“Are you drawing my PIC-TCHA?”
From my lounge chair, I look up to see an older, slightly stocky gentleman hovering over me. He’s wearing blue shorty-shorts, and spitting his words with a particularly nasal Long Island drawl. He’s also staring at me. Attentively. Waking up to the obvious, I realize his gaze is fixated on my notepad.
“No,” I start, “I’m actually here to write about — ”
He’s not listening. Instead, he starts to pose. He positions his hand to the back of his head like a Roman god, gives me his best Marilyn-Monroe-seducing-the-camera eyes, then breaks at the knee like a schoolgirl about to curtsy. His gaze quickly moves on to the next focus of his (easily diverted) attention: an olive-skinned, firm-chested man whose nipples, he boisterously marvels, are extraordinarily hard and pointy.
Welcome to the Pool at the Raven.
If you don’t know the Pool, it’s probably because you’re not gay, boozy or particularly randy, or preferably all three. But it’s been a summertime staple for gay men from Philly, New York, New Jersey and parts of what is commonly called “Pennsyltucky” for decades — New Hope’s crown jewel when it comes to summer gay tourism. When a gay man texts “I’m going to the pool,” it’s no mystery which one — it’s not his pool, or a pool, but the Pool. There are alternatives, of course: Lombard Swim Club (too exclusive), Overbrook Golf Club (too many kids), and North Shore Beach Club (too “douchey” — others’ word, not mine). But if you’re gay and not sipping mojitos at the Chelsea in Atlantic City or whiffing poppers in Rehoboth, you’re at the Pool — part of a combined gay bar/motel operation — basking in its glistening bawdiness. “If you’re in Philly and have your own transportation, it’s not long before friends start whispering in your ear about bringing a group to New Hope for an afternoon,” says 40-year-old Freddy Shelley, a writer and accountant from Drexel Hill who’s been going to New Hope since he was 21. “Places like North Shore, they can get a little too ‘bro’ for my taste.”
At a glance, the Pool’s dynamics this sunny afternoon can be outlined in Doppler waves. Behold, Wave No. 1: a Speedo-clad brigade of 50-plusers (the older crowd here is, shall we say, European in this sense: There’s no body shame, even when there should be) in the outer circles of the 150 sprawling chaise lounges, minding their own business as they flip over like pancakes to tan their leathery rumps (one of which pokes through a jock strap). Wave No. 2 is comprised of the “beach readers,” who put down their novels and tip their sunglasses every so often to ogle an Adonis version of Mr. Clean dousing himself in oil and playing the starring role of flytrap for his many, many worshippers. And then there’s Wave No. 3, which is everyone else — a loose collection of sociable gays summoned to the water as if by gravitational pull, neon pool noodles pointing skyward. It’s like circle time at gay summer camp.
Look, gays are assimilating at a faster pace than ever before. They’re having weddings (and not Wiccan commitment ceremonies, but actual weddings, with orchestras and tuxedos and Chateaubriand), adopting kids, buying in the ’burbs and driving SUVs. Their vacations range far beyond Key West and Provincetown. They lead companies, run for office, pose with their partners in family portraits. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time. When a gay couple moves into the house next door, the neighborhood … shrugs.
But boys will be boys, and this will never change: At certain times, the tribe wants to cavort in its own playpen. Which brings us back to the Pool, which is ground zero for heat-stricken gay men in Philadelphia and surrounding counties who lack access to a beach house. And if only for the afternoon, I’m now one of them.
RECALL, IF YOU WILL, Jersey Shore’s cringe-worthy, beach-tee-ubiquitous “GTL” (translation: “Gym, Tan, Laundry”) motto for Shore-goers. It has always applied to gay men. While everyone else spends winter hibernating with Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix, we spend it working the gym circuit with our trainers, getting creative with kale recipes and force-feeding our bodies protein so as to be pool-ready when we hit the doorstep on Memorial Day. And those who don’t (typically men of, ahem, “a certain age”) have anchored their pockets with enough cash to spoil those who have — the young guys who, whether they blew their allowance on chia seeds or view their muscles as one giant bar investment, are pretty much broke.
The same social dynamic that has existed for centuries among wealthy older men and nubile young women plays out every weekend here, a vainglorious one-gender play. The “daddies” soak up the young studs and open their hefty wallets to buy them cocktails (and on occasion, it’s rumored, their company, wink wink). The “twinks,” as they’re called — young, smooth, slender, all variations of Justin Bieber — treat the rim of the pool as a runway, laughing at all the old-guy attention but accepting each and every drink.
