Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

An Excerpt from "Times Square Red / Times Square Blue"

May 13 2019

Samuel R. Delany, the revered science fiction author whose literary legacy includes such classics as Dhalgren and Babel-17, will visit Metrograph this weekend to present Delanymania, a series including some of his favorite films. Although best known for his fiction, Delany is also responsible for one of the great works of film writing, Times Square Red / Times Square Blue. The book contains two long essays, the first of which is a revealing autobiographical piece about his years spent in the grindhouses and porn theaters of midtown Manhattan and the men he met there.

A classic of both counter-cultural criticism and the queer memoir, Times Square Red / Times Square Blue will be on sale at the Metrograph Book Fair. Delany will be joining us for a signing on Saturday afternoon following our screening of This Island Earth.

Excerpted from Times Square Red / Times Square Blue,
§2 of "Times Square Blue," pp. 19–31,
by Samuel R. Delany

At the Variety Photoplays you gave the elderly fellow inside his booth your dollar, and, through the tiny window in the glass, he gave you a nickel change and your ticket from a large roll—weekdays yellow, Saturdays orange, Sundays blue. (Yes, it was 95 cents in the seventies, up from 45 cents in the sixties.) Always in a brown or blue suit and a red bow tie, he mumbled heatedly to himself nonstop. For years the theater had been a gay sexual cruising ground. The (strictly heterosexual) pornographic movies started as a Saturday offering. At first management was afraid the straight films might drive away the theater’s gay audience. The tickets’ color coding allowed them to compare the take from days when sex films played and days when legit features ran. The figures for the porn were pretty good, however. Soon it was pornography Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with legit films the other days. Within a year and a half, it was double-feature porn Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, in deference to what I’ll never know, a porn film alternated with a legit offering. That persisted for another year, till the porn drove out even that.

Finally all the tickets were yellow.

If anything, the gay activity increased.

You went in through glass doors, where a guy leaned from his stool and ripped your ticket in half. Weekends, from the time the theater opened at ten till four or five in the afternoon, three Puerto Ricans managed the house. With muscled arms, a brutal face, and shiny hair, the youngest, in his late thirties, sat on the stool and tore tickets, without interrupting his machine gun chatter. With a silver mane, the oldest usually wore a gym suit and sandals. Sometimes he spelled the youngest on the stool. Other times, he stood around, telling stories of his pimping days. Between them in age, a heavy fellow lounged with them (he always wore a cap), an audience for the complaints of the youngest and the boasts of the eldest. Their conversation listed from English to Spanish to English, from argument to laughter and back.

When, after two years in England, I came down from my first university teaching job in Buffalo and started going again to the Variety in the summer of ’75, I assumed all three men were straight. Later I decided the heavy one was a gay friend of the other two. Easily, though, I could have been wrong on any count.

Refrequenting the Variety (I’d gone there often before going abroad), I noticed a dozen or so patrons were men I’d seen there regularly three, five, ten years before. The place seemed almost a kind of family, with a neighborhood feel—though men came there from as far as the Bronx, Queens, Westchester, or (a tree service worker and his uncle) Brewster, New York.

It was surprising how little the pornography changed that.

One day, in the Variety’s balcony, I noticed a good-looking Spanish guy in his early twenties—possibly even his late teens, sitting in the forward seats to the left. At least eight months of roof-top weight lifting had filled out his orange T-shirt’s shoulders. He’d opened his khaki pants and was masturbating. As I watched, an older guy moved into the seat beside him, leaned close, and whispered. Pausing the length of two or three strokes, the younger guy said something back. The older rose and moved away, while the kid went back to what he was doing.

Over the next twenty minutes two more men sat next to him. To each he said something. Again, each left—one to sit two seats away, the other to wander off into the theater’s black.

Pretty soon, no one was joining him any more. The young man went on energetically pumping at himself, a seat free on either side. Later, in the “lounge”—what the longer-term customers called the space behind a small wall backing the balcony’s last row, under a filthy skylight—I overheard two men, one black, one white:

“That straight kid over there—beating off? He’s gorgeous. Why isn’t anybody doing him?”

