I knew I should have called before I came. From the parking lot I can see that no lights are on inside, but the door is wide open. Apparently the rain and wind knocked out the electricity to the bar. Fortunately it's a summer storm, so it's plenty warm, and I can't say that the damp breeze passing through the front door and out the back is a bad thing. The utter darkness and the deafening quiet in the bar is, though.
There is a lone candle sitting in the center of the bar, and Staci, our big-busted bartender, Bill the manager, and three other women in heels and lingerie sit huddled around it campfire-style, sipping drinks. There is no power at all and no sign of any revival on the way, but it's due to be another busy Wednesday night for us. Despite the darkness, a few soaking-wet guys have trickled into the bar. I wouldn't even know that they were there were it not for the pop of beer-can tops. In our high spirits, we decide to stay open.
For that to happen we're gonna need a little bit more light, so we send Jack, our underappreciated gofer and clean-up man to Santoni's to get some more candles. Not too many, though. I'm actually kind of excited about the darker-than-usual conditions considering I forgot to shave my legs today.
Once we're all lit up romance-novel style, we need music. At first we actually get by, thanks to a customer sing-along. You got it: three drunk men singing "Tuesday's Gone," off-key but with gusto. Needless to say, that remedy gets old fast, and someone runs home to get a portable stereo. While we wait for her return, the rest of us scavenge our cars and lockers for CDs. By candlelight and boom box, we effectively run a strip bar without electricity for nine more hours.
All and all, it's just a set change for the show that goes on seven days a week. Like the business itself, it's a little strange and it takes some time to adjust, but here at the Haven Place we make it work.
This story is not about sex. It's not about sacrificing dignity in exchange for fast cash. It's not about fake tits or prostitution or dead ends. Neither is it an attempt to sell the idea of stripping-as-a-living to the curious. While it has worked for me, I would never recommend it to the vast majority.
Everyone has a different reason or story for choosing to take up the art of conjuring up dollar bills naked with a brass pole as a magic wand. As for myself, I've had day jobs. It wasn't like I sat unemployed waiting for my 18th birthday while practicing dancing naked in my bedroom.
Three years ago, I was just a normal 19-year-old, trying to pay rent and tuition by nannying during the day and waiting tables at night while still managing to eat and catch the occasional rock show. I was broke and overworked—bad combination. And sure, waiting tables has its good nights and the instant cash in hand is nice, but when your official job title is "server," people have a tendency to run with that. Plus I am totally incapable of getting to work by 9 a.m. five days a week. This would never do.
In search of something a little more entertaining, and maybe even something with a creative edge to it, I decided to give stripping a try. I mean, I just dance, take my clothes off, and then collect tips, right?
Truthfully, I always wanted to be a rock star, onstage, blowing crowds away, and at the same time getting a chance to Say My Piece. But as it turns out, that takes years of dedication, not to mention musical fluency, in order to get anywhere near bringing home bacon.
After some thought, I decided that at the very least stripping would be something I could chalk up to experience, while at the same time satisfying my curiosity about the whole ordeal. I was feeling brave. With my hair all curled up nice and my makeup done to lean toward showgirl, as opposed to my usual ChapStick-and-mascara combo, I loaded a duffel bag full of my least worn-out undergarments and anything with black lace I could find in my closet. Fortunately I have a penchant for ridiculous shoes. I decided to pack the strappy black vinyl deals with lights in the platform. Every time I took a step there was a whole police chase of blue and red lights at my ankles.
Where does a gal go to try her hand at public nudity for pay? If you live in Charm City, and you're feeling a little brave, you go to the Block. I had no idea that just walking by and being remotely female could get you hired. The first club I passed, the tuxedoed doorman, who could have been my grandfather, offered me a job. So long as I had my ID, I could start tonight . . . and if I didn't have my ID I could just bring it in tomorrow. Beats the hell out of those "So, why do you want to work for us here at Minimal-Pay Corporate Establishment?" interviews, that's for damn sure.
This is what I'm looking for, I thought. No red tape, no hassle, I don't even have to have a schedule, as long as I show up for at least one shift a week, and I get a free drink as part of my pay? I get to dance all night? And I don't have to be here until 7 p.m.? Which way is the dressing room?