New Hope is the perfect playground in which to indulge in this sort of idolatry. The abbreviated story of how the Bucks County burg became a sort of gay-and-glittered Plymouth Rock goes something like this: First came the canvas artists in the 1930s and ’40s; soon after, retail shops pitched their tents to piggyback off the scene’s growing (and marketable) diversity. This was followed by an influx of hippies who infiltrated downtown with their psychedelic tie-dye shirts and rock-record stores in the 1970s. Meanwhile, a flourishing theater scene emerged, forged by Bucks County Playhouse darlings like Angela Lansbury, Grace Kelly and Liza Minnelli (as icons, gay, gayer and gayest). “From there, people began buying summer homes, and with that came the community from New York and Philly, who found their way to New Hope,” says Daniel Brooks, founder of the gay-tourism organization New Hope Celebrates. “It was a place where they could walk freely down the street in drag to church and no one would care.” By the 1980s, thanks to the so-called “Golden Triangle” of gay nightclubs — the Raven, the Cartwheel and the Prelude — New Hope had established itself as a “Gayborhood” well before the term was coined for 13th and Locust. Today, the Raven is an only child on the bar scene: The Prelude boarded up in the late ’80s and was turned into a bank; the Cartwheel caught fire in 2005 and was torn down.
From a business perspective, those closures, combined with pool, dance floor, and hotel face-lifts completed in the mid-to-late-2000s, have made the Raven even more of a destination. It’s sustained in the off-season by its Oak Room piano bar, which draws both locals and devoted regulars from New Hope’s glory days, all belting out show tunes amid a sea of vodka tonics. “They keep the place going in the winter; they’ve been coming for forever,” says owner Scott DeWitt. “It’s like a community center.” DeWitt, a former bartender and manager, took over the Raven after it closed in 2008 following previous owner Rand Skolnick’s death from pancreatic cancer. “The dynamic changed very quickly in this town when [Rand] died and the Raven closed,” says Brooks. “The day that pool reopened was like a national holiday.”
The Pool isn’t just the shtick — the heart, if I may be so clichéd — of the Raven; it’s the moneymaker. “In the off-season, the pool people don’t come up,” DeWitt says. “The summer is definitely busier, because the Pool has its own bar, grill and everything. On the weekends, we bring 150 to 180 people down there on a really good day.” Beyond providing juicy burgers (a scene that defies credulity — gay men eating carbs? In swimwear?), the Pool’s waitstaff of hunky and mostly straight college guys keeps the older gents entertained, since they’re ready to sass back patrons who know their way around a sexual innuendo or two. And though hotel rooms are footsteps away, price hikes over the years have supplied a cabin-in-the-woods, Florida-chic feel, rather than the “Glory Hole of New Hope” past reputation one patron tactlessly described to me.
“It’s a summer ritual,” says Philly gay-event producer Josh Schonewolf, who goes every season. “It’s an out-of-Philly experience. You go for the day, you get drinks, and you bring ’em to the Pool.
“And then,” he says, “you people-watch.”
“WOULD YOU LOOK AT THIS COUPLE?”
“Oh, they’re not a couple.”
“Well they’re a couple-a-somethin’!”
I’m cross-legged on my lounger, watching a scene unfold before me. Two doughy Speedo-clad seniors, drinks in hand, are firing off zings as they walk by a pair of bald men snogging in the corner of the Pool. Shortly after, a trio of fit, furry fresh-bait youngsters — at noon, they’re the only ones here under 40, aside from me — strolls over to the Pool and dives in. Their presence is like blood in the water; all eyes instantly divert to them.
I do a mental eye-roll and mosey over to the cabana bar for a drink. Here, I meet 58-year-old Dan Schaffer, who’s best explained as a gay Rolodex with a pulse — the go-to guy if you want to know someone, or just want the latest dish on who’s doing what (and to whom).
I ask if he knows the raucous aspirational sketch model I encountered earlier.
“OHHHHHHHHHH, MALCOLM!?” It’s not really a question, but rather a screeching realization. Because everyone knows Malcolm.
In a flash, we do a beeline through the crowd, back out to the loungers to meet 58-year-old New Yorker Malcolm Blecher, who motions me with a pat-pat on his chair — “Come sit on my thing, I don’t mind. We might have sex later. God, I’m horny!” (Subtlety’s not the Pool’s strong suit.) He offers me a bite of his chicken sandwich and introduces me to goateed, James Gandolfini-reminiscent Tommy (pronounced TAW-MIE). He then rolls right into a long-winded tale of the “worst trick of his life.” I have yet to say a word.
“Do you meet many men here?” I finally ask, keeping my distance at the edge of the lounger.
“Where else am I gonna meet ’em?” he says. Malcolm says Rehoboth is mostly a D.C. crowd, and everyone there is a snob.
“I try to stay away from some of the [younger] people,” he explains when I tell him I’m 22. “There are all types of people here. It’s like going to a buffet: You go to a buffet, and nobody has a fight, because everybody’s there to eat. People go here to have a good time. So when you’re mixing the heat, the sun, the liquor, the men — it’s like a buffet.”
