Juan didn’t know anything about sex when he moved here from El Salvador but he knows everything about it now. It’s his job to know, to see. In the two and a half decades he has been working for his employer he has stood witness to many things, up to and including watching a man insert his entire arm into a woman’s vagina (it looked uncomfortable, he says, but she loved it) and watched a man bring a woman, crawling on her hands and knees, into the building on a leash (it was a beautiful girl, too, he says, shaking his head in bemused disbelief).
He will tell you all this without self-consciousness or hesitation as you stand on the sidewalk outside the Tiki Adult Theater, where he has been mopping the bathroom and passing tickets through an opaque window for the past eight years (the first adult theater he worked at, like most others, shuttered long ago, victims of the advent of VHS). While Los Angeles used to be a hot spot for smut shacks, the Tiki is now the last show in town — the Studs, née Pussycat, Theater down Santa Monica Boulevard was, for years, the only other holdout, but no longer plays skin flicks. The Tiki, however, continues, in spite of it all, to screen three “very recent” ones on an endless loop, operating 24 hours a day. Time is purchased in four, eight, and 12-hour blocks; bottles of poppers, the only concessions, are sold at the box office for $20.
In spite of the debased degeneracy he has beheld, Juan is not dead inside but vibrant and full of life, quick to smile. It helps that he doesn’t find sex obscene; he’s come to believe it is natural and healthy, creating happiness and healthy marriages. Anything sexual, Juan says, is fair game so long as it’s done “without force.” It’s an odd thing for him to say, but it’s nice to hear that wokeness has become so ingrained in modern culture that even porno theater managers are cognizant of the importance of consent.
When the movies are playing, Juan’s voice never rises above a whisper, even when he’s telling the shirtless, shoeless man in the second row to cease blowing enormous white clouds of crack smoke into the air. (“Oh — sorry, sorry,” the man will say, then proceed to hit the pipe again once Juan has returned to the box office.) Juan doesn’t really care what the crackhead or anyone else does, though, so long as they’re not hurting anyone else when they do it. The LAPD doesn’t care, either; they no longer bother to raid the theater and dole out $2500 indecent exposure tickets to whoever succumbs to tawdry temptation. The LAPD, like the rest of the world, has moved on from criminalizing pruriency; they now fill their coffers by taxing weed, towing cars, and setting up DUI checkpoints. People don’t need dark rooms to escape to anymore, Juan says — everyone does everything out in the open now. It is clear that the Tiki is not long for this world.
Despite Juan’s pleasant, welcoming demeanor, the first patron I encounter upon pushing my way through the Tiki’s turnstile is upset. Poking his head out the theater door, he lividly addresses Juan. “The movie is not playing,” he spits. “I’ll fix it now,” Juan replies, with a benevolence I wouldn’t extend to the man in question.
When I enter it, it is 6 PM on a bright, cloudless Californian evening; a smattering of middle-aged men sit in cool, dark silence. Seconds after I join them before my eyes can even adjust, a corpulent white one with a goatee turns around and addresses me. “So, what brings you in?” he asks. “Oh, for the experience,” I say. “That’s what brought me in first, too,” he replies. “Now I come back because it’s bigger than the TV at my house.” Awkwardly grinning through grit teeth, he purports to like “the cheesiness” of the place but it’s clear he doesn’t mean that — he is merely worried about incurring any potential judgment, presumably because I am the only member of the delicate sex currently watching decidedly indelicate sex acts take place on the screen in front of us.
I am there, in fact, for the experience, having lived near the Tiki for over a decade. I’d always wondered what exactly took place within the walls of this relic — the continued existence of it, nestled in between a Zumba studio and a discount store, was a remarkable thing. Los Angeles is a city with little respect for its history; you’ll fall in love with a place that has been open for decades and, before you’re even given the chance to mourn, it is unceremoniously gutted and replaced with an organic wine shop or vegan dog food restaurant.
I am also the sort of woman who is fazed by little. Pornography does not bother me; bodily fluids do not disgust me. I am more or less dead inside but in a fun way. I am also an enormous fan of the comic actor Fred Willard, who was arrested on “suspicion of engaging in a misdemeanor lewd act” in the theater nine years ago, back when the LAPD had more time on their hands. I placed a bouquet of flowers outside the Tiki’s temporarily boarded up doorstep when he died last year.
Calling the Tiki a theater is quite generous; rather, it is a long, dark room that reeks of industrial-grade disinfectant with a couple dozen overstuffed, easily wiped leather seats and a commercially available DVD projector bigger than the TV at your house. Two forest green Little Trees air fresheners, the kind you’d dangle from your car’s rearview mirror, hang on each side of the space. There is a stage at the front where strippers used to dance during the boom times of the ‘70s, back when competition forced supplemental salaciousness (“No live nude show” now reads one of the dozen signs taped outside the entrance).
I can’t speak to how it once was, but the Tiki today is a quiet place — the speakers play so dimly you can hardly tell whose boyfriend it is being shared in “Share My Boyfriend 22.” The only sounds emanating from the crowd are an occasional cough or body shifting in the seat. I feel calm, at peace, safe in the knowledge that no one cares what I do, so long as I do it silently. I choose, like most others, to do nothing — to stare, recline, rest my legs.
Occasionally a hand will graze against a dick through sweatpants, but that happens everywhere — on the bus, at the mall. A sunglassed man pulls his suit jacket up to his chin like a child being tucked into bed and rests his bald head against the back of his chair, which slightly vibrates along with the movement of his wrist. He is masturbating in public, yes, but he isn’t hurting anybody so no one gives a shit. Honestly, it is more of a distraction when he loudly talks on the phone in the theater’s sole restroom for ten minutes, an act that answers the question “What’s ruder than talking on the phone in a public toilet? Talking on the phone in the public toilet of a porno theater.” The fact that he wipes his mouth upon emerging from the restroom is the only disturbing thing I witness all night.
Yes, the acts that transpire on the screen before you would make a Christian cry, but the longer you sit there the less you care. The Tiki is nothing more than a place to pass the time, akin to a Greyhound bus station, albeit one playing “Moms Bang Teens 8” instead of cable news. The copulation is clinical, the people on screen mere actors at work. A man behind me opens a bag of chips and commences crunching as a woman playing a stepmother asks her stepdaughter, “Does he fuck your pussy good?”
No one seems to be particularly engaged with the films; even the man who irately informed Juan “the movie is not playing” as I bought my ticket immediately began staring into the void of his phone, idly scrolling with his mask pulled below his chin, when said movie started playing. Hell, even the crackhead is on his phone — granted, he’s loudly playing another porn movie on it, but still. He is merely here to be somewhere.
“Everything can be watched on your phone now,” Juan says, “but this is a different experience.”
And it is. It’s not really about the movies. It’s just a place to not be alone. When it’s gone, where will all these lost souls go? I am surprised by how much the thought depresses me.