The internet gives us access to so much graphic misbehavior at a given moment that it’s noteworthy to discover that a small book still has the capacity to shock. The volume in question, described yesterday in the NY Times, is an 1870 guidebook of the ins and outs of Manhattan’s brothels. The Gentleman’s Directory is an indispensable tome for those who required knowing details about the houses of ill repute in our good borough. It couldn’t be more discreet—yet there’s an implicit appreciation of worldly topics that should be known but not discussed.
The Directory makes special mention of Harry Hill’s on Houston where ‘an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly’ while Greene Street is dismissed ‘a complete sink of iniquity.’
There’s also a map that allows you to learn if you reside in a former house of ill repute. Unless you live on West 27th, Houston, or a few select blocks of Soho you’re out of luck. And even if you do, most of the buildings have been torn down long ago.
It all seems very far away, but recalls an event from one of our early evenings in Manhattan, more than a decade ago. For a variety of reasons we were drinking with purpose in Sardi’s—the legendary restaurant and watering hole near Times’ Square. We entered into conversation with two women who couldn’t have been nicer, in fact, they may have been too polite. Against our better judgment we asked what their professions were. They paused, looked at each other, and laughed. They answered in unison: ‘We’re nurses.’
The look in their eyes couldn’t have been any more knowing, and the silence that followed communicated clearly: ‘Welcome to the city, kid.’