As students scramble to register for fall classes, us alumni scramble to make ends meet. When I walked across the stage for commencement and shook hands with the Portland State University Liberal Arts Dean at the Moda Center in June, I had no idea I’d prance across a seedier stage in a forlorn strip club and shake my ass on the pole not two months later. Thanks, college.
My freshly printed B.A. in English hasn’t landed me a stable job, yet. After a ten-year hiatus, I never thought I’d strip again, but I’m so glad it’s an option. Lucky for me, I’ve always been a graduate of ghetto booty. Thanks, ancestors.
Reality showed me that a degree and professional experience wasn’t going to land me a solid gig right out of college. But I wasn’t going to let life piss on my parade. I lived off of savings and kept looking for media work. I had a few side gigs, a few false promises, but nothing stuck. I started go-go dancing with my clothes on and that opened me up to the idea of stripping again. But it took a different catalyst to push me toward the black light district—vanity and the desperate need for financial stability.
After a conversation with a dude I admire who asked me what I did for money, and I listed all my freelance gigs and other prospective jobs that continue to linger in limbo, I decided it was time to stack real paper again. Before I lost the gumption and let anxiety change my mind, I went home and messaged a woman I know on Facebook and told her I wanted to dance at a club that wasn’t popular so I wouldn’t run into anyone I know, a place where I didn’t have to be an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, and somewhere I wouldn’t be surrounded by pristine 20-somethings who would make me feel older than I did in college. She recommended the perfect place—and, no, I’m not going to reveal it here.
The booking agent at the suggested club wore a Mr. Bungle shirt and combat boots with one-inch spikes in the eyelets, so I took that as a good sign. The bartender’s red curls and freckled cheeks jogged my memory. She happened to be a woman I worked with 16 years ago at another club. She poured me a diet Coke. We reminisced. The carpet design glowed in a neon rainbow, and the blonde lady on stage greeted me with a face-full of soft titties when I left a couple of dollars on her rack. I didn’t have to audition, and I scheduled to work for the week.
The first thing I noticed when I came out of stripper retirement was how much the industry has changed since I danced from 1999 to 2006. Men no longer insult me about my tattoos—they’re intrigued, and tip really well because of them. I’ve officially entered Bizarro World. Thank you, progress!
The guys who now pay me because of my pussy tattoo are the same guys who used to belittle me for it. One time, when I was a minor, I chucked an ashtray against the wall of mirrors at Union Jacks because a burly farmer guy pissed me off so bad with his invectives. The ashtray shattered, pieces soared across the bar, and a shard sliced him about an inch above the eye, enough to draw blood. But now, mostly everyone seems really nice—at least when they’re not being a racist or sexist.
Like A-hole. He’s a fixture at my new club. He never tips—maybe one dollar a year to one girl. His clothes never match—he wears a brown and blue Hawaiian shirt, yellow and black Adidas shorts and a pair of flip flops. His jagged toe nails jut out and scrape against the bar. He shows up every day and drinks cup after cup after cup of coffee with cream and loads of sugar. He only has four front teeth. He’s a close talker, so his mouth is like a disease sprinkler. When I met him on my first day, he spat on me when he talked. “Say it don’t spray it, man,” I said and reeled back in disgust. He apologized, stepped back, laughed, then leaned in about six inches from my face again and told me a racist joke about Native Americans and Jewish people or some lame bullshit.
For a moment, I rethought everything. This is not what I went to college for, but I’m already making way more money than I would at an entry-level newspaper job, so I decide to stick it out. I don’t leave entirely; I just head to the dressing room. “Sorry,” he said as I walked away. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to react, so I didn’t—if I was me 10 years ago, I can’t promise I wouldn’t have hurled curses and objects at his gnarled face. The next day, he told me the same idiotic joke. And that time I called him out, because I’m fucking educated, dammit. “Why aren’t you laughing? Have you heard it before?” he said. “Yeah, you told me the same dumb, racist joke yesterday,” I said as I pushed in my bar stool and grabbed my purse to beeline for the dressing room. “Racist? Racist?” he said in my face as he threw up his arms in disbelief. “Yeah, racist,” I said as I got out of my chair, then walked across the bar, away from him.
