Located on the second floor of a nondescript office building, the Comfort Zone is just a few doors from two Broadway musicals, “Chicago” and “Spring Awakening.” A short distance away are the glitz and clamor of Times Square. The Zone’s proximity to the two theaters is somehow fitting, given that this underwear party, mostly drawing young black gay men on the down-low, is a theatrical performance, a fashion runway display of sorts, with hip hop and R&B blaring from wall-mounted speakers.
The customers, in underwear of various types, colors, and patterns – a few do prefer to go without underwear – parade the dark maze-like corridors, drifting in and out of the rooms called suites, in search of a sexual connection.
If the late black singer and actress Ethel Waters, a lesbian, were around to walk these corridors, she would be tickled pink – well, tickled anyway – to witness such a steamy scene. It would probably remind her of her early days as a stage performer when it was part of her song-and-dance act to give the audience a peek at her lingerie, otherwise known in 1920s Harlem as showing your laundry.
On the other hand, Ellington band composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, a gay man and a dapper dresser, would no doubt be appalled.
At the center of this latter-day laundry-showing spectacle called Harlem World is E.J. Parker, the master of ceremonies, you might say, who sees the Comfort Zone as providing a “community service,” not at all part of the sex industry. Clearly sex is the primary attraction, as it was for the long-departed Mount Morris Baths in Harlem, where this writer was an employee for nearly three years.
Aside from the fact that both were 24-hour operations (except Sundays for the Comfort Zone, to give thanks to the Lord, said Parker) and have fostered sexual liaisons, there are no other comparisons.
The Comfort Zone, which opened in its present location just this past August, is like stepping into someone’s home – carpeted floors, spacious rooms, expensive couches, and freshly painted walls. The environment at Mount Morris, in dismaying contrast, was dirty and rundown, with the added hint of mildew and dead rats. Or as a patron once summed it up half jokingly, Mount Morris was “part whorehouse, part crackhouse, part shithouse, part flophouse, and part nuthouse.”
Plus, at the Zone there are no surly staffers, no leaky ceilings, and plenty of free sodas and munchies.
No coffee is served because Parker fears that if an argument occurs, one antagonist might be tempted to throw hot coffee at another. But at Mount Morris, free coffee and donuts were served every morning at five, and no scene like that ever transpired.
All of the new luxury at the Comfort Zone comes for just one sawbuck; that’s ten dollars, for those folks who don’t know the lingo.
The Comfort Zone attests to a phenomenon noted by social critic Daniel Harris in his essay, “The Origin of the Underwear Revolution,” published in his 1997 book “The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture.” According to Harris, “underwear now reenacts a kind of striptease in which it shamelessly ‘exposes’ itself.”
In the new family-oriented Disneyfied Times Square district, the Comfort Zone is an anomaly, a throwback to another time when sex was up close and personal.
Perhaps the Comfort Zone’s existence is evidence to back up rumors circulating that reports of the Old Times Square’s death were greatly exaggerated, that its resurrection is coming about in small, quiet, baby steps. If so, it would seem the restoration won’t be as flamboyantly in-your-face as before, but instead existing on a more sub rosa level, as the Comfort Zone is doing.
The club encompasses Harlem World, aimed at the young hip hop crowd, and Mix Bag, a more racially and age-diverse party, that run concurrently. The only ones not welcome are the drag queens. ” They bring too much drama,” explained Parker, who hastened to add that he fully acknowledges the role queens played in the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
One could quibble with Parker’s notion of community service. After all, Mount Morris Baths, for all of its decrepitude, hosted an annual health fair, offered space to AIDS outreach groups to set up manned tables offering condoms and safer-sex brochures, provided other health literature easily accessible in well-lit areas, gave an annual New Year’s Eve buffet that included beer and liquor, and sponsored a GED program.
At the Comfort Zone safer-sex literature is available, though it seems an afterthought, placed on a table beside the TV set that loops porn videos in a dark corner of the main lounge.
But if by community service Parker – a vigorous, soft-spoken, and jovial middle-aged black man – means that he has provided an alternative space for other black gay men to indulge their libidos without the fear of police harassment or gay bashing, as would be the case in a public park or other public spaces, he has succeeded.
And like a mother hen, Parker keeps a close watch on what goes on at the Zone, eagerly greeting new arrivals and urging those leaving to visit again. Being a constant promoter, Parker reminds them of the days and hours when the establishment is open. Since he wants to make sure they are enjoying themselves, he keeps a constant supply of snacks, condoms, and lube on hand.
