Issue #15, 2000

Notes from the Catwalk

Elissa Wald

Notes from the Catwalk

I have worked as a stripper off and on for the last four years, mostly off for the last two, but recently I’ve returned. This latest stint began in December, and I told myself it would end with 1997—four weeks max, in and out; I would get that fast-flowing holiday cash and get out. New Year’s came and New Year’s went, and I’m still at it, an admission that brings me as much perverse pride as shame. Each return inspires a barnyard chorus of friends and family, people who care about me: "This is b-a-a-a-d." I don’t disagree with them, but it’s not that simple. I believe that most of us have our "netherlands"—subterranean places we visit to tap into our own pathology, resilience and despair. The strip joint is an arena where I confront much of my own. I hope it will soon exhaust what it has to show me, but it hasn’t yet.

I return during low points of my life, drawn like a child to what glitters instead of holding out for the warm and solid gold. I need the attention, the affection, the adulation. And the objectification and brutality just underneath? The strip joint is a sadomasochistic place, and sadomasochism is at the core of all my writing; it’s the lens through which I see the world. For this reason, the job is endlessly interesting to me.

There is an immediate change in lifestyle. I spend money: on gourmet coffee, luxurious bath products, taxis, take-out deliveries, a new coat. Walking past storefront windows, I feel as if the world has opened back up to me. If I’m at the grocery store, I don’t have to agonize over whether I can afford the imported tomatoes. If I’m going to a party, I bring a bottle of good liquor and a dozen roses for the hostess.

I sleep a good part of the day and stay up all night, often well beyond the end of the night’s work. My shift ends at four in the morning, and why stop there? I’ll go to The Hellfire Club—an after-hours S&M establishment—for a free and thorough foot massage, and then to breakfast with strangers. There is a heightened sense of adventure, abandon, unreality. Day turns into night turns into next day ... I crash and then it’s time to do it again.

I work in a club I’ll call The Catwalk. It’s in midtown, a few blocks northwest of Times Square. Sometimes on my way to work, I imagine I’m an actress, or maybe a real dancer, who’s gone too long between successful auditions. I walk past 42nd Street, under the big-time billboards, past the Broadway shows, then the off-Broadway shows, and finally into the strip club.

There is a bodily consolation in the entrance, that blast of heat as I come in from the cold (as Stephen Dunn put it, "What fools the body more than warmth?"). Too, the music at the door is like a wave that flattens all thought, washes it away. I am never without gratitude for its mindless, insistent rhythm; I become part of its pulse almost instantly. It pulls me out of myself and into Jo-Jo, my stripping persona.

The strip joint has a carnival atmosphere: seedy, raucous, lusty. The dee-jay natters on like a barker all night long, calling girls to the stage, pushing the Champagne Lounge, casually insulting the customers ("Hey guys, do you remember your first blow job? How did it taste? Har!"). There is even a freak show element: the feature performers with their engorged silicone breasts, boasting measurements like 101, 24, 36; who dance with snakes, fellate foot-long sausages, and the like.

A few words about how the place works:

The club does not pay the dancers to work there. The dancers pay the club: thirty dollars to the house, a ten-dollar minimum tip-out to the dee-jay (double that if you want to be on his good side—and believe me, you do) and at least seven dollars to the housemother. All in all, including the taxi home, girls drop an average of $75 a night to work in a club like The Catwalk, relying solely on the customers to make it back and more.

Dancers rotate on stage as called by the dee-jay. Each stage set is three songs; girls strip down to a g-string and heels by the end of the first. Between stage sets, the dancers circulate on the floor and attempt to sell private dances to customers at $10 a song. The girls are topless during these private dances, which consist mostly of teasing a man into a frenzy. At the height of frustration, some men will elect to visit The Champagne Lounge, a room upstairs where a customer can take his favorite girl. The Champagne Lounge is the ultimate scam. The hourly rate starts at $300, and this entitles the patron to exclusive time with the dancer of his choice and a bottle of champagne. Nothing special happens in there, though many customers imagine otherwise. I don’t pretend to understand why anyone pays for it, when they can open the Yellow Pages and find an escort for half the price. But dozens of men put their hundreds down every night and it’s not unusual for them to buy more hours when the first one is up.

