On the Finch bus going west I sit with Elaine and thank her for what seems to be the tenth time for coming along with me to support me on my first night at Charlie T’s as Hilary is nowhere to be found. Elaine’s never been inside a strip club, and after me telling her the stories about me and Hilary’s investigation, one would guess that she’d really be put off, but instead she’s agreed to be moral support. I plan on having her sit at a table close to the stage and tell her that I want her to be completely honest and critique my set. Walking into Charlie T’s with Elaine I feel prepared. The shoes, perfume, and my stretchy ruby slip dress provide me with enough security. My mind is on hyper-speed looking to find answers to the questions: Why am I not nervous? Why am I not shaking? I was totally nervous when I auditioned for Theatre school as the preparation alone of knowing two characters, two pieces, and understanding my three year post-grad stint depended solely upon my talent, or me displaying whatever qualities in those moments so the teachers could assess me, really had me on the edge. But now, I didn’t need to audition to work here – the stakes were not that high. Using improvisational skills I had learned since I took Improv comedy and drama from the age of 9 I would be doing what those theatre sissy’s couldn’t handle – studying characters by working alongside them and actually getting to be one of them. This is my present rationalization: I am engaging in a real-life character study. I will master this character, I convince myself and put my new two-day old burlesque entertainer license in the front pocket of my green suede backpack. I will completely look, dress and smell alluring enough that I can convince these men I’m a real deal stripper.
The first thing I do when I’m entering the club is squint my eyes to try to see anything in front of my face. Even though it’s ten o’ clock outside the cold November night is well on its way to darkness, I find the club darker than it was before. But out splayed in front of me, like that roadhouse strip club in a movie, I can’t deny the pride I feel as I have finally arrived at this soundproof, secret island. Too many of the days I wanted to scream, snatch, claw and dance into something this real, this dangerous, this risky, and now, I feel exactly like I am doing just that. My heart pumps faster and I cover it up by nodding to the last part of Pearl Jam’s Evenflow. If only they knew how I’ve been preparing for working by doing all my research in clubs they’d really respect my commitment, I think. Convincing myself that Danny was going to give me a warm welcome almost manifested the reality set before me. This wasn’t fictional but the reality that I choose to work in. All the characters were here like a few days ago as I find comfort in seeing the same waitress, bartender, bar-back, DJ and girls who I just shook hands with before. Looking around I wonder how many girls were freelancing and how many actually held a place on schedule. Okay -time for a pow-wow to keep Elaine from taking off, I lean in,
“Okay – Elaine, before I go back there to change, I have to check in with the DJ so he can see my license.” I say loudly over Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”
Nodding happily Elaine tells me she’s sitting up at the left side of the stage. If it was Hilary she’d be coming through the change room door with me, but that’s not going to happen tonight. It’s not that I miss her, it’s just that I’ve adjusted the plan to accommodate her absence and now have an objective witness who can help to sharpen and direct my first attempt at a stage show. Who better than to have a photographer friend?
Confidently walking to the booth I feel all the heads from the men turn and look my way, as if they all know I’m the “new girl”. That’s totally not self-centered for me to think that as I feel it. I slip into to the dark DJ booth where I find it somewhat funny that the size is just a little bit larger than a phone booth, and ironically enough there is a phone in here alongside a lighting board. Looking at the puffy Chinese face of Jeremy the DJ (who will forever be permeated into my psyche as the one who beats up on his stripper girlfriend Jelilah) cradling the phone on his shoulder, who I hope he doesn’t pick up on the fact that I already hate him makes me avert my eyes so I begin to look down at all the CD’s he has. Three huge leather bound CD books fan out like oversized albums, I take in a deep breath as I can’t even imagine owning one book that size filled with CD’s never mind three. Hilary and I still listen to tapes. He puts his pudgy hand over the receiver and asks me to get out my license. I give it to him and while he’s on the phone he writes down the number at the bottom of the clipboard, telling the caller to ‘get back to him in five as he has to take care of the freelancer’. I accept my new identity as now the ‘Freelancer.’
