STORY: 1979/1980—My first visit to Fire Island was over Halloween weekend in 1979, long after the resort’s summer season had ended. The legendary Sandpiper, a ramshackle wooden disco that had been the center of Fire Island Pines gay nightlife for more than a decade, scheduled its closing party for that weekend. I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to use the empty lavish Pines beach home of a friend of my aunt so I could attend it. I traveled there with my two closest gay male friends hoping to experience a taste of the sybaritic lifestyle that Fire Island was known for.
The Sandpiper was a small, closed-in dance hall with wooden window slats propped open for ventilation, which could be closed when inevitably neighbors complained about the loud music in the wee morning hours. That evening was charged with excitement, but there was sadness in the air, too, as this hedonistic sweatbox was about to be razed and replaced by something “bigger and better.”
We arrived appropriately late in the evening, having followed the throbbing beat of the music down the boardwalk to the Sandpiper in the center of town. When the door opened, the music poured out into the silent night. Inside, the dance floor was surprisingly not packed. I had heard the legendary stories about the Sandpiper, so I’d been hoping to be part of a boisterous, electric and hormone-charged final evening there. But, with the heat of summer long gone, the prevalent feeling that chilly evening on the ocean was more of a sad goodbye, with uneven bursts of energy that weren’t sustainable. I got to be a part of gay history, but the fireworks I’d been anticipating as part of my first-ever visit to this temple were disappointingly lame.
The following summer, I shared a rental house with some friends in The Pines. The Pines and Cherry Grove are the two gay towns on Fire Island, a 36-mile long strip of barrier island off the coast of Long Island. Both towns consist of summer houses and a few stores. There are no roads and cars, with elevated boardwalks being the main way of getting around. We ogled hot buff bodies on sandy white beaches, and flirted and posed, hoping to meet someone for a furtive romp in bed or in the bushes, or better yet a summer-long romance.
After the beach, we headed over to the always-packed-with-hot-men tea dance at the Botel. The Botel was a small harbor-side bar surrounded by a large wooden deck that looked out over the harbor and allowed a good view of incoming ferryboats bringing in the newest shipment of buff boys out from the city. Late dinners typically followed, prepared by gourmands with groceries purchased at the overpriced Pantry, the only grocery store in the Pines. Then it was back out to the bars to dance, drink and enjoy any other late-night shenanigans we could get into.
As it turned out, I ended up having an affair with another guest in the house I was staying in that summer. Jeff was an all-American-looking buff young man from Chicago, a look that was my kryptonite. We hit it off immediately. Late during our first afternoon at the beach, Jeff and I wandered into the dunes and, once away from our housemates, proceeded to rip off what little clothes we had on, kissing and licking ourselves into a wet frenzy. Sex in the dunes sounds hotter than it actually is, however. Jeff was hot and the play was fun, but grains of sand managed to find their way into every crack and crevice, detracting from the overall experience.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Jeff been expected to be the “boy toy” of another member of the household who had invited him for the weekend. So, after our late afternoon secret dalliance in the dunes, we naturally had to cool it.
Later that evening, several of us went down to Cherry Grove to go dancing at the Ice Palace (On Friday evenings, everyone danced at the new Pavilion in the Pines, but on Saturday night, the action was all in Cherry Grove.).
Walking back late, I was introduced to the Meat Rack—a section of trees, sand dunes, and marshland that separate the two gay towns and was notoriously known for the all-day-all-night sex that occurred there. Late on a warm Saturday night, it was packed. Men darted between trees, as groups groaned and groped in an orgiastic frenzy.
As daylight emerged, I ran back to the house, dragged Jeff out of bed, and hurried him down to the Meat Rack. As a corn-fed midwesterner, he was even less exposed to this kind of display than I was, so I was pretty sure he’d want to see it.
I’ve always been modest when it comes to sex, especially the public or outdoor kind. But, in the earliness of dawn, fueled by my first real experience with LSD (taken only so my best friend wouldn’t be doing his alone after another buddy had backed out), and my infatuation for Jeff, I aggressively initiated a coach-athlete, role-play sex scene with him in an open clearing in the copse, much to the delight of a happy group of onlookers.
That summer was the last before AIDS hit the gay community. I ended up renting my own share in a house in the Pines the following summer and a couple more times in subsequent years, but the excitement and innocence with which I experienced that beach community that first summer would never be repeated.