Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 31, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 53
Silent night, lonely night at the Tango Palace
By Lucian K. Truscott IV
Christmas eve. Times Square is empty, darkened by closed shops and shut-down signs. Only the Fascination Playlands seems to be enjoying a normal business, and the dinging bell signaling another lucky winner at dime a throw tic-tac-toe can be heard for blocks. What few lights there are flash and blink…twinkle, if you will, through the frozen air. You walk the streets, and you figure Christmas comes to Times Square at an oblique angle.
Two guys just down the block stop, fumble in their pockets, and give an aging drunk a quarter. You walk by, do the same, and the guy is speechless, bumbling, falling against the wall and finally squatting nd staring up in numb thanks. “Merry Christmas,” you say. He can only nod, attempt a smile, and then let his chin flop down against his chest.
Around the corner, a scruffy pimp shapes up his whores with a shaking finger and promises being “let go” if they don’t get out there and hustle up some scratch. The whores are not taken lightly. The pimp is also their connection for junk, and losing him at this time of year would mean a quick trip behind bars for sure.
One of the lights up the street blinks on and off in reds and yellows. “Girls — Beautiful — Girls” for dancing at the Tango Palace, 1 p.m. to 4 a.m. The doorway to the place is adorned with tinted likenesses of busty babes with rosy cheeks, decked out in slinky floor-length gowns of satin and velvet and sequins. They smile with teeth that are whiter than white, and on a street where the Castro Convertible showroom is an oasis of sanity, on a night when you’ve got a head full of whory memories and visions of dancing sugarplums, the ladies are desperately real.
Upstairs, the scene is the rim of a store-bought decadent nightmare. You’re announced by a buzzer that opens the door, and inside a bevy of painted beauties sit in a horseshoe-shaped vinyl pit, legs crossed, toe-exposing spike-heeled slippers flopping in unison, keeping time with Artie Shaw, one of the Dorseys or Glenn Miller playing a moonlight serenade. A spinning mirrored ball plays irregular spots of light across their faces, and you can see that they’re smiling, just like the dime-a-dance girls in the showcase downstairs. Only now those smiles cost $7.50 a half hour.
Somehow the money isn’t what matters. Spiraling stucco Gothic pillars punctuate a room that hasn’t changed in 30 years. Red velvet and tassels and mirrors and chrome, and over in one corner, atop a baby grand piano, a squat plastic Christmas tree with a half a dozen presents scattered beneath it.
The three ladies get up, hike up their hemlines, bolster their bosoms, and saunter over to a railing running parallel to the bar. You get a beer, and turn to face them. “Hey honey,” one of them calls, “c’mere. Come on over and sit with me. Ya wanna do a little dancin’?” Sure, you figure. You want to see what it’s like. You and the two other customers in the joint, one of them being helped through his drunken half hours by the luckiest girl in the place. “He wuz drunk when he come in here a few hours ago, and he’s still drunk now. The guy’s laying out alotta dough to sober up, I’ll tell ya that,” she says as you walk by. You sit down, lay out the money, and buy your half hour of smiles, caresses, rubbing legs, slow dances, and quick feels with the lady of your choice.
She’s from Brooklyn. Born and raised there, she says. And yes, this is the way she spent Christmas eve last year, too. “The kid’s home with my mother. I’m divorced, see, a few years back. I been working this joint for two years now. It’s not so bad — ya gotta make a buck, ya know? Sure you do. You look like you been around. Tell me. You a musician?”
“Why? Do a lot of musicians come in here?”
“Well, you know. These guys in town for a weekend gig, sometimes when they get off they want some company and they come by. They’re like anyone else, I guess.”
What about Christmas? She doesn’t answer right off. “Listen, honey, this the first time you been in here? Yeah? Well let me tell ya how we work it. We just get — whatdaya call it — a commission on the time, see? And then it’s what we can make in tips. So. You want some very sexy dancing, you give me $20. Not so sexy is $10. You just stick it right here between my tithes, darling, and we’ll get along fine.” It’s what she’s been using to buy Christmas presents for her kid, she says. You take out a 10 for some “not so sexy” dancing and stick it down her platform chest. She smiles and grabs your hand, and you bump and grind through several ancient goodies.
What about last Christmas? “Well, last Christmas eve was a good night,” she says and looks away. “What do you mean by that? Did you have a lot of customers?” “No, I had one good one,” she answers quickly with a forced smile. Did he give a big tip, you ask. Did he go home with you? Well, she says, “He ended up buying me a color tv, that’s what. A great big color tv.”
The half hour is up, and the lady in black with long eyelashes and teased hair gets up to go. “It’s been real nice, honey. You sure you don’t wanna dance some more? No? We’ll see you later then, darling. you make something of yourself, you hear? I’m going to open my own hairdressing shop some day. Just wait. Anyway, merry Christmas.”
A folded Nightowl edition of the Daily News is stuck in the banister on the stairs leading out of the place. The front page is a picture of a baby enjoying her first Christmas eve at the home of the cop who found her in a Times Square hotel toilet last year. You figure Times Square hasn’t changed much.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]