Show World Emporium was the beating heart or really, the throbbing clit of New York’s commercial sex center. I often interviewed the performers who worked there. On this day, I decided to join the labor force and be a booth baby.
To correspond with my appearance in Crime Scene: The Time Square Killer (streaming now on Netflix), I publish this article from my archives. It is a far less gruesome tale and more representative of my own experience and that of the people whom I encountered and interviewed. This story and much more will be included in my forthcoming memoir of the 1980’s.
In October 1982, I met Jared Rutter who was the editor of Adam, an adult magazine published in California. I had just begun my career in the world of pornography and I regaled him with stories of my adventures thus far. Jared interviewed me for Adam and advertised me on the cover as “The Sexiest Woman in New York.” I was so pleased with the intelligent yet outrageous tone of his interview that I proposed I be Adam magazine’s East Coast correspondent. Thus began “Veronica Vera’s New York”–my license to explore the sex life of the City for a dozen years. The column not only documented the demimonde, it was a chronicle of my life.
I reported on the people, places and events involved in adult entertainment and erotic art. I usually made myself part of the story, not an outsider. I was the star of a continuing movie in which I wrote all my own lines. Often, and especially at first, I found different photographers to illustrate my articles, or I took the photos myself. But the most fun and the best photos happened when Annie Sprinkle and I worked together. My best friend, Annie, had a great eye that complemented my take on the scene.
On one occasion, we went on the road to document an adult video trade show in New Jersey, and were accompanied by rock performer and memoirist Jennifer Blowdryer, author of The Laziest Secretary in the World, who served as Annie’s photo assistant. Taking a page from the gonzo school, we decided to refer to ourselves as “High-Heeled Journalists.” Afterward, Jennifer went off to pursue her multiple careers while Annie and I exploited the High-Heel Journalist identity and had business cards and postcards made up with that name.
I liked to say, “Times Square was my beat.” Times Square was the heart of New York’s commercial sex district. 42nd Street was its main artery, so the area was sometimes called “The Deuce.” In the first half of the 1980’s across 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue, marquee after marquee advertised the latest XXX flicks and performers like Marilyn Chambers in Insatiable, Blonde Heat, Kinky Thrill, Frisky Nymph, or Nympho Hookers, French Desires, and Hot Pink. They shared space on the block with Kung Fu movies such as Deadly Venom, Slice of Death, Savage Men Savage Beast…sex and violence reigned supreme. Times Square had the worst reputation in the City. First time visitors were warned not to go there. But it was the center of the porn world and I was drawn to it—especially to Show World Sex Emporium.
“Emporium” was a quaint word to describe this market of raunch, but it was quite accurate. Show World offered strip shows and live sex shows on stage, as well as opportunities to interact one-on-one with a performer in a peep show booth on the other side of a glass wall; private screening booths where film snippets could be paid for in three minute segments; a shop to purchase dildoes, platform stilettos, whips and handcuffs, plastic blow-up dolls and more.
Show World was part of a whole circuit of theaters in cities across the country where porn stars could perform solo acts on stage, usually as strippers. I referred to the circuit as the “Bumpy Burlesque Trail.” Show World was the most elaborate of all of these theaters, the jewel in the crown. I’d visited Show World on a few occasions to interview headline performers. Annie and I liked to brag that we could enter with a tape recorder and camera, get our interviews and photos complete with model releases, and leave “mission accomplished” in little over an hour. But I also liked to stay longer and cover the place more with more depth, interviewing not just one headliner, but the people who worked there on a regular or semi-regular basis. Sometimes I felt like an outsider, afraid that my questions would seem impertinent or, at worst, judgemental. I felt like I was different, not a real sex worker.
But I was very real and I decided to prove it, especially to myself.
Inside the Peep Show
The Walrus carried a brown paper bag into the glass booth. I call him “The Walrus” because his face was covered with long shaggy hair, sideburns, and a scraggly beard. The Walrus was not very attractive and he showed it by dressing like a slob. But armed with his brown paper bag and a pocket full of tokens, he was about to treat himself to a fantasy fuck.
