Feeling Elbows, Rubbing Queasy
by Molly Young
Through a couple of flukes (acquaintances, a cousin involved in the ownership) I've ended up at The Box twice in one week. The Box is a club in downtown Manhattan. It has a live burlesque show and a drinks list featuring $13,000 champagne (did I read that correctly?)
As with many such places, The Box adheres to a mystical door policy. On Visit #1 I was told to say "SUGAR RAY" as a password. On Visit #2 I was not allowed inside until my cousin poked his head out the door and identified me like a perp in a police lineup. Casual humiliation: a staple of the nightlife.
On both visits the atmosphere inside reminded me of an Edith Wharton novel. It is moneyed, socially complex, and devoted to elaborate carousing. The club is full of thoughtful details: paper bags of popcorn, servers in old-tymey costume, live music and a red velvet curtain. There are bottles of Grey Goose the size of rain sticks. It is the kind of thing that sends a ticker tape of WHOA! through your mind.
Whenever I find myself in an elevated position, I always look for something to throw at the people below me. Peanuts, popcorn, coupons.
It is a bizarre place to be - a spectacle with all the theoretical implications of that word. "Fellini-esque circus" works too. Like any cultural Petri dish, The Box felt emblematic and puzzling all at once. Worthy of a witness, certainly, and some documentation. I'll give a little overview of the show we saw on Visit #2 (it was mostly the same show as Visit #1, but shuffled around.) Analysis will follow.
The first act (though it changes from night to night) had a Persian theme. There was a naked blonde babe wriggling on a chaise while a sultan tickled her with a pink feather. Throughout the room men leaned toward their friends and said, "Check it out."
Oh, a brief interruption. On the first night we'd been seated in a balcony booth. The second night we were on a sofa directly in front of the stage. From the balcony, the performers had appeared perfect. From up close the show was less magical. You could see backstage, for one thing, and you could tally the natural flaws of the performers' bodies: stray zits, heavy makeup, pubic stubble.
I hope that crop is made of licorice!
After the Persian act a contortionist came onstage and balanced his entire body on a strap-on penis attached to his assistant. Cool. Then there was a medley featuring a comic midget and some vaudeville renditions of Billy Idol and Rolling Stones songs.
The best acts were the ones with some sort of intellectual component. A girl dressed as Hitler performed a skillful striptease that felt like antique political satire. One routine had a dancer in traditional costume emerge from a Matryoshka doll to perform a Russian dance. At one point she lifted her dress, squatted over a pedestal, and ejected a mini doll from her vagina. (Cue hooting.) More traditional dance. As a finale, she squatted again over the ejected doll and hoovered it back up. The final routine that I can remember was incest-oriented. Details elided here.
Now, let me ask you a question. Do you have a switch in your head that you can flick in order to extinguish moral judgments? Like for when you go see stand-up comedy or a Wayans brothers movie, or when you listen to George Carlin on headphones? There are certain things you can't enjoy, I mean, without suppressing your moral responses. Turning off the switch is the equivalent of playing a game: you acknowledge that it is a temporary situation in which certain rules need to apply in order to have fun.
Shoes on the bed: uncouth.
Well, The Box presents quite a challenge to this switch. There is so much to delight in: the naked girls, the atmosphere, the drinks, the show. And yet, there is so much to panic over! One thing that is apparent from the start is that There Are No Rules For the Rich. Inside the club you can smoke cigarettes and ash them on the floor, straddle your boyfriend amid 300 strangers, laughingly refer to the financial straits of third-world countries and do drugs. No one is held accountable for their bad behavior. Outsiders like us will always find such an atmosphere uncomfortable. At some moments it felt sinister.
"Decadent" might be the exact word for The Box. I should clarify, though, because "decadent" is so often misused as an adjective. Molten chocolate cake, for instance, is not decadent (though it is tasty.) For something to count as decadent, it has to have a strong element of waste and disregard. A touch of pre-apocalypse. Images that recurred to me at The Box: sinking of the Titanic, court of Louis XVI, Tsar Nicholas II.
With the economy dissolving into paste, the bar for decadence is falling. Things that used to seem like standard elements of celebrity glamour (private jets, $30,000 handbags) are quickly becoming distasteful. What was glitzy is now gauche. I wonder how Kanye West will adapt.
And what about The Box? Hard to say. When we took the J back to Bushwick at 4 AM (sprinting from the subway stop all the way home because it was the first chilly night of the season), I had that metaphysical hangover you get when you've snooped through someone's journal or eaten your roommate's peanut butter straight from the jar. Bad feelings, both.
Molly Young is the contributing editor to This Recording. Here is her website.
Get that dog out of frame, pls.
"We Have To Respect Each Other" - Department of Eagles (mp3)
"Forty Dollar Rug" - Department of Eagles (mp3)
"Family Romance" - Department of Eagles (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Danny on the double feature.
Danish burned Malibu to the ground.
Barely safe links for work.