Show World in Times Square in 1979. (AP Photo//G. Paul Burnett, File.)
I was in New York last week, and one of the people I visited with was my friend Mike Edison, whose qualifications for the job (being my friend, I mean, and for being your friend, too) are listed on the résumé that doubles as the title of his 2008 memoir: I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World. The notorious magazines include stoner rag High Times, which he published, and the only-in-New-York Bible of repulsiveness known as Screw, which Edison helped take over upon the retirement of Al Goldstein. I met Mike after he sent me his most recent book, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!, a history of pornography, to blurb. I did so from the bottom of my heart: “Mike Edison can go toe to toe with some of the best writers of the (old) New Journalism. This is foul-mouthed popular history at its most entertaining. Plenty smart, too—and also, strange to say, poignant and loving.” (Hugh Hefner is the villain. I liked that.)
We met for a play I got free tickets for, running in a theater tucked inside the innards of a massive theme restaurant called Times Scare. This was, Mike pointed out, the former environs of Show World, one of the monuments of the old, perverted Times Square, a place which deserved to have the word “Scare” in its name far more than the plasticized Disney hellscape that sits on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue now. The incongruity sent Mike into a fit of gauzy reverie. He insisted we duck in next door—where a much smaller version of Show World still stands, somehow, despite two decades of campaigns to close it down, and despite a larger inconvenience you’d think would have spelled its doom long, long ago: Everything it has to offer for a price is now available online for free.
We enter the antiseptic, overlit warren (I say it is “much smaller,” but the place is actually still pretty gigantic). Except for the clerk and one other customer, we are the only ones there. It is one of the most surreal things I’ve experienced in my life. Somehow, its survival feels like it says something about the simultaneous resilience and strangeness of the human spirit. Though I couldn’t have quite told you yet what that something was.
Once upon a time, Show World patrons visited enclosed booths where they pumped tokens into a slot to open up a partition, revealing a “LIVE NUDE GIRL” behind glass for precisely forty-four seconds, after which the partition closed. (This article recalls the gross old days. “You had to start out as a mop man…”) No longer. A sign, blunt, yellow, bold, reads: “To Our Patrons: Since July 26 1998 We have had NO LIVE GIRLS. Sorry for the Disappointment. Management.” In place of human beings are video screens; insert token, and the screens flash to life for that same forty-four seconds. A forty-four second YouTube video, for twenty-five cents. You can see why Show World’s commercial appeal is now limited. You can see my incredulity that this place still exists.