42nd Street Pete’s story of grimy movies, grimy theatres and grimy patrons proves to be a fascinating slice of nostalgia in an overly-sanitised world.
Affectionately known as The Deuce, 42nd Street and its surrounding environs back in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties were bastions of vice rarely seen since the days of Babylon; and from his mid-teens on, Pete Chiarella sampled most of those sins in ample amounts. Raised in the wilds of New Jersey, Pete had an unpleasant upbringing; his father could wallop his kid with the best of them, the nuns at his Catholic school could wallop even better still, and early classmates helped fill in the gaps that the nuns and his father had become too worn out to plug. After experiencing his first Grindhouse (The Embassy in Orange, NJ) at the age of 12, hitting New York’s West Village for booze at the age of 16, and scoping out the luxurious contents of Al Goldstein’s Screw newspaper, he knew The Deuce was where he wanted to be. He began his bounce from Catholic school to public, coming into contact with a virulent principle and a psychiatrist who was quick to judge and quick to flip the switch on shock therapy treatment. Being a horror and schlock movie fan, and being close to graduating high school, he was hoping to get away from that grind and into another, so he made his escape to the Big Apple’s famous Grindhouses: among them The Cinerama, The Liberty, The Lyric, and most noxious of all, The Harem, a 24/7 degenerate sleaze-pit housing everything from drag queens, to winos, to junkies and beyond; from there, it was the Burlesque houses: from the top-of-the-line Show World Center and The Melody Burlesque all the way down to the bottom of the barrel with The Roxy Burlesque and The New Paris Theater. The story about him being banned for life from The Roxy is, alone, worth the price of the book.
With a gravelly temperament, politically incorrect combativeness, and a considerable dose of casual street-level grit and irascible deadpan humour, he takes the reader on a Sturm und Drang ride through a three-ring cesspool filled with bootlegging, drug deals, smack, coke, weed, Percodan addiction, police altercations, the birth and death of 8-tracks, The Fugs, Frank Zappa, gravity knives, death threats, murders, back-alley beatings, barroom brawls, shoplifting, Tijuana Bibles, 8mm porn loops (stag films), The Terminal Bar where you could find “the ugliest $5 hookers in America”, crooked cops, straight crooks, live sex shows, pre-op trannie tramps, scumatoriums, curb-side stomps, grab-a-shag peep shows, withered addicts, backstabbing friends, back-slapping enemies, bestiality, gore, hair-trigger violence, anything-for-a-buck mentality, hopped-up pimps, and buttoned-down mafia muscle who made people disappear. And then, of course, there were the movies: Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, Night of the Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly, Horror of Party Beach, The Bloody Pit of Horror, Fight for Your Life, Devil in Miss Jones, San Francisco Ball, Zombie, Cycle Savages, Payment in Blood, and illegal films at the trashy Crossroad Books like White Girl with Black Dog and Girl with Pig, Oink, Oink, to name only a few. It’s an appallingly seductive picaresque side-show, and The Pope of Peepshows is the perfect roguish and crust-covered tour guide through a nauseating fun house America, and he makes you wish you were there with him as he staggers from one atrocity to the next. He’s a fallen gonzo angel who shares with Charles Bukowski, Iceberg Slim, and Hunter Thompson not only a thudding and splintery disposition and background, but also their rough-edged, impenitent, and raw style.
The Wizard of Weed covers all of his exploits in lovingly perverse detail; so much so, you can almost smell the second-hand pot smoke and taste the urine on the theatre seats. The non-existent editing and slapdash writing – dropped letters, the occasional randomly shifting tense, repeated sections, spliced sentences, gratuitous letters, gratuitous words, unkempt formatting, and the most obscene anecdotes strung together into stream-of-consciousness observations vile enough to make the Devil clap his claws with glee – makes it feel as though the reader is actually experiencing a Grindhouse triple feature, shot on 8mm and directed with all the sleazy delicacy of Shaun Costello. If you listen closely, you may even hear one of the back-alley, roughy filmmakers being arrested for producing kiddie porn in a nearby dingy basement. While his exploits are endlessly fascinating, the reader eventually begins to see a life pattern, though; it becomes glaringly obvious that Pete, despite all of his good intentions and loyalty to friends, is a crap-magnet extraordinaire; he pulls ruin and tribulation to himself like a cheap, strung-out hooker desperate for her next fix. Throughout his life, he made a stunning array of bad choices – befriending the wrong people, trusting the untreatable, and tolerating the unforgivable more than once. Maybe that just makes him a good guy; or maybe it makes him a chump. Either way, The Grandmaster of Grindhouse seems fine with the choices; and besides, it’s those choices that lead to a life that was, in itself, very much alive, more so than most, and it created a narrative more exciting than most fiction. Sure, it may have been painful while it happened, but looking back at it now definitely isn’t a grind.
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