I hear a Black teenage couple arguing. He has been dragging her into movies on 42nd all day. She pleads, “Do we gotta see another kung-fu movie, Jerome?” They later pose for souvenir photos taken on the street corner in front of painted backdrops of the African jungle and ancient Egypt. A lop-sided rattan chair salvaged from a garbage heap serves as King Jerome’s throne in both locales. In one photo, he holds a rubber spear and in the other a cardboard sphinx. Yvonne stands beside her seated Lord. In the jungle, a leopard-skin print drapes her torso. In Egypt, a Cleopatra-crown rocks unsteadily on her Afro. Jerome pays extra to have the photos framed.
King and Queen fall asleep on the subway back to Bed-Stuy and miss their stop. Tomorrow, after Yvonne leaves for work, Jerome tapes the framed photos to the boom-box radio that is permanently attached to his shoulder. And, he returns to 42nd to see another kung-fu movie.
Midtown Manhattan isn’t a minefield only for out-of-work actors. Civilians are also under constant threat. I learn this as a teenager walking across 42nd street on a summer morning in 1965. Suddenly a long, thin, black object shoots silently down through my peripheral vision. An impression. A blur. Then I hear women scream and see that a crowd has gathered on the sidewalk directly in front of me. I work my way through to the center of the crowd and wish I hadn’t. A woman is dead on the sidewalk. She has been speared through by a window-pole; accidentally dropped by someone many floors above; dropped by someone who merely wanted to catch a bit of breeze.
The window pole has plummeted to earth, brass-hook first. A javelin. A lance. A guided missile. The dead woman had the worst luck in the world. One step in either direction – she lives. One missed elevator – she lives. But, someone held the elevator door for her. I look down on her obscenely splayed and skewered form, her face now covered by a man’s suit jacket. She was a valued employee. A wife. A mother. A New York woman who went to work this morning in a summer dress with a pattern of small flowers on it. Dead. The police and ambulance arrive. I walk away.
I want to impress my classy new girlfriend with my “too cool for school” Brooklyn savoir-faire. So, I take her to a 42nd Street bughouse to see the movie Caligula produced by the skin magazine Penthouse. It’s a credible version of the story interspersed with scenes of incredible sex and it’s the only XXX movie to star John Gielgud and Helen Mirren. There is a Black gentleman sitting directly behind us. He is actively engaged with the film and adds a running critique to the on-screen action. When Malcolm McDowell coats his arm with lard and “fists” a kitchen slave, our critic leans forward and informs us that, “Dese Romans are some sick muthafuckas.” When a Centurion has his penis sliced off and thrown to the dogs, the Black gent jumps up whilst grabbing his crotch and informs the entire audience, “Damn, I could feel dat shit.”
In the late 1960s, the mentally ill of America were caught in a political pincer movement. The tightwad Right wanted to close public insane asylums to save money. The moronic Left decided that the insane were the only sanepeople on the planet and had to be liberated from “captivity.” Yippie fuckwits scaled asylum walls and attempted to “free” the petrified inmates. The result of this Left/Right détente was that many of the mentally ill were pumped full of drugs and dumped onto America’s streets. 42ndStreet being one. Aunt Rosa being one. (Ya ask me, insane people should be locked up and kept warm, safe and fed but as far away from sane people as possible. This “care in the community” and “mainstreaming” crap doesn’t work. All it does is create jobs for parasitic social workers while exposing the sane and insane to attacks from each other.)
My family did what we could to help Aunt Rosa but it was impossible to help her. She was crazy. She wouldn’t take her medicine. If we gave her money she gave it away or flushed it away. If we had taken her into our homes she would have burned them down. She needed asylum. As in “insane asylum.” There was no asylum in Times Square for anyone. It was insane to inflict Times Square on the insane and vice versa. Correction. It was criminally insane. The Left and Right should have been given hot-lead enemas for using helpless lunatics as pawns in their political game.
That’s why in 1974 New York and with hopeful hearts,my acting group dared to move into a rat’s nest flanked by porn shops. The customers of those shops received blowjobs for five bucks in the alley behind our theater. Those blowjobs were administered by Black trannies who resembled New York Giants linebackers dressed in hot pants and halter-tops. Our actresses had it extra-tough getting to and from our new home. They had to maneuver through pickpockets, pill-poppers and pimps while enduring wolf-whistles from Elvis Presley look-a-like diesel-dikes. If the actresses skirted the well-lit but obnoxious 42nd Street, they were easy prey on the dark and un-policed 41st and 43rd Streets.
When we compared travel-tips, we discovered that we had independently stumbled onto the same survival strategy. To avoid being maimed, mugged or murdered, we acted nuts. The primal animal in us instinctively knew that predators didn’t eat sick prey. So, we acted sick. We walked down 42ndstreet talking to ourselves and to Jesus. We laughed hysterically at everything and at nothing. We cried out to the Mayor and the Martians. We limped. We played retarded. Under serious threat, we had cerebral palsy.
