Dedicated to Allan Mott
I’m coming clean here about a very small, albeit insignificant part of my life. Which is why I didn’t put much effort into the title. Nothing has mattered less to me than my time as a stripper, and I have more stories about my year as a kindergartner, so why bother trying to be all clever about it.
It wasn’t even my idea to write this. I saw no reason to rehash one summer of youthful indiscretions. A friend, who, it should be noted, is a man and, therefore, inherently biased in favor of general raunch, coaxed me into it. I said, “Friend, trust me. There is no story here. Everyone thinks stripping is crazy and wild, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s well-trodden literary territory anyhow, and frankly, I’ve nothing new to add.”
My male friend didn’t care. He wouldn’t listen. He was just excited to hear the word “stripper.” Everyone reacts to that word. It evokes raw and untamed body parts, and it rhymes with a lot of things.
Oddly enough, when people find out I stripped, nobody asks why. I find the lack of shock incredibly offensive. Why aren’t people wondering how such a smart, smarmy feminist got into such a racket? Do I reek of financial desperation? Do I dress like I lack a moral compass? I’ll tell you this: people would be shocked to learn that Justice O’Connor was a dancer in her youth. She wasn’t, of course, but my point remains.
I didn’t become a stripper because I came from a broken home or was sexually molested and sad. I did it because I visited my friend during one of her weekend shifts at The Lounge Cabaret Diamond Palace Fish Farm. Maria was carrying $1600 cash in her clutch with a ball of fivers rolled into a ball wedged in her butt crack and another ream of c-notes slid into a transparent compartment in her clear platforms. I was intrigued.
“What do I have to do?” I asked her.
“Just strut around stage and give lap dances.”
“No funny business?” I needed some reassurance that I wouldn’t have to prostitute myself.
“Only if you want to,” she reassured me.
First lesson I learned as a stripper, of course, is that strippers are not strippers. They are “exotic dancers.” The second and most critical lesson for me was that exotic dancers are not dancers. They’re sensual writhers. Pole twirlers. Floor wrigglers. I confused the terminologies on my first day and attempted to legitimately dance. I was mocked ceaselessly. Not by the other girls (strippers are too weary to find irony funny), but by patrons.
The hardest part of stripping wasn’t the work but fielding questions from interested parties. People were endlessly fascinated. They couldn’t get enough information. They’d ask me what it was like, was it scary, did clients stalk me, did people get stabbed. I was often forced to spin a regular shift at the club into a Penthouse forum letter written by Oliver Stone. I started making things up to deflect attention from the fact that I was boring. I’d never even heard of a boring stripper, I was so ashamed.
I didn’t work so hard in my life as when baldly lying about my adventures. The only actual absurd thing to happen during this time was when I flew to Arizona to meet a longtime pen-pal. While visiting, my pen-pal told all his friends about my job. They encircled me and wouldn’t stop asking questions. I ran out of story ideas for them, so I left a day early.
I had no stripper friends, so no stripper-friend stories. Dancers aren’t exactly the kind of women that inspire friendship. It’s hard to introduce yourself to a girl wearing a suspender thong and nipple netting. Imagine saying “Nice thong and netting,” to a woman. A WOMAN! No woman’s gonna stick around after a line like that. However, Maria was friends with some strippers, so I heard second-hand crazy stories about them stealing and maxing out each other’s credit cards.
With the little amount of small talk I made with fellow coworkers, I learned that no sex worker calls herself a sex worker. Except me. Any chance I could get. It’s not very often that a girl from a nice middle-class home with great parents gets paid to partake in debauchery. Sometimes I’d say I was in the debauchery industry. I also told people that I worked with “unsavory characters.” I met one cokehead in the bunch that summer, but the way I spun that yarn made it seem like the club was full of cokeheads, that there was coke flying everywhere, and that you couldn’t swing open a bathroom stall door without hitting some stripper in the head as she snorted a fat rail of coke off a toilet lid.
One story in particular I remember making up was for the benefit of Maria. I invented a character: a customer who read me his grocery list as I gave him a lap dance. I was scraping the bottom of the imagination barrel.
“He said, ‘Carrots, sugar, milk, broccoli, orange juice…’ over and over.”
I stared, waiting for her jaw to drop. Frankly, I was worried that I was the kind of person who could do extreme, insane things and not get any wacky anecdotes out of it. I waited for Maria’s reaction, but all she did was shrug and go, “Well, let’s hope he comes back so you can get a regular.”
Regulars. Guys who repeatedly frequent clubs because they fancy a particular girl or a particular subset of girl. When you have regulars, stripping becomes stable income. Maria took two of her regulars and made them into long-term boyfriends. One of them was a bonafide Mdewakanton Sioux tribal member. He received $40,000 a month (tax-free) from the Sioux-owned Mystic Lake Casino. That’s the kind of money it took to form a deep, passionate relationship with a stripper.
