BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF III – The Forty-Deuce

The Forty-Deuce‘ is a collection of photographs by Bill Butterworth that documents life in Times Square before it was scrubbed clean and thrown to the tourists. When I first opened the book, freshly ripped from its Amazon packaging, its pages peeled from eachother as if the sweat from their just-had-sex subjects were somehow permeating the paper. Excuse me, I couldn’t resist getting that gush of pretentiousness out of my system before I begin properly. By the way, the pages really did need peeling; it was weird. I also debated telling you that I could smell the sweat, but I think that’s just me. It’s humid today. Anyway, I saw a feature on the book over at Leisure a couple of weeks ago and bought it pretty soon after, simply out of curiosity, and because I’ve just moved into a new room and its shelves need some fleshing out.

I haven’t been anywhere near New York, and all I know about Times Square is that it’s a bit like Picadilly and everyone seems to want to go there. Carlo McCormick’s introduction to ‘The Forty-Deuce’, then, was pretty enlightening. Apparently, 42nd Street gained a reputation for the ‘naughty, bawdy [and] tawdry’ from the early days, and its seediness culminated in Butterworth’s 1980s. McCormick writes that ‘sex and drugs did not simply descend on Times Square, but grew there’. He confronts the ‘neither very white nor affluent’ statuses of Butterworth’s subjects, and blames ‘the role of race and class in America’s hypocritical measure of criminality’ for shaping ‘Slime Square’ into a territory both seedy and ethnically diverse, simultaneously.

“Times Square is a construction of America’s binary impulses: a puritanical state of tremendous punitive intolerance and a society of nearly unprecedented freedoms. Repression and tolerance played an equal hand in making the Forty-Deuce what it was.”

The photographs are a sort of time capsule, documenting a place in which sex was attainable in every corner and in every form, thriving right alongside mainstream living. Peep-shows, porn shops, prostitutes and pleasure-junkies abound, and all are captured with amiable tenderness. This is street photography at it’s raw best, and it has somehow made me nostalgic for a place and time which I never knew (which is easy for me to say from my detached 3-bedroom house).

I’ll leave you with the afterwords provided by the books editors: Hilton Ariel Ruiz and Beatriz Ruiz. P.S. I’ve transcribed them exactly, and I think some of the spelling and grammar is a little questionable. It pains me to admit that, since I’m enjoying the book so much. Still, don’t hold me to that statement since my use of commas and hyphenated adjectives is pretty extravagant, I’m told.

You only heard the stories that after time had became whispers in the air of those who experienced this place 25 years ago–what we now call the Forty-Deuce. What about these photos of how New York used to look gives us such an eerie feeling? Is it the fact that we know, at one time, Times Square was where we could take our pleasures through hidden doors; a place to hangout where there were no rules? I like to call it “the Original Sin City,” with its bright neon lights and oversize billboards and the entertainments that came along with it. These photos show a time when credit cards weren’t offered and car leases weren’t even a choice but what you did have was a unique style–just your boom box and your kicks. Through the lens of Mr. Butterworth’s camera, we see a place that he says was the only area of New York and maybe the entire United States where it didn’t matter what color, race, gender, or religion you were. It was a place everybody felt equal. Butterworth’s photos take us on a surreal journey through the flashing lights of the theater marquees, early hip hop style, kung fu shops, and the women and pimps, etc., that created this never to be replicated place. Bill Butterworth saw what the Forty-Deuce was all about.

-Hilton Ariel Ruiz.

When we say Times Square, we think neon, shopping, and restaurants. But this neighborhood has not always been what it is today. Just 25 years ago, Times Square was a place where notorious drugs, prostitution, and pimping were wreaking havoc. The area was known to house many peep shows and pornographic theaters. A study by local scientists at City University of New York estimated that the weekly gross of a single peep show ranged from $74,000 to $106,000, amounting to 5 million a year, and that was only the licit portion of the profits. In the Times Square of the seventies and eighties, sex was explicit everywhere and in just about every form and for any taste. Many still flocked to the area for other attractions, however. Broadway theater, always financially volatile, still had some fine years as well as some nosedives. In those days it was still possible to see a play or eat a greasy steak and baked potatoes at Tad’s Steak House, for five dollars. Second-run movie houses catered to New York’s thousands of college students with all-night showings of B-movies for a dollar. But the real entertainment was sought for free by the addicts, pickpockets, and other hustlers roaming the streets. During this period, various activities began to arise combining the glitz and glamour with the street life. One of the best examples was the birth of b-boy (Hip Hop) culture. Bill Butterworth’s photos highlight the kind of lavish and gritty culture that developed in New York during this dark period. The pictures are visual time capsules delivering concentrated bursts of historical information about what life was like in Times Square or as we called it, the Forty-Deuce.

-Beatriz Ruiz

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