“Through the Looking Glass”
This year, COVID-19 has proven to be a big wet beach blanket tossed over the summer of 2020; as a result, the flames of New York’s scorching Fire Island are little more than embers.
In the winter of 2019, I eagerly made my reservations on Fire Island for Pines Party, which was scheduled to be the weekend of July 24-26, 2020. The theme of this year’s Pines Party was Through the Looking Glass. As the theme suggests, this year’s festivities would transport revelers into the alternate reality of Alex in Wonderland.
Months of anticipation fueled a feverish expectation of another legendary, Saturday night over-the-top beach party that begins with thousands of pumped up, glistening muscle boys donned in elaborate, yet, barely-there costumes dancing away their troubles under the moonlight to the sounds of world famous DJs, backed by ocean waves crashing upon the shore. At some point, instinctively, the high-energy dance party quickly descends into a Caligula-type, bacchanalian, sexual feast, lasting way past dawn and well past the following sunset before culminating around noon on Monday. But not this year.
Why is this important? I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The majority of my readers do not live in New York, so to understand the Pines Party, you have to understand Fire Island. To understand Fire Island requires a little backstory. Here goes:
Fire Island is a thin Atlantic Ocean barrier island off the southern shore of Long Island, New York. The name of Fire Island first appeared on a deed in 1789. How the island got its name is up for speculation. I’m partial to the theory that pirates used to ignite fires on the island to draw the attention of passing ships to lure them into harbor with the intention of gettin’ some booty.
It wasn’t until a hurricane wiped out most of the island in 1938 that it became a queer destination spot. In the 1940’s, reeling from the Great Depression and anxious to fill their rental properties, landlords couldn’t afford to discriminate. Since then, Fire Island has been a summer haven for the LGBTQ community. It was a safe refuge of isolation and beauty, an accessible, remote place to feel comfortable and unafraid of a disapproving family or intolerant society.
The serene, beachfront gay vay-cay destination of Fire Island isn’t the island most people think of when they think of New York. When people first hear of a place known for its pristine beaches, tranquil atmosphere and laid back charm located less than 50 miles from the City that never sleeps, the first question usually is, “How do you get there??”
And there’s the rub. Mother Nature isn’t offering up sun-drenched sexcapades, romantic walks along the beach and sexual liberation for nothing. From where I live in midtown Manhattan, my itinerary (with luggage in tow) looks like this: Take the E subway to Penn Station. From there, board two different Long Island Railway trains until you reach Sayeville. From the train, make a mad dash into one of several Jitneys which will cart you and your belongings to a ferry. Once on board the ferry, thirty minutes later you’re in paradise.
As men step off the ferry and onto shore, you can almost see each of them toss their inhibitions and dignity aside — along with the constraints of straight society. On Fire Island, you’re free to slip on your favorite pair of stiletto pumps and whip your dick out and smack your ass with it if you want to. I doubt if anyone would notice.
At first glance, Fire Island is underwhelming and rustic in appearance. Most of the houses are small, cedar-shingle cottages. As expected, there are some properties with names such as Bo-He-Man-Rhapsody, A Whole New World, Night Depository, etc.
Year-round exposure to the sun, salty air, wind and rain have left the outside of most dwellings looking weathered, beaten and borderline shabby. But much like the buildings of New York City, don’t let the façade fool you. Often, those walls of eroding and well-worn planks hide fantastic homes, eloquently designed and meticulously decorated by some of the world’s most recognized architects and designers.
The “streets” of Fire Island are simple, meticulously maintained boardwalks edged with white paint to help guide you at night. There are no lights on the boardwalk, which is barely wide enough for the occasional golf cart. At night, after a few drinks, the short walk back to your cottage can be quite an adventure. One step over the white line will find your face in the sandy, overgrown dunes.
To be fair, I should mention that there is a straight section of Fire Island that is a wholesome vacation destination for many families and children of all ages. I don’t know anything about it, where it is or how to get there because honestly, who cares? Back to our story…
The gay portion of Fire Island is divided into two distinct “neighborhoods”. The Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove. The Pines is where you’ll find the upscale, trendy, muscle boys and their admirers. The Grove is where you’ll find the low maintenance gays and lesbians. The neighborhoods are easily accessible and welcoming to each other. Both have their own nightclubs, restaurants and unique establishments that make a visit to each a worthwhile excursion.
The Pines and The Grove are connected by a small stretch of dunes, which is a popular hook-up spot, affectionately known as The Meat Rack. If you’re horny, don’t have a room to yourself, and don’t mind sand in your crack, sex in the woods under the stars can be quite exhilarating (allegedly).
Of all the incidents that have happened (and continue to happen) in this 0.5 mile stretch of sand, perhaps the most significant occurred on August 25, 1968. Plainclothes officers from the Suffolk County Police Department descended on The Meat Rack and arrested 27 men, charging each of them with misdemeanor counts of consensual sodomy. All of the cases went to trial and one by one, the men were acquitted. The Fire Island cases were considered landmark victories in the gay rights movement, occurring almost a full year before the Stonewall riots of 1969.
The Pines Party is the largest of the island’s several charitable events. Each year the theme changes, but the spirit and energy remain the same. This pinnacle of the summer season raises money not only for the preservation and year-round maintenance of the island, but also for the Stonewall Community Foundation and other gay-related organizations.
In early February this year, I began sketching out possible costume options for the Wonderland extravaganza. Then a mysterious virus began to sweep across the nation killing people by the thousands. Life in New York quickly became less about poom-poom shorts and cock rings and more about staying healthy, staying inside, listening to Cuomo’s daily update and watching the body count rise.
