6. THE SECOND SONG
Imagine, Generous Reader—truly imagine— what it would take for you to get up on a stage and, not only get naked, not only dance in six to nine inch heels, but have people stare deep, deep, deep into/at your genitalia and butthole. Imagine it. Personally, I start to disassociate in preparation for taking my shirt off at the pool. This job takes courage (and other complicated psychological/financial preconditions, too, yes).
“You’ve got to embrace your fears,” Veronica tells me, on my second night at Centerfolds. It’s a Thursday, a bit busier than the last time. The women are only on stage for two songs every 45 minutes or so, and when there are no takers on lap dances, some of them sit with me for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. I’d originally worried no one would want to speak with me. But I’m almost never alone. Sometimes, dancers even sit patiently waiting their turn.
7. SHAKING THAT ASS
“When I was a kid, and I was dreaming of what life would be like, I dreamed I’d have kids, have a wealthy life,” Veronica tells me, not in a sad voice, but in the same upbeat honeyed voice and smile with which she says everything. “Then reality kicked in.” Veronica is third-generation Mexican-American, the youngest of six in a family she describes as being “like a party all the time.” She has only been at this for six months, and, at 27, Veronica is a relative late starter. She has worked in fast food and, for the past seven years, as a caretaker. Six months ago her Honda Civic broke down. “I was like, ‘OK, sink or swim.’” So she went to an “amateur night.”
More than anyone else I talk to at Centerfolds, Veronica seems to really enjoy the work.
The money is good (approx. $40 an hour on average after paying out the club, in her case, she tells me).
And she thrives off of the attention paid to her physical beauty. “I go home from work and five guys that night have told me I’m a beautiful girl—who doesn’t want that?” she asks.
There’s an openness in that admission that’s startling to me. But it’s of a sort that’s commonplace at Centerfolds. Despite the strip club being, in many ways, one of the most false social contexts imaginable, Veronica explains that it’s also more real. “This is a place where people can do what they really want,” Veronica contends. “Girls can be adored and guys can stare.”
An odd vein of altruism runs through Veronica’s Philosophy of Stripping, too. “There are people that are undesirable in society’s eyes—either they’re not gorgeous or rich or whatever—and society says they shouldn’t have this,” she says, indicating her own body. “There’s something missing for these guys— for people. And I can give it to them—for a moment, at least—a place where they don’t have to feel ugly or scared or unwanted.”
Obviously, Veronica’s motivations are not purely humanitarian. She’s also—especially given her relative lack of experience—a deep student of The Game. At one point
our conversation lulls. It looks like she’s just pleasantly zoning out, smiling off into nowhere. I ask her what she’s thinking about.
“Just strategizing,” she explains. “Taking in who’s spending what, who likes what music, who’s into who, what they’re into, how the other girls are doing and—if they’re doing better than me—why?”
Jesus, I think: Veronica isn’t just the Mother Teresa of stripping! She’s its Gary Kasparov! And who does the best, I ask her? Charity, she says. This is confirmed by basically everybody.
8. ENGAGING THE CUSTOMER
How does Charity do it? How does Charity get men to voluntarily hand her hundreds of dollars nearly every night, while another pretty dancer I spoke to (who didn’t make it into this article because of space issues) told me that for weeks she hadn’t made more than $60 in an eight hour shift?
First, I must warn you, Expectant Reader, that though I spent more time with Charity than anyone else at Centerfolds, I probably got to know her the least. She threw me off my game. Her big brown eyes might as well have been black and white swirls. She’s hypnotizing.
I did learn that she’s 23. That she comes from a middle class family in the Bay Area; mom a city planner; dad an employee of the water dept. That she’s been dancing for two years. That she’s spent most of her young life working with children. That she’s currently transferring to Chico State as an Accounting Major.
But most of what I learned about Charity was from watching her with people and experiencing her firsthand.