“Hey, Okay so did you see Danny yet?” He asks me tapping his pen.
“No, I thought I had to check in with you first,” I quickly answer.
“Normally yes, but since it’s your fir-“ he pauses in the way Fred Flintstone does in the cartoon where the aliens take over and has him repeat in monotone: Yabba Dabba Do. Jeremy’s automatic response has him turning on the microphone, “Thank you Christina, she’s something else eh boys? Don’t be shy, you can get Christina or anyone of our sensational girls over to your table for a private dance. Drink specials al night. Enter to win a car from Labbatts Blue – just ask your sexy server for a ballot, and here next up we have another gorgeous girl – Wild Cherry. Let’s give her a warm welcome.” He looks out the window, presses some buttons on the CD player, clicks off the mic and writes down my name.
“Athena with an I?”
“No, A-T-H-E-N-A. I can’t picture where the ‘I’ went in so I don’t say anything. It makes methink about why someone would choose to become a strip club DJ, and how much High School he’s done. Out to my left I watched a curly-haired brunette get on stage in a shiny red bell-bottomed pantsuit and bounce around the back bar to “Love in an Elevator”
“I’m assuming your freelancing and not on schedule, right?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure about going on schedule yet – but tonight I’m definitely freelancing.”
“You know you have to give me the ten dollar stage fee now, and freelancers are also required to do one stage show – sometimes more than one if I’m short of schedule girls that shift. You need to tell me what you’re dancing to.”
I took out my three CD’s (Romeo and Juliette Soundtrack, Garbage, PJ Harvey) and showed him the order as I marked it on the discs. He didn’t compliment me on my organizational song listing skills, or say how much he liked the film Romeo and Juliette.
“So, tracks one, six and nine right?” I nod. “Don’t forget to pick this up before you go tonight, I don’t keep CD’s overnight. Always keep your ears open for your name, but chances are you won’t go up for another hour.”
That is perfect, I think, as that way I can put more make-up on and settle in. I didn’t think Elaine would want to sit for an hour, but at this point what was I going to say to her?
“Thank you Jeremy.” I say in a voice that I believe is more mature than the average stripper. He nods back at me. I pass a girl with short red hair and white sarong on her way to see him and she smiles at me.
Back in the office I still believe it resembles an office found in a mechanics garage. The Sunshine girl I had previously noticed was still there. It’s funny to me how I was just here once, but the fact that I have returned, and am here now, proves that I didn’t imagine any of it. Danny was wearing a suit again, and this time jumped out of his chair to shake my hand.
“Good to see you! Did Mark drive you in? Have a seat.” He looked excited and straightens his tie. I sit across from him watching him search through papers beside the ash tray.
“Hey, yeah, well I took the bus in tonight.” I am not going to tell him that I can’t yet reason paying the ten dollars for the DJ and another ten to get driven one way as that was a luxury for the girls who’re already making money. I am completely bedazzled by the signs of women’s prosperity all around me. If they could afford these nice costumes, and shoes and to get their nails and hair done, then they must be doing really well here. He gets up to close the door. I now begin to feel amused at this entire ‘signing up’ process. Maybe I should be leery of what I’m signing myself up for, a voice in the back says,
“These are just to make sure that the name on the license matches up with the girl on the floor, and if you’re even thinking at this point of going on schedule, and I pay you then we may need to get your SIN number.”
“But, if I work here tonight, I don’t need to give you my SIN right?” If my SIN was involved there’d be a record of me working here – and I definitely do not want that. I fill out the sheet with my address, birth-date, and sign the bottom. Nothing really scare me other than writing: zero, under the place asking me if I had any piercings or tattoos. I wondered how many other girls had left that part blank. I didn’t want to joke around with Danny or make it too casual, as he needs to know that I take this very seriously.
“Do I get a lock from you for the lockers?” I ask him, handing him the sheet. He looks it over as I wait anxiously to change and hit the floor.
