“I can’t tell you how many customers came in for a peep show carrying a bag from the M&M store,” said Sheila McClear, her legs folded under her on a stool at Siberia late last week. The former Gawkerite, and current New York Post features writer is tall, so this took some doing. She has dark hair, paper-pale skin that would clash when she wore a blond wig in her earlier job—not Gawker—and green eyes that lit up when the regulars at the bar complimented her about her picture in that day’s Post, which ran with an excerpt under the headline “MY LIFE AS A LIVE NUDE GIRL.”
“I was constantly sitting there going, ‘Seriously?’” she said. “You went to the M&M store first? And now you’re going to take in a peep show? Really? That one detail always sort of boggled my mind.”
Ms. McClear, a 30-year-old Michigan native, fell into working as a Times Square peep show girl in 2006 as a way of paying rent and the resulting book is a frank, up-to-date examination of an industry that’s been zoned nearly out of existence. The M&Ms were the least of it—near the end of her tenure, the management installed little monitors above the girls’ heads so that patrons wouldn’t have to stop watching pornography for the duration of their show.
“I was very aware of it as a historical document, and that’s the urge that I felt to write it,” said Ms. McClear, in the bar. “Because even since I’ve finished the book there’ve been changes at Times Square and in the peep shows. I told myself ‘no one else has done this, and no one’s going to do it’ and I really think it would be a shame for this subculture— whatever it is—to be lost. Because these people, including me, are marginalized. No one thinks much about them and they write about them in very broad terms like ‘the peep shows in Times Square’ and ‘the bad old days.’”
“You can’t get in that world as a reporter,” she said. “You have to be one of those people to get access. At the time, I didn’t realize I was in such a unique position.”
Ms. McClear would earn $150 on a good night, assuming she could convince the evening’s pervs to select her slender form over her colleagues’ more robust offerings. Business was rarely good, and often dreary – there’s a lot of waiting described in the book, and there’s rouging of nipples, mopping of ejaculate. You can feel Ms. McClear’s weariness as she describes her routine’s robotic eroticism. “Off with the bra, pose, then the underwear, slouch against the back wall of the booth,” it begins. What was billed as a five-minute show only lasted three, but you get the sense that her customers weren’t the types to notice.
In the book, she keeps descriptions of her actual performances to a choice few encounters. There’s the guy who wants to play strip poker with her through the glass, and lose; the Europeans who think that the U.S. is way too uptight, what with the glass and all; and the guy who just can’t believe there aren’t any shemales around. Ms. McClear said she kept the less pleasant encounters out of the book, because they might alienate the reader.
“I had a guy I called Chucky the Cockroach,” she said at the bar. “He probably did some of the weirdest things I’ve seen, one of them was that he didn’t even want to watch me, he just wanted me to watch him shove a candle up his ass – or a couple of candles up his ass – and tell him that it was, like, really cool.”
“But the most disgusting thing he ever did—it took me a while to realize he was doing it because it did not compute — but you know that little part of your belt buckle that goes into the notch? He shoved that into his penis and he kept shoving it in and out and he was like, ‘Do you like that? Do you like that?’”
She paused, rearranging her legs underneath her before proceeding with a cringe. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I do.’”
The Observer asked for, and received, several more awful details about the customer in question until Ms. McClear’s voice trailed off.
“I don’t feel bad about working at the peep show,” she said. “But I do feel bad about some of the things I was complicit in just because they were gross.
“The bourgeois part of me thinks, ‘Well, maybe guys won’t want to date me, because I’ve seen that and done it and been complicit in it and taken money for it,’” she said. “It feels like I’m this separate level of woman.” She looked at the wall. “I don’t know.”
Ms. McClear’s closeness to the material most enriches her reporting when it comes to her coworkers. Despite their outsized personalities, they could have wound up sounding as interchangeable as their stage names, but with Ms. McClear’s writing, even their tattoos are memorable. Their substance abuse becomes familiar, occasionally even endearing, in a madcap way. Ms. McClear also has a keen ear for dialogue.
“I hear you’re a slut,” says Ruby, a firecracker with a thing for guys who work in delis, playacting when a customer demands that she and Ms. McClear get rough with each other in the booth during his show. “That’s what they’re all saying about you up in, ah….” She fumbles to remember where Ms. McClear lives. “Greenpoint.”
But some of the book’s best parts are the glimpses of Ms. McClear’s other life — when she lays out the finances of her boss, the editor of InStyle Homes magazine, where she is daylighting as an intern, the editor’s complaints of being broke are presented as genuinely sympathetic. You get the sense that Ms. McClear, who worked at a pro-labor magazine in Detroit before coming to New York, was keeping her head down and doing the work that was required of her. Her work just happened to involve taking off her clothes.
When, in January 2008, Observer reporter Leon Neyfakh obtained a copy of her book proposal and outed her in an article headlined “Gawker’s Sheila McClear Shopping Peep Show Memoirs to Agents,” Ms. McClear remembers being embarrassed not at the specific nature of her work just at the fact that she’d had to go to such great lengths to find her feet in the city.
“Everyone else I know waitressed and stuff,” she said in the bar. “I was like, why couldn’t I have done this normally like other people do? It was almost embarrassing, the lack of contacts I had.”
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.’”
Follow Dan Duray via RSS.