THEY were walking the same picket line. But Frances Patai could have done without this particular company. ``See that sign,'' she sniffed. ``That's a Moral Majority sign.'' The offending placard denounced ``Cesspools of Depravity,'' and Ms. Patai, groomed and trim in a business suit, sensed a hidden agenda. Such people, she declared, were ``anti-sex.''
In most places, a demonstration against a triple-X rated video store would be a fairly straightforward matter. But in Greenwich Village, where virtually all politics are sexual, the acceptable grounds for protest were as contentious as the protest itself.
And so earlier this month, on the 6th Avenue commercial strip just west of Washington Square Park, a chanting crowd gathered before a new video-porn shop called Crazy Fantasy. From a distance, the people could almost have been churchgoers from some small town: oldsters, business people, mothers with strollers, some carrying signs like ``No Porn in the Village'' and ``No Sleaze, Please.'' But up close, the diverse Village culture was on disputatious display.
There were jabs at religious fundamentalists. Longtime Italian residents griped about liberals. Some picketers opposed obscenity; others, just pornography. Homosexuals argued over whether an attack on pornography had broader and repressive implications - ``the thin edge of the wedge,'' as one put it.
The disagreements suggested the uneasy truce that lies beneath the anything-goes ambience for which the Village is well known. And the demonstration bared the dilemma facing social liberals, who pride themselves on tolerance, when a raunchy sex shop opens in their own backyard.
``I'm not a big fan of obscenity laws,'' said Tim James, a local lawyer and Democratic Party activist, who helped organize the protest. ``I'm an ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] member.''
Greenwich Village would seem an unlikely place for a demonstration against pornography - or against a lifestyle choice of any kind, for that matter. The birthplace of the Gay Rights movement, haunt for Jack Kerouac and other ``Beats'' of the '50s, the Village is probably most known to the nation through its main publication, the Village Voice, which sees portents of fascism in the slightest criticism of sexual lifestyle.
Outlandish rents have excluded most forms of counterculture not already ensconced in rent-controlled apartments. But tolerance is so sacred here that people walking the picket line were arguing with antipicket bystanders as to who supported the First Amendment the most.
The Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson image, however, is a caricature of Village life. The neighborhood is still home to first- and second-generation Italians whose families settled here early in the century. Its quiet, curving streets are among the few places in the city where affluent parents feel comfortable raising kids. ``The Village is first and foremost a residential community,'' said Nick DeCurtis, a longtime resident, uttering one of the few statements on which everyone at the demonstration could agree.
Which is why there was so much alarm when two X-rated video shops appeared here in recent weeks. The Village economy has been struggling, in part because of high rents and - some think - a street life that is going to the dogs. Gays have become more conservative and ``monogamous,'' merchants suggest, leaving a ``vacuum'' on the streets that is being filled by undesirables who hang out at the piers along the Hudson.
``We've watched business go down 30 percent simply because of the undesirable traffic on the street,'' says Robert Mirisola, who owns a men's store on Christopher Street. ``I have an expensive men's store. I'm selfishly looking at it that way.''
As the city tries to clean up Times Square, Villagers worry that the street-sex trade will just move south to the Village. ``This is the most likely place for 42nd Street to come,'' says Mr. Mirisola, echoing a concern heard often at the demonstration. ``Greenwich Village is known as the most liberal place in town.'' (To which an older bystander added, ``Too much so.'')
The problem for some demonstrators was how to be antiporn without appearing conservative or religious or - worst of all - morally ``judgmental.'' One solution was to give the issue a feminist spin. ``Obscenity is a legal abstraction,'' Patai said. ``Pornography is concrete. Pornography promotes violence against women.'' (``I'm not censoring,'' she added. ``I'm educating.'')
But protest leaders tried to avoid such divisive waters, sticking to the safer ground of neighborliness and property values. ``My objection is certainly not pornography,'' said Judith Joice, a local restaurant owner who heads the Village Chamber of Commerce. ``This is not a morality issue.''
Several marchers noted that they have no problem with Village video stores that quietly stock X-rated offerings. ``If he put it in the back, what's the beef?'' said Ralph DeBlasio, a former Republican leader in the Village who was born on Carmine Street.
``We should have access to whatever materials we want,'' added Ruth Hulley, who has lived here since the '30s. The problem with the new video store, she said, is essentially bad taste. ``Look at how aesthetically unappealing it is,'' she said, pointing to the Day-Glo orange sign that emblazoned the window.
Protest leaders stopped short of saying they wanted Crazy Fantasy to close. ``Right now we are not talking about the hand of government coming down on them,'' said Mr. James. ``We are just people in the neighborhood saying, `We don't like the way you operate as a neighbor.''' But there was talk of at least forcing the store to present a more tasteful appearance, perhaps using building code violations as leverage.
Betty Wein wanted to go much further. Ms. Wein was the object of Patai's derision, one of the protesters a Village Voice reporter called ``spooky evangelists'' in a somewhat sneering account of the event. Wein thought the government should use its antiracketeering (RICO) laws to come down on the porn shops. ``Under RICO,'' she said, ``we can put them out of business.''
This is one more ideological twist in the Village porn wars. Economic conservatives detest RICO as an invasion of private enterprise. Social conservatives, by contrast, are willing to invoke government authority, which is why left and right can meet on an issue like pornography.
Along with Patai, moreover, Wein said the content of the videos could not be ignored. ``We are going to have to wake up,'' she said, with more equanimity than many around her. ``What's breathed in the privacy of these shops is breathed out into the community.''
Patrons of Crazy Fantasy thought that was their own business. ``They deserve to make a living just like I do,'' said Martin Spund, exiting with a bag of videos. ``This isn't Germany.''
Mr. Spund pointed to the Waverly Theater a few doors down the street. On its marquee is the R-rated hit, ``sex, lies, and videotape.''
``And it's playing in my theater,'' Spund said. ``I work there.''
To people like Mr. DeCurtis, though, it's all a sad commentary on the state of the community. The porn invasion came inevitably, he thinks, from lifestyle trends of recent years - not just ``permissiveness,'' but social apathy as well. ``Too many live here to walk to Wall Street and make money,'' he said. ``Then they go out of town on the weekends. The so-called yuppies give nothing back to the community.''
``The police do nothing because not enough of us make noise.''