bar, The Rules of Attraction was playing on the television sets, and I sat on the pool table and watched as my friend went to collect the other members of our group from outside. It was too early to put our clothes in trash bags to be checked, so I just nursed a full-priced vodka soda as I watched Ian Somerhalder dance in his briefs with some twink.

“Alexander, this is Wesley.” Gabriel introduced me to his friend, a very cute blonde with elven ears and a curly smile. We air kissed each cheek as he went to check his coat, a perplexing move considering we’d be nearly naked soon, when Gabriel informed me of Wesley’s status.

“He’s having a scare because he had unprotected sex last month. AIDS panic. Took a lot of convincing to get him out tonight.”

I sipped my drink and wondered about the last time I got tested. I figured I was good, but the looming phantom of HIV still hangs around us, especially on nights like these.

“Well, he doesn’t have to get fucked. A little blowing won’t harm him.”

“It’s psychosomatic more than anything else. He’s a worrywart, a guy takes off a condom too quickly and he thinks the virus splashed into his asshole.” I laughed, because what else can you do?
The time came to strip down, a surprisingly easy feat now considering I’d had four drinks, and not much had changed. Sure, there was a lot more skin, but the back room was still moderately empty. You don’t cannonball into a freezing pool, you dip your toes and slowly submerge.

Darkness aids in lowering your inhibitions as much as alcohol and being practically naked does. You can see, faintly, a guy going down on another, or someone eating someone else’s ass, but for the most part it’s a fleshy fun house that you feel your way through. One guy grabs you from behind and starts nibbling your neck, his hand cupping your cock. Some people infringe on a couple to either be welcomed or quietly shoved away. Younger guys are the main object of desire, with some people gently fighting over them like they’re the last pastry on a tray at a society dinner.
Suddenly, and unceremoniously, the lights are turned on, and it’s like the clock striking midnight at 4am. You see how dirty it is, and how unattractive some of the people, the fluorescent lights painting their bare skin sickly shades of yellow, green, beige and brown. The alluring lair turns back into nothing but a dank room.

The Meat Rack
On the ferry to Fire Island, clutching only an overnight bag for a three-day trip, I blasted the Pet Shop Boys as I watched the foaming bay water trail behind us on our way to the little belt of land just south of Long Island. Of course I had planned to be a beach bum, drinking and reading magazines, but this trip I decided to do a little sexual anthropology work in one of the most famous cruising spots on one of the gayest places on Earth.

Wearing only a flimsy striped tank top and ‘60s style swim trunks that barely covered my ass, I walked onto the dunes, towards a clearing in the woods in some sort of act out of a fairytale. Too nervous to think about ticks or other potential dangers, I stepped barefoot down a deserted, sun-dappled trail. I didn’t know if the rustling around me were squirrels or shielded assignations, but I figured I needed to go off the trail to actually find something, or someone interesting. Climbing up the hill, leaves so dead they were black, squishing between my toes, I began to see a few men dotting the landscape. I made eye contact with one guy, Latin, maybe 5’7” sitting on a fallen tree with a trash bag hanging up on a branch next to him. He turned his head to the left. I moved passed him and walked a bit more, a guy in his 30s passing me and clearing his throat. I didn’t look back, even though I should have. I saw one muscle queen, his bathing suit strung over a branch, lying on the ground with his knees up, a skinny Twink between them slowly sucking his cock. He catches me from the corner of his eye and winks before he resumed moaning.

At this point I’m walking in circles, seeing the usual suspects over and over, feeling self-conscious and a little bored. I sit down for a second, changing my search from active to passive, hoping someone interesting will stop by. They don’t, and at this point I wish I brought a book.

It should be said that there’s no cell service in the Meat Rack, a plus for having an authentic cruising experience, but an adjustment for someone who uses their phone as a crutch when they’re bored or uncomfortable. I consider going on Grindr, pleading for at least one bar, but figure this will defeat the purpose of the exercise. I put my phone away and get up to wander some more before giving up and going back to my probably melted Pina Colada that’s waiting for me on the beach next to a stack of Interview magazines.
Then, in a scene so pornographically cinematic it sounds fake, I saw a gorgeous man leaning against a tree as I walked toward the beach. Navy blue speedo, aviator shades, dark blonde bangs swept against his forehead. If he had a mustache, he would have looked like a classic ‘70s gay porn star named Jake. I stopped in my tracks and cleared my throat, a nonverbal indication of interest. He tilts his chin up, signaling me to come over. It was all very animalistic, a mating ritual for gay neanderthals. I grab the small of his waist with my left hand, his package with the other, and lean in to kiss him. The taste of his spearmint gum fills my mouth, cleansing the stale cigarette residue from my tongue as I feel him get hard. I go down on him, but he’d rather go down on me, signaled by pulling me up by the back of my neck like a mother cat carrying her kitten. He slides off my bathing suit and gets to work.

Unbeknownst to me, since my eyes were closed in a combination of pleasure and concentration, we had attracted a circle of voyeurs, mostly older men wearing cock rings. I was too close to coming to stop, but I wasn’t expecting an audience, and, had it been earlier, I probably would have lost my hard-on out of sheer surprise. But Jake pulled me out of his mouth and finished me off with a tight fist, spraying it all over his face as the circle cheered and hooted. It felt like a pagan ritual, a deleted scene from Macbeth where the witches make the Scottish king-to-be orgasm into the cauldron. Jake smiled at me, my cum glistening on his carved cheekbones, dripping to his chin. I pulled my suit back on and went back to my Pina Colada.

Cruising for public sex is dying out for the same reason the hanky code is obsolete: as the culture accepts the LGBT population (though gay sex still isn’t quite palatable), there’s less reason to hide. The convergence of tolerance and technology has allowed things like Grindr and Scruff and Hornet to supersede, allowing dick to be delivered to your door like a meal or your laundry. It’s a model whose convenience millennials have grown accustomed to, and it’s safer in some respects. But there’s something about getting fucked in the woods that still has an appeal, not just for the sense of danger, but reconnecting to a cultural heritage I see more and more gays either abandoning or never realizing in the first place. It’s a form of liberation, a différance from heteronormative sexual practices, and also, something decidedly male in operation. It’s a purely carnal release, words rarely spoken, lips barely touching, there’s something animalistic reflective of the testosterone-soaked desire unique to the coupling of two men.

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