You meet the nicest folks in porn theaters

Gay writer Samuel Delany mourns the late, great and sweetly raunchy Times Square.

Published August 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The New York offices of Salon, where I work, overlook what boosters like to call the New Times Square. As I keyboard, I can hear the clatter of the cranes in the huge hole at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, out of which the Reuters Building is starting to rise; I hear the roar of the heavy trucks across the traffic island, at 42nd and Broadway, unloading office equipment at the new Condi Nast tower. In the afternoon, when the sun is so bright I have to lower my shades to see my screen, I grouse at the squeals of the teenage girls clustered beneath the plate-glass windows of the MTV studios, waving excitedly at musicians waving back from behind.

As it happens, I've worked in this neighborhood for much of my adult life. Twenty years ago it was scuzzy and disgusting and no place to hang out at the end of the work day (though sometimes I would quietly return several hours later). But I've never despised it as I do now. For all the talk of a renewal, the streets are a nightmare. Forget about beauty -- until the sun sets, anyway, and the hallucinatory signage overwhelms the buildings. The new skyscrapers are faceless at best, like the one I work in, and at worst they're like the Condi Nast building, so dispiritingly ugly that they might have been thought up by a New York hater as an act of revenge.

What bothers me more, though, is the void down at street level. The restaurants and the shops are of the generic kind you can find anywhere harried families go on vacation. There's nothing here to lure a New Yorker -- not even the peep shows, now that the mayor has chased them out. And the crowds! Like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Times Square is one of those world-famous sites that only tourists flock to -- they all want to see the place where the ball drops on New Year's Eve. A local guy summed it up recently in words the Times chose as its Quotation of the Day: "It is really inconvenient and really unsafe. I remember when we had the muggers and the pimps. It was dangerous, but it wasn't like having some tourist push you in front of a bus."

He didn't quite get it right, though. I remember the pimps, too -- and the hookers and the hustlers and the scam artists dealing three-card monte on every corner -- but not the muggers. Not violent crime. In the bad old days you had an excellent chance of getting your pocket picked on Times Square, and you still do. But held up? No -- there were too many hookers and hustlers and junkies and pimps. The dangerous streets in New York were (and are) the deserted ones. You're not likely to get mugged in a crowd.

Yet this is one of the central myths -- safety! in New York City! -- being promulgated by a not exactly faceless They (the developers, the mayor's office, the Times), who crow louder each day about their victory, which is, of course, a class victory -- the poor have been pushed out. But there's a crucial variation here from the standard model of urban gentrification, which Samuel R. Delany points up in his remarkable new polemic, "Times Square Red, Times Square Blue." The area used to harbor a raffish community of bartenders and blue-collar Joes and the small-time businesses that catered to them. It was a neighborhood you might not have wanted to live in (I wouldn't have) but, as Delany demonstrates, a neighborhood nonetheless. It isn't now. The new Times Square is a purely commercial zone, a business venture, scrubbed up and dead.

"Times Square Red, Times Square Blue" is sui generis in the way it leashes together two wildly different approaches to its subject. Delany has worked in many genres, most notably science fiction; he's also an ebullient memoirist and an erudite essayist. And for the past decade he's held a post as professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, shuttling back and forth between digs in Amherst and an apartment on the Upper West Side. He's a wily reporter, too. Delany has spent "thousands and thousands of hours," he tells us, in the decrepit structures near Times Square and farther south, around 14th Street, that until recently were New York's porn theaters. Their era lasted for three decades -- from the time Delany was 25 to the time he was 55 -- ending in the mid-'90s, when the Giuliani administration's tightening sex restrictions shut them down.

Delany catalogs his old haunts with affection: the Variety Photoplays and the Metropolitan downtown, the Cameo and the Capri and the Venus and the Eros a block west of Times Square along Eighth Avenue. The only one of these places I ever saw the inside of myself was the Eros, which was the only one that showed gay movies (and, later, videos), but its grunginess repelled me; I was more comfortable in the gay porn houses farther uptown, which at least seemed cleaner (though it was hard to tell in the dark). But Delany barely mentions either these places or the popular gay sex clubs downtown, and at first this omission puzzled me. It would never have occurred to me to visit the straight porn houses. What could they offer a gay man?

Reading "Times Square Blue," the first of the two longish essays the volume comprises, I found out. There was as much action in the straight theaters as in the gay ones. More, maybe. Many of the men in the audience (there were practically no women) were gay, and a lot of the straight (or "straight") habituis didn't care who was giving them a blow job while they had their eyes locked on the screen. Some of the characters Delany recalls were truly unsavory, such as the stud-turned-crackhead he came to think of as Joey-Who-Needs-a-Bath, with whom he had a regular $10 Thursday morning date. ("'You want to suck me? You want me to just jerk off? Or what?' ... Joey had developed a sore on the back of his left hand that was probably infected and was suppurating through its bandage. So I said: 'Why don't you jerk off?'")

