By: Cameryn Moore
(Portions of this piece previously appeared in Bang It Out, vol. 1.)
I do this thing sometimes, when I’m in a city and I don’t know anybody, or there’s not a performance or a promotional opportunity… it doesn’t happen very often that I have a weekend evening entirely free, but sometimes. Anyway, I do this thing I call Sidewalk Smut, also known as Abrupt Erotica, where I set up a manual typewriter on a little TV tray table and sit out on the sidewalk in a busy nightlife neighborhood, and I type half-pages of custom erotica for people.
At the beginning of every shift I usually have to type stories out of my head for a little while, in order to get people’s attention. I’m sure that’s written down in a busker’s handbook somewhere: do whatever you’re doing to get people’s attention. And nothing gets people’s attention like a typewriter typing; no one hears it anymore. It’s a totally stealth art form, too: you can’t tell that I’m creating pornography until you stop and read it. Eventually people do stop and they hear what it is, and some people, they just have to try it. I interview them, take their money up front, and write like a motherfucker for 10 or 15 minutes while they have a drink somewhere else.
I set the smut stand up at Fringe festivals across Canada and in the UK, and then other places too, everywhere from Seattle to St. Louis, New Orleans to Boston. Wherever the weather is good—not precipitating and warmer than 60 degrees—I will set my typewriter out and do it.
I got the idea from watching the sidewalk poets in New Orleans. I first saw them in 2011 during Mardi Gras on Frenchmen Street, and I thought, well, I can’t do poetry, but I can do dirty shit like a motherfucker, and now that’s my thing. I hear occasionally of poets-for-hire in cities other than New Orleans, a couple of times I’ve heard of people doing a erotica shtick, but not in an ongoing way, and not the way that I do it.
I make decent money per piece, considering it’s less than 15 minutes’ work, a little more when I read it to them. That’s my favorite part, reading it to them. When it’s good it doesn’t read like erotica, it reads like poetry, stream of consciousness spoken word, I run over periods and run out of breath and slide past imagery until it flows like a river. I hear people murmur approval, or gasp, or let out a nervous giggle, but I don’t stop, don’t stop until I reach the end and look up and see their faces, and that is wonderful. Performing it is important; I want them to hear me read it once, so they know how it’s supposed to sound.
It IS stream of consciousness, anyway, that’s the way it has to be read, because that’s the way I type it, that’s the only way you can type anything to sell right there on the street. Once I pick that opening sentence I’m set on a path, and each additional line that gets laid down pushes me further and further down that path. There are branches, endless splitting off and tangents I can follow, but there’s no editing, no taking back, no changing my mind. Not when I’m writing for someone else, when there’s money and my reputation on the line. I don’t have time to do that dramatic writer’ gesture, tearing the sheet out of the typewriter and crumpling it up and starting over.
So sometimes I get to the end of those 15 or 20 lines and I look up and think, whoa, how did I get to that place? How did I even come to think of that first line that launched me in that general direction?
I mean, I know how I get started. I do an intake interview with clients, a couple of minutes of me asking questions—day or night, stranger or familiar person, extra crunchy or original recipe—it doesn’t really matter what questions I ask, as long as I can keep them talking and engaged with me for a few minutes. When I first started doing Sidewalk Smut, I had a hard time even looking at my customers, not
because I was embarrassed, but because it was too much sensory input after over two
years of doing phone sex (yeah, I do that, too). Like, I can listen to someone over the phone, talk with them, and follow every single quiver of their voice down to the one button that will let it all loose. But trying to look at someone in the dim lamplight, with the cars whizzing by in the background, and the smell of piss from the next doorway over, and shit, that cop is coming down the street, that’s a lot of distraction.
Anyway, I do my best to listen to their answers and watch their faces, and see and hear the quiet parts and the significant looks, too, and then I shoo them away and tell them to come back in about 15 minutes. I roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter and do what I always do when I’m writing: stare off into blank space. It comes into my head. And then I go.
