The Vault, as Screw Magazine best described it, was a place where
"serious scene players commit picture scenarios, surrounded by legions
of Romanesque masturbating zombies that litter the premises."
The Vault is the most famous S&M club in New York City and attracts
numerous dominatrices, transvestites and odder creatures. Although Mike
Alexander later denied visiting the Vault or seeing Sue there, his wife
said he had described the place for her after going there with his
drinking buddy, Ray.
Like the other collection of sex clubs in New York, the Vault kept odd
hours, opening its doors on Thursdays at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at
11, and Sunday at 8. Thursdays usually started off slow and tended to
attract an unpredictable clientele. Fridays and Saturdays, the place
The Engine Room, as management calls one third floor section is open
seven days a week from 8 p.m., but serves a male-only clientele. Le Club
on the fourth floor is reserved for couples only on weekends, as well as
But it is the basement that is the curiosity and the place to which Sue
most often went. This cost $30 for non-members, $25 for members, and $5
for women, biological or not. The place serves no booze, but you can
bring your own.
According to "Redlight," the book Ridgeway claimed to write (in a style
lifted straight out of Sue's Screw stories), the Vault is organized like
an elaborate play dungeons, "A theme park recreation of the real thing,"
where guests can become the audience, the entertainment or both."
In this version "one room leads to another and people wander through,
watching and sometimes joining in."
Sometimes, according to Sue's tale via Ridgeway, a leather- garbed
mistress recruits a slave, and he disappears only to come back naked,
while he undergoes mock torture from chains to whips to whatever. With
this fantasy in mind, I wandered over to the place to see if any of
Sue's reporting about it was true.
The most appalling thing about the Vault's location is the smell, the
constant and uncompromising scent of rotting, dead flesh that sticks in
your nostrils for blocks. The sign which advertises the Vault is one of
those kind popular during the turn of the century when people painted
the sides of buildings for use as bill board. The Vault, in those days,
was just that, a storage facility for clothing and other valuables,
whose use changed with the times, management making use of both the name
and the illustration.
Dorothy told me where to find it, saying Michael had given her a
detailed description of its exterior after his visit here -- and indeed,
the place was far from what I expected as the city's premier sex club,
and in face, had I been George Washington with his mythological arm, I
could have tossed a silver dollar from the balcony of my Hoboken condo
and hit the big black and orange sign facing out towards the Hudson
From under the dented tin awnings on the Manhattan side, I could look
across the river and see signs of my old neighborhood, from the Stevens
Tower pushed out from Castle Point to the hideous white 15 story condo
towers slightly down stream.
I was struck again by how my life criss-crossed Sue's in a kind of
Shakespearean comedy, almost always within sight of each other without
knowing it, passing each other in our day to day routines without
acknowledgment. At one point, I even found her Nutley address tucked
into one of my journals from 1990 when she first moved there, someone
calling me, telling me of her new location, perhaps at her suggestion.
The Vault, unlike her apartment building, surprised me because - - based
on Michael's description -- I had expected more, a greater presence in
the neighborhood than the building in daylight seemed to provide. I
never expected to find a former storage facility with a few tattered
streamers flowing off the poles out front. I did not expect to see some
aging man pulling up in a four by four to the gate beside the Vault,
climb out sorely so as to undo the lock, the faded American flag on his
back suggesting some military past, his possession of keys and his
exclusive parking spot, suggesting him manager, a man who dragged in a
shopping bag, food or toys for the night's festivities, I did not know,
perhaps something reserved for a private party upstairs.
In front of the building, Tenth Avenue separates from the ruins of West
Side Highway, traffic thick around the reconstruction, fumes rising even
in the relative cool of the evening. And me standing to one side, part
of any era from 1930 to 1990, the stench of rotting meat swirling in the
river breeze around me, mingling with the scent from city sanitation
across the way, and the fishy gush of the river itself, and the
unrelenting smell of car and truck exhaust.
A piece of elevated highway is preserved here, built through the
buildings along the east side of 10th Avenue, grass growing up over its
railing, as it passed through one building, across one street and into
the belly of another. No one seems to notice the waste or the sad
impression its rusted metal gives, part of the overall sense of decay
that infects this place.
