It’s Saturday night, and a book club meeting is about to begin at the Penn Station Sbarro, the cheap pizza joint shamed by "real" New Yorkers who know better, sometimes cited as the "saddest place in NYC."
Inside, there’s a manic energy that is undeniably vintage New York: a myriad of blaring languages, squabbling families, drunk and hungry Midtown bros and bridge and tunnel folk fresh off the PATH train, all united by the shared desire for franchised late-night eats.
In the basement of Sbarro, two sticky flights of stairs down the rabbit hole, the smell of cheese pizza hangs heavily in the air, and the screeching of the 1 train rolls through the room like heat lightning. Ring Pops, Christmas tinsel and a twenty-foot gingerbread blowup adorn the greasy bunker in festive kitsch, and through the glass-paneled walls you can watch hurried commuters race for their subway trains. But it’s not these unusual novelties that turn this offbeat location into an odd, deliciously indecent wonderland. It’s more the unspoken agreement of the literary club, where customarily private moments of sex are shared aloud.
“The poetry reading scene in New York is very happening,” Lily Lady, one of tonight’s readers, dressed in riding chaps and a frilled My Little Pony shirt, says. She adds: “It’s Saturday night but the coolest people in New York City want to be here.” And tonight’s here happens to be Sbarro, the site of Perverted Book Club’s second risqué reading, making pizza history as they allow their first-ever non-employee congregation: a gathering of horny poets reading filth for sport.
Matt Starr and Zack Roif, 33-year-old ambitious and multi-hyphenate creatives, are the founders of Perverted Book Club, where headlining performers read a spectrum of erotic texts and smut. It’s really a “non-book-club club,” Starr and Roif explain, and a way for the private enjoyment of pornographic art to be brought into the public sphere. Readings vary, creatively toeing the line of what is considered “erotica.” The answers range from Amazon sex toy reviews to Craigslist personal ads, passages from literary treasures like Anaïs Nin to Pornhub video transcriptions.
This crowd is not your typical group of perverts. Spanning ages, boroughs and friend groups, the cool factor is at an all-time high for the pierced-and-tatted milieu of intelligentsias, artists and the vaguely famous writer type. The jovial crowd quiets down as Starr and Roif pass around piping hot Sbarro pizza boxes (spoiler alert: the pizza is not half-bad, the crowd of New Yorkers discovers!) and signal for the event to begin.
Matt Starr commences the evening with a pornographic poem called “Great Anonymous Sex” from John Giorno’s book You Got to Burn to Shine. The story, a very visceral description of an all-male orgy in the once-public Prince Street subway station bathrooms, sets the tone for the evening as he enunciates the phrase “flood of thick gooey cum.”
Alexi Wasser, Noah Rinsky, Allie Rowbottom, Amy Rose Spiegel, Jayson Buford and Annie Hamilton join the stage, reading beastiality fan fiction, Ghostface Killah’s lewd rap “Stapleton Sex” and an AI text generator's take on the following prompt: What if Love Actually ended with a giant orgy?
Occasionally, the spectacle of it all collapses in on itself, shattering the shared fantasy: a stray hand emerges from the swinging kitchen doors with a recording iPhone; a child wanders downstairs and coos loudly; a group of high-schoolers play Sweet Or Sour, waving from the train station; someone calls loudly for more toilet paper in the bathrooms upstairs.
New York City exists historically on the battle front of the public sex debate and has been a hub for sexual liberation, kink and erotica for decades. It’s been a fight between government officials and the avant-garde citizenry to define the partition between the acceptable and the forbidden, the private and the public.
Despite New York's flourishing sex industry, its local politicians have crusaded persistently against strip clubs, porn shops and peep shows. From Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia’s 1930s tirade against burlesque marquees to Giuliani’s 1990s effort to ban erotic cabarets, stores and sex-related businesses, sex has always existed proudly in New York’s underbelly of creative expression and exploration, battling its way up from existing quietly underground in red light districts to existing side-by-side neighborhood storefronts.
But the more time you spend in these spaces, the less deviant they may appear. “Though it’s called the Perverted Book Club, it’s not so perverted. It’s really just kind of horny and sweet,” Starr says with a smile. His mixture of rhapsody and warmth is infectious. It’s one of those strange city nights where a group of complete strangers begins to feel like family.
“You grow up reading fanfic alone late at night when your parents are asleep. Now, all porn, erotica and sex is very private. So what happens when we celebrate erotica publically?” Starr asks.
Roif nods.“One hundred percent," he says. "We are destigmatizing this thing that [usually] has to be relegated to dungeons and forums and 8chan.”
Experimenting with novelty, kink, spectacle and community, Roif and Starr are only getting started in their perverted endeavor. As Starr asserts, they "want to create an exciting reading in unexpected places, like a WWE match or an old vaudeville show where you never know what you're going to get."
Photography by Alessandra Schade