The Last Peeps
As you walk up Eighth Avenue near Times Square, the first thing you notice is that you’re in the virtuous shadow of the area’s namesake institution, the steely-grey New York Times building, which looms on your right. You breathe in the scent of Schnipper’s burgers and fries, complemented by the familiar odor of a double-decker tour bus’s diesel fumes. And despite your utter hatred of Midtown crowds, you continue north toward 42nd.
Upon hitting a critical mass of tourists on the corner, you’re forced to dart west across the street, because you’re on a mission. Now you’re the clichéd salmon swimming upstream, as you’ll certainly be pummeled by the legions of commuters heading straight for the Port Authority Bus Terminal to make their 6:07 back to Weehawken or Rahway or Fort Lee or some other place you thank your lucky stars you’ve never set foot in. Yet, you know this is false snobbishness, because you’re from Long Island, a roughly parallel universe of only slightly better repute.
You’ve got just one worry at this moment: as you approach your destination, you’re afraid that one of these suits or biz-casual bros knows you from college, or one of these H&M-bag-clutching, flip-flop-and-jeans-sporting girls is an old camp “friend” or acquaintance. It would be worse yet if you ran into a family friend, or, at the most dire end of the spectrum, a relative, during those two seconds of awkwardness when you leave this world and enter another.
With one final gulp of burger-diesel-and-nicotine-scented air, you make a sharp and abrupt left turn into the establishment with the window sign that reads “LIVE NUDE GIRLS.”
You never break stride.
* * *
Ever since Giuliani took office, it has been rumored that New York’s peep shows have months to live. But here it is, Gotham City, palace of porn, alive and kicking, and shaking its sultry hips on the corner of Eighth and 43rd.
Elizabeth Thomas, Deputy Director of Communications for the New York City Law Department, explained the history of peep show regulation via e-mail. (Author’s note: The following is not intended to be Kafkaesque, but it most certainly is.)
Between 1984 and 1993, the number of adult bookstores, peepshows, and video stores increased from 29 to 86 establishments across New York City. (This is, presumably, due to the increase in VHS availability.) In 1995, the City of New York adopted “adult use zoning regulations,” which more or less prohibited “adult establishments” (strip clubs, topless bars, peep shows, etc.) from being located in any “zoning district where residential uses are permitted, and prevented them from existing within 500 feet of a school, place of worship, another adult establishment, or a zoning district where adult uses are prohibited.” So, basically, peep shows were outlawed almost everywhere.
But, as is the case with many American laws, there are loopholes. While the City was initially successful in obtaining “temporary closing orders” for these businesses, many of the targeted unsavory establishments evaded enforcement.
Loophole No. 1: So as not to harm legitimate book and video stores that featured small sections devoted to adult entertainment, the 1995 regulations defined adult bookstores as those with at least forty percent of their stock or floor space dedicated to adult materials. To get around this regulation, adult video stores filled their basements or upper floors with numerous copies of cruddy, decidedly non-racy films that would never sell. (Think “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” or “Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie.”)
Loophole No. 2: “Adult eating or drinking establishments” and “adult theaters” were defined in the 1995 regulations as clubs and theater-restaurants that “regularly feature” adult entertainment. Again, this wording wasn’t crystal clear, and the adult clubs and theaters evaded enforcement by putting up partitions that restricted adult entertainment to less than forty percent of their overall floor area. While some courts agreed with the city’s view that this was nonsense, the New York Court of Appeals did not adopt the city’s interpretation of the law.
By 2000, more than a third of the adult establishments in Manhattan had shuttered, and the decline in the Times Square area was even more pronounced. But thanks to the loopholes, many still hung on. Then, in 2001, the law was amended to make clear that any club or theater that regularly features adult entertainment in any portion of the premises is an “adult establishment.”
These changes, of course, brought legal challenges from the adult entertainment world. Two lawsuits, For the People Theaters v. City and Ten’s Cabaret v. City, challenged the new definitions. These suits were brought forth on behalf of a coalition of adult venues by a lawyer named Herald Price Fahringer, now in his 70s. Though he never looks at pornography (and doesn’t drink or smoke either), Fahringer has been representing individuals and organizations accused of lewd behavior since 1963—and he still is, from a small and tidy office on East 56th Street off Park Avenue.
