Sodom and Gomorrah, Revisted

by

06/03/2006

221 W 42nd St, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

Every few years, on the front page of the Times, a plan is announced by a consortium of merchants and industrialists and bankers to transform Forty-second Street into a squeaky-clean thoroughfare. One recent proposal calls for glass-enclosed atriums (the Ford Foundation, sponsoring the project, is big on Atriums), “bridges crisscrossing 42nd Street, and escalators moving through a complex set of spaces making up the display area,” which would include “a ride that would simulate movement through the layers of a slice of New York from underground to a skyscraper-top.” They are also getting smarter: they are not going to knock down all the movie houses, just the less “historical” ones, and then turn those allowed to survive into what the planners genteelly term “legitimate playhouses” a throwback to the old prejudice that Theater was the more respectable art, and Film the bastard).

Every time such an article appears my whole day is ruined. Because I think that if I ever get up the courage to marry and have a family, how will I be able to show my children Forty-second Street if there is no Forty-second Street? And if I lack the nerve and turn into a seedy old bachelor, then I will need Forty-second Street all the more, in those golden waning years.

All of Manhattan tilts towards that magnetic field of neon. Ever tried ambling the streets of New York without any destination? I know that I am pulled toward that glittering needle – at first into the triangle around Times Square, with the three-card-monte sharks and the Bible screamers and the sad-eyed camera stores bobbing me around until I wind up on the street, West Forty-second, between Seventh and Eight avenues. then I don’t know where to start to turn my head and look. Heaven for a film lover is ten marquees that change bills every day. Forty-second street comes close.

It was here I used to rush to at eleven in the morning, cutting classes in college to see Rules of the Game with my legs dangling over the Apollo balcony. And here I caught up with the flicks that opened and closed fast and nobody else would show: with the last great Westerns of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, with Otto Preminger’s melodramas, like Hurry Sundown and In Harm’s Way. And the show in the balcony was as interesting as the one on the screen. First you saw concessionaires hawking ice cream and caramel popcorn in between (and sometimes during) films, those sad sacks in white Good Humor uniforms climbing up the balcoy steps; then the reefers would be passed around in back, along with criticism of the characters: “That girl is dumb !” ” Why don’t she just get out of there?” (This during a scene with a psychotic killer stalking a coed, what could be better?) The chorus in the audience started directing advice and taunts – “You better run, girl! I wouldn’t stay in that house by myself, that’s for damn sure.”

Meanwhile some vagrant in the pit was snoring too louddly, having come into the theatre only to escape the cold and rainy street, and was two-thirds through is second double-bill with his head between his knees as an usher approached and rudely shook him awake. Shortly after, a fight would start between pit and balcony, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, because some joker from on high had been throwing popcorn at the patrons below. All manner of threats were exchanged. Then someone tossed lit cigarettes from the balcony, each one a dying firecracker, drawing the attention of everyone in the theatre. Meanwhile, the glories of late Hollywood-studio auteur style, outdoor night sequences in bluish black with just a few klieg highlights, tracking shots around corrals, men in white sheets, Jane Fonda making love to a saxophone, who can figure out what’s going on? “Shut up!” someone yelled. It turned out to be me. I was appalled at myself and sank deepr into my seat. What a way to see a movie!

All that’s changed, you’ll say; I’m just being sentimental. The Apollo stopped showing art films years ago and now it’s kung fu and sex from one end of the street to the other. Or as the article puts it, “violent or pornographic movies.” But you knew, even if I never walked into another Fort-second Street movie house again , which is highly unlikely, it would still do me good to take in the street periodially for health reasons, like a sauna. Such concentrated steaminess. Do planners know how hard it is to achieve a visual clutter so extreme that it makes the simple traversal of one city block as adventurous as running a gauntlet? Sure, there are hustlers, thieves, prostitutes, cripples, derelicts, winos, molesters, droolers, acosters – I’m not denying it . Would you prefer to cement over the whole beehive with a dipsy-doodle exhibition hall and kick out those people so they’ll congregate on another block and make a new heaven and hell somewhere else, maybe not as bright and never as satisfyingly central?

The politics of such civil plans are transparent. What’s objected to here is not movie houses and pinball parlors but the people who go into them, who are the wrong class and the wrong color. No need to dwell on the racism and antagonism to down-and-out poor people that is the real message behind urgent appeals to “clean up” Times Square. But I wonder if this city knows how lucky it is to have a raunchy street so famous and so densely compacted. We are told that tourists can ride escalators in the new Forty-second Street and visit a gallery with an object or two on loan from each of the city museums; whoopee-do. Don’t they know that tourists, even the straightest, come to New York City partly because they’ve heard that we’ve got a real Sodom and Gomorrah? They want to see something that they can go back home and tell their neighbors was “dis-gusting! I mean – vermin!” Not that I see it that way, but it’s nice to know that people who feel that way can go to a place and be shocked by it every time.