Carrie was a year dead by the time we discovered this survival ruse. It might have saved her life.
One greasy night, I find myself at a porn-industry party at Eddie and Jett’s. The guest list is a veritable “Who’s Who” of degeneracy – gay and straight. (“Hey, isn’t that Harry Reems talking to Jack Wrangler?”) And, the badinage is scintillating. (“Even her crabs have herpes!”) But, I take a break from the shop talk to catch some cable in the bedroom. That’s where Jett corners me –
“Whatcha watchin’? Hey, you’re a good-lookin’ guy.”
Uh oh! Where have I heard that before?
“Ya know, the adult film producers wanna use you hippie-type guys. Ya wanna try making a porn movie?”
“Oh Jeez, I dunno…”
“I caught you lookin’ at Sandy. Ya wanna do a movie with her?”
“I dunno know if I could do it. I mean, I never…”
“You’d get paid to fuck all the girls at this party. How ’bout it?”
“Jeez, Eddie’s sister would kill me.”
“You could fuck me and neither of ’em would know. I gotta friend downstairs. We could make a quickie-loop right now to see if you like it.”
On my way to meet Shmuel, I decide to cast my fate to the winds and become a total voluptuary. I will splurge my last dollar on a donut and coffee in a pigsty way East on 14th Street. I’ve always hated 14th Street and Columbus Circle and that pedestrian-tunnel that runs under 42nd Street and Shepherd’s Bush in London and all of Los Angeles. Certain places give me nausea and make me break out in intense psychic hives. 14th Street is the worst of the worst. But, I’m there and I’m hungry so I plunk down my buck, pour flyspecked sugar into my plastic cup and dunk my stale donut into the greasy brown fluid that passes for coffee. This is when the young woman sitting next to me asks if I’d like to fuck her on film. I’m tellin’ ya, in ’70s Manhattan, an actor on his uppers can’t even enjoy a cup o’ Joe with a sinker without being offered porn stardom.
The gal in question is kinda chubby but kinda cute with an impressive full head of brunette ringlets. She speaks in a heavily slurred Greek accent – heavily slurred because she is heavily stoned and falling off her stool.
When not exchanging pleasantries with prostitutes, I cleaned the apartments of their pimps, namely one Demetrius Jones. It may not surprise you to learn that Mr. Jones was a Negro gentleman whose teef… er, I mean teeth were jewel-encrusted. Every surface in his pad was glass or chrome – the better to facilitate coke sniffing by Mr. Jones and his bitches. (He frequently had female houseguests.) Many’s the time I would look up from mopping his kitchen floor to see a naked wench drinking orange juice straight from the carton. (I ask you!) She would then paddle to the toilet and use it without closing the door. (Some people!) She would then paddle back to the bed of Demetrius Jones yawning and sniffing all the way. (I just mopped there!) Did I imagine it or was she cruelly humming the tune to Cinderella? (Bitch!)
The New York summer of 1973, the summer of Carrie’s murder, simmered like every other New York summer – over-heated cabs, over-heated buses, over-heated subways, over-heated apartments, over-heated offices, over-heated people. Olga, the least talented of the untalented avant-garde actresses in our building, got very over-heated about a White hooker and her Black pimp who lived across the street. They looked like a super-hero team that had fallen on threadbare times. He squeezed his fat ass into gold-lamé hand-me-downs from Superfly while she favored silver-latex unitards. Unfortunately, the unitards did not favor her full-figured frame. This girl had been around the block several times. And, I don’t mean St. Mark’s Place. (I wouldn’t fuck her with your dick!) But, why/how this dumpy duo got on Olga’s untalented tits escaped me.
This is the seamy, sordid, demeaning crap they don’t teach in any Temple of the Dramatic Arts. And, actresses have it much harder than actors. There are more of them chasing fewer roles in fewer castable years. The casting-couch offers them a horizontal method of climbing up to stardom. As long ago as the silent film era, the saying among the liver-lipped movie-moguls was: “Don’t cast ’til you see the whites of their thighs.” And, that’s how so many of the ambitious, naïve, venal, vulnerable women who are drawn to show business become damaged goods. Many of them develop a carapace of iron. But, look closely and you can tell from the way they carry themselves and smoke their cigarettes that they are anguished creatures. You see them at movie premiers working as escorts for powerful industry trolls. You see written in the thought bubble above their expensively coiffured heads, “It wasn’t meant to be this way.” Tough broads. Walking wounded.
One of Manhattan’s top socialites says to me as we look over a glittering crowd at a charity gala, “There’s a lot of midnight-money in this room.” The room teems with failed actress/model/beauty queens and their troglodyte husbands – their former tricks. Midnight-money. Great phrase.