“Nice choice of name – Athena.” I get goosebumps by the way that he says it – and so readily accepting of my false moniker. All part of this work world. Come in, give your music, pay your fee to work – the concept alone is so utterly strange to grasp. I think about how many other people I currently know who pay to work and accept that rule with no questions asked.
Danny escorts me across the floor, as he nods and winks at the dancers. I feel as if there’s a big sign around my face reading: NEW GIRL! NEW GIRL! And I just want to get my make-up touched up and avoid these men (potential customers) seeing me without my costume on in my everyday winter coat. I don’t want them to be able to identify me by my vintage coat out in public as that would really be shitty. I wonder, why doesn’t this club have a door from the outside that leads into the change room, why the inconvenience of a long walk from the front entrance? I see Elaine and she waves at me.
“Is that your friend Hilary?” Danny asks me. He must really need girls to work here, otherwise why would he remember her name.
“Uh, no Hilary can’t come until next week” I make up an excuse as I really want to tell him, “Yeah she’s kinda pre-occupied with her newest drug Heroin. But doncha worry nothin’ cause she’s just a regular ole lush like me.” Instead I continue to tell him unnecessary, albeit helpful information like how she did get her license with me and will be coming to make an appearance soon, but Elaine is my moral support for my first evening on the pole.
“Okay Summer….hey Summer,” Danny tries to get the attention of the pasty-skinned brunette behind a circle of skinny strippers. Now if anything I am nervous. The girls wobble, lurch, teeter and mince around this depressing gum-ball pink colored change room. Tall lockers line the walls along all three sides with one wall covered by a mirror and counter and to the left pay-lockers. These are the same looney-lockers which exist in shopping malls, and make me panic as I don’t think I have a looney on me. A red-head pulls out her orange key as she avoids being run-down by a black girl trying to rush out the door.
“Come on girl please move, I got to change for my second song!” She throws down a hand towel the size of a place-mat and a shiny blue purse.
“Shit, if it’s your second song that means that I’m on soon too,” a bleach blonde with terrible roots pipes up.
Danny’s male presence is somewhat accepted and cancelled out in the changeroom with half-naked, half-dressed dancers. I like him. He’s comforting to me at this time the same way your mother is on the first day of grade one.
“Summer, can you please take a sec and help out the new freelancer Athena in finding a locker to use eh?”
In the same manner a father would leave his daughter when she’s gone to sleepover camp, Danny tries to untie me with a helpful stripper to be a ‘buddy’.
“Move, move, sorry…” The dancer I just saw hit the stage as ‘Wild Cherry’ bursts in this tight space and is completely naked aside from her scuffed white stilettos holding two sweaty glasses of white wine which she plunks down on the counter, wine sloshing over falling onto the pile of her shiny red costume.
“Hi! I’m Athena, howzit going?” I greet her as I apply lip liner.
“Are you always going to talk that way?” she confronts me turning to focus her gaze on my hair. I immediately recognize her assessing my tresses from years of clubbing experience and become self conscious immediately.
“Oh, I just wanted to…I just…” oh shit, I think, why did I just do that? In barely seconds after Danny exited I have not remained invisible or established street cred in a positive manner. Why didn’t I just follow the ruse of not talking to another stripper unless she speaks first?
“Scootch over Kat, “ Wild Cherry slurs pushing into a drunk girl with a short bob of blonde and glittery pink halter top on. She slings her silver mini-backpack into her locker where there’s more sparkly spandex than the entire Pride Parade. I couldn’t be distracted or make another mistake, I have to be focused, forget everything and apply my make-up with out interruption, I think. My eyeshadow goes on with focus as Kat wraps herself in a cheap flea-market fuzzy blanket and complains how “fuckin’ freezing-ass cold” she is. I am now exposing myself to a certain lower class Canadian dialect as I hear their comments,
“Shit, I seen buddy at the bar and no ways is he coming out with me tonite”
“Nobody gonna take my regular – I gots half an hour and half a bottle of blue before my next set guy.”
