Peep Show (part two of five)

I discovered Times Square in its LIVE! NUDE! GIRLS! heyday late one night in my freshman year of college after a punk-rock show at Roseland Ballroom. I was walking through midtown with my jaded New Yorker friends (I was a recent arrival from upstate, still wide-eyed, just beginning to discover big-city splendors) when we passed by the peep shows on 42nd Street. I was riveted. Of course, there was no way I was going to admit, let alone indulge, my fascination in my friends’ company; it would’ve been uncool on so many levels. But after that night, at least once a week, I took a subway trip downtown and spent several guilty, anxious hours lurking outside peep show after peep show in the late autumn cold, furtively glancing at the windows and wanting badly to go inside, but always chickening out and heading back uptown to my safe college haven. What was I so afraid of? I can’t say exactly. That I’d be “sinning”? That I’d get caught? That I’d suddenly be sucked into a vortex of scantily clad women who’d scorn me and lure me into giving them all my work-study money only to disappoint me in the end? Something along those lines.

Finally one night I had a couple of beers, got up my nerve, and walked into Show World on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, the least seedy, most legit-looking of the porn-and-peeps emporiums. I remember fluorescent lights and magazines that showed actual penetration on their covers. It had the grotesque allure of a street fight or a car wreck. A flashing, multicolored arrow that read Live Show pointed upstairs.

I didn’t go upstairs that first day, but I did soon after, to the little peep-show windows like the ones in my story “Close.” That first incursion was both unsatisfying and achingly thrilling. I practically sprinted away afterward, repeating to myself, I’m a pig. I’m a bad, bad person. I will never, ever do that again. I’m a pig. I’m a bad, bad person — my secular-humanist Hail Mary.
I’ve been going back to peep shows more or less regularly ever since, for ten years in New York and another twelve in San Francisco. As the panic and shame faded (but of course never entirely disappeared, especially the shame), I slowly learned how to get what I wanted and needed from that world. The kind of peep-show performer I craved was hard to find. She had to be someone I found physically attractive, of course, but more important, she had to look me in the eye and appear to see me, to willingly accept my gaze, my confession.

The peep-show scenes in “Close” are meant to show how unhappy Henry is in his isolation, how badly he needs human contact, which he finally finds with a young museum patron. Though he evokes sympathy, Henry remains an objectifying, straight white male who jerks off daily to peep-show strippers. “Close” is the memoir of a man who could easily (if rashly) be labeled a misogynist, but who is meant to be seen as a pariah, a freak, the kind of person for whom porn and strippers serve a clearly ameliorative purpose. Henry’s interactions with Nadja lack any of the mortifying ambiguity of his other interactions with women, or people in general. He pays her; she gives him what he needs.

To this day, I have never caught my father checking out a woman. I’ve always known, somehow, that this isn’t from a lack of desire on his part, but rather an abundance of principle: it’s something you just don’t do. One time an attractive young woman working behind a shop counter was extremely friendly, even flirtatious with my dad (who bears a strong resemblance to Paul Newman), and, after we left the store, he said, “What a bright young woman.” The message, as I interpreted it, was that a woman had to be intelligent or interesting in some other nonphysical way for a man to like her, and only after she’d been well appreciated as a fellow human being could she be — maybe, someday — physically desired. Never objectified, of course, but desired. Though I don’t think my father overtly tried to teach me this lesson, I learned it nonetheless.

I never imagined that my dad would ever let himself think, let alone say, Wow, those are some sexy eyes, or, heaven forbid, What a rack on that broad. Part of me is proud of him and wants to follow his example. Another part likes to believe that he can leer and fantasize with the best of us, or perhaps the worst of us. Most importantly, with me.

Back in my peep-show youth, at New York’s seedier venues, the small booth windows were glassless, and patrons were strongly encouraged to reach through and touch the dancers for a small fee. These women didn’t actually dance. They sat naked in chairs on the stage, looking preternaturally bored, barely able to muster the energy to mumble, “Tipping, honey?” in accents that ranged from the Bronx to Prague. If you said yes, she’d come over to your window. (The windows of several different booths would all open to the same raised stage.) “Up or down?” she’d ask. It cost more for down. At first I didn’t want to touch at all — hell, I didn’t even want to touch the booth’s doorknob — but the only way to get a stripper (they didn’t actually strip either; they were naked from the start) to come over to your window was to tip, and if you wanted to tip but not touch, well, that was considered weird.

At first I found the experience repulsive and dirty — some of the dancers would even wipe themselves with wetnaps after each customer — but I kept going back. It was another acquired taste, and I acquired it. I always went for “up,” so the woman would kneel down to my level, where I could hold a breast and, more important, look at her face. If I was lucky, she might look back.

Author: Masculinity and Its Discontents

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