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Times Square:
Spiffing
up the avenue.
All photos
Bruce Benderson.







The Deuce:
Sold
Bought
and Boarded Up.






The Deuce:
A lone survivor
from the old
days.






Times Square
as theme park.






Pseudo Times Square.






Sally's II--a drag
club hold-out.






Bartenders who
bitch nurture.






The scene at
Cats bar:
Kung fu go-go.






At cats
giving face.






A Times Square
professional.






A Ninth Avenue
regular.






 Go-go night
at Stella's.






Times Square:
A last look.





losing times
square 
by Bruce Benderson
As a writer I've found myself attracted to
alienated consciousnesses--people trapped
for better or worse in the margins. They
seem to provide the originality
the libido, and the drive to make me generate
"imaginative" prose. Consequently
my, summer reading is more likely to resemble
Last Exit to Brooklyn than Rabbit Run. But
in frequent intervals the desktop seems
barren, so I give it the slip and disappear
into Times Square. In this world, I profit, 
from the excitement of dangerous underclass
energies, from which my first-generation-
immigrant parents, struggling for security
spent a lifetime protecting me. I come home
contaminated with inspiration, then sleep
it off until the afternoon.

After years of hanging out in Times Square
I'm a familiar figure. Occasionally, I am
still walking the streets as the sky melts
into dawn. But no matter how long I stay
I, will never be able to capture what is
rapidly being drained from this
neighborhood. Times Square is being
transformed from a place of illicit
pleasure transactions into a prefabricated
theme park for the family.

What Times Square is losing can be found
nowhere else. Up until this moment it had
been a place where "the underworld meets
the elite, " where those who have no cash
encountered those who have a little or a
lot. It was here that people who could
afford $60 seats at Broadway shows faced
the young and the poor coming for the video
arcades and budget double features. Times
Square was a crossroads of class and race.
It was one of the only places where the
burned-out South Bronx could touch
boutiqued-out Manhattan.

At this date, all but a few of the original
buildings of Times Square's major
thoroughfare, 42nd Street, which has been
purchased by the state, are boarded up. The
porno shops have been shunted to Eighth
Avenue, where they bide their time until
the new ban will eliminate all but a few.
As if an army of children could complete
the transformation from Red Light district
into Souvenir City, a children's theater
called the Victory has taken the lead on
the block. It is the first finished
renovation, but Disney will soon complete
its heavily subsidized renovation of the
New Amsterdam Theater, and a Marvel Comics
theme diner is set to open its doors in a
couple of months. A few blocks away on
Broadway, the new Virgin megastore rules
next to a smug and plastic All-Star Cafe, 
a sports-theme restaurant. Sentimental
nonauthenticity, which is the genius of
suburbia, has taken the lead in Times
Square. It is epitomized by the new
establishments' use of vacuum-molded
plastic-and-steel facsimiles of art deco
trim, which serves as a cynical tip of the
hat to Times Square's architectural past.
What used to be sordid is being replaced by
pseudo.

During my Times Square vigils of several
years ago, I followed a fairly set
itinerary that began with a happy hour
drink at a hustler bar, moved on to a bar
that was the unofficial headquarters of the
Latin Kings, took in a Blarney Stone, 
favored by gay blacks, sampled a drag club
called La Fiesta, and ended up a little
further east in the 40s at an after-hours
club in a building that still had the
original interior staircase from the time
it was a private house.

Today, I still drop in at another long-
standing club called Sally's II, which is,
one of the last old-style drag bars in
Manhattan. It's a place where dressed-to-
the-tits queens, most of them Latin or
Black, saunter past sulky homeboys in their
oversized jeans. Lustful businessmen in
black suits still carrying their attaché
cases--who remind you of somebody's father
--hug tumblers of bourbon, scoping out the
"female" trade. Even today, 
clients remain caught up in the fast 
action--that steamy tango of opposites that 
makes the bars of old Times Square so vital 
and so threatening.

Last night, as on most nights, the staff
rounded out the homage to heteroland. Two
tough daddy-bouncers ruled with an iron
hand, while big-breasted queens bitch-
nurtured, serving drinks. The air was thick
with familia. Everybody knew everybody
else's name, and all knew me as "the guy
who writes those books about us, " though
few had read them.

The legendary Sally who started the club
succumbed to AIDS two years ago. Sometimes
he showed up in female drag for special
occasions, such as his birthday, but emceed
most of the shows in Vegas-male drag
lip-synching Sinatra or Tom Jones.

