For a while, last summer, I made a good attempt at going to book readings at Elliott Bay Book Company. I like to study what authors do in their readings, how they present themselves, what sorts of people show up besides the two old ladies who sit up front and knit sweaters with their bifocals on. Unlike the two knitters, I could only make myself go if I actually wanted to buy the book. And this fall there has been little to draw me in. I’m not much for all the cozy historical fiction and ‘we are the world’ multicultural fare. I realize what really excites me is a thought provoking memoir. Nothing ever seems stranger than the truth and I like to experience the author’s process of release. When we write down our stories, we are finally able to let them go.
I went to see Sheila McClear give a reading for her debut book and memoir – The Last of the Live Nude Girls. She looked stunning with none of the visual queues of an ex-stripper. Tall, slim, and flat chested, she had the same body type as I do but with much better legs. She wore a white shift dress that reminded me of the Jetsons with a zipper going all the way down the front. Her tall tan wedges and long feather earring added contrast to her choppy asymmetric haircut.
The interesting thing about this reading was that I was seeing someone comparable to myself. My age, first book, sexual subject matter. I related to her intensely before she even opened her mouth.
There were not enough people in the audience, maybe five or six. I sensed her embarrassment over this. She told the organizer the book had gotten great reviews in New York, but she was having trouble garnering interest outside of the city since it was a memoir about working in the Live Girl Peep shows of Times Square.
She began the reading, and all I could feel was how awkward she felt. It was impossible to tell if the book was any good by the nervous way she read her work. I thought to myself, at least I’ve had a lot of stage experience for when it comes time to do my own readings. But then I remembered she had been onstage too.
After the brief reading, she took a few questions. One man in the back asked, “So why do you think Peep shows have gone out of popularity?” She didn’t really have an answer, and neither did we. They just seem like a thing of the past in an era of lap dances. Left behind with the unsanitary version of Times Square, before it became a Disneyfied family attraction.
I began to feel nervous as I always do when getting a book signed by an author. Racking my brain for something good to say. Apparently authors feel the same way, because almost always they compliment me on an article of clothing I’m wearing – a coat or a hat as though this is written in some book promotion guide for writers.
“Awesome reading,” I said abruptly. She signed the book, “8/25/11 Hi Lauren! Thanks for coming to see a live girl in Seattle! XXXO, Sheila McClear”
I thought it was clever. I liked her, and I desperately hoped I would like her book too. It was a great read and I couldn’t put it down. But I felt it could have used a better editor, and that her experience had needed more time for processing.
I am still contemplating how exactly she was drawn into the live shows. I understand the giant leaps we introverts sometimes take to overcome our shyness. I also understand just how easily New York can suck you up and spit you out. Look at me, after three years in New York I had to give up because I couldn’t find a job that paid as much as the first lucky find I’d had. There is still always the thought in the back of my head that I could’ve made it if I’d just tried harder. Why hadn’t my tenacity kicked in a little more? But the sheer force of home drew me back.
In those last few months in New York, I had a friend. We met through a man we had both been involved with. Originally she taught English as a second language. But over ten years prior, our mutual ex-lover had come along and she decided to show him how much he hurt her by working as a prostitute in a fake tanning parlor. I’m sure it didn’t phase him at all, but now she was running a brothel out of her apartment in the West Village. It seemed her main motive in being my friend was to convince me to come work for her. She couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t. I couldn’t accept that she only saw me as a commodity.
“My Dad can help me out this month, “ I always told her. I was the only person I knew of who didn’t have a jackass for a Dad. Cliché as it is, maybe my rejection of sex work partially stems from that. Why didn’t I do it? I still wonder. Reasons why – I hate living a double life and had already done enough in that regard. I could disappoint my parents by being who I am (aka not a Christian), but I couldn’t abuse them with the knowledge that all the money they’d spent for my education, all the love they’d given me would be in vain since I would be the antithesis of the strong person they raised. It was also personal. I didn’t want to end up hating men. But would it have come to that? Who can know?
All I saw was that my friend was hugely depressed and didn’t seem to know it. She resented people for everything they took from her, though she offered them everything. And towards the end she was ridiculously flaky. I got off the Path train to meet her for coffee. “Oh Lauren, I’m so sorry. A client just called and is only in town for the day. I’m meeting him at his room at the W. I can’t make it. But please come! I still want you to sit in on a session and just observe to see what you think. He’ll pay you $300. And then you can see if you’d like it.”
“Oh no, that’s okay. I’ll see you another time.” But I never heard from her again. She gave up on me. I found it bizarre that men paid for her – she looked like a stressed out housewife with long scraggly brown hair and a deep worry crease between her eyebrows. I guess she made men feel safe.
Years later in Seattle I briefly saw her leaving a bar in belltown, getting into a limo with a big group of black guys. It happened so fast, walking past her in that tight hall as I came through the door; she seemed like a mirage. Her entire life is like a mirage – appearing here and there in different cities, sitting beneath the law, fading from people’s lives before they ever get too close.
Her loneliness had weighed me down. Her money weighed me down too. I was too broke to afford the cabs and expensive restaurants she wanted to eat at. She probably held that against me.
“Things like sex and nudity were supposed to be imbued with meaning. But isolated from a relationship, they meant nothing – or rather, I realize now, they became something to be negotiated, and I became nothing – little more than a dress-up doll for them to project their narratives onto (McClear, 22).”
One night at this friend’s apartment I met a woman who worked for her. She was getting a divorce, her husband had cheated on her, and she had two kids. She liked sex work almost too much and was lonely enough to find solace in it. Tall, blonde and bare-breasted, she spread her expensive lingerie across the kitchen table, deciding which lacy silky thing she would wear for her client. I didn’t realize that business would be in session while I was there, but I decided to roll with it.
It was supposed to be a forty-minute session, but she wouldn’t stop talking to the guy afterwards. They were in a front room blocked off from the back of the apartment. We had to be quiet in the back. But I had to leave. It was midnight, and I wanted to catch the next train that only came every half hour late at night. Against my friend’s wishes, I busted a move for the front door. It jammed and just then the John walked out into the hall. I saw his look of astonishment as she shoved him back into the room until I could get out. What had I been doing there anyway? Out on the street I breathed in the cold air, with every step feeling further away from that heavy, alternate reality.
“That’s what I was learning from New York: you could fit in anywhere if you hung around long enough (McClear, 201).”
In the book, Sheila finally escapes her peep show life and finds work as a writer with enough love, acupuncture and therapy to begin to heal. But how can you begin to shake off all of those faceless men who make you what they want you to be, or the fellow live girls who disappear into the ether or turn into over-sexualized plastic deformities?
“There was a moment, after every show, after the light abruptly snapped and the glass fogged to opacity, when I could suddenly see my reflection: naked and alone, untouchable, on display like a zoo animal, suspended behind glass (McClear, 45).”