Fahringer represented Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt during his famed obscenity trial in 1978, when Flynt and his local lawyer, Gene Reeves, Jr., survived an assassination attempt outside a Georgia courthouse. Fahringer, busy preparing his closing statement that day, had declined to accompany the pair outside to lunch.
“They told me to get out of town immediately, and had two State Troopers guarding me, but I insisted upon waiting for Larry to get out of critical condition,” Fahringer said in his office recently.
Born and raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Fahringer has a farmboy tone, with a slow cadence like Andy Griffith on “Matlock.” His voice is a bit raspy, but soothing still. He would seem the perfect narrator to tell bedtime stories to children.
“The driving force here is the First Amendment,” he added. “People who do not like this material, do not enjoy it, the simple answer is they don’t have to go into the stores to buy it and see it. Those who do want these materials should have them available.”
Led by Fahringer, the adult world won once again. In October 2003, the State Supreme Court ruled the 2001 amendments unconstitutional because, as Justice Louis B. York wrote, “the City did not do a new study to determine whether the so-called 60-40 establishments have an adverse secondary impact on their neighborhoods.”
The tide turned once again in 2005, when an appeals court ruled in favor of the city, but later that year, the Court of Appeals reversed its grant of judgment and sent the matter back to Justice York. (If nothing else, learning about this situation makes you extremely glad that you rejected your mother’s advice that you become a lawyer.)
At the subsequent trial, the City successfully proved that despite compliance with the 60/40 formula, these “adult” businesses continued to emphasize and promote sexually explicit entertainment. Then, as expected, the pro-porno forces appealed the decision.
Justice York, who, surprisingly, had not yet died of boredom or checked himself in to an insane asylum, was assigned to further analyze the cases. It was 2011—the latest legal battle had dragged on for nearly a decade.
On August 30 of this year, the judgment came down in flavor of the plaintiff, a.k.a. the porn-lobby.
The City will, of course, appeal, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the pro-porno legal teams threw a party to celebrate another ten years of fee collection.
* * *
And that’s why I’m here today, on a late Wednesday afternoon, perusing the aisles of Gotham City.
The interior, with its neat rows of DVDs, could be a suburban public library, or the Blockbuster Video that long ago closed—may it rest in peace—minus the cotton candy and microwavable popcorn. Yet, this retail area is one hundred percent pornographic in nature. There’s a smattering of sex toys, but mostly DVDs to suit a plethora of tastes: classics like “Antique Erotica: Number Five”; regional specialties like “Kamikaze Sluts”; and feral flicks such as “Beast Women.”
If you can dream it up, chances are it will attract a loyal fan base, especially in a city of eight million. And not only will people like it, they’ll pay a lot for it—between $19.99 and $34.99 for a film that can most certainly be found cheaper, or free, in that place that has become the porno viewer’s not-so-new best friend—the Internet.
As I take my first lap around Gotham City, a guy sitting on a folding chair, his eyes nearly invisible beneath a flat-brimmed Yankees hat, turns to me and says, “Private viewings back here. We got 6,000 videos.” I learn that this man is the utility infielder of the establishment: equal parts bouncer, janitor and salesman, but he refers to himself as a “porter.” Having worked at Gotham City since 2005, I imagine that Gus (not his real name) is the right person to answer my important question: with these DVD prices so high, why on earth would anyone buy them?
His answer is simple: usually, they don’t. “Follow me,” says Gus. If the front room DVDs are rated G on the pornography scale, we’re now heading to the PG-13 section, where, in a back room, there are half-a-dozen booths with a pair of flat-screen TVs and a bench inside each. They may look like phone booths but, simply put, they’re the jack-off closets.
Positioned around the main room are even larger televisions that feature little snippets of porno films, along with their corresponding catalog numbers. The idea is that if a person walks back here to peruse and sees something he likes on screen, he can enter a booth, throw a single dollar bill into a cash collector, and then watch the film of his choice on one or both of the flat-screen TVs. The going rate is $1 for three minutes of film, the price of a crappy New York slice of pizza.
Gus sighs. “Usually, these guys come in here with a notebook and a pen, and they just write down the numbers of the films,” he says. “Then, they go home and find ‘em on the Internet for free. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.”