“Oh, he tells anybody who sits beside him he wants to do it himself. He says you can watch, but he wants you to sit at least a seat away.”

“Oh—I see! Well, I just don’t know if my heart could stand that. I’ll go downstairs and let him do his thing.”

One or the other chuckled in the theater’s shadow.

Awhile later, walking along the horizontal aisle between the balcony’s front and back seats, I glanced at the young guy, two rows below and a few seats to the side, when suddenly he put back his head, black hair glimmering in the screen’s light in rhythm with his fist. He blinked twice, closed his eyes, clamped his teeth, and, as his lips pulled apart, in two large gouts and a smaller, from his speeding grip his fluids arched into the black between his khaki knees, wide against two different seat backs. Jerkily his fist slowed—and he growled.

After moments, breathing hard, he sat up to grin. “Hey . . . that was a . . . pretty good one, wasn’t it?”

Left and right from three and four seats away, half a dozen men looked at him and grinned back—as a forty-year-old Asian man, somewhat heavy, in a suit jacket and sitting a row behind him, caught his breath and, only a bit less spectacularly, came.

The young man looked up and—still grinning—saw me: “Not bad—hey, you’re watchin’ me too?”

I nodded.

“I’m gettin’ off on her up there—” he pointed at the screen—“and you guys are all gettin’ off on me . . . ? That’s funny, huh? That guy there—” His hand swung to point to the Asian—“he always comes the same time I do. Don’t you? Didn’t you? Come on—didn’t you?” He looked back at me. “He always does that. Every time. I shoot—he shoots. Ain’t that a trip?” Looking over, he laughed.

Smiling somewhat sheepishly, the Asian glanced up at me.

“That’s really funny, huh?” the guy went on volubly. “I don’t mind, though. It ain’t nothin’.” Turning back to the screen, he made two fists, stretched his arms wide, and yawned. “Well, I’m gonna get off a couple more times—” he glanced at his watch—“Damn! I been here since this place opened—then I’m goin’ home.”

I wandered away. But ten minutes later, when I walked by again, I looked down over the rail to see him once more industriously at work. Some of the guys around him had gone. Some new ones had sat down to observe.

My own adventures kept me in the orchestra, so that an hour and a half later when, thinking of leaving, I wandered into the lobby, as I looked away from the ticket taker arguing on his stool with his two friends, up the stairway to the balcony along the lobby’s wall by the movie posters, in his orange T-shirt and khaki slacks, the same young man ambled lackadaisically down. When he was a third of the way, however, I saw—with some shock—his fly was open. His uncut penis, along with both testicles, hung free.

The sight of genitals when you don’t expect them—in a public space, say—astonishes. The heart pounds. The stomach clutches. This is what makes exposure a violation. But it is not the greatest astonishment in the world. And acclimation mitigates it.

For a moment I wondered if, indeed, it was oversight. (And when we are astonished, we often laugh; which is healthy, if the shock signals no danger.) Just then, among the three men at the door, the heavy one in the baseball cap looked up. With a slightly suspended smile, he turned to the others. “Hey—there’s your cousin up there.” And laughed.

The guy on the stool looked—and suddenly frowned. “Hey, what the fuck you doin’?”

Disingenuously, the guy coming down the steps glanced over. “What do you mean . . . ?”

“Come on, man—put yourself away, now!”

“Huh?” the guy persisted, though a smile was trying to fight its way out from behind his nonchalance.

“Come on—now. Put your fuckin’ dick away! You hear me?”

Glancing down at himself, the guy feigned bemusement. “Huh? My cock—why? What’s the matter with it?”

“It’s out your damned pants! That’s what’s wrong with it. Damn it,” the ticket taker said, “I ain’t gonna let you in here no more if you don’t—”

“Why do I gotta put my dick away?” The young man came down another step. “Everybody in the movie’s got his dick out his pants, beatin’ off. Or somebody suckin’ on him. Or something—”

“Look—” the guy got off his stool now and gestured—“people can see you, man. From outside. Come on, now!”

