On the California Swingers Club website, Barry and Shell make it sound so wonderful:
Barry and Shell have been hosting swing parties for couples and single women for thirty-five years. We offer a safe and pressure-free place to explore sensual fantasies and meet like-minded people.
A delicious buffet is available throughout the evening.
Held the second Saturday of each month in Oakland, Barry and Shell’s is a swinging institution—the mom and pop store of swinger parties. With over 38 years of swinger-party hosting under their belt, these must be really old swingers—a throwback to the early seventies heyday (most likely featuring many of the original cast members).
Over 40 swinger couples are expected to attend. Condoms and plenty of towels are provided. Like firearms, swinging and hard alcohol don’t mix; guests are only allowed to bring wine.
“There’s no pressure whatsoever,” Shell said over the phone like a kindly den-mother-of-having-sex-with-multiple-partners. “You don’t have to do anything. You can play. You can watch. If you bring toys, we got outlets in all the rooms.”
What kind of archaic, Industrial Revolution-era toy does she have in mind that isn’t battery operated?
Thoughts race through my head as we drive towards Barry and Shell’s three-level home in a lovely East Bay neighborhood: Will I end up having sex with someone’s wife? Will someone’s grandmother hit on me!? Will images from this evening cause me to wake up screaming like a traumatized Vietnam vet?!? Did I again leave the iron on in my house!?
Meet the Swingers
Posing under the guise of swinging couple Ken and Debbie Stamos, we make our way through a quiet, nondescript neighborhood. Reluctantly, we make our way toward a door decorated with cheesy Christmas lights. Faint music emits from beyond. To the untrained eye there’s not a clue of what goes on inside this closed entry of normal suburbia. A moment of uneasy anticipation. A ring of the bell. A knock on the door. The sound of a lock being opened.
“We’re the Stamoses!” I declare with arms open to a thin woman wearing a red corset top, giving my best “I’m-ready-to-swing” look.
“Come on in!” she says, neither friendly nor unfriendly in manner.
With the hesitancy of someone who’s afraid of large birds and covered in breadcrumbs, we enter the swinger abode, letting out periodic staccato nervous laughs. Immediately I can tell this isn’t your ordinary Saturday-night middle-class suburban Oakland house party. A dank smell. Seedy lighting. Walls painted pink.
Occasionally, a man clad only in a towel walks by. Is this house haunted? The various grunts and groans bellowing from upstairs would lead a less informed person to think so.
Names checked off the reservation list. “That will be eighty dollars,” the woman in the red corset says in a manner neither friendly nor unfriendly, while perched under a sign that reads, “You have to wear a condom. If you don’t, you won’t be invited back.”
“We’re new to the lifestyle,” I stress to her boyfriend Mike, who is dressed entirely in black. Unlike the corset woman, Mike is very friendly and talkative. Years ago, Mike lived down the street from Barry and Shell. That’s how he started attending their parties. His girlfriend, though, is a relative swinger newbie in many ways.
“I’m fifty-four and she’s twenty-one,” Mike shares, gesturing towards his red-corseted girlfriend, (who is neither friendly or unfriendly).
“Did you guys meet at a swinger party?” I ask, surveying the situation as another man walks by wearing only a towel.
“No, we met at work,” Mike replies. “I work for a program that brings arts into schools. She’s an administrator.”
“Let’s get freaky!” I blurt.
A Quick Look Around
More men walk by in towels. Then, the wide variety of “playrooms.” Steam rising in the air. Naked couples frolic in the hot-tub room. With 21-year-old girlfriend in tow, Mike matter-of-factly explains the rules. “Don’t finish in the Jacuzzi! When you’re ready to finish, go to another room, but don’t do it in the Jacuzzi!” No worries, Mike, the chances of me ever entering another jacuzzi again are pretty slim at this point.