As it turns out, a couple nights working downtown can be enough to turn you off for a lifetime or, as in my case, to trigger an interest bordering on obsession in what exactly is going on behind all the smoke, mirrors, and G-strings. The seedy glow of red neon on naked breasts, the scent of men's cologne and too many sweaty women's unmentionables mixing with the faint but distinct scent of paper money. It just felt like a Tom Waits song to me, and I wanted in.
Making a career out of stripping isn't usually considered a prestigious move in the job market. Sometimes people react like you've just volunteered for a life-with-no-parole sentence: "You'll never get out. You'll wind up hooked on heroin and coke and eventually be demoted from exotic dancer to crack-smokin' corner-warmer, giving blow jobs behind Dunkin' Donuts for 20 bucks." And the potential for that story line is ever-present, as with almost any venture lacking a corporate ladder to ascend or involving working hours between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. That said, the potential adventure and end results are entirely in the hands of the individual adventurer. It can only be exactly what you make of it.
After trying out numerous spots on the Block, I couldn't help but feel unsatisfied, and not a little bit disappointed. Blaze Starr must be shaking her tassels in disdain from her brass pole in the sky. It all seemed like such a dilapidated version of what I had hoped for. No one seemed to be having much fun at all, especially the entertainers, who, truth be told, weren't always the most entertaining folks. Everyone at the places I worked seemed a little mad, and tension over who was talking to who or who was making money ran high, both in the dressing room and at the bar. Hustle, hustle, hustle. This was not the raunchy cabaret fun I was hoping for at all. It was just lackluster and melancholy. But the seed had been sown.
There is one myth about the business that's entirely on point: If you like it, it's as addictive as any rush on the globe. You command a room without saying a word. As long as you get undressed, at least partially, you have yourself a captive audience, and if you ever liked the monkey bars on the playground, or mountain climbing, or gymnastics, or kung fu, pole tricks are a lot of fun. I wanted to explore some more, but I just didn't think the Block was the place to find adventure, at least not the kind I was looking for. There just had to be more to this than I was seeing, right? Where were the Blaze Starrs? Where was Gypsy Rose Lee? And why is no one smiling?
In search of something a little less predictable, I veered away from Baltimore Street. I worked a few nights here and there. I worked out in the counties, where you have to keep your bottoms on, and have to wear little papier-mâché pasties glued to your nipples or, in a pinch, postage stamps. (For the record, pastie glue smells exactly like a ton of fish rotting on a humid summer dock.) I tried a few lap-dance clubs throughout the area. But I soon discovered that for me the money just wasn't in the pastie clubs, and that lap dances are just one step over my comfort threshold. I wanted to be onstage, not in some guy's lap.
Fortunately, I had the luck of nestling into a laid-back corner bar in Highlandtown after my roommate's girlfriend hipped me to its unusually short shifts. I could work 5-9 or 9-2 instead of the eight-hour shifts standard anywhere else. That alone was enticing.
Bill the manager was a lot like Santa Claus, only funnier and running a strip joint. I took the stage in the almost empty bar and auditioned by wobbling through two songs. I was so damn nervous that I forgot to get undressed. He hired me anyway.
The place is old-school on the exterior—just an unassuming brick building bearing the giant yellow slogan go-go-girls. The bar is small and feels very homey, assuming your idea of homey includes bikers, girls in sequined thongs, and red neon. Years ago, before the owners renovated, the ceiling boasted hand-painted burlesque cartoons—which is not to say that the current exposed beams and brick are an eyesore. Until just a couple of weeks ago, the stage flooring was original. Just to the side of the pole you could see where 30 years of spinning high heels had carved an inch-deep gouge in the wood.
The jukebox in the back of the room glows neon green and holds a rotating selection of music, all picked out and compiled by the women working there. We've got everything from Abba and Skynyrd to Massive Attack and NWA. There are even a few Johnny Cash tracks, and plenty of Sinatra. Perfect.
As the new girl I started on the happy-hour shift. That means four days a week, four hours a day. I had to arrive by 5 p.m., and I'd be off the clock by 9. Usually it's rather slow and the patrons are always regulars. I spent a lot more time than I ever expected talking to these guys, and found myself actually getting to know them.