“It’s like a big Golden Girls,” chimes in Tommy, his Jersey accent shining through.
“Are there any regulars here who are young?” I inquire.
“Oh, don’t we hope!” says a wide-eyed Malcolm, longing plastered all over his face.
“The young ones aren’t as friendly,” Tommy moans.
“Well, look at what they see!” Malcolm retorts. “They see us altacockers!”
Just then, T.J., one of two impossibly handsome pool boys — this one a broad-shouldered Temple biology student in an unbuttoned (duh) sky-blue shirt and board shorts — swings by to take our drink orders.
“We’ll take the same thing. You want the same thing, right, Malcolm?” says Tommy.
“Oh, yes. He knows me,” Malcolm smirks. T.J., clearly accustomed to this sort of banter, plays along.
Malcolm adds a drink to the order — for me, of course. He then formally introduces me to T.J. As his lover. Unsolicited, Malcolm begins to rub my shoulders — which, alarmingly, seems surprisingly normal in this environment. I’m not being objectified; I’m being admired.
Midday, I find the best verbal summation of what makes the Pool a “thing.” Bob and Lynn are married, middle-aged token straight folks who show up to sunbathe and chain-smoke Virginia Slims on Saturdays. They exemplify the choreographed open-to-anyone spiel I’ve been hearing from patrons and staff all afternoon. But from them, the sales pitch feels sincere. “This place, it’s very colorful, but it’s not pretentious,” says Bob, who’s brazen and straight-shooting. “Everybody here, they can laugh at themselves.”
He adds, as I turn away: “Just don’t tell anyone about it. I don’t want it too crowded.”
By 6 p.m., feeling more and more like “one of the boys,” I’m wrapping up my Pool-time experience on the deck with Malcolm and four more members of his crew. Of particular note: Chrissy Hobson, the self- proclaimed “Queen of the Deck” of the Pool’s core regulars. Chrissy, who wears gold hoop earrings and has her more-salt-than-pepper hair in a pouf, is the Pool’s unofficial mother hen, the arbiter of who’s (socially) welcome here. She sits perched on her teal-and-gray pillow (which she personally brings every day), smokes a cigarette, and overlooks the crowd with a hawkish gaze, her posse on all sides. She’s expressionless and eerily quiet for a mama bear, but her presence is unmistakable. Her mark of acceptance, one man whispers to me, is a nod or knowing smile — literal signals of approval. In a sea of queens, she’s the Queen.
“It’s a cast of characters here,” she says, dabbing her cigarette butt into an ashtray. “I call it a sandbox. And sometimes, the kids aren’t well-behaved.” I wait for a jovial grin, an elbow jab, something. Instead, she stays stone-faced. “But if you survive an afternoon,” she adds as I prepare to leave, “then you’re in.”
THE NEXT MORNING, I PACK my things and head to checkout, where I greet Tommy (already back … at 11 a.m.) with a simultaneous “Good morning” and “Goodbye.” I lug my baggage through the bar to the parking lot, past the prominent rainbow umbrellas that sprout like daisies, beckoning potential patrons on Route 202.
I decide to stop for a bite at the nearby Eagle Diner, where I see Chrissy approaching. A little nervous, I swallow and hold the door for her, staring her in the face, dreading her reaction.
I could barrage you with warm-and-fuzzies about what makes the Pool so special, and every one of them would be totally warranted: The staff is like family, the patrons are welcoming (okay, maybe a little too welcoming), and all pretenses are checked at the door. It’s Cheers for queers. And that this still exists in 2014, when kooky oases like the Raven aren’t all that necessary, is to be … well, cherished. Preserved, even.
But spots like the Pool are an endangered species; gay meccas like New Hope and Key West are in decline (or, perhaps more accurately, “going straight”). And if my afternoon here is any indication, fledgling gays like myself aren’t turning up in the numbers needed to sustain this place two decades from now, when all the geriatrics check into the John C. Anderson apartments and are listening to their cardiac monitors instead of ABBA and Cher. What happens when characters like Malcolm and Tommy — the men who make the Pool what it is — are gone, and all that’s left is a swimming hole with a black raven etched into its bottom? What happens when millennials are left to choose between Grindr and a by-then-forlorn symbol of once-upon-a-time gay culture? The Pool may be a summer “ritual” for young gays, but it’s a routine for everyone else. Whether New Hope’s pastoral allure will be enough to draw my generation is a question that remains as much a mystery as Joan Rivers’s real face.
At the diner, after I scarf down my omelet, I approach Chrissy’s table to wish her well.
“Another day at the Raven?” I ask.
She hesitates for a moment, and looks up at me as if I’ve just asked the stupidest question she’s ever heard.
“Of course,” she says.
Originally published as "Pool Boys" in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.