No 150 - 1997
Letter From New York
So how are you? I am fine and I’m living in New York with a woman who describes herself as a ‘career pornographer’. Not a bad fictional opening premise, but in this case it happens to be non-fiction.
Her name is Elaine and I met her at a book party. My own book party, as a matter of fact. I was in New York, plugging my ‘shockingly erotic’ novel Footsucker and the launch was at a briefly fashionable watering hole called The Satellite Lounge. A certain percentage of the fetish community had turned out, although it wasn’t exactly the Hell Fire Club. I was being ebullient and English-authorish and I saw a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow I knew, I knew even then . . .
She wasn’t hard to notice. She was wearing tight leopardskin and had a necklace which she later told me was made out of a human knee cap. (It came from Guatamala, incidentally, where human knee caps are no doubt quite easy to come by, but where I suspect the laws on product labelling are perhaps a little slack).
So we had one of those, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m the author, who are you?’ ‘I’m Elaine, I’m a career pornographer,’ kind of conversations and I asked for her phone number which she happily gave me, although that in itself wasn’t so unusual, plenty of other people were doing the same. Somehow I knew I wouldn’t be calling Mistress Mason who specialized in erotic mummification, but come next day, not least because my promotional tour wasn’t quite the action-packed jamboree it might have been, I found myself calling Elaine. And we met for a dry martini, this being New York, and I knew within half an hour or so that my life was about to change out of all recognition.
Elaine, as she explained to me, edits a magazine called Satyricon. She insists it’s pornography, not art, and I don’t think you could really disagree with her, but it’s a publication that has as a certain cache in areas of the New York literary set. It’s what some might refer to as a fetish magazine, although it’s fairly mainstream by some standards. Penetration is not allowed, but plenty of other stuff is. The models wear high heels and stockings and sometimes rubber dresses, and they suck each others feet and that sort of stuff. There are tattooed women, pregnant women, improbably fat women and improbably big-breasted women. There has even been a centrefold of a woman with one leg, although I’m not sure what a good liberal is supposed to think about that sort of thing. It seems pretty hard core by English standards, though it’s fairly mild by some American ones. You can buy it on most newsstands in New York so it’s not exactly state of the art filth, although if Elaine had her way it probably would be.
‘How does a good looking, intelligent, sophisticated, witty, well-read woman get to be a career pornographer?’ I asked Elaine.
‘Just lucky I guess,’ she replied. ‘I know it’s cool these days for post-feminists to think pornography isn’t the satanic thing their elder sisters claimed, but I was into it even when it was totally uncool.’
In lots of ways editing a fetish magazine is much like editing any other sort of magazine. Elaine commissions writers and photographers, thinks up ideas, has hassles with the production and design and marketing departments. But she does some other stuff too; like finding girls, directing photoshoots, that kind of stuff. It’s a full life.
Elaine is also a celebrity pornographer. She gives good, dirty interview. So she appears on chat shows, lectures to students of ‘sexuality,’ gets called up by journalists who want her to pontificate about gas-pedal fetishism or the growth in sales of butt plugs to heterosexuals or whatever. This feels like a very New York phenomenon. Fame is what matters and it really doesn’t matter if you’re a famous pornographer or a famous poisoner or a famous philanthropist: it’s the fame that counts, not the content of what made you famous.
But, of course, Martin, I’m not with Elaine because she’s a famous pornographer. I’m with her because our pheromones smelled the same, or something. I want to be with her because of who she is, not because of what she does. But neither am I with her despite her being a pornographer. Life with a pornographer certainly has elements that a droll English novelist finds fascinating, and since a novelist can allegedly do what he does just about anywhere, I followed my heart and moved to America to be with Elaine.
I’d visited New York a few times before I came here to be with Elaine, and I’d been to other parts of the States quite a lot, but so many of the things that seemed interesting or quirky or kitsch or amusing when you come to America as a tourist can seem just plain scary when you think they’re going to be a permanent part of your real life.
The horrors of American television certainly fit into that category. As does the New York subway. On previous visits the subway always seemed like a fascinating if disturbing glimpse of a modern underworld, but that was because I knew I was just passing through. Now it seems like a rolling Room 101.
You get on, try to read your book and avoid eye contact but then somebody gets in the carriage and starts tap dancing or singing Mexican love songs or playing skronking free jazz saxophone or making religious speeches denouncing sodomy. I’ve had to sit through all of these and it makes it really hard to read.
American culture is loud. There will be two boys sitting a few seats away from you on the subway and they’ll be shouting at each other so vehemently that you feel sure they’re about to hit each other, but in fact they’re having their idea of a normal conversation. Also, there’s a new breed of schizophrenic on the subway who crawl along on their hands and knees from carriage to carriage with a coffee cup in their hand begging for money. You start out thinking this is the most terrible, pitiful, heart-breaking thing you’ve ever seen, but eventually you come to the conclusions that these people are just irritating scumbags who should be rounded up, put on a bus and dumped in New Jersey. This ignoble process of moral sclerosis takes all of forty-eight hours.
