I thought I could handle bartending at a strip club, but it turns out I couldn’t. I thought I was somehow morally superior to the dancers—untouchable. The customers disagreed. In short, I knew shit about shit. The following is a brief account of the three days I spent working in Manhattan strip club that shall remain unnamed.
During an hour of orientation, we learned the rules. No one was allowed to turn down a drink—not the bartenders, not the waitresses, and certainly not the dancers. If someone did, we had to report her to the house mom (A woman, usually a former dancer, who collects the dancers’ house fees, sells them their thongs, and makes inspirational bulletin boards reminding them of the rules, then punishes them when they don’t comply). They could however, order a drink with “two limes,” which was codespeak for “no alcohol.” Were a patron to order a Grey Goose Soda with two limes for a dancer, she would only receive just the soda water, while he was charged the full $21. The club would make about 800% profit, and the dancer would avoid getting shitfaced.
I was too busy pondering the profit margin on this to really pay attention when the house mom began lecturing us on how to react to off-color jokes from clients, aka harassment. “Sometimes they’ll say things like, So, when are you gonna suck my cock?’ Your answer is to just giggle.” Normally my answer to that would be a swift kick to the groin, but I was broke, so I showed up at training on Monday in my black mini dress.
The first dancers I meet are Sky, Rain, Bijoux. and Candy (Pam, Kathy, Judith and Brenda). One is an ex-Mormon from Utah, two of them have kids, and one is 19. They arrive early, because if they are dressed—or rather undressed—and ready to go by 6, they get to pay a discounted house fee. A house fee is what the dancers pay the establishment for the privilege of working there. For the first few hours, hardly anyone enters. Dancers don’t even start stage shows until about nine, so until then, it’s like being in a sad, dead, neighborhood dive bar where the only patrons are women in lingerie, and if you go to the bathroom you are greeted with signs that say “Your boobs never EVER touch the customer,” all translated into Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and Polish. This leaves plenty of time for all the moms to pull out their phones and compare baby pictures, while I die a little inside.
A few customers straggle in. One gentleman’s flight has been delayed so he has a few hours to kill. One of the moms starts chatting him up. He’s a corn-fed, Midwestern guy, wearing a collared shirt over his barrel chest, and has a chin right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She’s a full-figured Dominican Mamacita with full lips, beautiful eyelashes, and breasts larger than my head. Our friend from the heartland seemed just a bit intimidated by her, as she gave him the full court press. In a strip club, the traditional male/female roles of predator and prey are reversed. It is the women who approach the passive men, initiating contact with purred greetings and compliments. The men have the power to either accept or reject their advances. It’s opposite the traditional bar scenario, except instead of seeking sex, the women are seeking money (which can sometimes become one in the same).
Mr. Midwest makes small talk with me and the dancer and her ample bosom, until he accepts his fate and buys a lap dance from her. His face wears a look of resignation as she liberates her breasts from the strips of turquoise spandex containing them, and begins to writhe on him. A couple comes in, the girl beautiful and Eastern European, and the man a bit older than she—shorter, balding, but in very good shape. The dancers flocked to them. He immediately drops a titanium credit card in my hand and starts a tab. I ask for his ID, and he informs me that this policy does not apply to him. My manager calls me over to inform me that the titanium card in question belongs to a “big, big spender,” and to get him whatever he wants on the house. When I return to the couple, the man smirks and asks me. “He just told you I was a big spender, didn’t he?.” He held the power now, and he knew it.
The dancers tell me that he and his girlfriend are regulars. She is into women, and they routinely spend five or six thousand dollars a night. They talk to the dancers and massage girls as if they are old friends. They know all the personal details of their lives, and proceed to buy me shots. While he gets a massage, his girlfriend asks if I’m wearing underwear. I say goodbye to them after I finish my training shift. He says, “You’re leaving? You haven’t even touched my cock yet!” I giggle even though he wasn’t joking, and mumble something about “just being the bartender.”
As I exit, I see them trying to hail a cab, and I sneak off in the opposite direction. They see me and flag me down. “Hey! Come to Scores with us!”
“Oh, thanks so much, but I’m really hungry, I’m gonna go eat.”
“Scores has food! Come with!”
“Thanks! But maybe next time.” The man looks at me angrily and says, “You don’t mean that,” and then jumps in a cab.
The next begins as more of the same: long hours of nothing, dancers—looking both expectant and defeated—giving me drink tickets, and of course, customers. Most of the regulars have a particular girl they come to see. The awkward, bespactled Indian guy with the backpack would spend hours in the private rooms with the pretty Dominican girl who had the best pole tricks, sometimes keeping her there until noon. This was somehow allowed, even though last call is at four. One conservative-looking middle-aged white guy only had time for the thickest of the black girls, and the one who I called Grampa was smitten with a baby-faced Russian.
I ask one of the cocktail waitresses what goes on in the private rooms that costs $1000 for the hour, figuring she must have walked in on some blow jobs. She says mostly they just do drugs. I guess for some men, $1000 is worth it, if you get to party like a rockstar (or at least feel like you are). Grampa is my favorite of the regulars. He looks to be about 75 years old, and dresses in the Maine outdoorsman style I remember from my New England youth—LL Bean flannel tucked into faded khakis over solid work boots. He looks deeply out of place, but all the girls know him. He apparently would bring his own checker board, and sit and play as the girls danced. He always pays in cash with hundred dollar bills. He offers to buy his Russian child bride a drink, and she asks for champagne. He says “No, juice, you can have juice.” So I pour her $8 brown pineapple juice out of the gun. As I serve her, she purses her lips and stares at something. Confused, I ask her if she needs anything. I turn around to see what she is looking at. Her own reflection.
“I like mirror,” she giggles in broken English.
This is common amongst the girls. I notice many of them spend their three songs on stage with their backs to the door, and just watch themselves in the mirror. Grampa informs another dancer that he and his Russian doll are going on their first date next week. The other dancer squeals a congratulations to him. When he gets up, she informs me that he’s an “idiot, beyond a chump, possibly soft in the head.”
Later, as she gives a lapdance to a member of a douche-y bachelor party, Grampa sneaks up behind him. Today, instead of his checkers board, he has a puppet of a construction worker, complete with yellow hard hat. He is making the marionette dance over the douchebag’s shoulder, when management stops him and confiscates his puppet friend. They stick it next to the stairs. I spend the rest of my shift eyeing it, hoping that Grampa won’t leave without it. This dark, windowless world is starting to look like a Tim Burton movie.
My cocktail waitress is from a diplomatic African family, and is working there behind their backs. I was doing the same with my Jewish mom up in Maine. The dancer onstage was also African. My cocktail waitress was in shock. “African girls don’t do that!” I realize I would probably react the same way were I to see a Jewish girl working the pole.
My cocktail waitress and I had thought we weren’t really a part of this. It was a temporary situation while we pursued loftier things. While that may have been true, we were still there, and definitely no better than anyone else in the customers’ eyes. They didn’t care about our educations, families, or creative pursuits. We were two more girls in push-up bras, there to cater to their every need. The dancers didn’t view us as superior either. They welcomed us in. One of them was nineteen and stripping to get a Business Management degree so she could open her own strip club. She saw the same thing I saw, unheard of profit margins and employees who paid to work. Later she got fired for getting into a fist fight with another dancer, but I have no doubt she’ll end up doing well for herself.
After my third day, I came in for my shift and asked not to be on the schedule next week. I’d always said I didn’t want to work in a dive bar because of the long hours you have to spend talking to the same people day after day, about their band, or graphic design job, or hedge fund, or girlfriend, or asshole roommate. That’s essentially what working at a strip club is. Just add nipples.