“There’s a downstairs area where you can watch,” Mike says, leading us towards the red-lit bowels of the house. A more pungent smell hits me first, before the visual. Wall-to-wall mattresses. Crumpled stained sheets. The sounds of grunts and groans mixed with body parts slapping together. If you ever wondered what it would be like if your parents had sex, this would be it, multiplied by ten.
A room full of naked unattractive couples, some to the point of plain obese with rolls of flesh one could get lost in, twisted among a variety of random sexual positions. Lotion is accessible. How could a germaphobic person possibly get aroused and partake on these crumpled sheets used and reused by a rotation of numerous strange couples? Far from arousing, it’s more comical; the looks on people’s faces, the ridiculous noises they make, the crowd of zombies watching on. I halfway expect the Benny Hill theme to start playing at some point.
“Put your name on your wine bottle,” Mike says, handing me a Sharpie, as the tour concludes in the kitchen—these people share partners with no qualms at all, but share a bottle? Get right the hell out of town with that disgusting talk. Then: “You should come join us in the Jacuzzi,” friendly Mike beckons with a big smile and silent 21-year-old girlfriend by his side, staring at us a little longer than comfort permits.
“Yeah. Maybe later,” I say, (but not too convincingly), leaving Debbie Stamos and myself in the pink-walled kitchen.
“You look like first-timers,” remarks an affable Hispanic guy named Carlos, adorned with a crew cut and crisp button down shirt, sitting in the corner.
“Is it obvious?” I ask with fear in my eyes.
“No worries, just ease into it,” assures Carlos, breaking into a big smile. His full-figured wife Yvonne is perched on his lap.
“It took us about a year of coming to parties to start participating,” Yvonne adds, wearing a low-cut print dress accentuating her mammoth breasts.
“So how do you let people know you’re interested in play?” Debbie Stamos asks, shifting uncomfortably as towel-adorned people linger around her.
Affable Carlos demonstrates. “You kind of come up to them and massage them.” Carlos rubs his hand over my fictional wife’s back. “Then you see where it goes.” Carlos lowers his hand and boldly grabs her ass. A look of shock crosses Debbie’s face, completely mortified by his groping. Carlos plays it off with a huge laugh.
“So, that’s how it’s done,” I say, struggling to contain my overwhelming desire to not hear the answer.
“Girl, you’re the one in charge here,” Yvonne interjects to Debbie Stamos, stating that the woman usually is the one who instigates things; most often with another female. “You got the power. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. It’s the woman’s choice!”
Lone men continue to circulate the kitchen in towels, trolling the party for fresh newbie meat. Some couples arrive and head directly to the various sex rooms—that’s all the socializing they need. Barry and Shell’s has the atmosphere of some weird, sleazy family reunion. Or a regular family reunion, depending on your upbringing.
“There’re a lot of cops and judges who come to these parties.” Carlos says. “Some people really don’t talk about their jobs, especially if they have a high profile position.”
“Are you a cop?” I ask with concern.
“No. I work as a Spanish teacher.” Carlos replies.
“I do interpretation for the deaf,” Yvonne adds. “We came all the way from Sacramento for the party, because there’s no chance of running into someone you know.”
“Do you guys want to join us later in the Jacuzzi?” Carlos asks, still eyeing Debbie with a broad, friendly smile.
“I think we got to warm up a bit. Sort of dip our toes into the pool first,” I say, (hoping that sentence isn’t a double entendre). I then mention the golden rule to Carlos: “Remember, please don’t finish in the Jacuzzi!”
The living room, dotted with Barry’s erotic paintings, is where the swingers reenergize between strenuous “sessions” on the spread. This consists mostly of cheese, peel-and-eat shrimp and bowls full of potato chips. Hard to stomach a plateful of pickled mushroom as an old guy with a flabby ass parades around wearing a G-string with a chicken on the front. I don’t want to touch anything (peel-and-eat shrimp, potato chips, Oreo cookies, old man cock). Especially the potato chips. All it takes is one swinger who didn’t wash their hands after group coitus, and it’s hello, hepatitis!