I've have described tin roofs of this kind in many of my fictional
stories, thinking that most had already vanished from Manhattan, yet for
the blocks between West 14th and Little West 12, these roofs dominate
the side streets, ripped and torn, hanging down over the sidewalk in
some spots only the frame maintained, part of the meat packing world
mistresses of the night would find attractive, hauling their leather and
chains across the worn cobble stone streets like ghosts from Dickens.
The Vault surprised me, although the scene itself did not. I thought the
place would be larger, a maze of passages that dug deep into the
underworld, part of that old subterranean mentality that began to
honeycomb the Manhattan since before the turn of the 20th century, as
subways replaced clog roadways and modern man (as pictured by H.G.
Wells) went underground.
From the outside, the size of such a space is deceptive, building back
to building with pieces of the former elevated westside highway still
sticking out of the upper floors of some buildings, grass growing over
the lip of the rail where rushing traffic used to flow. No part of this
touches the Vault's building. All four of its floors rise up, and would
have given those inside a marvelous view of the river and Hoboken, New
Jersey, had someone not sealed all the windows.
On these upper floors, people hold private parties, events that do not
come with a warning label as to which acts are acceptable and which are
No oral sex; No vaginal penetration; no anal penetration; no exceptions.
But even the warning signs in the basement are not visible from the
street. In fact, Michael's description of the place to his wife was
wrong. No huge red lighted arrow points the way to the front door, only
the black and orange painted wall left over from the era when furs were
stored here, not naked people. While a few red light illuminate the top
of the dented tin -- highlighting the movie theater-sized poster along
side the stairs to the basement with the same V design as the huge wall
-- no sign of what goes on inside shows from the street.
From the outside, only the lights say whether the club is open or
closed. For few seem brave enough to linger on the sidewalk the way
crowds do before the rock clubs where I worked for so many years. If
people come out to smoke and gossip, no signs show in the cracks or
gutters. No bottles. No cigarette butts. Not even a candy wrapper. As if
management, conscious of its controversial product, hosed down the
sidewalk after closing, to keep them clean.
One short set of stairs leads down to a vestibule. No door separates the
inside from out, only strips of clear, thick plastic -- like the stuff
you sometimes find over the door of a carwash, through which a car might
ride or a man might walk, a poor man's ventilation that lets stale smoky
air out, but keeps in some of the heat. But for the two men who stood
just inside, these strips of clear plastic served another purpose, and
combined with the closed circuit camera affixed to the tin roof, allowed
those inside to see trouble brewing long before it entered the door.
Indeed, these men were extremely security conscious. After I paid my $35
fee into a movie-style ticket window (up from the $30 figure advertised
in Screw) one of these two men friskedlike
No guns. No knives. But he did find the half roll of quarters I used to
get back and forth on the PATH train. Yet he missed the two reporters
notebooks I had stashed inside my coat, and my pocket full of pens -- in
some ways, both more lethal than any more ordinary weapon I could have
Then, finally, with the guards satisfied, I can to a real door, and to
one of the real oddities of the Vault. All its doors squeaked. I don't
know if this was an added security measure or just management's
inability to find a can of 3 in 1 oil. The door from the vestibule
squeaked. The door to the oversized phone booth behind the ticket window
squeaked. As did the exit door in the room behind the bar. And these
combined with the overloudly, bell (one that sounded more like someone
leaning hard on a doorbell, which perhaps it was) and the 1980s pop rock
loop on the tape machine, the Vault initially struck me like a scene
from the Rocky Horror Show, a perception that would get reinforced as
the night went on.
Except for the size, the Vault's basement looked remarkably like the way
I had imagined it with black walls, floors and ceilings in all three
rooms. The main room was divided in half by two- foot-thick pillars of
crumbling brick. To the right of these pillars, against the right wall,
was a horse-shoe bar similar to the kind you might find in a dance club,
complete with red-topped vinyl stools, beer-like self-illuminated signs
and a big-breasted barmaid with most of her breasts hanging out. The
only item lacking was alcohol. You can buy ice tea, Pepsi even coffee,
but not booze.
