Strip Clubbed to Death

Joe Washington and I were lifting weights in his ghetto apartment.  We were doormen at a strip club straddling Compton and Gardena in Los Angeles. Rio Gentleman’s Club. Joe was getting his buff on, while I was just trying to keep my blub off.  He was an ex-Marine in his early 20’s, and a sharp dude.  I was an ex-drunk in my early 40’s, and just coming to.  Somehow we teamed up and watched each other’s back.

“We are surrounded by beautiful, naked women every night,” Joe said, “and we still dread going to work. Where do we go from here?”

“I don’t know, Joe,” I said, “but I think I’ve pretty much topped out, and frankly it’s not that great up here.”  I dropped my cigarette into what was left of my protein shake and picked up a dumb-bell.

Working at a strip club was fun, for the first few hours.  If you’re normal, you notice the girls.  Then you notice all the bullshit that comes with the girls.  Then you try not to notice the girls anymore.

The club was sketchy.  Being in the ‘hood, and right next to the 110 FWY, made it a prime target for armed robbery.  Since I handled the money, the owners let me carry a gun.  That didn’t guarantee it would be much help without pals, ones who wouldn’t wilt when the lead started flying.  I could trust Joe, Mike the Merc, and a skinny guy named Javier.  Javier had to dodge bullets everyday on his way to Cesar Chavez Elementary when he was growing up.  Any blast-a-thon would be like waiting for the school bus for him.  I wasn’t sure about Samoan Jeff, but I definitely didn’t trust Man Make-Up Daryl.

Although I appreciated Daryl’s ability to ‘roid rage at will, he wore pancake, for fuck’s sake.  He chemically sculpted his body with Deca-durabolin, Winstrol, and Test-250.  His face was fake-tanned and fabulously framed by a tinted coif.  He took it up a notch with mascara, eyeliner, and foundation.  The result was strange.  He looked like he was about to appear in a play, or an open casket.  “You put make-up on like a mortician,” I once told him, behind his back.  I was always nervous that someday he would save my life, and I’d have to explain how I owed it all to a preening narcissist.  In the meantime, I wouldn’t give him any reason to hesitate.

I had quit drinking by the time I started working at strip clubs in L.A., but I started again before I quit them.  No alcohol was served at the all-nude joints, but drama was served up in heaping helpings.  Whenever horny, lonely, desperate and frustrated men congregate to win the affection of drug-addled, wounded, bitchy, and manipulative women, the fun never stops.  It wasn’t always the girls I had to protect.  The guys were in just as much danger of being ripped-off or beaten up as the women.  A nasty, ugly vibe pulsates underneath all that gyrating g-string and strobe.  Bad Feng Shui, for sure.

I remember having to rescue an Asian businessman from one of our dancers.  He had expressed displeasure about some aspect of his lap dance. I suspect the price aspect. Suddenly, he found himself in an Adult Hentai action comic, with a long-legged stripper from Thailand, in latex boots, kicking his ass.  I must confess that I was hesitant to step in.  Lilly had become a whirling tornado of claws and kicks.  I don’t know if all stripper’s from Thailand know martial arts, but I encourage all men to assume it.  I got the guy outside, and didn’t know what to tell him.  He hardly spoke any English, so I just bowed, and said “So sorry for crazy action!”

Because I could do simple arithmetic, and didn’t drink or steal anymore, I quickly shot up the ladder to management.  That was at the club near LAX.  You know the place.  The one on Century, next to Carl’s Jr., with the big garish sign redundantly announcing “Nude Nudes.”  It had been there for ages, and every year the City Council had tried to get rid of it.  I remember seeing it when I was eight years old while driving by with my parents.  I asked my Mom what “nude” meant.  She explained it meant naked.  Naked ladies worked there, dancing for men who paid them money.

That flipped my lid.  I just couldn’t believe there was a building that contained a bunch of naked ladies dancing around, and in ten more years, I’d be allowed to go in there.  That is… if the world didn’t end by then.  I prayed every night that it wouldn’t.  It didn’t.  Thirty years later I was working in that building, oblivious to any nakedness, stressed to the max, praying every night for the world to end.  Go figure.

