January 5, 2012 11:36:00 AM
Times Square in New York City is not what it used to be just a few years ago. Even under the strictness of Mayor Giuliani's anti-porn drive starting in 1999, though, there were still peep shows, places where a guy could pay some money and watch a naked woman behind a window. Peeps shows are still there. To them in 2006 came Sheila McClear, a college graduate who fled a punk collective in Detroit and just wanted to see New York. Her experiences in the booths, the guys on the other side of the window, the women she worked with, and the men she worked for are all subjects in The Last of the Live Nude Girls: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press). McClear thus joins the memoirists of the sex trade like Lily Burana and Diablo Cody, but her experiences in New York are unique, and she recalls them with clarity and even sweetness, a becoming objectivity (perhaps borne of that glass shield between herself and the outside world), and good humor, and also without a shred of judgmentality. This is hardly an uplifting account, but is superb as readable memories of a time, place, and shared activity that are worth preserving.
McClear had majored in costume design, and set out from Detroit's decay to work on costumes for the Classical Theatre of Harlem. The job was temporary and so were her lodgings; when her father learned what sort of flophouse she was living in, he advised her (the one example of paternal advice in the book), "Shove your wallet down the front of your pants. That's what we used to do in the army." She looked to be a barista or waitress, but those jobs didn't pan out, and then she was a telemarketer for less than a day. With zero money and zero prospects, she answered a Craigslist ad for dancers. "Being a stripper was pretty much the last thing I could imagine myself capable of doing. I was terribly shy and awkward. I still felt hopelessly behind when it came to sex, or dating, or even socializing. I was a wallflower and a late bloomer... I watched and waited." She was hired to do lap dances, and could not manage it. "I couldn't perform the socializing required for this job, the endless conversations that the club's well-off but socially inept clientele required you to entertain them with" before the actual sale of a dance. "They needed their egos to be puffed up and stroked first, and I couldn't do it. My own nervousness made other people nervous."
It was easier, then, to get in the box at the peep shows. The deal is, there is the woman in a closet-sized booth with a big glass window. There are curtains or other devices to obscure the view from the customer until he pays. Send money through the slot and the curtain gets raised for a few minutes. "My survival was based on hustling, convincing the neon-overdosed tourists and curious college boys and ghetto kids from the Bronx and Mexican laborers and guilt-ridden street preachers - plus the natives, the sundry damaged goods of Times Square - to pay $35 to watch me take my clothes off, with the bare minimum of enthusiasm, behind glass." On the other side, the guy does whatever he wants, which is usually to masturbate. There are microphones and speakers for two way communication, so that the guy can request particular activities, but the dreaded "socializing" was not something she ever had to put up with again.
There are other girls, quirky, silly, and sad, all of whom are doing their best to get by in this extraordinarily strange career. Many of them invest in artificially enhanced bodies, and they get paid better that way. McClear learns for herself that wearing a blonde wig increases profits. The girls develop tough emotional barriers to keep others away; there were some friendships, but by the time her peepland adventure was over, there was only one other fellow worker that McClear kept up with. When they moved on, they simply disappeared, and they were unlikely to have left any way for those remaining to find out what happened. McClear did her share of drinking to get through her shifts, and others did drugs which seem to have been easily available. "Real life in the peep show consisted of waiting, sitting around for customers while slowly losing your mind." Not only that, but it was never erotic. "I never felt sexual. I felt like I was working at a hospital or a nursing home or a factory where they have those big slabs of meat."
It was not all so bleak. McClear's book is shot through with funny writing, and funny stories. A man came in, for instance, and asked to see both her and her friend Ruby, together, specifying, "And will you, um, fight? You know, call each other a bitch and stuff?" The customer is always right; Ruby asks McClear, "Your booth or mine?" and then in mock anger yells at her from coming into her booth. They call each other names, but both of them were trying not to laugh. McClear was delighted when the window went dark and the "exhausting awkward improvising" was finally over. And yes, it might have been awkward, but the customer got off on it. There was the time when they were watching the video monitors that showed the customers browsing in the sex shop below "so we could get on the mike and entice them to climb three flights to see some live, nude, tired girls." They were astonished to see a man pushing a stroller through the aisles as he looked through the porn videos. The man eventually took off his jacket and covered the baby's head, "So it couldn't see the pornographic video covers or the wall of dildos and vibrators?" wonders McClear. Eventually the girls called the attention of the supervisors to the attentive father, and even the supervisors were outraged, but he wandered out before he could be ejected in shame. Another funny theme is that of the European tourists who wander in. "'I am disappointed in New York,' one said. Every European tourist said this in regard to our flesh trade when they learned that prostitution wasn't legal. 'People told us it was supposed to be so wild! I don't see that.'"
There are stories here about the management, and about the guys with their mops, Lysol, and bleach that are in charge of cleaning up all the lost bodily fluids. McClear is bemused one Christmas: "The guys who worked in the store had thoughtfully hung sparkly candy-cane ornaments from the top of each of our booths. I wasn't sure whether to be touched or deeply disturbed." There are stories about trying to maintain some sort of real social life. In a club she nearly trips over something like a duffel bag. "I looked down; it was Kevin Carpet. Kevin was either a man with a serious fetish, or some sort of performance artist, or both. He could be found at any number of downtown bars and clubs, his entire body rolled up into a carpet underneath the bar, where people - girls, mostly - stood on him while getting a drink. He liked it when they jumped up and down on him in their high heels."
She left the peeps and went into journalism, and this is her first book. Toward the end of her stay, she says, "I realized that things never changed in this world. I could hop from city to city and from club to club, but there was no geographic cure, and no upward trajectory or arc or hope for the future. There was simply the grind, and the money. There would be $500 nights and $50 nights." By the time her spell in the booths ends, McClear has survived and come out stronger and more curious about her fellow creatures. She makes clear she still has awkwardness and reserve: "Stripping hadn't cured that." Her unique experiences are written with amusement and melancholy, and as with any good memoir, the reader is likely to feel grateful at her generosity in sharing it all with us.