Sally's II is undeniably urban, but is also
a village. It's a tightly knit community of
people with complementary needs yet, 
different economic, ethnic, and cultural
backgrounds. From the first I was struck by
how little it resembles a "gay bar" in
today's mainstream sense of the word. Its
careful simulations of guys and dolls has a
peculiar symbiotic relationship to the
normal, straight world.

Not far from Sally's was the dungeon of a
friend of mine, a sophisticated house of
dominatrices who catered to the
sadomasochistic impulses of rich gentlemen.
Occasionally, I'd stop up and have a drink
in the office with my friend, while the
muffled sounds of slaps or groans came from
the adjoining rooms.

The only thing that connected this world of
expensive pleasure transactions to the bars
I visited was the reliance of both upon the
commerce of pleasure, but Times Square was
big enough to accommodate each of them.
Now, all but one of my bars has been
closed. Sally's II has been harassed
several times by a suddenly vigilant police
department. My friend was pressured out of
her dungeon by the Department of Housing
Preservation and Development, along with
artists who had occupied the other floors
of the building for years.

But even today, I still see cars from
suburban New Jersey barreling to the curb
to pick up drugs being sold by somebody
from the ghetto of East New York. I still
catch glimpses of the businessmen from
Connecticut stiffly walking a female or
transvestite prostitute to a pay-by-the-
hour hotel. And I can still find working
class Blarney Stone bars serving cheap
drinks to construction workers, janitors, 
tourists from Germany, yuppies and the
homeless.

Times Square is still a tense node of the
uneasy American scene. Its crown--the great
building of the Port Authority Bus
Terminal--still serves as a squalid Notre
Dame for the homeless as well as a pipeline
for millions of middle class commuters and
tourists. The neighborhood is a leftover of
the old center-city notion--known in most
metropolitan areas as "downtown." And those
mornings after I have squandered the night
as squeamish commuters thread through the
leftovers, I mourn the vanishing of such a
site.

"Downtown" is certainly not a recent
phenomenon. The central marketplace, where
the poor and the rich were forced to have
contact for the sake of business and
pleasure, goes back to ancient times. But
in fitting with the new millennium of
sprawl, the days of the intense city center
are numbered. Many applaud this "clean-up."
But these are the people who do not object
to the uniform visuals of today's malls
who never question dependence on the
automobile, and who lead a life style that
is only in theory multicultural.

Ironically, they are also the people who
consume products that depend in part on the
energies of the rejected classes, since
fashion designers, musicians and
advertisers vandalize the physicality and
dynamism of the poor to package libido for
consumers. They have made use of tropical
colors, African music, "exterminator"
spices and the passionate fatality of
boxing, while the originators of these
energies continue to press their noses to
the opposite side of the glass, yearningly, 
fixated on the washed-out elegance of a
Virginia Slims girl or an accessorized GQ
man.

As I wallow in my waning degenerate center-
city paradise, I reflect on the ways that
the terrain of the Other is shrinking in
America. To me, suburban America seems
omnipresent. Times Square is not the only
neighborhood in Manhattan being swallowed
up by the new blandness. When Manhattan
became one of the last urban centers to
alter zoning laws to allow the opening of
more and more large convenience stores
the, new chains became way stations for the
promotion of uniform values, icons of
nuclear family politics that multiplied
like clones. These value stations came from
the minds of people who would rather risk
danger from machines (car accidents) than
from people (muggings); but because of
them, the very notion of travel may now
become obsolete. Each store is identical to
the next, making it soon feasible to shop
with friends via video in two different
outlets of Staples or catch dinner with a
mother living in another town at a communal
cyberspace Red Lobster.

No one realizes as well as I the perversity
of my reasoning. Yet as I track the giving
way to progress in old Times Square, I, 
can't help but remember it in the seventies
and eighties as a bustling center of cheap
movie houses and video arcades, where
mostly nonwhite, low-income people took
their dates, seemingly oblivious to the
porno palaces next door. And I wonder where
these people spend Saturday nights now.
Contact--however brief--outside the prison
of my class is what I still desire. Then
call me, if you will, a degenerate, and
look for me "Downtown."

Bruce Benderson is the author of the novel 
User (Dutton/Plume) about Times Square
street people. He is co-editor with Stuart
Bernstein of the Web magazine DENT

(http://members.aol.com/dentmag). This
essay will be part of a collection called 
Toward the New Degeneracy, to be published
in the fall by Edgewise Press. For more
information contact Edgewise Press, 24 Fifth Avenue, 
Suite 224, New York, N.Y. 10011-8815.