“I’ve been coming to Barry and Shell’s parties for the past thirty years,” says a creepy older man with gray, puffy hair like a Vegas lounge singer. He’s wearing only a towel and munching a second plate of peel-and-eat shrimp. He licks his fingers. Less friendly than the others—puffy-hair is strictly business.
With a dead look in his eye, he’s one of the rare males allowed to attend parties on his own. “I worked for them,” he explains. “Then I worked at several other swinger events.”
“What do you do when you’re not at parties?”
“I give private tennis lessons,” he says, becoming a sleazy seventies cliché. (“Here, Mrs. Van Buren, let me help you with your backhand!”) ”It’s the Bush administration,” he rattles on about the decline of swinger parties. “If McCain wins, I’m sure more will start popping up.” Makes about as much sense as anything else we’ve seen or heard so far.
Sensing someone staring at the Stamoses. I look over. It’s Mike! He’s down the hall with a big, creepy smile plastered across his face and his 21-year-old girlfriend glued to his side—both now wearing towels. They’re sort of following us around the house.
“We’re going to the couples room. Do you guys want to come with?”
Mental note to self: must avoid Mike!
A skeleton-skinny old woman in her sixties, drunk out of her head, tries to tantalize me into dancing by lifting up her turquoise dress revealing a matching pair of turquoise old-lady panties.
“How’s your night going?” I ask, noting she smells like a cross between mothballs and Grandma’s house.
“If you’re asking, I haven’t fucked anyone,” she slurs like a drunken sailor. Finally, swinger jealousy rears its ugly head. And that’s not the only thing getting reared!
More jealousy: “If he’s fucking someone, then I’m going to go fuck someone!” she blurts; anger is in her voice and alcohol is on her breath.
This seems like an opportune time to test the validity of Carlos’s instigating tactic. I begin massaging her bony shoulder. (Will she end up giving me five dollars in a birthday card?) Confrontation. The man who’s the other half of Skeletor jealously emerges from the smoking room. Wearing only red underwear, he looks like a funny sitcom next-door neighbor. Is some Jerry Springer shit about to break out?
Instead: “Do you want to join us in the hot tub?” he exclaims, utilizing strong eye-contact.
(Pause.) “Absolutely not!”
After momentary refuge in the bathroom—equipped with industrial-sized bottles of mouthwash and antibacterial soap—I’m actually starting to get bored with the swinger scene. “I guess we could go look at people having sex again,” I shrug my shoulders and unenthusiastically suggest to Debbie Stamos.
Last Call for Play
Closing in on two in the goddamn morning, the party clears out pretty quickly. Two gray-haired men in suit jackets stand by the door taking about city council issues and zoning laws. Are they the aforementioned politicians conversing in shoptalk? Or bankers? Or lawyers? Or accountants? Or schoolteachers?
In the locker room a man with a combover and an older Asian woman put on their civilian clothes, both with blank expressions—neither happy nor sad—more stricken with the malice of life.
“Did you guys have fun?” I ask. They both look like they’ve just lost a loved one, so it seemed like an appropriate question.
Combover mumbles something to the effect of both, “Yes,” and, “It’s none of your business,” like one involved in the lifestyle for a jaded long time (maybe cautious of newbies because he’s a high-profile judge?).
The empty group-sex room aftermath is not pretty. Crumbled, stained sheets. Peculiar, lingering smells. The porn movie turned off. Remnants of strange bodies that laid here through the course of the evening, some not even knowing one another’s names—instigated by a rub of the shoulder. Those whose ho-hum bland lives were, for an evening, made to seem edgy and spicy by their sexual drive and participation; a glimmer of excitement to think about during the working week of teaching Spanish, doing data entry or interpreting for the deaf.
“Imagine the industrial cleaning that will be needed tomorrow,” someone blurts out.
And with that, I’m pretty sure I never want to have sex again. Thanks, California Swingers Club.