Sunday, January 30, 2011

My career as a stripper


every Wednesday 9 pm
$50 First Prize

12684 Central Ave, S.E.
(across from Quality Inn)

The above is a rough approximation of the flyers that just appeared one day, on light poles, walls, and bulletin boards all around the University of New Mexico campus, including the board in the pool hall next to Carraro's Pizza where I was Day Manager.
For the most part, it was an empty title. My job consisted primarily of calling in orders to suppliers, signing for deliveries, and mostly, making and portioning the pizza dough for the much busier night shift.
From where I stood, for hours every day, mixing, kneading, and doming the dough, I had a clear view of the bulletin board and the flyer stood out as a beacon of temptation. $50.00 went a long way in Albuquerque in 1975, where my rent was only $30 a month.
My ‘mistake’ was in pointing it out to my closest pals at work, Sandy and Patti. From then on my fate was sealed and was just a matter of time before I went.
Their kidding and teasing and challenging me was almost relentless. They ‘let it slip’ to the rest of my coworkers, adding to the schoolyard-like “Well, I DOUBLE dare you!” pressure.
I did do a lot of dancing in those disco days, I audited a jazz dance class taught by my friend Joselito at UNM and went, nearly every day after work, to Okie’s
Okie’s, short for Oklahoma Joe’s, was established as an Overland Stage stop in 1876. In the same location, at the corner of old Route 66 and University Ave., it had been a casino, a whorehouse, a roadhouse, a speakeasy, a heavy-duty biker bar, and, in its then-present configuration, was a college hang-out.
Sadly, I hear that there’s a Jack-in-the-Box there now.
But in its heyday...

Situated at the southwest corner of the UNM Main Campus, it was also at the northern boundary of the mixed light-industrial, moderate-to-low-income housing area that ran south along the eastern bank of the Rio Grande, and was one of the few places where people from these different worlds commingled.
Like many bars in the Southwest, it was laid out 'Plantation-style.' This style of tavern combines the elements of many different types of bar under one roof.
At the corner, it had a package store complete with that uniquely bizarre New Mexico institution, the drive-up liquor window.
It had, at the front of the bar, with exits to the liquor store as well as the street, a medium-sized conversational area with a free-standing steel fireplace in the middle and its music set at a soft enough level to hear someone talk across the table.
Behind and to one side of that area was a pool room with a pair of absurdly unlevel tables whose ancient cushions were far beyond the point of recoil.
A small, wide hallway, its recesses intentionally dark, offered a place of cozy, candle-lit booths where couples wrapped themselves in each other’s limbs and filled each other’s heads with sweet promises and lies.
At the back, with its own service bar, was the largest space, a dance floor with a low stage just large enough to accommodate a four piece band. Around the perimeter, rescued from what must have been an elegant supper club, were huge booths.
A bit frayed from decades worth of bottoms, the well-appointed ‘tuck and roll’ upholstery still reflected, if faintly, their original glory. Large enough to seat up to eight in comfort, they were frequently shared by a pair of smaller groups, offering unique opportunities for new acquaintances.
Its core of its music system, fed through the same amplified P.A. that the bands used, was one of the best juke boxes I’ve ever danced to.
Its selections covered everything from Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, through Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, to Dave Brubeck and Chuck Berry to Motown and that week’s latest disco hit (hey, it was the ‘70’s, we didn’t know any better).
Joselito Arrigones was a gifted teacher and a great dancer. Despite the infuriated glares we attracted from the Okie’s red-necked bouncers, we were regular partners. (Only my working at Carraro’s Pizza kept us, I am sure, from being 86’d)
In that way only a good teacher can, he taught me the Texas Two-Step and the Box Step in a way that had me leading even as I learned.
Combined with Sandy and Patti’s encouragement, Joselito helped me work out the moves for my amateur debut. We all agreed that if I was going to enter, it ought to be with intention of winning.
Left up to me, I’d never have felt I was ready. I let each Wednesday approach with nervous apprehension and then pass, un-acted-upon.
Finally, after watching this happen for two or three weeks, my coworkers, enlisting the aid of a guy named Jack (Daniels), kidnapped me.
They drove me by my rooming house where they followed me up to my room to stand guard, lest I flee, with their backs turned, as I changed into the ensemble I had, through extensive trial and error, decided upon. It consisted of a bright red silk shirt with snaps, a pair of hip-hugging, black, draw-string pants, a black athletic supporter, and black Capezio dance shoes.
While giving the impression of casual streetwear, they could all be removed with a minimum of fuss or awkwardness.
“Girls’ Night Out” was located on the top floor of a three story A-frame in the sprawling commercial strip that had grown up along old Route 66 to the east of Albuquerque in the direction of Sandia Crest, a huge, looming mountain whose name reflected its similar shape to that of a slice of watermelon. Tawdry motels, many of whose names made reference to what had been America’s first transcontinental highway, fought for business with promises of KING-SIZED WATERBEDS, XXX ADULT MOVIES, and HOURLY RATES, on their rusting, broken neon-signed marquees.
A Skelly’s Truck Stop was the neighbor on one side, a closed drive-in movie on the other, and across Central, a former roller skating rink had been turned into a country music dance hall whose customers, on an average night, wore more cotton gingham, in the form of shirts and dresses than...well, more than I ever wanted see.
Downstairs from Girls’ Night Out, on the first floor, was a bar that during daylight and early evening hours was your average red-neck bar, no different than many others in that part of down. What set it apart, and was no doubt the source of its popularity, were the female strippers that started at 6 pm.
All three establishments, the bar and both strip clubs, shared the same source of music, a jukebox.
Beside the fact that this was a red-neck bar in New Mexico, in 1975, with all that that meant in terms of popular music, it also meant that the dancers had no control over what they would dance to, it also meant that they had no way of knowing what songs, they would be expected to dance to or in what sequence those songs would play.
This led to some nimble readjustments when (as would once happen to me) the music went from David Rose's The Stripper, to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, to Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell.
The women dancers on the first floor were they only ones allowed to yell “Reject!” and have the bartender change the song by pushing a button on the back of the jukebox. For which they invariably incurred a torrent of disdainful comments on their dancing abilities from their male counterparts above.
The middle floor was restrooms and above that no men, except for the dancers, were allowed.

