Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sexual Awakenings at the Place of Ill Repute

Once upon a time, back around 1975 or so, I was eleven or twelvish, and I was feeling the pangs of puberty. I had discovered girls!

Now, part of my problem with this was the lack of information available. Plainly, some study was called for... but the library seemed remarkably short on information on the topic. What I really wanted was Playboy. Not only did they seem to have any number of articles on the subject of women, dating, picking them up, entertaining them, and getting them into bed, but they even told you what to wear, what kind of car to drive, and included illustrations of sample women!

(Y'gotta keep in mind, this was 1975. Playboy was about as serious as it got, as far as the subject of women went. And at age eleven, I was quite sure there could be no better guide to the subject area. My peer group firmly agreed.)

But I was no more than a puppy kid with a fuzz atop my upper lip that required me to shave every third day or so, lest my teachers try to wipe the dirt off with a kleenex. How was I to obtain such tomes of forbidden lore?

Well, plainly, I wasn't. I was stuck. Until I discovered the other drugstore.

My hometown had two drugstores at the time, the nice reputable one run by the guy who'd gone to high school with my mom, and at which I dared buy nothing more provocative than Detective Comics... and the other one, the one down near the movie theatre, the sleazy-looking one with the windows that hadn't been washed since the Johnson Administration, the one with which my parents did not do business. What might I find there?

Well, actually, quite a bit. This other place was run by a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old, who watched me like a hawk, quite certain that the minute he took an eye off me, I'd stuff half the store into my pocket and set the other half afire, to judge from his attitude. But when I checked his magazine rack, I was astonished. This guy had comics dating back to the sixties! Mighod! Didn't he ever send his unsold copies back?

He did not. I forgot all about Playboy, and gleefully spent the four dollars I'd brought with me on comics. He solemnly sold them to me at cover price, too. He had to blow the dust off one to SEE the cover price.

Naturally, this should give you some idea what kind of a kid we're dealin' with, here. In fact, it may not even have been 1975 yet. Perhaps it was earlier. I do remember that I went there to investigate Playboy, though, so I couldn't have been all THAT young.

For weeks, when I got my allowance, I'd run like hell down to the old man's drugstore and buy up ancient comics. I was terrified that someone else would find out about this treasure trove. As I became a regular fixture in his store, he got a little friendlier... even got downright relaxed about my presence, although I noticed that nobody else ever seemed to be in that store. Was I his only customer? Then again, who cared?

I depleted his magazine rack, gradually. No new magazines appeared. I didn't mind. I could get new magazines anywhere, but this place was the next best thing to a time machine.

...and over time, I began to cast glances at his non-comics stock.

He did not carry Playboy, or Penthouse. What he did carry, though, looked decidedly interesting. The rack held a variety of interesting-looking magazines with titles like Men, Men's World, Man's Adventure, Grit, Sweat, Tough, Stud, Grunt, Stag, and so forth. Yeah, I may be mistaken about some of those titles -- it's been thirty years, after all -- but judging from the cover illustrations, some of those woulda made good titles for some of these magazines.

They were all of a type, as recognizable as comic books. They invariably had painted illustrations on their covers, for one thing. The illustrations were always of one of these things:

*Two men fighting, while a woman with plunging neckline was nearby. She might or might not be watching the fight, and she could be in the background or foreground. Sometimes the men had knives; other times they fought barehanded. NEVER with guns, though.
*Men with guns blazing away at some offscreen enemy. Sometimes the men wore military uniforms, sometimes torn rags. If military uniforms were present, they might be in foxholes, and there might be barbed wire present.
*A scantily dressed woman with a gleeful come-hither look. There might or might not be appreciative-looking men on the cover with her.

Well, naturally, I was curious. I learned to watch for the old fellow out of the corner of my eye, and when he became distracted, I'd quickly flip through some of these magazines. What were they? What did they have?

...e-yow. In the few fleeting seconds I had to examine the magazines, I hardly had time to really check the content... but they DID have the obligatory photographs of women. Plainly, these, while not exactly Playboy, were certainly in the ballpark. Still, what would happen if I tried to buy any? I mean, this guy was old, and by age eleven, I'd learned what old people thought about such things. Would he, like, throw me out of his store? Then what would I do about all those back issues of The Atom and The Flash and Brave And The Bold?

I took a couple of weeks to think about it, while I made a point of buying up more of his comics. Especially the ones I knew I'd never be able to live without, if he threw me out and forbade me to come back...

