The underside: Things Seldom Scene

Porn store on Times Square before they cleaned it up. Early evening—by New York’s standards. Bright yellow light, walls lined bins of magazines arranged by subject, Peeing, Cream Pie, Big Tits, Face Sitting, Threesomes. Scurfy men grody and half-shaven flicking through the pages like Norway rats in a garbage dump. Others, respectably dressed, embarrassed to be there, furtive, but grimly determined. They are more lonely than sexually desperate, would trade all they have for a nice girlfriend. They avoid eye contact. The place is urban coral reef by night.

There is a wall of garish sex toys, edible panties, silicone dildos in dayglo colors, some with strings embedded so gays can avoid the ER, double-dongs, complex condoms with odd appendages. A boxed inflatable woman; the box shows a smiling man in a convertible with her beside him: your date with a beach ball. Loneliness, not sex. “Live mouth action!” says the box. “Just squeeze the back of her head.”

Toward the back, behind milling men trying not to touch each other in the egg-yolk light, the Mother of All Grotesqueries: A circular room maybe twenty feet across, a huge wooden drum with a door every three feet. Each opens into an unlit booth with a small window at the back, obscured by an external curtain. Each has a coin box. You put a quarter in the box and the curtain rises to reveal a turn-table with a naked woman on it. She is dimly lit by more yellow light. All around her are the little windows, each with a man inside peering out and probably choking his chicken. After a couple of minutes the curtain automatically falls and you have to drop another quarter in. The woman squats, crawls, spreads, juts in mortal boredom. It is as erotic as watching toast burn. Round and round, the windows open and close. What does she do in the day? A med student, maybe. It happens.

A bad section of DC, which is most sections, late night, summer, on a foot beat with the Metropolitan Police. Sidewalks are devoid of pedestrians. It is not a good place to be a pedestrian. Everything lies colorless under a weak street light. A white woman, blonde, maybe forty-five, clutches a bottle of whiskey on a random stoop: A street person in jeans and very stained blouse. She is slobbering drunk. The cop asks how she is. He knows how she is.

She slurs in anguish over something she can’t communicate, not quite sobbing. The cop says ma’am, maybe we better take you in. He is not being a bastard. Cops don’t hate cirrhotic unhappy women gurbling and puking through their last few days on earth. But what do you do? Nobody wants her, not the hospital, not the jail.

She protests unintelligibly. Well, ma’am, maybe you ought to pour the rest of that out.

At this she tumbles off the stoop and begins crawling toward the mouth of a near-by alley, holding the bottle as if defending a baby. She is visible wetting her pants. Some things you can’t fix. We walk on.

Bangkok, the Patpong brothel district, early Eighties, in the Takara Club. You sit at the bar and chaff with the barmaid. At the end of the room a plate-glass window opens onto bleachers on which sit a dozen young women in pretty dresses; each has a number pinned to her top. You tell the barmaid, “Seven,” and she goes to get her. You talk a bit, buy Seven a whiskey or two consisting of tea, pay the bar fine, and go upstairs.

As prostitution goes, it is civilized. As prostitution goes, I said. The girls are free to leave, unlike the peasant girls who sleep chained to beds in the soldiers’ brothels, and occasianally burn to death when there is a fire. The Takara girls service foreigners, who usually treat them well, and sometimes take them to the beach. Some are not so nice, the Japanese in particular often being sadists.

Ask the girls why they work at the Takara and they say, I’ve got a little boy, and I make more here than I would going blind in an electronics factory. Me, I still think they should have more name thatn Seven.

A sweltering night, mid Seventies, in Wan Wha, the old part of Taibei, out of the depths of an old, old China. Narrow alleys, push-carts with charcoal braziers and pink squid draped like moist jointless fingers, and—the snake butchers. A dozen kraits, cobras, god knows what hang from a dowel on a cart, alive, tied just behind the head, many of them deadly—the y-bai she, hundred-pace snake, thus called because that’s how far you go after one bites you.

A hard-faced laborer points to a snake and asks the price. With a razor the butcher slits the animal from head downward, massages the blood into a glass, and squeezes the gall bladder, if so it really is, into the glass. The customer drinks it. “Dwei shen-ti, hen hau.” Good for the body. The snake is still twitching.

Manhattan, the Vault, now closed, an S&M joint in a catacomb-feeling basement like an industrial hell by Dickens—a tourist destination for those who want to get off the beaten track, or maybe I mean onto it. When the theaters closed on Broadway, elegant people came in to see how the other half lived, and perhaps experiment. At the bar, preposterously elegant in the surrounding grunge, a couple of high-end executive types stand chatting of stock portfolios. They are suntanned, frizzy-haired, in pricey suits, maybe from the publishing district, with their trousers down around their ankles. A young woman wearing more leather than Trigger comes by, smacks hell out of their butts with a paddle, and leaves. “Thank you, ma’am,” say the men, and go back to comparing their portfolios.

Night in the Pot Yards, the Potomac train yards, now closed, in the Virginia suburbs of DC. Jimmy Auld and I are waiting in the bushes while a yard mule howls in the fog, putting together a train which we hope to hop. There comes a crunch of footsteps. We tense, figuring a yard bull and we’ll run for it.

It is an old black guy, walking stiff and slow, carrying something—a jug of water if memory serves. He is surprised to find white boys awaiting a train. We talk in low voices.

A natural camaraderis grows between those down on their luck or a bit on the wrong side of the law or just apart from society. He gave us advice on the yards and said he lived in a shack nearby. It had to be a shack if he was fetching water in a Clorox jug. We knew him for one of life’s discards, a type you encounter often on the roads. He had nothing, never would, no insurance, no family, just living because that’s what people do until they don’t. We wished him well, and he went off into the fog.

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