8 Million Stories: Manhattan's (Gigantic) Underbelly

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With his bushy beard and bunched-up overcoat, you might not distinguish John Rivers from the other homeless men toting bags of aluminum cans up and down the streets of the Upper West Side. But if you speak to him, you’ll notice something different: he speaks with the precise diction and dynamic control of an actor. Rivers does not work in theater, but, as is typical in New York, his day job has nothing to do with his artistic passion.

“I’m a writer,” Rivers told me one evening as he stood on a traffic island at West 110th Street and Broadway waiting for D’Agostino’s to send someone out to buy his cans. “I used to write for Essence, City Limits, men’s magazines, adult men’s magazines, right? I—”

I interrupted him: “What did you write for adult men’s magazines?”

“Sex stuff,” he said, grinning. “Ha ha ha, you know that.”

A typical Rivers story might begin with a 550-pound man stepping onto a subway car late at night. The car is empty except for a beautiful, lonely woman. Somehow, they make sweet love. Rivers’s preference for corpulent protagonists is not a fetish. Rather, he occupies a little-known niche in the world of sale lettres: public service pornography.

“I want to write for the people that’s being denied,” Rivers said. “You got a 650-pound guy laying up in a bed, he don’t hardly ever move, right? He’s being denied. He may never have sex.” Rivers paused. “Uh, with a woman. The denied people that ain’t gettin’ it? I want them to feel like they’re gettin’ it.”

Readers sometimes write letters to the editor in praise of his stories, Rivers claims: “They might say, ‘The story about the 550-pound guy that had sex with the girl on the train, that was a hot story!’ I mean, put it in the perspective of a 550-pound guy.”

It is important to Rivers to write in an original voice. His style is Manhattan verité. “I look at other people’s magazines to see what they’re doing so I can do something different,” he said. “I did stories about people having sex in Penn Station, right? Trains, buses, Central Park, Morningside Park, Riverside Park, in the middle of Broadway in the island.”

Because Rivers spends so much time outside, he finds inspiration for his stories quite frequently. Last Halloween on the 28th Street subway platform, he says he witnessed a confounding coupling.

“It looked like a girl was doing a guy, right?” Rivers said. “But she was dressed up as the man and he was dressed up as the woman, so they’re having sex and it looks like it’s backwards.

“I did a similar story to that,” Rivers continued, “and I wondered if these people would read it and be like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that sounds like us!’”

At any given moment, Manhattan is swarming with exhibitionists in flagrante delicto, he tells me. “A lot, a whole lot,” he said, estimating the number of people having public sex at any given moment in New York City. “I’m pretty sure of that. You got to remember that there’s a lot of people that just like to do it outside, who like the idea of being caught. I bet if you walked through that park over there now,” he said, pointing across Broadway to Riverside Park, “there’s probably people on benches, like ‘Can anybody see us? You think they’re seeing us?’

“I’ve done it in all three parks: Central Park, Riverside, Morningside,” he continued. “Central Park was the best. We were right in the middle of the rocks, and there was people all around on blankets having their little picnics and stuff, and we were butt naked! She was like, ‘Somebody’s going to see us! Somebody’s going to see us!’ But you know what, it actually added to the excitement.”

Rivers hasn’t been writing much since he’s been on the streets, but he is collecting cans and doing odd jobs to save up for rent. Once he “gets inside,” he believes, he can once again dip his quill in the inkpot. And if he runs up against writer’s block, he’ll pass the baton to the next generation of public service pornographers.

“I’m 54 now, so I hope whoever’s writing them stories is writing from the denied perspective,” said Rivers, chuckling. “Because I’m going to be among them soon.”

Lawrence Lanahan is a freelance journalist and musician living in Kings County, NY. Find more of his reporting and music at lawrencelanahan.com and littletownbehindthem.blogspot.com.

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