I ask Gus if he ever tries to stop the porno freeloaders, to police the porno as it were. “No,” he says flatly. “It’s not worth it.”
* * *
As for those “live girls” promised by Gotham City’s neon exterior, I know they’re up two more flights of stairs, because, soon, I’m watching the live (soon-to-be) nude girls on a television screen of their own. A CCTV camera shines on two of them wearing nothing but bras, lacy panties and plastic stilettos. They’re outside another block of black booths, typing away on their iPhones, chewing gum, and bopping their heads to beats that I can’t hear.
I wonder: In a day and age with more porn on the Internet than any one person can possibly devour in six thousand lifetimes (unscientifically speaking, of course), who patronizes this establishment? Better yet, who pays $40 to watch a naked woman dance and shake her breasts for five minutes on the other side of a Plexiglas window—and why? Perhaps it’s the same reason people support the musicians’ unions every time a Broadway show threatens to use a pre-recorded soundtrack in place of a fifteen-piece orchestra: there is something lovely and authentic, nostalgic and cool about a custom performance filled with nuances and screw-ups, imperfections and surprises. You know it’s going to be something special that will never happen again.
Gus grew up in the Bronx and started coming to Gotham City in 1991, when he was in high school. He fondly recalls how cheap it was to see live nude girls back then, ostensibly due to pre-Giuliani competition that no longer exists. The girls, though, haven’t gone anywhere, and Gus encourages me to head on upstairs to see for myself, adding, “Talk to Nicole. She’s been around here for years and she’ll tell you everything.”
I climb one set of stairs, and pass through a mirror-walled room that looks something like a Marshall’s lingerie department blended with one of those pop-up Ricky’s Halloween stores. There is overly kitschy lingerie, and two piles of plastic, red and black stilettos on a clearance table, no sizes marked.
I climb a second set of stairs, and arrive in a room with disco balls that hang glumly from the ceiling. There are four booths for peeping, with a red velvet curtain that must serve as a changing room dividing them in half. And there are the two girls I observed via CCTV. They immediately perk up, transforming instantly into seduction mode. They pull their butts off their stools and stand upright, fingers curling inward as they invite me for a show.
The girls are not, as they would be in Amsterdam’s red light district, behind any sort of glass. They’re waiting there in front of me, live and practically nude, with the peep-cabana-Plexiglas behind them. (When a guy takes the bait, they retreat behind the plastic barrier and dance from there.)
I can’t help but look them up and down, even though I convince myself that a woman who sells her body could never arouse me. I ask which one of them is Nicole, and the group points toward a row of bookshelves, like stacks at a university library, located up a single step. Suddenly, there’s a rustle from back there, and a tanned, fortyish woman with faux-blonde, shoulder-length hair appears. She’s sporting only a pink bra and corresponding bottom as she steps toward me in the same black stilettos I saw in that plastic heap downstairs. I immediately notice a tattoo that half protrudes out of her left bra cup, revealing the top half of someone’s name and date of death, which I think reads 2003. I genuinely wonder who this person is; Nicole had this name etched directly above her heart.
When she asks what I want, I break it down quickly and honestly. I’m researching the decadent decline of the formerly grungy Times Square district, I say. She tells me she’d be happy to talk, that she’s been working places like Gotham City for seventeen years, an old hand by this business’s standards.
From the way she talks to me—telling me just what I want to hear—it’s clear that Nicole knows every trick of the trade. She’s trying to seduce me into parting with my dollar.
Nicole complains about the hatchet job by Sheila McClear, now a New York Post reporter, who she says stripped for a couple of weeks and in 2011 published a book, “The Last of the Live Nude Girls.” Nicole wants to give me a more nuanced look, the “real story” about what life’s like here.
Suddenly, she reaches into some unseen part of her frilly underwear and pulls out a large and clunky Android, fumbling through the address book so we can exchange contact information. That she’s agreed to an off-site interview so quickly is miraculous, even though she repeatedly says that I shouldn’t be here talking to her now, that management wouldn’t approve.