The Champagne Lounge is the strangest aspect of a very strange place. Here is a man I don’t know, and I’m climbing into his lap, and he’s cradling me. Sometimes this is all they want, and once in a while when I’m in the midst of such an encounter, everything falls away and I no longer remember how I got there. Only: he’s hurting and I’m hurting and we’re clinging to each other for this hour out of life. His arms are around me, strong male arms. My cheek is resting against the starched whiteness of his shirt. He rocks me, croons to me. This happens. I close my eyes and I am held. This is all I know; at this moment, all I need to know. All I need.

Each shift is something like an egg hunt. We’re turned loose for the night at 8:00, and we convene in the dressing room again at 4:00 a.m., each girl with a different amount of money, bounty, depending on her calculations and effort and luck. The money is not discussed except in the vaguest of terms:

"How’d you do tonight?"

"Oh, I did all right. You?"

Strip joint managers run a tight ship. The dress code is non-negotiable. G-strings must be opaque, heels a minimum of four inches high. The only agony to match dancing in those stilettos for eight hours is the moment they come off: the effort to re-adjust to being flat-footed. (In this respect, they resemble tit clamps—the hot insistent bite while they’re on; the excruciating rush of blood back into the nipple when they’re removed.)

Tattoos must be covered; bodily piercings stripped of all jewelry; legs, armpits, and the bikini area kept clean-shaven or waxed. Garters are required, and each girl is expected to have several different costumes.

Dancers are not allowed to talk to each other while onstage. ("And I don’t care what you’re talkin’ about. Just don’t do it. Even if you’re just tellin’ another girl her tampon string’s hangin’ out. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, and I’ll make sure you get a five-song set.") Five-song sets are one way to torture a dancer. The stage is intended as a showcase, and the time spent up there is generally compensated with only single-dollar tips. The real money comes from working the floor, so extra time on stage is to be avoided at all costs.

More serious infractions are fined: $25 if your stockings have a run, $50 for lateness, $100 for missing a night of work regardless of the reason, $500 for missing work on a holiday, like Christmas Eve. Payment is exacted for absences without exception. Illnesses, a death in the family, emergencies of any kind cut no ice with the management. In this respect, the job is like the military. There is only one acceptable response after going AWOL: No excuse, sir, there is no excuse.

As a result, dancers drag themselves to work even when they’re very sick. Recently I worked with the flu. My throat was sore, my voice nearly gone. To be heard at the club you have to shout above the music, and since I didn’t want to do that, I had an inspiration: I would pretend to be mute. All night I indicated with hand signals, to men I hadn’t met before, that I couldn’t speak. Afterward, when I got home, I realized I’d made more money than ever before.

The Catwalk is a place where I can go up to a man I’ve never seen or spoken to, take his face in my hands, and say, How beautiful you are. It’s a place one can touch and be touched. There is an easy physical intimacy between strangers, an immediacy to each encounter. I trace scars, asking, "What happened here?" I smooth hair back from foreheads and loosen ties. I knead muscles, telling every single customer: "You work too hard."

"I know," they respond, to a man.

The strip joint is supposed to be about fantasy, but sometimes it seems to be about the bare bones of reality. The veil that hangs between the sexes on the outside—the guarded gaze, the pretended disinterest—is lifted; the men in their naked desire often seem more exposed than the women. Once I was in conversation with a customer whose friends were impatient to leave. We were seated at a table and his companions kept glancing pointedly at their watches. He ignored them. Finally one of them tugged at his sleeve.

"Tom, come on, look at the time. We gotta go, man."

He barely looked up. "Go ahead without me."

"What! You’re not coming? You can’t be serious."

Finally he turned to his friend with an incredulous glare, as if he couldn’t believe he was being interrupted. "Come on, man, what’s with you? Can’t you see I’m talking to a female?"

I was on the side stage the other night—a little caged-in platform by the bar—when a kid of about twenty-five came up to me.

"Do you remember me?" he asked. "It’s Frank, from the Dollhouse."

The Dollhouse was the first place I ever danced. I hadn’t seen him in years, since the beginning of my go-go career, and while he did look vaguely familiar, I wouldn’t have been able to recall his name.

"Frank!" I said. "Great to see you. It’s been a long time! What are you doing these days?"