The other day a big, fat unhappy black boy got on the train and began addressing the commuters, ‘Excuse me. May I have your attention. I’m eighteen years old. I’m hungry. I’m homeless. Please help me.’ Across from me there were three other young black guys, but lean and wired and tough looking. They watched the boy disdainfully, didn’t give him any money, and when he’d gone one of them said to the others, ‘You know, I don’t believe that nigger was eighteen.’ We white folks are very nervous about black folks on the subway and the black folks really like it that way.
So Elaine and I got invited to a surprise party, given for Shelley, a dominatrix of Elaine’s acquaintance. Shelley has her own dungeon and everything, and is a healthy looking all-American girl with shampoo-ad hair and winged spectacles. She also had rather unpleasant chipped blue nail varnish when I met her, but there you go, her hands probably get a lot of punishment.
Actually the surprise element of the party didn’t really come off all that well, and perhaps it was for the best. Shelley, it turned out, had booked in one of her high-rolling slaves for a full weekend of heavy duty submission and humiliation, and she wasn’t going to let a little thing like a birthday get in the way of that. But Shelley saw no problem; the slave and the party could coexist.
I assumed the slave would be kept down in the dungeon and Shelley would pop down once in a while and be mean to him before returning to the party, but Shelley’s a real pro. In order to make her client’s humiliation exquisite, she dressed him up in a flowery frock, wig, stockings and high heels, tied him to a chair and made him sit in the corner of her apartment while the party went on around him.
The poor devil certainly looked thoroughly humiliated, although perhaps not in quite the way he’d anticipated. I guess that’s the way it is with humiliation. Actually, I felt pretty uncomfortable myself, certainly I was embarrassed, and I think embarrassment and humiliation are quite closley related to each other. At least I’ve never had to pay for it.
And don’t think I’m not having literary adventures here in New York. Elaine and I were walking through Union Square and there was a limo standing outside the big Barnes and Noble bookshop, and there was a handwritten sign on the windscreen that said ‘Mailer.’ Yep, this old Norman’s car, and the man himself was inside doing a personal appearance. We went in to gawp.
He’d finished the reading by the time we got there but he had a long line of people waiting to get their books signed, and that gave us lots of opportunity to continue gawping. He looked pretty much the way you expect Norman Mailer to look, like himself, but as ever with celebrities, he seemed somehow too small, as if he were a Norman Mailer lookalike who’d got the right face but the wrong body.
In my time I’ve read a lot of words written by Norman Mailer without actually having read any of his books from beginning to end. What I remember mostly is a lot of stuff about the anus. I said this to Elaine and she said, ‘Oh, I once ate lunch with Norman Mailer. A few of us from a magazine I was working on went to interview him. It was down at his house in Brooklyn. He gave us chicken soup. It wasn’t very good soup but at least he made it himself. And up on the wall in the kitchen there was a double portrait of his and his wife’s anus. It was very detailed. So detailed, in fact, that you could see he had piles.’
Suddenly I thought I understood Norman Mailer in a way I never quite had before.
The female pornographer obviously has certain advantages over the male. When Elaine suggests that a model spreads her legs and holds open her labia, just so much, it’s rather different than if you or I did it. In fact there was a time when Elaine gave the girls a helping hand with the spreading and opening, but the current legal advice is not to touch them with a barge pole.
It probably won’t surprise you that most women who want to appear nude in porno magazines are at least a little bit damaged. Perhaps not a lot more damaged than legitimate actresses or poets or novelists, but damaged nevertheless. Appearing naked is a bid for attention, and as bids for attention go, it’s not a bad one. But some of the models are surprisingly coy and asexual once they’re not being photographed. They’ll do things for the camera that they’d never dream of doing for their boyfriends.
But none of this applies to Roxanne, who is Elaine’s favourite model, and a lot of other people’s favourite too, I’m sure. She’s pretty much the kind of slut you expect porno models to be. She rides a pink Harley Davidson, breeds small hairless dogs, lives with a Hell’s Angel. She stands naked at the window of the photo studio until someone in the street notices her. One of her more successful modeling assignments for Satyricon took place in a meat locker. She spent three hours naked in sub-zero temperatures surrounded by sides of frozen beef and didn’t complain once. You think Naomi Campbell would be that obliging?
For a while now Elaine’s been wanting to do a photo shoot where the model walks along a city street completely naked. Roxanne seemed an obvious choice. Elaine explained that they’d find a quiet, safe spot, a good area with not to many people on the street. But Roxanne was having none of that. ‘Hey, I want to walk naked through Times Square at rush hour.’ We await developments on that one.
‘So,’ Roxanne said when she first met me, ‘you’re an English novelist.’ She was wearing only gloves and ankle boots at the time. ‘Ain’t that a thing?’ She told me she’d recently been a long to talk to the guys at Penthouse to see if they could use her as a model. They were pretty sniffy. To be in with a chance of becoming a Penthouse Pet they suggested she get a nose and chin job, and a new, bigger boob job that included having her nipples relocated (no, I don’t know where to), and they showed her the door.
