Untethered: Between the Mobile Dungeon and the Infamous Adult Store, Longing for a Safe Third Space

“You might want to have a cabinet with bolt cutters and safety shears.”

When I say this, the cover of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters pops into my head. I’m standing next to someone else who I’m accompanying on a visit to a new mobile dungeon in a trailer kind of space, not to use it, but to vet it and report back to other folks about the vibe.

No conclusion’s been reached, yet. There’s more follow up to do. But I did spend a long time, too long, unscrewing just one of the fasteners holding the pillory at the end of the bed shut, wondering how easy it might be to extract someone from it in the event of an emergency.

When the owner tells us about his security practices, I’m reminded of the Ashley Madison documentary I have yet to watch, of surveillance, of the ways writers and artists haven’t even been able to consent to the use of our work for training AI. We inspect the boot, the owner puts on one of the wheels when they park the trailer, and my companion asks about the classes they offer, the instructions, and their customer vetting process.

He has an answer for every question. He sweats when we bring up some rumors we’ve heard about him, things we saw on Reddit, but there’s no dead air. I’m there half out of pure curiosity and half because there was no way it seemed like a good idea for someone to go alone to check out a business located inside of a trailer parked in a rented space in a storage unit parking lot. Still not all of the answers we receive hold up as they ping around in our head post-interview while we sit in my car in the parking lot of a Thai restaurant, and while we text each other later that night, comparing notes, while they plan their follow-up.

He seems to not know how he imagines people using the space, besides that he feels like it’s geared toward newbies… which, if it was me (and it’s not)… I would perhaps be the last one to suggest handing a free-standing trailer with a bunch of equipment and a pillory that takes a devil of a long time to unscrew to a straight husband and wife who want to just “spice things up.”

By the time this evening had rolled around, I was at the end of a long string of social engagements that left me exhausted, drained, glad I left the house. That Sunday, I’d attended a flea market a friend was vending at where vendors were mostly punks in their 30s and 40s. The day, at first, was mostly sunny with just a few raindrops. It was in a lot by one of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and the water sparkled when I drove by. I had a long conversation with a queer/trans artist who gifted me a print, and then, when they complained that there were a lot of middle-aged moms at the event, and when I turned around with a “Middle-aged moms! Where?!” they mimed taking the print back from me.

But soon, the sky darkened and flashes of lightning lit up sections of the clouds above us. Rain whipped down and some vendors stayed while others packed up their wares and left for the day. I stayed with my vendor friend, under a tent and in a corner of tarp, making faces and trying to eat the vegan poutine the food truck people gave me while keeping it dry from the rain that whipped in sideways.

A giant thunderclap shook the sky and I put my hands to my ears as it flashed a bright, searing yellow. Almost instantaneously, black smoke billowed up from behind the warehouse where vendors without tents were set up. The smell of rain falling on the river and trees was replaced with burning plastic and the distinct smell of chemicals that should not be entering lungs. I bought a print from the artist I’d chatted with earlier on their way out. They were just like; “fuck that.” The lightning had ignited a pile of industrial trash and scrap in an adjacent lot. Someone called the fire department and people more or less went back to what they were doing while the rain cleared up and confused newcomers held hands and pointed at the pillar of black smoke while sirens whined on the service road.

I was glad I stuck around. The fire was put out. More people I wanted to talk to came by. Everyone got a rune reading. I am always reminding myself not to go home, not to shut myself in, to wait and see what happens. Later, I call my friend Rose to tell her about it all, see what she’d gotten up to.

And the night before that, Rose and I had driven a half hour into the Pennsylvania suburbs to an infamous adult store to do research for a zine she’s working on. Why is the store “infamous”? Not for reasons you might think. The owner is a known egomaniacal terrorizer. Rumors also say that he’s informed on people to police. It’s the kind of feudal, brain rot all too common in certain business owners. The thing is, out there, he’s the only game in town. The other adult theater shut down, so it’s just this shop, tucked into an odd lot, surrounded by woods just off the interstate. That, and if you don’t follow his rules or otherwise piss him off, you can end up on his website where he publishes footage, photos, driver’s licenses, and — if he has it — any other info on offending customers he can get, all while typing out a semi-coherent screed insulting his victims for saying things like $10 is too much to use the booths, or for refusing to pay his $5 “browsing fee” if they don’t spend at least $5 in the store.