Sometimes I am still overcome by the surreal nature of such a situation: I am nearly naked, in a cage, striking up casual conversation with a fully clothed boy just beyond the bars.

"I’m a cop now," he told me.

"A cop?"

"Yeah."

"In the N.Y.P.D.?"

"Yeah."

"Really," I said. "Are you packing tonight?"

He nodded, then offered shyly, "Want to feel my gun?"

Of course I did. It was at the small of his back and I reached around and stroked it. It was an arousing moment, seeming as primal, as quintessential a male-female exchange as the rest of what goes on in there. We might have been a small boy and girl in that age-old transaction: "I’ll show you mine if ... "

Just minutes ago, I’d asked a guy in a cowboy hat, "Are you a cowboy?"

"No," he answered.

"An outlaw?"

He shook his head.

"What then?"

"A photographer," he told me.

"Well, I was warm," I said. "Think about it: a cowboy, an outlaw and a photographer. What do all of you have in common? You all shoot!"

He answered, "I think all men have that in common."

He was much cleverer than I was, and he wasn’t even trying.

I’d rather strip than waitress, or temp, or work as a receptionist. I’ve done all of the above and found them equally degrading, far less lucrative, and not nearly as interesting. Stripping brings me into contact with women and men from all walks of life. Some of the dancers are single mothers. Some are putting themselves through school or pursuing an artistic career. Others are just indulging expensive habits and a few are hustlers and junkies. The men are equally diverse. Stockbrokers come in and so do construction workers. There are the stereotypical dirty old men, and there are fresh-faced boys in for bachelor parties. I have dozens of conversations a night. It is unusual for an hour to go by in which I don’t learn something new.

The stage names the girls choose for themselves have such fire and color, such a poignant and hopeful poetry: Ambrosia. Blaze. Clementine. Delicia. Electra. Fantasia. Gypsy. Harlowe. Isis. Jade. Keiko. Lolita. Magdalene. Nikki. Odessa. Precious. Queenie. Ruby. Sapphire. Tabitha. Una. Vixen. Wanda. Xiola. Yasmine. Zora.

The job allows me to wear costumes and accoutrements I would seldom have a chance to indulge in otherwise: elbow-length gloves, thigh-high boots, feather boas, sequins, long velvet gowns that lace up the front. It is the stuff of old-time movies, of vaudeville. I even went through a phase where I wore a pair of angel’s wings.

I dress like a sanitation worker much of the time when I’m not at work. I go out in shapeless, oversized clothing, hair pulled back into a slovenly knot, little or no make-up. Part of it is exhaustion, the desire to be comfortable and warm after so many hours in spiked heels and a thong. Part of it is wanting a respite from male appraisal.

I like dancing for the customers most of the other girls are afraid to approach: dwarves, amputees, men in wheelchairs. When they come into the club, I’m across the room like a shot. Once I danced for a guy with a very unfortunate birthmark: a dark splotch, almost perfectly round, directly in the middle of his face like a bull’s eye. To me, he automatically had an edge on everyone else, the power that would come from walking around thus marked all his life. He had endured and by now, I could only assume, had the strength and stamina only such a person could possess. I wanted to rub up against him, in the hope that some of it would rub off on me.

The girls take care of each other. An outsider might imagine that the strip joint is an atmosphere that fosters competition, jealousy, back-stabbing. But every dancer I’ve encountered seems to share the conviction that it’s Us against Them. It’s a tight sisterhood, and all of us call the housemother—the woman who oversees the dressing room, who provides aspirin and tampons and will fix a torn piece of clothing in a pinch—"Mom."

The other night while I was onstage, I had some words with a customer. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke directly in my face. I countered by spitting into his. The roar that went up from the sidelines was like the sound in a stadium when the home team scores. All the girls in the house, it seemed, had erupted in savage joy: Yeah, Jo-Jo! You go, girl! My immediate rush of pleasure was soon replaced by fear as I waited for him to report me to the management. He left instead, slunk out the door, and I realized it was the reaction of the girls that had most likely saved me. He must have perceived the atmosphere as too hostile to stay another minute.