To the left side of the main rooms brick pillars was something I could
have mistaken for an exercise bar -- only where a gymnast might have put
his or her hands or feet, two sets of handcuffs dangled, like a
tantalizing silver tease, so that its naked victim, once shackled, would
be forced to face the front door and the constant flow of incoming
strangers. Along the left wall near this device were well-worn leather
couches, inset slightly (as if privacy was possible in a place so public
even in the dim red glow). The bathrooms -- yes, such places as the
Vault has bathrooms though God knows what goes on in them once things
get steamy -- were located in the rear left corner, opposite the front
The other two smaller rooms exited on the bar side of the brick pillars,
one doorway paralleling the back wall, the other door paralleling the
horseshoe bar. This last door lead to the a very narrow room that ran
along like a hallway along that side of the building, through t
paralleling the horseshoe bar. This last door lead to the a very narrow
room that ran along like a hallway along that side of the building,
through this door and to the right was another squeaky door leading
possibly to a stairway and the private parties in the upper floors.
Several people vanished that way while I sat sucking a soda at the bar.
This long room was also equip with an exercise bar with dangling chains,
several couches, and something that resembled a home-exercise device,
All three rooms had TV sets, hooked into a non-stop video loop of
hard-core porno flicks, which was intended, no doubt, to provide that
one thing nobody could actually get here: that good old-fashioned
penis-penetrating element called sex. As was the case by the front door,
every room as posted with the Vault's unbreakable rules: No oral sex; No
vaginal penetration; no anal penetration.
Anything else was fair play.
Yet in some ways, this was a cheat, a half-step between the table
dancing of the strip clubs -- where naked girls swivel their hips and
tits inches from your face for a $10 fee and tips -- and the outright
prostitution provided by numerous houses throughout manhattan. But the
Vault provides an outlet no ordinary strip club could provide, a means
to vent the frustration a man feels when confronted with the non-stop
tease of naked women. While a man might not be able to penetrate here,
he can act out his fantasies, chaining himself to bar or following one
of the women around in what amounts to a public display of continual
The third room -- which also exited back into the bar area -- had a
wooden rail, the kind you might expect to find around a coral of horses,
but chipped and illuminated with soft red lights. This room also
contained one of those home exercise units, several couches, a TV and
some stools. Yet as small as the whole club is in whole, I couldn't
shake the immense sense of emptiness -- especially because I was foolish
enough to show up early on a Thursdays well before the steamy action
"Things really get exciting around here once people start taking off
their clothes," the barmaid told me.
The Vault's concept for public sex is hardly an original idea in New
York. Historians record such places well before the American Civil War,
though most of these bore a closer resemblance to burlesques and
eventually evolved into Vaudeville, and later, into peep shows similar
to that of Show World on 42nd Street. Many of the early efforts promised
more than the Vault and delivered much less, taking its victims from
room to room with promises of greater things behind the next door if the
sucker would only pay another nickel or dime -- something similar to the
many of the internet sex sites or more accurately, the international
telephone live sex lines. In one case, all these poor pre-civil war
horny men got for their money was a room with a jar and something dead
floating in it, and two very big men showing them an easy exit out to an
alley around back.
In many ways, The Vault, reminded me of "The Underground," an illegal
gay sex club on East 15th Street I accidentally wandered into in late
1968. My friend Frank and I had picked up a girl uptown who promised to
show us a good time. She brought us to the warehouse district where we
coughed up cash to two men wearing shoulder holsters at the door. We
didn't realize our mistake until we were well in the room and ordering
drinks. When we turned around we found a room full of men making love to
men, and a host of other men eyeing us from around the room.
But sex in the Vault is not sex, it is a three ring circus with
leather-cladded ladies acting as ring masters. One such lady sat next to
me at the bar. She said her name was Scorpio and that in other
incarnation, she was the leadsinger to a local punk band. Like many
women (including Sue) Scorpio was blonde, blue-eyed and well-endowed,
dressed in an eye-popping suit of shinny black- leather designed to make
a man ache. This expensive attire suggested she was a regular mistress
here, as Sue had been, and spent a great deal of time exercising her
talents on the poor unfortunates who came to test her patience. And from
her small talk at the bar, she clearly enjoyed her role.
