In those golden days of yesteryear, there were strict codes of conduct in porn theaters and dirty bookstores. In the latter, it was thought rude to pick up a porn magazine immediately after another sticky-fingered voyeur had put it down. The girl in that magazine was still his girl. It was best to let some time pass and allow the couple to come to terms with their recent break-up. Then you were free to paw over Teenage Enema Bandits.
In porn cinemas, as in all cinemas, it was held inconsiderate, threatening and sexually provocative to sit right next to, directly in front of or (worse) directly behind someone when there were other seats available. It pains me to report that some lost souls went to porn theaters expressly to jack-off or to be jacked-off. I was never among their number. My preference was to sit far apart, all the better to enjoy the mise en scène. And, to avoid being hit by recklessly extruded seminal fluid.
Porn theaters, like strip-shows, were remarkably somber affairs. The men hunkered down to watch and/or wank in silence. No chitchat. No popcorn passing. Definitely no eye contact. You didn’t want to risk being recognized.
“Murray, what the hell are you doing here?”
Furthermore, a wisp too much eye-contact with the flaming Black fairies who walked up and down the center aisle, licking their lips while looking into laps, might suggest you were happy to let them get a lip-lock on your love-monkey. No. And again, no! Eyes straight ahead.
I’m walking across a sizzling 42nd street to a morning rehearsal when I see what I’m sure is a “Live Sexxx Team” sauntering to work. I’m also sure they are a married couple so, unlike me, they don’t have to rehearse their act. But, I hope for their sake that their Love Stage is air-conditioned. The distaff side of the Live Sexxx Team is beautiful – Crystal Gayle hair, Crystal Gayle face and Crystal Gayle legs that go all the way up to her Crystal Gayle ass. And, she has thigh-high boots on those Crystal Gayle legs. The boy half of the team isn’t much to look at, but who’s looking? So, he opts for an ensemble of flip-flops, gym-shorts and tank top. I know Crystal can do better than fucking this loser on a Love Stage even if it is air-conditioned. I hanker after Crystal and long to tell her so. I just know, know that we can find happiness as long as she always wears those boots. I am sure she is Southern.
It is 3 AM on a rainy night and I’m walking down the deserted, darker stretch of 42nd between 6th and 7th avenues. The wet pavement reflects the neon lights from the two porn stores still open. As I approach one of these, I see a man exiting while clutching to his chest a paper bag filled with photos of female flesh. I immediately detect something odd about his gate. It isn’t the usual overly-casual yet dartingly-furtive walk of men as they enter and exit dirty bookstores and movies. No. This man’s body seems permanently shaped into a posture of “shying away” as if he is flinching before a punch is thrown.
As I get closer to him, I see that he is wearing a plastic medical mask in a pitifully unsuccessful attempt to conceal that he has no face. The mask is the color of Pepto Bismol to suggest flesh tone with features crudely painted on. The lips are much too large and much too red. The eyebrows are even worse. I follow him at a distance and note the practiced, heartbreaking way he avoids the gaze of passing strangers and finds shadows and darkened doorways by which to pick his way down the street and home.
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.”
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.