To describe Michele Capozzi physically, imagine Martin Scorsese reborn as a scruffy Venetian gondolier. But to describe the role he plays in the city’s sex club ecology, a reference to Dante seems apt. “Think of me as Virgilio,” the 52-year-old Genoan told me in thickly accented English. “Your guide through the various circles of the underworld.”
It was a recent Friday night, and I was cruising up Park Avenue in a 1977 Caprice Classic toward Harlem, the usual first stop on Mr. Capozzi’s private, customized tours of the New York sex club scene. Although Rudy Giuliani has put a damper on the scene, there is still a lot to see, he assured me. “You cannot destroy a way of life, a philosophy,” he said. “Business-wise, I will always have something to show people.”
This night, he was taking around a couple from Germany as well as Barbara, an attractive blond literary editor from Milan wearing a very naughty leather number beneath her uptown camel’s-hair coat. I met Mr. Capozzi and his clients at 11 P.M. at the new Mercer Hotel in SoHo, but that would be the last I’d see of the sleek side of the city until I got back there five hours later. “I’m excited, but I am a little frightened, too,” admitted Lesley, an art director from Hamburg. “Don’t worry,” Mr. Capozzi replied. “You will be back in a few hours with lots of images in your eyes.”
A self-described “trisexual” because he said he’ll try “anything sexual,” Mr. Capozzi began his tours nearly 20 years ago. A journalist and filmmaker, he does about one tour a week, both to supplement his income and to keep from growing “jaded” about the city. “I will have fun tonight, too,” he promised me. “To see the eyes of my clients popping out like in a cartoon, seeing things they don’t expect to see-this still gives me satisfaction.”
Mr. Capozzi gets his clients by word of mouth. Most are European, chic and wealthy, and can easily afford his hefty charge, as well as the door fees and drink prices. The tours are “voyeuristic,” for scouting purposes only. Those wanting a more participatory experience can return another night.
Rouge-lit Nikki’s Bar at 125th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue is not a sex bar, Mr. Capozzi told me. But a drink there gave him a chance to gauge how well his clients will handle “crossing other borders.” Apparently, we were deemed worthy, and we moved on to a topless bar beneath the West Side Drive in upper Manhattan. Located in an industrial zone, it is not affected by the crackdown that has closed other clubs or-worse by Mr. Capozzi’s lights-forced the dancers to wear bathing suits. “You can go to the beach and see more tits than you do in those places now,” he complained.
As Mr. Capozzi fielded questions from the group, a long-legged dancer on stage was gyrating on her back, her upturned high heels framing his head like stag horns. Meanwhile, a few customers had fastened on Barbara’s rather shapely legs, demanding that she dance for them. Mr. Capozzi got us out the door just in time. Feeling good about the attention, Barbara wryly announced that the night looked destined to be an “inner journey” for her-“a journey from literary editor to sex bomb.”
The next stop was Stella’s Cella, a gay burlesque club on West 48th Street, where the male strippers stop at the G-string in deference to the Mayor’s sensibilities. “I hate to sound like a sex tourist, but it seems kind of tame,” confessed Lesley. “Yes, it has a surface wildness but it really is not so wild,” agreed Clemons, a software designer from Hamburg, just before one of the dancers came over and did a bump and grind on him, pinga to pinga. Meanwhile Barbara had hit it off with “Skye,” a dancer and Prince look-alike with a very protuberant bikini bottom who volunteered to be her houseman and full-time private dancer.
At 2 A.M., it was time to head downtown to the Vault, the infamous S-M club that had recently relocated to an industrial location on West 23rd Street. City Hall’s crackdown clearly is taking its toll, and even the whip-cracking ultra-vixen in the shiny black latex can’t seem to cut the club’s air of louche listlessness.
In one corner, a bored-looking naked man idly tied and untied the knots in the cord with which he had bound himself; another shirtless regular with an oversize dog collar asked the other regulars whether there was more action anywhere else that night. A few threesomes broke the inertia, but the action was interrupted when the “watchers” in the crowd, who vastly outnumbered the actors, surged over to stare.
The Germans were bored and likened the “watchers” to the zombies in Night of the Living Dead . Even Mr. Capozzi’s normally animated face was creased by boredom, though he perked things up when he introduced Barbara to a large 50-something black man named John, a self-described “trainer” or “master” who offered to show Barbara the ropes, so to speak. “But I’m scared,” Barbara teased, sitting on John’s lap for her preliminary interview. “That’s all right,” John answered. “Because as a good master, I should allow for all your fears.”
From there it was into the last circle, another S-M club called Hellfire, located in an industrial basement on Ninth Avenue just south of 14th Street. Darker than the Vault, Hellfire is where the real players are, Mr. Capozzi explained, although, because its zoning status is uncertain, it restricts its hard-core activities to its furthest back room, reached through a heavy leather curtain. There, a young couple was standing in what looked to be a dungeon cell, ravishing each other as solitary male observers ravished themselves.
Mr. Capozzi brought over a shirtless man named Gary, telling Barbara “he gives the best foot massage in the city.” Although Mr. Capozzi has said his tour is mostly voyeuristic, Barbara sat back in a chair as Gary, and then another submissive, worked her feet. “Not bad,” she cooed imperiously, sultrily lowering her black leather décolletage in response to the crowd of “watchers” who had surged over. Much to her visible and audible delight, Barbara was soon surrounded by a dozen men, barely concealing their “admiration” beneath their coats.
Back outside, the Germans, still largely underwhelmed, wondered aloud whether the New York sex scene may be dying for reasons completely unrelated to Mr. Giuliani’s edicts; its moment, like disco, simply might be over. Barbara was of another mind. “I guess I’ll always have another profession waiting for me if I want it,” she said with a chuckle. Ready to claim credit for Barbara’s realization, Mr. Capozzi boasted, “You see, she felt she was with someone who could make her feel protected and relaxed so she could try something she wouldn’t have done if she was by herself. In essence, she was the perfect client for my tour.”
Winding down, we had breakfast at the Market Diner. Then Mr. Capozzi dropped his clients off at their doors, air kisses all around.
Quality of life is a relative thing, Mr. Capozzi insisted as we headed toward his Hudson River sailboat. The city might regret the crackdown, especially if it has an adverse impact on tourism, he warned; not everybody comes to New York for Disney-style entertainment. “People come to New York to get anything, and if they can’t get it, maybe they won’t come,” he said. But he thinks the scene will survive, predicting that it will probably just move underground. “These things cannot be held down,” he said. “There is a human need and someone will always be there to fill it.”