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What 'The Deuce' Got Wrong, From Someone Who Lived It

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The Deuce. On the hard-to-believe off chance you haven’t heard, it’s the HBO show chronicling the blossoming of the porn business. Everyone loves it. And it takes place in my favorite place in the world: Times Square in the 1970s.

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I wanted to love The Deuce.

I didn't.

There is a lot The Deuce gets right about “the Deuce,” as Times Square was known to some in the ‘70s.  But it’s lacking certain essentials. For one, the race-mixing was not that casual. Bars were mostly black, or mostly white. There was fear and antagonism between the races in 1971, but in the middle of all of that, life was fun. And exciting. And dangerous. Terrible things happened, but the fun and money, and the sex and drugs, outweighed the terrible things. 

And there is none of that in David Simon’s version of The Deuce. No one is having any fun or laughter at all with the exception of Paul (Chris Coy), The Deuce’s gay bartender, who is busy being gay in the '70s, a full decade before AIDS.

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 I first showed up in Times Square in 1974, accompanying my friend Terry to his shifts at the Gaiety Burlesque, an all-male strip joint with non-stop naked or on-their-way-to-naked boys on stage, and $10 blowjobs backstage. Working girls, like The Deuce’s Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Thunder Thighs (Pernell Walker), relaxed in the last rows of the little theater, giving their feet, and other well-worked parts, a well-deserved rest, while hooting, laughing, and catcalling the boys on stage. Two sides of the same coin, the male strippers and working girls both depended on those men who passed through and preferred to remain anonymous. By 1975, New York City was teetering on the edge of financial bankruptcy. Times Square, well beyond moral bankruptcy, was the epicenter of a beautiful, dark, dirty, and steamy flower of desperation. It was a place you went to start a new life, drop an old one, or just disappear.

I made Times Square my home in 1977, when I started working big and small strip joints that lined Broadway and all the little streets that branched off. The Deuce, set ‘71, is a little bit before me, but while the facades and storefronts might have changed or been conflated for the story, the look of the show is on point. Times Square was dirty and run-down, a place tourists were afraid to go with good reason, but a place they came to anyway. The Mob was deeply entrenched in Times Square specifically, and New York City in general, and its presence was evident in everything from the placement of cigarette machines to the shadowy owners of everything and anything slightly shady.

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In The Deuce, Vincent (James Franco) may be an earner, but more importantly than that, he is a name on a liquor license or a lease — first, he’s offered a bar (Tin Pan Alley in life, the Hi-Hat in The Deuce), and then a massage parlor (which I’m hoping will be the infamous Luxor Baths, where topless dancers from the nearby strip joints sent our customers for $10 happy endings, having already taken the rest of their money). With guys like Vincent providing a clean signature as a front, mob money and collections rackets worked smoothly in the back. Porn theaters, strip joints, massage parlors, and gay bars — “respectable” people couldn’t afford to be seen going in or out of there in 1971. The mob owned most, if not all, of these places, and neither customers nor employees were likely to, or even able to, complain to the cop about if there was trouble. Years later, real-life wiseguy, Matty “the Horse” Ianniello, and guys like The Deuce’s Vincent who fronted for him for all those strip joints, gay bars and massage parlors, would get busted on racketeering, fraud, and tax evasion.

Times Square was a complicated little town to live in then, and in The Deuce, the closest thing to the feel of old Times Square is the chaos of a bar called Leon’s. I can only assume Leon’s is an amalgam of real-life locales Bernards (filled day and night with girls from the Melody Burlesque, boys from the Gaiety, live sex show performers on breaks between shows, street pimps, working girls, strippers and the occasional performing midget) and the PorkPie (a pimp bar where players came to trade girls, girls came to find a pimp, and youngblood came to learn the trade from old school). When you were at the PorkPie or Bernards or Tin Pan Alley, you were with family. A large, loud, dysfunctional and often dangerous family, but still, family. Bernard’s was a respite, an oasis. The Deuce almost gets there, but Leon’s is missing, like the rest of the show, the fun. We ran scams, double-crossed each other, and slept with each other’s men, or with each other. We were a world within ourselves. The Deuce makes it all feel flat, dark, and hopeless, like a black hole you get sucked into with no way out. Why would any girl move there from Minnesota, like The Deuce’s Lori (Emily Meade), or in my case, from Long Island? In The Deuce, the backstabbing is there — and it was — but not the camaraderie, that certain sense of safety you got from being with your own tribe. From being the US in the US against THEM way of the world.

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I loved the way Gyllenhaal's Candy stands up for the “us” when she explains how sex work is a job like any other, after a kid celebrating his birthday whines for a freebie, saying that he came so fast, he didn’t get his money’s worth. But in the street, you paid by the ride, not the hour. I expected Candy to leave. I wanted her to. Most working girls would have. She should have. Instead, she morphs into the clichéd hooker with the heart of gold as she bends down between his legs, agreeing to take a personal check. That girl would not last on the street. Even the corner grocery store won’t take a personal check from a total stranger.

Another character, Darlene (Dominique Fishback) has a youthful innocence — running barefoot through the streets — and genuine feelings for her johns. She reminds me a fifteen-year-old dancer I knew, Lele. Lele eventually disappeared, the way girls did then, and still do, because somewhere along the line you’re going to trust the wrong person. But in The Deuce, Darlene is street smart — she knows the value of, and how to work, her regulars. She also knows how to work her pimp, offering to take a beating when she comes up short with the cash,she throws him off his game.

The game. The pimp game. The relationship between The Deuce’s characters CC (Gary Carr) and Lori (Emily Meade), the way Lori chooses CC, and CC’s awareness of Lori’s power is one authentic and nuanced relationships on The Deuce. It’s not an aspect of the life you see portrayed in media often — the way an experienced street prostitute chooses her pimp, chooses who to align herself with, chooses who to work for. A smart pimp recognizes it, and CC does, so when he disciplines one of his other girls, Ashley (Jamie Neumann), cutting her and walking away angry and threatening? Or the way Reggie Love (Tariq Trotter) smacks his girl in Leon’s, a la Iceberg Slim? A real pimp, a smart pimp, wouldn’t do that, unless it’s meant to be a cautionary tale to any other girl with “ideas of her own.” So it’s no surprise when Ashley decides to leave.

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If The Deuce is anything like real life, Ashley will be back next season — either dead, as that cautionary tale to any other girl who is thinking of leaving; or just back, because it’s hard to go back to the civilian world once you have the grit of Times Square in your blood. But even a gorilla pimp wouldn’t have walked away, giving a girl reason to run. It’s Pimping 101. He would remind her she is being disciplined not for his pleasure, but for her own good, to make her a better earner and a better woman. It is his job to look out for her, and if sometimes that means he has to be hard with her, he will, but he takes no pleasure in it. That’s real pimping.

Top photo courtesy the author

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Jodi Sh. Doff is a New York-based writer and photographer. Her work frequently includes autobiographical elements of drug-use, alcoholism, and the strip clubs and nightlife of New York City’s Times Square. As part of the harm-reduction/street-outreach movement, she educated and advocated for active addicts and street prostitutes, while working towards the decriminalization of prostitution.  www.onlythejodi.com

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