Never before had a night out entailed signing a release form accepting liability if I contract a sexually transmitted disease.
But never before had I covered an event hosted by Kink.com, the hardcore, fetish-based website that owns and operates an adult entertainment production studio in the Armory at Mission and 14th streets.
A colleague had gotten me on the list to the invitation-only “Public Disgrace” Thursday night. Kink recommended semi-formal black attire and promised light food and refreshments. I was given permission to shoot video, but it’s not likely that much of the video could be used on any site meant for a general audience.
I arrive outside the Armory at 6:30 p.m. and queue up with 20 or so regular-looking folks who are not, for the most part, seniors waiting for the early-bird special. Already my black suit and tie are attracting notice. It doesn’t help that everyone else there — gay and straight couples, a group of Japanese businessmen, male 30-somethings with dress shirts unbuttoned down their chests – is with a partner.
Five minutes later, still in line, another solo man arrives, who I will hereafter refer to as “my buddy.” We are the only two unaccompanied guests that I see; thus we share a bond and a brotherhood as the two solo dudes who everyone assumes found the event while perusing pornographic websites.
My buddy looks 60 years old. He is neatly trimmed in dress and appearance: perfectly coiffed gray hair, designer eyeglasses. He wears a black turtleneck under a black suit jacket. He looks a lot like Donald Rumsfeld, I think, minus 15 years.
“Have you ever been to one of these before?” he asks.
“Do you know what you’re walking into?”
My buddy has not been to a Kink.com event either, but he has watched the videos online, and suggests while we stand in line that I do the same on my phone.
I think I can handle it, I say.
“I’m going to be wearing a disguise, you know,” he says. “I can’t be seen in public at one of these.”
I wonder if he is a politician or some other public figure, but that’s not a question anyone wants asked.
Finally the line moves through the doors, where a security guard stands behind a table as an employee goes down the guest list and verifies our names against our IDs. We descend a staircase into the basement, where we line up again, this time for someone to check that our release forms have been completed properly. They also scan our IDs and have us pose for a head shot holding IDs to our cheeks.
We enter the event space. An employee tells me this is the old Armory gymnasium. The room looks as if an underground boxing match is about to take place. Forty or so chairs have been arranged in a 30-foot-wide circular ring. In the middle of the circle hangs a rope pulley with a lone industrial hook. A table full of sex toys is off to the side.
A larger crowd is gathering — in the end we will be about 100 people, minus a prominent businessman I acknowledge, who says, “You didn’t see me here,” and leaves early.
The space is hot and damp — not the place for a wool suit. I leave my jacket on because I’ve developed a wealth of perspiration from nerves, and now the humidity.
A table is set up behind the circle of seats for liquor, wine and beer. To avoid having to take a front-row seat — that’s all that’s left at this point, and I don’t know where the audience fits into this performance — I head to the table to buy time and get a beer. I hand the bartender a 20 and she places it into a glass fishbowl tip jar.
“Oh, did you need change?” she says.
Jeez, she just pulled that trick, I think to myself.
“Just remember me for the next beer,” I say.
She doesn’t, but from here on out I devise a system of dropping folded-up dollar bills into the tip jar to give the impression that I may be leaving substantial tips (the drinks are “free”).
I sit down next to my buddy on the dusty cement steps behind the chairs. He has loosened up a bit and starts making small talk with a young couple nearby. They share baby pictures of their respective children and nephews on their cell phones.
The audience goes quiet, and the master of ceremonies for the night — “Princess Donna” — emerges center stage wearing a short black dress and black high heels that would be too tall for any occasion other than a Kink show.
“Let’s review the rules,” she says into a bullhorn from the center of the circle.
In more explicit language, she says that if you plan to participate, please wash your hands.
“The bathroom is over there,” she adds.
She looks back down at her list of rules.
The crowd laughs. I gulp.
Princess Donna explains that for the first act she would like the audience to congregate stage left behind a pillar. That’s where the action will take place. She wants to ensure that the video cameras catch the audience in the same frame as the model.
I’m getting it now: Kink.com is filming a porno/sex party, and we are the extras. I knew from the release form that there would be cameras at the event, but I now understand that this is really part of an adult video shoot, and the guests are the public part of the “public disgrace.”
The crowd is remarkably at ease with their presence on film. Aside from my buddy, no one has brought along a disguise. One woman tells me that anyone who would disapprove of her participation in such an event would be too ashamed to admit they discovered it while perusing Kink.com
I pray that no one in my family frequents Kink.com videos.
I walk over to the restrooms, which are just outside the arena. A man who looks like David Bowie circa 1970 looks me over and says, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, how are you?” I say, and hurry on.
When I return, my 60-year-old line buddy has removed his disguise from his handbag. He now looks like Mike D from the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video — he wears a jet-black tousled wig, crooked fake black mustache and avatar sunglasses.
I tell him he looks good.
The model emerges — the woman who will become a public disgrace. She’s an attractive 20-something blonde wearing a skin-tight black shirt, a black-and-white striped mini-skirt and white underwear strategically peeking out below her skirt.
Two cameramen carrying professional-grade digital cameras emerge.
Princess Donna ties the model’s ankles and wrists around a broad pillar supporting the room and affixes a ball gag mechanism around her head and into her mouth. She places a rope around the pillar, loops it through the model’s legs and strings it through the hook dangling head-high mid-circle. In front of us is something akin to a medieval torture machine, but in this case, it’s about pleasure.
“Action!” says a cameraman.
“Feel free to come up and touch her,” a staff member shouts.
Half the crowd closes in, a few with gnarled faces. I’m reminded of wolves seeking prey, but the prey here has been rendered immobile, stuck to a pillar.
Most of the extras touch her in some form. The Japanese businessmen take photos.
The model constantly thanks Princess Donna for punishing her. Meanwhile, her clothes are being ripped off by the staff.
The model’s pleas for forgiveness ebb, and someone shouts, “Cut.”
A cameraman yells to Princess Donna, “Wait, can you pull her up again?” The princess complies, the cameraman gets his shot, and the scene is officially over.
Everyone claps. It’s kind of like the end of a Fellini movie, where everything you’ve seen is a film, or a dream. But no, what I just saw just happened, and because people have stopped and are smiling and clapping does not mean it was make-believe.
There’s a break. The model, escorted by some employees, proceeds to the smoking corridor, basically a shaft running down the building. Leave it to a porn studio to be the last bastion of commerce to accommodate smokers.
The next act ups the ante. Basically, the ring becomes a stage for porn, with two professional “actors” and perhaps a half-dozen audience members participating.
The scene ends. I grab a beer from the bar.
When I return, looking for my buddy, I find him standing in front of one of the chairs as the David Bowie-looking character engages in oral sex.
I’m alone and slowly circling the ring to look occupied.
Five minutes later someone playfully knees me in the back of my leg. I turn around and it’s my buddy.
“Did you see what I did?” he asks.
I tell him I’m happy he’s having a good time.
“I can introduce you if you want.”
I tell him I’m OK.
The night continues — for another two hours.
At the end, Princess Donna looks fairly irritated by some of the performances.
Finally, one of the professional actors shouts, “Get me a beer.”
The audience participants zip up, looking a bit unsatisfied.
The cameras stop rolling.
I look around. My buddy must have slipped out earlier. He didn’t say goodbye.
There’s nothing left to do but leave, and I do.