Being a manager was much worse than being a doorman.  Besides trying to keep an eye on all the cash, I had to make sure the dancers followed the rules, which was impossible for them.  If they could follow rules they wouldn’t have wound up there.  So if they could run any kind of game on you, they would run it, and they were good at it. You had to find an angle to make them want to listen to you, at least once in a while.  I found myself becoming a pimp, a strange mixture of intimacy and threat.  I had to listen sympathetically to their stories of domestic horror, give them a hug, then remind them if they weren’t on stage when ZZ Top came on, I would send them home.  That kind of stuff felt bad.

There was plenty of stuff to feel bad about while working at a strip club.  From seeing beautiful women swirl down the toilet drain of drugs and alcohol, to lonely men paying $40 a two-minute song, sometimes just to sit in a booth with a girl and talk.  Seriously.  No dry-humping or groping.  Some guys just wanted someone to talk to.  One paunchy little fudnick would buy ten songs in a row with this certain stripper.  They’d go off into a private lap dance booth, and when you’d peek in on them to make sure they weren’t doing anything too illegal, you’d see her sitting next to him, holding his hand while he told her about his day.  He would bring her flowers and trinkets, and probably convinced himself she was his girlfriend.  Brutal.

I guess the hardest part of seeing humanity at its saddest and seediest, is the haunting thought, that maybe you’re not that different.  It’s easy to feel superior at first.  What a whore!  What a loser!  But with any reflection at all you begin to ask yourself uncomfortable questions.  Have I ever sold myself out for money?  Have I ever taken advantage of someone?  Have I ever wanted someone so much that I became pathetic?

I read that they finally bulldozed the place.  The city finally scraped it off its shoe and put in a parking lot.  I can’t say it bummed me out.  I wasn’t eight years old anymore.

Thanksgiving in The Thunderdome

T-Bone threw a roundhouse kick which I partially blocked, but the force of which sent me crashing into my book shelves.  I laid there sprawled among the cinderblocks, two-by-fours, and paperbacks.  Marko stood by and gave a polite golf clap.  “Dude!” I yelled over to him, “Check the bird, it probably needs basting.”  Marko went to the kitchen, and T-Bone helped me up.  “Thanks bitch,” I said, then snapped a karate chop across his collar-bone.  His knees buckled a bit, but he managed to grab me and swing me into my other set of book shelves.  There was a full beer on them.  I hit my head on the wall, but saved the beer.  I held it up victoriously.  T-Bone laughed.

We had been going at it like that for hours.  Our Thanksgiving cage-match had become an epic tale of survival.  We were really mixing it up.  Sometimes we took turns beating on each other, other times we ganged up two on one.  Most of the time it was just every man for himself, but we always took time out to care for the wounded, get refills, and check on the turkey.  When we finally sat down to our traditional meal at 10:30 that night, I was holding a bag of frozen peas over my eye, T-Bone had toilet paper stuffed into a nostril, and Marko was going in and out of consciousness, his eyes rolled back to all white.  It was not exactly a Norman Rockwell image, but as homey as these homies were going to get.

My Thanksgivings have traditionally been untraditional.  There was the untraditional tradition of The Turkey Neck Dance.  It started out as an obscene improvisation, but turned into a much beloved and anticipated holiday rite.  I was never able to graft that old favorite onto the few normal people’s Thanksgivings I had the misfortune of attending. Try as I might.

Then there was the tradition of not eating until 10:30 pm.  Eating turkey too early is a major buzz-kill, and a drain on the beer budget.  Besides, every good host knows that hungry guests appreciate the food more. Starving and reeling drunks will eat anything you serve.  Overdone and dry, or undercooked and deadly, it doesn’t matter when they’re clawing at the bird carcass with their fingers.  They’re grateful, and isn’t that what this Puritan Hoe-Down Harvest Festival supposed to be all about?

I wouldn’t say I was ungrateful during those drunken Thanksgivings Past- I just had more to feel bad about.  I was grateful for the extra day off, and the football, and the slack that comes with a loafy holiday.  Holidays in general were nice because it was easier to blend my style of drinking into the agenda of the day.  Except for Easter.  Didn’t have too many rockin’ Easters.  They always seemed to land on Sunday.  Sundays were always hard.

