Day 35-38: THE SEARCH FOR OZ
I stumbled out from the interrogation, searching for the closest landmark, but New York looked strange without my friends. Many businesses had closed and the streets were half empty. Still, mailboxes overflowed with letters, and newsstands were overrun with porn. And not half-obscured brown paper bag-covered porn, but big stacking piles of porn beside the gossip mags. I hadn't bought a dirty magazine in over fifteen years, but I felt compelled to flip through a Hustler in front of a newsstand by Water and Wall Street. I remembered the feel of high gloss beneath my fingers and the smell of ugly maroon inserts reeking of colognes I'd never wear. But now the girls looked like. . . girls. No longer the dark and dangerous sex creatures I'd hope to meet as a man, but the kind of lost young women I wanted to save. And I felt bad because that didn't stop me from thinking of them exactly in the way I was supposed to. I put the magazine down, and headed for the hotel.
Tobey and Oz weren't there. That didn't worry me at first. After all, Tobey probably didn't want to return to his last known address with agents after him. I was more concerned about Oz. What if she were still detained? Deported? I wanted to go back to the interrogation office, to Park 51, to Central Park, to anywhere I'd ever seen her. But even with the population leaving in droves, this was still New York City. How do you find just one person? I sat on the bed drinking, and trying to think of a plan. Occasionally, I'd flip the pages of the Hustler I didn't remember buying.
That's when I realized Rowsdower drugged my Scotch. I couldn't think of a reason the government would do that, but I also couldn't believe I bought a porno mag without remembering it. Maybe they wanted to follow me. See if I led them to clues in my compromised state. Guide them to Tobey or the Internet. I didn't know. All I knew was that suddenly the room was too big, and even when I pulled the covers and grabbed the pillows, I was alone.
I've spent the last three days in my hotel room. Too anxious to write. Too anxious to do anything other than take comfort in the Hustler that speeds my heart and then slows it with release. There's a girl on page 42 with a dolphin tattoo beside her absurdly coifed pubic hair who particularly excels at that. But then the fear returns, and I remember I still don't know where Tobey and Oz are or what to do without them. All I know is that if the government were hoping to find dirt on me in my altered state, they lost. For three days, it's been just me, the Hustler, and order-in food. Except once, I did leave to hit the corner liquor store for more Scotch. And even though the dude behind the counter asked if I were all right, I think the effects of the government's drugs have worn off by now. I think it's safe to look for Oz without compromising our operation. And even if it's not, I can't be by myself any longer. I figured if she were free, she'd be looking for work, and that would narrow the search. I showered and shaved, but still couldn't rid myself of the Hustler Drakkar Noir samples that had entered my pores by osmosis. I wasn't worried though. There were worse smells in Times Square.
Day 38: PORN IN THE APOCALYPSE When you manage worker compensation claims for ten years you start to know people. What hurts. Which wounds can heal. And what breaks us. I said in the beginning that losing the Net wouldn't mean returning to a simpler time. Shatter both of a man's kneecaps in an industrial accident, he won't take comfort in the return to crawling. He'll undergo extensive surgeries, splints, physical therapy, and, ultimately, walk with crutches if that's the best he can manage. And it's the same with porn. We need it back. But not the peep shows and smut peddlers of the 70's and 80's. We want all the ease, variety, and anonymity of the Internet. So sure, within weeks all the DVD and sex toy stores that Giuliani had pushed to 9th Avenue in the 90s crept back to Times Square proper, but there was more. Capitalism has risen to the challenge of creating Internet porn in the real world. Because drunken frat boys and men in rain jackets will always buy movies and mags from smiling Pakistanis in brightly lit stores, but the real money to be made is in servicing the millions who indulged in the privacy of their homes. 38 days into the Apocalypse and New York porn has changed.
The first thing I noticed, in addition to the proliferation of standard porn stores, was a surprising number of costume shops. Seemingly legit Halloween stores, but since this was May, it didn't make sense. I walked inside one and was struck by its size. There were a few anemic shelves with cheap masks despite the handful of quality masks that had been in the window. An Orthodox Jewish man purchased a pirate disguise, and then a business-casual dude bought a plastic Spider-Man mask held on by a stapled rubber band. But instead of exiting with their purchases, both men headed out towards a back door. I followed.
"Sir, you need mask?" an employee asked.
"I'm not sure."
I caught the door before it closed and ventured inside only to find a much bigger pornography store filled with men of all shapes and sizes. All wearing masks, and free to peruse the aisles without any fear of being seen or recognized. And if they'd been caught in the store's antechamber before purchasing their disguise? Well, the shops were still good enough for plausible deniability.
