AN EXOTIC ADVENTURES IN SMALLTOWN, USA SPECIAL REPORT: CENTERFOLDS

 Photos by Shannon Iris

1. TEASING THE INTRO WITH A LITTLE BIT OF LEG

It’s my third night of reporting for the Centerfolds story, and I’m driving north on Highway 99. The sky is wild, black and electric, streaked with glowing pink clouds eerily illuminated from some unknown source. The air tastes like sucking on a dirty nickel. Little five-second rainstorms keep starting and stopping, as if the clouds are all headed somewhere in a big hurry.Centerfold 50-7

The DJ on the radio suddenly interrupts his broadcast of psychedelic rock to announce that a tornado warning has been issued. The tornado, he says, is thought to be about eight miles north of Chico on Highway 99. I do a quick calculation involving MPH, vector, and time travelled, and determine that I am on Highway 99, somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 miles north of Chico.

Then, without warning—unless you count the warning I had just directly received over the radio—my vehicle is strafed by a furious bombardment of sky-obliterating hail, the likes of which I’ve never before seen. I can see nothing. If cows are flying by, I have no idea. Am I in a tornado? Are the tires still on the ground and am I still traveling north, toward Centerfolds Exotic Dancers/Adult Superstore? Have I told my mom enough how much I truly love her?

The hail turns off, as if by a switch. I look back, expecting to see barns spinning whole in the sky. There are just those eerily illuminated pink clouds, even a few twinkling stars.

I pull into Centerfolds’ lot, unpeel myself from my seat and steering wheel. Ivy is sitting on the bench out front, barefoot, her humongous platform heels sitting at her side, her bare, heavily tattooed legs folded up beneath her, her shoulders draped in a leopard print Snuggie. Little mountains of hailstones are mounded up here and there, like the cocaine in Scarface.

Ivy is kind of freaking out, and for good reason. As we sit on the bench together, she tells me about an incident, back in 2001. She was working at a strip club in Houston very much like Centerfolds. Then an Act of God swooped down out of nowhere and destroyed her every possession; clothes, photos, everything.

What happened was a flash flood. “It was the scariest, most surreal moment of my life,” Ivy tells me, soothing herself by stroking her legs with her long, purple, sparkle-covered nails. The flood hit in the middle of the night and in the middle of her shift. The water rose quickly—one foot, two—spilling into the club, filling it. The barely dressed girls had no time to prepare, they had to abandon strip (sorry).

With the aid of a kind co-worker’s boyfriend, Ivy was able to make it through the flooded streets back to her apartment. But the only way to her ground floor unit was through a sunken parking lot, which was now a small lake. Alone, in the black night, her silky little garments clinging diaphanously to her, she slipped into the dark waters and swam. But it was too late. It was all gone.

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Over the several days I spent with the women of Centerfolds, I heard quite a few stories of personal disaster, of being left with nothing, of finding oneself terribly alone, of slipping into something dark and obscure. In every case save this one, the stories ended with the women sliding into a strip club, not running from one. Still, whatever else one can say about the women I met, I’ll say this: they are survivors.

2. SETTING THE MOOD

Centerfolds, 10 miles north of Chico, has a roadside truck stop type feel. It’s an aging building with a yellowing marquee, backdropped by miles of cattle pasture. We park, go in.

Shannon Iris—the photographer I worked with on this story—and I are feeling nervous. We keep waiting for Centerfolds’ management to change their mind; for a phone call to come in and for them to say “Actually, guys…” But that doesn’t happen. We have free reign. Well, almost free reign. Shannon can go past the curtain, back into the dressing room. I can’t. “It’s the girls’ ‘safe zone,’” Angel, a dancer and the club’s manager since 2009, explains. No guys allowed.

Right away, Angel takes Shannon into the dressing room and I’m left wandering around, looking like a lonely customer, albeit one who creepily takes notes.

To access the strip club one must first pass through the “Adult Superstore.” I peruse. There are things to eat, like the edible crotchless panties called “Cummy Panties,” or “Lollicocks.” There’s “Jizz,” a “cum scented” water-based lube. There are dildos and strap-ons of all dimensions, including insane. Some are “Phthalate Free,” whatever that is. One is glow-in-the-dark (probably like 100% “Phthalate”) and yet also described as “life like.” There’s an S&M section, with paddles, collars, gags and nipple clamps, as per the usual.