I keep applying my blush deeper and another girl chimes in about how hot the lights are on stage and how she’s slipping every, “which fuckin’ way to Sunday cause some dumb bitch wore too much lotion on stage tonight” Now my black liquid liner which requires patience and adept focus is applied as a shooter tray is placed on the counter and a girl with sweat dripping from her forehead and chest asks everyone for a baby wipe and some rollies as her friend is here with the ‘seriously good hydro’. Four girls who are fussing in their lockers with perfume and cigarettes commiserate with the plan on chipping in to getting some of said hydro, and one of my eyes is almost dry when another girl comes back with a cooler and yells about how: stupid this shit hole club is for never bringing in enough men!. I feel comfortably detached as I observe their chaotic routine feeling entirely removed and loving every second of it.
Compared to the dressing rooms in movies and in Markham Theatre where I’d performed for the last four years in Arts High School, these girls have a bum deal. Here I smell and feel chaos – true chaos where they’re packed in and have no other alternative then to be prickly, cramped and annoyed leading to some unavoidable confrontations and complaints about personal space. What they need is really proper lighting, I think, and how tragic it is to do my makeup in a dingy mirror with a single, fixture-less light bulb hanging down. On the positive side: at least the mirror went across the entire wall, but who can imagine these third-world, barely adequate conditions exist behind the swinging change room door? Definitely not me. Do not show that this phases you, the voice inside my head tells me. The space we have behind the Have-A-Java counter isn’t much bigger than this, I reason. Somehow with the girls swooping in crying about customers, lighting up cigarettes and joints, and yelling at each other about who’s set was up next, I manage to get my black g-string on, short-shorts, and sheer black top. I shove everything in my back-pack and bend down to find my own Loonie-locker. I start to open the ones that aren’t locked and to my surprise every single one of them is stuffed to the capacity with some other strippers stilettos, costume bags and crap. I’m taken over by a surge of frustration and panic as I feel the heat before the tears begin. NO, you can’t cry like a baby Annie. You just need to pull it together and ask if someone can share their locker with you. Gazing up at the tall, gawky blonde chatting with the implanted dancer I just chicken out. Taking my backpack and coat with me I leave the change room in my costume and quickly zoom across past the tables focusing straight ahead at the office. I knock on the door and Danny opens it knowing just by a quick glance-over why I came.
“Okay, usually Athena there are plenty of available lockers, and that’s why you may have to get here earlier next time to just get one, okay? But for now, since it’s your first night I’m going to let you keep your stuff in here. I got no problem with unlocking the door to let you get what you need.” He becomes my savior and I thank him while spraying myself quickly one more time with my drug-store score of: White River Musk. I am also grateful to be out of the noisy change room and somehow blessed with a quiet, private, suite of my own. Not bad, I think ready to take on the floor for a first shift.
I try to move around the tables in my new ridiculously high platform mary-janes as naturally as possible. I’ve been doing this for years, I try to convince myself. Watching how the other girls glide into places at tables with customers I see them laugh, touch their boobs, and somehow make conversation, I take a breath and re-assure myself that I can attract someone to come to my table to get a table dance with me using improv. One of the shooter girls from the back of the room makes her way over to me.
“Good Evening doll! What club are you coming from or are you new on schedule or just freelancing for tonight?” She asks me through a perfect pair of glossed burgundy lips.
“Hey, I’m just freelancing tonight, but if it works out I’m thinking of going on schedule”
“Did you go up on stage yet? She asks balancing her tray on one knee.
“No, I go on in about thirty minutes or something,” choosing to withhold the fact that it will be my first time.
“I’m Anastasia,” She holds out her hand which has incredibly polished long nails in a shiny pearly-pink colour.
“Hi, I’m Athena,” every time I say my name I feel more and more in character.