Or the sadly demented Mad Masturbator he met one Saturday at the Variety Photoplays, who couldn't stop his compulsive pumping even to go to the john and suddenly peed on himself while they were talking. ("Jesus, I'm sorry ... I got an empty milk carton I usually do it in. Then I pour it out, later, outside. They don't like it when I go on the floor like this ... I get sores on my cock sometimes when I pee all over myself like that and I don't wash my hands.") These men must have appealed to his novelist's imagination, and his novelist's talent brings them to life.

It becomes clear from Delany's descriptions of these encounters and quite a few others that many of the "thousands and thousands of hours" he spent in the porn houses were more social than sexual. Some of the connections he made there deepened into lasting friendships. I doubt that he could have formed the same bonds in the gay theaters, despite his unusually developed social skills: He is a burly black man with a great big beard, and in my experience the clones who frequented the gay houses were looking mostly for other clones. But they weren't to Delany's taste anyhow. The gay places drew a middle-class gay clientele, while the straight theaters -- as "Times Square Blue" attests -- attracted guys from the working class down. And these are the men Delany is drawn to, socially and sexually.

Encounters across class lines are the central subject of the volume's brilliant second essay, "Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red," which Delany has written in a style that, following the conversational colloquialism of "Times Square Blue," seems almost hilariously abstruse. He loves the jargon of post-structuralist theory (the "red" of "Times Square Red" refers, I assume, to the essay's Marxist assumptions), but he wields it -- just about uniquely, in my experience -- with a Solomonic grace. He seldom allows his argument to drift away from the reader (though I wish he would provide some definitions for the less theoretically grounded when, for example, he proclaims that superstructure can impinge on infrastructure), and he has a good habit of anchoring his observations with homely examples. Addressing ongoing issues of interclass communication and conflict, he offers anecdotes about himself and his landlord.

Cities, he argues, afford opportunities for two types of social interaction. The first, which he calls networking -- nonjudgmentally, he claims, but I don't believe him -- occurs within preselected groups (at work, at school, at writers' conferences) and is pretty much limited to members of a single class. Then there are the more random encounters of city life: the conversation you strike up with the person next to you in the checkout line at the grocery store, or the guy who has just gone down on you at the Variety Photoplays. This type of interaction, which he terms contact, provides far more opportunity for communication between members of different classes, and Delany declares his biases in axiomatic form in the very first sentence of his essay: "The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will."

"Pleasant" is a word that comes up a lot. It carries the weight of Delany's value judgments (many of them indebted, as he acknowledges, to the work of Jane Jacobs) about urban spaces and the kind of intercourse they do or don't encourage. And at the root of his enraged protest over the exclusionary vision that has decimated the 42nd Street community lies an unpleasant sensation of loss: "What has happened to Times Square has already made my life, personally, somewhat more lonely and isolated. I have talked with a dozen men whose sexual outlets, like many of mine, were centered on that neighborhood. It is the same for them. We need contact."

On a theoretical level, at least, he is thinking about more than his own gratification. At one point he imagines a series of public sex institutions for women, "equipped with a good security system, surveillance, alarms, and bouncers (as well as birth control material)," where "the management would make clear that, within its precincts, all decisions were women's call, with everything designed for women's comfort and convenience." That proposal alone pegs Delany as a utopian thinker. But he is also disarmingly dry-eyed. His summary of what crack did to the Times Square neighborhood in the '80s is bleakly unvarnished. And he is unsentimental almost to the point of brutality. "Were the porn theaters romantic?" he asks. "Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge."

Delany probably couldn't rise to this level of conviction if he weren't such an exhibitionist. Of course, most writers are, on some level -- writing is performance, after all -- just as readers are, by definition, voyeurs. But he's more flamboyant than most of us, both on the page and off. With his regal bearing, his portly stature, his dapper cane and his colossal white beard, he must have cut quite a figure in the porn palaces. Despite his (uncharacteristic and unconvincing) assertion that "a certain reticence is appropriate when discussing it," he doesn't shy away from letting us know that "on a scale of small, medium, and large I fall directly on the border line between the latter two." That's nice. But it doesn't hold a candle to the sexual self-exposure he volunteers in "Bread & Wine," the alarmingly raw comic book he has just collaborated on with artist Mia Wolff.

