Hilary wants to know what exactly was the deciding factor which reeled me into agreeing with getting our freelancing license, I can only say that it’s enough people telling me I’d have to start out waitressing before bartending and I really couldn’t stand working in place doing that. Also, the strip club Charlie T’s is super close to home – only a 45 min bus ride switching buses at Finch station.
We bounce up and down as our eastbound bus pulls out of Eglinton Station. (I start giving her the goods, in public, but quietly…)
“Check it – Charlie T’s is sooo perfect, it’s totally not like those clubs downtown, and nobody is depressed … but super focused and normal. The club has these puffy, soft, brown love- seat couches in their VIP – which is also off to the side and totally private – so like if you did dances you won’t have to do them on the main floor in front of everyone.” I say all this in sotto voice as more people pour into the back of the bus.
“And it’s close to where we live. That’s funny,” Hilary says happily pulling out another stick of Juicy Fruit from her purse. She has a fetish for Juicy Fruit, where she tends to molest the entire pack mercilessly at any given time and chain-chews until it’s finished.
She chomps away as I tell her more about driver Mark, manager Bruce’s cratered skin and the Tweety Bird chick, She interrupts me, “Wait! What number are we at?” craning my neck I try to see out the windows, it’s just after ten -thirty and the November morning sun is piercing through the sky, I stand up to make my way up to the front telling her, “I’m gonna ask the driver to just let us know when we get to 3266.”
“Wait, we’re at 3242, so it’s got to be soon.” She shields her eyes with her hands sliding herself out of her seat, tin foil wrappers falling off her lap onto the floor earning her several dirty looks from the passengers, especially when she doesn’t pick anything up. I feel protective of her and give them the hairy-eye.
Jumping down of the back steps into the street we stand in front of an impressively new building covered in mirrored glass. Metropolitan Toronto Licensing is written on the sign in official looking letters. We read off the front directory: Taxi drivers Licensing and Burlesque Licensing Third floor.
“Wow! Burlesque is such an old-school word!” I comment in awe, as a montage of hands covered in satin gloves sweeping rose-petal pink feathered fans across my mind allows the history to come through.
There’s some pride in taking on an art that was once in an era, far, far away from neon g-strings and pole tricks. I feel like I’m responsible to uphold a tradition as excitement and panic move through me. I push the elevator button reflecting on how I’m buying my ticket to becoming one of the many unknown women who have legal rights to work at any strip club in the city.
When it comes time to take out my wallet and pay the fee, I still have trouble in reasoning spending one-hundred and eighty five dollars. It’s less difficult for me to justify spending money on shoes and clothes for my stage-show and lap-dance costume than on a piece of paper. Hilary looks over at me and senses my pain. She does a good job of letting me know about the two hundred – plus! which I’ll be pocketing in my first shift working. Having her next to me repeating these facts several times reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond in the Rain Man scene where he repeats comfortingly to himself, “Gonna make it back, gonna get your money back, doncha worry – you’re gonna make it back.” I take the crisp, new bank-machine money from my wallet. We stand in line behind a handful of East Indian men including one short back guy wearing an eye patch. I pseudo-whisper, “They are definitely getting Taxi licenses.” Hilary nods.
“For sure, good thing that my dad gave Darlene some twenties,” she says pulling out crumpled bills from her tapestry purse, back pockets and winter coat. Once at the counter we were asked to present a piece of I.D., give our social insurance number and sign a few forms. It’s as simple as opening up a bank account.
“Present these pink papers to the ladies on the second floor, and they’ll take your photo.” The fat man behind the counter directs us. Hilary asks in surprise, “photo?”
“Yes, it’s necessary for any persons wishing to obtain their Burlesque Entertainers license to get a photo I.D. taken, and another one in four years time should you wish to renew your license.” By his expressionless tone, I take it his job isn’t particularly exciting.
“Annie, did you know we’d have to get our photos done for our license?” she asks me rummaging around in her bag.
“I didn’t know, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, unless…you think that it’s weird?” I tell her putting my I.D. back. She takes out her cruddy blue Cover Girl compact to start the inspection and touch-ups.
“No, I’m okay. So now where do we go? Up?” we slowly move to the elevators.
“Let’s face it, we look mah-vel-ous” I try to comfort her in the same way she helped me shell out all that money at once, “and we’re paying a lot for this pic, so think of it kinda like…a head shot.” My reasoning makes her a little more irate.
“Oh no way, it’d be the farthest thing I want to compare to a head shot.” Her mood shifts quickly, “although it is funny if you think about Chorus Line- and – ” cutting her off I break out singing like Ethel Merman, “Who am I aaaa-neee-wayyyyeee….am I my resumaaaayyyy?” to which she joins me in a notch louder, “Or just a license of a person they don’t know?” We sing in the elevator on our way to the third floor.