Scorpio spoke with a twang that suggested Texas or one of those
bordering states where South met West. She mentioned her high school,
but I didn't catch the name. She claimed to have met the former world
light weight boxing champion, Sugar Ray Leonard, and jokingly warned one
patron that she had learhigh school, bu
"So you'd better watch yourself," she said, as she skimmed through the
provocative pages of the Vault's own fully colored skin magazine, full
of sex stories and advertisements for mistresses throughout the area.
Scorpio looked under 25-years-old, that perfect age for strip dancers
and pseudo sex stars, when they are at the top of their game, before the
slow wear and tear of the life style leads them into an early retirement
by age 30.
In 1989, when Sue was starting up her career here, she was already
approaching 30, and like many dancers, was extremely concerned about it.
The competition is fierce, and men in such places as the Vault or strip
clubs throughout New York and New Jersey seek younger and younger girls,
leaving the older women to make the transition from tease to prostitute.
A close friend of mine, Betheme, danced until she was 40, but was a rare
breed in a much more civilized time, her career coming to an end in the
mid-1980s, before the industry became ruthless. Even then, she had to
adapt her act to fit her age, knowing she couldn't compete with the
"All men want are younger girls," she told me once over a beer in a
dinky, dingy dance club off Main Street in Passaic, where she still
danced once a week. "If you don't find a trick, an act, you don't
Betheme developed a comic act, but even that wore thin after a while.
Men don't come to go-go bars or S&M clubs for those kind of tricks. They
wanted to be teased, as teased with the hope that maybe, if they are
subservient enough, or push enough cash into a woman's crotchety, they
Scorpio didn't take the scene seriously enough. She cursed, saying
she'll fuck this girl and that boy, putting on an act at being tough.
And, no doubt, later, she would struck through the line of men, whip
them, put her feet up on them, kiss them, then make them lick her tits,
but all were simply lifeless bodies sprawled there -- so very boring.
Yet she was not tough.
Like Sue, who still did her work at age 36, Scorpio only acted tough,
each phrase full of the artificial bravado weak people use when seeking
to deny their fear, like a child who whistles through a grave yard
pretending not to be afraid of ghosts.
Scorpio didn't seem to understand sex, though she probably knew more
about the act than I ever would. She boasted to another man at the bar
how her boyfriend had "done her" that day, her voice so hollow, despite
its nonchalance. A few minutes later, I saw her through the phone booth
window shouting into the mouthpiece.
Men trickled in, shy men, macho men, old men, and young. All bearing one
common look in their eyes, as if seeking to be victims. I'm not talking
about handcuffs and chains so much as that deeper, more serious need
that comes to men who wanted to suffer. All Sue's men had had that look,
from Joe to Stanley, and it was by this look that women like Sue or
In 1987, Peggy, a dancer I met in the My Way Lounge in Passaic, read
this look so well she could take men home by the handfuls, fleece them
of everything except their shoes, and leave them back on the street,
with bruised egos instead of sex. Barowners called her "that bitch on
the hill," yet marveled at her ability to continue her act -- despite
common knowledge about what to expect.
This look, this incurable desire, drove such men here, and made them
take up with such women as Sue, regardless of warnings or common sense,
regardless -- or maybe because of) the hundreds of women just like these
who had abused them in the past.
One man went into the room with the rail, sat himself on one of the
stools, and stared into space. Occasionally, he would peer at Scorpio,
and then at the darker, smaller woman who came in a little later. But
like a well-trained dog, or a man who had gone through this routine
before, he waited for one of them to go into her act. Scorpio would
later handcuff him to one of the devices or to the rail. She would tease
and torture his soul, making him want her, making him beg for something
he would never get from her. He would instead ache so much for her he
would stroke himself, leaving his essence dribbling from between his
fingers as she walked away.
Another older man came in, settling into the room with the dangling
handcuffs, and immediately, he began to undress. The small woman, who
Scorpio promised to fuck, talked to him for a few moments about what he
wanted done. This woman nodded, told him to wait, and then, the naked
man sat himself before the chains to wait, and wait, until she was ready
for him. Other men, came, found their places. Three joined Scorpio in
the room with the rail, watching as she sprawled herself, first on the
couch, then on one of the odd metal exercise-like devices. While still
on the couch, the smallewoman, who Scorpio p
"I want to fuck you bad," Scorpio told the woman again. "But you've got
to promise not to fuck my boyfriend. You're the kid he would really go
for. I'm almost tempted to drag you home where we can both fuck you
Then, Scorpio pulled up the smaller woman's tight blouse and began to
suck on a nipple. All three men stirred. Scorpio laughed.
