Exhibition game

Before I left for New York a friend said, "Go to Times Square to see a peep show." Isn't that cute? "Peep show" is like "naked ladies," an antique term that makes sex sound giggly. Until "shag," Americans didn't have a term that made sex sound fun without sounding stupid.

Peep shows are almost extinct in the cleaned-up Times Square, but we did see a version of one in Grand Central Station when we stopped in Michael Jordan's bar for a nightcap. A couple next to us, both mediocre-looking and drunk, continued the clothes-on shag they started before we sat down. They saw no reason to reel in their tongues just because three martini-addled strangers were sitting beside them loudly saying things like, "Jesus, what a couple of pigs," and taking flash photos of them. With the urgency of two teen-agers in a steam-soaked car, the two slopped around seemingly unaware they were in public.

Realizing that what they were doing was like trying to eat pizza through the box, they finally left. Five minutes later another couple sat down. This pair consisted of a beautiful woman and a man who looked like Prince Charles if someone squeezed him until his hair and features all tried to leap from his head. They performed the same public display of affection as the first two, while we tried to figure out exactly how much of Europe and Asia he must have owned for that girl to touch him with a chopstick, much less her face.

On the lookout

So we got our peep show. It wasn't titillating. Aside from the fact that one quarter of the participants was ugly enough to scare a vulture off a corpse, it's hard to say why this type of exhibitionism is offensive. Even attractive couples, sharing a lingering kiss in public, tend to draw snarls of "Get a room, fergodsake," in the disgusted tone of a buzz-cut dad telling his son to chop off his fairy hair.

The only answer I can imagine is that normal human functions are not something you want to be surprised by. To be pushed to eat when you're not hungry can be nauseating. To try to sleep when you're not tired is infuriating. And when sex is thrust upon you unsolicited, whether it's by a flasher, an overzealous date or Bonnie Prince Charlie, it's as unpleasant as any other natural act you aren't prepared for. There's something really creepy about sex you don't have to pay to watch.

If there is professionalism involved, however, suddenly voyeurism is legitimized and the floor show becomes fascinating.

You don't have to pay to watch at La Maison de Sade in Chelsea, but you do have to pay to play. For those who didn't think dinner theater was punishing enough, this S&M fetish restaurant offers a list of extra services like spanking, cross-dressing and public humiliation ("when available" ), among other things, for $20.

La Maison beats other theme restaurants cold. Wouldn't Medieval Times be more enticing if they actually used the rack? Can you picture Planet Hollywood with a sign like the one that said, "Please refrain from showing any breasts or genitals" ? Which would you rather see, some old hippie's guitar or a barmaid (quite nice actually -- abuse here seems to come only to those who pay for it) in a rubber dress so tight she had sharper curves than a race track?

Ready to order?

La Maison had a mixed crowd of real fetishists and gawkers like us. Walking in we saw some leatherman restrain some submissive in such a pretzeled position that you couldn't tell what sex the repressed creature was; although their display was public, it hardly seemed appropriate to tap either one on the shoulder and ask, "Whatcha makin'?" Nobody ordered foot worship or obedience training while we were there, so it was like going to Disney's Animal Kingdom and not seeing any gorillas. We did get to see public humiliation, but it was accidental: After hearing a huge crash, we looked up to see that a customer clad in dominatrix gear had fallen ass-over-tea-kettle off her bar stool. (Which begs the question: What if you ended up with a klutzy dominatrix? Do you have to pay if she keeps aiming for you and hitting the wall? Could you say "Mistress Butterfingers" with a straight face?)

So the fleshpots of Times Square have been cleaned up for the tourists, and now the tourists pay to be abused by leatherette waitresses. And only a few years ago S&M was on the American Psychiatric Association's list of psychiatric illnesses. Maybe in another few years we'll all flock to the Obsessive-Compulsive Cafe where the waitresses return to your table every two minutes to ask if you're sure everything's OK. Sounds strange now, but who ever thought there'd be a restaurant that claims not to be responsible for "lost or swollen property" ?

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