“What do they waaant from me…” my voice fades as the doors open to a floor exactly the same as the one we came from, only brighter. Fluorescent lighting sets off a counter that stretches across half the room. Taking note of all their cramped cubicles with computers and filing cabinets, I reflect how I wouldn’t want to be stuck behind a desk for all the money in the world, but I’d take my clothes off and sit on strange men’s laps in a nano-second. They try to make their work atmosphere as cozy as possible with photo frames, plants and a child’s first snowman drawing. The early signs of Christmas are also evident by the tiny gifts under the tiny tree on a corner table. How come everything in the office is miniature? I wonder. Walking up to the counter still zipped in our jackets and scarves we lean up on the grey ledge as if we were at a bar. A pudgy Filipino lady in a rose-patterned sweater smiles sweetly at us.
“You girls are so cute!” she exclaims, getting the attention of the woman beside her.
“Us? Aw shucks, we are only cute until you get us wet – like Gremlins!” Hilary says winking at me – we know they’ve no idea what Gremlins even are.
“I’m ready for my close-up Mistah Deville!” I sweep my scarf across my neck mock-dramatically. The other lady behind her laughs moving closer to us.
“Okay girls please come through the side doors and Susi will get you to stand on the line. If you want to take opp your jackets you can.” She is also on the plump side with short wiry black hair and a face as round as an Inuit in National Geographic. Both of these ladies remind me of the Filipino live-in nannies all my suburban Jewish families hired. You always see them pushing a stroller in the mall during the day wearing the mothers Roots-reject hand-me-downs.
The process of getting our photos done isn’t as daunting as I’d anticipated, if only for the reason that all these women are such a supportive audience and genuinely interested in our shtick by asking us about our schooling and where we grew up.
“We can’t be that much different from the other girls who want their licenses, are we?” I ask roses-sweater.
“Well yes, both of you are dipprent from the other girls because they hap to do this work to, to- “ her sentence gets finished by the other lady. “they just hap no other choice.” She says waving her pudgy hand in the air.
“Or…they are not so funny, and maybe didn’t go to school like you girls.” The wiry haired one says passing papers to the other lady.
“I’m not that smart,” I retort, “But I’m smart enough to not do this job forever, this is only in the meantime so that I can make some money to live on my own and eventually go to Theatre School and stuff, there’s no way I’d dance like they do because it’s a last resort.” In defense of my intelligence, I feel the need to say this to her. I didn’t even want think about the reasons for Hilary doing this at this very moment.
“Did you tell your parents?” She asks Hilary while fishing out more papers on her desk. Hilary’s eyes widen,
“My parents? No way…they’d flip out, flip out of the window onto a trampoline come back and murder me flip out. I’m doing both of them a favor by keeping it a secret.” She follows her to take her photo. When it’s my turn to go I decide that I’m not going to show my teeth.
Hilary leans her head on my shoulder and we sit on faded blue chairs to wait. Another lady shuffles in from the back and passes her two 6 by 4 inch laminated cards.
“Whoa! Could these be any less inconspicuous? I couldn’t fit this into my wallet even if I owned a wallet to get it into.” Hilary holds it at different arm-lengths.
“Who knew we could look this pretty with so little prep-work?” I comment. At this moment I decide to bid farewell to the women who were so genuinely kind to us, “okay lovely ladies, seriously thank you for the photo shoot. Next stop for us is going downstairs to the taxi licensing department so we can pick up some future customers…” I try to sound as if this whole stripping business is pretty much all light-hearted to both of us. Reaching out to see Hilary’s license I look at her smirk, thinking how it all says: I know, pretty funny hey? She still resembles a young Carly Simon. The first Pilipino lady calls out to us, “You girls stick together okay? And be care-pul!” She’s saying this like we’re going trick or treating.
Back outside in the cold sunshine, we wait for the bus to take us back to the subway. Looking down at the official block letters that spell out my entire name, I feel embarrassed. My last name has always been on my shit list, with its complicated pronunciation prompting so many public school teasing sessions in class and recess that makes me think about my stage name and all the possibilities I can pick from.
Hilary is squinting and deeply inhaling on her Du Maurier. I turn to her and ask what her dancer name will be. The wind starts to blow hard on our faces. She pulls her coat together and hunches over her shoulders.
“Right, the name thing. I was thinking about that yesterday. I’m reading this novel right now and the main character is this young, wealthy woman named: Carris.” She looks at me. Not wanting my expression to reveal that name as something I did not find sexy I just fake smile. That name doesn’t suit her. I wanted her name to be total stripper nonsense like Silver or Roxy.
“Yeah, totally good choice, and original too. That doesn’t seem to be like those typical ones we heard like Kashara or Savannah.” I convincingly tell her.
“Totally! Who are you going to be?” She waits. Looking at the road I could see our bus behind a sea of cars. There really was only one name I wanted.
“I’m going to use the name Athena. Cause in my old Improv comedy troupe there was a girl who was a really pretty hippy –chick who was totally free-spirited and effortlessly stunning. Her name was Athena.” I believe that if I give myself a name after a naturally pretty girl, I’ll always feel that way when I hear it called out I reason. I also think it’ll sound cool announced by a DJ’s smooth voice: “Gentlemen put your hands together for Athena, who will do another Nirvana set, that’s Athen-ahhh, and next up we have Carris, who’s name is like Ferris, except it’s not her day off…hey now!”