Of course there are rotten eggs, guys who hate their lives and wives, drink far too much for any Monday afternoon, and have a tendency toward trying to cop a cheap feel. Or they just drool and stare without ever reaching for a single dollar. But statistically speaking, those guys are the minority by a landslide.
ny bartender knows well the
plight of getting stuck playing therapist to any Joe who walks into the place, and believe me, so does any stripper worth her zipper. Essentially, you dance for 15 minutes and then you entertain patrons with your witty conversation skills, or at least try not to yawn in the middle of anyone's story while you wait for your turn to go back onstage. That's how you make a repeat customer, ladies and gentlemen. Companionship and sex are among human beings' most basic desires, and millions of guys stumble into these establishments looking for at least a taste of both.
I've never been much good at feigning interest and I wanted to make the most of my barroom time, so the men that I gravitated toward and who would, with time, become my "regulars" were a small but entertaining and diverse group. I could have sat and made nice with every man that walked through the door, but I came here for a job I could tailor to suit me, and picking my own clients was just another perk.
One of the first customers I ever warmed up to was a man nicknamed Gov. He worked in city politics, an affluent white-collar type who looked something like a Disney walrus. He drank Pabst Blue Ribbons two at a time, tipped with small bills, but constantly, and really loved Madonna hits from the '80s. He would drink himself blind every day, leaving only when I had finished my shift.
Over the course of a few months, our talk went from barroom banter to rather intimate therapy sessions, only instead of a notebook and a pen in my hand, I listened to his problems with a Heineken and a Marlboro. One Monday evening after a drink or two and months of these little chats, I got the guts to ask him, "What brings you in here every day to spend money on women you have no chance of taking home with you?"
Don't you wanna know? He had all the money he could want, prestige, friends in the highest places, an assortment of vacation homes and luxury wheels, but due to a genetic predisposition of some kind or another, poor Gov just couldn't get it up and never had. As everyone knows, relationships are tricky as hell even with perfectly functioning genitals. So Gov decided one day that he would do without the embarrassment and satisfy his desires of the flesh through his retinas. Weird. But what would you do?
With that revelation, the nature of my occupation came through loud and clear. Yeah, sure, I'm wearing clothes designed for Mötley Crüe backup dancers (at least for two songs of my three-song sets) and I'm decorated with enough makeup to shame Kiss, but essentially, I'm a magician. I provide a different illusion to everyone that comes through that heavy brown door. To some of my customers, I'm the hard-working gal stripping her way through a college education: "Here's a 5, honey. Take care." To some, I'm a mysterious enchantress: "There's no way you're from Baltimore, and there is no way Summer is your real name. Here's a 10, beautiful." (Beautiful? I must have covered up that zit on the end of my nose pretty well.) Occasionally a good ol' boy sees in me the tattooed bad girl he shied away from, but now, with the safety net of cash in hand, he can comfortably approach: "Here ya go, trouble. . . . Are you gonna kick my ass for tipping a 1?" And yes, sometimes I'm not what they were looking for that night: "Sorry, but I don't like redheads," or, "You would be really hot if you had a C-cup."
You just gotta have a quick tongue and a forgiving nature. If you start to grade yourself on strangers' opinions, you're gonna lose your footing fast.
There are customers that have known me since the first time I took the stage, and looking back, I was just terrible. Awkward and nervous, I wobbled with every step. I tried to make up for my lack of grace—and chest—by cracking jokes between songs and taking requests for the jukebox.
That's what I was doing a few months into my new line of work when I met a man we'll call Richard. Silent and stoic, he would sit under the speakers every Tuesday night drinking Sprite. When I asked him if he was itching to hear anything particular one night, he pulled from his coat pocket a pad and pen, leaned onto the stage-side table, and wrote "Sounds." He smiled up at me, shrugged his shoulders, and pointed to his ear—totally deaf. After passing notes back and forth for a few minutes, he asked if I would dance to something that had a pulse deep enough for him to feel. Music had to be loud and deep enough to be tactile for him to enjoy. From then on, whenever Richard showed up I was sure to play at least one three-song set featuring tones low enough to shake the stage. He came back every Tuesday and tipped me 5s and 10s until last call.
Important lesson: What fun is the moment if you can't feel it? I stopped trying so hard to ooze sex appeal and started dancing for my entertainment. I laughed and joked with my audience, even pausing to curtsy after every stumble or failed pole trick. And it worked. I was having a blast.
Of course, some regulars get to know me a bit, too. They tip bigger around the first of the month when they know rent is due, on holidays and birthdays. They know what my parents do for a living and my dog's name, because no matter how "business" you try to keep it, you can only talk over drinks with someone for so many months without giving a little in return.
