Lily Burana | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,880 words)
Before Disney sprinkled corporate fairy dust over Times Square and turned it family-friendly, Josef and I worked there. Not together, but at the same time. Not underage, but barely legal. He was a go-go boy at the Gaiety on 46th Street. I was a peep show girl at Peepland on 42nd. Those were dangerous days. Between crack, AIDS, heroin, and that old stand-by, booze, if you weren’t leveled, you were blessed, watched over by some dark angel. We believed we were among the lucky ones.
We didn’t have anything resembling guidance or even common sense to rely on. What we had was the dressing room tutelage of elders scarcely old enough to drink, and the backbone of every sex industry transaction — commodified consent. Customers grabbed whatever they could, based on whatever you were willing to endure. We coped the best we knew how, and what I couldn’t handle has bubbled up, decades later. Just because money makes you say Yes doesn’t mean the body doesn’t store No in its memory — as sorrow, as trauma.
Josef and I met in San Francisco in our earliest 20s, and immediately fell deeply but platonically in love. He was gay. I didn’t yet know what I was. He was a dancer trained at one of New York’s premier schools, then called West to join a storied San Francisco company. I met him at a Castro gathering shortly after I had arrived in town myself. Among the leather daddies, biker dykes and kink cognoscenti, only we two shared the unenviable history of having worked New York’s notorious red-light district. We knew how it felt to scoop up and sort the sweaty dollars pressed toward our young bodies.
For kids like us, the debate over whether or not sex work is exploitative shrank to a frivolous academic exercise when our bills piled up. We were doing what we could with who we were.
We also knew how quickly soiled singles could add up to a heap of cash. And how, for kids like us, the debate over whether or not sex work is exploitative shrank to a frivolous academic exercise when our bills piled up. We were doing what we could with who we were. I was an aimless punk rock Jersey dropout with undiagnosed depression that robbed me of the ability to focus or sleep regular hours. He was a gay Midwesterner with prodigious talent as a dancer, and parents only vaguely supportive of his gifts and orientation. “Constrained choice” sociologists call it: Making the most of the limited options arrayed before us. We became wire-walkers, balanced on our teenage daring, fortified by the odd self-sufficiency that comes from realizing that whatever you have got to sell, someone will buy.
To onlookers, we seemed like a couple of misfit queer kids in matching black leather biker jackets, palling around. No one knew a clandestine job history united us. We held each other’s secrets, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. One of those glass slivers to the heart, mourning someone who saw, in a piece of you that you kept hidden, a reflection of themselves.
I was a wise old owl of 23, and Josef 22, when I suggested we go to Times Square to show each other where we used to work. Josef had recently moved back to New York for a dance gig, and I was in town for a visit. Peepland was unchanged — a neon-lit surrealist pornscape that would make even the most sex-positive person blanch. The two of us crammed into a booth and dropped tokens in the slot. The yellow plastic window slid up and a naked girl leaned down and said, “Are you tipping?”
I offered her a twenty. “I’m just showing my friend around. I used to work here.”
“Oh, okay.” She said, taking the money. She waved at Josef. “Hi.”
Josef and I walked up Broadway to the Gaiety, just around the corner from Howard Johnson’s. He led me up a narrow, dimly lit staircase. The paste-pale cashier, in a forbidding mood, wouldn’t let me in — No Girls Allowed, he said, which was only sort-of true (they made special exceptions for Madonna and Shirley MacLaine). On the dark sidewalk, tourists rushing by, we hugged and kissed goodbye. “I love you. I’ll miss you. I’ll see you soon.” In the cab back to where I was staying, I developed a sudden needling pain in my stomach so severe that when I returned to my friend’s apartment on Avenue B, I sat hunched over on her bed, rocking back and forth. I was upset: agitated, even angry. Why, oh why had I thought this was a good idea?
In the language of trauma, this is called Delayed Onset. I just call it the disastrous result of another one of my brilliant decisions.
To this day, over 25 years later, I cannot walk through Times Square without thinking about Josef, about the Gaiety, about Peepland. Forty-Second Street I avoid entirely. The scent of certain industrial cleansers makes me retch. I can’t drink orange soda, because I’d sometimes hike three flights to Peepland’s top floor in my cheap ankle-strap heels and treat myself to a Sunkist from the vending machine. I imagine such a sensory mashup as a synesthete’s worst nightmare: a peepshow you can drink.
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My Peepland memories aren’t all bad. I recall small caring moments: sitting with the girls in the dressing room as we shared rice and beans and syrupy plantains delivered from La Palma on 9th Avenue. Bumming Newports off each other. Singing along in front of the mirrors to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Going On But the Rent,” the other girls’ braids bouncing, bamboo earrings swaying as they snapped their fingers to keep time, 14-karat gold pinkie nails glistening: A fly girl like me needs security.
