Becoming a Man on the “Sleaziest Block in the Country” (Times Square), an Essay by Alcy Leyva

Alcy Leyva | Essay, Humor

One night, while standing on a deserted street just north of Times Square, a close friend from high school and I were sitting in awe of what was happening just twenty feet from us on the opposite street. After standing in silence for almost a minute, watching in awe as the events played out in front of us, I raised a single finger in the air, and said, “I want us to promise. Promise me, right here right now, that we will go in there our senior year. Graduation night.”

My friend Troy crossed his arms. Between us and our goal, a herd of yellow cabs pushed to the south. He smiled first, nodded slowly second, and then replied, “Deal.”

Across the street, the line of patrons waiting to get into our promised paradise was steadily growing. Heading this que and checking IDs was a bouncer that looked like someone had created a sentient bicep and drew an all-black suit on it. He rocked a buzz cut, fists as big as waffle irons, and a mighty cleft in his chin that could sport a thong. Above his head, showcasing the marvels of the establishment in bright neon lights, was a marquee with fifty tiny spotlights raining down on the patron’s heads, giving everything an unnatural glow. On the marquee itself was the outline of a smiling airplane stewardess with wings on the side. Below her, in red lights, read “Runway 69”.

Just par for the course in the most deplorable places in the entire country at the time: Times Square, New York City.

Our walk through Times Square featured it all: storefronts luring in tourists with shoddy knicknacks; graffiti overwriting older graffiti; payphones that had a 10 percent chance of working but a 99 percent chance of smelling like an armpit if they did; magazine stands selling nude rags that sported marvelous titles such as Teacher’s Pet and Big & Chesty, right next to X-Men comics; pimps letting you know that the special of the night was a $10 handjob and that you were in luck because his girls had that “kung-fu grip”; garbage cans whose only purpose seemed to be for decorating with garbage.

The perv recreational centers scattered up and down the strip were too many to count. Runway 69 was certainly one of the most inviting strip clubs on 42nd Street, but that wasn’t exactly saying much. While the thought of watching nude female bodies gyrating to 80s hairbands in low fluorescent lighting both thrilled and terrified us, we knew better than to walk into those other places. You know the type—the kind of place that appeared to be the perfect representation of what roaches would construct to catch humans. From the outside, it was hard to tell if these dives were actual businesses where the strippers were part-time carnies or establishments where only fire and prayer could kill the diseases employed inside.

Working against my plans, New York City began changing in the mid-nineties. The city had just voted Rudolph William Louis Giuliani as mayor. My mom voted for Giuliani. I may have been too young to care about politics, but I wasn’t too young to notice the odd changes that rode in on this man’s coattails. Our previous Mayors (Koch and Dinkins) had their cracks at cleaning up the special hell hole that we called Times Square. They all recognized the money in those sidewalks and storefronts, but it was Guiliani digging up some old cabaret laws and blocking liquor licences like it was going out of style that landed the fatal blow for New York’s own little slice of Gomorrah.

The more strip clubs and peep joints the city shuttered, the more Giuliani became synonymous with any all changes happening in the city. That’s when the phrase “Fucking Giuliani” crept right into our everyday vernacular. It was common practice to say this in the same way you would tell someone, “Good morning” or “Why the fuck are you sitting on my car?” It was a salutation, a Bar Mitzvah invite, a weather forecast. Everyone knew that whether you were inferring that the powers of the mayor could plausibly influence the substandard graduation rates of the New York City Public School system, or if you were talking about that one time you got held up at gunpoint by a 50 pound rat with a stubby tail and a jean jacket— it always had to end with … “Fucking Giuliani.”

I hadn’t worried about Runway 69 closing because, with all of its competitors going down to police raids and the city’s re-zoning laws, the place had only become more popular—too big to fail. The real problem was that even though it was originally my idea to go to a strip club, I was having a hard time quantifying sex. This was all compounded further by my choice of high school. My mom, overjoyed when I decided to go to an all-boys Catholic high school because, to her, this would help me focus more on my grades, of course had no idea that the exact opposite would happen. 99 percent of life in Cardinal Hayes was a daily carpet bomb of sex jokes, boob drawings, and innuendo. It was about skirt length and which lunch lady could “get it.”

Constantly being assaulted by talk of who was sleeping with whom and which guy stuck what in someone else’s something-or-other for four years straight left me disconnected from the other boys around me. At times, I felt like we were two very different species. I started keeping my distance from very male-ish social interactions, settling instead to observe how the other kids interacted, with each other and with the opposite sex. To my surprise, it became painfully obvious that not one person in my high school knew what the fuck they were doing, they only knew that they should be doing something.