Another illustration: one recent night after work, there were no cabs outside the club. I began trudging toward the nearest avenue—Ninth—but when I got there, no cars were in sight. It was 4:15 in the morning, sleet was coming down hard, and I was alone in the middle of midtown with all that money. Somewhat anxious now, I began straining for a lit storefront, an open bodega to wait by, when a cab came around the corner and stopped. The back door opened and a female voice summoned me from the interior. "Jo-Jo! What are you doing out here alone? Get in!"

I approached the car and saw Serena, one of the other dancers, in the backseat. "Oh, Serena, hi," I said. I was slightly bewildered. "I live down on Avenue D, do we... do we live in the same direction?"

"It doesn’t matter," she said. "Just get in."

One night I was dancing for a guy right next to the stage, and the girl who was on it leaned toward me. We kissed wordlessly above the man’s head, as if by some pre-arranged choreography. I’d never seen her before, didn’t know even her stage name; in fact I still don’t.

When you’re out in the daytime and you see another dancer on the street, you don’t always acknowledge each other. Your eyes will meet, and often there will be an almost imperceptible shake of the head, an indication that you shouldn’t approach. Maybe she’s with family, or a guy who doesn’t know what she does. And even if she can think fast enough to invent another context for knowing you, the two of you probably don’t know each other’s real names. You don’t want to unthinkingly say, "Hey, Bambi," or "Amber," or "Gemini," or "Venus." So it’s best to not even speak to each other; you’ll see her later, maybe even tonight. Still, there’s an excitement in this silent communique, a sense of two spies exchanging signals in enemy territory.

A variation on this theme takes place when the Gaiety boys come into the club. The Gaiety is a gay male strip bar just a block and a half away, and a lot of the male dancers there are straight. They come to The Catwalk between their own stage sets as an antidote to the predatory male energy directed at them all night. The Gaiety boys are as good as it gets, as far as Catwalk clientele: they’re clean, smooth, gorgeous, muscle-bound, and loaded. The condescension so prevalent in most of the customers is wholly absent in them. Their attitude is: We know exactly what you’re dealing with in here; you are our sisters in slavery; let’s just help each other through it in any way we can. They pay $20 to $50 for a dance. They come back at four a.m. to take you to breakfast. You compare notes over eggs and toast. They understand every single thing you say.

When I’m not having breakfast with a male counterpart, or any of the other girls, I often go alone. As a rule I don’t eat for several hours before work, and then I dance for eight hours straight. At four a.m. I’m wired and ravenous, and there’s an all-night diner around the corner. At that time it’s nearly deserted, and arriving there is like walking into an Edward Hopper painting. There is something satisfying in the wan quiet. I have a sense of a lull in the action, of a space between the night’s work and the average person’s morning. It’s an empty pocket and I’m in it, bone-tired and anonymous and cozy. I feel all alone in the world but right now it feels good instead of bad. I scribble notes on the napkins and paper placemats. I order comfort food: a baked potato, a cup of soup.

A customer—I’ll call him Al—taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. I’d danced for him several times when he invited me to come to the restaurant he owned, an upscale grill in Soho. Several weeks later, I did go in there, and while my friend and I waited to be seated, Al walked by several different times. He kept glancing at me with a puzzled expression, as if to say, "I know I’ve seen you before, but where?" I thought it better not to enlighten him, surrounded as he was by his staff, and the evening passed without a word exchanged between us.

About a week later, he was back in The Catwalk. I went over to him.

"Hey, Al," I said. "I took you up on your invitation and came into the restaurant last week. But I guess you didn’t recognize me with clothes on."

"That was you!" he exclaimed. "That was driving me crazy, I knew I knew you, but for the life of me I couldn’t place you."

"Yeah, well, I could see that," I said. "But of course I didn’t want to say anything in front of your employees."

"Why not?" he wanted to know.

"Oh," I said, startled. "You mean, it would have been okay?"

"Well, I’m here ... right?" he said, " ... so it has to be okay."

Said so simply, yet it struck like lightning, left me open-mouthed in amazement. I’m doing it, so it has to be all right. I never lied about my job again.

The manager can walk into the girls’ locker room at any time without knocking. The Champagne Lounge host, the dee-jay, and the janitor have to knock, and will wait outside until everyone is "decent." The half-nakedness outside in the club—exhibited from the stage, revealed by degrees, washed in neon and bared against music—acquires the siren pull of eroticism; whereas our total nudity in the dressing room, under the cheap fluorescent tube lighting, is no more exciting than the bodies of livestock in a pen.