The memories can come as sudden and shocking as wire-coiled toy snakes popping from a can, while other times, they ooze up slow like a wet hand on my leg, heavy and unmoving as shame.
In the language of trauma, these involuntary recollections would be called Flashbacks. I just call them life.
Josef and I weren’t mature enough to discuss how certain people are set up for this work, hemmed in by economics, family dynamics, addiction, or just a raw, indeterminate need to walk the ledge — which can become an addiction in its own right. But we reached toward elucidating the ways we defined ourselves within this crucible, honed ourselves against its cruel, lacerating edge, and the ways it, in turn, defined us. Huddled together like two baby birds beneath a building overhang in a storm, we confessed our ambivalence, our wounding moments, without having to brace against creeping titillation, pity, or a response that’s one version or another of Well, what did you expect?, implying a karmic comeuppance we could have avoided if we’d made more wholesome choices.
I have advanced conversations these days with other former sex workers. Open. Tender. Unabashed, using a vocabulary that we might call “regret” but won’t. We needn’t code switch or clean up for primetime. My friend Melissa, who left professional domination around the same time she quit heroin, told me she has the same type of visceral, carnally surreal dreams about her old dungeon as she does about getting high. She stripped away the political scaffolding that surrounds so much talk about toiling in adult entertainment: If the issue is bodily autonomy — choice, really — then there needs to be room for honest appraisal of how that choice affects you, in body and mind, heart and spirit.
I recalled someone else saying a shrink told her: “‘I can handle it’ are often famous last words.”
I felt with Melissa what I used to feel with Josef — a supernova of emotions exploding forth. Relief at speaking the unspeakable, at being seen. At having company in the accounting of intangible costs that we could never have anticipated. In a job where you hide behind everything — fake name, fake lashes, a gilding of the narcotic power of bending men to your will, this force is radical in its restorative power. We are bound together and uplifted in the intimacy of the profane.
In the language of trauma, this would be called Reintegrating After Dissociation. I just call it real talk.
Discourse about sex work has evolved in recent years, as activists examine the tense Gordian knot of gender/power/economic issues to establish erotic labor as a fundamental human rights issue. The hardline reform, which requires navigating around misogyny and homophobia to call out injustice and violence toward sex workers, is an important mission that must feel, at times, like defusing a bomb. Eroding the social stigma is a top priority. But here’s the thing: Erasing the stigma won’t erase the ick. Won’t stamp it from where it roosts in your subconscious mind. I wish this weren’t so. And I wish I could make that point without sounding like someone’s concern-trolling maiden aunt.
More than that, though, I wish the woman I am now could go back in time, pull up in front of that peep show in a silver hotrod, roll down the window and lean out, wearing my designer leopard print coat and huge dark sunglasses, and beckon to that girl approaching that door for the first time. I’d say, with a sarcastic pimpy hiss, “Hey, girlie. I’ve got something you want. I got something you need: A decently-paying job that will stimulate you creatively while keeping you physically safe.” That punk-kid me would recognize Future Me — sardonic but kind, kitted out in punky couture — as a credible ally and she would clamber into the car, then we’d hit the Gaiety, grab Josef, and Future Me would drive us both to a different trajectory, one less fraught. One less fatal.
I managed to redraw my course through a slow, painful extraction that took several tries over several years, but Josef was beyond reach, vanishing without a trace. Not even a Google trail. Had he relapsed? Had he left the dance company to go-go again and gotten into trouble? Then I learned he had died of complications from HIV. I spent hours crafting alternative endings. Might I have been able to redirect him somehow? But, too often, people are on whatever path they’re on, and there was likely nothing that would have helped. I wish I could have saved him, but I could only love him.
I managed to redraw my course through a slow, painful extraction that took several tries over several years, but Josef was beyond reach, vanishing without a trace.
Now, when I pass through the cheery hygienic flash and hustle of Times Square, all I can offer him is the gift of remembrance, of forever dwelling in my heart. And gratitude for being with me as I revisited, for the first time, things I have tried many times to forget, but cannot. For helping me admit that when we think that by some dubious metric we come out ahead — echoing the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s seminal book on PTSD — the body keeps the score.
The small, sweet refrain inside the longer, seamier song is that when you’re in love with a ghost, you are never alone. Not in Times Square. Not anywhere. There are millions of stories in the naked city, and none more perilous, and precious to me, than Josef’s and mine. Two tenderhearted kids in one tough town, struggling toward each other to coordinate, against all odds, an irreplaceable intimacy all our own.
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You can listen to a Spotify playlist Lily Burana put together inspired by this essay here.
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Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl