“Sleazy city, sleepy people
Down in your alleys
Seems that anything goes
Blue films flicker
Hands of a stranger
Getting to know you
And I’m getting to like you”
–Soft Cell “Seedy Films”
Is Times Square real? No, I haven’t completely flipped my switch–I’m aware Times Square is locatable on a map. But, Times Square seems and has always seemed to exist somewhere between reality and fiction. While certainly the tourist-strewn horror show of Times Square in 2019 is a different sort of unreality than the sex-filled grit, grime and grift of Times Square of the 1970s and 1980s, it still traffics in fantasy. What you’re buying into today is an overblown version of America with its chain stores, wanton consumerism and eye-searing advertisements. Everything that makes a Middle American feel, at once, at home and far from it. But, in the bygone golden age of Times Square sleaze, an alternative kind of playground formed out of sex work, peep shows, porn theaters, and saucy neon signs advertising the potential for any depraved proclivity.
Certainly Soft Cell, with songs like “Seedy Films” and “Sex Dwarf,” intimately knows the joy contained in this type of lurid landscape. The band also acknowledges the need for memorializing, shouting, “Give me a reminder” on their track “Memorabilia.” Like Marc Almond’s plea, “I’ve got to have a memory,” us denizens of filth tend to wander through Times Square searching for what remains of this seedy past. Is there a still (or even better, newly) opened sex shop? A forgotten sign? A space to linger near the previous location of the “roughest bar in New York,” The Terminal Bar?
This strange space between mundane urban reality and erotic fantasy in which Times Square exists, as well as our contemporary yearning to recapture its garish essence, plays out on multiple levels in David Simon and George Pelecanos’s The Deuce, which finished its second season last year on HBO. With the first season set in 1972 and the second in 1978, I avoided The Deuce for way too long due to my publicly acknowledged hatred of James Franco, who plays twin brothers–the responsible bar owner Vincent and his wayward gambling brother Frank. I’ll be the first to admit, I was wrong. I’m absolutely obsessed with this show, which contains everything I want on television: disco excess, porn pleasure palaces, peep show perversion, and an inside look at a lost era of Times Square. From the burgeoning porn industry with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy transitioning from a street-walking sex worker to porn director to the Iceberg Slim-esque hyper–yet fragile–masculinity of the pimps like C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe) to the Mafioso control of nightlife, The Deuce invites numerous angles for close critical analysis.
However, what fascinates, and haunts, me most about the show are the moments in which the real and this fictional television program collide. This occurs frequently in regards to Paul, the gay bartender of The High Hat, owned by Vincent. Paul attends the premiere of Wakefield Poole’s seminal porn flick Boys in the Sand, parties at a nameless balloon-filled Downtown disco, which is most definitely The Loft (David Mancuso even makes an appearance behind the turntable), and visits the Hudson River piers, greeted by a Black trans woman who bears a striking resemblance to Marsha P. Johnson.
The pinnacle of these uncanny crossings, though, is the appearance of photographer Nan Goldin during an exhibition of a redheaded Downtown photographer Viv’s work at The High Hat, which is actually Goldin’s own from the late 1970s. The High Hat itself exists in a strange liminal space, modeled after Tin Pan Alley where Goldin famously captured its patrons including Cookie Mueller. This exact photograph of Mueller reappears on the walls of The High Hat. In The Deuce’s universe, Goldin is merely another patron at the bar, hilariously dismissing her own work to Vincent: “They call this art? I could have done that.” It’s both humorous and a little spooky as the boundary between present and past, as well as reality and fiction, blur completely.