One of my first regulars was a guy I met working the Wednesday 5-9 shift. Sitting at the front of the stage drinking gin and tonics with a side of water—always—he was the ideal customer. Friendly, older, he smelled like he'd just stepped out of the shower every time I saw him, and he lavished the staff with tips, sincere praise, and, on holidays, gourmet candies. Once he brought me lobster and fried chicken, having asked me the week previously what I would want to eat on my birthday if I could have anything.
Handsome and jovial, he never looked below my face when we spoke, and he told me some of the best jokes I have ever heard. Over time, he also became the first to blur the line between customer and barroom pal. While our friendship always carried a bit of a business understanding, we were just two people sharing a drink in a quiet bar under a Baltimore night. We talked about travel, music, his family, and my boyfriend.
It's common for people to assume that any man hanging regularly with strippers—knowing what we major in or what our favorite movie is—probably leads some sad, empty life: "Where's his wife? His kids? What a pervert." In this case, my customer had been happily married for 30 years, raised two well-rounded kids, and had managed to make himself independently wealthy. He enjoyed the company of attractive, educated young women and managed to remain faithful to his wife by quelling that desire with weekly visits to see me and my fellow dancers. For Christmas one year, he wrote me a check that paid for my entire next semester of college. Shortly after, both he and his wife were killed by a drunk driver.
Don't get stuck on the sad ending. It was his friendship that gave me the balls to actually listen to what was going on in the lives of the people that I spent five nights a week with. It took balls, because opening up, being available, and taking in makes you vulnerable, even more so than prancing around in the buff precariously balanced on seven-inch spikes in a room full of horny, drunken men.
here's no shortage of tragic stories about the strip-club circuit: Drug abuse that leads to prostitution, men exploiting and pimping out helpless girls for profit, and all the other tales of sad-luck dames showing the goods because they have no other choice. These late-night tragedies are a dime a dozen (the stories, not the characters), but as I learned over the next three years, it's mostly just bad publicity for a tight-lipped, often stigmatized industry. Why don't we hear any of the fun stories? There are dancing girls and booze, low lighting and music. I mean, that sounds like good times to me.
After all, almost everyone in a strip club is trying to maintain some version of a double life, at least while within its walls, employees and customers alike. We entertain doctors who drink until they pass out but never tip less than $5 a go and teachers who guzzle tequila like it's last call every minute. There are couples who come in together and wind up making out like teenagers at a drive-in movie right up in the front row. No matter what their stories may be outside, no matter what our stories may be, inside the bar we're all on an even playing field. Everyone is just hanging out inside the illusion and having cocktails.
Once you pass the initial weirdness though, it becomes just like any other job. You settle into your routine and are prepared for what the night might hold.
Personally, I like having my days off so I always work the late shift, 9-2. Before I leave the house, I gotta get myself switched into entertainer mode. There is no throwing on whatever and pulling your hair up in a knot.
Really, the preparation is the biggest pain in the ass. Mere showering isn't enough. It's super showering: shaving and exfoliating and being so careful not to get razor burn in those key areas. Then the lotioning and hair curling, and let's not forget makeup. Think third-date preparations before work every night.
Probably the most important part of the preparations is the body makeup. Got a pimple on your butt? Better put some CoverGirl on it. Every time you get a bruise or your dog jumps up and scratches you, that's damage to the equipment that you must remedy.
Once I get myself all smellin' nice and lookin' pretty, then it's time for the mental preparation. I always take a cab to work, simply because there is nothing like a nice drive with the windows down at dusk. I smoke a cigarette and stare out the window at the downtown skyline. In a way, it's meditation. Think about reasons to dance. Think about the great sex I had last night or the killer steak I ate for lunch. Think about what songs I wanna hear, and think about how much money I need to make that night. I smoke and watch night fall on Baltimore from the cab window.
