I was barely 18 when I lived in that tiny city; I’d moved there with no plan and little money to live with my high school best friend who didn’t want to live in the dorms any more after being repeatedly harassed for being openly gay. He found the place all on his own and called me one day to propose the idea to me. The rent was cheap because the house needed a lot of work, but we didn’t mind the state of things, because it seemed full of potential and more importantly; it offered freedom. I wasn’t planning on enrolling in school because I couldn’t afford it, but it did meet my criteria of being anywhere other than where I was from.
I figured I’d find work of some sort, but it was a broke town full of college students fighting for jobs that they could work around their studies, which meant that wages were low and most places were only looking for part timers. The gig that I finally managed to land painting and sanding decks wasn’t enough to keep me afloat and if it rained, we didn’t work and I didn’t get paid.
When money got tight, we took in two more roommates, including someone who took up residence in our attic. We made spaghetti in big pots because it was cheap and would feed us for for a couple of days: we plotted between mouthfuls on how we could dig ourselves out of poverty. Loans, get money fast schemes like pay at the door parties all were discussed, but we were lacking the life’s experience to pull most of these ideas off properly.
The only one of us who was steadily employed mopped up come at the adult movie theater across the street from our house. I’d go sit inside the store with him after they closed because I was waiting for something, anything interesting to happen to me. One night while I waited for him to finish work I spotted an ad on the dirty cork board nailed to the pink walls near the rack of impossible large dildos. It said ‘Adult Male Performers Wanted’ and I tore one of the perforated phone numbers from the sheet, stuffing it in my pocket quickly. I knew if my roommate spotted me and would give me all kinds of grief about it.
I waited a few days before calling, not certain what the ad meant I’d be doing and I was both a little reluctant and little turned on about what it could entail. Dialing the number from a payphone made my heart thump loudly and when the voice on the other end of the line told me I’d reached a hair salon, I almost hung up, thinking it was a mistake.
“I’m calling about the ad for performers?” I managed to say quietly, still unsure I’d dialed correctly.
The woman on the other end of the phone asked how old I was and I added a year to my age for no good reason, because you only need to be 18 to strip in bars in that city, even if you aren’t old enough to drink in them. She asked me if I was ok dancing for both men and women and I said yes without thinking it through and then wondered for a moment if I really would be.
She invited me to come to her salon the next day, which was outside of the city proper and I hopped in my car not sure what to expect. I used a map and took dirt roads to the address she’d given and when I pulled up in front of the little free-standing building I had second thoughts. I sat in my car listening to the radio before working up the courage to head inside.
The woman cutting hair was in her late forties, with darkly lined eyes and a low cut sweater. She looked up at me, knowing already who I was and said she’d be right with me. She finished the client whose hair she was cutting and after seeing him out the door, she told me to take a seat in her chair. She trimmed my hair while we talked, asking me questions about myself as she circled me. I could smell her perfume, which was familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember the name of it; to this day if I smell it, I think of her.
She was careful not to put too much emphasis on the fact that I’d be dancing in front of men more often than women, but I was more worried that she’d ask me to pay for the haircut and I wouldn’t have enough money in to cover it and eat that day. Thinking back on it now I realize she knew exactly what she was doing; she had my number in a way that I didn’t see then. She was sizing me up from the moment that she answered the phone.
When I was done she took me out behind the building and had me pose for a few Polaroids against the brick building. She got me to lift my shirt up a little, showing off the trim, androgynous body that I had back then and that was the photo that she put on all the posters that she had printed. She was subtle about all of it and managed to get exactly what she wanted without ever having to press because I wanted her to want me to be a part of this all. I can remember the way she looked at me, smiling at me, narrowing her eyes as she told me she’d let me audition that weekend when we both already knew that I was in.
I was young and hadn’t had many sexual experiences, but the ones that I had were complicated and intense in a way that was far beyond my years. I’d lost my virginity to a woman who was 10 years older, had a threesome with a married couple and I knew without a doubt that I was kinky. I wasn’t afraid of what I might not like, I was afraid of what I might be missing out on. That eagerness was exactly what Dee smelled on me and she knew that it would make us both money.
Dee added me to the lineup of the next gig she’d booked and put me on the poster with the name ‘Angel’ written beneath it. I liked it, but I told her that I liked ‘Phantasm’ better because it sounded dark and somehow untouchable to me. I picked a Nine Inch Nails track for my first song and when they called ‘Angel’ to stage, I shot her a look. Her expression told me that she was putting me in my place just a little and I sort of liked it, but eventually I got my way and the name that I wanted.
The bar we were in the first night was a gay bar and most of the dancers were straight, just there for the money. Some of the guys just collected their nightly guarantee, which was about $30 and worked for tips on stage, but they wouldn’t give a lap dance. I learned right away that if you worked with guys with the wrong attitude and went on right after them, the money wasn’t as good. I hustled the crowd for every dollar I could make and was proud of myself for bringing home the most money that night, not letting some weird sense of heteronormative masculinity stand in my way.
I danced to music that was sexual and a little angsty and I drew a crowd to the stage when I was on it. I made eye contact with every person in the audience, seeing who I could draw in and figuring out who I’d go see when I was offstage.
During lap dances people constantly asked me if I stuffed and I knew that it was just a cheap ploy to touch me. Sometimes they would take the liberty to check for themselves and if they were tipping well enough they got away with more before I moved, changed position, put some distance between myself and whatever part of me they were pawing at. If they think they’ll never get it they’ll give you nothing and If they think they’ll get it no matter what, it’s almost the same. People are typically the most willing to give you what you want when they are at the very line of getting or losing what they want.