Other than that though, the store was pretty standard. Movie aisles were separated by categories. Big circular anti-theft mirrors hung in the corners next to surveillance cameras. Aside from the masks, the only other difference I noticed was the proliferation of fetish porn and the disproportionately high clusters of men in those aisles. Adaptation was paying off, and anonymity was good for business. After a few hours and several visits to similar stores, I went home - without Oz, but with several cheap masks and a variety of DVDs I would never admit to purchasing in real life. I guess that doesn't makes sense to say anymore, considering this is the only life we know.
Day 42: THE RULE 34 CLUB
Even the forces of capitalism can't meet every pornographic need, and there's a new strain of Internet zombie in the Apocalypse. Unlike the others who moved in circles recreating their departed websites within, these men roam the streets in file like a string of suddenly naked Rockettes. Their flapping dicks as overt and nonsensical as their desire. Of course, I'm talking about the chat roulette zombies. I could call them flashers, and I guess that's all they are except I'm not sure they would have come to this if not for the Internet. The website was like a gateway drug to their perversity. But at this point, who am I to judge?
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It's been a full week without Oz, and my search has hit a dead end. No one at the porn shops has seen her, and she's unknown to the peep shows and strip joints. Maybe she's found a real job and a place to live, but why wouldn't she leave word at the hotel desk? So I keep heading off to Times Square, pretending it serves a purpose, but when the Scotch runs out, the panic fills its place, and I know I'm just looking for a way to spend my days. Without Romaya, without a job, without the Internet or even my companions, I have become too aware of time.
But this morning, I found something that could consume hours. Maybe even days. It's a high end porn club, secretly catering to the basest and most craven sexual displays. Things that would make even a German search engine blush. It's called Rule 34, and it makes every effort to honor that Internet axiom. In front, it looks like one of several upscale N.Y. steakhouses, and, indeed, it is an upscale N.Y. steakhouse. That's part of the appeal: you have a legit reason for being there. But the interior descends into a darkened segmented circle on multiple levels. Each segment holds a room of about forty spectators and a brightly lit stage that keeps the rest of the audience in total anonymous darkness. But that's not all. Just like porn sites, or even YouTube, there is additional suggested viewing. Each of the side walls has two windowed cut outs giving soundless sneak peeks of the action at the rooms above and below. For an entrance fee, (plus each room's additional fee,) you can enter and sample fully from the well-stocked perversion.
I don't know why it took me all day before I realized I could request neo-punk Australian porn. Maybe I was distracted by the horse, or the twins, or, so help me, was that Screech from Saved by the Bell getting dominated by Small Wonder? But eventually, I asked, and they did have it. It wasn't Oz. Just a skank from Queensland, getting double-teamed by two guys with Mohawks. I went home disappointed and vowed never to return to Rule 34 where I spent all day staring so intently at things I never wanted to see.
Day 49: OLD SCHOOL PEEP SHOW
I have spent every day of the last week at Rule 34. If I weren't drinking so heavily I don't think I could live with myself. A full week with nothing but alcohol and head-shakingly awful pornographic displays has left me numb. Numb even to the pain that kept me company. I haven't had a real conversation with anyone since being interrogated by Rowsdower two weeks ago. And I haven't spoken at all since yesterday afternoon at Rule 34 when I asked if they had a room with Agent Scully and Lt. Uhura getting bi-curious. (They did).
So today I stayed close to home and went to the store I first visited. I bought a rubber mask that only covered the nose and eyes so I could still drink and headed for the peep show. I'd never been before, but I assumed nothing much had changed in the Apocalypse. No need to considering there was little difference from web cam girls. The room was small and dark, and reeked of what I hoped was bleach. I had passed a mop and bucket on the way in. I took a seat in front of the window, and a young woman with brown hair and glasses sat in a kimono on the other side. She was too pretty to be here.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I'm not sure."
"Well, what do you like?" She reached over to the small table by her side to crush out a cigarette. "Do you want me to give you some choices?"
I thought for a moment. "I'd prefer not to," I heard myself say.
"Well, my name's Maya," she said, and uncrossed her legs. Her kimono opened slightly, still holding to her breast, but revealing a dolphin tattoo below her waist.
"Hello, Maya," I said. "Will you just sit here with me for a minute?"
"It's your money," she said and let the kimono open further. "So what should I call you?"
At this point, I couldn't think of a reason not to give my real name.
"Call me, Gladstone," I said, and took off my mask.
Maya jumped off her chair and closed her Kimono. "For fucks sake! Gladstone!"
I didn't understand. She banged up against the glass.
"It's me! Oz!"
Continued in part SEVEN
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