The best New York stories admit that New York is sometimes boring. Here you are, in the Greatest City in the World, where every night should be the greatest night in the world, and your life is inundated with the absorbing minutiae that powered Spalding Gray. Where is the danger? The sex? The drugs? Although there's plenty of all three in The Last of the Live Nude Girls, Sheila McClear's artful memoir of late-aughts Manhattan, the moments that shine brightest are the quietest. "The sink in our bathroom was held up with a two-by-four,"McClear writes. Welcome to New York.
That sink may still be there in Gotham City Video, the "profoundly unsexy "Times Square porn emporium where McClear started working as a live nude girl in 2006. She makes it sound logical: after moving because auto-bust Detroit "would continue its death rattle whether I stayed or went," she can't make enough money in legit jobs to pay rent. She turns to stripping, but, as a self-confessed wallflower and late bloomer, finds it too involved. (Of a lap dance, she writes: "[S]hockingly intimate… unremarkable and only vaguely uncomfortable, just like the first time I'd had sex.") The peep booths of Gotham suit her better. There, dancing behind glass, she is exposed but protected, "naked and alone, untouchable, on display like a zoo animal." And she's paying bills.
McClear wrote for Gawker in the post-Choire Sicha years and it's easy to imagine the hip, titillating book Live Nude Girls could have been. Instead we get something better: the author self-identifies as a "shiftless hipster" early on, getting the zeitgeist out of the way, and then uses her framework to tell hilarious, searching vignettes about herself and her coworkers. Chapters like "Mental Hygiene," about the cleansing perspective of the Bellevue ER, and "N To Astoria," about how being a bartender in Queens is more humiliating than being a stripper, don't read like blog entries. They read like the confessional essays that used to populate the recently deceased NY Press and Philadelphia's Welcomat, or a more workaday Nora Ephron. (Ephron is of the few name-drops in the book, besides a peep-show customer with "dark, feral eyes" who might be Louis C.K.)
The Last of the Live Nude Girls gives hope to a generation of confessional essayists who have seen their work cheapened by blogs. Aside from the occasional Sloane Crosley, writers who grew up reading David Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman now find that no one in the newspaper or book world will pay for their personal insights. McClear deserves credit, then, not just for being good, but for finding a way to get published and talked about in a time when these things seldom are.
The trick is sex, but the sexiest thing the author actually does is come home at dawn and "[sit] cross-legged on my bed, drinking a beer and watching the street below." Live Nude Girls is a collection of disciplined and rewarding New York tales. Next time, McClear is free to keep her clothes on.