A scene from my second year in the business:

It was fifteen minutes before the night shift would begin, and there were perhaps two dozen girls in the locker room when Randall, the manager, strode in, dragging Maggie by the upper arm. Maggie worked the middle shift, from 5:00 p.m. till 1:00 in the morning. She was a rail-thin, statuesque blonde, on this evening decidedly glaze-eyed. Randall was in a barely contained rage.

"Maggie, you’re gone. Get dressed and get out."

"Randall!" she said wildly. "What did I do?!"

"If you’re not out of here of your own accord in exactly ten minutes, I’m throwing your ass in the street, and I don’t care if you’re butt naked. If you don’t believe that, keep trying to talk to me."

Maggie was crying now, her tears mascara-black. She moved, sniffling and unsteady, to her locker and began to get dressed.

Randall addressed the rest of us. "For the information of everyone else, Maggie has just been fired for doing cocaine in this club. You just have to look at her to see she’s fucked up. She wasn’t fucked up when she got here at five o’clock. But she’s fucked up now. What does that mean? It means she’s fucking up on my time. In my space!"

Maggie tried to cut in. "Randall, I’m—"

"Eight minutes and counting, Maggie." He paused. "You girls have tried my patience to the limit. Every night I reiterate my warnings about the plainclothes pigs crawling all over this place. If you think I’m going to get closed down because of your indiscretion, you’d better think again." He opened the door of the dressing room and called out to George, the janitor. "George! Come in here."

George entered.

"George, the girls are at the nose candy again," Randall told him. "They have to be sniffing their lines in the bathroom, because those are the only closed doors they have to hide behind. So I want you to go get your crowbar and take the bathroom doors off their hinges."

"Yes, sir," George said. He went out again.

There was a stunned silence in the dressing room. Finally Diamond broke it. "The bathroom doors are coming off? Permanently?"

"You heard right."

"Then I’m quitting," she said. "I’m sorry, I can’t deal with that."

"Goodbye," Randall said. He looked around. "Anyone else who shares Diamond’s point of view is free to check out of this job right now."

"I’m with her," Mercedes said. "This is supposed to be a club, not a prison."

"Nice knowing you," Randall said. "Anyone else?"

Silence.

"The rest of you, be ready to start at eight as usual."

The atmosphere in the dressing room had been altered. There was a general air of resignation and defeat. Above the lowered heads and averted eyes, I met Randall’s gaze. I stared at him in a kind of daze and as he stared straight back at me I felt the heat rushing to my face. His recognition of my arousal intensified it, made it almost painful. The music from outside the door seemed to become more audible as we locked eyes.

There were a handful of such moments while Randall was the manager, unsettling moments: the slow burn, some unspeakable exchange that never even attempted to find words, a secret betrayal of my rightful allegiances. Another one came a few weeks later. I was working the room, circulating on the main floor, and as I walked by the leather sofas that line the back wall, a man touched my arm. "You. Are you available for a private dance?"

"Of course I am." I smiled. "I’m Jo-Jo. And you are?"

"Jo-Jo, I’m John. And this," he indicated the kid beside him, a boy of about eighteen, "is my young friend Ben. I’m kind of showing him the ropes." He winked at me as he took $20 from his wallet and slid it into my garter. "So I’d like you to dance for him."

"John, it would be my pleasure," I said. I moved to the boy, invaded the space between his knees, and began slowly stripping off my dress.

"Touch her," John said to him.

Ben shot his older friend a nervous glance. His hands stayed at his sides.

"Go on," John repeated. "Touch her."

"I thought the guys aren’t allowed to touch the dancers," Ben said.

John reached out and ran a possessive hand up my flank. I closed my eyes.

"Look at her," I heard John say. "Is she all upset? Is she yelling for a bouncer?" He caressed me further, moving his hand to the inside of my thigh. I felt my breathing become rapid and shallow.

"See?" John went on. "She wants it. She wants you to touch her. She’s a woman, she needs it. Go ahead. Put your hands on her."

