As a kid growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I was simultaneously awed and appalled by the maddening energy of Times Square, especially 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, commonly called “The Deuce.” With both sides of the street cluttered with a mixture of upright citizens, lowdown schemers, bullhorn screaming preachers, high-heeled hookers, and sidewalk scavengers of every variety who’d come to the strip to lay down their hustle, even the most native of New Yorkers had to be cautious. Although most of the city looked as though someone had dumped a giant garbage can over it, Times Square was especially grimy considering it also served as a business district that included office buildings, restaurants, movie and Broadway theaters.
Once called “the crossroads of the world,” back when the majestic landscape was rhapsodized in Damon Runyon’s colorful prose and the flamboyant Ziegfeld musicals, by the early 1960s, Times Square began to lose its luster. First-run movie palaces, with regal names like the Selwyn, Rialto, and the Victory, and their velvet-covered seats and smoking sections in the balconies, were becoming double-feature grindhouses specializing in B-movies or so-called “adult features.”
Alternative forms of entertainment were also created in the ‘60s, including the first peep booths that the future “King of Peeps” Martin Hodas invented using old nickelodeon film machines, restocking them with stag reels and images of naked girls frolicking. In 1966, the first machines were placed in Carpel Books at 259 West 42nd Street; while others were nervous about the machines, as obscenity laws loosened, soon the peep machines were everywhere. By the 1970s, sleaze defined the area, and would do so for the next twenty-five years.
My first vivid memory of the seedy area was arriving at the Port Authority terminal in 1974 after spending the entire summer at my Aunt Ricky’s house in Pittsburgh. I had turned twelve a few months before and was already having cinematic wet dreams, triggered no doubt by finding my stepfather’s stash of Playboy magazines two years earlier. Greeted at the grimy station by my mom, we exited through the electronic doors and began walking one block east where the uptown number one train station was on 7th Avenue. As we stood on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in the beaming August sun waiting to cross the intersection, a liquor-reeking derelict tried to take a suitcase from mommy’s hand on the pretense of “helping her” across the street. “Thank you, but I can manage,” mom said politely.
However, when the guy reached for her wrist, I saw a side of my mother I never knew existed as she screamed and cursed the man. As the curious eyes of passing pedestrians glared at her, the black version of Ratso Rizzo fled from the scene. Mom grabbed my hand tightly until we were on the sidewalk and then paused to catch her breath. A few feet away a hotdog man stood listening to the Yankees game on a battered portable radio as the smell of boiling franks, red onions, and salted pretzels drifted through the air.
Standing silently, I began looking around and I noticed the pictures of nude women on marquees and enticing four-color posters advertising movies with lewd titles including Oral Annie , Sex School , Liquid Lips , Inside Joy , and The Coming of Angie that hung inside glass display cases. As though hypnotized by the flashing lights (Live Nudes! Peep-O-Rama!), my brown eyes scanned the signs, the faces and flashes of flesh as repulsion and fear soon became fascination.
Wonderfully, I stared at the unsavory characters, skimpily-clad women, the scarred short-stay hotels, the numerous sex shops, topless bars, and the tinted windows of massage parlors that lined the landscape. Moments later, as we silently scurried to the subway, I was aware that my fear of Times Square was slowly melting away with each step down the dirty sidewalk. While there were other types of businesses on the block—including a sporting goods shop and a tiny burger spot—it was the neon lit porn places that I was most drawn to.
Living in Harlem with my mom, grandmother, and a younger brother, I had more than a few friends that I hung out within our neighborhood who often went to Times Square to see the latest blaxploitation or kung-fu flicks. My mom wasn’t having it. “I don’t want you down there,” she said. “Anything can happen down there.”
As I got older I enjoyed taking solo journeys around the city. Riding the bus downtown to the library near Rockefeller Center, which became one of my favorite parts of the city, or to the East Side to a cool comic book shop that was a block away from Bloomingdale's, I romanticized New York as I pretended to be a minor character in a Truman Capote story or an extra in Annie Hall . Walking through the city, breathing in the dirty air, staring at the towering skyscrapers, going to the Doubleday Books store on 5th Avenue, I would occasionally be in the vicinity of Times Square. I didn’t venture into the chaos alone until I was a nineteen-year-old college student going to a revival movie theater called the Hollywood Twin, located at 777 8th Avenue between 47th and 48th Street; a few years before, the Twin was a porn theater that could be seen in the film poster for Taxi Driver , but in 1981 it went legit and started showing old movies.
Leaving the theater one night after seeing a double feature, I looked down the block at the radiant neon and the vibrant colors beckoning me to Show World. “The brightest of the gaudy lights in the pornographic firmament of Times Square,” journalist Dan Barry described it in a 1995 article in The New York Times . A former hardware store and Chemical Bank building, Show World was owned by Richard Basciano and opened in 1975. In his wonderful book Tales of Times Square , writer Josh Alan Friedman says it was a simple place that became more of a gaudy sexual spectacle with its “slick design” and “supermarket aisles, everything steel, Formica, (and) tile floors.”
Outside of Show World, breakdancers were on the dirty sidewalk, spinning on their heads while blasting a boombox. Before entering into the porn emporium, I got change for a five and stuffed the quarters into my pocket; feeling the weight and warmth of the coins against my leg, I scurried inside. A few years later, Show World would begin using their own specialty tokens with the silhouette of a dancer in motion on one side and the words “Worlds Greatest Show Place” on the other.