“Charity and ___(X)___(Charity’s real name redacted) are like two different people,” she tells me. This is something that most of the dancers tell me at some point: There’s ___(X)___—the backstage or at TJs in sweatpants them—and then there’s the character they play on the dark side of the curtain at Centerfolds. Charity tells me that the character she plays is a sort of “girl next door,” a very “real,” approachable girl.
Charity is particularly physically beautiful. She’s sweet, unassuming and smart, too. And she’s no slouch on the pole. But more than anything, Charity, it seems to me, knows how to make men feel a certain way, a way these men probably very rarely ever feel, but very much enjoy feeling. She did it to me.
Right away, as I began interviewing her, she switched things around with some sort of Aikido of the mind. She asked about me. She seemed deeply interested. She looked deep into my eyes. She laughed at my jokes. She touched her hair repeatedly; the way body language experts say people do subconsciously when they’re interested in you. Being in her gaze was like being the only other person in the room. For a moment I almost thought she was genuinely flirting with me. And then I thought about it and I felt very, very embarrassed with myself.
Later, traumatized, I ask her about it. I describe what I had experienced. Was I talking to Charity or ___(X)___ or someone in between? Does she lose track? Does she know the difference?
Charity laughs, demurely. She laughs as if I’ve just asked the most brilliant question anyone’s ever asked her. She says she doesn’t know. She says she’ll have to think about that one. She looks back into my eyes. She’s still going, I realize.
Later, Charity rejoins me after some time in the VIP room. She tells me that the guy she was just with spent $220 on her, mostly just talking. “It’s all bullshit,” she says of their time. “He’s telling me this story about how he works for some company, parties in Vegas, how he’s got money. But I know he works at McDonalds. I’ve seen him there. But I gave him a good time. He wanted to be this big guy, and I let him, laughed at his stories—laughing’s a big thing.”
This all sort of blows my mind. This man, who probably doesn’t make $220 a week, was willing to spend that over the course of 30 minutes to have Charity help him create a fantasy—a lie; a lie he can live in for just a short little while—in which he’s his idealized self, or something closer to it, at least. How desperately so many of us want to be somebody, anybody— anybody other than who we actually are! Guys who work at McDonalds; women who decide to play a sexy character for half their waking nights; “journalists” who spend all their time trying to lose themselves in other people’s lives.
9. SHOWING THE PARTS NOT OFTEN SEEN
Penny Lane has the face of a rich girl. A WASPy upturned nose, pillow lips, dimples, flawless skin. On stage that face has a far away look. But her Close-Up Magic is impressive. She folds over at customers’ jokes, howling. Twice, I watch her take her shoes off and giggle and marvel at how tall the customers are next to her—her hands over her mouth with “shock.” She speaks in the bubbly, hyper-animated way of a teenager. She is a teenager.
But Penny isn’t a rich girl. Far from it. Her parents split when she was two after her mom cheated. “My mom has like 800 kids,” she tells me. “So if she could get rid of one, she was like— (mimes throwing away a piece of trash).” Penny lived with her mom briefly at age eight. “But my biological mom was hella bipolar.” She physically abused her—horribly, Penny tells me.
Her father was a military man. Penny went to five different elementary schools, six junior highs, four high schools. Still, she was honor roll; in choir, dance, band.
As an adolescent, Penny moved to a remote mountain town near Chico with her dad and his third wife (she asked me not to identify the town by name). He had left the military and bought a “destined-to-fail grocery store,” she says. “I took one look at the place and I just started counting the days until we’d lose it and have to leave.”
Her dad had a lot of girlfriends and wives. “He showed them way more attention than he showed me,” she says. “He was there, but he wasn’t there. He was a lonely man. He tried to find love over and over—but I guess it never worked.”
She stocked and worked the register at the store. But the market was gone and she was working at Burger King when, at 17, her dad and latest stepmom kicked her out saying, “Don’t take anything but the clothes you’re wearing.”
She was wearing her Burger King work outfit. She couch surfed. Then she wound up homeless. Without a mat or a sleeping bag, in her Burger King shirt, Penny spent two weeks sleeping in a cemetery, in a small grove of trees, a little distance away from the tombstones.
