I arrange to meet Peter at a Starbucks in Midtown. It's tough times for New York's foot fetishists.
"There's still a lot of stigma about this with otherwise very open New York gays," Peter says. "Men are extremely closeted. We call it 'coming out of the shoe box.' "
Peter runs the group FootMen NYC.
They throw weekly parties devoted to feet, footwear, and tickling.
Why it's so stigmatized is a question Peter, a cherubic 49-year-old wearing tan Merrells, has theorized on.
"It hasn't been commercialized," he says. "The bears, for example, have created a whole culture. There are TV shows about bears with bear humor. But you've never seen a mainstream movie or TV show with a character who, as a matter of fact, has a predilection for the feet. And if you do, they're usually a villain."
The tickling fetish scene, he tells me, dovetails with the foot scene, a treaty of friendship cast between two disparaged sexual minorities.
"The tickling scene is very passionate," Peter says. "It's a variation of BDSM. The ironic thing is, I've met guys who are diehard BDSM, and you mention tickling and they freak out."
"Tickling gives sadomasochists the willies?"
"Oh, yes. There's something very primal about tickling. You can't argue your way out of a tickle."
I note that even water sports have become fashionable.
"I don't know how that managed to surpass feet," Peter replies.
The FootMen parties began six years ago and hopped around bars in Manhattan, but outsiders tended to wander in.
"Our guys were coming up to someone and saying, 'Can I give you a foot massage?' and the guy would snap, 'I'm not into that!' It created a sense of negativity, which is not what our people need. They need to be supported."
Peter found the perfect solution by turning his home into a foot-and-tickling salon. "I did it to keep from going broke," he says. It ensured an intimate and sympathetic environment for the FootMen, but Peter's landlord found out about the weekly soirees and tried to evict him. The dispute is ongoing, leaving the FootMen again to roam.
In the past decade, a vast industry of residential sex parties like Peter's has bloomed. They list themselves on Web sites like Adam4Adam, ask for donations at the door (usually $20), and have turned legions of homes across the city and country into orgy dens. Hey everyone, the '70s are back!
I meet up with a man calling himself the Orgy Guy at his apartment in Chelsea on the eve of his 800th sex party. He introduces me to his two cats, Tippytoe the Lionhearted and Weenie Bojangles, and offers me a Diet Coke.
Sex parties are Orgy Guy's only source of income, and between preparation and cleanup for four events a week that each last six hours and attract between 30 and 70 patrons a night, it's a full-time gig. The apartment is two floors and no-frills.
"It must be difficult for you to date and have a personal life," I say. Orgy Guy's the son of a cop, a handsome, bashful 45-year-old with a steamy Long Island accent.
He sighs. "The last thing I want to think about is sex. I don't want to date. People are too much of a hassle, and I'm sure I'd be too much of a hassle to somebody else."
Orgy Guy lives a quiet life."I'm sorry, I'm not a very good interview," he says.
People audition to get on mailing lists for orgies, submitting headshots and interviewing, but everyone's welcome at Orgy Guy's place as long as they're behaved and not annoyingly young. "I like providing an environment that's a safe haven for men. That's why I do what I do," he says.
He started his business six years ago as a way to afford Manhattan rent. Isn't there something futile about sacrificing so much for an apartment in Manhattan if it's just going to be routinely defiled? But Orgy Guy says he's living the dream -- no boss, make your own hours, etc. -- except for one thing. "I have a condition called misophonia," he says. This is a neurological disorder causing specific sounds to trigger extreme negative emotions like anger, disgust, and rage.
"What sounds bother you?" I ask. "Mouth noises," Orgy Guy sighs. "Lip smacking. As you can imagine, guys kiss really loud! "Kelly Ripa has it, too" he adds.
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A few days later, across town, I'm sitting in a sun-drenched diner with Dimitri. He's 50 years old and says he's one of New York's most hated men.
"I would love to tell you where all the dead bodies are buried," he says. "A lot has happened in five years, cover-ups, stuff like that." Dimitri speaks in a fabulous New York bark.
Although he's never come upon a body, he says the sex industry is cutthroat and gossipy.