I, on the other hand, did not inspire regulars. I think it was because my brand wasn’t very sexual. When approached, I often said I preferred to be left alone. I enjoyed emasculating men during casual billiards games and smoking in a corner by myself. I had three stripper names I used in no particular rotation: Buckles, Stars-N-Stripes, and Estelle Horowitz.
Buying stripper gear was expensive and intimidating. Women mainly wore $400 lucite shoe ladders and managed to make bikinis out of 25 yards of dental floss. To this day, I cringe when I see exotic dancers wrongfully portrayed on TV wearing “career costumes,” like sexy police uniforms and lion-tamer outfits. Most strippers can’t afford clothes like these because they’re giving money to their disgusting boyfriends and making inflated, interest-only payments on their Cadillac Escalades. They’re also too pragmatic to expend additional effort creating fictional stage characters. They’ve learned that men aren’t turned on by creative uses of bullwhips or hilarious wigs. They really like nipples and pussy mainly. So best to just create a character who shows nipples and pussy.
Whenever anyone tells me that the only thing keeping them from stripping is being naked, I recoil in horror. When I was onstage, nudity was the most incidental part of the entire act. I was grateful to be nude, so nobody would notice the terror sweeping over my face. I remember hissing to a guy bent on gazing into my eyes, “Stop with that. Look down here, buster! This is what you came for! What is wrong with you? Get it together. Oh, wow, a dollar. Big whoop.” (I was very entitled.)
And I never cottoned to the shoes. Every girl wore seven-inch stilettos. I thought, “Why don’t they raise the floor seven inches so we can wear comfy loafers?” Clomping around like a Clydesdale, I was always on the verge of knocking over a waitress’s tray of drinks, grabbing her thong on my way down, and breaking both my ankles. One time I was in the middle of an onstage sex-kitten charade when my shoe slipped out from under me and kicked a guy’s drink off the brass tip rail. Cranberry juice went everywhere (this was a dry bar – if you wanted your cranberry juice with something harder, you’d have to go to a titty bar). The worst part was, later on, I had to give Cranberry Shirt Stain a serious lap dance without laughing (he didn’t fucking leave after getting drenched in juice!).
The club music was unbearable. My musical preferences run along the lines of Beethoven and Schubert, but Waldstein isn’t considered universally sexy, so I gyrated to Wing, Ratt, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Metallica, and R. Kelly. Beyond this musical sacrifice, providing lap dances, and performing onstage every hour, the club rules stipulated that, several times a night, all dancers had to get in a conga line with each other and parade around the club for two minutes advertising discounted dances. A siren blared and the wannabe DJ host would say, “Let’s get these fine ladies up to the stage!” which meant I had to stop whatever I was doing and get online. It was mandatory, and I hated it. To get out of partaking in what I believed to be the most humiliating act as a stripper, I’d run into the bathroom until the whole bullshit thing was over. Because of this constant, intrusive interruption, I developed a lifelong Pavlovian fear-response to firetruck sirens. If there’s ever a real fire, you’ll find me in the bathroom.
Strip clubs aren’t popular with townspeople, especially if they’re in residential neighborhoods. My bar in Coates, MN – Jake’s – was right across the street from a small family farmhouse. The signage read: BUCK NAKED LADIES in radiating, marquee-style lights. Imagine, as a family, having to think about pussy every time you left the house to go to the grocery store or a birthday party. Or looked out the window wistfully.
The town of Coates was sick of Jake’s seedy enterprise mucking up its conservative value system, so they convened a Town Hall meeting to address removing Jake’s by introducing a bill restricting the area’s commercial zoning laws. Jake got wind of this and formulated a plan. (I think it was his first plan ever.) He convinced all the strippers to register to vote in that county, even though none of them lived there. Then he paid them each a couple hundred to vote against the zoning bill. It worked. Jake’s remained a gentleman’s club, and politics remained politics. Until a few years later when Jake was charged with voter fraud and the club got shut down, but that’s another story.
I got out of the game before that scandal hit. During a riveting sex recital of a highly choreographed Ugly Kidd Joe number, a man sitting right at the edge of the stage looked at my clean-shaven vagina and said, “Meh. I’d prefer a little more mystery.” I pointed out that he was in a strip joint, a place not exactly known for mysteries outside of stripper deaths. But that was enough. I was done. It wasn’t worth it and nothing amazing ever happened anyway. I wrote a letter of resignation and handed it to Jake, who shook his head and told me that no girls quit his establishment without his permission.
Totally not true. Actually, I called him to put in my two weeks’ notice, and he laughed at me. “You know, you didn’t need to call, right? You could’ve just stopped showing up. That’s what everyone else does.”