My strip joint scheme was a plot I had concocted to jumpstart my sexuality. I thought that I could “man-up” by extreme exposure. Because everyone knows that you learn to play baseball by first taking a 95-mile-per-hour fastball to your kibbles and bits. This project was my version of “Scared Straight” (only I guess it was closer to “Scared Erect”) and I realized that it sported the remote possibility of killing me on the spot. It was my trial by fire, my forward faceplant into a volcano.

By the time graduation night came around— the night where we had planned our excursion to the land of pasties and lapdances— 42nd street was unrecognizable. The Disney store had just opened up and I had already been on my third time seeing Rent. The change in decor wasn’t skin deep. Droves of tourists crept, unharassed, along the sidewalks as lights gleamed off of the buildings. The magazine stands had all yanked their nude rags from their shelves. Even the trash on the ground was different, with the street flotsam now consisting of Sephora bags and pamphlets from the nearby Broadway TKTS booth.

Troy wasn’t with me. He had quietly had a change of heart over the years and decided that he was better off without it. Still, I gathered a flock of my friends and we pressed on to fulfill a promise I had made all those years ago. Just like Moses, they considered me to be their guide, only to a “promised land” of high heels and low pubic hair. At around 46th and 47th, a quiet pressure gathered on my chest. As I crossed the street, something coiled itself around my throat and neck, making me unable to turn my head. I felt like I was turning to stone, like my arteries and veins were chugging cement. Even though my hands were sweating by the bucket-full, I crammed them into my coat pocket and crossed against incoming traffic. I remember my friends running behind me, trying to keep pace, no one saying a word. After all of this time, I was going to see this through even if it killed me.

Unfortunately, my overzealousness seemed to have gotten us lost. I came up to 49th, stopped and doubled back. On 48th, I couldn’t recognize a single block or storefront. We walked around that block three or four times before giving up. Spotting a guy selling “Hot Nuts” on a corner, I jogged across the street to ask him directions.

He squinted. “You mean that place?”

Sure enough, behind me, there it was. Or, better yet, there it had been. The lights were all off, windows boarded up. Most of the marquee had been torn down so that the place looked more like an abandoned theater than a customary a butt and boobie buffet.

The city had gone and done the unthinkable.

I must have stood there for what felt like ages. My friend said something about trying some other place, maybe somewhere up the block, but my legs stood rooted into the sidewalk. I had gone there— to this place— for what should have amounted to, at least in my mind, an explosion of sexual radiation that would turn me into the Latin version of the Hulk. From sophomore year, I had wagered my entire puberty on this single event; had ignorantly believed that the road to sexual enlightenment began at Runway 69.

But I had in fact learned something about myself that night. Standing there on that New York City sidewalk, I felt … relief. Relief that my stupid idea hadn’t come to fruition. Relief that everyone had gone home and that the doors to Runway 69 had been barred and that I hadn’t been able to see, to be exposed to, a world I would never feel comfortable being in. The thick wad of guilt that had seized up in my throat wasn’t a character flaw in me, it was my body telling me that “Flight” was the better option. That I didn’t need a volcano jump to know that sex was always going to be a violent soufflé of beautiful experiences and terrible decisions. Sex was complicated and no lap dance could rework my reservations for the practice.

I realized that, in a way, the mere threat of going into a strip club had put me on the path that made me most comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t need to necessarily fit into what the other guys were doing just to be popular. I didn’t need to bask in someone else’s testosterone just to find some semblance of meaning. I realized that I had known, maybe from the beginning, that I had bought into that slick male trope of believing that the text for “Being a Man” was written on the twisting flesh of faceless women, when it wasn’t. As a young man who constantly had to beat down his own bubbling guilt and anxiety, I realized that I could set my own rules for my sexuality without having to objectify women.

This realization tore itself from my shoulders and fell to my feet, instantly allowing me to feel lighter and, for some reason, hungry. Free of this weight, I sighed and turned to find a place to eat with my friends. But before I walked away, I noticed that Mr. Hot Nuts had been staring at me. He had been staring at me the entire time that I was having my epiphany. Taking my silence as a sign of distress over the loss of a revered den of immorality, he walked over, dropped a free bottle of water in my hands, and gestured to the marquee with both of his hands just to say,“Fucking Giuliani.”

I tipped the water bottle at him and agreed.

“Fucking Giuliani.”

Alcy Leyva is a Bronx-born writer who lives and teaches in New York. His work has been featured in Popmatters, Points in Case, The Rumpus, and Entropy Mag.

Image Credit: 42nd Street, just west of Seventh Avenue, New York. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Identifier (NAID) 554297. Photographer Dan McCoy for the Environmental Protection Agency.