There are sex dolls. For instance, the “Fuck Me Silly 2: Mega Masturbator” ®, a creepy, headless, limbless, pubic-hairless torso, which advertises “Over 12 lbs. of tits and pussy.” The FMS2:MM is reminiscent of one of those marble sculptures of Aphrodite you’d see in a European museum, except that it’s made from thermoplastic rubber and includes a drain hole in its back for “easy cleaning.” We Americans have always been a pragmatic people.

And there is porn, all manner of porn, from midgets to MILFs to 3D High Definition porn on Blu-ray. This porn, it strikes me, is probably the strippers’ biggest competition. And now, the specter of young men raised on cheap/free internet porn looms. One could even, if they so desired, watch 3D High Def porn while in the tender embrace of the admittedly headless but still very supple and lifelike FMS2:MM, all ordered from the comfort and drawn-curtain anonymity of one’s own stained bed. The store is as empty and desolate as the pastures outside. I leave the bright fluorescents and enter the strip club.

3. THE BREEZY, INCONSEQUENTIAL PRANCE AROUND THE STAGE

Centerfold 50-8The club is sprawling but feels intimate. This is because it’s atmospherically lit by black lights, red rope lights, Christmas lights strung around fake plastic plants, and, bathing a pool table in the near corner, a swath of almost mystical forest-green light, too. There’s both a non-operating cheesy-looking fireplace and a broken down waterfall, which is made of fake stone and strewn with discarded lengths of mildewing plastic tubing. The stage has two glimmering golden poles, a wall of mirrors. To its left is the DJ booth, to its right, the “VIP” booths, each with a bath mat-sized circle of stiletto-shredded carpet at the threshold. It smells like perfume, pleather, nail polish, disinfectant, old carpet, hairspray.

There are no customers yet, no women on the stage. There is, though, an old man replacing a few bags of trail mix from the vending machines. Which snacks are most popular in a place of spread-leg entertainment, I wonder?

“Hard to say,” says the old man, who moves so slowly I can read the ingredients off the bag as he wills it towards its coil. “Not exactly flyin’ outta here on a daily basis.”

I head over to the DJ booth. The soundboard is huge, with all sorts of blinky lights, knobs and levers. In the dark it looks like it could be Dr Dre’s studio or the cockpit of a space shuttle. What the hell is all this shit, I wonder? Couldn’t they just have a laptop, mic and amp? The DJ, Mike, is a worldly man with an aging rock star look—Alice Cooper, maybe. He’s in a skirt-length black tee and uncle-shorts, and he’s wearing his long, goth-black hair loose and flowing.

“See this piece right here?” he asks, pointing to an object which is so old that its black plastic housing has faded. “This piece actually made it into the trash. I pulled it out and got it to work again,” he explains. “And this amp here? I bought this at Salvation Army for like 15 bucks. And my wife got this mic for two dollars at Goodwill.” The mixer is held together by Scotch tape.

I sit down next to the DJ booth with DJ Mike’s wife, Maricel, who is from the Philippines. In her heavy accent, she tells me about babysitting the dancers’ kids, about how she’s only here tonight to be close to DJ Mike, because he’s got some sort of lung infection. She tells me some other stuff, too, but it’s hard to concentrate because a stunning woman with long brown hair is now doing some casual warm up stretches in a Day-Glo string bikini just a few feet away.

And more are arriving. They tow suitcases that look appropriately sized for a two-week trip to the Pyrenees. A pair of customers arrive. Tonight, there are never more than four customers at any given time, though there are seven dancers on duty. DJ Mike tells me that only one single dude came in the night before. It’s been slow; the weather, spring break, the Great Recession. The show begins. The dancers switch off every two songs, with DJ Mike announcing them as “sexy Angel” or “beautiful Destiny,” etc, in a voice taken down an extra octave.

4. STARTING TO TAKE IT OFF.

Desi, who has an extremely painted face, a tatted-up body, and a Courtney Love-ish thing about her, asks if I want a lap dance. I explain the hard-working journalist thing. “Doesn’t mean you can’t get a lap dance. They’re only $20.” I ask her how she got into this.

“I had a daughter and decided I need to get some money or I’m fucked,” Desi says, over the loud music. She’s been dancing since she was 18, which was back in 2001. Desi is from middle-of-nowhere Central Valley. She bartends mornings. A decade ago she was profiled by Jason Cassidy in a CN&R article on Chico’s Adult Entertainment Industry. Cassidy described her as possessing a “fresh-scrubbed look.” A picture of a 21-year-old Desi in an abbreviated “school uniform” confirms this. I barely recognize the Desi of today in that picture.