The kid on the stairs broke out laughing and, finally, pushed his privates back in his slacks. Zipping up, he came on into the lobby.

“You’re crazy,” his older cousin repeated. “You do that again and I won’t let you come in here no more—”

“I’m not crazy,” the younger guy said. “I’m havin’ fun. That’s what everybody does here. You said so—what, you don’t go in there and do it too sometimes? You told me you did—”

“Not where everybody can see—”

“Why not? That’s what everybody else does.”

The other two were grinning, of course. But, past its emotional peak, the conversation slid along its developmental slope into Spanish, now that the phallic display was again veiled. The kid came over to stand in the door with them while they talked of something else.

A week or two later, when I was again in the Variety’s balcony, again I looked over the rail to see the guy was back—in about the same seat. That day I’d brought in three cans of ginger ale. After drinking one, I decided I was going to leave early.

“Hey,” I called down over the rail, where he was sitting, pants open, but for the moment only holding himself in his fist, “you want a soda? I’m going to leave soon, and I don’t want to carry these around with me.”

He looked up. “Huh? Oh, yeah—thanks, man.” He took the can I held down to him.

Still leaning on the rail, I asked, “Your cousin downstairs decided to let you back in?”

He frowned, then realized what I must have been talking about. “Oh, yeah, he lets me in for nothin’. He’s a good guy.”

“You like it?”

Again he considered. “Yeah, it’s okay. Guys don’t crowd you here—I mean, if you ask them to leave you alone. Sometimes you got to tell ’em, you know, move over. I don’t like that, somebody sitting right next to me while I’m beatin’ my meat. I mean, I don’t want no blow job or nothin’. Some guys here, they like that, but that’s just not my thing. You wanna sit around and watch, I don’t give a fuck about that. I mean, sure, sometimes, guys stare—you know. I don’t like that, either. You know, just staring—” Opening his eyes wide, he thrust his head forward in an imitation of an overcurious observer. “But these guys are okay.” He looked around at the other men a seat, a row, or three seats away. (Two glanced at him. One smiled.) “It’s better than those places uptown, you know, where they come around and shine a fuckin’ flashlight on you—scare you to death up there! I mean, you’re beatin’ off—and suddenly you got this flashlight in your face! No, this is nice here. These guys in here, they’re nice.” He gestured with the can I’d given him. “Hey, thanks for the soda, man.” Turning back around, he opened the tab, drank, sat it on the floor—and, among the half a dozen in their seats about him (including, I saw once more, the Asian from last week), fell to his rhythmic work.

The above would seem to require that someone point out vigorously (and with differing contents our literature is full of such all-male scenes, similarly structured) that its charm, sociality, and warmth—if it has any—depend entirely on the absence of “the woman”—or at least depend on flattening “the woman” till she is only an image on a screen, whether of light or memory, reduced to “pure” “sexuality,” till, a magical essence, a mystical energy, she pervades, grounds, even fuels the entire process, from which she is corporally, intellectually, emotionally, and politically absent.

I was describing to a friend this evidently straight man, his openness to the gay men around him, his humorous exhibitionism, when suddenly she said, “I want to see some of that—and all the sex you’re talking about that goes on, too!”

A voracious reader with short dark hair, and a stocky little Hispanic woman, Ana did office temp work during the day; by night she was a wonderfully talented guitarist and singer, working in the small clubs around the Village. “Would you ever take me . . . with you?”

“It’s dark in there.” I laughed. “You’d have to squint—at least till your eyes adjusted.”

“What would happen if you took a woman in there?” she went on. “Probably everybody would get all upset and angry—”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Couples come in sometimes. Mostly, that’s guys with prostitutes. But not always. About the worst thing that happens is that some fellow will sit a seat away from you and beat off.”

“That,” she said, “I think I could handle.”

