The red curtain parts to reveal Yozmit, “the last Korean geisha.” She is a mythical figure, a sexually ambiguous secret of the Orient—slender, with long black hair fixed in a topknot. She’s dressed in a miles-long white crinoline dress and perched on a platform that rises high above the stage so she appears to be twelve feet tall. A hush falls over the crowd of The Box, the petite theater on Chrystie Street.
“I would like to begin by thanking Mr. Simon Hammerstein for freeing me from sexual slavery,” Yozmit says with the round syllables of a heavily accented voice.
It is 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in November, and Hammerstein, the co-owner, co-founder, and president of The Box, sits in a private booth, his arms spread along the top of the banquette and a half-empty bottle of Belvedere on the table before him. Moments before Yozmit was introduced, Hammerstein had been dissecting the mood of the audience. “Before the show, there was a kind of a casual air in the crowd,” he said. “But after Act One, there was a marked difference. People were dancing in the aisles a little bit. They had their arms around each other.” Yozmit’s performance would launch the second act, and introduce the more salacious performances The Box is known for. “We’re about to get in your face, break that fourth wall, and remind you that you’re alive.”
When Hammerstein hears Yozmit’s faux expression of gratitude, he grins, pulls on his beard with the knuckle of his index finger and thumb, and shouts for our waitress to bring over another round of shots. He’s wearing a short-sleeved button-up blue shirt, smart gray slacks, and a wide grin. Hammerstein can be seen at The Box most nights, all night long, in his favorite booth a few feet above the rest of the crowd. Most of tonight’s show is new—with the exception of a musical rendition of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” performed by Raven O, The Box’s sinewy emcee, and featuring the Hammerstein Beauties in Sarah Palin costumes wrestling over a large brown dildo (“We’ve got a big black dick in the White House!”)—and he wants to be on hand so that he can give his performers notes at tomorrow’s rehearsal.
“Vodka?” Hammerstein asks, after refreshing his own glass.
“No, thanks,” I reply.
“Come on. Don’t be a girl.”
“The show’s better when you’re drunk, anyway,” he says.
This has not been an easy couple of months for Hammerstein. In October, the club narrowly avoided losing its liquor license after objections from members of Community Board 3. The collapse of Wall Street has certainly had an effect on his business; as much as Hammerstein likes to say that The Box is not made for bankers, there is only a certain number of New Yorkers willing to put down $1,000 just to sit at a table. The Box is losing another kind of customer, too; just last week, Moby, an investor in The Box and the kind of client Hammerstein very much likes to say the place is for, said in an interview that he no longer goes often, because the acts have gotten too much even for him. And most worrisome to Hammerstein, perhaps, are the recent allegations against him by two former employees of drug use and sexual misconduct.
These are the types of headaches familiar to nightclub owners, and although that is certainly what Hammerstein is, it is not how he prefers to consider himself. While doing the things that nightclubs do, The Box also programs a schedule of performances that, from his point of view, are as ambitious as any Off Broadway theater’s. This was Hammerstein’s biggest gamble: that he could produce profane sets in an all-hours, anything-goes venue and yet keep the vibe classy enough that no one would think they’d entered a sex club instead of a nightclub.
There is a tension in the crowd, a sense of titillation at the prospect of a line being crossed. Shows begin at around 1 a.m. and usually include two acts and an after-show. The lineup is never announced ahead of time, but these days it’s likely to include Narcissister, a woman who performs a reverse striptease, pulling her clothing—a skirt and stockings and tube top and scarf—from her orifices. Or it might feature an acrobat who balances on one finger resting on a dildo worn by his female assistant, or an act of vaginal bloodletting, or a performer dressed as R. Kelly appearing to urinate on an performer with pigtails.
Yozmit is plucking notes on the zither she holds on her lap. She begins throat-singing beautiful, deeply haunting notes, as though she’s summoning the spirits of long-dead ancestors. She pauses, strums and plucks a few notes, and all of the sudden her song sounds vaguely familiar. “My friends feel it’s their appointed duty,” she sings slowly, and it begins to dawn on the crowd that she is covering the Bill Withers classic. “They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me.”