Sunday, August 1, 2010

* * MY FIRST STRIPPER (in a long while) * *

Shift #68

SUNDAY, AUGUST 22 – Colombus/Kearny to Sutter/Leavenworth -- $6.70

, my younger brother Scott came home from school one landmark afternoon with the thrilling news that the father of one his classmates was employed at a strip club in Washington, D.C., where his duties consisted entirely of “raking up clothes for strippers.” Our jubilation died when, several days later, Mr. Mills was “outed” as a medical doctor. Nonetheless, the world of the stripper has remained, for me, as it for our whole global culture, a subject of endless fascination.

I’ve never actually visited a strip club. (Thirty-five years ago, during an innocent little educational junket in Las Vegas, I was flummoxed to note -- during a quick, informal estimate I conducted personally -- that the body of the cocktail server breathing Can I get you anything? into my ear, was ninety-eight percent naked.) But during my eighteen years as a night driver, I routinely transported strippers (they often prefer the term “dancers”) home from their shifts in the clubs around North Beach and along Market Street or over at the infamous Mitchell Brothers’ Theatre on O’Farrell Street. But for several years now, I’ve driven day shift, where conversations with stripper/dancers are much more rare.

IN THE PREDAWN MISTS SWIRLING THROUGH NORTH BEACH, I spot my first dancer in a long while, standing in front of Larry Flynt's Hustler Club on Kearny Street.

The stereotypical stripper is a tough, fleshy old broad with a gravelly, smoke-ravaged voice, but I have chatted with at least a hundred strippers and have yet to encounter the stereotype. From a distance, this one is a sleek, curvy silhouette barely visible in the fog, head turned my way, slender arm held in the air, still, her hand raised, open. As she approaches my door, I see that she is blond, young, on the short side, and on the lovely side, too. “I need to go to Sutter and Leavenworth, please,” she says in the soft, high-pitched voice of a schoolgirl who prefers to sit in the front row, homework complete, prepared and eager to answer every question.

We ride in silence for several blocks, my mind sorting and pondering, and then I just start talking. I tell my dancer fare that she is my first ride of the morning, and also my first fare of any kind in the past nine days. Just last evening my wife and daughter and I returned from a week spent in a tent cabin near Pinecrest Lake up in the Sierras where for seven glorious days we hiked and read and lounged around camp and went swimming and kayaking in the royal blue waters of the lake. I tell her that my overriding memory from the week is of miles and miles of soaring Douglas Fir trees with branches full of dark green needles continually groping for the diamond-bright, shockingly clear sky overhead. Temperatures in the eighties every day. Short pants, T-shirts. Almost heaven... During the entire week, we saw hardly a cloud, and not a single wisp of fog.

And I tell her this: “I had no idea how much this summer’s fog was affecting me, until the afternoon we got up there and I found myself choked up, on the verge of tears. Really, I had to fight to not burst out crying -- it just felt so good to see the sun!”

She: “Sometimes, if you’re in the City too long, it can be really hard to remember that Nature even exists. Unless you go the the park or hiking out in Marin or somewhere. I try to do that as often as I can.”

My idea of what goes on in a place like the Hustler Club derives mostly from movies. Also from an excellent book -- Some of My Best Friends Are Naked -- which consists of long, detailed, individual interviews with seven impressive North Beach dancers. The interviews were conducted (and the book edited) by my cab driver friend, Tim Keefe, who used to manage the Lusty Lady club. And now, even though I try, it’s hard for me to imagine this thoughtful young woman with the soft voice taking off her clothes to pole dance while a group of horny, half-drunk men (and sometimes their dates) watch through a window.

Me: “Did you have an interesting night?”

She: “It was long. I’m pretty tired. We had our anniversary party tonight, and it just went on and on.” It’s the Hustler Club’s eighth anniversary, and my fare has worked there for three years so far. “Too long,” she says, not with disgust but with the bored tone of so many who have spent their entire work lives in a job not their calling.

Just for confirmation I want to ask, “Are you a stripper?” But it seems too abrupt -- at about this time yesterday I was drinking coffee in the woods in front of my tent cabin two hundred miles away and inhaling the thinned out air at 5,000 feet. Next week I might feel comfortable popping “Are you a stripper?” (more likely I would phrase it, “What’s your function at the club?”), but I’m not really all the way back here yet.

Me: “Where did you grow up?”

She: “I was born in southern California, but when I was eight we moved to the Midwest…” Images of her body, naked under her clothing just three feet behind me, make it difficult for me to focus on her story: “When I was twelve, my father brought us on a trip to San Francisco, and I was immediately charmed… I graduated from high school in Iowa three years ago, packed my bags right away, and moved here."

“Was it hard to find work?”

She: “That didn’t take very long at all.”

“Overall, are you satisfied with your move?”


When we stop in front of her apartment building, a fashionable place I couldn’t have dreamed of affording at her age, I tell her it’s a free ride. She accepts, with delight, but absolutely insists on tipping me.

For years, whenever people would do this, I would try to wave them off. “It’s more fun for me this way,” I would tell them, and that would usually work, as the truth most often does. But after my daughter was born, whenever my free-riders were adamant about tipping me I began to thank them and tell them I would add their money to the “free ride tips” fund I’d started for her. And now I tell this to my dancer fare.

“Oh, that’s great,” she says, and passes me several folded ones (six of them, I discover later). She sounds enthused, interested. “How old is your daughter?”


She: “I’ll bet she’s a great saver!” Goodness, what a sweet voice!

Me: “I’ve been buying stocks for her with the money. The first one was Google, two shares, back when it was $290 a share.”

She: “It’s over $500 now!”

Me: “Lately I’ve told her to keep an eye out for other companies whose products she likes, and then we research them, and sometimes we buy them. She’s got about four thousand dollars worth of stocks now.”

She: “My dad made me save all my money when I was a kid -- and I’m a great saver now. I never spend money unless it’s on something important.”


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