Over time, over the weeks, over the months, the old man's stock dwindled. He'd quit ordering new magazines in 1973, and there was nothing newer than that in the store. Over time, I cleaned out his Supermans, his Green Lanterns, his Magnus, Robot Fighters, his Fantastic Fours (original Lee/Kirby!), his Spider-Mans, his Silver Surfers... and was finally down to the stuff even I couldn't stomach: his Yogi Bears and the like, and the horrible watered-down Charlton ghost comics.

The time had finally come.

I walked in casually one day, my allowance still warm in my pocket. I picked up two Charlton comics and a copy of Men's World, and walked up to the counter.

The old man looked at the magazines. Then he raised a gimlet eye and looked at me.

Suddenly, my stomach felt like it was full of lemon custard that someone'd forgotten to put the sugar in.

He glanced down at the magazines again. Slooowly, his aged hand moved... the cash register. Ching! "Dollar seventy-eight," he said.

I about broke a finger getting my hand into my pants pocket to pay the man. I forced myself to saunter casually out the door, but once outside, I mounted my bike and broke all speed records getting home. The Charltons went in the trash, but finally... finally, Men's World was mine to consume, to peruse, to suck dry of all forbidden knowledge...




.............and a couple of hours later, I was more'n a little confused.

Admittedly, my experience with men's magazines was pretty minimal -- I'd looked over a copy of Playboy once, at a friend's house (he'd stolen it from his old man, and was later found out and beat purple for his sins, so there'd been no second chance), and this... upon careful perusal... didn't much look like Playboy. There were no articles about what kind of drinks to serve, what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of pickup lines to use. There did seem to be a page of jokes, but they were considerably different than the ones in Playboy.

The articles seemed limited to fictional stuff... mostly stories about guys fighting in World War II, along with one rather creepy article detailing Japanese war tortures. Not exactly what I'd been looking for.

Furthermore, there were the little sections with photos of women. In the old man's drugstore, I hadn't really had a chance to look very carefully, but in Playboy, the women were quite nude; this, to me, was perhaps the major reason for buying the magazine. Even if the articles proved inaccurate or unworkable, there were always the naked women, right?

These women, on the other hand, seemed perfectly content to leave their underwear and swimsuits on, although they'd sometimes let a strap slip, with a sly, pleased look on their faces, like they were getting away with the Brinks robbery.

What the hell was this stuff?

I thought about it over the following week, and eventually came to a conclusion. The old man hadn't ordered any new stuff for years. Plainly, he didn't have Playboy because Playboy was obviously a fairly new thing (the magazine had been in print since the fifties, of course, but no one had ever told me that). Therefore... what THIS magazine was... had to be... some kind of proto-Playboy, some sort of ancient skin mag from earlier times, before they'd refined the art to its modern form.

I grinned. This wasn't that big a deal. All I would need to do would be to go back and check the publication dates on the remaining magazines, and buy only the ones printed in the seventies. Logically, these magazines printed later in history would be much more like Playboy, yes?

The following week, I went back and picked up a couple more Charlton comics, and a copy of Stag. I didn't wanna overdo it, you see. I was pretty sure I was barely sailing under the old man's radar, and if I walked up to the counter with a stack of girlie magazines, there's no telling what he'd do. Best to take it slow and easy, not trigger any alarms...

...of course, this meant I couldn't make a point of paying much attention to the magazines while in the store. Had to look casual, saunter towards the rack, casually look them over, pick up three or four at random... and durned if ANY of those magazines had their date of publication on the cover! If I was lucky, they'd say something like "May" or "August." I spent a risky moment checking inside the front cover on the masthead, but there wasn't any information there, either.

I was flying blind. I'd have to depend on cover design and the amount of dust on the mag in question to determine how long it'd been there....

Fling? Twist? Glee? I forget what the title of the next magazine was, but I bought it the following week, along with two more of the horrible Charlton ghost comics. I remember at the time being a little worried, too... he didn't have too many more of those Charlton comics, which meant I'd have to fall back on Gold Key comics, and for some reason, I was quite sure if I tried to buy a combination of Stud and Huckleberry Hound, this would certainly set off any alarms the old man still had left rattling around in that ancient head of his...

...and I still wasn't brave enough, quite, to simply walk up to the old guy and try to buy a copy of Swing! all by itself. Not quite. Not without a comic to slap atop it, to hide that incriminating girlie art...

