Enough books! We wanted a tour.
“Okay, this is important,” said Ms. McClear as we walked up Eighth Avenue. She pointed at the ribbed building to our right. “The New York Times building. One of the lots on that site was the Playground. And you’ll remember that Ruby worked at the Playground when she moved in 2000 so there’s a peepshow somewhere under there.”
Back then, The Times was at its old 43rd street location. “I would wonder how many, many fucking Times people came to see a show,” Ms. McClear said. “They do seem pretty straight-laced. Except for David Carr, but I never saw him.”
“The Port Authority’s a fucking hellmouth,” she announced as we passed under the construction awning there. “There’s actually a really good wig kiosk in there, though, I’ve bought a wig in there.”
She pointed to the L-shaped building that surrounds the Duane Reade at 42nd Street, which “went legit” with a comedy club, though its owner Richard Basciano was said to have pulled a gun on a business partner during those negotiations.
“Never really got to the bottom of that,” she said, thoughtfully.
We ducked inside what she called the “neutered remains” of Show World, which used to have a circus theme and a working carousel on the top floor. Stale smoke hung in the air, as men perused wire racks of DVDs. “When you see signs that say ‘booths’ now,” Ms. McClear said in a whisper, pointing to a mirrored hallway to the left. “They usually mean video peeps.”
We passed Gotham Video 1, which now sports the signage of the Playpen—Ms. McClear worked at both—and is one of only two places left in the neighborhood that still offer live girls. We passed the Playpen’s final resting place, now a Shake Shack. We passed Smith’s, where most post-work drinks occurred, and where Gotham’s owner Big John once bribed one of the girls to give him the number of another girl, on whom he had a crush.
“It was kind of sad because this girl sold out her colleague for 50 bucks at the bar,” said Ms. McClear, continuing briskly.
We passed delis from the book where the girls would order beers—before finally coming to Gotham Video 4 at 47th Street. Ms. McClear quickly walked passed it, but sidled against its northern side, near an open door that read, “Girls wanted to work at fantasy booths inquire at front desk.” She beckoned The Observer conspiratorially.
“There was never that sign there in all the time I worked there,” she said, and added that she thought she knew the reason.
Since Ms. McClear left, the store, she explained, has gone “tip and touch,” doing away with the glass and the one-on-one format in favor of a circular design that features one girl for multiple viewers. Small panels, about the size of the hole in the Plexiglas that separates driver and passenger in taxis, open onto the girl. Provided customers offer a tip of around $20, they are allowed to fondle her. The practice is illegal, but the law against it was never really enforced, and it died out around ten years ago, when stores began self-policing. Now the stores appear to be doing whatever it takes to bring in customers.
“That’s a huge change,” Ms. McClear said, glancing at the store nervously. “I could never.”
If most of the live girls are now gone, one has to wonder what has become of their patrons. For that, neither the book nor Ms. McClear has an answer.
“You know how the Mars Bar just closed?” Ms. McClear said to The Observer, back in Siberia. “I’m wondering where all those people are going to go. I actually have this sort of a contact there, a heroin addict. He told me, ‘I just tried to go, the Mars Bar is closed,” and I said, ‘Dude, where are you going to drink?’”
She turned her voice into a growl. “He said, ‘In hell.’”
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