Another old-world baby boomer with bad fashion sense and a lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance approached me with his stringy gray hair and permanently sweaty face. He leaned in every time I squatted fully naked in front of him when I was on stage, as if I’d really sit on a stranger’s face. He babbled incessantly about Country Joe and the Fish and Eric Clapton and all this garbage music that doesn’t represent the 60s for me. I looked the other way when he spoke and hoped he’d catch that I wasn’t interested and scram. But he didn’t. He talked down to me about shows in Portland, and hitchhiking to Seattle and seeing these crappy bands there, too. “I just thought you’d just want to know a piece of Northwest history,” he said, condescendingly. I ground my teeth and turned away from him at the bar. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t believe he actually thought I needed or wanted a history lesson about the worst players of rock. “You probably don’t know much about the 60s,” he said, and sipped his Coors Light. That was the last straw. I spun around on my bar stool. “Yeah, because it’s not like I’ve ever read a book or watched a documentary,” I said. “What?” he said. “Nothing,” I said, then stomped to the dressing room, appalled. It was evident he assumed I was just a dumb girl and that I knew nothing of music, even though I’ve worked in record stores, fronted bands, and spent years as a music journalist. And this is just one example of the institutionalized sexism I’ve had to endure. The kind college warned me about.
But, back to the subject of music, I’ve also seen some more positive changes in the stripping industry since 2006. I’m specifically impressed with the song selection several strippers choose, at least at my club. Most dancers dress all goth or punk, but they listen to Drake instead of Dead Can Dance or Dead Milkmen, which is fine. But I’m glad to say my club is different. One lady I work with is a 22-year-old named Dee—maybe the only 20-something on the schedule—and she gives me hope. Recently, I ran out of the dressing room half naked to give her a hug on stage because she played “Sensoria” by Cabaret Voltaire. That was considered really edgy back in the day. I’m glad it’s more common now. Come to find out, she graduated from Reed College. No wonder we adore each other.
Another stripper also enlightened me—in a completely different way—when she barged into the dressing room, slapped down her top on the counter, and gyrated to herself in the mirror. “I totally forgot I’m wearing a buttplug,” she said as she twisted her hips out of rhythm. “You don’t feel it?” I said, without skipping a beat. She climbed onto the chair, bent over, pulled down her black hot pants, tugged her thong to the side and turned to look at me. “See?” I couldn’t help but look. There it was. A giant clear rhinestone plugged her asshole. “Can you even wear those here?” I said, truly unaware of the laws. “Uh. Everyone at my last club wore one,” she said. I had no idea wearing a buttplug at work was a stripper trend. “As long as it doesn’t plop out on the stage and make a mess,” I said. She immediately put on her clothes and peeled out of the dressing room, clearly not appreciating my sense of humor. I didn’t expect her to act like she had something shoved up her ass, even though she literally did.
But Diamond Girl made me realize something. Although tattoos, non-mainstream music—and even buttplugs—are acceptable in strip clubs these days, so is racist and sexist behavior. I wish the chronic racism and sexism I’ve witnessed in the clients so far could be channeled into a buttplug, so us strippers could shove it up their asses, and they’d finally face the constipated discomfort of their own ignorance and maybe break free from it in some sort of fetishized rude awakening. Maybe that’s the Dadaist in me coping with the fact that I’ve gone deep in debt with student loans just to go back to pole school instead of fulfilling my punk rock dream of becoming the media to destroy it from within. Either way, I’m grateful for the positive changes in the club, and myself. I hope institutionalized racism and sexism gets pushed out as more of us graduates get sucked in for the sake of survival.
This essay originally appeared in Exotic Magazine, September 2016.