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Wicked Ways: Da Deuce in the 1980s

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As a native New Yorker, I can recall the first time I walked down the wild streets of Times Square with my mom in 1972. I was a nine year old nerd and the spectacles of “Da Deuce” (meaning the Times Square area, not the HBO series) scared me to death. There were numerous sex shops, strip clubs, hookers and porn theaters as well as crews of drug dealers, pimps and sidewalk crazies. However, a decade later, I couldn’t get enough of the peep palaces (it was all about Show World), dive bars and massive movie theaters that showed double features of kung-fu, Blaxploitation and a few strange ones like Faces of Death.

In my newest noir short story “Escape-ism,” recently published in Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Stories Inspired by James Brown edited by Gary Phillips (Down & Out Books), I wrote about life in 1988 Times Square back when the sleaze, smut and other vices were in full effect. A “Deuce” tale as seen through the eyes of a young Puerto Rican immigrant named Ferrara Pérez living in a dangerous welfare hotel on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. The story is partially based on my years working and hanging-out in the area.  

Back in the late 1980s I worked at Catherine Street homeless shelter and occasionally put in overtime hours at the Times Square Hotel. Though I changed the name of the hotel to the Lafayette Hotel, the memory of the Times Square Hotel still haunts me 35-years after I was last there. Built in 1922, the hotel has a storied history that includes originally being constructed to house single men (Hotel Claman for Men, perhaps constructed for seamen, dock men and railroad workers) to a glamorous address in the 1940s, when there was much dancing and drinking in the marble ballroom, to a broken down mess in the 1980s. Across the street was the infamous bar Sally’s Hideaway II and the rotting building where I’d taken a writing class a few years before.

Owned by Tran Dinh Truong, who was the town’s worst SRO hotel slumlord, the building was one of the most hideous I’d ever been inside. According to Truong’s 2014 obituary in the New York Times, “He took over management of the 735-room Times Square Hotel on West 43rd Street over objections from tenants and city officials. At the Times Square Hotel, Mr. Tran collected rents as high as $2,640 per month from the city to house homeless families, even as the number of health and safety and building code violations climbed past 1,500. City inspectors said they saw drug dealers and heard gunshots in the halls.”

From the moment I walked through the door, the former luxury hotel was bleak, dark and scary as a Scorsese scene in Taxi Driver. The smell was overpowering, there was obvious drug dealing and use (this was also the height of the crack epidemic), dim lighting throughout the building, overflowing trash cans, bugs and young kids playing in the dirtiest hallways I’d ever seen. During my shift that first night, the security guard showed me the old ballroom with its marble pillars and floor that reminded me of a ballroom from a Cornell Woolrich novel. Writer Olivia Laing also wrote about staying at the Times Square Hotel in her essay “The Magic Box,” a piece about artist David Wojnarowicz. 

During the ‘80s there were a few other welfare hotels throughout the city including The Martinique (perhaps the worst), The Carter, which Truong also owned, and The Brooklyn Arms; though there were numerous articles written about the homeless shelters and welfare hotels, the conditions in those places stayed dire for decades. Though I’ve seen books written about those abysmal abodes (one of the best being Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America by Jonathan Kozol), I’ve never seen them portrayed in fiction, which was what I attempted to do in realistic detail in “Escape-ism.”

Novelist Arthur Nersesian, whose book Suicide Casanova (2002) is set in Times Square, says, “My uncle’s law office was on 43rd and 8th Avenue, so I was over there often. I remember when it started to change and the porn machines that were once in the back of the stores were moved to the front.” Nersesian went to his first peep show when he was 17 with a friend who later became a minister. “It was like its own crazy little world over there.” A few years later he moved into a building on 8th Avenue. 

“The building was called the Camelot,” Nersesian continues, “but everybody called it the Cum-A-Lot because so many hookers lived there. We had a studio apartment that cost $350 a month, but it was hard on my girlfriend, because she got harassed a lot.” Living across the street from the porn movie house the Adonis Theater, he often stayed up all-night working on fiction and would turn-in around the same time as the hookers. “After two years, my girlfriend eventually moved back to Oregon and I moved to the East Village where I still live.” 

Author Josh Alan Friedman knows that world all too well. As the author of Tales of Times Square (1986), one of my favorite texts about the Deuce, the former Screw (a notorious sex newspaper published by Al Goldstein) writer moved to the city from Long Island when he was sixteen and immediately found his way to Times Square where he would eventually lose his virginity. 

“There was an elevator man in my building named Ray who showed me around. All the elevator guys spent their money on hookers and horse races, but that particular night I went by myself and walked up 8th Avenue for three hours until I finally got up the nerve to approach someone. She looked like Elizabeth Taylor, but she had no idea how pretty she was, most of the women on that scene didn’t. 

“We went to a fleabag called the Sherman Hotel, where it was $10.00 for the room. It was like the loneliest room you ever saw, with a sagging bed, groans from the room and a window that looked out on a brick wall or a neon sign. It was like something from a film noir.” 

Although Friedman visits New York City regularly, he has lived in Texas with his wife since 1987. Currently he is working on a Tales from Times Square podcast compiled from interviews he conducted more than thirty years ago. “My podcast ‘Tales Of…’ features some of Time Square’s unsung heroes including former Hawaii Kai doorman Pee Wee Marquette, who was my first subject.” 