I remember taking my then mother-in-law from out of town on a tour of New York City. She was very proper, and I wanted to protect her sensibilities – I was much youner then – so when we were within sight of that dangerous street I turned westward a block early. Imagine her disappointment as I took her down Forty-third Street, by the esteemed grey New York Times headquarters. Nohing but loading trucks and offices.

Supposing, though, that I had taken her on a tour of the strip – or, to leave my ex-mother in law out of it, supposing for purposes of this essay that we not evade the issue, but go into the topless bars and massage parlors, porno movies and bookstalls. I don’t pretend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these dens, but as an occasional imbiber, I will be happy to pass on what I know, in the interests of social science.

Stand outside any pornographic move theater in a large city on a quiet afternoon, and watch who goes in. You will probably see a smattering of old men, widowers and inactive pensioners; some young blacks and hispanics, mostly unemployed; a core of neatly dressed manual and clerial workers, black and white (the pornography parlor being one of our few models of racial integration); and a small number of middle-class businessmen.

Why do men go to to pornography shows? The most obvious answer is that they are looking for a sexual satisfaction that is missing in their own lives. It is safe to say that the majority of people in this country, single or maried, do not have happy sex lives. In lieu of the real thing many will accept images, experiences once removed.

The patrons of pornography may be divided into two types: occasional and regular. The occasional customer may approach pornogrphy as an annual cleansing of the senses. Some unhappily married men use it as a kind of mental adultery; others may even be happily married or involved with someone, but feel the need from time to time to check into the Hotel of Erotic Dreams, to see what they have been missing. (Not always does pornography win out over real life; the man may run home to his wife or love with a new sense of how lucky he is.) There are also inexperienced young men who look to pronography for education. If it implants false or, as the antipornography groups say, with some justice “perverted” notions of sexuality, it also conveys demonstrations of a range lovemaking possibilities – assuming, as marriage manuals have done, a teachng function that the society is too prudish to undertake.

However, the novice, the married man on moral holiday or the bachelor aesthete like me are all marginal. The industry would die on its feet if they had to rely on these occasional clients. What keeps pornography alive are the repeaters. The look they give as they approach the movie ticket-taker and slip five dollars across the booth opening is that of a pinched lab rat who has finally spotted a straight run of several hours within the maze. They are looking for mental space as much as for Eros.

Once inside, they take their seats quietly in the darkened hall (they are the most docile of spetators, and the most solitary) with as much seat and row distance as possible from other spectators. Very rarely do they venture a brotherly word to their neighbor. Each is there to be swept away in the great flood.

Men go to pornography for excitement, but also, I think, to be put in touch with their sadness. They know that before the experiene is over, the connection between their own desire and the lusty bodies dangled before them will have been missed. Elegiac is the mood that often settles on a pornography audience. They go in search of something they don’t have, that they half remember perhaps having had. The aged hero in Kawabata’s novelThe House of Sleeping Beauties is overtaken by sensual memories and regrets while contemplating the sleeping form of a young woman, in a brothel for men too old to do anything else. So the watchers of pornography often seem to be using the spectacle before them as a meditation screen from which to contemplate the missed opportunities of a lifetime. All the bodies in a film are as good as “asleep” in the sense that they cannot be roused to respond to us. Even when the entertainment is live, the convention that the performer herself cannot be made love to means that, for all the provocative come-ons of the artiste, the customer must remain as though in a stupor, interpreting but not interacting. At most, he may touch himself, but not the other. This is the essential pathos behind all pornographic spectacle.

Some people have objected to the fact that these pornograpy parlors are “nothing more than masturbation halls.” An Equal Times expose reports that there are naked women dancing in the peep show ‘carousel’ or performing ‘live lesbian sex’ on stage while men jerk off and the janitor comes around time and time again with the Lysol bucket.” Is there something wrong with masturbation? Would it have been better not to use the Lysol?

The problem cannot be that customers are wrong to masturbate in public places, since everyone knows that these particular public places are employed for that purpose, and decent citizens need not go there in the first place. The only thing these men can be faulted for is not having strong enough imaginations to produce erotic images on their own, so they could jerk off at home and save some money.

No, I will be told, the objection is not that they are masturbating, but that they are masturbating off of women exploited as sexual objects.