I got home, and furiously read the magazine. I'd picked this one because it had a photo cover instead of a painted illustration, and featured a cute sexy girl doing the come-hither, rather than sweaty men trying to kill each other. Surely, THIS magazine would follow the example on the cover. I was a lover, not a fighter... or at least, it's what I was aiming for.

It was frankly similar to the previous one, but with some differences. The dirty jokes were classier; I could tell, because I didn't get all of them. There was a fascinating article on easy dinners and breakfasts to serve your young lady when she came over to visit (the implication being that if you were serving her breakfast... well... hooboy!). The article seemed to assume that I was a young man living in my own apartment, and that I had no idea how to cook. Two out of three wasn't bad, and the recipes actually sounded kind of tasty. I wasn't sure how this would help me catch a girl, though, so I mentally bookmarked it and plunged on.

Rather irritatingly, it had another one of those dippy World War II stories, although this one seemed to focus on how female Nazi spies seduced Allied guys to get military secrets. It still wasn't what I was looking for, but it was certainly more interesting than Japanese war tortures.

...and then, there was The Girl.

This magazine, naturally, had several short photo features with young ladies in them. Two of these young ladies rather coyly refused to undress, one favoring a short translucent nightie, and the other a bikini... but the third, now... the third was The Girl.

The Girl started out fully dressed, and was quite naked by the third page of the four-page spread. Naked! I remember feeling my hormones fizz, steam, pop and bubble like a soda pop factory on fire.

Weirdly enough, though, in every nude picture... she was posed in such a way that you couldn't actually see anything. No, really! Invariably, she'd have an arm held in such a way that it displayed her nudity... while concealing just enough of it. She'd be walking across a room, with a chair in just the right position to hide her nether region, while an outstretched arm hid her breasts. Hell, in one waist-up picture, she simply concealed her nipples with three fingers of each hand, while on her face she wore a playful what'cha-gonna-do-about-it? look.

Completely naked, yet revealing nothing that might get the distributors arrested in any of the fifty states.

It's a wonder my head didn't explode. Any number of other things certainly felt like exploding. I was still a bit disappointed -- this still wasn't Playboy -- but it was much closer to the mark than the previous experiment. Obviously, I was on the right track. My theory had been correct. Plainly, this magazine had been printed years after the previous one, after standards had been relaxed. My plan was sound. I'd simply have to keep trying until I hit paydirt.

The wait until next week's allowance was a long and agonizing one.

Driven by hormones and frustration, I took a desperate gamble, and along with the obligatory two Charltons, I bought two girlie magazines that week. I had to know!!!

Weeks went by, and I bought more girlie magazines. One week, out of sheer seething desperation, I bought Stud, Manly, Swing! The Jetsons, and Walt Disney Comics and Stories, all in one burning stack, and felt afterwards like I'd committed some kind of mortal sin, what with Disney actually sharing space on the counter with these wicked periodicals. I actually arranged 'em in my bike basket so that The Jetsons was between Donald Duck and Swing!

I also felt a little odd the day after my birthday. I went down and spent a goodly share of my birthday money on old skin magazines, and wondered to myself how many other twelve-year-olds did anything like that?

And, over time, I came to have quite a stack of the things... and, in some ways, I was no closer to answers than I had been before I bought the first one. And, in some ways, I didn't care. Somehow, I felt I was richer, in an evil kind of way, for simply having the stack of the things, squirreled away in the cardboard box under my bed, than I would be if I didn't. Decades before The Simpsons hit the airwaves, I knew how Mr. Burns felt, as I wallowed in my own sinful crapulence...

I was a slave to my hormones. At the tender age of twelve, I had a collection of porn.

Or maybe not. Like I said, this stuff wasn't exactly Playboy. I did have enough of it, though, to begin to assemble a certain set of criteria...

*Three to four girlie layouts per magazine. Very few featured actual nudity, and NONE allowed the display of pubic regions or nipples. One actually featured a full-length shot of a lovely nude model with her back to the camera, her luscious unclad behind bare to the world. It about drove me crazy. Wonder who went to jail for that...?

*All magazines were required to have at least one article dealing with WWII, although sometimes Korean War articles were permissable. Usually, these articles dealt with first-person accounts of persons who claimed to have fought in the war in question (As the Panzer roared closer to my foxhole, all I had was a single grenade, and I knew the only hope for my trapped platoon was for me to get up out of that hole, scramble atop the cupola, and ram that egg down its hatch before its cannon could spit fiery death among my squadmates...)