There were only three contestants that Wednesday night and the other two did not impress me as a threat.
One was obviously a refugee from the first floor bar, dressed in his cowboy best: boots, tight jeans, and a pearl-buttoned shirt. He looked good, and in good shape, but his choice of wardrobe, I knew from my own experimentation, would be his downfall.
The other guy had had the foresight to bring along a six person cheering section but they and he had clearly been drinking for hours before they got there and by the time of the contest, were downright sloppy.
The club’s regular dancers, a pair of very cute gay guys, spent the better part of an hour warming up the audience. My competition, to their loss, paid little attention. I sipped my beer and took advantage of the free lesson.
The first thing I noticed was that they wore loafers or untied shoes and kicked them off as soon as the music started.
I also noted that they did not go onto the floor with their shirts or pants completely buttoned up and that they made creative use of the few accessories commonly worn by men, such as a tie, a belt, or a bandanna.
The first to raise the courage, Dutch or otherwise, to actually get up and dance, was the wobbly drunk with the cheering section. Despite his near complete inability to walk, he did manage to keep time with the simple disco beat. He might have been real competition sober, but as it was, his merely managing to finish all three songs of his set without falling down was enough to earn him a smattering of polite applause.
I let the cowboy take his turn next and it was quickly apparent that his intent was to meet women, not win a dance contest. It took most of his first song, sitting on the bar that wrapped around the dance floor, to remove his snugly-fitting boots.
The rest of his clothing came off as much between the songs as during and what little dancing he did do, consisted primarily of grinding his white-jockey-shorts-covered loins in the face of some very embarrassed women.
Sandy and Patti’s threat to make me walk home if I didn’t win, wasn’t, in the face of that level of competition, really necessary, but it made me laugh and that helped me swallow my heart out of my throat and back into my chest.
I felt ready for anything. I’d worked out specific and general routines for all of the most popular dance tunes of the day, I struck a pose and...
... Nearly peed my pants! I recognized the opening notes, but in all my preparation, somehow, I’d left out the Tony Orlando classic: Tie a Yellow Ribbon.
I was frozen in place, unable to choose between trying to bluff my way through and just waiting it out for the next song.
Fortunately, seeing my dilemma, one of the regular dancers came to my aid. Putting his arm across my shoulders he leaned close and whispered, “That’s okay, hon', you wait for the next one.”
From somewhere in his scanty outfit he produced a yard or so of thin yellow ribbon and proceeded to put the audience in stitches with a very ribald interpretation of that pop standard.
Having mustered my courage and stepped out onto the stage, to have to now wait again, made that already long Tony Orlando and Dawn song downright interminable. (Though when the rest of America hears it and thinks of distant troops I hear it and think of Jamie and his ribbon. And I laugh.)
As the final words faded, I took a deep breath and traded places with my rescuer. All it took for me to know I’d won was two notes.
Kung-fu Fighting, a Top Ten hit by one-hit-wonder Carl Douglas, had been at the top of the charts for most of the last 8 to 10 months and was one of my routines.
I slipped off my sandals, opened my shirt to the waist and mixed spinning, shoulder-high side kicks with flurries of karate punches. All in perfect time with the music. I finished shirtless, my upper body shiny with my efforts, to the wild applause of the entire room. I felt unstoppable.
Even given a chance to choose, I couldn’t have picked any better song than the one which followed. A slow ballad by, I think, the BeeGees, it gave me a chance to catch my breath.
Turning my back to the largest part of the audience I bent low at the waist and slowly peeled the top of my pants down over the tightly clenched muscles of my distance-runner’s butt.
At the song’s final notes, I let gravity take over and dropped them in a heap, leaving them behind with a short leap to the side and a drop to one knee as if genuflecting before the crowd. (A move that was purely Joselito’s)
For the first time in my life, I was experiencing a ‘performer’s high.’ All I can remember about the last song was that it was fast and had a throbbing, yet joyous, beat. (For some reason, in my memory as I write this I keep hearing Disco Beethoven, but I really can’t be sure, and I sure wish it would stop.)
Sandy and Patti and I proceeded to drink up a good chunk of my prize money on the bar’s highly priced drinks but we were joined, before too long, by the club manager, a brassy, frosted-blonde whose thick make-up seemed to exhibit rather than hide her aged complexion.
Years of working the runways of smoke-filled strip clubs had not been kind to what had once been a clearly lovely face. I’m glad I was not asked her age, I’d have been off, I later found out, by almost two decades.
Estelle came out from behind the tiny cocktail bar where she sat and chain-smoked her way through at least a full pack of Lucky Strikes per 6-hour shift, with a round of drinks for the three of us.
It was easy to see, even beneath the many pounds that had been added over the years, the statuesque dancer that she once had been.
After exchanging the three mixed drinks for our empty glasses, she set the tray on a nearby table and asked, in a deep, throaty voice that seemed to cut through the blaring music like a knife, to join us.
Without really waiting for an answer, she slid a chair over next to mine and sat down. For a moment, I misunderstood her intentions, which were entirely professional.
She assumed I’d studied dance and asked where, and was surprised when I told her of my single class. When I told her I liked dancing in gay clubs, she and I commiserated laughingly over Albuquerque’s pitiful selection.
For a city of close to half a million, we could name only four gay bars, of which only one, the Winchester, was a disco. And which, after two unsuccessful attempts, would be finally burned down by rednecks about six months later.
Without prelude she asked me if I wanted a job. She’d lost her third dancer to the bright lights of Los Angeles a few weeks before and that had, in part, been why she’d introduced the Amateur Night.
Jamie and Guy, her two remaining dancers were working themselves to a frazzle trying to keep up.
The job paid the minimum of $3.20 an hour but with three dancers we’d only be working about 20 minutes out of every 60. In addition, we got to keep all our tips as well as getting $2.50 every time a customer bought us a drink.
The dancers were served special 'Mai Tais' that looked and tasted like the real thing but contained nearly no alcohol.
(For some arcane legal reasoning having to do with fraud or misrepresentation, even though they were served only to staff, they were required to contain some alcohol, however minimal.)
The customer paid $4.00 and for that amount, was entitled to our friendly and flirtatious company while we drank it.
If we hustled, we could make $60-$80 easily in a six hour shift.
Dazzled by what seemed to be an inordinately fabulous salary as well as the very tempting idea for a 22 year-old of being a paid sex-object, I eagerly accepted Estelle’s offer.