I stepped cautiously inside; the music was blaring as the sounds of Thriller , Hall & Oates, and Marvin Gaye bounced off the mirrored walls. To the left was a staircase that led to the booths and live girls. I glanced upwards and saw a beautiful black woman wearing a red babydoll nightie and high heels, a siren amongst the lights and noise whose mission was to lure men up the stairs.
That first night, I spent about an hour walking through the multi-leveled porn plaza where one could watch snippets of XXX movies in private for a quarter on the first floor, witness a live sex show on the second, talk to a naked woman on the third, or sneak down to the basement that was the territory for transsexuals. On the first floor, there were racks of glossy porn magazines with a sign next to them that read “When looking at magazines use both hands.” There were also sex toys as well, including various sized vibrators and plastic sex dolls with oval open mouths.
Inside the booths, men masturbated and ejaculated onto the floor; upon exiting, the mop boy would slide his bucket over and clean-up for the next customer. The music was loud, but I could hear the orgasmic groans coming from the booths; some came from women who were in the movies, while others were from the men who watched. “If you don’t think the central problem of New York is loneliness, hang around Times Square some evening and try to understand how these people get through the night,” Pete Hamill wrote in his “Cityside” column in New York magazine in 1972. “They are there alone, trying to find a way to get through the night.”
Although it wasn’t an everyday thing, I went often enough that in some spots the girls knew me by face or name (I always told them my real name, because it sounded so fake) or fetish for curvy woman. Jiggling the quarters in my pocket, I watched as men darted inside the darkened booths and locked the doors. Walking into an empty booth, I put a few quarters in the slot as a partition opened; through Plexiglas, a beautiful naked Hispanic woman lay on a couch masturbating.
According to a 2008 Gawker story , “at [Show World’s] peak, thirty-two live girls per shift worked 24-7 behind glass on stages and in peepshow booths.” I stared for a minute until the partition closed; after feeding more change into the machine, my eyes looked up from the couch and I was startled when I realized I could see the faces of other men (some smiling, a few sullen) as they too stared intensely at the naked woman.
“Now, in our center booths, it’s time for the live sex act, right here at Show World!” an invisible barker screamed circus style over the speakers as the Latina woman on the couch was soon replaced by a scraggly couple doing everything the announcer promised. Truthfully, I’d never considered watching another couple have sex and I was somewhat repulsed. Years later, I became friends with a brilliant illustrator named Guy Gonzales who used to work at Show World performing live sex acts with various girls.
“Sometimes we would just be so fucked up in there,” he told me.
Preferring the peep shows to the live acts—even the single woman “love booths” were too intimate for me—I went from curious voyeur to a regular customer. I roamed through Show World as though searching for something, but I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for as I stood nervously inside of peep-show booths that smelled of strong disinfectant.
After a few more visits, my nervousness began to subside as I frequented Show World more often, as well as discovering other joints on The Deuce to feed my growing addiction to both the sex and the scene. Like some of the other men, I often looked around before entering, hoping that no one I knew saw me. Everybody from college students to businessmen to Hasidic Jews were there. At Show World, race and class amongst the customers disappeared; we were all the same—horny man-children lost in a decadent wonderland of sex and satisfaction.
Working as a messenger in the area, I was often on The Deuce and the temptation was too much to control. One day, while exiting from some sleazy spot whose name I’ve since forgotten, I bumped into my girlfriend Francine and her little sister.
“What were you doing in there?” Fran asked.
“Nothing,” I muttered, feeling Catholic boy guilt. Nevertheless, those distant memories of being an altar boy were wiped away with the thrill of being in such close proximity to women and their naked flesh.
Smiling devilishly, Fran snapped, “Boys are just so nasty.”
Over the years the girlfriends would come and go, some who were aware of my weakness, that, truthfully, I never thought about too deeply. Still, there was still a side of me that thought my activities were disgusting, that I was a perv with some kind of malfunction that rivaled the lonely and demented Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver . Was I suffering from addiction or a hatred of women, as the Women Against Pornography (WAP) protesters proclaimed from their table that was often set up across the street? Was there something wrong with me mentally or was I just another horny guy that loved looking at naked women?
While I had to deal with my personal issues concerning porn, I never felt as though I was a misogynist. If watching porn was a weakness, I thought, than it was no worse than any of my other bad habits like drinking too much Cafe Bustelo and puffing too many cigarettes. As I passed their table on the way to my destination, the WAP representatives yelled to passersby that porn was “violence against women,” based in humiliation and degradation, Usually speeding up my steps, I simply kept moving until I was inside that well-lit porn palace, far away from any truths.
Beginning in 1993, under the mayoral reign of Rudy Giuliani, the city government’s mission to revitalize Times Square became a reality as new zoning laws were put into effect, forcing many of the porn-related business to close; soon, construction crews tore down old buildings and replaced them with Disney stores, themed restaurants, multiplex theaters, and other tourist traps. Within a couple of years, Times Square transformed from an adult sexual wonderland to a urban family playground sponsored by corporations.
Show World owner Richard Basciano, who also controlled other porn places in the neighborhood, waged a war against Giuliani, but in the end, he lost. These days, the Show World building houses a giant Rite-Aid drug store. Going there recently, I glanced at blue uniformed young adults behind the counter, the young luxury housing couple buying Smart Water, and the new mothers pushing their precious babies in thousand dollar carriages, thinking to myself, “If they only knew; if they only knew.”