TIMES SQUARE — On the second floor of Gotham City Video on Eighth Avenue, half a dozen women in bras, underwear and thigh-high boots wait under harsh neon lights for men to choose them to strip for cash.
Once selected, the men follow the women to closet-sized booths, where they feed bills through crudely sawed-out money slots, revealing the girls perched inside behind the partition.
Welcome to the peep shows, one of the last remaining relics of the seedier Times Square, and the subject of a new book, "The Last of the Live Nude Girls," a memoir by Gawker-turned-New York Post feature writer Sheila McClear.
The book chronicles McClear's journey from a painfully shy Michigan native who arrived in New York as an aspiring costume designer in 2006, through the year and a half she spent alone in the city working at “the peeps” in Times Square as she struggled to find herself and make ends meet.
“I think stripping was always in the back of my mind as a last ditch, as a last-chances kind of thing,” said McClear, 30, with her long, dark bangs and black-rimmed glasses, wearing an asymmetrical silver top, as she sat drinking a gin and tonic at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown.
McClear wrote in her book that she had a morbid fascination with stripping, “Like poking a dead rat with a stick: I shouldn’t do it, I didn’t particularly enjoy doing it, I hated how disgusting it was. But some part of me needed to see what its insides looked like.”
The insides, as expected, were not exactly pretty.
McClear describes a world of desperate men frequenting Gotham and the other clubs she worked at across the city. One regular wrote elaborate scripts for her to act out that included dialogue and pre-decided games of strip poker; others wanted to be insulted; some just sat, feeding more and more money through the tiny slot as they stared.
McClear describes with relatable awkwardness the process of perfecting the art of the strip tease. At first, she said, “I felt the same way I did at the gynecologist: uncomfortable, cold.”
“That I should take my clothes off was obvious — but what to do with the remaining three minutes?” she asked, before eventually perfecting a routine that she was capable of performing mindlessly again and again.
It soon became clear to McClear that certain groups of men gravitated toward her, so she quickly learned how to scan customers to avoid having to make an effort to attract those who would inevitably skip over her skinny frame and porcelain skin for curvier girls or those of different ethnicities.
Some nights she would walk out elated with more than $500 in her pocket, which she’d quickly stuff into the sock drawer in her small Brooklyn room. But most nights she made substantially less — maybe $200 in a six-hour shift, she said, and $100 to $150 if the shift was very slow.
While at first McClear said she felt reluctant to write about her time performing in the peeps because it would force her to acknowledge their role in her life, she began to realize (with some prodding from friends) that she had unique access to a dying world filled with stories no one else would ever tell.
“This was a marginalized group of people who’ve been around for 30 years and they weren't going to have their stories told,” she said. As the months ticked by, “I realized that we were the last. That gave me the sense of urgency,” she said.
She began keeping a journal, scribbling one or two paragraphs every night before bed.
But putting her life out there has had its drawbacks. When her parents, whom she’d kept in the dark about what she’d been done, found out about the book, both freaked out. Her mother “was pretty confused and crying.” Her father stopped talking to her for several months and has never brought it up since, she said.
And then there’s the fear that people, including potential love interests, might be scared off by her experiences working in one of the seediest industries in the city, she said at a recent book launch party at Sanctuary bar, just around the corner from where she used to work.
But McClear said she embraces the experience. While she said "it still feels kind of squeamish and uncomfortable to me [to think about it]" she insists she doesn't feel regret.
“It’s a really weird coming-of-age story. I apparently couldn't learn the easy way. I had to learn the hard way,” she said with a smile.
“[It was] a place to work out all those long-tangled knots of myself,” she said. “Some people may have seen a therapist."
In addition to chronicling a dying part of the city’s history, she said she hopes the book will encourage people to “look closer” at the streets around them, since there’s so often so much more going on beneath the surface.
But she also bemoaned some of the changes sweeping the city, including the cleaning up of Times Square and other areas, like the East Village, which recently lost seedy Second Avenue mainstay Mars Bar.
“The city has continued its march toward homogeneity and gentrification,” she said. Her former strip joint has now become a Shake Shack, she noted.
The Last of the Live Nude Girls is available in book stores across the city and on Amazon.com.