I scan the wall. It’s lined with light bulbs between the rows of magazines, like on a marquee. My eyes land on one of the glossy covers. A woman faces out. She has sandy hair to her shoulders. Her green eyes flash. Her teeth gleam in a broad smile, perfect. She looks like Olivia Newton John.
In her hand, inches from her lips, she grips a massive, erect cock.
I’m sorry, I know I should have said penis. But this was a cock. Henry Miller didn’t say “penis.”
I am in my early 20s, it’s my first time in such a place, and I stare. My heart thumps in my ears. My skin tightens. I am tingly, like the blood flow is impeded to my lower extremities, except for one.
But I can’t linger on green eyes. I am here for a reason. I have something specific to find.
In 1981, the church leaders who ran our city in northern Illinois had a problem with two adult bookstores. They violated no zoning laws. Windows were painted black. Minors kept out.
Everything was right, except for the merchandise.
So the cops resorted to busting the clerks for obscenity. City Hall’s idea was, if they kept doing it, nobody would want to work there, and the store would have to shut down. If nothing else, angry citizens would see an effort being made.
My editor at the weekly paper, a devout Catholic, said prosecutors ought to go after the network of organized-crime kingpins from Los Angeles who abducted virgins into sex slavery and took pictures of them.
Prostitution was a problem, too. He saw the hooker trade as part of the cycle. Guys would visit adult bookstores and get excited and go find prostitutes. They would be OK for a while, but sooner or later got themselves worked up again at the bookstore, and ran out for more prostitutes. You had to introduce a rate-limiting step, such as an arrest. Otherwise they would just keep going around and around like that until they either turned into Ted Bundy or found Jesus.
“You know,” my editor said, “for every magazine bought by an undercover cop so they can get a warrant, I bet there’s a stack of them on the shelf. The same title, even.”
It could make for good copy. He sent me out to prove his point.
Olivia Newton Green Eyes doesn’t look like a teenage runaway who’s been held captive on drugs for years. She looks like a chick on the beach who found this hefty prize down the trunks of some volleyball player. She’s getting physical.
What titles am I looking for? Something like, “Campfire Sex Party” or “Anal Adventures.” I find them. I take notes. I tell my editor, who gets to clacking on his typewriter. A front-page editorial.
What he doesn’t know is that I go back. On Sunday mornings, the least busy time. While everyone else in town is bent over their hymnals, me and a few other sad sacks are thumbing magazines in the adult bookstore. Soon, we will be happier sacks.
My browsing comrades are mostly stolid, expressionless. Some of them seem impatient, even jumpy. One guy slashes madly through the pages, as if he’s looking for coupons.
Under the lights I have never seen so many cheerful naked people depicted in sexual behaviors, with their operative parts so clearly visible. Sometimes full-body, sometimes close-up. Indoors, outdoors, and on furniture.
I am exhilarated at the open delight of all this flesh, its variety … creamy smooth bodies and tan, muscled ones. It’s as if I’ve huffed a blast of pure oxygen. How can I enter such a world? Would I have to join the Mafia? At times I want to dance around, and throw the magazine up in the air. But that would be ridiculous.
The clerk is about my age, wearing a baseball cap and boredom. At his raised platform, he’s watching MTV on a portable set. MTV is new. I wonder if he knows gangsters.
When he rings up my purchases, I sense that I am confessing to him silently. Saying, by my choices, I like this. This is what I like. He seems not to notice.
Well, you know how it went. The bookstores stayed open amid the yelling of churchgoers until something better came along. Porn went to the Internet, where people can enjoy it at home. In privacy. After church.
Ours is a different era, with new things to worry about.
All of the pussies are bald now.
I’m sorry, I know I should have said … but … Henry Miller, and …
I’ve been asked to give you a story about lust at a point in life when I speak less for the living, so hungry and wanton, than for the dead, whose voices I hear more clearly every day.
The cops tipped off my editor about another bust at the Seventh Street store. He sent me over with a camera. I stood on the sidewalk and waited, hating myself.
They came out with the clerk – my clerk – bent and shuffling, his head down, in shackles, the baseball cap. Get in close, my editor said, get in close. I got in close.
A cop folded him into the squad car, and our eyes met. He in his terror, me in my shame. He recognized me. The shutter clicked.
Terror and shame. Here’s a thing everybody knows but doesn’t say: Lust made flesh isn’t lust without terror and shame. It just keeps going like that, and most guys don’t turn into Ted Bundy or find Jesus. Maybe one of them gets a job sweeping floors or washing dishes, like I did before I became a reporter. As time goes on he might find a woman who is capable of containing his madness, and stirs in her own with it. It’s possible they discover in private experiments that the world doesn’t crumble or blow up from this, as both of them together hunt for ways to feel free.
Illustration by Joe Karg.