Harold Gussin never expected that one day he'd end up running a porn theater. When he started working at the Polk, a theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, it was the late 1950s and the Polk was just a regular movie house. But only a decade later, it was starting to show films like charscalex98 Carmen, Babcharscalex98 y, an update on the opera that was billed as "Carmen in modern undress!" And for the next 40 years, the Polk showed nine dirty films a day. The place got increasingly run-down. By last winter, there were only five flickering bulbs above the entrance.

The marquee had big red neon letters that said "POLK," but two had burned out. And the only poster outside was of a girl in a slip glancing over her shoulder, looking as if she belonged on the cover of a '50s pulp novel. "At least once in every young man's life there's an older woman," it said above her head.

But somehow, the Polk had managed to stay open way after Times Square had been transformed from sleazy sex market to tourist trap. In fact, by early 2006, it was one of only three big theaters left where people could watch porn on the big screen in the city. In late February, though, the place closed down for good. Mr. G., now 75, had been sick. "I just couldn't take care of it no more," he said. But lately, he often wishes it were still open. "I would have something to do," he said—although he always felt a bit conflicted about running the Polk. "It's not a nice thing to have a man show dirty movies," he explained. "I am embarrassed." He still managed to show up almost every night for 30 years. A short man, he almost always wore a bowler hat and a black overcoat with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. He would arrive at 9 p.m. and then stay for about an hour, until it closed.

It was easy to see that the Polk, built in 1938, had once been elegant. The 599-seat theater was art deco, and some of the original light fixtures were still on the walls. The little ticket booth outside was the original, too, although the glass had become cloudy with age. But business at the Polk hadn't been going so well. There were only about 12 customers a night. Part of the problem was the projectors, which were over half a century old. The porn was always tinted red, and sometimes it was so blurry it was hard to tell what was armpit and what was pubic hair.

The titles were listed in capital letters on a piece of paper taped to the ticket booth. Inside, there was a blue heart-shaped ashtray, a baby animal calendar, and a bouquet of fake pink flowers. Some nights the teller was Sharon Dobossy, 62, who had taken the job at the Polk to pay for food for her 16 cats. She had smooth, pale skin, and a Hungarian accent that turned many of her Ws to Vs. She spent her shifts smoking Misty 120s and applying and reapplying her lipstick. Occasionally, Mr. G. would pop his head in the ticket booth to ask a question. One night, he did this and then stopped for a moment. "Why do you keep putting on lipstick?" he asked. "There's no one here." Sharon just gave him a haughty look.

Sharon felt conflicted about working at the Polk too. "I got to get out of here," Sharon said. "This is a sin to work at a porno movie theater. Every morning I go to church. It's the only way I manage."

Other shifts the teller was Paola. Occasionally she sat in the booth, knitting, but when it was nice she would stand outside the booth, leaning suggestively against the wall, wearing lipstick and tight jeans. She looked a bit like she'd had a sex change, and as it turned out, she had. She never went inside, she said, because it was dangerous for a lady. And besides, she said, it stank.

It did. It smelled like piss, rubber, and old carpet. What it did not smell like was sex. No one was getting laid at the Polk. And it was not because of the signs in the lobby, "No Sex," with "Sex" crossed out and "Smoking" written below. If the patrons wanted to get any, they needed to take care of it themselves. They spent a lot of time going to the bathroom upstairs, but they also spent a lot of time wandering through the dimly lit lobby. In one corner there were seven fire extinguishers. There was a display case cluttered with old calendars and empty Arizona Iced Tea bottles. And at the far end of the room there was a staircase that led up to the second floor, where there was an old phone booth with a little ledge to sit on, except that there was no phone.

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The cats' meow: Sharon Dobossy
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Mr. G. never paid much attention to all this. "All it needs is a good paint job," is what he said about the theater. "Look at it, it's so nice." He was sitting in the lobby, dwarfed by a regal-looking chair with a leopard-skin print. "If I get better, I'm gonna put in American, European pictures. Years ago they were playing here," he said. He trailed off. "Last year or so it went down, down, down. People don't want it anymore. They see it on TV. Or they buy it and watch it at home."

The people who still went were mostly average-looking men who didn't own a VCR or a DVD player. One short Mexican man with a mouth full of metal said he went because he lived with eight other people and deciding on a movie to rent was impossible. No one seemed worried about what they would do if the place closed. "The world is changing," said one older man, shrugging. "I will have to change with it."