*War articles not dealing with first-person combat accounts invariably dealt with sex, in a rather peculiar way (...and although I loved Marie more than life itself, I knew she was dedicated to Free France, and that tonight was all we'd ever have. I took her in my arms, the points of her breasts burning against my bare, sweaty chest, and smothered her face with kisses, as we fell back upon the cot...)

*The backs of these magazines were invariably jammed with ads for some of the most bizarre things, many of which I did not understand, and which irritated me to no end. I didn't have anyone I could ask what half the words meant, and even when I understood what the words meant, I was smart enough to know I wasn't even up on the concept, in some cases....

That same year, my old man gave me The Birds And The Bees lecture... and afterwards, asked if I had any questions.

I seethed. I had LOADS of questions... but I didn't dare ask them. I mean, I was a child, sure, but I was no dummy. I was quite sure if I started asking him what a "courtesan" was, or an "ecdysiast," or a "cuckold," or if "parody" was the only definition of "burlesque," (hey, I knew how to use a dictionary) that sooner or later, he'd ask me "Where the hell did you hear about all THIS stuff?"

...and there was no way in hell I even wanted him thinking about where I might have learned that stuff. So I sat, and I listened, and I nodded, and dutifully said, "No, sir," when he asked if I had any questions, while inside, my mind writhed in the tormented blackness of unsatisfied ignorance.

It was incredibly frustrating. I mean, the main reason I'd bought these magazines -- aside from the sexy girls, that is -- was to learn something about how sex was supposed to work... and the magazines, while providing reams of information, were ponderously unhelpful. It's like they were teasing me. What was worse, was, I knew what most of the words meant, but I still couldn't figure out what half the ads were selling... and the things I could understand, I couldn't see why any sane person would want to buy.

The only other thing that ever affected me that way was Animal Farm, this stupid book by some Englishman that my mom had given me to read. I mean, the book was basically a fairy tale about these farm animals that kick the farmer out and take over the farm for themselves, right? But by the end of the book, the pigs are running the place the same as the farmer.

Just a fairy tale... but you got this weird idea, while you were reading it, that the writer really wasn't talking about pigs and chickens and horses at all, that he really meant to be saying something else, but he wouldn't just come right out and say it, you know?

And it was up to YOU to figure it all out, somehow, without clue, signpost, or map.

And it drove me crazy. Crazier, that is, than the seminude pictures in the photo layouts. In some ways, those magazines, to me, became a symbol of the Essence Of Woman: attractive, sexy, exciting... and at least partly incomprehensible.

At age twelve, I was a quivering sexual neurotic.

There was one story in particular that I remember quite well, in fact, that very much illustrates what the problem was, for me... and, in many ways, illustrates what I did about it, as time went by. It was the story of The Place Of Ill Repute...

I was a kid. I make no pretensions towards literary brilliance, either in readin' it or writin' it. I was a seethin' mass of hormones, sure, and I was quite interested in finding out about how girls worked, and how best to handle them... in all senses of the word. This, and this alone, was why I'd invested in this stack of ancient dusty girlie magazines, right?

I wasn't all that interested in World War Two, or in stories about how OTHER guys had got lucky, except insofar as they might contain any good ideas I could put to my own use. I wasn't proud. I was ignorant, and I didn't wanna be. I knew, somehow, that my relations with the opposite sex were among the most important things I was ever gonna do, and I wanted to go in armed with as much knowledge as possible, right?

Occasionally, you'd run across an article which proclaimed that it knew how to make a woman your slave, how to drive them wild with passion, how to make them mad with desire... hell, I'd have settled for an article that told me how to go up and talk to one without breaking out in sweaty palms and mouth dryer'n the Sahara. Furthermore, these articles were written in this horrible, coy style that pretty much seemed to insist you read between the lines. I didn't wanna read between the lines. I wanted extensive detailed instructions. Was this too much to ask?

Over time, I lost interest. Plainly, these magazines couldn't teach me anything. Either that, or they wouldn't. They were written in some kind of weird code, or something. Or maybe they were just.... old. Maybe this was how people got together back in 1967. Had things really changed THAT much in only eight years?