In addition to the usual legal employment paperwork, the job had its own set of unique requirements.
The rules which governed the employment of male strippers were the same as those for women with a few necessary adaptations.
For instance, women were prohibited from revealing any pubic hair. Which led to their shaving off all or all but a narrow strip, whereas men, whose curls might begin at their chests, were only proscribed from revealing hair at the sides of their G-strings or underwear.
But this meant, for a dark and hirsute Hispanic man like Jamie, shaving a strange looking line at the top of his thigh.
In the beginning, men were required, like the women, to wear pasties over their nipples but, since men were allowed to take off their shirts in a bar that did not serve food, this ordinance was dismissed.
The law restricted women from sitting on patron’s laps but said nothing about their sitting on ours.
But just because we were male did not mean we escaped the attention of those Guardians of Public Morality, the vice squad.
We were regularly asked if we’d like to “come to a ‘private’ party after work.”
Estelle, after so many years in the business, was quite attuned to spotting undercover cops and we were instructed to always tell them that she handled our outside bookings. This always seemed to deflect the ones who were out to bust us though we did actually work a few private parties.
Most of the time these were held at the club and occasionally in someone’s living room and rarely, we were asked to surprise someone at their job.
Only once was I asked to perform at someone’s place of employment. And one time was enough for me to decide that the $100.00 fee was not worth it.
It was at a realtor’s office, to mark the retirement of a senior secretary. All the men had been sent out of the office and the dozen or so women left were drinking Cold Duck out of plastic champagne glasses when I arrived.
I knew a couple of the women from the club, they were regulars and were the ones who had decided, for reasons known only to them, that a male stripper was just the thing to celebrate their coworker’s 30 years at the same job.
Even before I was introduced to her, I knew which woman was the guest of honor. She was short and plump and silver-haired (she reminded me of my aunt) and wore an expression that was equal parts horror and mortification.
I set up my tinny-sounding tape player and went to change into my outfit, a modified pirate’s costume with tear-away trousers and puff-sleeve shirt. I was pulling on the loose, knee-high boots when the ‘hostess’ knocked and came in with my fee, five $20 bills in an envelope.
“You’ll do six songs, right? And try to get her to dance with you, okay?” she asked, holding up a Kodak Instamatic, “I want to get a picture.”
I had only met the retiree for a second or two but even I could tell that this idea was a bad one. And a cruel one.
I danced my first two dances with my shirt open to the waist in the middle of a hooting and howling circle of women, turning and dancing suggestively with each in turn.
The poor victim did her best to stay in the back but was not able to escape being pushed to the front when I got to her. I felt her pain and stayed with her for a shorter time than any of the others and when I moved on I could see the relief in her face.
My third song I finished shirtless, waving my fake cutlass as if in victory.
For my fourth, I had planned to stand close to the guest of honor and tear my trousers off. I could not do that to this sweet, gray-haired woman.
Instead, I got as far away as the small circle would permit, turned my back to her, grabbed my baggy pants at the crotch and with a hard yank, was suddenly wearing only boots, an eye-patch, and a black, soft-leather G-string.
Slowly, in time to the Commodores’ Slippery When Wet, I turned on one toe, back around, just in time to see the poor woman slip into a back office.
I was apparently the only one to see her go.
I owed her, I felt, at the very least, that escape, and did everything I could to keep the crowd distracted, including rubbing my sweat-slick body against the woman who’d so mistreated her friend by employing me.

