At a gay engagement party the happy couple discussed an upcoming announcement in the society pages and unveiled their wedding color scheme: evergreen and cream “to intimate freshness.” In their kitchen I pulled an ice tray out of the freezer to find, almost to my relief, something not intimating freshness at all.
The half-used bottle of poppers was sticky and the Rush label was a knockoff, as it clearly didn’t feature the caped superhero icon. Captain Rush has been a collectors’ item since the poppers panic of 2010. That year the USA’s premier popper purveyor, Joe Miller, committed suicide in Indiana amid a flurry of controversy, shuttering the doors to his long-running alkyl nitrite empire.
News spread and gay men hoarded the vanishing stock of Jungle Juice, Quicksilver, and Rush, fearing the absolute worst. What would it be like to have sex, alone or in company, without that head-throbbing, sphincter-dilating euphoria? Much like their effect, the popper panic was short lived. Imitators quickly restocked shelves, testifying to Voltaire’s assertion: “If poppers didn’t exist, we would Walter White them.”
Poppers evoke retro nostalgia. They recall that initial arrival into Oz, that time, after struggling to accept yourself and reject traditional expectations, when you at last found your tribe and became privy to its underground customs, culture, and quips, and probably soon had a first taste of requited love. Invariably, somewhere along here, you became acquainted with a little brown bottle that at first reeked of patchouli and paint thinner. In time, the same stench might well represent the halcyon of horny.
For ages, distributors have kept feds off a scent heralded by one brand as the “Best Aroma in the World!” Online, aficionados liken popper fumes to “a bouquet of fruit,” while elsewhere Carmen Miranda weeps. Through a legal loophole, alkyl nitrites were sold for decades as VHS head cleaner. Technology marching on, marketing exploits the same loophole to brand the nitrites as whatever will sail past an enhanced TSA security check: leather cleaner, liquid incense, room odorizer, and most recently, fingernail polish remover.
Originally used to treat angina, glass ampoules of alkyl nitrite were cracked open and inhaled. Pre-liberation gays soon discovered these were not only good for the heart, they were orgasm-amplifying ambrosia in the bedroom. Inhaled on dance floors nationwide, they induced a silly, giddy head rush. Poppers actually had joined the gay collective consciousness even earlier, when the only place to gather publicly without the threat of a vice squad raid was united in worship. Diva worship.
According to Felice Picano’s True Stories: Portraits From My Past, at a performance of legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead’s final Broadway production, a queen from her gay cult threw a popper onstage as Tallulah approached the footlights to deliver the play’s final monologue. The iconoclastic diva picked it up, snapped, sniffed, and carried on.
Poppers have since outlasted vice squads, hankie codes, and handlebar mustaches, but they no longer break the fourth wall. They remain a relic of a retiring way of life; a common pigeon being the last living link to the mighty Jurassic. Today they rarely make public appearances, and if passed around a dance floor they’re likely to be shrugged off like a La Niña weather pattern. Poppers persist, but as darling or demon?
Alkyl nitrites are not physically addictive, but they’re no longer good for the heart. Combined with erectile drugs like Viagra or Levitra, the result can actually be fatal. There is a correlation to lowered immune function, and in the early 1980s poppers became a knee-jerk scapegoat for the emerging AIDS crisis. The quickest way to ruin the mood now (accidental ingestion down the nose and throat) has even ardent fans calling poppers a frenemy.
Instead, they are publicly ignored but privately locked in a freezer or chained to the nightstand until Rapunzel is hastily ripped out of the tower to be ravaged by cover of night. And then? Then just try to deny them.
Last summer a friend told me about his boyfriend, who wouldn’t stop sniffing poppers. Frustrated, he gave the man a sexual Sophie’s Choice: “My nine inches or that bottle.” The guy chose the bottle, bolted, and we all agreed this was allegorical. What comes between me and my poppers? Not even nine inches.
Despite massive ambivalence, poppers are one thing we have yet to sell, condemn, or disown in the quest for equality. Consider poppers the homosexual peyote. Their open secret status in the tribe is key to staying power, as so few outsiders, Tallulah notwithstanding, know the first thing about them. In post-gay culture, kink, camp, and open relationships have been willingly sacrificed at the altar of assimilation.
The sticky bottle is barely hanging on, each exposure to oxygen destroying potency. A fragile rose, whose bloom isn’t meant to survive, but it is still kept, hung upside down in hopes of preserving even a glimmer of former glories. The faintest whiff activating erotic muscle memory; a cheeky wink, a nod.
We will soon marry, smothered in evergreen and cream and indistinguishable from other marriages and lifestyles as we assume our rightful place at the table of normalcy. Only in the distant future will a last vestige of deviance be betrayed, the day a child climbs upon grandpa’s knee to inquire why there’s fingernail polish remover in the freezer.
JESSE ARCHER is a writer, actor, and rabble-rouser. Find him at JesseOnTheBrink.com.