It’s a slightly drizzly evening in February when I begin my investigation in San Francisco’s Union Square. I decide to take a chance and follow my intuition by exploring the neighboring area around my hostel. I’m 20 years old but don’t look a day over eighteen and now owned a brand new pair of black velvet stiletto’s which were hidden in my campers backpack in a hostel.
The neon can-canning Leg catches my eye – how couldn’t it? The enormity of the structure was comparable to the neon yellow, green and red sombrero above a Mexican burrito joint on lower Broadway – neon works – especially for night crawlers like myself. CHEZ PAREE it reads in a neon green old timey font going down the leg and boot (high heeled of course). Any female body part lit up in bright, glowing glory stands out for me as an indication for possible employment. Below the frilly skirt can-canning leg was the entrance with red velvet curtains letting you know that whatever is going on in there is good. It seemed to date itself back to the twenties, when these establishments were offered as “gentlemen’s clubs” proper. Sprinting back to my hostel with the can-canning leg behind me, I feverishly scrounged for my hidden black velvet stiletto treasures.
I came back into the rainy night hoping that my hair could withstand the dampness, and not give a poor first impression for whomever I’d need to audition for. The doorman Big Al, teeth missing, with a leather jacket and cap, tells me it’s a 20 dollar entrance fee for men (return entry as many times in one evening) and that they stay open till 3am. Behind the curtain I am surprised as to how everything is suddenly a different world from anyplace I’d been before and it’s all inside one room.
There’s a counter to my left like a small bar where a heavy-set brunette woman in her 40’s is leaning on her right arm talking to a white shirted dude with a curly black pony tail who is making her laugh. Music plays, an eighties song I can’t remember the name for. They decorated the walls with paintings and Parisian posters of “Les Filles De Dance!!!” and Varga images in Martini glasses all to resemble the better days of burlesque. When I first got my license to dance last year it read: Burlesque Entertainer. Having no idea what they meant by that archaic term, I researched and discovered that at one period in history women made money by stripping alone, and not by lap-dancing. Now there’s no way someone wants to watch anyone just strip. Before I could see if this club has a good VIP area, the woman and man at the bar asked me what I wanted.
“Yes – I am looking to work here. The girl on stage is stunning, as well as the way you’ve decorated the club.” Moving in closer I extend my hand.
“You have beautiful teeth” the woman who’d be later known to me as my manager was Linda and the other manager was Danny. Linda usually did night shift, while Danny did day – more girls came at night and she was all about keeping the place running smooth and gave me the impression nobody would mess with her.
“Just come back with your shoes and costumes to try it out and pay me the fee and we’ll be alright” She said.
Now all I had to do is pay the $147 stage fee to work there and buy grips for the bottoms of my stilettos and I’ll be all set.”
Yes, that seemed to be 4 times the amount of stage fee that I was accustomed to paying – but because at the Chez Paree the lap dances weren’t $20 a song but a minimum of $100 a song. If you were caught by someone charging less “it’s your funeral” Linda told me. She’d be happier if we charged $150 a song, “After you wait to the third song to approach them please, I can not stress that enough,” she expressed. I liked her a lot.
Next door was the bar Red’s Corner that the owner Steve bought cause it was illegal at the time to serve alcohol in gentlemen’s clubs in the city. The bartender’s were his daughter Samantha, whom you’d always tip generously and Tommy a man in his late 30’s who came from Brooklyn and always wore a leather vest over a white t-shirt. He was so exposed and in the know to all the daily and nightly gossip of the girls and club he could talk to you without you needing to provide back-story on anyone and anything about the Chez Paree. He started off conversations with, “Yeah, Yeah, Okay sweetheart listen I know all of that and then this. Sure there’s something you can do or say but you know what…I’m not going to be surprised or entertained by anything Sabrina or Kitten say about Linda cause they can bitch and moan but at the end of the day…guess who’s boss? It sure ain’t Tony fucking Danza or them. (pause) Wanna another wine spritzer without the spritz?”
Later that week I go to a bar on the other side of the Tenderloin that is written about as the ultimate dive hip-hop bar in the SPIN magazine’s underground guide to U.S.A. I treated this as a true reference book to what was cool.
It’s in Bar Deco where the owner and bartender Jules introduced me to the Dave a punk rock kid that lived above the bar. He was my age and worked at Nordstoms in the back doing stock room cause he was much too hardcore to do retail. I ask if I could stay with him instead of the hostel and of course give him some cash now and then too and he agreed. He told me, “Just so you know I live with another guy Ian who smokes crack. I’m not saying that to be clever or seem edgy, he is actually addicted to crack cocaine.”
Not even batting an eye I chose this over paying $28 a night in a hostel.
Dave stops at the bodega to grab “Gutter Punk Cigarettes and Beer” he tosses my duffel bag my way and I catch it feeling how heavy everything I needed was and wondered why we didn’t cab it the 3 blocks.
“Onward and forward to the Groin of the Loin!” Dave exclaimed with cigarette dangling and duffel bag slung over his shoulder. I got excited as now I’d have company to stay with and the best part was that Dave didn’t give a rat’s ass where I worked, or where I came from he just did his life while I did mine.
“Why do they call this hood the Tenderloin?” I ask him as we pass homeless men, women, and scattered dirty children’s toys that are from the discount section and fall apart fast. There are more black bag ladies here then anyplace I’ve been before in my life. There are dealers, addicts, users, pushers, handlers, pass-off boys, and yet I felt safe. What made me feel un-safe was coming across someone mentally deranged with no physical boundaries as they’re the grabby, jumpy energy of unpredictability. I could walk to work easily but I wasn’t sure about coming home alone at night. I just have to try it and see how it goes.
“You got to love Chinese right?” He asked, “There’s an incredible place around the corner with killer Moo Goo Gai Pan and Egg rolls.”
“Absolutely” I was easily distracted by the homeless woman who dumped the contents of her shopping cart onto a blanket: magazines, books, shoes, sweaters, about the same types of things I have in my duffel bag but mine were new and not all I owned in the world. Back at my Bubby Sarah’s house I had left my world behind in boxes someplace safe and cozy I could always return to, but wanted to explore California starting from San Diego working my way north through Los Angeles, staying in hostels, doing poetry on the beach, meeting DJ’s and high fiving artists while I just plodded along until this town, San Francisco as I instinctively knew would be my kind of place to work and thrive in.
Arriving back at Bar Deco he unlocks the apartment entrance and tells me that he’ll give me keys when he gets them made tomorrow. We walk up two flights and once inside I realize how small this apartment is. Dave has a bed in the kitchen and I’d be sleeping in a sleeping bag on the living room floor. The entire living room wall was plastered with the same clown poster over and over again.
“When Ian comes home I’ll introduce you and we can get some dinner, cool?” Dave told me that Ian kept his crack pipe in the bathroom hidden behind the toilet. I don’t think I tried to find it the entire two weeks I stayed there.
End of Part One. If you enjoyed this instalment please leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!