I lasted about another five months working there, ready to leave for most of the last two but unable to resist the easy money.
Besides earning enough money to allow me to escape the economic quagmire of Albuquerque and move to San Francisco, what I got most out of that career detour was a rare insight that most men never have access to.
The average guy, if given the opportunity, would eagerly accept the role of ‘sex object’ without any thought to the consequences. Most men, at their most visceral level, cannot understand why women find this idea so objectionable.
They have no way of knowing, as I did not, before that job, what this means.
That it means that the person you are talking to doesn’t care about your dreams or ambitions.
That she doesn’t care whether you are smart or foolish (and would generally prefer the latter).
She doesn’t want to hear what books you’ve read, what movies you’ve seen, or your opinion on the events of the day.
None of that matters.
In fact, you don’t matter.
All that matters is how closely you fit their image of physical perfection.
And as any woman can attest- that gets old really fast.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am really really enjoying your stories stan. Keep em coming!!

4:59 PM  
Blogger joesmart said...

This is a wonderfully crafted story. Thank you.

It offers some insights as well. Makes me think of my youth on the Texas border. There was Boy's Town on the other side, and male transvestite strippers were often the opening act in the clubs there. There was the potential of drama when unsuspecting customers suddenly realized they were misled. This was a long time ago. Muddy streets, wooden side walks, and chickens in the road just outside of the respectable part of town. Very long time ago.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:49 AM  

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