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Maybe it was when they were four, or seven, or maybe even 18, but at some point the serious foot lovers at last week's Foot Friends party realized that the bony, veiny body parts at the end of the leg were much more than a way to get around. "It was the summer when I was six," remembers Adam, who is wearing a paw-printed T-shirt at the bash. "I was in the tall grass outside my grandmother's house and some older cousins, who were maybe 12 or 13, were tickling my feet. It was an overwhelming experience. I felt really out of control. There was something frightening and at the same time liberating."
As with many foot fans, a sense of shame followed on the heels of Adam's discovery. "I became very aware around eight or nine that adults looked at my footsy thing somehow askance," he says. "Parents thought I should be playing other games." Indeed, he met with so much disapproval, Adam came to define it as "footophobia, a common Western phenomenon that comes from people's fear of their own sexual attraction towards feet." It wasn't until 1987 that he attended his first foot-fetish party, a direct ancestor of Foot Friends, and began shedding his shame.
Many members of Foot Friends, which caters to primarily gay, male foot lovers, describe the process as a second coming out. "I came out as a gay man when I was 21, but it took until I was about 25 for me to be comfortable with the fact that I was interested in feet, tickling, foot bondage," says Peter Saxe, now 34. "It was much easier to come out as a gay man. I didn't understand my interest in feet. I thought I was the only one."
Guy, a 27-year-old who used to fantasize about men in army boots as a child in upstate New York, was similarly isolated. "I felt like I was a freak for it," Guy says. But attending the Foot Friends parties got Guy thinking that "maybe we're all freaks. Now, to me it's so normal, it's not even funny."
Indeed there is little shame on display at the Lure in the West Village, where two Foot Friends events are held per month. Foot Friends (www.footfriends.com) also hosts one monthly foot "action" party that is explicitly sexual and held at private clubs. At the Lure, zippers remain zipped, though socks, shoes, boots, and sandals are often cast to the beery wind.
In the better-lit central room, partygoers mill around proudly sporting Hello-my-name-isstyle labels that make them look like conventioneers, except instead of their names the wearers' foot preferences are listed according to the "foot code" posted on the walls. "G, 5, 7," means a guy likes to give pleasure to another guy's feet and that he's into tickling and aroma. "R, 1, 2, 4, 6" says he's into receiving massage, foot licking, and boots and bondage.
Part of what brings about 125 men to these fetish parties is clearly the possibility of finding the foot match just right for them. But even with couples and threesomes and foursomes sucking on each other's toes under the glow of looping foot-porn videos, the friend element of this event seems almost as important as the foot play. "I know a lot of the people I met here from ordinary gay bar events," says Saxe. "And then we run into each other here and we say, 'Well, this is wonderful! I didn't know you . . . ' Now there's something special that we have in common that we can talk about."
"Barefoot John," the Foot Friends 25-year-old doorman, has made a home for himself in this chummy world, even though he wasn't particularly into feet when he first saw the group's help-wanted ad in H/X magazine. Now, a year after his interview during which he had his toes sucked for the first time in his life John often meets partygoers for lunch or the theater. And since he is moving back to California and this is his last night collecting $10 from each attendee and informing the non-foot-obsessed who happen to stumble in that "this is a party for men into feet and footware" John finds himself receiving good-luck backslaps and farewell foot kisses from the regulars.
Meanwhile, a foot model and local student-athlete wearing his team uniform displays his muddy cleats while revelers bind and tickle his bare feet. Another pro sits in the metal foot-worship throne, which bears a certain resemblance to a shoe shine set-up, except that no shoes are involved. A wiry man named Anthony Fusco makes his way through the scene, wearing black, high-top sneakers and a label that reads "V 1, 2, 3, 4, 7." According to the foot code, that means Fusco is versatile (as opposed to interested in just giving or receiving), open to massage, foot licking, socks, boots/sneakers/shoes, and aroma.
Fusco's label doesn't let on that he's taken hundreds of photographs of feet (he calls himself a "footographer"). Or that he's obsessed with really big feet and wing tips. Or that he likes to sit in coffee shops sometimes, "just watching men in sandals." Nor can the label or Fusco himself do much to explain the origin of his passion.
"It's just the way I've always been," he says, shrugging.