“That’s a great name. It suits you.” Hilary said releasing a bunch of random change into the fare-box from her finger-less, magic-mini gloved hand. The driver doesn’t care and that’s wonderful. Hilary and I grab our seats in the back and discuss how we’re going to act in Charlie T’s – From the second we hit the floor we will be in character, especially when we’re on stage and doing private dances. But no matter what – we’re never, ever telling anyone who we really are.
“It’s the girls who are totally themselves at work, who probably get all majorly fucked up over shit, so our acting skills become our edge. We seriously can’t have anyone knowing anything about us ever.” She says with conviction.
“I agree totally Hill, and I like your point about not talking to any of the other girls unless they talk to us first.” My fingers go to feel some new pimples that sprouted up on my forehead. My mom says to keep my hands off my face, but when I’m thinking that’s the normal place for them to be.
We confidently stride through the subway station to get to the southbound train excited to start shopping for costumes at the Eaton Center. The entire hall smells deliciously of creamy, sugary, cinnamon rolls tempting me to buy one. I’m stopped by a new awareness of how I’m going to be dancing naked, and should start to be conscious of what kinds of food I’m eating. Just thinking about eating pasta at our staff Christmas party tonight worries me.
“I’m going to that Have-a-Java thingy tonight, free drinks, food, shit like that – I’ll probably not have a lot to eat.” I wait to see her reaction, as in the past she didn’t approve of me monitoring my food, observing any signs I could show for god-forbid an eating disorder.
“And…I just realized that I’m going to have all the bags from our shopping this afternoon, unless I give all the stuff to you to take home.” Hilary didn’t like what I was telling her.
“What? No way…you’re taking home all my costumes and keeping all of it at your house. You know my mother goes through my shit, my purse, my room on a daily basis.” she says this and stops to throw me that look. There’s the look that I get from her which makes me give in and I do.
“Okay, I’ll shlepp all our shopping stuff to the party with me, and you’ll buy the LCBO.” I tell her making sure I have gum in my purse. Running her tongue over her front teeth she begins in a Cockney accent, “Right…interesting option guv-nah. We’ll see about that after lunch.”
On our way out of Dundas station I joke, “Do you think they’ll give us a discount at the “World of Shoes” if we present our licenses?”
“Oh my God they should” she says.
The store is a monolithic eye-sore as the entire front is flanked in enormous blue letters “WORLD OF SHOES.” We enter through a silver turnstile that leads into an entire two floors of cheap, trendy footwear. We discussed this before – there’s only one pair of shoes that we want and that is the pair that Kashara wears.
Between pleather, vinyl and fake-snake-skin boots that were suitable to prance and sashay on any stage or Jarvis, were the ruby-red and royal blue shiny platform mary-janes. We try them on and get a pair in each color knowing we can share each others shoes.
They only cost $24.99 each and after, happily swinging our bags we make our way across to Eatons where we pass perfume and makeup women hopping from customer to customer to get a sale. Once up the escalator on the third floor we begin to hunt for costumes in their expansive lingerie department.
There’s more than we fathomed and the pieces that we want are easy to wear if we decide to just use them for normal things if stripping doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t appeal to us to get trashy, cheap shit as we want to rock bras and slips the same color as our shoes. We take shiny ruby red and blue satin g-strings, tiny t-shirts, short-shorts, slip dresses with push-up bras and anything lace. Our arms are laden down with the sleeping costumes. Once we enter the largest change-room and plunk ourselves down on the broadloom, peel off our jackets, we let ourselves breathe.
I appreciate the muted, private quality in being surrounded by the small four walls of the cubicle. Sitting on the grey bench that feels as if someone wrapped it in nubbily material completely unaware it would be in the change room of a lingerie department, I start to unzip my bells. My legs look nothing like the strippers legs do – black lights or not. They are chapped, dry, hairy, and totally chubby compared to their smooth, shiny, tanned, show-pony gams. Hilary hadn’t taken her clothes off yet.
“Maybe we should start with the bras first.” I suggest. Appreciating the versatility of Papillons stretchy bra slips, Hilary isn’t excited about my choice and is pre-occupied with something else inside her tapestry bag.
“Dah-link….don’t steal them bras without trying them on first,” I joke trying to get her attention.
“Yeah, really.” She says detached. My eyes land on the baby-blue velvet jewelry box. It seems obscene sitting on the broadloom next to a plastic water bottle and her lighter. I know what she’s planning to do when she pulls out a kitchen soup spoon. Her eyes quickly meet mine, “I’m just going to take a sec to give myself a fix and then I’ll try on the stuff with you.” She rests her spoon on the slip. Did she say “fix”? When was this junkie lingo added to her vocabulary? She didn’t even ask me if that’s an okay thing to do here, never mind while I was naked trying on my first stripping costume pieces which was really enough to handle right now. I see the needle and how she knows all the steps to take.
“Did this fix cost you, or is your very best friend Kendal giving you free samples?” I wait to hear what she’s got to say as the white packet is pulled open and tanned-sand colored flakes fall like snow into the spoons cradle, not a sound or word comes out from her mouth.