But I still perused the magazines in the stack. There was The Girl, who beckoned me back, night after night, daring me to do something about those strategically placed fingers and arms and items of furniture. The articles about World War II really weren't all that bad, presuming you were actually in the mood to read about World War II.

...and then... there were the fiction items. And one I remember distinctly was The Place Of Ill Repute.

The Place of Ill Repute wasn't the title, of course. It was something catchy, something flashy, but I don't remember what it was, or who wrote it. I do remember it was heavily illustrated, though, with these terrific quarter-page paintings, every couple pages, rather than the usual one- or two-page painting you usually found on the title page. These illustrations showed what was happening in the story... and, as you can imagine, they led me to actually READ the the thing, just to try and figure out what the hell this was all about...

Opening illustration: A buxom, brassy-lookin' redhead, marching towards the reader, flanked by two goofy lookin' drunks, marching in tow. Background appears to be a largish town from a movie Western.
Our story opens with the beautiful Irish lass, Rosie, as she came to San Francisco to seek her fortune, blah blah blah, Boomtown, blah, blah, horse-and-buggy, blah blah. With her came the reprobates Lefty and Feeble, faithful chums, but all too prone to "Looking For The Elephant." Rosie had a plan, you see, and with the wad of cash she drew from her copious but firm bosom, she lay down a down payment on a House on Sin Row, with which she would seek her fortune. She set Lefty and Feeble to sprucing up the house, while she saw to the procuring of a store of whiskey and rum, and the hiring of hostesses and beautiful women of all stripes, the better to build her fledgling hostelry into what would become THE HOUSE OF BLAZES!

(Ooookay. San Francisco. Judging from the illustration and description, this would seem to be pre-1900, Late Cowboy Period. Wow, Rosie has big boobs. Lefty and Feeble are her friends and employees. She wants to go into business. Wonder what it means, "Looking For The Elephant?" Wow, Rosie has big boobs. Plenty of dough, too. Wonder where she came across all that money? Hm. Booze. Okay, she's opening a bar. She wants sexy hostesses and waitresses and stuff, makes perfect sense.Y'know, Rosie has big boobs. Odd name for a bar, sure, but what do I know about such things?)

Within a week, Rosie has opened The House Of Blazes, and the food is fine, the drink is flowing, the girls are beautiful. Lefty and Feeble are her faithful Right Hand Men, all too adept with sap and club when customers get too salty, the best backup you could have... when they aren't Looking For The Elephant.
(Illustration: another beautiful woman, standing atop a large veranda, stares down the street at The House Of Blazes, sneering. Aside from dress and hair color, she is identical to Rosie, even down to the plunging neckline)
But all is not wine and roses. Down the street, another House, the Velvet Hammer, is run by the beautiful Raven, who laughs cruelly at the upstart House, and declares that the Velvet Hammer is the finest, most profitable House on Sin Row, with the most beautiful women, the finest liquor, the best accomodations, and that the House Of Blazes can be no more than some pathetic "crib joint" in comparison.
And those who frequent Sin Row, and those who live amidst its fire and gutter, glitter and glory, know that in her heart, Raven burns with rage, and that conflict of some sort is not far off.

(Hm. I didn't know bars served food. Must be a "bar and grill." Lefty and Feeble are the bouncers, when not chasing elephants. Perhaps this is some sort of euphemism for "getting drunk." And this new chick, Raven, is all bent outta shape about the new competition in town. Hey, why are all the bars on this one street, I wonder? Wouldn't it make more sense to open a bar in a part of town that doesn't have one? And what's a "crib joint?" Perhaps it's a place where lower-class folks go to drink... that would seem to be what Raven's implying...)

