Cleaning Up, One Corner at a Time

New York is lobbying hard to host the Republican convention in 2000. It is a classic odd coupling, as if the Democrats were to meet in Salt Lake City. But New York does have a Republican mayor and, despite being on his party’s left, he has many accomplishments pleasing to conservatives-the latest being his move against the sex industry.

The building inspectors move in first with notepads. The notepads are for describing, in the inimitable antiprose of law enforcement, the prohibited activities they observe in strip clubs and topless joints. So entomologists describe bug-sex, or the President describes his own sex. Next come the padlocks.

The lamps are going out all along the runways; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime. If the Republicans do come to town, and any of them want to feel nasty, they will have to go to the Brooklyn waterfront. Has any porntrepreneur considered running a shuttle? Or would it cool a customer’s ardor to take a 40-minute van ride to Cythera with six strangers? Suppose you got stuck in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel? What do the rules of civility prescribe for conversation in such situations?

The beauty of the Mayor’s strategy is that it outflanks the moral and constitutional arguments by ignoring them. No parsing the Delphic utterances of the Supreme Court; no huffing and puffing with earnest spokesmen of the New York Civil Liberties Union on the local talk shows.

Irving Kristol said liberals are people who think it’s all right for a 18-year-old to take off her clothes in public for money, so long as she earns the minimum wage. It’s still all right. But even as liberals have blandly pretended for years that they really think sex shows are the same thing as the editorial pages of newspapers, so the city now blandly argues that its only concern with sex shows is a matter of tidy urban land use. Its fib trumps their fib. It is still legal to mime sex in New York, just as it is still legal to bury a body or to run a junkyard. But the first activity, like the others, can now be done only in certain godforsaken places.

The great issues are still unjoined. The Constitution is as misunderstood today as it was the day before. The culture is still a carnival of hormones. No one can object without being made to feel that he is some mullah from the Sudan. All this is true, and bad. But-the businesses have to move, or change (clothes on the dancers, G-rated videos in with the XXX).

There is a value to small improvements. Cleaning up a corner, though less exciting than saving the world, is easier, and 10 or 20 clean corners start to give the world a different appearance.

What of the great literary ritual of mourning, the end-of-an-era piece in the newspapers, or the local magazines? (Journalists, however liberal they may be, have odd reactionary quirks; creatures of habit themselves, they celebrate the dying life styles of others.) There will not be many end-of-an-era pieces on the sex industry, because they already have been written. Over the last few months, one topless bar on Sixth Avenue scored a grand slam, eulogized in The New York Times and The New York Observer .

This bar, we were told, was no glitzplatz like Scores, but a neighborhood place, small and tacky. (Reporters would sympathize, considering the typical writer’s workplace.) The atmosphere was homey, even familial (harder to see the connection here: Few papers or journals are like families, and those that are, are dysfunctional). But the centerpiece was the interview with the dancers, which revealed that dancers talk; dancers think; dancers are working their way through school, and make a lot of money; dancers are in control of their lives and harbor no hard feelings, except some contempt for their customers, which only underscores how much in control they are. This is what interviews with dancers always reveal. It is a convention of the genre. As Sherlock Holmes says: You know my methods, Watson; apply them.

Is that the whole story, everything that happens in transactions with clothes and arousal on one side, nudity and feigned arousal on the other, and money as the bridge between them? What about hatred?

The hatred of audience for performers and performers for audience is not hard to figure out. Feminists will instruct us on the former. (It is man’s exploitation of women, Chapter n. )

The end-of-an-era pieces give us a hint of the latter: What does the other sex look like from a strip club stage but louts whose need is as evident as their male pattern baldness? But there must also be self-hatred on both sides of the lights. It can’t feel good to do in public with no emotion what most of us long to do in private with lots.

And let us look, finally, with some compassion at the men in the picture. Years ago, a local TV news show ran a feature on rounding up feral dogs in Tompkins Square Park. The technique of the catchers was simple and effective. They tied a bitch in heat to a fire hydrant, and watched the males line up. When the first male mounted, he was whisked away in a net to the pound. Then, the second male, having seen all that passed, mounted, and was caught, in turn. In one of W.B. Yeats’ lyrics, Solomon tells Sheba, “There’s not a thing but love can make/ The world a narrow pound.” A narrow pound indeed.

There is no way to outlaw tension between the sexes. Past a certain point societies only dress it up and shift it around. Anthropologists found one tribe in New Guinea, or was it the Amazon, that claimed to believe that pregnancy was caused by the wind. What a relief! (Do you believe them?)

But maybe if the bump, the grind and the tip are moved to Red Hook, or some session on the Internet, the city will be less gross. We can concentrate more on honest, everyday activities like buying clothes, making money and drinking coffee. The tone will rise.

There will still be the Clinton White House. Question : If the nation’s capital were here, would the Oval Office study have to move 500 feet from a school, a residence or a place of worship?