Now my Thanksgivings are pretty low-key. These days I try to be grateful for more than one day a year.  It’s a survival issue at this point, not a cutesy sentiment.  If I get too pissy for too long, I might wind up pissy drunk, and that would be bad… for everyone.  So I try to see the glass half-full, which any alcoholic can see is not only half-empty, but an alarm bell for an emergency booze run.  The weird thing is, the more I try to see the glass half-full, the more it seems to fill up, and that there is a no-bullshit Thanksgiving miracle.

Follow the Bouncing Drunk

Santa Fe, 1994.

I like action and adventure, which is strange given the fact that I’m a craven coward.  Then again, I’m nothing but a walking-talking contradiction.  I find war documentaries soothing.  I want romantic devotion, but fear commitment.  I like being alone, but need people.  I couldn’t stop drinking because I couldn’t handle the life my drinking had created.  On and on.

Any shrink worth a $600 correspondence course degree could see that this need for action and adventure was compensation for the fact that even ordinary life scared the shit out of me.  I kept getting myself involved in scary situations with the belief that I would somehow use up all my scaredness.  After dodging threats to life and limb, I would somehow be able to walk out to the mailbox and face the bills head on.

Working as a bouncer seemed like a perfect job for me, not to mention ironic.  Many nights I had to throw people out for being drunk, knowing full well that I was even drunker.  Ah well, it was no use fretting over such small inconsistencies.  I had many bigger things to loathe about myself.  Besides, The Constitution gives bouncers the right to drink on the job.  It is referred to as the Amber Waves of Brave Amendment.  It was ratified around 1927.

If you’ve seen the movie “Roadhouse,” with Patrick Swayze, I feel sorry for you.  Terrible movie.  It’s also a howler when it comes to its depiction of what being a bouncer is all about.  “Be nice,” Swayze’s character pontificates, “…until it’s time not to be nice.”  Heavy shit, Master.  You mean pretend to be nice until you can set up the cheap shot, or until the cops finally show up.  Here was this dude throwing down martial arts moves on the dance floor, CHONG-HOW!  KUNG-POW!  In reality, you’re beating someone’s head in with a salt shaker while they bite into your groin.  Swayze throws fuckers all over the place, but never into an innocent girl who twists her leg and chips her tooth on the bar rail.  Real bar fighting is rarely trading punches.  It’s rolling around on the floor trying to push an ashtray into someone’s nose while getting your eyes scratched.  It’s messy and ugly, and the fun only starts when someone gets hurt.

I was okay at fighting.  Years of getting picked on had desensitized me to the whole concept.  A few years studying some practical techniques under the mighty Flores Brothers of Oxnard, CA, helped me become a little more pro-active.  Unfortunately, I was never able to delude myself into thinking I was the best.  I knew there were lots of guys out there better at fighting than me.  Would I run into them tonight?  For thirteen years I went to work with that dread.  Thank God for beer.  It does the trick whenever self-delusion is called for.  I can’t get hurt and humiliated tonight, because Zulu War Gods are guiding my every move.  I…am… Iron Boy!  So what if now and then Iron Boy brings his Maglite down on the wrong guy’s skull, or a stiletto heel kicked in his crotch takes away all his super powers?

Besides a few strip clubs in Los Angeles, most of my jobs were in Santa Fe. I worked a lot of different places, with various threat-levels.  Strangely, the scariest place was a tiny little sports lounge at a Ramada Inn. My only shift was Sunday night from 5pm to midnight.  Sounds kind of cozy, no?  Seems like a good starter bar for an apprentice bouncer.  How bad could it be?

The sacking of Rome seemed tranquil compared to the average Sunday night there.  First there was the fact that they featured One Dollar Draft Beers.  Ok, that was pretty much it.  Selling beer for a buck will turn any bar into a gladiator arena.  But, you also couldn’t buy alcohol at the store in New Mexico on Sundays back then, so any low-life that ran out would flock to where they could swill their slosh on the cheap.  Hell, that was why I was there when they offered me the job.

Bikers, drug-dealers, drunks, thugs, sleazoids, gang-bangers, and whores all flocked to the reasonable prices and good-natured sports rivalry we provided.  Occasionally a tourist would wander in from the hotel, look around, put a hand on his wallet or camera, and bolt.  By the time my shift started the natives had been drinking and getting torqued on football since 11am.  I was the only bouncer, and didn’t trust too many of the patrons to back me up.  I would sometimes pay my friend, Marko, in dollar draft beers to come in and sit for a few hours.

