Despite the appearance of a regular porn shop, an arcade's primary business isn't selling DVDs or sex toys. It's renting booths in which porn can be viewed and where people—mostly men—meet for anonymous sexual encounters, running the gamut from mutual masturbation to group sex and activities that even the most jaded would classify as "hardcore."
Some of the narrator's experiences in my novel were based on my own recollections of an arcade I hadn't visited in ages. It seemed a good time to refresh my perspective on a place I'd just spent years writing about, so I decided to seek out guys willing to talk about their experiences at arcades in the "Men Seeking Men" section of Craigslist.
Arcades are theme parks for cruising, where entrants pay for the possibility of getting laid. My older gay friends describe their ubiquity in the 1970s and 80s in Austin, where I live. They were a staple of urban enclaves across the country throughout those decades. I've long heard about how they once dotted the city, filling up with gay men when the bars closed at 2 AM. Like bathhouses, most seem to have disappeared with the AIDS crisis and the advent of the internet. Those that survived have been pushed to the outskirts of cities, ignored or unseen by anyone not looking for them.
My ad was titled "Ever go to the arcade/XXX bookstore?" and solicited stories from Austin men who used them. Replies flooded in nearly instantly and were far more unguarded than I could have anticipated.
A 64-year-old named "Mike" told me he goes to the arcade once or twice a month. Asked what he does there, he replied "Usually just me sucking a guy off or sucking him off then letting him fuck me. Wife has no interest in sex anymore."
"Joe," 42, and also married to a woman, said he goes to the arcade every 10 days or so. "I am looking for men to please," he wrote. "I get naked and wait on all fours. I am just trying to get used."
Despite their activities at the arcade, practically everyone who replied identified as "straight." This didn't come as a surprise—one gets the sense from these men that they have but momentarily excused themselves from their normal, closeted lives.
When it came time to set up in-person interviews, things got complicated. Most leads went cold when I tried to schedule a face-to-face. Even when I did find men willing to meet, exchanges often became focused on my "stats"—age, height, weight, and dick size. Those guys I avoided.
At last, a reasonable-sounding man agreed to meet for an interview. He emailed me the name of a park in the Austin suburb where he lived and told me precisely where to meet him in its sprawling grounds. When I arrived, I found that there was nothing but acres of soccer fields abutting a small parking lot next to a lavatory building.
When Jason arrived in a beat up work truck, I hesitated for a moment, then got into the cab with him. The smelly red Dodge was stuffed with papers, trash, and tools. The lot was empty, save for a few cars belonging to a group of soccer players kicking a ball 50 yards away.
Jason, a portrait of mildly grungy lower-middle-class heterosexuality, told me something right away that I hadn't grasped when setting up the meeting: The park's restroom was one of his favorite cruising spots.
"I met a couple guys here the other day," he said, raising a tattooed forearm to stroke his long goatee.
"Two of them?"
"Yeah, but there were regular people in the bathroom, so we went over to that parking lot." He pointed to another paved area across the field.
"What happened there?"
"They took turns sucking my dick."
"And you identify as bi, gay…?"
"Nah," he said, "I'd say I'm straight."
A bold statement. Still, it wasn't his sexuality that surprised me most. What I really couldn't get over was the setting. There was nothing about that placid park that suggested privacy from prying outsiders. The 20-somethings on the soccer field could have returned to their cars at any moment. There was certainly nothing about the environment that suggested sex.
Two months earlier, police had arrested five men in a sting at a park bathroom just 20 minutes from where we sat. I reassured myself that at least I had my notepad and list of questions as evidence for the moment a SWAT team swooped in.
Jason shifted in his seat to look at each passing car. At first I thought it was because he shared my anxiety, but no—he told me he was hoping someone would arrive who he could follow into the bathroom.
Suddenly, my fear shifted from being arrested to losing my sole interview prospect. I began firing off questions in a frenzy.
"How old are you?"
"And you're married?"
"Yeah, for about a year."
"How's your sex life with your wife?"
"Great. We fuck every day."
"Every day? Really?"
"Yeah, unless one of us falls asleep first."
"How often do you hook up with guys?"
"Couple of times a week, probably."
"Does your wife suspect anything?"
"Hell no. Why would she?"
"Do you think you have a stronger sex drive than other men?"
"Nah, I think most guys want to fuck a lot, and that's why they fuck around with other guys. Because it's easier than finding women."
"What kind of porn do you watch?"
"All kinds. Straight girls with big tits. Guys with big dicks fucking girls with big tits. I like really huge tits. If it's dudes, I like hairy guys with big cocks. Group stuff is good… and some trans porn…"
He began playing with his phone as he spoke—on a hookup app, I imagined, since the park had been a bust. Still distracted, he began talking, at last, about his experiences at arcades. He'd been to tons of them. "They're all over. Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas. They can be fun, too." He seemed not to have much else to say on the subject.
It struck me then that sex in restrooms or cars was really no different than sex in coin-operated booths. They're all the same, really, just odd spaces that some men—especially closeted men—carve out and claim for themselves in their hunger for contact, affection, or even just plain sex. People will try to tell you that cruising is a thing of the past, but especially for closeted and "discreet" gay men, the practice has never died. It has only moved, like the arcades themselves, to the outskirts of culture.
Suddenly, Jason hit on the thing he'd been searching for. "This is what I like," he said. He was searching for a video, not a partner. Straight porn. The woman's breasts appeared so immense that my strongest impression was that she must struggle with debilitating back pain.
"I see," I said.
Jason began to rub himself through his jeans. "Nobody's coming," he said, referring to the bathrooms that had remained vacant since our arrival.
Then he propped the phone on the console cup holder between us, and we watched in silence. After a moment, he undid his pants.
"You don't mind, do you?"
"No," I said. "But do you think it's safe here?"
"No one's coming," he repeated, pulling out his dick. "I was watching this one at home earlier."
"Oh," I said. "Nice."
"You can join, you know." This, he said lifting his chin in the direction of my lap.
"Thanks," I said, "but I'd better not."
Minutes later, in rhythm with the ejaculations of the terrifyingly well-endowed man on the screen, Jason lifted his T-shirt, groaned softly, and came on his stomach.
"Well," I said, "thanks for meeting with me."
"Wait," he said. "Shit. I got nothing to clean up with. Help me find something."
I glanced around the cab of his truck. There were empty Gatorade bottles at my feet, papers stuffed into the pocket of the door.
"Look in that tub," he said. "Hurry." He leaned back, trying to capture the runoff before it reached his pants.
In a plastic bin in the backseat, I discovered a handful of fast food napkins, which I thrust into his hands.
Sopping up the mess, Jason thanked me. "You got any more questions, you know how to reach me."
He was a nice guy, actually.
Awkwardly, we shook hands, and I exited his truck and got back into my own car, where I sanitized my hands with a travel-size bottle of Purell and wrote up my notes from the meeting. I was still sitting there as he reversed out of the lot and took off down the road.