One regular, an overweight man who wore a leather cap and thick glasses and had a deformed left hand that he covered up with a glove, always made a lot of trips outside to make phone calls.

Mr. G. and Sharon were sitting in the lobby one night as he did this. They were bickering about nothing and completely disregarding the raucous sex noises coming from the theater, as they always did. Finally, Mr. G. asked the guy why he kept leaving.

"Customers," the guy replied. Mr. G. looked at him blankly.

"I can't wait to shove your big cock in me," the girl on the screen replied.

"He must be very sick," Mr. G. said, shaking his head, after the guy left. He turned to Sharon. "Did you see his hand?"

Sharon wasn't working that night, but she often spent her nights off sitting in the lobby with Mr. G. They would eat takeout together and sometimes Sharon would offer Mr. G. some of her food. "You're a good person," Mr. G. would usually say. But once, he followed that up with, "She's always offering food. Never offered me her body." Sharon ignored him. "You know I met Robert Redford once," Mr. G. continued, glancing over at Sharon slyly. "He said you were the biggest sexpot."

Sharon's eyes got wide, but Mr. G. was just kidding. Sharon often talked about how she once dated Redford. After she first arrived from Hungary, back in the 1950s, when she walked down Fifth Avenue, she said, everyone would stare at her. This was how she met Redford.

"Vhy do they looking at me? I don't know. I had long blond hair," she shrugged, then pursed her lips. "I saw a man in sunglasses, looking at me very much." The man then introduced himself as Robert Redford. Sharon said they dated for a year. She still kept a newspaper clipping of him in the ticket booth.

Other than Redford, Sharon talked about her cats. "I never thought I would have so many feelings about animals," she said once. The problem was, her cats had recently been stolen. The difficulties started after one of her neighbors complained about them, and Sharon moved them into the lobby of the Polk. At first the customers loved them. "For a week or so," Mr. G. said. "Then the customers complained about the smell. They were beautiful cats."

After that, she moved her cats into an unoccupied house where she knew the caretaker. But in October, her cats disappeared. Sharon was sure they had been stolen by a neighborhood woman, a "maniac," as Sharon described her, who lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with dogs, cats, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. Sharon said the woman went around the neighborhood stealing all the animals she could get her hands on. Sharon even found a witness who saw a woman of her description entering the house with numerous cat carriers.

But not even the police would help Sharon. "They said, anyvay, this is not a crime," was what Sharon said. So Sharon started coming up with increasingly extreme solutions. "I am thinking, the FBI," she said one evening.

Another idea she had involved two big guys. She was sitting in the lobby as she described the scenario. On the screen behind her a guy was talking to a girl with a remarkable resemblance to Ginger Spice. "Coach said sex makes you lose your legs," the guy told the girl. "I need my legs."

"I need your eggs," the girl responded, somewhat inexplicably, before an endless bout of oral sex.

Sharon said she wouldn't have the men kill the cat thief, just scare her. "They take her somewhere and they say, 'Vhere are the cats? Vhere are the cats?' Then she will have to tell."

Eventually, Sharon also started feeding the stray cats around the Polk. One evening in early February, Sharon was outside, putting out cat food, and Mr. G. was in the lobby. "Since I came in I haven't sold a ticket," he said, "I'm heartbroken." It was getting close to 10 p.m. and he went upstairs to the projection room to turn the movie off. But he came back down a moment later. "I went to shut it off. Then I said, 'Why be a louse?' " He sat back down on his chair, crushing his hat. Sharon came back in, and a moment later, the movie ended and one guy shuffled out. Mr. G. started to go back up the stairs. "I'm afraid to be alone," he said to Sharon. "Wait for me here." Mr. G. said this to Sharon every night. Sharon would always complain, but she would wait. And the two of them would leave together.

The Polk closed a couple weeks later. Sharon started a course on computer skills, hoping to get an office job. But by Easter, Mr. G. still hadn't really figured out what to do. "I never should have sold it," he said recently. "Now I just sleep all day and sleep all night." He didn't sound well. His voice alternated between a throaty rasp and a high wheeze. "I wish I hadn't sold it," he said again. He wasn't sure what the new owners were planning to do with it, but he thought they were going to build an apartment complex. "I miss it so much," he said. "I was there since 1959." He paused. "That's 47 years," he added. It was as if he almost couldn't believe it himself.

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