My Visit to Strangeland
by S. E. Huffman
November 26, 1998
Last September I was visiting a friend (whom for the purposes of this narrative we will refer to as "C") on the East coast and we had just traveled by car from Washington D.C. to West 120th Street in Manhattan, the heart of Columbia University. We ascended by ancient elevator (done in plywood, featuring an outer door that was hand operated) to the third floor of a 6 floor residential building where we entered my friend's 5 room apartment. I later learned this "low rent place" goes for a monthly rent nearly equal to the monthly mortgage payment on a 5 bedroom house in Eugene.
Anyway, as we entered we were met by one of my polyamorous friend's "wives" (technically and in a legal sense "girlfriends", but also people who have been supporting him financially since he left his University position a few months ago). This woman whom we will herein refer to as "P" handed me a small glossy handbill remarkable for it's blue tinged picture of a dark haired woman whose lips are sewn together with rough cord. The word "Strangeland" stood out in red gothic lettering. It was a poster for an event of some sort which was vaguely related to a movie by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame which I later learned features a guy who sews girls lips together.
"Lolita and I are doing a performance there," said P. "It's Thursday night from 7 til 11 in the East Village." I'm hoping everyone will come to watch my act
"I forgot about this," said C, "I guess we can't go back to D.C. to the concert as we were planning."
I tried not to look disappointed at the prospect of missing a string quartet's debut at the Library of Congress where my friend's "primary wife" (a.k.a. "B") is a senior staff in the Music Department & would have been getting us tickets. My friend's taste in music runs into areas that normally would make me run out of the building, but I've been trying to be broad-minded and attempt to discern the value in performances that I usually would have avoided. Little did I suspect that my capacity for music appreciation would be gravely tested by the performance I would witness in New York.
"This is a live S&M party at a public club." C explained. " It should be very interesting, sort of a geek show. It will be a good introduction to 'the scene' here." My friend has recently become much more public about his involvement in the S&M subculture and part of the agenda for my visit was to expose me to this "alternative lifestyle" which features conversations like, "let's go out for dinner and then a nice beating."
As the week progressed I learned that although the rest of the family was going in some sort of S&M regalia, I was to go dressed "as myself". I wasn't sure exactly what this acceptance of my tie died T-shirt, jeans and white Nikes as appropriate for an S&M club meant, but was relieved I did not have to buy all black clothes or wear a studded dog collar.
We (friend & the cute little blonde wife known as "D") were late in leaving the apartment and walked down the avenue along Morningside Heights over which my friend assured me the redcoats had come only to get shot in mass quantity during the Revolutionary War battle for Manhattan (a loss, like all but three of the battles in the Revolution, but one from which most of the American participants got away and lived to fight again.) At length we descended to a broad street and hailed a taxi driven by one of the ubiquitous "non medallion" cabbies of some sort of foreign extraction who had what appeared to be a rather rudimentary grasp of the English language and a near total disregard for driving safety. We rushed across the top of Central Park and then down 5th Avenue to the Lower East Side, where we emerged onto busy sidewalks and began to walk toward the coordinates of the show.
My friends assured me that Major Giuliani had ruined the neighborhood by closing all the sexually oriented businesses and making it impossible to buy pot in the little stores as one used to be able to do in "the good old days". We were able to obtain a genuine Lower East Side Egg Cream, which was quite good although as many of you already know it's ingredients include neither eggs nor cream. Everything seemed pretty non threatening to me as we approached a side street with a "Strangeland" marquee thrusting forward from mid block and crowds of people dressed in black with unusual haircuts and a good deal of leather and chains as accessories. We got a doorkeeper to search the guest list but we seemed not to be on it, a situation ameliorated by the fact that we were late enough to get a reduced price admission and of course from my perspective by the fact that someone else was paying for it.
As we went in we were subjected to a thorough pat down search and I was relieved of my small "Swiss Army" pocket knife, apparently a weapon in their eyes. It is a big thing to search entrants for bombs and weapons at the great majority of public buildings back east these days, so I wasn't too surprised when they labeled my knife with my initials and told me to return for it when I was ready to leave. Still, coming to this celebration of pain, it seemed odd to confiscate my pocket knife, particularly since the main "blade" of use to this point had been the Phillips screwdriver.. "It's like they don't want me screwing around," I thought to myself as I joined my friends in the big room.