“Cool name, like that a lot.” She nods and her short cropped brownish black hair falls to the other side. “Okay so hon, here’s how it works…when you sit with a customer and you’re talking and stuff, if you see me coming up act all totally surprised like, and I’ll offer you guys a shooter, so hold off him getting you a second drink when you see me coming up, Okay?” Second drink? I hadn’t even had a chance to snatch a customer to get me a first, and now I was pre-occupied with another pressure added to simply getting my customer to buy a lap dance from me. Her shooter tray featured a coffee-coloured shooter which I’m sure I’ll love, and more than that makes me want to ask if she’ll throw me a freebie but I don’t dare. She picks up her tray with expertise and smiles, “thanks”
“I think I’m up to dance soon so I’ll see you around,” Feeling better having talked to one of the staff I go out further on the floor to check on Elaine.
“Oh my God Annie, you look so good! Wow…this is totally surreal…I seriously can’t believe you’re going for this. Do you think they’d let me take photo’s in here?” Typical of Elaine, so clueless.
“Probably not for privacy reasons. But can you just imagine if you could – that would be the best art piece ever. Look at my mary jane platforms, don’t they rock?” I ask her trying to stay calm.
“For sure! Okay so are you going around to actually talk to these guys?” Elaine’s eyebrows twist and she turns her head to the direction of perverts row.
“Yeah, but I still have to listen for the DJ to call me up to the stage.” As we talk there’ s waitresses moving around tables, men drinking and eating with some girls and people yelling for the shooter girl to take a shooter out of another girls bra. It’s busy and I am overwhelmed with what to do next.
“Okay Elaine, so when I’m done on stage I’ll get dressed and sit back here with you.” In my palm I clench my little change purse. I really want a drink but don’t know where to sit. I don’t feel ready to be with an entire group of men at one table so I focus on the loaners. Most of them are sitting in perverts row, but if I approach them, I don’t want the girl on stage to blame me for taking away the attention off her. Taking a deep breath I try to feel out instinctively who’d be receptive enough to a newbie such as myself. Moving to the back I spot Olivia with a black guy who’s having an intimate talk with her.
“Excuse me hon, coming through!” The barback Rick is moving a huge box of empties through to the kitchen .
“Sorry,” I move out of the way and then hear a voice say, “That was a close one eh?”
“Yeah,” I see a guy with glasses and a Pink Floyd shirt sitting at a two-seater alone. Could this be my first taker? He seemed to look like the guy who’d never left his parents house. I think he’s harmless enough and approach him.
“Hows it going? I’m Athena,” I put my little towel down and have a seat.
“Are you new? I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” he says sipping a blue.
“It’s my first night here.” Shit – why did I say that?
“Where’d you work before?” he asks assuming that it’s my first night working in this club, not first night dancing.
“No, I mean it’s my first night dancing ever.”
“Really? That’s so funny. I am always having the newbies sit with me. I’m Donny.”
“Hey Donny, that’s a great name.” I try to keep up my veneer of cool and not share any of Annie with him.
“So didcha pick the name Athena cause of the Who song?” he asks, I want to keep the focus away from me and on him.
“I didn’t know that the Who has a song called Athena, cool… do you like rock?” I can see a waitress coming up behind him like a great shining godess.
“Hey yeah, but who doesn’t love rock? I love rock and roll, put another dime in the juke–“ Donnybegins to ruin the Joan Jett song for me forever and I want to hug the curly haired waitress for saving me.
“And how are we doing Donny?” She rests her hand on his shoulder.
“Can I get you another Dry?”
“Sure, and Athena do you want something?” Bingo – I want one of everything, and quickly.
“Thanks! How about a Mike’s Hard Lemonade?” I wanted to jump up and get it myself at this point.
“Okay – I’ll be back in a jiffy. What’s your name again?” She asks
“I’m Athena, I met you here before with Mark,” I say thinking it would be stupid for her to recall me previously with clothes on.
“Okay….yeah…welcome to Charlies!” She genuinely smiles and heads over to the bar area. Donnie shifts his gaze to her tush and I’m watching the girl on stage and the whole moment is surreal as I’m not acustomer any more but have finally crossed over to the other side.