Still, she retains the “devil-may-care energy” that Cassidy described back then. “This is my house,” Desi says. “They [new girls] have to prove themselves—that they’re not some scandalous prostitute.” Giving any “extras” is totally not cool. I wonder what it must be like to nakedly compete for men’s sexual attention and money against pert, gravity-defying, “fresh-scrubbed” 19-year-olds.

Desi did have an exit plan. She has a degree in Building Inspection from Butte. But she got it in 2008, just as the housing bubble burst. So she’s still here. I briefly try to figure out how one would go about calculating age in Stripper Years. I come up with 18 + (additional years) x 5 = SY, plus extra for heavy drug/alcohol ingestion, sun tanning, etc. How much longer can Desi keep doing this?

And what about the value of the work? “I’d rather a married man come here than actually cheat on his wife,” Desi says. “I mean, I’m not trying to say I’m doing a public service….but…if it can save a marriage…a couple hundred dollars here is way cheaper than a divorce.”

On the other hand she did once watch a “lying husband” get his ass kicked by his wife. “Right here, actually,” Desi says, pointing to the seat I’m sitting in. “It’s happened a few times.”

It’s Desi’s turn to dance. She clomps off in her standard-issue crazily-high-platforms and takes to the stage. I would describe her dance style as barbiturated languor.

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Though there are only two customers, these guys are (literally) throwing around a lot of cash. One of them, a big man of perhaps 30 in a bright orange shirt, alternates between sitting forward while tossing fistfuls of ones and reclining way back with a rapey, “yeah, bitch, that’s right, dance” vibe. His eyes take on the glazed-over look of the slot-machine addict, but with a hooded, misogynistic glower mixed in. One thing I notice repeatedly is that at least half the customers are living in their own private rap videos where they are “playas” “making it rain.”

Orange Shirt takes a particular liking to Veronica, a Mexican woman with a sweet, doe-eyed perma-smile on her doll-like face, and a soft, round butt that she spends a lot of time jiggling (normally, I’d feel really uncomfortable describing women’s bodies like this but for this story, if I didn’t I’d clearly be remiss). Over the course of just a few songs, Orange Shirt throws a couple hundred dollars at Veronica alone, she tells me later. There are those who would be inclined to think that that is insane; that Orange Shirt is a moron.

5. THE FIRST FEW SPINS ON THE POLE.

DJ Mike announces Angel, but she doesn’t come out right away because Shannon—who is not only a photographer but also a hairstylist—is putting the finishing touches on her blond curls. Apparently Shannon is having a grand ‘ole time back there. My jealousy leads to a triple-etched 🙁 🙁 🙁 in my notebook.

Angel is extremely skilled at pole dancing. Like Cirque Du Soleil skilled. Sometimes she teaches pole dancing classes. Pole dancing has apparently become some sort of sport/art/martial art. Her ads say things like “Have you ever thought you’ll try anything once but are afraid of how social networking will come back to bite you in the rear?” And: “You’ve seen this highlighted in The View and in Desperate Housewives, and now you can try it for yourself, without the media attention.” She spins upside down from one leg at speeds that reduce her to a tanned blur. And when she comes down, rather than fall over and puke, as would I, she’s able to sexily crawl-saunter over to a nerdy guy in glasses, then engage him in dirty small talk that has him cracking up/going broke. Angel is good.

When Angel is done she comes and hangs out with me. It’s obvious why she’s in charge. Angel is the absolute alpha-female of Centerfolds. She has wild, unpredictable eyes. She prefers dancing to “go kill yourself rock music.” Sometimes, instead of “sexy Angel” or “foxy Angel,” the DJ will announce her as “Angel: the Harbinger of Death.” Where the other girls’ heels are six to eight inches (coincidentally or not, stripper heels are, length-wise, generally in line with the size of the dildos in the Adult Superstore), Angel’s black leather heels are one inch longer—nine vertiginous inches! But her best personality-signifier is the little girly bedazzled sparkly clutch she keeps her cash in. Its clasp is made from skull-shaped brass knuckles.

Angel walks me through the moves the girl on stage is doing. There are at least 500 known and named tricks, Angel tells me. There’s the Brass Monkey, the Teddy Bear, the Scorpio, the Eagle, the Cupid, the Butterfly (and the Extended Butterfly), the Ayesha, the Yogini. The Yogini, to take just one, is an armpit hold in which the dancer is simultaneously grasping her own heels. “That one hurts,” Angel tells me. The Holy Grail of pole moves, though, is dubbed the Spatchcock. It’s so difficult Angel can’t even describe it. But she’s working on it.