Mike Edison was also a writer for Screw in the ‘80s, a correspondent whose job it was to go to various porn places and theaters, and to ensure the listings section was up-to-date. It was part of that experience that would inspire him to pen Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers—An American Tale of Sex and Wonder (2011), but his first foray into Times Square was to play the two Elton John pinball machines at Playland. 

“The place was strictly an arcade,” he recalls. “There were low-level crimes in Playland, but mostly kids went there to have fun playing skee ball and stuff like that. There were also a lot of music instrument stores on 48th Street. There was a place called We Buy Guitars, which was like a guitar pawn shop. I got some great pieces there.”

Working for Screw owner/publisher Al Goldstein, the man who put porn classic Deep Throat on the map, also had its perks. “They say that thanks to Hugh Heffner you needed a Lamborghini to get laid, but thanks to Al Goldstein you could get a blowjob for $50.00,” Edison says. “Screw was a guide to finding sex in New York City, and I had to do my rounds and visit all of those places. My friends were horrified, but I loved it. Believe me, I’m not nostalgic for crime, but it’s heartbreaking what Times Square has become. I suppose if you think about it, it’s heartbreaking what the whole city has become.”

While I was one of the original whiners when Times Square was gentrified in the 1990s, I’ve found movies to be the perfect time machine to transport me to the sleazy old days. Most recently I’ve seen two great ones on Tubi: Report to the Commissioner (1975) and Fear City (1985), with the latter named after an infamous pamphlet published a decade before intended to scare tourists out of visiting the city. Directed by Abel Ferrara, it inspired me so much that I gave my protagonist his surname. 

Back in the day my homie Paul Price was a student at the old Printing High School located on 49th/50th between 9th and 10th Avenue. He remembers the area well. “I’d be passing hookers as they were leaving the stroll,” he says. “New York was dirty. There was broken glass and dog shit everywhere, it was just grimy. The sex places never carded anyone and I can remember going to a live sex show with my boys. It was like a theater in the round with a rotating stage. Men were just sitting there staring at a guy in dirty sweat socks having sex with a woman. It was crazy.”  

Brilliant graphic artist Guy Gonzales was one of those dirty sock guys back in the ‘80s. We were first introduced in 1996 when he illustrated my feature on Clive Davis for Vibe magazine. He had a love for Mad magazine, the comic art of Jack Davis and Blaxploitation films. In addition he had drawn a few covers for Screw, which was known for using comic book artists including Wally Wood, Spain Rodriguez and R. Crumb. Guy and I also shared a passion for actress Pam Grier, whose early films were Times Square constants. 

“Pam Grier goes back to the reason that I discovered Times Square,” Gonzales recalls. He made the iconic beauty the subject of two Screw covers. “When I was a student at Art & Design, a friend brought me to the Deuce for the first time to see Friday Foster. We either went to the Harris or the Liberty, but that small taste of Times Square left me wanting for more.” Yet, while most of the men I knew had simply been peep patrons, Guy was the first person I met who had actually had a career in that hellish hood at the height of its wickedness. 

Beginning in 1982, the same year I began hanging-out there, Gonzales got a job mopping jizz from the booths at Show World; six months later, he was performing live sex shows on the small stage. “I did eight shows a day at twenty-minute intervals, so I got very good at fucking,” Guy laughs. As Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince songs blared in the background, the former art student soon transformed into a Show World stud. “I was in my early 20s and really horny; I developed rhythm and self-control, so I didn’t shoot my load too quickly. It was all about keeping the customers happy as they fed the machines and stared through the Plexiglas.” 

It didn’t take long for the once innocent kid to embark on a three-year journey as he consorted with booth babes, drug addicts, Mafia hoods and other fringe folks who populated his small world in Times Square. “I really didn’t think much about my drawings or paintings during that period. With the exception of the art of self-destruction, I didn’t think much about art at all.” 

Although AIDS was first introduced during Guy’s tenure in Times Square, none of the booth boys wore condoms. “AIDS wasn’t an issue, because the media reported that only Haitians and gay men could catch the disease, and I was neither. Truthfully, I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.” 

It was also during this time that crack came on the scene. Within a few short years Gonzales’ world went from terrific to tragic. “Most of the girls I knew went bye-bye from suicide, murder, disease or ODing. Although I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, the truth is it didn’t end very nicely.” 

Although it’s been more than thirty years since Guy Gonzales left Show World for the world of visual arts, he has no regrets about his former life. “All the sleaze that was my Times Square years was absorbed and is now channeled into my art. We all have a sense of darkness, and for me the old Times Square was the perfect release.” Hopefully one day Gonzales will find a publisher for his life on the Deuce memoir Peep Man.

Today the Times Square Hotel is operated by Breaking Ground, an organization that has transformed the building from the hellhole I depicted in “Escape-ism” to a decent dwelling housing hundreds. Though the streets of Times Square aren’t as wild as they once were, they still feel as though anything can happen at any time. 

For more tales of Da Deuce check out “Live Girls, Lonely Boys

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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