Lights are flashing and eight huge speakers are pumping out the percussive rhythms of "Magic Bird of Fire" at Lost & Found, a disco in Southeast Washington. The dance floor is jammed with undulating men, and fully a quarter of them are uncapping little brown bottles, cupping them in the hand and then - WHISH - up to the nose.
The nose. Maybe it's the orifice of the Seventies, a sense of consciousness rising from the oral Sixties, the nasal passage into the future. Maybe. Like cocaine, Locker Room - the stuff in the little brown bottles - goes up the nose. Up the nose to get you high.The little bottles carry a printed warning: may Cause Dizziness. Which is exactly what Locker Room is all about.
Locker Room is a legal analog of the prescription drug amyl nitrite that has been used for almost 100 years to relieve chest pain. Although it's been marketed for almost five years now, local dealers say the five-dollar product has suddenly surged in popularity - largely, they say, because straights are beginning to discover something gays have known for years: the stuff causes a momentary dizzy feeling and a sudden flash of heat.
"It's like little men running up your neck and then blowing out your ears," says a dancer at Lost & Found."Something like a cocaine rush for about two minutes. You're dancing and all of a sudden you feel like your brains are going to blow through the roof. You get so high, and you feel like the music is just buffeting you around."
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such things, has only begun to hear about Locker Room. "We've had reports of people getting high on it," says public affairs officer Wayne Pines, "but there are no controls on it."
Nevertheless, public health officials aren't convinced that the stuff is harmless. "It causes an increase in heart rate and a drastic change in blood pressure," says Gary Oderda, director of the Maryland Poison Information Center. "It could be very serious for someone with a heart problem."
Dr. William Lijinsky of the Frederick Cancer Research Center is more wary. "The nitrites in the substance, like any nitrites, react with compounds in the body to form nitrosamines, which are proven carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents."
Even Head magazine, a forum for articles like "10 Ways Not To Smuggle Your Dope" and "How To Make Acid At Home," notes in fine print under a full-page color ad for a similar liquid called Rush: "The editors of Head have determined that the inhalation of this product may be dangerous to your health."
This in the same issue with an ad that announces: "Get Creamed for only $26. What a gas! The fabulous Whip Cream Wizard, with ten, safe, FDA-approved nitrous-oxide chargers for only $26. Additional chargers $3.50/box of 10."
Nitrous oxide is laughing gas.Up the nose and you supposedly laugh.
Despite the health warnings, the popularity of Locker Room continues. At a recent Anita Bryant Roast held at the Pier Nine disco, one of the items auctioned off to earn money for gay rights lobbying was "a year's supply of Locker Room."
"Now, if you're anything like Ron, you think we mean 200 bottles," said the auctioneer. "We couldn't afford that much, so we're offering a dozen bottles."
Five minutes spent in any of the sex or head shops around town, or just glancing at the tables set up by street hawkers, reveals that Locker Room certainly isn't an obscure item. People ask for prices. They ask about Rush and another product called Heart-On.
"It gives you a brainstorm, man," says one customer who seems to have just blown in from the lunasphere. "I'm selling fifty bottles a day at $5 dollars a bottle," a man behind the counter says.
Cliff Hassing, the thirty-one-year-old president of Hollywood's West American Industries, which markets all three products, refuses to talk about his sales. "It's not mine to question or wonder why people buy it," he says. "I make no claims other than those on the bottle: 'Remove cap and place in desired location and the aroma of a locker room will develop.' I won't say anything more about our users, except to say that we don't wxactly expect Grandma Moses to start boogieing."
Chemically, Locker Room is known as N-butyl nitrite, a complex substance that is used as an oxydizing agent. It has four carbon atoms in its bonding chain as opposed to the five in amyl nitrite. Yet the two have the same effect on the body, according to doctors and chemists.
Amyl nitrite was initially recommended in 1867 by British clinician T. Lauder Brunton for easing angina, or chest pain. It works by expanding the blood vessels and thus increasing oxygenation of muscles. Dizziness is a side effect.
In 1965, the FDA discovered that too many people were buying amyl nitrite for its side effect, and made the drug a prescription item. It retained its street popularity, where it acquired the name "poppers" because of the breakable ampules it comes in.
The National Academy of Sciences studied its purported aphrodisiac effects and noted in a 1975 report that "amyl nitrite was rated high by a population of users to bring about an especially powerful and overwhelming orgasm." To puraphrase one female experimenter quoted in the report: I was wondering when to pop the popper, before or after orgasm, so I popped and then I forgot to climax.
The problems of the Seventies!