One Thursday afternoon (on purpose I chose a time when it wasn’t too crowded) I took Ana not to the Variety but to the Metropolitan, another porn theater further east on Fourteenth Street. I wore jeans, a red-checked shirt, and contact lenses. Ana wore jeans, a man’s white shirt, a denim jacket, and her thick, pink-rimmed glasses. We hadn’t discussed costumes, but I thought, for a first-time visit, she’d made a wiser choice . . . than, say, heels, miniskirt, and beaded halter.

Somewhat larger than the Variety, the Metropolitan was set up differently. A horseshoe balcony ran around its second level. The walls were painted black. (The Variety’s were dark blue.) Several stairways led up and down, and thus there was a good deal more traffic between levels, which somehow seemed a positive factor for taking someone unfamiliar with the place—and who would be perceived, certainly, as an unfamiliar visitor.

When we paid our entrance fee and stepped in, the Greek manager suddenly stepped up and took my forearm—so that, at first not noticing, Ana walked on ahead. “If I hear she’s takin’ any money, man,” he said to me in a heavy accent, “I’m gonna throw you both out! This ain’t no whorehouse.”

Somewhat startled, I said, “Oh—don’t worry!”

Patting my arm, he went on in a more explanatory tone: “’Cause the pimps bring women in here, and try to turn tricks right in the movie. I can’t have that going on. I mean, this is a nice place. People come in here to have fun, not to pay no whores.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. And pulled away to catch up with Ana.

“What was that about?” she asked.

I told her. She laughed.

Though it had a double door making a narrow vestibule, like many theater buildings dating from before World War I, the Metropolitan had no real lobby.

“When I come in here,” I said, as we moved behind the final row of seats, through the reddish light at the back of the orchestra, “I usually take a quick tour of the whole place, just to see how things are looking. Here, that’s down the aisle there and up that one over there. Then it’s once around the balcony—”

She said: “Go on.”

So I did, with Ana behind.

When we finished our round of the orchestra and left the ground floor to walk up the steps to the balcony, I asked her, “How many guys did you see giving other guys head, downstairs?”

“Huh?” she said.

“I saw three.”

“Come on, not right out in the middle of the . . . oh, you’re kidding me—” Just then two black kids dashed down the steps beside us. One glanced at Ana and whispered, “Uh-oh . . . fish!” “Fish” was gay slang for women. But I don’t think it registered with Ana—or, indeed, just then, with his friend two steps below.

We came out at one end of the horseshoe, to walk up beside the double pairs of seats, mostly empty. On my first circuit, I saw a thickset man in workmen’s greens, sitting by the balcony rail and gazing at the screen, an empty seat beside him. In his late thirties (older, then, than Ana or I), he’d opened his pants and was fingering himself absently.

At least a decade his senior, a slender man leaned by the wall, watching. In white shirt and dark vest, he stepped away to move toward the seated workman—as we passed.

Continuing with me to the back, Ana commented softly, “There are a lot of people in here walking around . . .” There were. But since we’d come in, most of Ana’s attention had been on the screen, whereas I (who had seen that week’s offering already, several times in at least two other theaters) had hardly glanced at it.

I turned and started back. We reached the seated workman, still looking at the movie. His short-sleeved green shirt was unbuttoned now. The peak of his cap was turned to the side. The older man knelt between the workman’s knees, head moving up and down over the lap.

I sat in the empty seat beside him; and, with one hand on her hip, one hand holding her wrist, I guided Ana bodily into the chair ahead of me.

She sat, still looking at the screen.

I said softly, “Back here . . .”

Twisting to look at me, she said, “Where . . . ? What . . . ?”

Just then the workman, who, when I’d sat next to him, had made no response at all as my arm had slid down by his, suddenly blinked, pulled his hands back on the chair arms, and moved his whole body two inches forward. “That’s a girl—?”

The guy sucking raised his head and craned around below the seat back.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Go on.”

The workman looked at me. “She wanna do somethin’?” He turned to Ana.

“You wanna do somethin’ . . . ? If you do, that’s okay!”

The man between his legs still looked back. He held the workman’s dark penis in his pale fist. “Is this all right for you?” he asked Ana.