Rosie, oblivious to Raven's smoky stare from down the street, has sworn that the House Of Blazes will be second to none, a veritable palace of vice, the very finest in the city! To this end, she ceaselessly seeks the most beautiful women, the finest liquors, the very best cooks, and spares not a care in the furnishing of the upstairs rooms. Furthermore, she outrages the city (and drives Raven wild) when she has a thousand handbills printed up advertising THE HOUSE OF BLAZES and has Lefty and Feeble plaster them on every fence, wall, and pole in town.
(Illustration: Raven, wild with rage, tears a HOUSE OF BLAZES handbill in half, while several of her girls cower and cringe nearby)
Soon, the House Of Blazes has more business than it can handle, with the bar and waiting room packed with inquisitive San Franciscans. Rosie is obliged to hire a singer and piano player to keep them entertained while they wait!
(Illustration: Rosie strikes a Vanna White pose, showing off three gorgeous singers/dancers on a stage, with a smiling black man on piano off to one side. The girls are all about to pop out of their tops. The audience -- all men -- look like their eyes are about to fall out)
(Wow. So Rosie wants to run the highest-class, best bar in San Francisco. Why hire cooks for a bar, though? Restaurant? With rooms upstairs? This must be like an inn, or something... like on those movies about the Revolutionary War, a place where you could get a room, dinner, and a stiff drink, all in the same place. This place really looks like a fun place to stay, though. Bet it beats the heck out of HoJo's... and why would advertising outrage the entire city? Maybe back then it was, like, bad manners or against public policy to advertise a bar, or something. Seems a shame to keep people waiting on a room, though. Maybe the guys at the stage were just waiting for a table for dinner, or something... and it still doesn't explain why all these expensive inns are all on this one street on the edge of town.

I wonder what "vice" means?)

As the business grew, the money poured in, and Rosie was having the time of her life. She was as tough a businesswoman as she was a scrapper, and while she could be tender, she could deal a knockdown blow to any who laid hand upon her without first making the proper arrangements. Poor Lefty and Feeble, underworked and overpaid, had more time than ever to Chase The Elephant, and out of pity, Rosie let them sleep in the basement.
(Illustration: Rosie, clad in translucent nightie, rolling in a bed slathered with dollar bills and gold coins)
(So Rosie's sweet, but she'll knock you cold if you touch her without properly asking her out first. Hm. She must go on a lot of dates. Then again, with hooters like that, I can see why. I can see why she'd need to defend herself, too. Why do they keep calling these places "Houses?" Wouldn't "Inn" be a better term? Or are all these women literally running these places out of their homes? They must have very big houses... but if it's such a crummy neighborhood, how could that be? They keep calling them "places of ill repute," which would seem at odds with their fancy appearance...)

Tough and canny as Rosie is, though, she has a weak spot, as all the mighty and glorious must... and for Rosie, it's Sailor Steve.

Sailor Steve, a strong and handsome sailin' man, is only in town a week out of the month, and Rosie, tough as she is, melts at the very sight of him. Before long, he's a regular fixture at the House Of Blazes, every month. His meals and his drinks are on the house, as are his lodgings, and during that week, callers for Rosie are regretfully turned away...
(Illustration: Rosie, decked with jewelry and plunging neckline, dances with the handsome Sailor Steve, square of jaw and broad of shoulder, while customers and waitresses watch from the background, and wink at each other)
(Hm. So she's got it bad for Sailor Steve. I can see why. And when he's in town, he stays at the House Of Blazes, free of charge. Wow. No wonder he keeps comin' back. And no wonder Rosie doesn't seem to go out on dates much when he's around...)
(Illustration: Raven, pitching a full blown conniption fit, as her girls flee and dive out windows to escape her wrath)
Meanwhile, at the Velvet Hammer, Raven's mad enough to chew nails. The House Of Blazes is cutting into her bottom line, rather sharply, and some of her best girls have abandoned her to move down the street, looking to improve their own fortunes. There are those who'd say the Velvet Hammer isn't the best any more... and Raven begins casting around for information, for something she can use against Rosie and her infernal House! Unfortunately, Lefty and Feeble have been Looking For The Elephant again, and it doesn't take Raven's girls long to pry from them the tales of Sailor Steve and Rosie's infatuation with her blonde sailin' man...

(Uh-oh. Even a twelve year old can see where this is goin'.)

The following month, towards the end of the full moon, Sailor Steve does not come to the House Of Blazes to cover his beloved Rosie with kisses. His room remains untouched and unused, his usual barstool empty. Where is Sailor Steve? Lefty and Feeble are dispatched to the docks, to seek news. No, Sailor Steve didn't fall overboard, nor was he eaten by sharks; he arrived two days ago, and took his pay and vanished into town. Wherever could he be....?
(Illustration: Rosie, teary-eyed, stands on the portico of The House Of Blazes, scanning the streets, shading her eyes with one hand. About this time, it occurs to me that despite the time period in which this story is happening, this chick never seems to be wearing very much...)
Days pass. Still no Sailor Steve. Poor Rosie's a nervous wreck. Has he been coshed? Has he been killed? Has he been shanghaiied on a slow boat to China? Where, where, where could her beloved Sailor Steve be?

