The Deuce, that block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, has gone through its changes since the Ku Klux Klan made their triumphant nightly ride onto the screen during the initial engagement of The Birth of a Nation, which opened March 3, 1915, at the old Liberty Theatre. Later, the Liberty, now one of 42nd’s famous grind-house theaters and a key entry point for Bruce Lee’s ingress to the public mind-set, was best known for incidents such as the time a demon-strative cinephile jumped up on the lip of the old proscenium stage, forming an irate silhouette. The man held a large boot in one hand and a salt shaker in the other. “What mo’fucker throw this out the balcony?” the filmgoer wanted to know. Now, of course, that same Liberty Theatre, part of it anyhow, serves as the dining room for Famous Dave’s, a chain restaurant with over 100 franchises nationwide, where they charge $119.99 for the “All-American BBQ Feast” and the waitress tells you “98 percent” of the customers “are tourists, a lot from Germany, places like that.”
The Deuce has been through periods, from showland to scuzzland to suck-ass Disneyland. And now, improbably, it’s in the midst of another rebirth, green shoots of New York life sprouting in what was only recently an antiseptic theme park, creating a mix of new and old that’s unique in the city, and may be unique in the city’s history.
As a student of the Street, I remember the last big makeover. The fabulously gummy-floored theaters, the Times Square, where they played Westerns, the Lyric, where Blacula was often triple-billed with Blackenstein and Scream Blacula Scream, and the Apollo, “home of the distinguished foreign film,” were gone, their beloved marquees torn away and dumped into landfill. Porn was on the run, its supposed addictiveness no match for Giuliani’s moral hammer. Peepworld had already disappeared, along with the place advertising “GIRLS! LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!,” as if anyone really wanted to peep on the alternative.
But it was the Hand that truly signaled the end.
The Hand, painted gold and huge, hung 40 feet above the pavement. Suspended by a giant crane, the thirty-five-foot-long Hand was being lifted to a rooftop where it would function as a massive talisman for the brand-new Madame Tussauds wax museum. A small crowd of old-style Deuce denizens, pushers of drugs so stepped on as to not even exist, half-unhinged sex workers, and a stray three-card-monte dealer or two, had gathered to watch the Hand be put in place. Soon tourists from the four corners of the Earth would come to this street and pay up to $36 per person to gaze upon the remarkably lifelike wax effigies of Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, and the rest. They would not likely, however, lay eyes on any of the members of the marginally still-flesh-and-blood crowd currently watching the rise of the Hand. These people were not in the plan. That much was clear when the Hand, pivoting on its metal cable, pointed its extended index finger directly at the sleazoid scrum below.
“You!” the pointed finger seemed to say with the banishing finality of an Old Testament God. “Go!”
The next fifteen highly commodified years or so of Deuce history have been well documented. For the native son never less than thrilled to cut high school to spend afternoons thumbing through stacks of pulp at the “backdate” magazine stores, the worst of the New Deuce was the 2004 Republican Convention. The dim-bulb delegates, red-state Aryans, and worse arrived en masse to see The Lion King at the New Amsterdam, where Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy had flickered so magnificently for weeks on end. You’d watch them get off their buses and think, They’ve won. Even here, they’ve won.
But like the jungle that reclaims Fitzcarraldo-esque efforts to tame it, the irrepressible soul of the city can still thwart the overweening efforts of even the best-heeled Business Improvement District. The shift became apparent a few years ago, mostly round midnight on warmer Saturday nights. You’d go into the AMC Empire 25 at about six in the evening, sneak in and out of the many theaters (because a half an hour of product like The Hunger Games and Flight is plenty), and then walk out to a wholly different Deuce than you left four hours before. Instead of the Vegas hotel version of New York, you were back in the actual place.
Some of it was simply the passage of time, that the shiny mall exterior had deteriorated just enough to look lived in. But mostly it was the clientele. One of the always overlooked elements of the old Deuce, at least until the last, hopelessly disgusting years, was that not everyone who ever attended a kung fu movie was a permanent underbelly dweller. People actually went on dates there. Now, thanks to the however poorly conceived uplift of the area, they were back: the couples from uptown, Queens, and the Bronx on the street for a night out. It isn’t that the tourists have fled. But on Saturday night, they’re suddenly swimming in the great New York they actually came to visit whether they knew it or not. With the right weather, the Deuce can be easily the most diversely energized block in the metropolis, a street party perhaps best experienced in small but marvelously exhilarating doses.
A couple of weeks ago, shortly before midnight, I counted eleven separate men with cameras, who, in a tech upgrade of the ancient hustle, charge a mere $25 to print out a laminated snapshot made to look as if the tourists were on the cover of a magazine. New York Magazine was the most popular cover to be featured on, one entrepreneur said, just ahead of The Source. Also working were nineteen caricaturists. Every single one of the cartoonists was Asian. I asked one artist how the Asians had cornered the Deuce caricature market.
“Fast and good,” said the gentleman who said he was from Fukien province. Was there any difference between the caricaturists, a range of artistic styles? “No,” he said. “All the same.”
Later, a familiar figure came out of the crowd. Cowboy hat on his head, he plopped down a cardboard box and spread out his iconic three cards. The dealer, who looked to be in his late teens, shuffled and slid the cards along the top of the box as a few potential players, a combination of shills and nice people from Norway, began to huddle around him. “Chase the red, chase the red,” he said again and again, occasionally showing the faces of the cards. Twenty-dollar bills piled up on the cardboard box. Where had this individual been during the past decade on the Deuce? Who knew, but it was good to see him.