He took his jar of Vaseline out of the brown paper bag and dropped a coin in the slot. The window shade rose very, very slowly to reveal me grinning at him from the other sid
The Walrus unzipped his baggy pants and pulled his big red cock through his fly. He spread the Vaseline over his penis and worked his hand up and down, up and down, over a familiar path. I leaned back in a high chair and planted a shiny stiletto pump on either side of the window. The Walrus extended his left hand to pick up the telephone.
“Hello,” he purred, sounding much better than he looked.
I cradled the phone under my chin, reached into my blouse and displayed my breasts. He stared at me from behind his thick glasses. I stared at The Walrus from behind my hard, dark nipples.
It was 1985, four years since the publication of my first explicit story in Variations, three years since I popped my porn cherry in a fuck film. I enjoyed the sex biz but there’d been this little gnawing fear, this left over Catholic guilt, that one day I’d wind up a side-show attraction, a girl in a peep show. About five years earlier when I was spending time in Paris I had taken myself to a classic film called Lola Montez in which a notorious beauty looks back on her life and loves. She had many adventures and was even mistress to a king, but she is finally reduced to performing before rubes in a circus. It was based on the life of a real person and was a morality tale of what can happen when a woman lives outside the lines of propriety.
Would I be like Lola Montez? Would I have a sad fate and be punished for not following the rules laid out for me? When I decided to write about Show World–the 42nd Street sex emporium–I knew that I would put myself inside this cage, a tiny glass booth, where men drop their pants and their tokens to pay for the pleasure of seeing me naked. I guess what I wanted more than anything was to jump through this ring of fire to see if I could survive. The story was just an excuse.
The peep show was a seductive, rock & roll, neon cave that promised to all who entered some longed-for satisfaction. The customers sought an end to their frustrations. Most of these men walked around like zombies, their hands in their pockets, while through the disco dazzle the hawkers blasted promises through microphones:
“Hard core action upstairs in ten minutes! Girls! Girls! Girls! Wall-to-wall pussy!”
The people who work there were attracted, at first, by the money. It was a job, a way to pay the rent and put food and sometimes drugs on the table. But there were other hungers. Yes, each action was determined by the dollar. But there was also desire for affection and the need for a basic one-to-one human connection that motivated every person who walked through the door.
I learned a lot about The Walrus before he entered my booth. I interviewed him upstairs after we watched a strip show in the Triple Treat Theater. He was a bridge player. He read alot–one of those unwashed intellectuals. He even told me about his preference for Vaseline as an aid to jerking off. When he heard that I planned to spend a few hours working a booth, he ran across the street to Walgreen’s to purchase a king-sized jar of petroleum jelly.
The Walrus spent fifty dollars in my booth, pumping in one two-dollar token after another. He wagged his big tongue in circles up near the glass and pretended that we were kissing. His hairy mouth gobbled desperately at the phantom kisses. I was sorry for him, just for an instant, but then I felt a surge of power as I licked my lips and watched his tongue perform tricks in the air. He seemed to relish the kisses even more than the creamy explosion he left on the glass.
I interviewed Damian who came to work in a three-piece suit. He looked like he could have been a cocky young clerk on the floor of the [New York] Stock Exchange or a bright guy from a tough neighborhood who had decided to work his way up in a bank. Like any guy just starting out, he didn’t quite have his look together. A Brooklyn accent, patchy mustache, and the curls that crept over his collar gave him away. What Damian did have was plenty of ambition. His body jumped with it. Damian hoped to be a porn star. You might say he was perfecting his craft, tightening his act while he fucked on stage in the Triple Treat Theater, for twenty five minutes, six times a day, sometimes six days a week.
His onstage partner was Baby Doll, a slim Haitian girl with a boyish quality. Her stiff black hair was cropped real short and her body was lithe, like a bow.
“We have some show stoppers, “ Damian told me. “There’s the sixty-nine we do with me standing up eating her and holding her upside down while she sucks my cock. We also have the ‘wheelbarrow’ – she bends over and puts her hands down on the floor, I stick my cock in her and wheel her around the room.”
“Don’t call them ‘teams,’” warned Ron Martin, the part-time poet and manager of the Triple Treat.
“You don’t hitch them to a wagon. These are performers.”
These performers, these teams, these women and men were engaged in a very unusual and controversial occupation–the Love Act. They did it for money.