And then... days later... it happens. Raven's out in front of the House, laughing like a loon, pulling on a bottle of gin, and twirling a sailor cap on her finger.
(Illustration: see previous sentence. In the foreground, Rosie stares at the laughing Raven, her features contorted with rage)
"Looking for your sweet Sailor?" laughs Raven cruelly. "Why, he's doing just fine, safe as can be, at the Velvet Hammer," she taunts. "Where he's so fond of MY company, he pays full price!"

"You LIE!" screams Rosie. "Your bully-boys coshed him when he got off his ship, and you've kept him on Mickey Finns all this past week, and lifted his pile! And when he wakes up, he'll have something to say about it!"

"He's been awake all week, dear," giggles Raven, "and kept me awake all that time, too. Wouldn't so much as look at another. And all he had to say was, 'goodbye, my love,' when he gave me his money and boarded his ship to go back to sea!"

(Pays full price? For drinks, food and lodging, right? Naw, Raven's just trying to make Rosie jealous. Who's Mickey Finn? What does it mean, "cosh?" And "lifted his pile?" Is this something sexual? Dammit, dammit, dammit, none of this stuff is in the damn dictionary!)

"Lies, again!" cries Rosie. "He'd never leave my embrace for that of a raddled harlot like yourself!"

Raven laughs again. "You? All he had to say about you was that he was tired of the company of a two bit whore!"

(Whore? Yow. Them's fightin' words. What's "raddled harlot" mean?)

And with a scream of purest rage, Rosie launches herself at the laughing Raven, and the two women proceed to have the mother of all catfights, right there in the street, in plain view of the many passersby.
(Illustration: at this point, the artist really goes to town. The fight takes up much wordage, and the artist slips in no less than three illustrations of the two women furiously clawing, biting, kicking, punching, and throttling each other. Weirdly enough, they don't seem to be doing each other much harm; the three illustrations seem largely to document the women's ability to rip each others' clothing to shreds. By the third illustration, the two women are down to ragged loincloth-like remnants of skirt, a tiny flap in front, another tiny flap behind, and much thrashing of arms to block the viewer's view of anything else...)
There is much heaving of gleaming breasts, much biting and clawing of tender flesh, much gnashing of teeth behind red, red lips, and much heaving of gleaming... oh, right, did that already. Finally, summoning the strength of her Irish heritage, Rosie puts everything she's got into a mighty right-hand roundhouse, and knocks Raven sprawling into the gutter... where she lies, nude and moaning, unconscious, and does not rise.

(I didn't know the word at the time, but if I had, between the illustrations and text, I would have said "W00T!")

And standing over her, tall and strong and triumphant (and, oh yeah, naked, full breasts heaving with each panting breath, and all that) stands Rosie, who now reigns supreme as the Bull Doxy of Sin Row, her one ambition from the beginning!

(Doxy? Harlot? Cosh? AAAARGH!)

But wait! The crowd, which has gathered to watch the fight (and who could blame them?) is parting... and opens to admit Sailor Steve! He didn't get on the boat after all! And Rosie turns to face him... ready to embrace him in this, her moment of triumph--

--and he rushes to embrace RAVEN, to cup her cheeks, to fan her face, and to call out to the crowd, "Give her air! My God, is there a doctor in the house? Oh, my darlin'...."

...and silence falls upon the street. The crowd knows well of Rosie's Irish temper, and sure, they're about to see even more of a massacre than's been seen yet...

...but Rosie just stands there a moment... and then, wrapping her dignity about her like a mink stole, specifically to cover all that naked flesh, she strides back to her House, without a word... and vanishes inside. None would have said she shed a tear, and they'd be right... but those who stood close enough saw the suffering in her eyes, e'en if they lacked the courage to speak of it.

And as the years went on, the House Of Blazes was known far and wide as the greatest Place Of Ill Repute in all San Francisco, with the most beautiful women, the finest food and drink, and the best accommodations. The Velvet Hammer went broke shortly after that, and Raven left town, supposedly with Sailor Steve, who'd swallowed the anchor and come to shore, and took her somewhere to make a respectable woman of her... while Rosie the Roundhouse ruled supreme o'er Sin Row, with a touch of velvet... and a heart of stone, never again to trust a man's words of love.