“Baby Blue” was one of the guys that I worked with and like the rest of us, he had a handful of jobs to keep him paid between shows. His eyes were his namesake and his blonde hair and strong jaw made him look Scandinavian. He was a well-built Marine reserve who was quiet and kept a low profile. He worked the door at a club called ‘The Zoo’ on weekends too; after we worked together a few times he would let me into the club and stamp me over 21, even though I wasn’t. He knew I wouldn’t abuse the privilege and more than anything he probably thought it would help with talking to women, or at lest be less of a ‘scarlet letter’ than the giant ‘X’ they drew on under 21’s in black sharpie.
“Ice” was another one of the dancers that worked at The Zoo with Blue. He was a tall handsome African-American guy, also a marine, and was into customizing motorcycles. He and Baby Blue were friends, and used to race together they told me. They always worked the same shows and where you’d see one, you’d see the other. On the weekends they were building faster bikes, they said.
Blue and Ice were always trying to get me to talk to women. I was quiet and observant and most of the time just as happy to watch the room or dance by myself than I was to strike up conversation. Blue introduced me to a friend of his named Cassidy one night while we happened to be performing at The Zoo. Cassidy didn’t seem interested in meeting one of his ‘dancer friends’ and I’m not sure she even really looked at me that night. She was a stripper too, so I took her seeming lack of interest at face value and I wasn’t sure why Blue thought we should get to know each other, but he kept trying to get us to talk. I left without saying goodbye to anyone that night.
The next night she and I crossed paths again on the dance floor at The Zoo where I’d come as a civilian this time. I noticed her Pulp Fiction-esque haircut and the fact that she was a good dancer right away but it took me a bit longer to realize that she was the girl from the night before. Despite how it’d gone when we met, we gravitated toward one another and ended up dancing together until they turned off the music. When the bar closed, we left together.
We went to a diner she’d worked at once upon a time and over late night food she told me that she was leaving very soon. She already had a place down in North Carolina where she was headed and her departure was only a few days away. I looked into her pale green eyes as she stared at me over the rim of the coffee cup she was sipping from and I knew that she was going to come home with me that night.
I’d never done anything like that before; met a girl while at a bar and taken her home with me. My sex life had consisted mostly of encounters from personal ads and leather shop bulletin boards and never with anyone my own age. This wholly normal situation was in fact a first for me.
We fucked the night away and well into the next day, and every time we tried to say goodbye, we kissed until we couldn’t help ourselves and ended up fucking again. We knew that time wasn’t on our side and we bargained against every goodbye with ‘just a little bit longer’. I vividly recall standing in my living room, having lifted her on top of the giant ancient console television, kissing her as she put her hand back into my pants when we realized the mailman was looking at us through the front window as he dropped off the mail.
We saw a lot of each other over the next few days, but we did not having any illusion about how or when it would end. It was still a little bittersweet to say goodbye when it was time for her to go though. I remember looking at her sitting in the van when she said I should come with her and her friend, but I wasn’t sure if she meant it and I said goodbye. Maybe she’d meant it when she’d said ‘let’s make the most of it’, or maybe she’d just been hoping to change the outcome one way or another. Maybe I should have asked her to stay.
I wandered around the little beat-up town after Cassidy left, hoping to find a bit of comfort, but all I found was uneasiness. Things with my roommates had gotten a little tense since they’d started sleeping with each other and I felt like a third wheel. I had no shows booked anytime soon and the work painting and sanding was drying up. I packed up my car and headed back to my hometown instead of paying to stay another month.
I took a job working in an automotive factory, learning how to laser weld. I stood in front of a machine on the afternoon shift, zapping parts and testing them, feeling as out-of-place as you can in the ‘normal’ world after the life I’d been living. When you look at your paycheck at the end of the week and realize that you could make that in two nights dancing, it makes it really to appreciate the money or the work. There wasn’t any sense of satisfaction in it, other than knowing I could count on that same amount every week; no more, no less…exactly the same.
I called the salon from time to time and asked about bookings and I’d make the three-hour drive there when the money was going to be good enough. I always asked who else would be working with me because it needed to be with losing my weekend over . When I was offered a show for the following day, I asked if Blue would be there. There was a silence for a moment on the other end of the line.
“Oh honey, haven’t you heard? He’s dead.” Dee said, gently, trying to break it to me easily.
I figured it had to have been a motorcycle accident but when I asked about that I was shocked to hear that the news had said that the reason Blue and Ice had been working so hard on those bikes was so they could outrun police cars, which they did, after a bank robbery. After getting away, they ditched the bikes before going to Blue’s girlfriends apartment. Ice walked in last, shot Blue in the head, and left with all the money.
I only went back once after that, but that’s a story for another time. It wasn’t the same and I knew it never would be again. Baby Blue was gone and so was Cassidy. It was the end of my time as a dancer.
Something had shifted in me though and try as I might, I couldn’t work in a factory any more. I tried conventional jobs and I used them to get by, but I needed something that I was never going to find working in retail or in a restaurant. I tried phone sex and webcamming and they added money and excitement to my life on top of the straight jobs that I worked. Eventually I moved on to performing and eventually directing and producing and I left the nine to five behind entirely. I couldn’t imagine a life where sex work wasn’t a part of it, some way, some how and I still can’t all these years later.
It’s strange and it’s colorful and sometimes it’s hard and even sad, but it’s never been dull. I wouldn’t be who I am now without that time I spent as a stripper all the years ago or the people who I met along the way. Dee taught me to recognize opportunity and Cassidy taught me to take chances. Baby Blue taught me how to work the room that’s in front of me and Ice taught me to look over my shoulder. I’m where I am today because of that summer and I’m who I am today because of the people that I lived it with.