Let us ask first who is being exploited. The woman on the film is certainly undisturbed by the jets of sperm her beauty has insired. She contracted to do the films months ago. When the entertainment is live, the performer may indeed feel grossed out by some of her male customers responses, but it is a job she chose, and if she quits there will be many others to take her place. The job may be horrible, or it may be like any other job, depending on the performer’s point of view; in either case, the antiporn forces are not in the business of organizing female workers in the pornography industry to improve their conditions. No, their concern is not so much with the exploitation of the particular woman performing the simulated (or real) sex act, but with collective womanhood, all of whom are claimed to be affected by the reproduction of degraded images of females as sex objects.

There is much to be said for and against this argument. Better polemicists than I have got their feet stuck in these bear traps, and I suspect that I would not be any more succesful at disentangling the justice and logic on both sides. Feminists themselves are divided on these issues. On the one hand, the injustice and pain caused by sexual roles in our society merit angry opposition. On the other hand, there is a case for the defense of imagination, however barbaric. There are the rights of communities to set standards of decency, versus rights of minorities to seek private pleasures; the understandable desire of parents to control the intake of the young, balanced against the protection of free speech; the intuitive connection felt by many between pornography and violent crimes against women, and the lack of hard evidence to support this hypothesis. Finally, there is the pragmatic question: Is it practical to wage war against pornography, knowing that it will probably always be with us? What would you propose in it’s stead?

I confess I myself see nothing terribly wrong with pornography; but then, I have never felt myelf victimized by it. I would only question, from the discredited (and hitherto largely ignored) standpoint of the pornography customer, whether the stuff is being accurately described in the first place.

For instance, regarding the matter of sex objects, it needs to be pointed out that men no less than women have shallow, thinglike personalities in pornographic presentaions. There is precious little characterizations of a novelistic sort in pornography. Part of the promise of pornography is that people can engage in pleasure without having to deal with each other’s personalities. In such an arena, where there are no dramatis personae, only nerve ends receptive to pleasure, one could as easily say about the perfornmers that, rather than being reduced to sexual objects, they have been elevated into embodiments of the physical life, like dancers. Everything personal has been extinguished, except during the minimal “frame” establishing a situation, the scant dues paid to narrative. With pornography at its purest – the loop – even the remotest suggestion of a story is removed and we are left with a continuosuly repeating reel of sex acts. All pornography follows, like Schnitzler’s Ronde , a circular form. Its theatrical paraphernalia – The G-strings, the whips, the dildos, the boas – belong to a spectacle inherently repetitious.

Pornography is a sort of utopian kingdom, where the women are always ready and the men are always hard and they go at it for what seems like forever, and when they come they don’t need to rest, they start again with someone else; and so they spend their lives screwing and have no worries about money or leaking radiators or family illnesses. Gone are psychological scars, fears of not impressing the other, needs for special treatment. There is no rejection in this utopia, no “He’s not my type” or She’s too bland” or “I don’t think he’s intelligent enough for me.” Everyone else will do. No sooner met than made. Pornography transcends all of life’s hesitations and doubts.

A milkman rings the doorbell and is met by a housewife in a negligee. She offers him a cup of cofee, the milk “accidently” spills on her, she runs into a kitchen to wash off her slip, he peeks at her naked breast through the doorway, she sees him staring and gives him a look of indignation that slides irresistibly into melting hunger. The next moment they are in the bedroom (oh, those sudden transitions of lowered resistance – you keep thinking you must have missed something), and the rest is – unmemorable.

Most pornography shows consist of what the trade calls “sucking and fucking.” To watch people going at these activities for any length of time is numbing experience. At first one is titillated, then aroused, maybe even stirred, excited, at the edge of one’s seat. Then the effect wears off. If pornography is a timeless world freed from social responsibilities, it is also a static one. The problem it has faced as entertainment is how to build interest. The progression may go from a blow job to straight intercourse to lesbian sex to a threesome to an orgy or whatever, but the attempt to create an ascending curve of sexual stimulation will usually not keep up with the descending curve of involvement. The last scenes are generally anticlimactic, in more ways than one. Here the physiology of male arousal and pornographic spectacle may be at odds. The first close-up of genitals and penetartion can be rapturous; by the tenth one feels as though one were taking a turkey-basting course.

It may be the nature of all utopias to be boring. But I am convinced that pornography is meant to be boring. Men bring to it their painfully aroused libidos in the hope not only that they will be turned on but that they will be turned off. Not enough has been made of pornography as a depressant and an anti-aphrodisiac. The thoughtful, slugged look in the eyes of customers leaving such exhibitions shows that they have indeed rid themselves of some of their annoying sexual energy. For some of these men it is a way of looking the devil of satisfied sexual desire in the face and outstaring it, the reward for which is a hard-won indifference.

