I shave my bikini line along the ridge of my outer labia to catch all the stray hairs around my ass and thighs until it’s smooth and bare — careful not to slip. The last thing I need is to walk into a new strip club and piss off all the girls by getting blood on the pole.
It’s too hot for stripper makeup, but I pack it on anyway. My eyelashes slip off. My lipstick melts. I don’t have the money for eyelash extensions right now, so I sit in front of a fan and glue, press and blow.
My black roots show through my blonde hair making me look uncharacteristically trashy and rock ’n’ roll. My nails are chipped and painted black. I’ve got on a pink rhinestone’d bikini top underneath a faded vintage T-shirt. Most strip clubs require double bottoms, so I layer a white thicker G-string that we call a “T-bar” over a tinier pink one that’s frayed and falling apart. I then pull on over that my regular chonies.
My ass won’t stop sweating. Still, I’m street ready to peel out and pole dance. I hope they need girls tonight because I’m desperate to work. Worse yet, it’s summer, a notoriously shitty time for stripping and sex work. The reason why is fairly straightforward: All the dads take their kids and real wives on vacation, leaving us to sweat our rent while they frolic on the beach or bounce around Europe. The trick is to save some cash and squirrel it away for the hot slow days and stop spending like a rich stripper, but that, obviously, is easier said than done. Personally speaking, I’ve delayed my car payment for two months, but now my rent is late, too. (In the heat of the summer, my income plummets to less than half of what it is in January or February.)
Luckily, Monday is a good time to audition because it’s the slowest night of the week. Not that that calms my nerves completely. In fact, I keep packing and unpacking my stripper bag. I heard from a friend who works at this club that you have to cover your buns when on the floor due to nudity laws and zoning in L.A. that forbid touching and alcohol under one roof. (Every club operates differently regarding how they abide by or ignore zoning rules in their county.) The problem is that I don’t have any stripper gear that fully covers my ass. And I don’t know what the girls are wearing “in school” (i.e., the dance floor/playground) to navigate the bun issue.
I dump out my bag one last time and bring only one other costume change with me: a pink stripper skirt covered in black cats and matching bikini top. This decision saves both time and space in the dressing room.
When I arrive at the new club, a woman in a floral kimono with dirty, dark blonde hair tucked behind her ears is sitting outside on a bench smoking. Her legs are crossed. When I walk past her and open the wrong door, she laughs and says, “It’s that way,” pointing to a black door that’s harder to see. There’s something drunken and beautiful about her raspy voice and slow gestures. She nods at me like an old friend. Honestly, every strip club I’ve ever worked in begins this way: a black and red hidden entrance that provides admittance into a place of secrets.
Inside, the tiny manager’s office has no window or clock, but plenty of 1970s wood paneling and a brown, swivel office chair to match. A fiftysomething man glances at my license. I offer my social security card and my passport, too. “So prepared,” he says, and asks what shifts I’m looking for and what name I plan to use. The first three names I want are taken so I use my mother’s middle name: Rose. It’s probably my 20th stripper name. He writes a schedule in pencil while a cash machine nearby spits wrinkled singles into a black tray. He calls me “dear” as he tells me I can’t have the Tuesday dayshift because he’s got too many girls. He says I can work tonight as a closer. I’m relieved.
On the floor with my skirt covering my whole ass, I walk up to a large security guard with a grisly 1980s beard and bald head. He sings all the words to a Slayer tune. I tell him my new name. He writes it on a chalkboard. This means I’m on the rotation schedule. A few feet away, a smattering of guys nurse cheap draft beer at the bar with their chins on their fists, half asleep. There are three pool tables crowding the room and two small stages. A girl in a sparkling star bikini hangs upside down from the pole onstage.
Every customer I speak to declines lap dances. They tell me the new owners have installed cameras, so they say it’s no fun anymore and security scolds them the whole time for any touching whatsoever. Instead, one customer shows me pictures of some big fish he caught while camping in Mammoth recently. Two other men tell me they’re witches (or, as one says, “warlocks”). One says I can feel my mother’s energy if I follow his directions. Another man complains about his wife, who has carpal tunnel and extreme menstrual cramps. By the end of my shift, two more customers will inform me that they have small dicks.
I leave with an embarrassingly small amount of money for a stripper who is used to hustling hard and making bank. (I used to cry if I ever made less than 200 bucks in a night.) Back in the late 1990s when I was a baby stripper, I made fast money because of the economic landscape in the Bay Area (which is where I was located at the time). Business boomed, and all service providers cashed in. That said, there was still a seasonal financial flow that continues to this day: Christmas and Valentine’s Day were generally great, while Thanksgiving was depressing. Summer, of course, was always a bust.
Not that I grasped that at first. In the early days, whenever I didn’t make my nightly goal, I left the club feeling horrible about myself — convinced it was because I was a fat, ugly failure, instead of a downturn in the month or a slower season in general.
All of which led to some questionable decision-making. On one particularly slow night, a young customer gave me his hotel key and told me to come by his room, where I could make more money if I wanted to. I’d had an exceptionally shitty night and felt awful about it, so I decided to accept his invitation. I took a cab over to his hotel, and when I found his room, I knocked tentatively. When he opened the door, there were two other guys behind him, jumping up and down on the beds, like cranked-up teens. The customer was so surprised to see me, his whole body froze and his mouth fell open. I felt silly, like they were expecting a pizza, but it was me. I said nothing or maybe mumbled, “Nope” and left. Three very young guys were too scary. It was too risky, safety-wise.
Yet it still took years for me to understand that stripping is a seasonal, unpredictable and fickle job. Like gambling or bartending — much of my income is based on charming the right person who happens to have some spending cash and wants to spend it on a tattooed stripper with an MFA whose love language is debating.
Now, though, after 25 years of being a stripper/sex worker, I know that I’m not the sum total of my tips. I’m the same person whether I’m $300 overdrawn, or if I got the bag and left with a G. If anything, on my bad nights, I’ve found the most productive thing to do is celebrate the coworkers who are having great ones. That’s where real freedom happens — learning how to navigate the dead summer season without spilling blood or tears on the pole.