Before the information age, before a tableau of smut where one can find anything with the help of a search engine and a thumb, you had to get your sleaziness in person. In the flesh. Up close and dirty. So dirty. And the preferred way to do that for folks not brave enough to be seen somewhere was the peep show.
In the 70’s and 80’s First Avenue in Seattle was referred as Flesh Avenue due to more than a dozen peep shows and strip clubs that were stationed around Pike Place Market. But by 1995, however, there were only two peep show style places left on First Avenue just northwest of Downtown Seattle—“Showgirls” and “The Lusty Lady.” The former was adjacent to the “Showgirls” strip club that claimed to have “100 Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones.” “Showgirls” appeared to be a place of higher caliber in comparison to its counterpart down the street, though not much higher. Across First Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum stood “The Lusty Lady.” Lusty’s was a seedy establishment that looked like it had leapt out of New York’s Times Square in the 70’s and planted itself on the downward slope of First Avenue in Washington’s largest city. “The Lusty Lady” was known for its triangle shaped marquee sign, which changed at least weekly with a double-entendre message like “Happy Spanksgiving,” “All Clothes 100% Off!” or my personal favorite “Clash of The Tight Buns.”
I was eighteen the first time I wandered into the “Lusty Lady” with a group of high school friends. I was carded by a guy who looked like a caricature of male perversion. He was greasy with a pock marked face that looked like it was hit with a bag of scorching hot nickels. He wore a shirt with a googly-eyed happy face on it with the phrase “Have an Erotica Day!” silk-screened across it. Pock Mark took my five dollar cover charge without fanfare and I walked into what was perhaps the shadiest place I had ever and quite possibly have ever been in.
The smell of bleach mixed with male body fluids was overwhelming in the black painted, pink neon lit hallway. It took some getting used to and I had to settle my gag reflex as I walked down the sticky floored hallway. A corridor to the left was lined with stalls where one could start a porn movie for one dollar and keep it going until his business was done for a few dollars more. The sounds of overacted humping filled the air along with the grunts of the patrons as they did the deed behind what was basically a bathroom stall door. For a somewhat devout Irish Catholic kid from the San Juan Islands, the thought of masturbating in what was little more than a closet with a TV in it and had been utilized by thousands of perverts to get their rocks off was more than uncomfortable.
Down another hallway was the “Live Show,” the real attraction of the joint. I made my way through the neon and black light to a pink door that was left ajar by the previous occupant or by the janitor who patrolled the halls and stalls in rubber glove clad hands and a blue bucket. On the door was a sign that read: “Occupancy of this booth is at all times limited to one person. Violators are subject to criminal prosecution under Seattle Municipal Code 6.42.130.” I made sure I was alone and went into the booth.
I put two dollars into the slot that would get the show started. Almost as soon as the last greenback was deposited the dark shield lifted to expose whichever scantily clad stripper was performing in front of the glass portal; they almost always started off in a bra and panties or a bikini, but sometimes a guy could get lucky enough to get one nearly or completely naked. The show went as long as a guy could afford to keep pumping money into the slot. The girls also worked for cash tips that one could slide through a slot that dumped the currency at the performer’s feet. She would then remove articles of clothing according to the amount tipped if she felt so inclined to do so. I stood in the window with my hands in my pockets, I wasn’t brave enough, nor was I inclined to do what the old bums and perverts did in there and I refused to add to the mess for the custodian to clean. My entertainment was not particularly attractive but she wasn’t downright ugly either. Her appearance wasn’t one of a girl dancing her way through college, but of a single mother trying to put food on the table. Her hips had the width of a woman who’d given birth though she was still fairly thin. The reddish hue of the light in the room bounced brightly off of her skin and I could tell by her pastiness that she didn’t get outside much. The tribal band tattoo on her left arm was capped off by another unrelated work of permanent art; a sexy female version of Felix the Cat and the words “Hot Pussy.” She danced as provocatively as she could and attempted to smile through her utter disgust and boredom. I stood still, hands jammed deep into my Levi’s with an expression as equally as abhorrent as hers.
They came in all shapes and sizes—thin, fat, short, tall, black, white, yellow, etc. I once went into the private one-on-one room and had a conversation with an attractive Asian girl from Tallahassee, Florida, who said her name was “Jade.” For the five minutes I could afford “Jade” explained to me that she was a student at the University of Washington and that she only worked at “The Lusty Lady” because the pay was good and the tips were better. We had a nice talk, and though she gave me a pseudonym, I believed the rest of her story. At the end of our time, the shade went down and our brief encounter with each other in this world had officially and unceremoniously ended. I went back a few more times in hopes of seeing her again so that we could finish our conversation, but I could never find her. I had considered asking one of the custodians or even Pock Mark, but decided that would be too awkward.
I cannot say that I was ever really into or necessarily attracted to the girls at The Lusty Lady, I guess I was more addicted to the taboo of it all. The adventure of traveling to a city and watching nude women who weren’t my girlfriend or a cast member of the porno movies that we’d find in a friends parent’s closet. I went once to a special night at Lusty’s called “Double Trouble” where two ladies would occupy a private room enclosed with glass and I guy could watch them do soft core lesbian for about twenty bucks for two and a half minutes. None of it was about sex or objectifying women, it was about doing something that I was allowed to do according to the law, even though it revolted me in a lot of ways. Going to the peep show was about a rebellion against a deeply ingrained sexual repression instituted by the teachings of the Catholic Church and by my parents, who, despite having dirty little secrets of their own, would have most certainly ostracized me for.
I look back now and I reminisce about that summer after my senior year when my friends and I enjoyed what was once a Seattle institution, a remnant of days gone by on Flesh Avenue. The Lusty Lady was a mainstay near the Pike Place Market, closing after twenty-seven years of faithful service to the hard up and perverse people near the Emerald City’s waterfront. Gentrification and the opinions of “better,” or more “refined” people, ultimately destroyed the old spank shop that was open around the clock in the Seven Seas Building. After nearly three decades of tongue-in-cheek announcements like “The Devil Wears Nada,” “Continuous Un-coverage,” and “The Forbidden Schwingdom” one of the final marquee advertisements at The Lusty Lady put into words exactly what was being lost: “The Rear End of an Era.”
Peep shows are still around, though not in as many numbers. Like the drive-in theater they are an anachronism that are as rare as cigarette machines and Yeti sightings. They have been replaced by online porn sites, home theater systems, and smart phones. Portable peep shows that take away the actual human element. Peep shows, unlike electronic devices or even the mainstream strip clubs showed how simple visual entertainment could truly be a work of art, serving as a tangible representation of the darker, nastier side that’s just sanitized now with the clearing of a browser history instead of the bucket of bleach.