Harmon Towel Boy

Yesterday I got a note from one of my Susans, who dilated upon my running around making charitable donations last Tuesday, mentioning that she had a profound medical need for a hot tub/sauna combination equipped with a muscle-bound towel boy named Osvaldo.

Her mention of the towel boy reminded me that in the summer of 1973 I took the intensive Spanish program at UC Berkeley and lived a few blocks off campus in a fifties-motel-like apartment building owned by the rapacious uncle of a friend I would not meet for another six years. In the intensive language programs, you’re in class all morning, in the language lab all afternoon, and at home in the evenings doing your homework for the next morning’s class. So you’re pretty busy. But you’re also young and full of energy and freshly out, so some of the afternoon time that should have been spent in the language lab was instead spent in the spectacular outdoor pool at Harmon Gymnasium, swimming laps to keep that rippled swimmer’s build, this being before gay men discovered the benefits of weightlifting. After the laps, the only logical thing to do was to spend an hour or so poolside, crispening your tan line and discreetly observing the fauna, many of whom were discreetly observing back. Actually some of them were not all that discreet, as Harmon Gym was pretty cruisy in those days, the early seventies being when great numbers of us were crawling out from under rocks nationwide and wriggling to the coasts. To get your towel and suit (optional for suntanning, but I never understood why anyone would suntan except to get a tanline), you passed by a window and handed your reg (rhymes with “dredge”) card to the towel boy, who was certainly muscle-bound and indeed a looker albeit very professional in demeanor. So professional that after you’d been there a couple of times, he knew the suit size you wanted. He also knew that there were two brands of suits, one totally shapeless and baggy and the other…well, becoming. Now it would take a bolder man than most of us to ask for one of the good suits that displayed your assets so fetchingly, but somehow, his professionalism extended to this additional sensitive service, and for those of us who needed one of the good suits, when his hand emerged from what looked like a random draw from the bin, it always held the right stuff.

It was some weeks into the term that I learned that his professionalism went even further, and farther, too, as one Saturday night when I’d gone into the City as usual, I paid my only visit to the Ritch Street Baths, at that time San Francisco’s premier gay bath house. When I got my towel, it was all I could do to keep a straight face (always a plus in any bathhouse). Yes, it was he, moonlighting, a man who early on found his vocation.

P.S. By the end of summer school, I had grown so fond of those swim suits that I wanted one, badly enough to check around and discover that the company sold only to institutions. No retail. Sigh, so I had no choice. Using a devious route not visible from the towel boy’s vantage, I crept to my locker and deposited the suit. Then, when I went to reclaim my reg card from him, I lied, telling him that the suit had been swiped while I was in the shower. So I paid only the institutional price, but hey, it was a used suit. I of course still have it. By now, the elastic in the waist has given out, but then, so has mine.

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