Ivory and Major Motion had been working together for two years. Ivory called herself that because she wasn’t quite black and she wasn’t quite white. She was very beautiful, the color of strong coffee with cream. Ivory hoped one day to live on the island of Jamaica. When Ivory met Major Motion she was a virgin. They went out together for four months before they made love. Major Motion took his time with Ivory. He knew that she would be worth the wait. He wasn’t starved for sex because he had followed the family traditions established by his brother and got a job fucking on stage. Job opportunities for black men, especially those from impoverished neighborhoods, were in short supply. The men realized they had a better chance of making a living if they teamed up with a woman or women. The women understood a man could offer protection. Not long after Major Motion and Ivory became lovers, they began performing the Love Act on stage.
The men in the theater sat in quiet anticipation when Ivory entered the room. She danced on stage in a tight-fitting black dress. She was tall, very tall, at least 5 feet, ten inches, and most of it, legs–gorgeous long legs that came to perfect points at the tips of her toes. Her arms, legs and back showed a hint of muscle from workouts at the gym. Ivory wrapped her perfect body around the shabby back sofa on stage. Soon, she was completely naked. Her thick, curly hair formed a lush mane around her face. Her eyes were big dark almonds that looked out past the hypnotized stares of the audience.
She poured herself like golden rum over the couch. She lifted her ass high in the air and her dark bush became the focus of every eye in the house. Her cunt seemed to loom larger than life. It was a gateway to paradise and Major Motion was about to slide in.
He sauntered from the side of the stage to join his partner. While he casually stripped, she laid on her back, twisted her long legs toward the ceiling and played with her nipples. The Major’s thick, black tool popped out of his shorts. It was swollen with excitement, filled with the Major’s spunk and with the horny desire of every man in the house. The Major fucked Ivory gently. He fucked her hard. He kissed her nipples, her belly, her thighs. The Major buried his face between her legs. Ivory, the serpent, coiled around her man.
They were very careful to make sure the audience could see every move, could watch every inch of cock as it was swallowed by cunt. My pussy muscles twitched as if the Major’s cock was sliding in and out of my hole. A man a few seats to my left masturbated vigorously.
“Touch it, please touch it,” he begged me.
I admired his opportunism but ignored his request.
Major Motion and Ivory held back on the orgasm. They still had four more shows to do that day. The Major, like every stage stud, had to conserve his strength. Like the nutritionist in the health food store up the street had advised Damian:
“You’ve got to replenish your seminal fluids. If you don’t take care now, by the time you’re sixty, you’ll have shot your load.”
Ivory knew exactly how much money she could make from a full week of shows. She and the Major each made ten dollars for every twenty-five minute performance. They worked six days a week, six shows a day and sometimes double shifts. She said it was the money that kept her coming back. Her grandmother had left her a house and she had to pay off the mortgage. The men in her family all disappeared. But now there was Major Motion and he was daddy and lover and brother and lover. Ivory told me of her dream to open a body-building gym in Jamaica. I was rooting for her.
“There’s so much I want to do,” she said, “but I just don’t know how to get started.”
For Baby Doll, the money, too, was important. Baby Doll was twenty-one and the mother of a three-year-old daughter whom she raised alone. I asked her, somewhat timidly, if she ever regretted having a child without a husband. She told me:
“I used to feel bad when I had nothing to give my little girl. But I don’t feel bad anymore because now I earn the money to take care of her.”
Another dancer passed through the dressing room overheard her and added, “Right on, sister.”
I was so glad I asked.
Zoila who was called “Z” worked for a year as a booth baby before she was promoted to manager on the first floor. She was proud of her position. When I told her that I wanted to spend a few hours working in a booth, she looked at me like I was crazy. She had seen me all week, dressed in a conservative skirt and blouse as I interviewed her and all the other people in the three-tiered emporium. She was delighted, dollar signs dancing in her eyeballs, when I came downstairs, ready to work, in my black lace lingerie.