She asks me for my last name, noting that there are already other Stephens—clients—in her phone book. Moments later I receive an e-mail with a subject line that says, “Young lady from 43,” a reference to Gotham City’s location at the intersection of 43rd Street, with nothing in the body of the message. (A practically naked e-mail from a practically naked woman.)
I’m about to start prying her with questions, when suddenly, up the stairs comes a hobbling septuagenarian wearing a brown suit, the sport jacket open to reveal his too-short-tie and pants pulled high above his belly button. This style was last in vogue in the 70s. I wonder why the hipsters on the L train haven’t started dressing like this yet.
“That’s one of the other Stephens,” Nicole tells me, and immediately flutters over to him.
I try not to think about whether or not this gentleman, who is using an umbrella as a cane— perhaps a work-hard, play-hard lawyer or tireless accountant—can even get it up. Nicole steps very close to the man, touching his arm ever so gently.
He whispers something in her ear about stockings. He’s fantasizing about whether he wants her in stripes or solids, and she eats it up, joking that she wants him to wear stockings. She’s got this routine on lockdown: they go back and forth about how they’ll go downstairs and pick out some pantyhose together, and talk about what the show will be like once she’s wearing them. I start thinking in marketing terms about “lifetime customer value” and figure this old fart is a walking goldmine for Nicole, so long as his ticker holds up.
Soon, a thirty-something man in a button-down, jeans, and an overstuffed messenger bag enters the room, quickly selects one of the other two women and beelines it into a viewing room. For him, the process really seems no different than if he were stepping into an airplane lavatory.
Meanwhile, Nicole and her septuagenarian have begun whispering to each other in such low voices that I can no longer make out what they’re saying. While there’s something sickly cute and comforting about this, it’s far sadder. I’m thankful he’s not my grandpa, and furthermore, I hope this isn’t me some day.
Within a few minutes, the thirty-something walks out. Must have been a quick show and an all-too-easy way to part with $40. Can one even masturbate, start to finish, in such a weird environment, in such a short amount of time? Or did he just get nervous and scram? I wonder, as Nicole follows senior citizen Stephen down the stairs, helping him the whole way.
On the other side of this room, where I’m temporarily left alone, is a library of sorts, filled with ever-so-random books whose titles advertise “Sales Manager’s Training and Coaching Kit,” “Driving Tours of Ireland,” and “Clinical Nursing Skills: Third Edition.” I’d bet my life that none of these books has been touched by a soul in decades. This is life under 60/40.
I want to look through this odd collection of books, but no sooner than I ascend the single step to get to this eclectic library, one of the live nude women looks up from her phone, and stops me.
“Why are there books here if I can’t check them out?” I plead.
“I don’t know, but you can’t touch them,” she says.
Down on the middle floor, Stephen and Nicole are shopping for lingerie like newlyweds on their honeymoon in Rome. Nicole eventually yells down to Gus for a specific pair of stockings. He finds them, and the odd couple returns, slowly, carefully, to the upper floor for the private show.
* * *
Days pass, then a week, and then two. Nicole does not respond to my repeated emails or a follow-up visit to Gotham City. So I head out to a second peep show, where another Gotham girl has told me that Nicole sometimes works. This place is different.
It’s a communal peep show, where men can walk up to private windows that all look out onto the same showroom when opened. It only takes a dollar for each curtain to open, so I walk up to a window, stick in a single bill, and then, like magic, the yellow window lifts. I’m looking at two semi-clothed women, who say, almost in unison, “So you want to do a show? Fifty bucks for both of us.”
“No,” I tell them. “but is Nicole here by chance?”
They shake their heads, and within a couple of seconds the window starts to close. Certainly the weirdest dollar I’ve ever spent.
So it’s back to Gotham City, where Gus starts talking to me like we’re family.
“Yo bro, I got a situation.”
I presume some hobo has locked himself inside a jack-off booth, but nope, not quite: Someone’s defecated all over the floors. Whodunnit and howdunit are the big unknowns.
But even though he’s a bit more frenetic than usual, Gus, with mop in hand, has surely seen crazier. “Your girl’s upstairs,” he says.
And there she is, standing opposite the staircase. Like clockwork, Nicole perks to life, cooing, “Hey baby,” and curling that finger to woo me closer while holding a Shake Shack milkshake in her other hand.