People try to dictate content to me, with names and locations that are unfamiliar to me, where I’ve never been and have no concept of, and I stop them. No. I ask the questions, I fish for the details I need, and I will write something that I think you might like. It sounds a lot more confident, I say it WAY more confidently when I’m scared shitless, or I have no idea, or when the client is being particularly skeptical. It goads me on.
Like one of the first nights I did Sidewalk Smut, in Montreal. The young, floppy-haired longboard rider was pleased with his custom piece, a gentle prelude about pussy-eating set in a café. One of his companions, a clean-cut guy in his late 20s, wearing a t-shirt, well-pressed jeans, and a blazer, with expensive Italian shoe, I remember those shoes — –stepped forward with a grin. “I’ve gotta try this,” he said. Skeptical, right? “Okay,” I said. “Harder core than his or softer?” “Harder,” he promptly replied…
Public or private? “Well, not in a bar. Maybe a rooftop?” So, private. “Yeah.” Surprise or no surprise? “I like surprises.” Pain or no pain? Longboard dude and the bike-riding girl stop talking suddenly and lean in to listen. “Uh, some pain….” His grin had changed to something more intent; he was paying attention, too. Pain on you or the other person? “A little bit of both.” Same sex or not (i.e. gay or straight, I know, fuck the binary system, but this is mainstream street culture). “Not.”
It ended up taking closer to 10 minutes, because the passersby on boulevard St-Laurent are of a drunker, more gregarious sort than other places, and this was my first day doing it, and I kept getting interrupted. But I finally reached the end, yanked the paper out of the typewriter, gave it a quick scan. I liked it. I called him over, and his friends were right there with him. He looked a little nervous suddenly. Here it is:
You’re the one who got me the gift certificate, she whispers in your ear, and then slides around to the other side. She’s not touching you, but the hairs on your skin lift to follow her movements as if she’s charged with electricity. What did you think I was going to get, some fuzzy handcuffs? She doesn’t wait for your answer, tugging down your blindfold more securely. I wanted you to feel this and this and this, punctuating each word with another twist on the cold metal clamps that are already biting into your nipples. I wanted to see you sweat a little, the way you make me sweat when you fuck me that hard.
A sharp edge trails down your chest and stops on that tender skin between your thigh and your thrill-tightened balls. You can’t say you don’t like it, she hisses, stroking your stiff cock with fingers that are gentle, oddly gentle after the bite of the clamps. I won’t let you say it, because I can tell it isn’t true.
I couldn’t even look up at him, not once, while I read the story. I mean, usually I don’t, I’m doing a cold read, but in this case, I kept my eyes riveted to the page. I suddenly thought I had gone too far. It was the most sadistic I’d written up to that point, and even three years and nearly a thousand pieces later it remains one of the top ten. I looked up and his jaw was on the sidewalk. “That was my six-month anniversary,” he said.
After that, my friends joked that I should call it Psychic Sidewalk Smut, but it isn’t. I’d certainly never make that claim. I mean, it is true that just about every time I sit down and do it, I’ll get a few that feel eerily omniscient to the clients, and no one has ever asked for their money back, like “that was way off”, but it’s not psychic, it’s just psychological. I have a dirty mind, I write very well, and I project like hell.
My customers get the original typewritten stories, but I take photographs of everything. (Not carbon paper, gross, are you kidding, that shit gets everywhere!) Originally I was doing the photographs just to archive my work, but after only a couple of weeks I already had a lot of erotica on my
hands. So at the end of the sidewalk typing season (really, after I left New Orleans in early November) I sifted through the photos, picked out the ones that I especially liked and that were legible, and collected them into a self-published volume, Bang It Out, along with notes and background details and a few photos from my time on the sidewalks. I’ve done a collection every year, which means I now have three volumes of Bang It Out to set out in my typewriter case, a little something for people who are too timid for the interview, but like the style of writing. I also set these out for merch when I do theatrical shows. They’ve worked out really well. I want people to know me as both a writer and a performer, in that environment.