“The split is sixty-forty,” she told me. Sixty for the house, forty for the booth baby. Each two-dollar token bought ninety seconds of time. I mentally calculated that in one hour’s time, if the booth was never empty, the customers could deposit ninety dollars worth of tokens in the slot. That would be thirty-six dollars for every hour of taking off my clothes, playing with myself, talking to the customers, spreading my legs, sticking my fingers inside my pussy, spreading my cheeks…if the booth were never empty…
The men entered in a steady stream. Telephones on both sides of the glass partition made it possible for us to speak as well as to see each other. Terry was a blonde white college boy who wore a Princeton sweatshirt. Thomas was a young black man who spent twenty minutes dancing with me: by the time he left I felt ready to collapse. Clink, clink, clink. I loved the sound of those tokens hitting the slot. The money inspired a Pavlovian reaction. Up in the chair, out with the tits, hand in the panties, stand up, strip down, start all over again.
An eighty-year-old regular had a neat gimmick. He carried a big box of flimsy lingerie and offered to sell it to the performers real cheap. I had met him upstairs when he sold me a bra and then copped a feel when I tried it on. He entered my booth and pulled out his nearly one-hundred-year-old dick. It had a few hairs growing out of it that probably weren’t there when he was forty, but the thing still worked and he left a happy customer. As he made his exit, he pressed a buck tip into my palm. It felt nice to be appreciated. I later learned five bucks was a more common tip. Another man with a gruff voice and gold chains around his neck barked orders at me through the glass. He was the only one of a dozen who chose not to use the two way telephone. He only wanted to see my asshole.
“Turn around. Spread your cheeks, Wider. Wider!”
He didn’t understand that I was a fucking goddess. I couldn’t wait for him to get off and get out. I thought,“You want to see an asshole, mister? Look in the mirror.”
Lines like that were made for guys like him. He was one of the few who didn’t ejaculate, but he was the one who could have used it most. He made me sorry I’d gotten into the booth and that was a good wake-up call. It made me realize that this could be a very, very hard job.
I got along well with the other women in the row of cubicles. Only one was pissed because until I showed up she was the only white woman on the downstairs block. The other white women all worked upstairs on the main level. The angry woman walked off the floor, an offense that rated a fine from Z. Z ran a tight ship. She was protective of the women who worked with her, but she believed in nipping trouble in the bud. When there were not enough women on duty in the booths, Z had to fill in herself and this manager had no desire to rejoin the labor force.
During my two hour stay in the booth, I took in one hundred twelve dollars out of a possible one hundred eighty if the book had been full, non-stop. My end was just under forty-five dollars. With minimum wage per hour in 1985 at three dollars, thirty-five cents, my twenty-two, fifty per hour looked pretty good for a couple of hours work. But could I do it for six or eight hours a day, five or six days a week? A lip-licking windup doll. Not all of the women could. The most reliable workers had well-lit spots on the main floor in a place nicknamed “the hill.” The women who showed up only when they felt like it worked in a dark corner referred to charmingly as “death row.”
When I returned a few days later to pick up my check, I stopped in to see Ron, the boss of the Triple Treat Theater. He told me that he had heard about my time in the booth and was sorry to have missed it. He offered me ten dollars to show him my tits. He laid a ten on the table. I unbuttoned my blouse, gave him a look at my naked breasts and scooped up the ten in my greedy fist. I had gotten the hang of this place. Ron saw the big smile on my face and decided he’d parted with his ten too easily.
“How about paying me ten bucks to see my cock,” he said.
I laughed in his face and said, “I’ve seen enough dicks this week to last me quite a while and every one of them got whipped out for free.”
In the game of sex and money, it was men who came up with the cash. Men also created the venues and made the rules. At Show World sex was a commodity. Transactions were efficient and there were rules. The labor force, which consisted mostly of women, were not allowed to work outside the rules. If a worker did, they could be arrested for prostitution. The men who set the rules wanted to have it all. Men ruled over women’s bodies. It had been the same in the church and the finance market, but it was most clear on The Deuce, in the sexual marketplace.
My allegiance was with women who broke the rules.
Parts originally published in ADAM Magazine [Oct 1985] “Veronica Vera’s New York: The Love Act: They Do It For Money,” and in Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories by Women Celebrating Women [published 1994; edited by Sue Thomas]. Text lightly copyedited by Joy Essex. Photography by Annie Sprinkle.
Additional Resource: Enjoy Veronica Vera’s podcast interview on The Rialto Report.