O n a high floor of the VA hospital on East 23rd Street, a 74-year-old patient (history of diabetes, manic depression, obesity, and heavy tobacco use; reports 7,000 lifetime sexual partners) is taking his morning medications. “Lithium, Zocor,” he says, muttering the names of the pills as he swallows them. A nurse comes to change his IV; when she peels off the tape from his wrist, he winces and grips the bed rail. “I’m not doing so wonderful. But if I bite the dust, at least I can say that I’ve … ” He trails into three or four words that sound like English but make no sense, the telltale glossolalia of a stroke survivor.
Not all that long ago, Al Goldstein was a Manhattan porn pioneer with powerful friends and enemies; a Pompano Beach mansion; and, by his count, $1.5 million in wristwatches. A flood of filthy, furious satire poured through 1,800 issues of his pioneering smut mag, Screw, and on Midnight Blue, a local-access cable interview show with a recurring rant segment called “Fuck You.” Among the many, many targets: Sean Penn, Robert Morgenthau, Santa Claus.
Close-ups of him licking slabs of beef, tight shots on his crotch as he used a Thighmaster—Goldstein was proudly repulsive. He was also among the earliest of the First Amendment porno-warriors. Screw predated Larry Flynt’s Hustler by six years, and Goldstein was arrested 21 times for his unprecedented indecency. “Obscenity was mostly boring,” he says, “but I thought it should be legal.” The highlight was winning a federal obscenity trial in Wichita in 1974. “I honestly think, down the road, one day, like Lenny Bruce, there’ll be an Al Goldstein article capturing his life and all the battles he’s waged,” he says. “It won’t matter because I’ll be dead, but I really think it will make something positive.”
In the meantime, this has been a rough final chapter. Screw folded in 2003. Two years later, Goldstein was jailed on Rikers Island for harassing a female former employee. His fifth marriage failed and left him broke (his last paying job was blogging at Booble.com for $1,000 a month, plus unlimited porn). More recently, he spent almost a year in Bellevue Hospital and at the Brooklyn VA for a variety of maladies, both psychological and physical. The first time I visit, on a Thursday night, he’s just taken his Ambien and begs off, saying, “My IQ is down. Come back tomorrow.” When I do, I see that he’s missing his front bottom teeth and is so thin that the sheets slide off his legs when he moves; a nurse covers him to keep him decent. His powerful friends have abandoned him, except for magician Penn Jillette, who visited a few weeks earlier. Goldstein blames his younger self for his isolation. “I was filled with anger. I would attack friends,” he says. “I don’t think I was very sane.”
The fuming instigator is gone. “I’m old hat,” he says. “I’ve become a senior citizen. I’m an old Jew.” Now he’s courteous and well mannered with the orderlies, who say they had no idea their patient was a porn king. His eyes, which used to dance with mischief and malice on his cable show, now twinkle warmly. “You are a nice man,” he tells me several times.
He’s too kind, though I did bring Goldstein a gift of a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s, inspired by a blog post I’d read about his last extended hospital stay. “I miss my pastrami, my porno, jerking off without being watched on a surveillance camera,” he wrote. The sandwich seemed the easiest of those three to help him with.
Despite the occasional neural misfire, Goldstein is lucid, remembering how many kids I have from our brief exchange the night before. He even shows flashes of the old vim. He says he’s proud that his only son went to Harvard Law, but that he’s “a piece of shit.” He rattles off opinions of various mayors (Dinkins was “delicate”; Koch “full of shit,” in a good way; Giuliani a “scumbag”; Bloomberg he likes “because he’s rich”).
Goldstein hopes to be released to his subsidized apartment in Far Rockaway in a couple of weeks. “I don’t need a fancy life,” he says. “I’m happy being bored with television.” But he’d like to do some more video editorials on the web, he says, if someone else can arrange it. As for his legacy, he says (in language too filthy to quote here) he’s proud to have encouraged a lot of men to let loose and enjoy themselves carnally. He’s looking forward to some similar activities of his own once he’s feeling a little better.
But first things first. “Let me run to the bathroom,” Goldstein says, ending the interview. “Thank you very much. Enjoy your kids.”