Now, here we are, 5 months into this nightmare and people are chomping at the bit for a taste of ‘freedom’, desperate to relive those simple days at the beach, frolicking in the ocean with friends that we foolishly took for granted.
With the social-distancing, mask-wearing, handwashing and sanitizing rituals that have become daily routines, I think nearly everyone in every state, city and one-horse town in America knew that this summer would be different. But not THIS different. This year, the Pines Party had intended to go virtual, streaming entertainment from different sources in an attempt to keep the party alive. A silent auction was also in the works as a way to make what little money could be made. Both ideas were squashed after the Independence Day debacle.
Wouldn’t you know, that just as quarantine restrictions were beginning to relax, and New York’s beaches were slowly reopening, Mother Nature decided to test us homos with a few nice days just in time for the 4th of July weekend. As homos, we failed miserably.
Combining an island of sexually deprived, horny gays, on a holiday weekend with amazing weather created the perfect storm to put another nail in the coffin of Pines Party 2020. Across the nation, photos and videos of large beach parties with no social distancing or masks made the national news with hundreds of sweaty, shirtless men chortling, kissing and symbolically giving COVID the middle finger.
Fears of the Fire Island becoming a summer COVID super-spreader were already on the minds of local, city and state officials but were compounded by national news coverage, largely thanks to douchebag of the year, Corey Hannon.
Hannon had claimed in social media posts that he knew he had contracted the virus before making his trip to the island that weekend, but just didn’t give a fck. In one video, Hannon proclaims, mid-party, “Everyone knows I had COVID, and you know what, I did. I sat in my fucking bedroom and quarantined myself for eight fucking days. And suffered through COVID. And now I’m out celebrating.” What a dick. His comments went viral, pun intended, and doused the flame of Fire Island that weekend and every weekend since.
Unfortunately, Hannon wasn’t the only brainchild visiting the island that weekend. Giancarlo Kristian Albanese also used the internet to exhibit his contempt for current health guidelines. He posted a picture on his social media feed of men standing together, butts to balls, on a packed beach under the moonlight. In the caption, Albanese quipped, “Fuck your mask. Fuck your social distancing. Fuck your vaccine. Fuck your eugenics. Kiss my asshole if you think I’m an ass.” Clearly, not a poet, Albanese went on, “The world has been consumed by mass hysteria and paranoia on an unprecedented scale right now. People like me aren’t falling for it…We’re not going to fall for the mass-media marketing campaign that’s been going on because it’s all bullshit, every single ounce of it. And you have to be woefully ignorant to honestly think that it’s not.” #COVIDiots
The negative press generated by the unsafe practices over the 4th of July weekend forced community leaders, official and unofficial, to double-down on safety. To their credit, they have done an impressive, although dampening job, of making sure Fire Island is as safe and un-sexy as possible.
Because of all this, Fire Island’s social scene has totally changed. Like everywhere else, businesses are taking a beating. The steady stream of day-trippers hopping on the ferry for an afternoon of sunbathing before heading back to the mainland has vanished and the outlook for guesthouses that rely on them is bleak.
Meals from restaurants are hard to come by as dining in is out and there aren’t many take-out ones. Nightclubs, where shirtless men would commune on the dance floor until dawn, are closed, and bawdy, boozy poolside happy hours are on an extended pause.
The seasonal staff of drag queens are making a valiant effort, as are bartenders, servers and cocktail waiters. Drag shows are still happening but only table seating is available, and there aren’t many tables. Masks must be worn by all patrons until seated. You can remove your mask once seated, but it must be placed back on should you stand up, switch seats or go to the bathroom. There is no mingling (!).
The drag show I attended on Saturday night had no more than 25 people in attendance. A far cry from the usual standing room only, Speedo-clad crowd. With nowhere to eat, dance or socialize, it appeared that most of the island’s inhabitants were in their cottages with lights out by midnight.
Big Brother is watching. It isn’t only public areas that are under scrutiny and being pressured to enforce self-distancing requirements. A voluntary “neighborhood watch” of sorts is in place with the familiar “if you see something, say something” mindset. Knowing that there might be a nearby Gladys Kravitz strolling about, has put the kibosh on sassy poolside soirees, hot tub hopping and house parties. And God help you if you attempt to smuggle a date back to the house.
Some houses, vacationing with familiar friends are forming ‘quarantine pods’ to keep themselves in check and out of harm’s way. The island’s Park Rangers are out in force, and tickets & citations are being issued. Furthermore, when it comes to communal or shared housing, guests are being asked to take a coronavirus test before arriving and temperatures taken before check-in. How sexy is that??
For anyone making their first venture out to The Pines or The Grove this year, I imagine the trip cannot be anything but disappointing. It’s true that, weather-permitting, a day at the beach can be pleasurable but let’s face it, Fire Island is known as a sex-fueled community. This year, the act of holding hands walking down the boardwalk is publicly frowned upon and chastised. Designer Speedos have given way to trendy face masks as this summer’s haute couture.
How long can all of the restrictions survive in the hyper-social, hyper-sexual world of New York’s own Fantasy Island? Will Fire Island ever return to its glory days? Who knows?
But what we DO know is how to slow the spread of COVID–by diligently wearing our masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines. As gay men, and as responsible adults, isn’t it our duty and obligation to keep our dicks in our pants for two minutes and just get through this pandemic? Shouldn’t we be leading by example and show the world how to handle a crisis with a little class and style? Even if you don’t agree, it’s the right thing to do.
Thank you for reading. Until next time…
Drop me a line at RyanRockfordNYC@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.