"New York is very competitive, territorial, and ambitious. Just because somebody drops dead in your apartment at your sex party doesn't mean it's the end of the world -- if you're resourceful," he says.
At 40, Dimitri retired from commercial real estate and, looking for a hobby, got into the sex industry. Down the street from where he lives, he also owned a penthouse in an 1840s mansion in Manhattan's swanky Gramercy Park neighborhood. The unoccupied penthouse was, you know, just sitting there, so he did some light renovations and passed out flyers at the bars, advertising an orgy. That was 10 years ago.
Truckloads of New Yorkers and tourists alike pass through Dimitri's place, and they all take one look at the exposed brick, 20-foot ceilings, and skybox, and they fucking hate him.
"People go, 'Oh, my God, Dimitri, do you need a roommate?' No, I don't. " We're sipping coffee. "They're envious and resentful," he says. "I own this diner, too."
Personally, orgies don't really do it for Dimitri. "It's like a sober guy running a bar," he says. One of his earliest sexual memories occurred when he was 12. At the time, he was a soap opera star and child model in Europe. "I was doing a photo shoot, and my mom said, 'Keep your eyes on the photographer's crotch. If you don't see it bulge, then you're doing something wrong.' "
On Fridays his husband hosts an erotic wrestling party, where attendees are coached naked by a professional wrestler. Dimitri also hosts a "nonjudgmental" Tuesday-night party for guys with small dicks, called Little Richards; and Saturday's Chaser's Choice party is for fat guys. I swing by Executive Lunch, Dimitri's weekly Thursday-afternoon powerfuck from noon to 3. It's an orgy for busy people. In the clothes check room, a handsome and chatty bunch file in, slipping off their neckties and greeting familiar faces -- "How was Cabo?" -- sneaking away from their desks for a little unfettered midday bacchanalia.
"The economy triggered a huge number of parties," Dimitri says, "these nickel-and-dime operations in Harlem or wherever. People see what I do and think, I could do this in my little one-bedroom whatever. OK. Good luck to you."
People at sex parties do tend to be polite. It's as if there's a tiny residual fear of burning in hell that nudges folks to be extra considerate in this environment, although there's always at least one sad old spook not getting any action and bumming everyone else out.
I'm watching a man who's clearly the star attraction this afternoon at Executive Lunch. He looks like the Tom of Finland adaptation of Real-Life Barbie, and he's having a very nice time, indiscriminately spreading around the love, loping from dick to dick. He seems sweet, actually. Dolphin-like.
"OK, back to the office!" he says. He slaps a friend on the shoulder, and I half expect a round of applause as he exits down the spiral staircase.
There are about two dozen guys here, and it's oddly tranquil. A soft breeze floats in from Lexington Avenue, and there's the soothing groan of the traffic and occasional amorous whisper. It's August, and this is a time-share crowd, so everyone has the same skimpy tan lines, and when a blow job receiving line emerges, something about all those gleaming white butts neatly lined up in a row looks almost graceful, like a sunbeam stretched across the room.
I feel bad for the FootMen, who really needed that cushy apartment setup. I swing by a new venue they're trying out. It's the second floor of a straight bar next door to an all-girls Jewish dormitory near the Empire State Building, and the mood is kindly but glum. The bar's owner is this no-nonsense broad in wedges, capri pants, and a shag. I think she's being a bit of a busybody and making people uncomfortable.
"No, she likes us. She's seen it all. She knows we're a very friendly, civilized crowd," Peter says. Still, it feels about as kinky as a wake, despite the bottles of Purell and the human ottoman. And there are plates of cookies, too.
"We're really move of a support group than a sex party," Peter says.
A few days later, I'm with a friend for happy hour at our local boozer.
"I was invited to a sex party just last night, on Grindr," he says. "They were asking for a $10 donation."
I'm surprised. We live in the easily ridiculed urban hamlet of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where things tend to be very precious.
"Oh, a sex party in Williamsburg!" we joke. "Is it Dust Bowl-themed? Does the building have day care? Are these condoms gluten-free?" We laugh. Then he gets this deliberate look on his face. He's a decade older than I am.
"We forget, back in the '90s, backrooms were very lonely, shameful places," my friend says. "But now dating on the Internet is so much lonelier that they could actually feel intimate.