Before Mayor Giuliani went on his rampage against sex shops in New York, brutally reducing their number from 144 to 142, Times Square was a paradise of sleaze, a carnival of smut, a festival of naughty, naughty boys and girls. It was the greatest place in the world to spend a weekend if you were drunk, and if you weren’t, it was the greatest place in the world to get drunk and spend a weekend. How do I know all this, you might be asking? Well, I will tell you.
I spent most of the 1970s as a tabloid reporter, and my beat was midtown Manhattan. I have memories, fond, dark, memories of smack and alleys and a never-ending beat box called freedom. Those were the times when the times were good, when you could buy The New York Times for a quarter and spend your time having the time of your life and still be home in time for dinner. Those were some glorious times, the times I spent in Times Square. Let me share them with you now in the spirit of sharing. Let me don that fur coat I used to wear without fear of political reprisal. Let’s you and me get it on, Times-Square-style.
At the corner of 42nd and 5th Avenue, there was a dwarf. We called him Stewart the Dwarf, because that’s what he was. Stewart juggled sex toys. Dildos were his specialty. He could hoist a dozen dildos into the air at once, and keep them up there, all the while spraying the crowd with an array of snappy patter. It went something like this: “Hey yo dildos, juggling dildos, up in the air, dildos dildos.” My newsroom buddies and I could watch Stewart for hours. At around 6 PM, he would break out the fruit-flavored creams, ooze them onto his arms and begin juggling whips, which he intermittently cracked at passers-by. He had a makeshift leather sling that he hung between newspaper boxes, and he’d swing there, making balloon animals out of condoms, handing them to frightened children. Occasionally, the police would arrest him on some trumped-up vice charge, but the next day, Stewart would be on the sidewalk again, juggling. “Billy Barty bailed me out,” he’d say, and we’d laugh and laugh.
I knew a prostitute who went by the name Tristan Isolde. She was a real dish, and a lady to boot. One summer, she cut a deal with the guy who ran TKTS and he let her work the booth on alternate Thursdays. For $35, she offered a mezzanine seat for Annie and two hours at the Chelsea Hotel. Fifty clams got you a balcony seat for The Tap Dance Kid and a three-way at Port Authority. For $100, she would perform the entire soundtrack of Dreamgirls in a bathtub, complete with Nell Carter mask. I was partial to her Mummenschanz special, for obvious reasons. One night a couple of years ago, I ran into her at a roast-pork joint on the Lower East Side. She’d been working as a legal secretary, she told me, and was married now, with a kid. “It wasn’t the same after Miss Saigon,” she said. “Suddenly, being a prostitute wasn’t cool anymore.” I sighed and gazed into my rice and beans, thinking, Andrew Lloyd Webber ruined everything.
The Neon Ass, a gay nightclub on 43rd Street, had its special charms. With your $10 admission fee, you received a gram of fine-grade Peruvian cocaine, a gigolo, a basket of joints, and a choice of flavored PCPs. From there, you can only guess what happened, but I can tell you that it was pretty hot. Your actions had no consequences, and it felt like the song would go on forever.
Sometimes, if it was late at night and I was hopped up on greenies, I’d run into a pimp I knew named Lucky Wilbur. In clothing and bone structure, he greatly resembled Antonio Fargas from Starsky and Hutch, only his behavior was far less stereotypical. This may have been because Wilbur traded only in household pets, and not for sexual purposes. “Just around the corner, there’s a real fine basset hound for you,” he said the first time we met. “Name of Lyman. A hundred bucks for the weekend, and he won’t pee on your slippers.” I would usually say no to Wilbur, but occasionally I would wake on a gin-soaked morning and find a Cocker curled next to me, or a Persian scratching the leg of my dresser. “I got some of the nicest pussies in town,” Wilbur would say. “You can pet them and pet them and they will never get tired and always be your friend, and they love to play with your balls.” He didn’t have much of an ear for euphemism, no matter how obvious.
When I walk past the Disney Stores and the theme restaurants and all the happy families these days, I have to sigh, mostly because I now have a severe respiratory disorder. The memories come flooding back to me, like floods do when you remember them, and I recall all the strippers, whores, junkies and perverts I knew back in the day. Some of them are in the pen now, others in the suburbs. One, who shall remain nameless, is a Congressman from Virginia. But mostly, they are ghosts.
The other day, I swear I saw a dwarf out of the corner of my mind’s eye. I turned and shouted “Stewart!,” half expecting a dildo to fly past my head. But it was only a very short man. He was from Nebraska, and he was taking a photo of a statue of Matt Lauer. I felt very sad. The man walked away into the freshly scrubbed Times Square afternoon, and, after a coughing fit that lasted several minutes and nearly killed me, so, reluctantly, did I.