On the contraption, she spread her leather covered legs unnaturally
wide, letting the smaller woman slide in between. Scorpio said she used
to be a stripper and had to learn to move her legs like that.
Again, all three men stirred.
Later, these two women plus others who came later would strut through
all three rooms, adored by the crowd of naked men, pleaded at by these
naked men, begging to be punished. And these women like Sue had done
before, would make them all suffer.
During one such night as this, Ron Goldberg, one of Sue's classmates
from college, came to visit her here, holding a conversation with her as
she strut from room to room to room -- Sue administering punishment as
she renewed her college ties with Ron.
Ron would later tell Joel Lewis about that experience, how he followed
along, aware of the men around them, but not until they got into one of
the back rooms, did he notice he and Sue surrounded by naked men,
everyone one of them masturbating.
In an article Sue did for Screw, she claimed fear of disease sparked the
fantasy sex moment from about 1987 to 1990. People believed that AIDS
could be transmitted heterosexually, and such places at the Vault
"These business, which fall into two categories -- houses of domination
and general fantasy/fetish houses -- allow the customer to become
sexually excited and achieve orgasm while engaging in creative forms of
safe sex in the company of a (hopefully) attractive female," Sue wrote.
But the Wall Street Crash of 1987 began to have its affect on this
aspect of Sue's world as well the straight world from which she fell. By
1990, men could little afford the luxury of such places, and the fantasy
market's stock plummeted as less than proficient mistresses started up
specialized services of their own.
Elektra, who would later become one of Sue's sources for her Village
Voice article on the infiltration of the Russian Mafia into the New York
sex industry, told Sue that many of these new mistresses lacked skill.
In one of the many passages of "Redlight" for which Sue did not get
credit, Sue talked about patterns at The Vault.
"The activity in the Fault unfolds in scenes," Sue wrote. "A
leather-garbed mistress appears and recruits a slave; he disappears, and
then comes back naked. She looks at him disapprovingly, and then
methodically pinches his nipples. He does not flinch. She orders him to
his knees and applies her riding crop to his ass. As she continues to
apply the whip, the mistress sits down on a chair, and turns her slaved
of the moment into a footstool."
In Screw, Sue describes a scene at another New York dungeon and the
typical reaction of the man.
"Like a young boy whose scornful teacher has discovered him masturbating
under his desk, the man cowers without even twitching his lip. To him,
Cain is a towering figure who has the power to do absolutely anything.
He concentrated on her imagined magnificence, working at his daydream
until signs of her presence sift into the center of his illusion.
Therein lies at lease part of twitching his lip. To him, Cain is a
towering figure who has the power to do absolutely anything. He
concentrated on her imagined magnificence, working at his daydream until
signs of her presence sift into the center of his illusion. Therein lies
at lease part of his sexually, among other elements of his psyche.
Pleasantly stirred his penis presses against his pants wit
In a passage of Sue's from Redlight, she describes one scene from the
Vault between Mistress Chrissie and her slave, Noel.
"Noel disappears into a dressing room and reappears in high heels and a
slip," Sue wrote. "Chrissie leads him to a chair, bends him over, and
begins to apply a paddle, then a whip. Everyone in the Vault gathers
around to watch -- the naked slaves, the men dressed as women -- many of
them silently jerking off in the gloomy surroundings. Chrissie applies
the paddle forcefully and methodically, making her slave count out each
time the paddle descends and intone "thank you" again and again. Then
she turns him over and begins to apply the whip to his balls."
Sue had come full circle, back to Show World performances, back to the
public sex aspect she'd first encountered in Plato's Retreat. She was
writing for Screw from experience, so close to the edge, she routinely
fell off, love hate mingling into a single throbbing on-going sexual
experience she could not stop. And yet, her talent as a writer, did not
James Ridgeway, a man whose reputation for book publishing and articles
in the Village Voice was built upon interns such as Sue, would then
decide maybe he would like to write a book on the New York Sex scene,
and Sue would write that book for him.
But first, Sue would tangle with the Russian Mafia.
A Flawed Child?