"Bread & Wine" recounts the beginnings, a decade back, of Delany's relationship with his current lover, Dennis (we never learn his last name), when Dennis was a homeless man selling books from a blanket on West 72nd Street. Delany's abstractions about interclass contact come sharply into focus here -- and so does the fetishization behind them. It wasn't just democratic idealism that made Times Square one of the centers of his sex life. Looking Dennis up and down when they first begin to discuss the possibility of sleeping together, Delany admits to the reader, "I found him attractive, underneath (and, hell, just a bit because of) all the dirt." The dirt is, in fact, epic. When Delany rents a motel room for the two of them, Dennis has his first real bath in six years, and the scene is -- well, it's amazing:

The high laced workboots and the three layers of socks beneath them came off -- and out of them came a stench that, frankly, beats anything I've ever smelled before! The inner pair of socks had simply decayed around his feet ... I've seen people take baths where the water turned grey from the dirt. But five minutes after he got started I looked in to see how he was doing. He could have been sitting in a tub of India Ink!

I'm fastidious, I know, but -- yucch. The "shit-and-vinegar" stink of Dennis' feet was so pervasive, Delany tells us, that the room was going to be "unrentable for the next few days." And yet, and yet  there's something almost fairy-tale-like about the occasion. It's as though we're seeing Dennis emerge from the misery of a long and terrible spell. Delany tells their story simply and heartbreakingly, sequinning the text with glittering nocturnal quotations from "Brod und Wein," an early 19th century elegy by the German poet Friedrich Hvlderlin. (At the time of the events, he was studying Paul de Man's reading of the poem.) They make a haunting overlay.

Nevertheless, "Bread & Wine" isn't satisfying. The story is too unsettling (and perhaps too strangely sweet) to lend itself to comic-book treatment. Important questions don't get answered. What have these two impossibly unlike men spent the past decade talking about? How does Dennis fit in on the Amherst campus? He was straight before he hit the skids; he told Delany early on, "You hear women talk about guys who just want to keep them for their bodies, and they don't like it ... Well, I wouldn't mind if some guy wanted to keep me just for my body. " He got his wish. Does he yearn for women now? Or does he still have sex with women? This is all too bewildering -- tell us more! The story goes on for a mere 44 pages, but it's the stuff of a long, ambiguous, rich and complicated novel.

Delany and Wolff have something else in mind, though. The book is subtitled "An Erotic Tale of New York," and it's intended simply as a story -- a real-life parable, perhaps -- about conjugal negotiation and fulfillment. And I can't deny that it's riveting. Still, what held me truly spellbound, and a little horrified, was the outlandish exhibitionism of it all, which continues even after the story proper ends, in a discussion the principals engage in about how well Wolff's drawings captured the events. Referring to a picture of himself climaxing messily in Delany's mouth, Dennis tells his lover, "Man, you ain't never wasted that much in your life! I got that T-shirt last year, it says: 'Mean people suck. Nice people swallow.' Well, you're one of the nice people. But I guess that's what you call poetic license."

My natural response to that piece of information is to clear my throat and say dryly, Well, that's really more than we needed to know. But is it? I don't know. Whatever its failings, "Bread and Wine" had the power to make me step back and examine my own discomfort. What bothers me about it? Obviously not the explicitness, which I like in pornography. The level of personal exposure? Maybe -- but I seem to feel a lot more embarrassed for Delany and Dennis than they do for themselves. Why should I care? Partly, I imagine, because I had to face some of the same issues Delany had to in writing about these two books. How much do I want to reveal about myself to a bunch of anonymous readers? Fairness demands that I tell you where I'm coming from; letting you think I was a straight man who'd never seen the inside of a porn theater would color -- or, rather, discolor -- everything I've written here. But at what point does critical responsibility cross the line into narcissism? Am I doing this because I'm obliged to or because I want to? And anyway, how much can I tell you about myself without becoming a bore?

Delany's strategy, meanwhile -- I assume it's a strategy -- is to remain blithely unaware that he might be making anybody squirm. Not his problem. But he does understand that this exhibitionism isn't a side issue. The embarrassment most of us feel at talking about these topics is precisely what's made it so easy for the Giuliani administration to padlock the theaters. Defense of the porn houses usually takes place on the elevated plane of civil liberties; Delany is one of the few public figures who's had the chutzpah to say he loved them. Some of his ideas may sound quixotic, but he's got a formidably clear head. Forty years ago, after all, how many gay men and women were willing to come out at all? Exhibitionism has its uses. Delany has done something in these two books that I admire even as, I admit, it gives me pause, something beyond just acknowledging his homosexuality. He's gone out on a limb and acknowledged his sexuality.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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