Rather than a simple cheeky walk-on, Goldin’s guest appearance feels ghostly, as do the other moments of real history contained within this fictional depiction of Times Square. In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz addresses the ghosts of public sex he finds in the narratives of poet John Giorno and the paintings of Tony Just. The Deuce seems to contain similar ghosts, traces of actual lived histories before Giuliani and co. destroyed it. Beginning his chapter on these ghosts with a citation from Douglas Crimp’s “Mourning and Militancy,” recalling the lost sexual possibilities due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Muñoz states, “Although the moment that Crimp describes is a moment that is behind us, its memory, its ghosts, and the ritualized performances of transmitting its vision of utopia across generational divides still fuels and propels our political and erotic lives: it still nourishes the possibility of our current actually existing gay lifeworld.” While it seems difficult to pose old Times Square as a utopia, it was just that for many folks, a gathering place for a multitude of sexualities, social and economic statuses and identities, as seen in both The Deuce and Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
“Memory,” Muñoz writes, “is most certainly constructed and, more importantly, always political.” Like his statement, The Deuce embodies both the construction of memory, as well as the political resonance in returning to this period of Times Square history. Similarly, Jane Dickson’s paintings, which are currently on view at James Fuentes Gallery, are haunted by the ghosts–or memories–of old Times Square. Though created from the 1980s until the present, Dickson’s works are all set in the bad ole days, an, at once, romantic neon-tinted Times Square that also doesn’t ignore the danger that could lurk around every corner. Living in Times Square starting in the late 1970s, moving to an apartment on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue, Dickson also worked behind one of the first storied digital billboards shining and presiding over the area, allowing the artist to achieve a bird’s eye view of the chaos. Entitled All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, the show’s title recalls both the disappearance of this deliciously vulgar version of Times Square and the dreamlike scenery of her paintings.
Dreams, in Dickson’s hand, though, become an adult bar, advertised on a placard sign worn by a man in her painting Dreams I. Like these filthy dreams (*wink wink*), there’s a sense of erotic possibility in Dickson’s portrayal of the illuminated lights of Peepland or the Terminal bar. Absorbing and rich with her use of oil stick, creating bursts of color out of the black backgrounds, Dickson’s paintings display a city of equal shadows and seduction. Light, in particular, becomes essential in the paintings. As Dickson explained to curator Shawna Cooper on the occasion of the exhibition Times Square Show Revisited, “I became fascinated by glowing lights emerging out of darkness, which is still a focus of my work.” Like her series of casino paintings, Dickson’s manipulation of light feels multi-sensory. You can almost hear the flick and smell the puff of smoke of a man’s match lighting his cigarette in Big Peepland.
In Dickson’s work, the darkness foretells possibilities–both pleasurable and dangerous. Like Wojnarowicz’s “losing the form” in the piers, Times Square contains dual titillation and threat. In one painting, a woman stands in her lingerie near an “Employee’s Only” sign, while in another, a woman glides in front of a mirror in a peep show. Beyond these snippets of bodies, however, there is also the masked face of a boy at a bus stop, made menacing lit by a bus shelter advertisement. Cops run down the street–their figures merely shadows ricocheting off of headlights. Even a mother and child look ominous in the sickening fluorescent light.
Dickson places her viewers directly into this environment. It’s no mistake that her previous exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects was titled Witness. Like the curious peekers in Witness II, it seems as if Dickson is peering out her window or passing by on the sidewalk, transcribing what she observes onto her canvas. Rather than an insider’s view of the inner workings of sex work like The Deuce, Dickson turns her viewers into voyeurs, which can be equally as arousing.
Dickson’s portrayal of Times Square before its Disney-fication mirrors the evolution of many of the other neighborhoods of the city. Not the least of which is the Lower East Side where James Fuentes Gallery is located, with its vacuous glass towers looming over tenement buildings. With these snapshots of sleaze bursting from the white walls of James Fuentes, haunting the present with its remembrances of the past like postcards from the edge, both Jane Dickson’s exhibition and The Deuce raise the questions: Why are we looking back to this era now? Are we just being nostalgic for an unreachable time? Or is there potential strength in looking back?
According to both Muñoz and Samuel Delany, mining the past can be useful to envision a better future. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany sees more than just nostalgic reminiscing in his memories of cruising the late Times Square porn theaters. As he explains, “As, in the name of ‘safety,’ society dismantles the various institutions that promote interclass communication, attempts to critique the way such institutions functioned in the past to promote their happier sides are often seen as, at best, nostalgia for an outmoded past and, at worst, a pernicious glorification of everything dangerous: unsafe sex, neighborhoods filled with undesirables (read: ‘unsafe characters’), promiscuity, an attack on the family and the stable social structure and dangerous, noncommitted ‘unsafe’ relationship–that is, psychologically ‘dangerous’ relations, though the danger is rarely specified in any way other than to suggest its failure to conform to the ideal bourgeois marriage. Such critiques are imperative, however, if we are ever to establish new institutions that will promote similar ends.” Muñoz echoes this assertion: “These pictures of utopia…do the work of letting us critique the present, to see beyond its ‘what is’ to worlds of political possibility, of ‘what might be.’”