Looking down, Ana said, “Huh? Oh! Sure . . . Go on.”

With (I think she found it surprising) a wink at Ana, the man on his knees went back to sucking.

The workman’s hands slipped forward again on the chair arms. Fifteen seconds later, the man sucking raised his head again. Again he held the workman. Softly he said, looking back and up at Ana, “Do you . . . want some of this?” His other hand moved to my lap, as he spoke. “I’ll do your friend, if you want. And you can have this one . . .”

Ana said, “That’s all right. I’m just watching.”

“Oh. All right!” He whispered it as if reassuring her he’d keep a mutual secret.

His hand slipped from my pants, and he went back to sucking.

When the workman came—“Hey, thanks. Thanks. Thank you” (one had gone to the man sucking; the other had gone to me; and the third to Ana)—he buttoned his shirt, stepped over me, patted Ana’s shoulder, and was gone.

Getting up from the floor (I helped him; and Ana offered a steadying hand), the older man stopped to lay a finger on Ana’s forearm. “Did that look good to you, sweetheart?”

“Uh . . . yes,” she said, a little uncertain.

The man turned to give my arm a squeeze, then winked at me. Stepping among three other men who had stopped to watch, he whispered, “Good!” and was gone in the other direction.

Ana and I spent another hour in the theater. Once she sat on the balcony rail and watched two more guys work out in the seats beside her. For a while, on the same side of the balcony, at the end, she stood near a group of men (including one of the kids we’d passed on the stairs) and watched me trade off doing and getting done with a guy in squeaking leather, pants and jacket. Once, during a lull, as several other of the observers had been doing from time to time, she reached in to feel his erect cock—and, with his sudden frown (though he did not pull back), I and Ana both realized that, only then, had he seen she was a woman.

Ana let go and stepped quickly back, though.

Before we left, she told me, “I’m going to walk around by myself for five minutes.”

When, three minutes and thirty-eight seconds later by my watch, she rejoined me at the back of the orchestra, I asked: “Everything okay?”

“Yes.” She nodded.

“Anything happen?” I was quite as curious as to what she had seen as she had been to see it.

“Well, one guy made a pass at me—if you could call it a pass. In here, I mean. He asked me would I let him . . . eat me. Only, I could tell: He really thought I might say yes. And, when I said, ‘No, thank you,’ he smiled, shrugged—he did look sad—and . . . walked away.”

I laughed at her surprise and we pushed through the dull gold drapes hanging across the inner door.

When we were outside I said, “So. What did you think?”

The first thing she said was, “There really were guys giving other guys blow jobs downstairs in the orchestra! I thought you were kidding when you first told me that. I thought it was all going to be going on in dark corners.” Eyes befuddled by the full light, by the trees, and people, and the streets themselves, the garbage along the curb, the bars and clothing shops and kids and parents moving quickly about, we strolled back down Fourteenth Street, dazzled in the ordinariness of day. “It was interesting.” Then she added, “It was more relaxed than I thought it was going to be. I thought it would be more frenetic—people just grabbing each other and throwing them down in the shadows and having their way. But it was so easygoing. And you didn’t tell me . . .” She paused.

“Didn’t tell you what?”

“—that so many people say ‘no.’ And that everybody pretty much goes along with it.”

“I guess,” I said, “when so many people say ‘yes,’ the ‘nos’ don’t seem so important.”

“Well, there’re still more ‘nos’ than ‘yesses.’”

“Between five-to-one and eight-to-one, I’d estimate.”

She laughed.

“Would you go again?”

She thought. Then, with her black, curly hair, she gave a small, definite head shake. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Well . . . I was scared to death!”

“Was there anything in there that scared you?”

She thought again. “No.” Finally she said: “The people weren’t as pretty as I thought.”

Not sure what she meant, I raised an eyebrow.

“The people in the movies,” she explained. “The actors on the screen. They weren’t even as good-looking as the people walking around the theater.”

“Oh,” I said.
Reprinted from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue: 20th Anniversary Edition with permission from NYU Press.