Angel’s also full of sage, strippery advice:

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On Carpe Diem: “One day, your tits will sag and your ass will either explode or implode. See, like, some women’s butts either just get bigger and bigger and bigger or, some—they just disappear. They vanish. You have to take advantage while you still can.”

On fashion: “Guys come here for a fantasy, they don’t come to see a housewife looking all haggard. They want you dressed up.” (After a little giggle): “Except naked.”

On grooming: “If you wanna have a full on bush you can. I think that’s gross. Some girls make designs. Some put tattoos there. Or glitter. Sometimes I won’t shave so if a guy touches me and is like ‘ew’ I can be like ‘that’s what you get!’”

The club goes empty at about 10pm, which is four hours before closing time.

Angel to Destiny (the brunette I saw limbering up earlier): “Show me your butthole!”

Mike, in his smooth DJ voice over the PA: “There’s a butthole request.”

Destiny: Bends over, spreads her cheeks for Angel/me.

Angel: “That thing’s huge!” (It’s not.)

And then to me: “When it’s empty we act like weirdos.”

Centerfolds with no customers is pretty much the most fun place ever. They practice moves; hump each other (a lot), and talk a ton of shit. It’s basically stuff like this non-stop:

Angel: Pantses Destiny (well, pulls down her G-string). Then chastises her: “You have to have bottoms on the floor!”

Destiny: “That’s sexual harassment!”

Angel: “You like it!”

Destiny: I’m going to tell the manager!”

Angel: “She likes that shit. See that? She keeps coming back!” (which seems accurate.)

They lay around texting or Facebooking. They talk about guys they’re dating. They put their arms around each other in sisterly ways, confide.

I wonder about the whole observer-effect thing. That is, how is this scene different because I’m here? But I don’t wonder long, because, well, basically because I have a short attention span.

“There’s some part of you that’s fucked up to be here,” Angel says, after a while (she’s talking about the strippers, not me. Although…). “Whether you have sexual abuses, mommy issues, daddy issues, or you just need the attention—there’s some underlying issue.”

I ask what her underlying issue is. “I have a lot of issues. The attention is nice. Yeah… I like the attention.”

Which seems like the easiest multiple-choice answer to have selected. But before I can follow up, Angel absconds and I start talking to George.

George is the big burly bouncer. He has large blunt features and tiny spectacles. He used to do private security, like for quinceañeras. He admits that when he first started he was excited about working around naked girls. But the novelty quickly wore off. Now Centerfolds, he tells me, is basically his entire social life. “I really just work to hang out.”

Though George did once have to chase a dude who had a video camera somehow hidden and/or built into his pants into the pastures, and though he does occasionally have to tell masturbators to “put your shit away, you gotta go,” he’s never had to actually physically restrain anyone. “People are pretty subdued around tits,” he says.

Probably more important, there’s no alcohol served at Centerfolds. Alcohol is not permitted in California at clubs where vaginas are bared. Centerfolds chose vaginas. This is just one of many, many rules.

Here’s just a few: Bare vaginas cannot touch the pole; dancers can’t touch their own vaginas; Customers can’t touch dancers with their hands at all; for lap dances, one foot has to remain on the floor at all times (like in pool); dancers can engage in a maximum of fifteen seconds of grinding on a customer before they need to take a fifteen second grinding-break; there’s no “motorboating”; and dancers can never, ever leave with a customer.

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The strip club is in some ways like a big game board. There are rules that give it its structure, and there are players (the dancers) competing to win as much money each night as possible. The customers, as much as they’re marks or suckers or walking dollar signs, are players too. They’re trying to get as much of whatever experience they’re looking for as they can. It’s the Game of Mutual Exploitation (which some might argue is a passable definition of Capitalism altogether) in a fairly purified form.

The evening winds down; the conversation turns to practicing pole moves at home.

“Wait, so like everyone has a pole at their house?” I ask. Apparently it’s about 50/50. I ask if anyone present has one.

“I do,” says George. We all look at him. “Cuz my roommate works here.”

“Oh,” I say.

I lean in to George and ask him if, when no one’s looking, he ever takes a little spin.

George gives me a sheepish little smile.

“Yeah.”

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About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.