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“It’s kind of like a joke now,” she said. “Men come in now and they’re like, ‘They still have this?’ ”
The same could be said about the Playpen. In 1995, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani began a campaign to close sex-oriented businesses, using zoning regulations to strictly limit “adult establishments.” The regulations were loosened after court challenges in the late 1990s, and now any store with at least 60 percent non-X-rated merchandise is not technically considered an adult entertainment business.
The zoning law change nonetheless succeeded in pushing adult businesses to industrial areas of the city. Only 10, including the Playpen, remain in the Times Square district, according to the Times Square Alliance, a group that promotes business and economic development in the area. (The Playpen closed at its original location in 2007 and then reopened down the block.)
Inside the Playpen are aisles of every imaginable toy, movie and accessory. There are nearly 30 video-viewing booths offering thousands of choices for a rate of about $1 per minute; half are in the basement showing gay pornography and the rest upstairs showing straight pornography.
Nine or 10 people work at the Playpen, handling the retail sales, minding the security cameras and cleaning out the booths after the customers leave. Then there are the women who work upstairs, about 20, and who are considered independent contractors. Those who agreed to be interviewed asked that their names not be used, because of the nature of their work and because they were not permitted by their supervisors to do so.
Each of the six live booths is about the size of a small closet and divided by a thin wall with a panel that lifts to reveal a window. There are stools on both sides: one for the performer and one for her customer. The cleanliness of the booths varies.
Women stand at their entrances waiting for their cue. The panel rises when patrons put $10 in a machine — that sum goes to the house — and then pay an additional tip to the dancer, an amount negotiated beforehand. Most women will do a striptease for $20, and masturbate for $30.
“I used to look at older girls and be like, that won’t be me,” Anastasia said recently. “I used to laugh at them.”
She had dropped out of high school and run away from her home when she was 16, and was coming off a five-year stint working as a stripper at a Manhattan club. She had just had a baby. “I really didn’t want to go to the peep show,” she said.
The notion of having strange men pleasuring themselves as she performed her act was extremely unappealing, she added. But with a friend’s encouragement, she agreed to “see what it’s all about.”
Anastasia — who agreed to be identified by her confirmation name — started working at Show Follies, a former Times Square pornography emporium. She quickly saw men do things that made her bless herself (“I thought I saw the devil”), but said she eventually got used to it. She learned to like her job, mostly because it was easy and the money was good.
Business has dwindled, but Anastasia’s regulars save her. She has names for them: “Stockings guy — he likes me to wear stockings. I have cigarette guy, who I smoke for. I have tape recorder guy, who I haven’t seen in forever. Him I have to tell stories into a tape recorder.”
During the middle of the day, the busiest hours at the Playpen, unaccompanied men of middle age or better trickle in. They do not browse or peruse but instead walk with purpose, toward a familiar product or toward the booths. Few utter even a word.
“Everyone who comes through the door, they walk in with one thing on their mind, which is sex,” one Playpen employee, a porter, said. “You can’t have a conversation with them. You can’t really talk with them. You lose touch with humanity.”
The porter said his years at the Playpen had taken their toll.
“I came into this business not understanding my behavior and how it affected other people,” he said, referring to problems with sex addiction he had earlier in his life. “And now you get to a point where you’re in so deep that you don’t know how to get out. You just keep trying and you hope for a miracle.”
Anastasia, who is married with children, said: “You can’t really justify doing it anymore. You lie to people. I lie to my kids. I don’t tell people I do this. Back then it was like, yeah, I’m lying, but I’m making money. I don’t care. Now it’s like, why even lie?”
Anastasia is lighthearted by nature, a trait that has buoyed her years behind the glass, and though she is quick to say she is miserable, she sees a bright side.
“We complain — all of us,” she said. “We want to leave. We want to leave. But at the same time, this job afforded me a lifestyle that I wouldn’t have been able to have. I don’t have skills. I am a high school dropout. I was a teenage runaway. My kids had $500 birthday parties and Jordans. That was because of this. I am very thankful for it.”
Anastasia is thinking about returning to school in the hopes of starting a new career. The porter would love to be a doorman. But until then, they will keep reporting to work at the Playpen, even as it cedes ground to more modern forms of titillation, including live cam shows, the digital-era version of the peep show.
“I can’t compete with the Internet,” the porter said. “With the peep shows, it’s a process that’s just an annoyance now. You have to come all the way down here. You have to go upstairs. You have to talk to the girl for a few minutes. You have to put the money in the machine.”
“The only people keeping those things alive are the curious, the suckered, and the regulars,” he added, “who are dwindling.”
Correction: October 16, 2014
An earlier version of the web summary with this article misstated the name of one of the few sex-oriented businesses still in Times Square. It is Playpen, not Playland.