...and for quite some time, I figured this story was about a couple of lady barkeeps who fought it out over a handsome man, and the whole reason for the story was so the artist could draw those great pictures of two near-identical women with enormous hooters, right?

And that was the end of it.

Time passed. I had another birthday, and then another. I found ways of circumventing society's proscriptions against Playboy magazines being obtained by those who could appreciate them the most... and in time, the older, pulpier literature beneath my bed was nearly forgotten. Admittedly, Playboy didn't include much in the way of detailed instructions for melting women's hearts either, but at least the women in its photo features were less dressed, and the movie reviews were at least of movies that had been released this decade.

And two, three, five issues could go by without so much as a single World War Two story.

And one day, I re-read Animal Farm, and was struck by this major revelation. Mighod! This book was more than just a fable! This book was about ... communism! I was very much rocked back on my heels. When I addressed this with Mom, who'd given me the book, she positively glowed. It may have taken me a while, but I'd got there.

...and then, sure enough, one day, past my fifteenth birthday, bored beyond bored, I fished up the cardboard box, from where it lay, deep beneath my bed, behind last year's sneakers and the petrified half of a bologna sandwich of days gone by. Oddly enough, there was still a copy of The Jetsons in there I'd forgotten to throw away.

I flipped through the magazines. The Girl was still there, still devastatingly sexy, still coyly concealing her assets in an eternal 1968. World War Two was still being fought in the pages of Men's Sweat And Blood, and there were still recipes for eight great no-trouble entrees to serve your young lady for dinner on her next visit to YOUR swingin' bachelor pad!

...and I turned the page and saw The Place Of Ill Repute. I grinned. I remembered that wonderfully sexy catfight, in which neither woman seemed to get much more than a couple of scratches, but they sure 'nuff managed to get each other's clothes off pretty efficiently. I kicked back and began to read...

...and quite soon, something didn't feel right. I knew this was the same story -- the illustrations, if nothing else, were proof of that -- but -- it felt different, somehow...


The word went off in my brain like a bomb. Somewhere, you see -- I couldn't tell you exactly where or when -- over the past three years, I'd learned what the word harlot meant.

And there it was, a couple paragraphs in -- "...drawing the money from her ample yet firm bosom, Rosie paid the smiling agent for the House, the House in which she would make her fortune, the House where she would practice her trade of Harlotry in ways San Francisco had never seen before..."

My mouth fell open. I closed it again, and kept reading.

And reading.

And when I finished that story, I went back and read it again. It was like reading a whole different story, this time. Mighod, I'd been a fool! "Inn?" Hojo's, indeed!

...and then it hit me. If you misinterpreted this story so badly, what about all the other stuff in these magazines?

I was up half the night, rereading all those prehistoric men's magazines. As dawn approached, my stomach hurt from laughing. Again, I hadn't found the Detailed Instructions, but I'd sure had a pretty good time, this time. I was less ignorant, and certainly less confused -- if no better educated -- about The Ways Of Women.

And by now, I had a pretty good idea what those products in the ads in the back of the magazines were for, now, too.

And today, I am old, and the men's magazines hold no charm for me. I can get movie reviews off the internet. Pictures of cute naked women, too, if I want. Even ones that look like they were painted by guys who normally do bullfighting paintings on black velvet.

I don't have those magazines any more. Mom found 'em, after I left for college, and they went into the trash, natch. I wish I still had 'em. Even if they couldn't hold my attention any more, I understand they go for boocoo bucks on Ebay these days.

But... sometimes... I think about the nature of women, and more importantly, the nature of pubescent boys, and the Eternal Search For Truth And Sex, and I think about how today's twelve-year-olds go about finding out the things I wanted to know when I was that age.

It's not something I have to think about for very long. They go on the internet, of course. And they probably find more woo-woo than I ever dreamed existed within a couple of keystrokes.

But I think about World War Two, sometimes. I learned quite a bit from reading those magazines; became a bit of a history buff on that time period, in fact. Learned more than a little about San Francisco's "Barbary Coast" period, too. When the dictionary proved inadequate, I looked up other stuff, trying to figure out what all these crazy people were up to. In fact, now that I think about it, I looked up more words in dictionaries and encyclopedias due to reading dirty magazines than I looked up in eight years of elementary school. I mean, I did research on this stuff! And it never occurred to me that I was doing research! I was looking up stuff I wanted to know!

Lure of the forbidden, I suppose.

But I wonder if there's some way this can ever be turned to educational use?

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