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.