I remember one night two guys trying to kill each other by hurling billiard balls.  I don’t know if they both had played Little League or what, but they fast-balled those things at each other with anti-tank velocity.  Balls were slamming into glasses, bouncing off the cigarette machine, chipping out the tile floor, sending shrapnel everywhere.  I remember crouching by a table waiting for the thunder to stop.  Shit was breaking everywhere.  People were screaming and yelling.  I looked over and saw this guy I mentally referred to as “Mexican Harpo” crawling on his elbows and knees like he was on Omaha Beach, except he was smiling, and had two beers in his hands.  Fucker was using the commotion to cover him while he stole beers.  Curly black hair, grinning gold teeth, just giddy with delight, he raised his eyebrows at me as if to say, “Hey! Neat deal, huh?”

Usually I’d agree.  Mayhem delights me, except when by some strange twist of fate, I’m the one in charge of restoring order. I finally grabbed a large cardboard cut-out stand of some Bud-Lite Girls in bikinis, and used it as a shield.  (I didn’t want a nine ball in my right corner pocket)  I approached the two maniacs while barking commands, in my best SWAT Team voice, for them to cease and desist.  The fact that I was hiding behind paper booby girls surely reduced my Command Presence, but I was able to get to a pool cue.  Now with a shield and a lance, I was able to corral one of the dudes out the door. The other guy ran out after him, followed by all their friends.  I cleared the bar out, using the commotion to steal a few beers.

One day as I was getting ready to go to work my sister came up to me and begged me not to go.  She said she had a really bad feeling.  She would even pay for whatever I lost by calling in sick.  I’d been doing this shit for years by then, and she never been like that.  She smelled some kind of bad mojo. That was all I needed and called off.  The next morning on the bus to my day job, I ran into a cook from that bar.  He said I missed a wild night with two knife fights, and later a drive-by shooting.  When I came home later that evening  and walked past the place, I could see two bullet holes through the glass door, right by where I used to stand and check IDs.

There were a lot of close calls, and if Zulu War Gods weren’t exactly guiding my every move, something was looking out for me.  I feel bad that I pushed it.  I’m sorry I put my family through the worry.  I also imagine a very frantic Guardian Angel, all stressed-out about his gig–having to look out after my ass.  But, if I didn’t push it back then, I couldn’t let it all go now.  Now I can just be nice.  Besides, there are better ways to prove you’re a man, like going out to the mail box and facing the bills head on.

Crazy-Ass Sons of Bitches

Marko y Yo, bro.

I was sitting in jail one fine evening, thinking about stuff– mostly jail stuff, but also life stuff.  My thoughts weren’t exactly deep as Dostoevski’s, but they were deep enough to make me feel shitty.  I watched an electrician replace a thermostat in the booking office.  He joked around with a few of the guards, then packed up his tools and left.  Suddenly, I wanted to be an electrician, or anybody else that could leave.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again…there was the fact that I refused to heed loud warnings.  My buddy, Marko, deciding not to do something that I proposed should have been plenty loud.  He didn’t buckle under the yoke of reason easily.  So now I was in jail, and Marko was at home, finishing off all of my beers.  That was a bitter, bitter fact, but try getting any sympathy for your troubles in jail.  Anyway, that whole night is another story, for another time.  The main point is that even Marko thought it was a bad idea.

Marko and I never got into bad trouble when we were together.  This was incredible given the fact that we ran Full Bat-Shit Crazy for so long.  We reassured each other that it was okay to push it a little further.  If an idea came to us, well, it was obvious wasn’t it?  We had to answer the call.  We didn’t have much materially, but we could claim an expansive range of experiences.  We could walk like gods if we didn’t stop and ask “Why?”

We met when we were 16 and worked together at Denny’s.  Our bus boy and dishwashing shifts overlapped for an hour every Friday evening.  It didn’t take long to realize how much we had in common.  “Do you like to party?”  ” I’ve been known to.”  So it began.  One day I found a green pill when I was vacuuming.  I brought it back to the Marko who was elbow deep in club sandwich and patty melt remnants.  I asked him what he thought it was.  “There’s only one way to find out,” he said, and popped it into his mouth.  Holy shit.  Marko was the mad scientist and his own monster.  This was a man with an intrepid spirit of investigation and discovery.  He would go places.  That time, however, he only went to sleep, for 45 minutes during his 10 minute break.