But then she realizes it’s me, and everything changes. Nicole whispers, loud enough so the other girls can hear.
“You can’t keep doing this hon. You can’t keep coming back here. You gotta go. Management’s gonna fire me. They’re watching. They know you’re a journalist. You gotta go. You. Gotta. Go.”
“But what about the interview you promised? I e-mailed three times.”
“I don’t know. I told you, I don’t check my e-mail much. We’ll see what happens, but ya’ gotta go.”
“I’m on deadline. I was counting on you. Is this happening or not?”
She shrugs her shoulders.
I pass Gus as I leave Gotham City for the last time. “Problems solved?” I ask of his fecal issues.
“Do you smell one of the problems? I’m trying to figure out where that came from.”
He rushes off.
* * *
Who knew “live girls” could be so elusive? I arrange to meet Sheila McClear, the stripper-turned-author-turned-New-York-Post-reporter at a “Postie” bar frequented by reporters in Midtown. I admit I didn’t read her book, so she tells me how it all began.
“I was already working in a strip club, at a sort of illegal one, as a stripper,” Sheila, who is now 31, recalls. “I saw the peep show, and that appealed to me because I wouldn’t really have to talk or interact with people that much.”
Prostitution, Sheila insists, never happens at the peep shows: “No, it wasn’t possible. You’re on one side and the guy’s on the other, and you’re being watched constantly by security guards. The management is so paranoid about that happening because they’d lose their license to operate and do anything. They’re so paranoid that they make sure nothing can happen.”
But the money was good. Back when Sheila was there, the base price was usually $30 per customer, and the girls would touch themselves for $40.
“A shift was six hours,” she says. “On a bad night I’d make $200, and on a good night, I’d make $350 to $400.”
“But what about your hourly wage?”
“None.” In fact, at one point a new policy stipulated that the girls had to start paying management $20 per shift. I say that even $200 in six hours is more than journalists are paid these days. Sheila laughs, acknowledging her pay cut, especially because it all used to be in cash.
As it turns out, Sheila has just today quit her job at the Post, and I can’t resist asking if there are any peep performances in her near future.
“I was just about to make that joke,” she says. “I do need a job, but no, I would not go back. I can’t really handle it psychologically. I drank every night. Some girls took pills and some girls took cocaine. Me and my friend, we drank beer every night, just to take the edge off.”
The other strippers, Sheila tells me, came from “the South Bronx, or a project in Chelsea or Queens. A lot of projects. A lot of lower-class or lower-middle class.”
“Eventually,” she goes on, “you’ll get someone coming in who’s like, running away from her husband in Florida, but she doesn’t usually stick around. Or someone like me who shows up from Michigan, and that makes me unusual.”
During her two years at the peeps, which she says felt like a lot longer, it was only in the final eight months that Sheila considered writing a book. “I was writing part of the time,” she says. “But the other part of the time it felt so consuming, and it’s really depressing.”
A common refrain among departing dancers was, “I didn’t know it would be like this,” Sheila tells me.
“Guys want you to be really young,” she says. “[Pretend like you’re] eleven. Or be like their daughter. Psychologically, that’s fucked up. I’m not gonna pretend to be their daughter.”
* * *
I leave the bar, get the heck out of Midtown, with its flashing “girls” signs that are dimming more and more with time. But I keep thinking about Gotham City and Nicole and Sheila and all the others. At the end of the day, peep shows, while seedy, seem generally harmless. The performers—at least the ones I talked to—say they’re working of their own volition, and that they’re making a decent living.
The not-in-my-backyard attitude is most certainly a factor in the plight of the peeps, but the odd, often perverse, pursuit of pleasure will never go away. And customers, like Stephen the septuagenarian, will find that sexual release they crave—whether at the “live girls” shows of Eighth Avenue or beyond, in a neighborhood near you. For now, though, the girls, packing their plastic heels and cheap lace, are here to stay. They’re waiting for you, and me, ready to seduce with a slow curl of one finger, while pocketing our dollar bills with the other nine.
* * *
Stephen Robert Morse is a journalist, producer, digital strategist, consultant, and entrepreneur based in New York.
Pearl Gabel is a freelance photographer and multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn.
Michael Premo is a multimedia storyteller and theater maker.