The private rooms at Mac's Bathhouse in Silver Lake are a hot ticket on Saturday nights. Well-dressed men with gym bags start arriving at the labyrinth-like club before sunset, and by early evening a "No Vacancy" sign dangles beneath a stern AIDS warning posted on the cashier's window, signaling that the 50 personal cubicles are taken.
Those who come later are forced to accept semi-private accommodations. As they trade their street clothes for towels and settle into bunk beds, steam rooms and each other's arms, a gay pornographic movie plays silently on a television and an empty Jacuzzi burbles near the rounded walkway known as the tunnel of love.
Soft voices echo along the dimly lit gray and black corridors where the private rooms are located, and the faint aroma of marijuana wafts from one area. In other cubicles the doors are left open to reveal nude men, alone, paired off or in groups.
Someone May Grab
"Try to walk down the middle of the hallways," says Doug Myers, owner of the club that is known as the Cadillac of bathhouses. "Otherwise someone might grab you."
The fact that some men are still grabbing each other at the baths--despite the gruesome specter of AIDS--is clear to anyone who has visited Mac's or the Compound or the Melrose Baths. Not so clear is what the future holds for these clubs, which have been abandoned by both gay leaders and a large percentage of their former patrons.
The clubs still in business sometimes are busy, but there are fewer of them. Of 25 or more operating in Los Angeles County before the AIDS outbreak, 12 are still licensed.
After years of hand-wringing and debate, the county Board of Supervisors today is expected to adopt new health regulations that could pull the stopper on the surviving bathhouses. The supervisors' own AIDS Commission, refueling old arguments, recommended closure two weeks ago on grounds that the baths encourage unsafe sex.
But the club's owners, who maintain they have have cleaned up their act, have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep themselves in business.
Myers and other owners have adopted the siege mentality of people who find themselves battling long odds. Some have emerged from the shadows of the gay underground to deliver the message that their clubs, which have been vilified by many people, are partners in the fight to stem the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Their weapons, they say, are the health brochures and condoms that are freely distributed to customers under county regulations. Bathhouse operators are also quick to point out that they have closed their "orgy rooms" and posted signs listing the most threatening sex acts, such as anal intercourse without condoms and the exchange of body fluids. In addition, they say bathhouse monitors warn customers when they are practicing unsafe sex.
"We all have lots of friends who have died of AIDS," said Myers, 53, a mild-mannered former beautician with a life-sized photo of a nude man on his office wall. "If we thought we were part of the problem, we could not look in the mirror. But we're not."
Marty Benson, who co-owns the Melrose Baths, the Midtowne Spa and other clubs across the county, said he will file a lawsuit against the county if the closure order goes through. Benson contends that it is ridiculous to blame the bathhouse owners for encouraging the spread of AIDS. "Why would I want to kill all of my customers?" he asked.
Scott D. R. Goulet, a co-owner of the Hollywood Spa, said bathhouses have been misrepresented. "I feel like I'm the good guy in this scenario," said Goulet, one of only four operators who responded to interview requests. "I provide the safehouse."
Despite these arguments, many critics continue to paint the bathhouse operators as callous, at the very least. Rabbi Allen Freehling, who chairs the AIDS Commission, said the bathhouses are a source of "societal pollution" that must be eliminated. "The status quo can no longer be maintained because the status quo is a killer," Freehling said.
The supervisors appear intent to ban bathhouses where "high-risk sexual activity takes place." But because of possible legal problems, county lawyers are advising that the board stop short of an outright prohibition against all bathhouses.
Officials would enforce the law by using undercover investigators--either sheriff's deputies, health inspectors or private investigators--to determine if unsafe sex is taking place. Or, less likely, they can rely on testimony from bathhouse patrons, officials said.
"It would amount to a case-by-case approach because a blanket ban would not be possible," said Steven Carnevale, principal deputy county counsel who was still working out the legal language Monday.
The supervisors could also impose restrictions that would require bathhouse owners to put viewing windows on private rooms or allow only one person at a time to use those rooms, he said.