Many years later, we continued to work together, mostly as laborers humping a jack hammer and tamper, but also scraping rocks with a pick and shovel.  Hungover like drunk-tank Indians, cursing, sweating, and puking together, we toiled at our version of The American Dream.  The work pretty much sucked year-round. We sweat beer out of our eyeballs in the summer, and ate frozen tuna sandwiches during the winter.  So much shared misery couldn’t help but create a special bond, and some rather anti-social behavior when it came time to “unwind.”

One night we went to Rodeo Nites, a local hay and oats joint.  Neither of us liked Country Western music, but since I worked there part-time as a bouncer, it would be easier to cage free drinks.  It was also a scientific fact that girls who liked Country Western were notorious sluts.  So were we.  Who cares about music anyway when you have so much else in common?  However, that night even the most desperate lady shit-kickers weren’t taking our bait.  That’s what kind of shape we were in.

At one point, Marko was trying to grind it into one of the cocktail waitresses we knew, with his version of The Lambada.  This was hardly appropriate.  Not only had that dance craze died four years earlier, but it wasn’t even Country Western.  Still no reason not to try reviving it with a busy (and slightly pissy) waitress.  Only the fact that I worked there saved us from getting our heads plowed into The Pillar of Shame.  Every bar I worked at had some version of this.  Some pole, wall, or door jam that you would accidentally smash someone into on their way out the door. You saved it for those deserving an extra little treat.  Our antics that night earned us enough for several treats, but my co-workers showed mercy.  Instead, we were asked to “Chill the fuck out,” and given a beer each. We nursed them for awhile, until we got too sleepy and decided to leave.

We walked around for a while looking for his car.  It was hard to find because it was a magical automobile.  It had the power of invisibility.  It was an Oldsmobile his father gave him when he bought a new car.  This was not a Public Enemy 98 Oldsmobile, but a Fuddy Duddy AARP Bonneville, or some shit.  This car said “Driver is a law-abiding, golf pants-wearing Republican, with premium insurance and a healthy fear of God.”  No satanic punk rock stickers on this Citizenmobile.  Nothing that would draw attention to or help witnesses identify.  It would even change color sometimes from blue to green, depending on the light. We once drove from New Mexico to California and back without getting arrested.

We finally found the car and buckled up.  Marko drove towards the exit, but saw it was taped off with yellow caution tape.  We would have to drive to the other exit, which was, oh… about 9 to 11 seconds out of our way.  Fuck that shit!  We had things to do. We were two Renaissance men on the move.  “Don’t fuck around, Dude, just go.” I told him.  “But it’s blocked,” he balked.  “Blocked by what?!  Thin plastic with the words “Caution” all over! Caution is for cowards. Caution is for the slaves that serve.”  I told him that driving through that tape would make us feel like we won a race.  “You want to feel like a winner don’t you?”

He floored it, and we broke through the tape.

He turned on to Cerrillos Rd., one of the main streets through town.  We drove just a few yards before we noticed the sparks.  Huge Roman candles worth of sparks shooting from both sides of the car.  The yellow plastic caution tape had concealed a steel cable behind it.  The cable was attached to two metal poles sunk into 5 gallon drums filled with concrete. These were now being dragged along beside us.  The Olds pulled at the cable caught in the teeth of its grille like a swerving shark, concrete and steel buoys battering its body. It was highly conspicuous.

A cop drove by going the other way.  Fuck.  This was unnerving even when really drunk.  We watched and waited for the u-turn, but it never came.  The cloak of invisibility held.  Just some good citizens taking some buckets of concrete out for a walk.  The car lurched into a gas station.  I remember laughing and laughing as the two of us struggled to pull the cable out.  “Why the fuck do I let you talk me into this kind of shit?” he asked, and then just yanked out the whole grille.  His dad would’ve been so proud to see how strong his son had become.  That made me laugh even more.  It was good to laugh.  It was good to be with good friends. It was good to unwind.