I said I thought this was asking too much and I supposed her dream of appearing in Penthouse was over. But not so. Although the standards for proper Penthouse Pets may be ruthlessly demanding, there are other times when they just need a naked female body. Recently an issue of Penthouse came out featuring a sci-fi spread that involved naked women who’d been sprayed metallic blue, doing indecent things to each other. And sure enough Roxanne was one of them, although I probably wouldn’t have recognized her if I hadn’t been told. The last shot of the spread was the filthiest and involved the girls inserting steel hoses in each other’s vaginas – a thing far too dirty to appear in Satyricon, incidentally.
So when I next saw Roxanne I felt a slight urge to commiserate. Nice that you got your dream of being in Penthouse, sorry that the photographer made you penetrate yourself with a vacuum cleaner attachment.
‘You know why I’m so pissed off about it?’ she said.
‘Because in that last shot you can’t hardly see my face. And it seems to me that if you’re going to take a steel hose in your twat you want everyone to know it’s you.’
I think the logic of this may be flawed but I didn’t argue.
Alcohol in New York is a challenge. I went into our local corner shop, I suspect it was what they call a ‘bodega’ but I wouldn’t put money on it, and bought a couple of cans of Colt 45 to take home. I thought this was the kind of thing anybody might do. The cashier put the cans in a brown paper bag and gave me a straw. I assumed he was taking the piss, but I didn’t want to get into an argument so didn’t say anything. When I got home Elaine gently explained to me that in America only bums drink Colt 45, and they buy it to consume immediately on the street. However, it’s illegal to drink on the street in New York so the guy in the store was being kind by giving me a brown paper bag and a straw so I could pretend I was sucking on a Coke. (Of course, if I’d really been sucking on a Coke I wouldn’t have needed a bag or a straw). I appreciated his kindness but didn’t much appreciate the fact that he thought I looked like a bum.
Then there is the matter of Elaine’s, or rather Satyricon’s, postbag. Speaking as a man who has had to deal with the slush pile at Ambit, believe me, it’s a different world. Almost all of it is from men. Certainly, as with Ambit, there is plenty of bad writing by sad people who desperately want to get published, even if, in this case, it’s only in the letter’s page of a porno mag. Some submit articles, short stories, memoirs. Some just want to confess. There are submissions from people driven by private and inscrutable obsession, writing that is pretentious or incompetent or too arty or too pornographic, yes, exactly like Ambit.
Unlike at Ambit however, Elaine’s postbag is enlivened by the arrival of photographs; photographs of the readers, of the readers’ wives, of the readers’ wives wearing their best high heels and peep hole bras, photographs of the readers’ sexual organs in arousal and repose, photographs of the readers’ wives coping or failing to cope with these organs.
Some of the photographs are depressing, some are laughable, very few are actually offensive, although I admit there are moments when I feel I should probably be offering to horsewhip men who dare to send photographs of their engorged penis to my girlfriend. Ultimately however, I guess I find the majority of it pretty wearisome. The fact is, I don’t really want to read other men’s sexual confessions, don’t want to see other men’s wives or organs, but Elaine does, not because she finds them especially arousing, although occasionally she does, but because she finds them infinitely fascinating. She sees herself as some kind of sexual researcher or anthropologist.
This I guess is why women are better pornographers than men. Most pornography provides masturbatory material for men, and straight men have problems providing masturbatory material for each other. It seems sort of queer and shameful. On the other hand most straight men would love to provide masturbatory material for women, and Elaine has no problem providing it for men.
A recent letter to Elaine contained confessions and photographs from a ‘plushy’; that’s a sexual fetishist who needs to put his penis inside stuffed toys. (Yes, really.) Now, my reaction to this is, ‘Oh please! Get a life.’ Whereas Elaine’s reaction is, ‘Oh really? Tell me more.’ This, I suspect is why she’s a better pornographer than you or I will ever be, Martin.
Amidst all this low-level perversion Elaine and I continue to lead quiet, decent, blameless lives. We read books, go to movies. We cook, we grow culinary herbs. So I was trying to be domestic and homely and I’d done the laundry and was putting away the clothes. I was stashing Elaine’s underwear in her chest of drawers when I felt something hard and metallic in there, and so, expecting to find some sort of amusing sexual device I dug down. I found a gun; small, shiny, quite elegant, a lady’s model, but a gun all the same.
Alarmed, and in an English anti-gun-lobby sort of way, I said to Elaine, ‘Isn’t it illegal to keep a gun in New York?’
‘Well yes,’ she admitted, ‘but no woman has ever gone to jail in New York for killing a man using a gun with less than a .45 caliber. This is only a .38. And anyway, it’s only a Saturday night special.’
‘A Saturday night special is a gun that’s as likely to kill the person firing it, as it is to kill the person it’s fired at.’
I think Elaine meant this to be consoling, but it didn’t quite seem that way to me.
Well Martin, the struggle with art and life goes on. More of this later I suspect.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The