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Times Square Blues | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Times Square Blues


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.

It gets stranger. Stranger, in fact—much stranger—than the wall of DVDs carefully arranged by genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre, “She-Male,” “Asian” (“Rising Sun, A Far East F-—Adventure featuring Chantz”), etc.; nowadays you can fish the phone out of your pocket and find weirder stuff in a matter of seconds. But nothing so odd as this: a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac from 2005. A TV Guide with Suzanne Somers on the cover. A fishing magazine, in an entire room full of un-dirty magazines, organized neatly in stacks.

In 1995 Mayor Giuliani got a zoning law passed (as a sop to developers, The Village Voice reported) stipulating that a store could be heavily regulated as “adult” if over 40 percent of its wares were “adult-oriented.” Which is how Show World became the place to go if you’re in the market, not for LIVE NUDE GIRLS, but EASY JUMBO CROSSWORDS. Mike considers picking one up and presenting it with a straight face to the cashier for purchase, then decides against it; the guy’s job sucks enough already not to have to suffer a smart ass.

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We left, and I was struck by how oddly emotional I felt. A mourning sort of emotion.

It made me remember something I once read by the literary critic Richard Ohmann. He was writing of his passion and pleasure in analyzing the novels of Edith Wharton that conjure up the lost world of the old-money overclass at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth—a world of leisure and excess, built on the exploitation of invisible toilers. Ohmann, as a Marxist, reflected that he by rights ought to despise this now-extinct world. But he argued instead from love: that the passing of any social world ought to be mourned; they are all products of human labor and passion; all have their own glories and agonies and inherent integrity; all are cherished by someone, and everyone should feel human compassion for the pain others feel from the loss.

For me, then, the loss of the world of Show World inspires abstract sort of meta-nostalgia. But not for everyone. For some, the loss was more profound. In 2001, the science fiction writer and essayist Samuel Delany wrote a book about this old Times Square at whose reliquary I had just paid respects, and what it meant to ostracized black gay men like him: a place to belong. “The population was incredibly heterogeneous—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, native American, and a variety of Pacific Islanders,” he wrote.

In the Forty-second Street area’s sex theaters specifically, since I started frequenting them in the summer of 1975, I’ve met playwrights, carpenters, opera singers, telephone repair men, stockbrokers, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys on welfare, guys with trust funds, guys on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs, teachers, warehouse workers, male nurses, fancy chefs, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys who drove garbage trucks, and guys who washed windows on the Empire State Building. As a gentile, I note that this is the only place in a lifetime’s new York residency I’ve had any extended conversation with some of the city’s Hasidim. On a rainy Friday in 1977 in one such theater, the Variety, down on Third Avenue just below Fourteenth Street, I met a man who became my lover for eight years.

He writes of the Variety as “almost a kind of family, with a neighborhood feel—though men came there from as far as the Bronx, Queens, Westchester or (a tree service worker and his uncle) Brewster, New York.” Here he relates a story. An Asian kid is watching the straight stuff on the screen, um, enjoying himself all the while; the gay men enjoy him enjoying himself; a delighted dialogue ensues—“‘Ain’t that a trip?…That’s really funny, huh?’ the guy went on volubly. ‘I don’t mind, though. It ain’t nothin’”—about what all seemed to agree was a moment of mutuality and solidarity such that could never be enjoyed in that pinched, exclusionary world outside.

He’s describing a kind of accidental utopia. At a place most people considered repulsive. It takes all kinds to make a world. All kinds of places produce authentic meaning, and even love.

Read Rick Perlstein on the movie Cape Fear, in which Gregory Peck's character defeats the villain—while still respecting the law and civil liberties.

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