Walking in the door, the first thing I see is half a dozen people sitting around a glass table, snorting lines of white powder. As their heads come up, there’s a curious, semi-restrained almost-satisfied look on their faces. It would be easy to assume it’s cocaine. It’s not, though.
It’s itching powder.
There is nothing really essential about New York that makes it such an amazing city. In fact, as cities go, in some ways, it’s kind of horrible. It’s cold and uninviting, permeated with this kind of “tough shit, if you don’t like it; leave” attitude. One cannot imagine anywhere else in the world where anyone would respond to another’s displeasure with such casual indifference in the way they do here: “Whaddaya expect? This is Milan.” is not a phrase I imagine anyone has ever uttered. But what New York does have is people. Twice the population of Sydney, in one quarter the space. And Manhattan; that has a population density of twenty-seven thousand people per square kilometre – over ten times that of Sydney. To the mildly-misanthropic, semi-reclusives out there like myself, that might not sound especially appealing. But the thing is, if your tastes incline towards something specific, your best chance of finding others who like it as well is in a place where there are a lot of them.
Which is why Manhattan is just about the only place on earth that could have spawned Tantalus.
As underground clubs go, it fits the general mould: nestled amongst seemingly abandoned warehouses (which probably all house other secret underground clubs) of Chelsea, opposite an empty, snow-filled lot, with a large truck seemingly perennially parked out front. You climb up three metal stairs onto the loading area, bang on the unremarkable, pitted steel door, it opens. No codes, no secret knocks, no inquisition through a peep-hole. It maintains its exclusivity purely through secrecy and the fact that it appeals to such a narrow niche. Inside it’s dimly lit, there’s a bar, booths, tables, a few doors leading off to other rooms and a small stage. The bar serves a regular assortment of drinks, somewhat overpriced of course, but that’s hardly unusual. Except for the water, that is, which is more expensive than whiskey – and the most popular item on the menu.
The bar-snacks are very, very, salty. But that’s the way the patrons like them, when they’re looking to build up a good thirst.
The core idea behind Tantalus is that the greatest satisfaction to be had in life is satisfaction delayed. Food is most delicious when ravenously hungry; urination most relieving when full to bursting; drink most satisfying when parched; orgasm most exquisite when terminating sexual frustration; a scratch most pleasant at the end of a long, long itch.
Those patrons by the door were inhaling their itching powder to see how long they could go before sneezing. If most people think they manage an eighth of an orgasm when they sneeze, these guys do much, much better. Those extra-salty pretzels at the bar? They’re the favourite of patrons who eat as many as they can before toddling through one of the doors on the side into the sauna; when they finally emerge, they swear the $15 glass of water they buy is the most delicious, refreshing thing they’ve ever tasted.
Others indulge in glass after glass, keeping themselves pinned in their seats, trying not to squirm, as they fill their bladders to bursting. They tend to sit in the booths nearest the toilets. The additional, nigh-unbearable torture of knowing the toilet is only a few feet away eats at them, as they struggle to master that strange, seemingly psychic urgency with which your bladder reacts when it knows relief is nearby.
One of the other doors opens into a cold-room; basically a large freezer. Another contains boxes, in a variety of configurations; some, tall and thin, where you can only stand, others where you must curl up into a ball to fit, cramped tight, until you’re aching to stretch.
The list of torments is considerable, and the bar is well stocked to help you; itching powders, laxatives, diuretics, vaporisers filled with food-scented perfumes for the deliberately malnourished, the list goes on…
But these activities are not confined to the bar. A sense of community permeates the patrons, and inspires them to heap torments on each other; a postal employee who will deliberately delay your eagerly-awaited packages, a network executive who will put your favourite shows on bewildering hiatuses for excruciating lengths of time, there’s even rumours that the inner circles of the club includes a Judge, Prosecutor and Prison Warden who, between them, can promise you an endless stretch of days without sunlight… though I couldn’t get anyone to confirm this.
Perhaps the best example of this is Tantalus’ owner, who tells me with a wistful smile as he applies an irritant to the small of his back, that he’s been waiting for a package from Amazon for three years now… a backscratcher. When it finally arrives, he won’t be the only one whose itch will get scratched, he says, with a knowing wink to his long-suffering wife.