Ben tentatively put his hand on my other leg. The two men stroked me simultaneously: John as an owner would stroke a pet, Ben with tremulous disbelief. I shivered in a genuine response. Suddenly Jimmy, the bouncer, materialized. He grabbed John’s wrist in his formidable grip. Ben snatched his hand away.

"What the fuck do you think you’re doing?" Jimmy growled. He squeezed the other man’s wrist in his fist.

"Ah—don’t—" John gasped.

"You picked the wrong girl, scumbag. Naw, scratch that; you ain’t allowed to touch any of the girls. But especially not Randall’s girl."

This was the first time I heard someone articulate what I thought was my own private knowledge, the most subtle understanding.

Jimmy gave the man’s wrist a vicious twist before releasing it. "Now you got thirty seconds to get the fuck out of here."

John and Ben scrambled up and scurried out of the club. I pulled my dress back on, not looking at Jimmy. My face was burning, my body too.

"Jo-Jo," Jimmy said. "Whaddaya doin’. Whaddaya fuckin’ thinkin’?"

I couldn’t look at him.

"Randall wants to talk to you," Jimmy said. "He said to send you to his office."

Randall’s office was in the basement. He was behind his desk when I entered. He indicated that I should sit across from him and he passed one hand wearily over his eyes before speaking.

"What are you trying to do, Jo-Jo?" he asked. "I don’t believe what I just saw with my own eyes." He paused. "The middle of the floor! Two scumbags! Their paws all over you! And you panting and squirming like a bitch in heat."

"I’m sorry, Randall."

"You think this is a joke? Think I’m playing with you?"

"No..."

"You think I won’t fire you?"

I was silent, staring at the cluttered surface of the desk. But I thought, Yes. Yes, I do think you won’t fire me.

"This is my last warning to you," he said finally. "If you provoke me one more time, you’re out of here."

"I won’t," I said. "I’m sorry. Thank you."

Did I love Randall? I did love him a little. It pains me to admit this.

Randall was a long time ago. After he left, Richie became the manager, and after Richie it was Johnny, and now it’s Anthony. I never felt anything for any of the others. I don’t know where Randall is now.

The terrible and redemptive aspects of the business will balance each other out for some time before the whole proposition begins to turn like milk. Sooner or later, for every dancer, the time comes when you can’t swallow it any more. Looking back on all the times I’ve left, I can’t really pinpoint what in particular, if anything, finally made me walk. Maybe it was the sight of Angel, a feverish dancer trying to sleep between stage sets, curled by the locker room radiator in her pink bikini, lying on the bare linoleum. Maybe it was the man who threw his single dollar bills one by one onto the stage floor, so we would have to bend over to get them.

As for this time around, not long ago I went to work a few hours after putting my cat to sleep. The cat was old and very sick, but I was heartbroken and unable to check my grief at the door.

"Whatsa matter, Jo-Jo," the Champagne Lounge Host wanted to know. "Why such a sad face?"

"My cat died this afternoon," I told him.

Incredibly, his doughy face creased into a grin. "Aw look, honey, don’t take it too hard," he guffawed. "As long as your other pussy’s holding up."

Yes, the job can make you hate men.

"Laying and paying," is a phrase you hear repeated like a mantra in the locker room. "That’s all they’re good for. Laying. And paying."

As if it’s a point of pride that the exploitation is mutual.

Yes, the job can make you hate yourself. Because you’re holding up the other half of that transaction, perpetuating it night after night after night of your life.

There are tell-tale signs of when a dancer is on her way out: arriving at work five minutes prior to the beginning of a shift, instead of the half-hour needed to get ready; drinking too early; passing most of the night at the bar; crying onstage. For myself, I know the jig is almost up when I come out of the dressing room and instead of trying to identify the man most likely to spend a lot of money, I look for someone I think I can stand to talk to. This is the wrong attitude.

Last night the ache was upon me and I kept searching for, seizing upon, any man who might alleviate some small part of it. I walked around the club in several desperate circles, scanning the crowd for someone who seemed strong, smart, competent, gentle, kind. There was no one like that anywhere.

Once again, it’s almost time to go.

Author Bio

Elissa Wald

Elissa Wald is a writer, ex-stripper, and long distance runner living in New York City. She is the author of the collection Meeting the... read more

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