The first thing I noticed was the cage. It leaned on the dumpsters between the small, squat concrete block store building and an adjacent trailer that looked like it was attached to the store through an additional hallway. I went up to inspect it while Rose hissed at me that there were cameras all over the lot. It looked like…a chicken cage maybe? A giant bird cage? A rabbit cage?

We went up to the door where you had to be buzzed in, which, for anyone who’s gone to buy a dildo or a strap or something in-person is…odd. Inside, we stood inside a tiny cordoned off entry while a woman behind a service window gave us the rundown on the fee before instructing us to let ourselves in through the stanchion barrier. We browsed the aggressively lit store, which was clean, smelled of a yankee candle, and well-stocked. We got caught up in the vintage porn section, and I found a DVD of some lesbian porn shot in the early 2000s for $7 I got to eat the fee.

We averted our eyes from a man emerging from the theater portion. It clicked for us, then, that the booths weren’t brick and mortar but were in fact in the trailer. Sadly, no sign of the guy. But I did joke with Rose that I’d love to come back and get kicked out, doxxed and banned and then keep coming back in different disguises as a way of building up a record of this performance art act on the guy’s website. She agrees and tells me I should come back with a fake mustache. It’s a drive filled with gushing and gossip and jokes. The night air is the perfect temperature, the rain just a drizzle at times.

When I’m in my house, I open the upstairs windows to try and catch the air that flies up the mountain. Sometimes Pittsburgh is too still, hot, oppressive, but lately that’s eased a little and we’ve gotten some coolness, a breeze that feels like spring. This time last year, I was in the worst part of my relationship to date, the weeks just preceding what I’ve come to call my Queer Pride Breakup. Last June, instead of time out with friends or night drives or even opening up the windows and tidying up the house at night, I was holed up in my office, sleeping on a camping mat that rested on the floor behind my desk chair while my ex took the bedroom.

At first I told her she could just sleep in the bed, but then, when she found me in there working at one point to take advantage of the air conditioning from my window A/C unit, she told me that it felt weird…for me to be in there…in my own bedroom. It was the first thing that would creep in on our original breakup agreement, where we said clearly that only our offices were private spaces, excepting obviously, bathroom time. I would go on to have no access to air conditioning while at home until August when I finally installed a second unit in my office window. I started avoiding even getting clothes out of the bedroom, instead rotating through a small selection I kept, instead, in my office. Sometimes, it’s hard to reflect on how limited things were back then, how caged in I was except when I left the city, and how I didn’t feel like I had freedom of movement in my own space.

The way someone takes responsibility for or shares a space can say a lot about them. Whether you think that I shouldn’t sit in a chair in my own bedroom, or that you have the right to create a web page that exists solely for harassing and embarrassing your customers, or that you’ve definitely thought everything through when it comes to the potential ramifications of creating a dungeon on wheels (when it’s clear you haven’t even thoroughly considered emergency scenarios), or you manage to keep folks mostly calm and chill during both a rainstorm and a trash fire and to thank them for taking part with grace — it says something about you.

There’s a simultaneous deterioration in and attempt to create third spaces, here, too. The tyranny of the adult shop owner and the ultra-privatization of the dungeon on wheels both turn their backs on the history of kink or adult spaces being a place for some kind of human connection. And as things get more expensive, artist and DIY spaces will keep getting pushed out to the edges of a place, to out-of-the-way locations while the more popular streets get gentrified and over-policed.

A lot of conversation among friends and lovers, recently, has revolved around third spaces, wanting them, trying to make them happen, sometimes succeeding, if only for a time. It’s been important for me to take space for myself, but it’s also leading me toward thinking a lot about what it means to create and have and hold space, especially in environments where it feels less and less accessible.

But much like it is more healing than I know and also more painful than I anticipated to open a window and be able to breath without feeling surveilled, it is also becoming painfully obvious that third spaces are a necessary antidote to loneliness, incredibly necessary, and just about every market force seems to be conspiring to make them harder to find.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 227 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Nico for your continued reflections and care in this series! Thinking of you and wishing you a summer of being and sharing space in a way that feels good for you & your communities 💚

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