“Uhhh… $44 every two weeks at Burger King is not cutting it,” she says she quickly realized. Stripping was almost a natural course of action for Penny. “I wanted to be a stripper ever since I was little!” Penny tells me in her bubbly teenage way. “I know that sounds fucked up!” A few weeks after her 18th birthday, she went to an amateur night and made $900.
“And now, at 19, I have to do the whole stripper/stepmom thing,” Penny says. Her boyfriend is 21. His kid is three. They’re moving in together.
We talk for a while about her dad and his girlfriends/wives, about how she always sought out and yet didn’t receive his attention, about how maybe that could have played a role in her choices.
“You should like totally come here once a week and be our psychologist!” Penny says, giggling.
Our jobs aren’t so different—Penny’s and mine—I think. Everyone wants someone to really listen to them, to hear their stories, to care, to make them feel a little taller, maybe.
10. REALLY SPREADING ‘EM (AND POSSIBLY PULLING A MUSCLE)
Bang Bang slides down next to me, then her knee glides up onto my thigh like a skiff onto a beach. She has a beautiful, prominent Aztec nose, huge hoops in her ears, eyes lowered to slits, a mouth drawn into a lascivious smile.
Bang Bang isn’t even her stripper name. It’s the petite 19-year- old from Richmond’s “street name.” She doesn’t want to be identified in this story for reasons that will become obvious.
“Hey,” she purrs. I explain the situation and point to my notebook. She looks at me incredulously, considers what I’ve said for a moment, then, before my eyes, her posture and the comportment of her facial expressions transmogrify; Bang Bang goes from slinky ghetto fantasy to bad girl hoodrat. She slouches back. She raps along with the song that’s playing, emphasizing the lyrics with her hands. She knows the rapper, personally, she tells me. She’s been in his rap videos, shaking her ass. Bang Bang claims to have done quite a bit of ass- shaking in a quite a few videos.
Within the first two thirty-minute hang-outs, Bang Bang tells me that 1) she is a Criminal Justice Major with plans to become a Probation Officer and 2) she’s a heavy user and dealer of opioids like Oxy, Percocet, and Opana.
I ask her if she’s fucking with me. She assures me she isn’t. I look in her eyes. I believe her…I think. I’m not sure. I point to my notebook again and say, “you realize I’m writing all this down, right?” And that’s when she tells me to use her “street name.”
Bang Bang tells me that she’s wanted to be a cop ever since she was a little girl. It all started when she was in elementary school. Back then, her class took trips to school book fairs. She says she’d obsess over the detective books and spend the little money she had on these kids’ Crime Scene Investigation kits. Plus, Bang Bang tells me, “I was hella poor and we only had two channels; the Spanish Channel and the channel that just plays Law and Order all the time.”
And the drugs? “I been doing real drugs since I was 13,” Bang Bang explains. Back then it was “Thizz” (a nasty tasting meth-type drug which is chewed, resulting in the “Thizz face”), and Molly and Coke. She switched to pills senior year. Now she does $100 to $200 worth a day. “I got a hella high tolerance!” she says. She’s high right now. She’s trying to get her hands on some Suboxone so that she can take a “tolerance break” without suffering terrible withdrawals, which, for Bang Bang, include restless legs, insomnia and nausea.
I ask her how she sees the whole drug addict/dealer/cop/ stripper thing playing out. “You can be a stripper and a cop at the same time—as long as you ain’t hoin’,” Bang Bang assures me. “It ain’t illegal.” And the drug dealing, I ask? “Well, when I’m a cop, I’ll prolly just deal to my friends.” Plus, Bang Bang explains, the arrangement will have extra conveniences: she can sell confiscated drugs and get her friends out of trouble.