Once I arrive, I get a beer and sit on the front steps, have one more cigarette, and then it's go time. Our dressing room is hardly bigger than any closet in any apartment in Baltimore. Seriously, we're talking about 12-by-3 feet. Then put five girls in there. Then put five to eight pieces of luggage in there (what else do you carry 400 pairs of panties in?), plus some lockers, some drinks, some hot curling irons, some book bags, and even on one occasion a small gray dog that smells kind of like toast. Cell phones are going off, unanswered in lockers, customers are knocking on the thin wooden door, management is trying to figure out who's gonna go up in what order, beer is getting spilled into book bags. (Do you know how long it takes to dry a booze-soaked textbook with a hair dryer? A long time.) Garters are being borrowed and arguments are breaking out over missing bikini tops and baby wipes. Every girl is entirely different—there really is something to satisfy every taste—but that many personalities in that small a space can get intense.
When I first started I harbored all the usual prejudices against strippers. I assumed I would be surrounded by catty, cutthroat tramps with nothing to offer but flesh and bad attitudes. I was completely wrong. I worked with a woman who could have doubled for Pam Anderson, and presented herself as the flakiest dumb blonde on the planet, yet spent most of her night studying computer science in the dressing room. Then there was a gal who made her money by using comedy. She routinely told dirty jokes onstage, and more than once covered herself in Budweiser only to charge the bar and slide all the way down to the end and then off the edge Slip 'n Slide style. Students, mothers, painters, Peabody-trained ballerinas, and now me.
Don't let me paint it all sunshine and roses. There were a few girls who seemed to make it their job to live up to every stereotype in the book. My second week there, the presiding queen of the maniacs kicked in the dressing-room door because the barkeep cut her off; just a couple weeks ago one dancer tried to beat the sex appeal right out of another who mistakenly tried to seduce a tip from a customer—that "customer" being the boxing beauty's boyfriend.
All this really mixes up the cocktail, but we do what we can to make it run smoothly. Amid all this chaos, somehow, every night, we manage to get dressed, perfumed, glittered, blushed, and ready to go.
The first 15 minutes in those heels are hell. Essentially, I went from a life of Chuck Taylors and Levi's to naked perched on chopsticks, and the first dance of the night never really gets easier, at least not much. I get the shakes a little and none of my moves feel fluid, but you gotta warm up some way or another.
As the evening goes on, I dance in turn with the other gals, heading to the jukebox to pick out my tunes when the girl onstage before me removes her bottoms. I like to surprise my audience by throwing a little Black Crowes right in with a little Public Enemy, and maybe some Sinatra for the finish. I schmooze with customers, making sure to give all my regulars some face time and avoiding anyone that I know to be a creep, as well as anyone I suspect might have less than savory intentions. You get really good at eyeing people in this business. I can pick an ass-grabber out of any crowd with a glance.
I have a couple of Yuenglings and maybe a couple of shots with the other girls and the customers. As 2 a.m. approaches, I hang in the dressing room a bit, and either read or, as of late, work on this article, maybe make a phone call or two. Just get some quiet and start the cool-down.
The end of the night is really a sacred time, as anyone working in the bar industry knows. Patrons head out, leaving our small staff and whatever intimate friends came by to sit at the bar, counting out sweaty 1s and toasting shots. We play some Nina Simone on the jukebox and sometimes show each other new pole tricks or, even better, try to teach them to nondancer pals and boyfriends who happen to be there. Once all the 1s have been cashed in and the closing-time drink finished, I load my sweaty, dirty self into the car and, comfortably exhausted, head home where I take a shower to end all showers and eat something, usually involving red meat or breakfast. By 4 a.m. or so, I climb into bed and kiss my boyfriend good night, just another twentysomething gal happy to have made enough to avoid BGE's hit list and looking forward to trading a few of those sticky 1s for a fried-chicken dinner tomorrow, just in time to do it all over again.
As in any business that markets superficial sex appeal, there is a glaring shelf date on my current career. Truth is, you can't do this forever. I am going to get old, and well before that my knees are going to tell me that high heels just aren't gonna do it anymore. So what then?
It's been a killer adventure, but already my résumé has a questionably long gap in it. A lot of "retired" dancers simply become bartenders, or if they managed to save even a fraction of what they made in their heyday, they just flat out retire. Thanks to maintaining a level head about the whole deal, and not a little bit of luck, I've managed to put myself most of the way through school, and even had the good fortune to become a fitness instructor, teaching classes on how to use exotic dance and pole dancing as a means to get in shape.
I don't know what I'm going to be "when I grow up." I never expected to be a stripper anymore than I ever expected to be a doctor, but here I am. Still, though I might not ever pick up a guitar, I rock 'n' roll. And it beats a day job.