It turned out that our late start had caused us to miss the very event for which we had come, but P's back was covered with red stripes and it did look like Lolita (costumed as a leather & chrome strapped Bull Dyke) had whacked her pretty good with a whip. It wasn't clear to me if blood had been drawn or not, but I was relieved that neither of them seemed upset at our missing the show (which was somewhat balanced by their failure to get our name on the guest list) and did not appear to feel that any, oh I don't know, say "any tying up and whipping" needed to be performed on us. In fact, I was impressed by the degree to which all this "playing" was by mutual consent only. I guess it would be a good survival strategy to make sure the person you were about to humiliate and injure was really into this happening, but for whatever reason these folks were highly polite and took great pains to avoid whacking anyone who had not specifically agreed to be whacked.
The main floor had a main stage around which folks were clustered and a bar at one side of the room. I cheerfully accepted a scotch on the rocks and glanced up at the several big screen TV's suspended high above the crowd which were currently showing a close up of someone undergoing a "penis piercing".. It appears that an important part of this subculture is putting loops or bars of metal into places that many of us consider perfect just the way they are. I pondered the possible utility of having a ring through my penis (I supposed one could tie a string to it which would facilitate "draining the lizard in hands-off mode", and of course there's always the possibility of making things a snugger fit or "providing additional stimulation" in certain intimate situations but none of these outcomes would be really considered an answer to any problems I myself am urgently seeking to fix and all in all it looked like a procedure I'd rather avoid if possible.)
The stage was occupied by some burly men with their shirts off and many bits of metal stuck in both their leather pants and accessories and their epidermises. They had a "bed of nails" and were inviting audience members up to lie down on this bed, which although obviously not terribly dangerous due to the close proximity of the nails to each other was nonetheless rather uncomfortable looking. I watched as various audience members took off their shirts and tried the bed of nails. No blood, no screams and frankly very little entertainment value.
We moved up the crowded stairs to the ballroom on the second floor. This room had a raised stage at one end and a bar at the other. It was filled with standing people who jiggled as very loud "music" rendered communication nearly impossible. The band featured a drummer in the back, a guitarist and bass player (both with waist length dark hair) on either side and in the middle a woman with very long dreadlocks which she kept in constant motion as she screamed unintelligibly into the microphone. I was standing at the bar with D, watching the bizarrely dressed crowd circulate. I began to feel very old as memories of parental units saying "Those Rolling Stones just look dirty to me! That's not music, it's noise!" coursed through my head.. I decided a reality check was in order and asked my companion if she could understand any of the words that the singer was so energetically spewing forth. She confirmed that the alleged "lyrics" were better described as "sounds without meaning" as far as she could tell, although it wasn't clear whether they were meant to be perceived that way or were just the product of over amplification of a screaming delivery by the, uh, "vocalist". Anyway the band is named "Crisis", as I recall, and as far as I know they are deeply into wordless screaming of non-melodic vocals, very loud guitar/bass/drums and long dark hair for musicians, all of which apparently enables them to make a living from their art, bizarre as that concept seems.
Fortunately for me, D's masochism did not extend to enjoyment of "the pain one experiences while listening to really loud bad music" and we were able to go back downstairs. Now, here was the highlight of the whole evening (ok, the penis piercing video is a close second) with the "Men of the Long Earlobes". You know those African folks one sees in National Geographic who have extended their necks and lips by wearing heavy metal jewelry that they gradually increase in size? Well picture two big white guys with black leather pants, bare torsos covered with tatoos and earlobes a foot long, apparently the result of wearing really heavy ear rings for what most people would consider "too long". But it wasn't just that these guys had giant earlobes, it was that one of them put carabineers in his earlobes and used them to hook a folding metal card table chair to his ears. He then swung the chair in a circle from his earlobes alone, a truly remarkable sight. Frankly, it was a lot more impressive than someone getting whipped and loving it, although as I've said before only marginally more impressive than installing jewelry in your genitalia.
After this exhibition it appeared that the ultimate entertainment outcome of this event had in fact occurred and it was time for us to go searching the early morning streets for a hot pastrami sandwich or a chocolate eclair. I returned to the doorkeepers to request the return of my small pocket knife. After appropriate delay, a burly security guard emerged to escort me the full length of the lobby and out the "Exit" door, only returning my designated weapon when it was very clear I was standing on the sidewalk.
Later I thought about the meaning of my experience. I decided it had something to do with helping me experience myself as "straight" or "ordinary" or even "normal", not to mention "old" or at least "middle aged". I'd give it a "thumbs up"; it was worth the time and the price was certainly right. However, I still don't know much about the movie, Strangeland. Sorry for the deceptive title.