At this point in our conversation I’m basically freaking out. I’m really worried about this girl. And I’m having all sorts of ethical quandaries. First of all, it feels like she’s going to hurt herself with this interview. Maybe get fired. (And would that be such a bad thing?) Secondly—though I’m here to be an observer—I’m feeling a strong impulse to interfere in Bang Bang’s life.
I tell her it sounds like she’s headed for disaster. I ask her if she’s calling out for help. “Nah,” she says. She’s “got it under control.” She actually uses that phrase.
Bang Bang’s dad works in construction and her mom is a hairdresser. They fought all the time. “I had to hear shit a little kid shouldn’t be hearing, you know what I’m saying?” Bang Bang says. “Like, ‘your mom has been cheating with all these guys, she’s a whore,’ or ‘your dad has been going to strip clubs and prostitutes every single day.’”
Her parents eventually split up. “The fucked up thing is, we had the option to choose who to live with. My sisters chose our mom. But I chose my dad. He was a good dad, you know what I’m saying? He got us everything we wanted, even if it was financially impossible: Abercrombie, all the Barbies—the Barbie Club House. Then, one day, he said he was going on a business trip for three days. But he never came back. I was in sixth grade. He didn’t pay the bills. Like, the water shut off. After a few weeks I called my mom and she picked me up.”
Bang Bang was ten. She didn’t hear from her dad again until she was 17. “I have to do this, to help my mom,” Bang Bang says. “Because she doesn’t have nobody else. The way that he left us, I didn’t have money for college, nothing.”
As we talk, her multiple fronts melt away. For brief moments she looks like a sad little girl covered in makeup, trying not to cry. But then she snaps back into “Bang Bang,” the tough girl. “I always thought if I had to do what I had to do, I would—I don’t give a fuck; I ain’t never gave a fuck,” she says.
Bang Bang tells me that her stripper-hustling skills have migrated into the rest of her life. “I learned how to do it in the outside world too,” she says.
I ask her to explain. “Like, I’ll see that a guy likes me and I’ll pretend to like them back.” “I ain’t gonna lie. Hella guys I’ve dated, I’ve made ‘em go broke. Just the fact that you open up to them, they like that. They’ll feel like you trust them. Then they’ll trust you. The world’s a fucked up place,” Bang Bang says with a hardened irony.
I want to make all sorts of Captain Obvious/Dr Phil/Psych 101 points re: her dad/her relationship to men. But I just sit there feeling sad and powerless.
(Note: by the time I went back a week later to do some fact checking, Bang Bang was already “no longer an employee” of Centerfolds, for undisclosed reasons.)
11. PICKING UP MY ONES
Sitting out front with Ivy, the night of the hailstorm/tornado. Ivy in Snuggie. Hail piled like cocaine.
“I’m the worst hustler ever now,” Ivy says. I ask her if she’s burning out on the whole thing. “It’s not a burn out as much as I grew up into who I am,” Ivy says. “There’s no part of me that can pretend to be engaged if I’m not into it.”
Ivy is 36. She’s been stripping on and off for sixteen years. In that News & Review article (see part 1) from a decade ago, Ivy is quoted as saying “[It’s] a great school job … I should be done in July because I’ll be graduating Chico State, so I’ll be ready to start a career.”
There are undoubtedly an array of social/psychological tolls that stripping takes on its practitioners; community alienation; callouses built up against all that degradation; all that falseness; all that acting.
Ivy says strippers are misunderstood. “Other girls think we’re sluts or we’re conceited,” she tells me. “And dating is really hard, too. Guys always assume I’m either a gold-digger or that I get off on lap dancing.”
But Centerfolds is also a home, a family, a refuge. “I come in nights full on knowing I’m not going to make any money,” she tells me. Ivy loves this club—a sentiment many of the other dancers (and the bouncer and DJ) share, too.
I mention her age; ask her what she’s going to do. “I struggle and panic about that every day,” she says.
We sit for a while. Ivy takes one big last drag off the cigarette she has pinched between her long purple nails. Then she stubs it out and goes back inside.
Photos by Shannon Iris