Not only is the stylized picture of sexuality represented in pornography unreal, but I would argue that those who frequent it know it is unreal. Pornography is like science fiction about a planet on which nothing can grow or develop because nothing important is at risk. The orgasm? It would be inappropriate to apply a Maileresque search for bigger and better orgasma to this more standardless, unteleological planet. The orgasms in pornography are not graded, they are simply presented matter-of-factly in rough interchangeable sequence. Since there are no sexual dysfunctions that we are allowed to see, no failures to lubricate or premature ejaculations (“cut! Take two!”), the sense of vulnerability and uniqueness in sexual comunion is lost, which is perhaps why D.H. Lawrence hated pornography. There is nothing at stake. One watches it, like a slow baseball game between two teams already eliminated from the pennant race, for a moment of awkward surprise.

In many ways, the experience of pornography resembles dream life. Both place us before a stream of images in which the normal laws of social reality are suspended. No sooner desire a thing than it begins to occur. Taboos of incest, class, color, age, gender, number, genus and species fall with a fluttering fluidity. All that has been repressed pops out. It is not surprising that hostility and violence also make their appearance; but as in dreams, they are only part of what happens, not the whole. As with dreams, too, the pornography watcher suspends criteria of quality, kowing that there will be a great deal of dross for every moment of magic.

To try to separate the broad stream of pornography into good and bad is a little like attempting to screen out uninteresting from interesting dreams, pleasant from horrible ones. That is why I think the effort to defend pornography by pointing to legitimate specmens of erotic art is misguided. As soon as the style becomes too brilliant it ceases to be pornography; it becomes “literature” or “art cinema.” Pornography may be a sort of art-making activity too, but the sublimity that it does momentarily attain is never far from its sludgelike mediocrity. And it is this very mediocrity from which it draws its secret energy.

I don’t want to leave this subject before reporting one final experience: a visit to a topless-bottomless bar. One night, in a benign mood, rounding out a pleasant evening with my older brother, I had suggested we stop in one of the clip joints on Eighth Avenue and Forty-second Street. It was a sort of long-delayed rite of whoring together, something we had never had the courage to do while growing up; and I knew it would go no further this night than sitting at a bar being soaked for expensive drinks, which is essentiallly what happened, and staring at some female flesh. I expected to be dissapointed; but it is in the nature of such ventures into the underworld that you want to know, in what way will I be dissapointed?

It was a small, surly room, much like an off-off-Broadway theater between productions, perhaps because of the unfinished wooden flats used for dance platforms and the uncertain lighting. On one platform stood a young woman, completely naked, scratching her nose. She looked a sthough she had just stepped out of a bath and was trying to remember where she had put her glasses. From time to time she would remember to sway vaguely to the beat of the disco music, but mostly she just stood there like a figure model waiting to be told it was time to take a break.

She was a mildly pretty brunette with a ski-jump nose and slavic feautures, and I imagined her growing up in one of those goulash-and-paprika restaurants in the east Eighties, where everyone spoke Magyar and the middle-aged men with thinning hair got dressed up on Sundays and told jokes to her chubby mother, who worked the espresso machine, and once a year they all went on a boat ride.

On the other platform, a black woman was shaking for all she was worth, definitely earning her salary. She did an odd trick, which was to put her fingers by her crotch and snap them as if igniting a match – a metaphor. She tried winking and talking sexy to the deadbeat cusomers, but they – we – were like lobotomy cases with blue stigmata of electroshock on our foreheads.

Crossing in front of her, a much more haggard woman with a see-through nightie and battle-scarred face and bony legs approached us at the bar and asked if we would buy her a drink, “for thirty dollars.” We could drink it “inside” if we liked and have some fun. We declined and she went on to another customer.

At a table near the door, the manager (or was he the bouncer?), a heavyset man round like a bowling ball in a shiny black suit, was talking to another man about something he had in his eye. He lowered the skin under his eyelid and showed the other man – a boil or sty. Then, oblivious to the black woman, who was shaking her lips and trying to maintain at least some semblance of erotic illusion, he got up on the same platform, standing with his back to the audience, to use the tall mirror behind her. He worried his eyelid this way and that, trying to see himself in the dim mirror light. “See, it’s all red,” he called over to his friend. “I told you it was swollen!”

The man with the carbuncle sharing the platform with the topless dancer was that intrusion of the mundane into the lewd that always strikes me as the essence of Forty-second Street. I don’t find it dehumanizing, but rather, all too human. It depends on what your definition of human is.

1980

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