But the custom erotica has definitely become its own thing, its own project, and it is a strange sort of busking, let me tell you. The typing is its own performance, I guess, because so few people see or hear typing anymore, but nobody is paying me for that performance. (A few people tip me every now and then just because it is “so cool” and/or they want to take pictures, but that kind of politeness is rare.) The real work, the real experience of Sidewalk Smut, is only happening for one or two people at a time: first in the interview, then in my pre-typing cogitation, and then the creation on the page. I am closest in form to the street caricaturists, but even then, their art is unfolding for all passersby to see. As a sidewalk pornographer, I may as well be typing “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” over and over, as far as anyone else knows.
Sometimes people ask me about safety. I have to set up in well-lit, well-trafficked areas or I’m not going to get business, so I usually feel pretty safe. But every time I set up the stand, I am reminded about how potentially dangerous this activity is as well. It is not uncommon to get comments about my rack. It is definitely not uncommon for three or more drunk guys to surround me while I’m sitting. I know that I’m not asking for harassment, but in the context of what our society knows, I am definitely asking for it, and I am always watching out for it. My business involves talking directly with strangers about sex, and I don’t always know until a few questions in if they’re going to be jerks about it.
On the plus side, I can also decide who I want to work with. I get to screen people out. Unless I need that 20 for gas money, that night, I can always decide to turn down a customer, if I can tell they are going to be a monumental pain in the ass. That was a hard-won lesson that I only really started working on this past year, after doing a fairly cut-and-dried M-F-F threesome for a very drunk man, only half of whose answers I believed, which is why it was cut-and-dried. Not enough reliable material! And shameful, too, eh? Wasting a good threesome trope on an unappreciative audience! That really had me thinking about what kind of stories and customers I wanted to spend my time on, and who I would rather not, and how and when I get to make those decisions. In other words, how do I say NO.
Because the guy was a complete asshole, in this yuk-yuk sort of employee-and-boss group, egging each other on to be really nasty and jovial at me, which is both aurally
overwhelming, even for me, and also LOOK, DUDE, YOU DON’T GET TO BE THAT WAY just because I’m out there with red fishnets on and a sign saying Abrupt Erotica. That is not part of the package. One of his colleagues was trying to haggle the price with me, and I was, like, I CAN SEE YOUR EXPENSIVE FUCKING SHOES, DON’T PULL THAT SHIT. I didn’t want to do the story, I could tell right away; this guy performed the
sort of male heterosexuality that both angers me and freaks me out all at once. But there
was the 20-dollar bill, and it had been a slow night, and I said, fine, it’ll be a fucking challenge. And oh LORD, was it ever! I have never started a piece over before, but with this one I did. It just wasn’t nasty enough, I knew, even on the second go-round. He wasn’t all that impressed, he wanted it even cruder, and here’s my response to that: a) Anyone can string together a bunch of dirty words, that is not what I do; and b) I want to do work for people who can APPRECIATE that good work. I don’t like the idea of anything I wrote winding up on the floor of the Spotted Cat men’s room.
The other question I wrestled with that night, related to saying “no” to work or customers I didn’t want, was: what artistic/social benefit is there in learning to do “dumb” pieces? If I know that an otherwise non-problematic customer is really the sort of person who would prefer a string of dirty words with the verbs in the right place, more or less, that they would enjoy it as much if not more than a more artful bit of smut, should I learn to do that and give them what they want, or should I “write up”? I still do not know the answer to this question.
In spite of the drunkards and the cold and the stretches of downtime and the judgment of passing strangers, I still love this work, though. For something that started as a visibility stunt, Sidewalk Smut ended up falling right in line with my overall performing and writing mission, which is to make space for and facilitate challenging conversations about authentic sex and sexuality. And the people I meet, jeezus Christ, they are amazing! Let me show you. Here, I record the highlights of every night in Sidewalk Smut Reports, which I paste up as status reports on Facebook. Here’s a sample report from fall of 2013. You’ll see what I mean, I hope: