WHEN YOU FALL you have to land, preferably somewhere dimly lit and topless, where funny money is tossed like glitter and there is full contact lap dancing, loose rules and lots of tourism.
I flew to New Orleans with twelve bucks in my pocket. I wasn’t going to get arrested dancing topless on Bourbon Street.
“The weather’s ninety degrees with ninety percent humidity,” the stewardess announced on the plane. People moaned but I was ready to be wrapped in southern steam. Out of the airport, I was hit by heat. New Orleans is a sweaty pussy that sticks to your face, soaks into your skin and stays the night.
“Visions,” I said. Like hairdressers and keepers of the occult codes in New Orleans, the cab driver knew where to go.
Visions is twenty minutes from the airport, nowhere near the frenzy of Bourbon Street. The only things that far off Downman are some railroad tracks, a Domino’s Pizza, and a condemned liquor store. There are no billboards advertising Visions, just a sign on the building that reads, “Visions: where the locals go.”
From the outside, Visions looked like an abandoned warehouse storing dead bodies. A wire fence held back weeds and ivy but the vines pushed through the fence, crashing to the gravel below. A truck parked in the lot had a bumper sticker: “Nawlins. Proud to swim home.”
I stepped out of the cab with my rolling suitcase, duffel bag and computer, sticky from the air. Live oaks reached across the sky and dangled curvy shadows across the street. The rain stopped and the sun seared through the mist. I walked up cement stairs and entered.
It was dark as hell: a smoky dungeon promising spiders, tits, and beer.
My friend Christine worked here but not that night, so I had no pull. “Talk to the night manager, Rick,” she’d said. “He’s the nice guy.”
“I’m here to see Rick, to audition,” I said to a thin, pale guy with a big head and a limp. He crossed his arms and eyeballed my suitcase.
“He’s not here. And it’s Friday night so you can’t get on the schedule.”
I figured I wasn’t going to get hired: I was too fat, too old, and too tattooed. Still, he hesitated.
“Wait at the bar,” he said.
I rolled my luggage to a stool and watched the day shift girls change into the night shift.
In the deep, sleazy heat, I knew this was my world: a smoky place where the lonely hide and tough girls jiggle their butts. I dialed Mom’s number to hear her voice on the machine for luck. She’d been dead over six months, but her cheery hello remained on her answering machine. I could barely hear it over the music.
The topless girls dancing on the bar wore g-strings that were more like strategically placed threads. Meaty thighs wiggled to the rhythm of Jimmie Vaughan’s “Can’t Say No.” The rule was that guys had to tip if they sat at the bar, and they had to be drinking or they’d be asked to leave. A recorded male voice said so every few minutes, to remind customers and discourage squatters.
I was relieved to see the range of body types and the signature dead gazes came from girls floating on plastic heels. They were real girls with round hips, stretch marks and crooked smiles; their garters held stacks of green. They were making money. Maybe I could, too.
An hour passed. I was tired from the flight. My outfit wasn’t sexy and I had nowhere to stay. Christine was at Jazz Fest, not answering her phone.
The limper paced the club with his smirk. Guys like him have the power to reject the beautiful girls they couldn’t touch in high school. Managers of strip clubs were always cartoon versions of themselves, and I was a faded, tired version of myself.
Rick showed after all. He had the bleakness that only guys whose days begin and end in strip clubs understand. He waved me into an office the size of a bathtub where both managers stood in the dark.
“How’d you find out about this place, California?” Rick asked. There was a cash machine counting bills. It stopped at a hundred. It was loud as a hair dryer.
“Christina told me.”
“Show me your body.” I lifted up my shirt and removed my bra; pulled down my pants to my knees. He ran one hand over his greasy silver hair, and with the other he grabbed my ass and held it, sampling the flab there. It was ample.
“Are there any more tattoos or just your arms?”
“Just my arms.”
“You need day girls?” Rick asked the limper. “Naaah.” The limper shuffled papers. His eyes glowed in the shadows. The cash machine spat out bills. Red lights showed digital numbers and a click-click-click of plastic heels announced a blonde stripper, puffing on a cigarette. My eyes burned.
“Go downtown. Try Bourbon,” he said. They loved their hazing routine and were delighted to reject me. Nice guy Rick stuck a rubber band over a wad of cash. I pushed my boobs together and tilted my head to the side, begging. I had to convince them of my earning abilities. I needed one night shift to prove myself, but they didn’t care if I’d come from sucking off Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion, they didn’t want me at Visions.
I pulled up my jeans and fastened my bra. The limper laughed and shook his head. Rick checked his watch. My audition was over.
“Stick around for an hour and if I need girls, you can stay,” he said. I rolled my suitcase into the dressing room where naked girls barked into cell phones, slammed metal lockers, applied mascara, and smoked cigarettes. A drunk girl with black Cleopatra bangs collapsed on the floor. Her eyeballs rolled back in her head.
“My brother’s dead. Is my brother dead?” She said. A tiny redhead in a plaid skirt held her by the waist. “You’ve got to go home, sweetie,” she said to the girl, who tried to stand, but slid back down to the floor instead.
Rick appeared and walked over.
“Get dressed. You’re going home.” He reached in his back pocket for bolt cutters and opened her locker.
“My brother. Is he dead?” She stuck to the wall and didn’t let go.
The plaid skirt girl looked at me.
“Hand me her stuff.” I reached up to locker twenty-nine and grabbed her clothes.
There’s an unspoken bond among strippers. No matter what happened, if a dancer’s in trouble, the girls help, or mind their own business—whatever is needed.
We dressed her and someone called a cab. The other strippers went back to their glitter, body spray, lip gloss voodoo. I shoved my bag into locker twenty-nine and knew I’d found my tribe: a pirate society that understood itself. We were there for a singular purpose. If pressed, it was us against the world. Rick put the bolt cutters back in hi pocket and turned to me. He said, “Welcome to Visions.”
On the main floor, the cowboy sized me up like I
“How old are you, sweetheart?” “How old do you think?”
He held my jaw in his scratchy palm and moved it around to check my profile.
“Well, you’re not nineteen.” He crossed his arms over his belly that bounced as he laughed. “Most the girls here are twenty-three.” He stared hard at my face for an indication of my fossil stripper status.
“And most of them are lying to you,” I said. Most of them had husbands or boyfriends, three kids at home with a sitter, and had danced on this very bar for ten years. They had wrinkles, an eighth-grade education and crooked teeth, which is exactly what I loved about Visions—it was the creamed corn of strip clubs and I fit in. I looked country, as long as I covered my tattoos and shut my mouth about my post-graduate studies.
The cowboy guzzled a Bud Light and squinted at me through smoke. I was teetering towards geriatric stripper, and I wondered if he knew it. I grinned at him anyway, because after a couple drinks he wouldn’t give a shit. He’d get a few dances and I’d leave with a stack of twenties.
“You’d be correct in guessing I’m not nineteen,” I sassed, sipping a Diet Coke. “I just turned thirty-three, and am fast approaching my sexual prime. You should invest now while you still have a chance.” I slapped my ass to punctuate. I could really do with about five hundred
How old are you? The age stigma didn’t apply to guys—a thing that made me want to pour my Diet Coke on his lap, instead of grind on it. His cigar smoke surrounded us when I moved close enough to see his face. He could’ve been anywhere between forty and fifty- five. Southern men age faster than California men. They eat fried catfish and pralines, skip gym memberships and go fishing. They smoke nonstop, which adds lines to their fat faces. I eyeball a biscuit and my thighs expand. I smell a cupcake and it adds an inch to my middle. Next time around, I want to be a tall, skinny man with the metabolism of a whippet. My mom, the expert baker, taught me how to worship sugar. I begged to lick her cookie dough bowls the minute I could talk. I couldn’t shovel sugar into my mouth fast enough.
When her body shriveled from the first cancer, I started running on the treadmill. The treadmill was the place my rage could pummel the ground without hurting anyone. I ran from cancer.
“How many kids you got?” Asked the cowboy. “None.” I shook my head. Time felt like peanut
butter in Visions. I played like I was relaxed and just hung out while mentally counting songs and strategizing the best moment to bring up business. This wasn’t it.
I’d wait until he finished Bud Light number two. Zoey was onstage. A skinny blonde thing in pigtails, knee socks and a white skirt. She danced to Bonnie Raitt. Unlike the clubs on Bourbon Street that insisted
on upbeat top forty bullshit, like Kings of Leon and Lady
fucking Gaga, we could play whatever music we wanted at Visions. At Visions, we got to be edgy. I stripped to everything from Skinny Puppy to Ike Turner. The cowboy gulped down a second beer.
“You eat Zapp’s potato chips?” He asked. “Why? Do I smell like onion dip?”
He chuckled. One of his arms wrapped around my hip. “I guess it’s your lucky night,” he said. It certainly
was. Considering the quality of conversation and the fact that I didn’t have a shotgun within reach, it was a lucky night for both of us.
“I think they have some of those chips in the vending machine. You want some?”
I glanced across the room. Next to the poker slots, where two men chain-smoked, the vending machine was sitting swathed in yellow-green light.
“No need. You’re looking at the creator of Zapp’s potato chips.” He puffed up his chest like a rooster.
“No kidding,” I grinned wide and squelched an impulse to smash his beer bottle into my forehead. “Well, Mister Zapp, let’s get better acquainted.” I pointed to the VIP lap dancing area, where I could finally extract some dough. “I just got married, and I love pussy,” he said. Strutting like a rooster he followed me into the room where I straddled him and offered my boobs, like M&M’s for his open mouth.
“You should move into my trailer,” he offered. I
considered this proposal carefully, imagining a grubby trailer with gingham curtains lodged in a marsh.
“Does it have Wi-Fi?”
Christina let me crash at her place in Algiers Point that she rented from a redheaded bartender at a famous bar on Bourbon Street. She introduced me to the redhead’s family and I ended up renting the place by the week while she stayed at her boyfriend’s place uptown. Her pad not only had Wi-Fi but a Chi Machine: a funny plastic machine that plugged into the wall and wiggled my ankles for a timed five minutes. Mom would’ve loved the Chi Machine. It was hypnotic, relaxing, and soothing for my lower back. My body may have wanted to be fat but, like any retirement-aged athlete, I followed a strict diet and exercise regime that involved lifting weights and soaking in bags upon bags of Epsom salts, while depriving myself of sugar. I thought about Mr. Zapp barging into the place and expecting payment worthy of rent. “I’ve got a place already.”
I stood on the sticky red vinyl couch riddled with holes from spiked heels, my pussy inches from the cowboy’s face. His loneliness collided with mine. It made me sick, but felt like the best thing in the world.
He was the first in a string of big southern kahunas that talked to me about their jobs and golf games, tweaked my nipples, tried to stick their fingers in my pussy, and spent hundreds of dollars on my body. Every night I danced at Visions, I cleared anywhere from three hundred to a thousand bucks. The better I got at hustling dances, the more I noticed my boundaries slide.
I made customers think I was invested in them, that I was accessible. And I was. That part of me that allowed them to get smitten for twenty minutes or an hour was happy and free. Sometimes, I let them camp out inside the hole Mom left. But after they left Visions I made them disappear by dialing my answering machine, listening for the comfort of her voice: “They’re trying to kill me. I have to get out of here. You should come get me out of here.”
In Algiers, I ran along the levy—the one that didn’t burst during Katrina, while cicadas buzzed in the river. The humidity was heavy and hot. My pace slowed but, dripping with sweat, I watched boats gliding on the surface of the Mississippi knowing Mom would’ve loved Algiers Point.
A version of Locker 29 first appeared in Rumpus Women Volume I. This was an excerpt from “Spent,” a Memoir.