The place has changed names any number of times, but right now it’s called The New Playpen. It’s about where you’d expect it to be, on Eighth Avenue north of The Port Authority, and looks from the outside like every other neon-swathed porn shop in Manhattan—doleful, seedy, barely hanging on. But this place is different. Walk through the doors and down an antiseptic aisle where furtive men eye boxed videos amid giggling girls wielding dildos like light sabers. Ignore the security guard and climb the back staircase to a small landing filled with racks of faux-lingerie, all string and cheap lace. Take a moment; count your money and collect yourself. When you’re ready, follow the signs up another, smaller set of stairs. You’ll hear them before you see them, talking to a customer or, more likely, amongst themselves. But they know you’re coming (there are cameras) and they’ll be ready for you, best features forward, the hustle already starting—“Hey honey, over here....” You’ll try to look, then try not to, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve already guessed your type, know who you’ll choose. The last four peep show girls in Times Square have seen it all....
Live peep shows are hard to find these days, but my guide, New York Post reporter (and former Gawker blogger) Sheila McClear, knows the terrain all too well. In 2006, a few desperate months after moving to New York, McClear wandered into the murky world of Times Square sex shops looking for quick cash; she stayed almost two years. In her riveting and highly insalubrious new memoir, The Last of the Live Nude Girls, McClear writes about her secret peep-show existence with the ribald expertise of a natural storyteller, but it’s her deeper exploration, into the motivations behind her actions, that makes the book both memorable and highly relevant. McClear, after all, is hardly the first college-educated child of middle-class professionals to flee the Midwest for a life on the American margins.
McClear’s résumé reads like a tourist brochure for Greil Marcus’s mythical “Old, Weird America.” (Coined by the famed critic to describe the fast-fading world of rural blues, the term has, more recently, come to stand for any authentic, offbeat anachronism still surviving in the dark corners of our culture.) Let’s start with her turn as bass player for the Terranauts, a Flint, Mich.-based rock band that toured the dying towns of the upper Midwest, its members sleeping in the back of a 1983 Ford Econoline “weather-stripped with duct tape.” The Terranauts broke up (a drug bust rendered their singer unable to cross state lines) around the time McClear graduated from the University of Michigan, so she went to work for a labor magazine on the south side of Detroit. This was 2004, and the Motor City was at its nadir. McClear found a ramshackle basement room in a Mexicantown punk collective for $195 a month. “Homes were cheaper than cars,” she writes. “You could get something for a few grand. If you could protect it from the looters stripping the wiring for copper, it was all yours.”
McClear lasted a few years, but when a mild-mannered work colleague shot himself in the head for no apparent—or every apparent—reason, she knew it was time to go. After reading a review in The New Yorker, McClear, who had majored in costume design, contacted the Classical Theatre of Harlem and was offered a job. The first time she’d visited New York, to protest the World Economic Forum during college, she’d ended up in a photograph on the front page of The New York Times. The second time around would be just as eventful, if decidedly less glamorous.
McClear’s anxiety-riddled early years offer some context for the atypical decisions she made next, but, just as important, they provide cover for skeptics attuned to a troubling trend in memoir writing. In an age when bestselling memoirs are conceived—and even written!—between blog posts and bong hits, it’s not unwise to ask a simple question of these books. What came first: the life lived or the proposal written? The Year I Said No or Yes or Maybe, Had Sex or Didn’t, Went to India, Went Naked, Went Broke, Went Crazy … but Survived to Tell the Tale. I wonder if these are really memoirs at all. (That is, if the idea for a book precedes—and therefore dictates—the actions described therein, isn’t that more contrivance than honest life recounting? Reality Prose: a genre is born! Anyway.) What’s obvious, reading through the bumps and bruises of McClear’s life, is that for a long time the idea of writing a book wasn’t just an afterthought, it was nonexistent—there was eating, sleeping, surviving, to worry about—and this lends The Last of the Live Nude Girls an authenticity that permeates the narrative. What we’re reading is real, which makes it that much harder to look away—even when we want to. It’s a tough story.
The theater job proves temporary, and after weeks of couch surfing McClear finds a bed at a flophouse called the Malibu Hotel. (“Shove your wallet down the front of your pants,” her father tells her. “That’s what we used to do in the army.”) She can’t get hired as a waitress or barista. She lasts less than a day as a telemarketer. Finally, dead broke, she answers a Craigslist ad for “dancers,” and so begins a protracted journey through the resilient remains of New York’s sexual underbelly: illegal strip clubs, pimplike bosses, shady client boyfriends. McClear’s choices can be maddening, but only because the reader comes to care so much.
After a brief (and disastrous) run as a “traditional” stripper, the socially awkward McClear wanders into the peep shows and immediately feels more at home. “I was fascinated by the honky-tonk idea of an actual peep show,” she writes, “imagining that the girls dressed up in pinup-style showgirl costumes every night. It was the same curiosity I felt about Detroit, in all its damaged beauty.” The reality, of course, is hardly so quaint. The hollow depravity of the job itself—stripping in a tiny booth while men masturbated on the other side of the glass, four minutes for $40—permeates every aspect of McClear’s life (and book), and soon her naiveté is replaced by a chilling numbness. “I never felt sexual,” she says. “I felt like I was working at a hospital or a nursing home or a factory where they have those big slabs of meat.”
Her detachment is evident in her descriptions of the job itself, which she must learn on the fly, one customer at a time.
"Eventually I developed my routine. Soon I could do it without forming a single thought: off with the bra, pose, then the underwear, slouch against the back wall of the booth, running my fingers over my hips and breasts. Then I’d turn around and bend over, running my hands up the back of my legs. Finally, I’d sit on my chair and open my legs."
Levity is a necessary weapon in such an environment, and the in-depth portraits McClear draws of her co-workers—hard-luck women who are, at any given moment, the fiercest competitors or the closest of friends—are both touching and hilarious. Anyone might walk up the porn-shop stairs, and almost everyone does: businessmen and tourists, frat boys and perverts, couples and criminals. Add alcohol, pot, cocaine, and cash, then stir.
In the end, though, this is very much one woman’s story, and the fact that we know how it turns out—McClear’s newspaper bylines have become ubiquitous—never takes away from the journey itself. Some people are attracted to their darker natures and, if they’re resourceful, find lurking in those shadows other loners and oddballs and misfits who together help define the undefinable, and—to paraphrase a certain Austin, Texas, T-shirt—keep America (wonderfully) weird.