Parker would have been a good secret agent. Whenever he’s asked to reveal something that he considers sensitive, his response is always, “I don’t know anything” or “I don’t know, I just work here.”
And like a secret agent, he is on the lookout for spies from other underwear parties who want to size up the competition. The first night I met him, he wanted to know if I had a camera in my bag. I told him I didn’t. If I were in his position, I would be more concerned about city health inspectors masquerading as customers, looking for infractions. That was always a major concern at Mount Morris Baths.
When customers first see the décor, said Parker, with obvious pride, they exclaim, “I can’t believe it!” That’s the reaction he wants to hear. For so long, black gay men, having few places of their own to go, settled for second and third-rate places to frequent. It is understandable that they are shocked to find a venue offering them something better, that doesn’t make them feel as though they don’t matter.
It may, in fact, take a little time for some patrons to get used to their more deluxe surroundings. During one visit, I found a shoe print on the wall of one of the rooms and, in the mini-lounge, there was a potato chip bag with some of its contents scattered on the floor beside one of the couches.
There are two inconveniences not mentioned on the Comfort Zone website (www.ireallylovesex.com) or the print ad – lack of both restroom and shower on the premises. If a patron needs to urinate, he has to go into the pantry and pee in a plastic cup, “military style,” as Parker termed it, and then empty it in the stainless steel sink. If he needs more complete facilities, he must get dressed to use the communal restroom outside in the hall. Other than that, washing up can be done at a sink using a hand towel given out free of charge when the customer first checks in.
Parker, who grew up in Harlem and attended author James Baldwin’s alma mater, De Witt Clinton High in the Bronx, claims that his underwear parties were the first; that they had “never been done before.” With an entrepreneurial spirit that dates back to age ten when he organized a baseball team called the Harlem Royals, Parker used as his inspiration Doug Holley, a black gay man who opened an early sex party called Afrodeeziak in his Harlem brownstone. It was a financial flop.
Parker surmises that Holley started the policy of excluding anyone who did not fit an idealized masculine profile – an in-shape physique, not fat, not fem, not old. But it was difficult to find enough men who matched those demands.
Nevertheless Holley is considered the father of Harlem sex parties. Soon others, Parker included, began to imitate what he tried to do.
Parker, who plans to write a book about his experiences in the music business and as the proprietor of a sex party, began Ndahood, a gay sex party for young men, in 1996. The 1991 film “Boyz N Da Hood” inspired the name. Its first location was at the Wall Street Sauna and then moved to Harlem, where it was first situated in a housing project and later a studio apartment.
In a society that has traditionally marginalized and stigmatized black men, those who are gay shoulder a unique triple burden – race, sexual orientation, and the misperceptions and stereotypes surrounding black masculinity. Some survive the ostracism; many, unfortunately, don’t. Those who don’t survive often engage in such self-destructive behavior as drugging and boozing.
That’s why it is important that the Comfort Zone exists.
I hope that consciousness-raising groups and other such self-help opportunities will be provided to establish and strengthen the self-esteem of scores of black gay men. Alice Walker, the novelist and poet, in an essay on the Million Man March, wrote that “until [black men] can talk to each other, cry with each other, hug and kiss each other, they will never know how to do those things with me.”
She further wrote in the essay, “I have known black men in my life who are flexible like the grass and sheltering like the trees. But many black men have themselves forgotten they can be this way.”
Maybe the Comfort Zone can be one of those places where such a transformation can take place.
As film critic David Ehrenstein has written in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Gays played pivotal roles in African-American history, but the [black] community continues to wish away their sexuality.”
The Comfort Zone has no intention of doing that, instead offering its clientele a safe haven or, as Parker puts it, “a chill out spot,” where these men can unwind and take refuge from family and broader social pressures, if only for a short time. As an online ad for the club suggests, “CUM before work, CUM at lunchtime, CUM after work.”
Hopefully E.J. Parker and the Comfort Zone will offer them guidance in other realms of their lives to supplement and enrich the sexual part of their existence.
Will Parker set up a franchise of Comfort Zones?
“I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t done it.”
The Comfort Zone’s Harlem World underwear party will host its first annual sexy underwear contest on Friday, December 21. The club’s information line is 212-399-6969.
By Charles Michael Smith for the gaynewscity.com
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