Samuel R. Delany’s –Times Square Blue
“Other people have chronicled other facets of the neighborhood– the transsexual bars, the hard-core hustling scene (male and female), the heterosexual peep show life. But this was my Times Square. Along with the theaters on or around Fourteenth Street–Variety Photoplays, the Metropolitan, the Jefferson, the Academy of Music– and half a dozen others before them or contemporary with them for shorter or longer periods…these were the social institutions that have seem me this far through my adulthood…They have ushered me to the portals of old age, as much a part of my growth and maturation as any other institution in the city” (89).
Samuel R. Delany’s, Times Square Blue, was written in October of 1996. One of the reasons for writing this text was to bring forth the issues created by the Times Square Development Project. Delany laments that outsiders see this area as dangerous (for many reasons) and therefore, there has been insurmountable political pressure to transform 42nd street. Delany responds by reconstructing the Times Square that he use to know by conducting personal interviews. The persons that are the subjects of his interviews range from– Ben, the shoeshiner, to men he had formerly been sexually involved, to random hustlers still hanging around the area.
Thus, Delany produces numerous first hand accounts of personal experiences to create a theoretical framework for analyzing boundaries. Specifically and initially, he examines the way Ben, the shoeshiner addresses people. In particular, the way he addresses women. Delany is interested in Ben because of the way he jumps back and forth between boundaries. “What bothers me in Ben’s routine is where the boundary sits. Ben didn’t put it there. But does his witty and always slightly disorienting performance help erase it? Or does that performance inscribe it more deeply? Honestly, I can’t tell. Perhaps it does some of both” (5).
By utilizing this example, he organizes a rather humanized exploration of the area to analyze and question various boundaries.His argument eventually moves beyond the mere physicality of the development project and brings forth several platforms which challenge:
- Sexual relations and Sexuality (What pornography did for these)
- Space (Public versus Private)
- Women (Absence)
- Desire versus Pleasure and
Delany uses sex movie houses as the dominant platform for this investigation. I believe that Delany’s purpose in compiling all of these testimonies is to allow outsiders to understand how this community was integral to the development of many people’s lives including his own. He wants to break down the boundaries between the developers and those who have spent much of their lives shaping their identity as a result of all his Times Square had to offer. After all, not many people would have the courage to expose themselves in such a way. His honestly creates a space to have the types of conversations that many have fear and/or avoided. Delaney, once more, laments, “What kind of leaps am I going to have to make now between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between the legal and the illegal, to continue having a satisfactory sex life?” (108).
It’s interesting that you chose to focus on Ben, the very heterosexual example (if strictly in the realm of discourse) that Delany engages in a memoir where most pages include some discussion of sex between men. Yet, as you say, this is his opening example and allows him to get to his deeper points. Why do you think he chooses this as his entry point? And does it relate in any way to the heterosexual imagery on the movie screens, the ostensibly heterosexual identities of many of the men he met in the theaters…?
I think he chooses Ben as his entry point because it is a relatable situation. I have witnessed many “Bens” while living in Chicago. I also believe that he is one of a few authentic pieces left of Delany’s Times Square (as he knows it). Ben also offers a commodity that is bought and sold based on his social skills, so to speak. Yet, more importantly, Ben is constantly jumping back and forth between boundaries. He is not just borderline sexist with his comments, he goes far beyond what we would consider socially acceptable. So, why is he still in business? Why does this work? Delany answers this question by demonstrating how the sex movie theatres survived and thrived until the development project. Both Ben and businesses like the movie theatres provided a space to cross boundaries, or rather to allow others to challenge them. These places thrived because there was a desire for pleasure (he talks about this somewhat in part 2).
As far as your last two questions are concerned, I think focusing on the heterosexual aspect of the movie screen may force us to miss what Delany is outlining. I think he is most definitively demonstrating that both gay and straight people over various ethnicities and backgrounds are challenging these heteronormative boundaries. As a result of the movie theatres being shut down (as a result of the Times Square Development Project) Delany, himself, is forced to question how he is going to be forced to navigate between the “acceptable and the unacceptable, between the legal and the illegal, to continue having a satisfactory sex life” (108).
Another note: I think Delany is also exposing all of the problems associated with the heterosexual matrix that Judith Butler explains in “Critically Queer.” He is not only blurring the lines of sexuality but making a total mess of the system. I think that is also important to note.