By John Sanchez

I’ve had roles in several films that could be described as “underground” at best and “student” at worst. The parts I’ve played, from an angry game-show contestant to a well-dressed zombie, have all been bigger and flashier than my nonspeaking clothed cameo in the new all-male porn video In Man’s Country.

But I can take comfort in the fact that more people will see my brief appearance in this video than all those who saw all my 16-millimeter roles combined. This is the big time! I was even invited to my first lavish premiere party.

I became involved with In Man’s Country several months ago, when I heard there was a call for extras. I thought it sounded like an experience worth having, and I was right. If nothing else, being a triple X-tra would give me at least ten years’ worth of cocktail-party material.

True to its title, In Man’s Country was shot in Man’s Country, the venerable Clark Street bathhouse where generations of men have met without speaking. On the night the scene I’m in was taped, the extras were told we could keep on our street clothes or wear the bathhouse uniform–a towel. I decided that for the measly pay I was getting–a copy of the video–I’d stay in my clothes. The extras were to play a strip-show audience, and the director asked that we cheer loudly and with our hands above our heads.

After being told that we weren’t wild enough in the first few takes, we screamed and cheered and generally worked ourselves into a frenzy, even in the shots in which no strippers were in sight. The script called for a sex scene to follow, but it had already been shot. Through the magic of editing, we enjoyed it quite a bit. After the taping was done, we were told to expect invitations to the premiere.

I watch my mailbox every day, and finally it comes.

Of course the real premiere didn’t live up to my fantasy, in which money is no object and I arrive by limousine. In reality my date (ours is one of those strictly-platonic-except-that-one-time relationships) doesn’t have enough money to take the bus, let alone a limo or cab. Instead we bike to the prescreening party at Eagle, a leather bar next to Man’s Country, where the video will be shown. We chain our bikes to a street sign, then walk inside. Though it’s hard to see in the dark, it’s obvious there is no party going on here. My date suggests we check the infamous “pit,” a basement room with a strict dress code. It seems that any item can serve as a fetish for someone; I’ve been increasingly aware of this ever since the time in school when a professor practically drooled all over my Converse high-tops. But to get in the pit you usually need the more established gear: leather, latex, or uniforms. Tonight, however, all we need is an invitation.

Once in the pit we hand over our invitations and immediately head for the free beer, then to the chain-link cage in which a man in a Speedo is handing out “birthday presents” as a tie-in with a scene in the video. Each package contains a small laminated promotional poster for the video, a sample bottle of lube, and, inexplicably, a comb. The crowd seems to be mostly made up of white guys in their 30s and 40s, though I am surprised to see a few women. We’ve arrived at the tail end of the party, and soon everyone heads next door to Man’s Country for the screening.

Moviegoers fill the bathhouse’s lobby, and there seems to be some confusion over the cost of admission. The invitation will get you into the screening, but if you want to lock up your clothes or rent a room for discreet encounters, you have to pay the usual fees. Fortunately, we run into Chuck, the owner. My date goes all doe-eyed and dumb. “We didn’t think we’d have to pay,” he pouts. The effect is so Monroe-esque, I half-expect a rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Chuck seems impressed too, though he says we’ll have to wait until after the show to get our lockers.

Most of the audience is fully dressed and no one is cruising. Without fanfare or even an introduction the video begins playing on three screens. The simple plot charts the hero’s growth from an insecure bodybuilder to a self-assured exotic dancer. My heart pounds during each of my six close-ups. (Yes, I did count.) The audience’s attention seems to waver at times, but at the end they applaud appreciatively.

A live strip show featuring two of the video’s stars follows brief speeches from Chuck and the director, John Travis. Then free copies of the video are raffled off. Top-billed star Sonny Markham sweetly gives the winners a kiss as he hands them their tapes. When the show is over, the crowd files out and my date and I start looking for Chuck so we can get our free lockers. He’s nowhere to be found, so we hang out and collect autographs. About half an hour passes and Chuck still hasn’t shown up, but we’d rather keep waiting than give up and go home. We have just watched three hours of “adult entertainment,” after all.

Some men haunt the halls fully dressed, but we’re too experienced to even try that route. Unfortunately, padlocks are ten dollars, and since we have less than five between the two of us, paying our way is not an option. We look for Chuck upstairs at the juice bar. They say he’s downstairs in the office. Downstairs in the office they say he’s upstairs at the juice bar. We wait in the lobby for what seems like hours, feeling like a couple of kids trying desperately to get locked overnight in the candy store.

A door behind us swings open, and an employee walks by us with a cart full of clean towels. This happens a couple times more before I realize we are standing by the door to the laundry room. As the door swings open again, I can see a stack of clean, folded towels on a shelf just inches away from the door. I point this out to my date, and, feeling just like Lucy and Ethel, we devise a plan to grab two towels, then use the gym lock in my backpack on an empty locker.

Then we pause to consider the negatives. What if we get caught? Imagine the shame. Will our lifetime memberships be revoked? Maybe the staff, in a rage over our chipping away at their livelihood, will beat us savagely and humiliate us. But still, we’ve been waiting so long. Back and forth we go until Chuck finally appears.

By the time we finally get in, it’s almost 3 AM and only a few men remain. The parade has passed us by, and we face one of the bleakest nights in bathhouse history. Did everyone leave after the movie? Are they asleep in their rooms? My date and I split up and wander around, and when we run into each other again, neither of us has a story to tell. We’re bored, but we’ve stuck it out this long and we don’t want to go home empty-handed.

A few fruitless walks around the halls later, we agree to leave, even though my date has promised to return to some guy’s room. As we start back to our lockers, the guy appears and begs my date to stay, and I agree to wait. I pass the time watching porno movies in the auditorium. All of them feature younger and skinnier models than those in In Man’s Country. Different markets, I figure.

At 5 AM, a voice on the loudspeaker jars everyone out of their early-morning stupor by announcing that a free continental breakfast is being served in the juice bar. My date reappears, clearly frustrated. Drugs have ruined his prospects for the evening. Finally, we are ready to concede defeat. We put on our clothes, give our towels back, then ride our bikes back home as the sun rises. As it so often does, our experience seems to have proven another cliche to be true: sometimes you really do get what you pay for.