Men’s Travel Category—Bronze Winner: Join the Club

by Dave Mondy

I am trying to go into a strip club but I can’t.

They line both sides of the street here, jammed up close like a chorus line, and each time I get within 5 ft. of a door, I have an episode. My stomach roils, my hands shake — I’m spilling beer all over my pants — and I have to turn back.’An attack of the nerves’, Tennessee Williams would call it. And this is, after all, his city: New Orleans.I thought this would just be a fun little thing (‘alone in New Orleans, Dave goes to His First Strip Club!’) but clearly it’s become something more — guilty panic attacks left over from a Christian past.

And right then, this hustler walks up to me and says, “What you lookin’ for, man? Bars, music, trees, lady clubs — I can tell you the spot.”

“Lady clubs,” I say.

“I’ll show you,” he says. And before I know it, he’s got his hand on my elbow, leading me down the back alleys of The French Quarter.

***

Two weeks previous, my dad called me up at my apartment and lied. “I’ve earned this free plane ticket and, ah, I can’t use it. You need a vacation?”

He lied because he was worried: My girlfriend of four years — first girlfriend I ever had, first girl I ever slept with, the girl who sprung me from Christianity in the first place — had left. I dropped out of college to find myself and found myself sitting in a shitty studio apartment outside downtown Minneapolis, working my way through 5-7 beers and 3-4 infomercials a night.

Next to me, on the couch, there were toe-nail clippings that were over a week old.

“Yeah, I’d love to take the ticket.”

***

Heading down the alley, I make out that the hustler’s name is Robert, and that’s about all I can understand. He’s muttering away, muttering and muttering, and I just keep responding with, “Cool… cool…” It’s the only phrase I can conceive that won’t betray me as Neophyte Midwestern Whiteboy.

Then I make out, “What you lookin’ for, black women or white women?”

“Ah… white women?”

And Robert suddenly changes, his eyes get huge, and he says, “What, you don’t like black women?!”

“No, ah, ahm… I do… I was just talking preference, he he…”

But he just keeps staring. Then busts out laughing. “Just fuckin’ with you, man. I like white women too! I mean, hell… they all pink.”

In my mind, I’m sure I was thinking, “How horribly misogynistic!” But, oddly, what comes out of my mouth is, “Cool… cool.”

***

Checking into my motel room, it was perfectly decrepit, just like I imagined: Sit on that old iron bed, open those old wooden shutters, and just watch the hustlers and transvestites and beat people of every stripe, walkin’ down the ol’ avenues — so cool!

And yet, as much as I loved it, all I could think was, “I’ve got no one to share this with.” Almost went to bed sad.

But then I thought, “Or: I could just walk out the door…”

***

And if you’ve never been there — the streets of the Quarter are a maze made from a busted-up set for Streetcar Named Desire — you get lost, and then don’t care that you’re lost. You’re looking for adventure.

And the first man to approach hands me a little booklet and says, “Excuse me, sir, have you found Jesus?”

“No,” I want to say. “Is he hiding?”

On the cover of the booklet is the word, Temptation!, and it features the cartoon picture of a stripper. And, embarrassingly, I find that I’m attracted to the cartoon. And right then, I know my adventure.

Strip clubs aren’t our happiest institutions; I’m sure at some point in my life, I’ll outright condemn them.

Just not tonight.

***

Around a few more corners there is a long line of people, and a bouncer, and the bouncer is turning most of the people away. Robert bypasses them all, gives the bouncer a complicated high-five, and we’re inside.

The room is a long windowless tie-box, lit predictably, perfectly, with pink neon. The bar runs the length of one wall.

Robert points to two stools, we sit, two beers are put in front of us, and I’m already out ten dollars. And Robert keeps saying to the bartender, this tall raven-haired woman, “Tell him… Tell him about the thing…” And I don’t even see a stage anywhere.

Something’s going on here.

***

But then a woman gets up to dance. That’s where the stage is– Just this thin linoleum strip behind the bar. And when she whips her top off, it’s sudden magic — just this sudden flash of fantasy out of nowhere — but the weird thing is, after a while, it doesn’t really affect you, either. She’s just up there, bobbing around, and so:

There it is. Now I’ve been to a strip club. Check. Blase’.

Except Robert changes again: He points to two women at the end of the bar and says, “Fucked them last week….” And then he’s mumbling again, “mumble mumble mumble you can get your dick sucked… mumble mumble mumble get some pussy… mumble mumble mumble you can hit ’em a little.” The last statement just hangs there and so he adds, as if to explain, “Well, I’m a black man.”

Now I have no idea what this explains, nor who authorized him to speak for all black men (possibly Ike Turner?), but I have no time to figure it out: The nausea is back big-time. I stand up, scanning for the bathrooms, scanning for the exit, Oh jesus, oh jesus don’t fucking throw up here–

And then the bartendress is behind me — sitting me down, breasts on my neck, teeth in my ear. Whispering: “Now listen, everybody here is straight, everybody here is cool, no one’s gonna fuck with you, I’m not gonna fuck with you, everyone here is straight, everyone here is good people, now listen: It’s 50 bucks to the bar, 150 to the door, and you negotiate the tip with the girl when you go downstairs… that’s 50, 150, tip… it’s all got to be cash ‘cept the 150, that can go on card, don’t worry, we’re straight, we’re cool, it just shows up on your statement as ‘food and beverage’, we’re straight with you, we’re good people, you be straight with us. ‘kay honey?” She bite-kisses my ear and is gone.

And I know I’ve got to get the hell out of here.

***

But I don’t.

Why? Why oh why didn’t I leave when I had the chance? Well, part of the reason is that this place is dark — dark dark — with just little pockets of light illuminating faces, and most of those faces are menacing. You get the feeling that if you just stood up and left without being straight, without being cool, without being ‘good people’, you’d be followed into the alley and…

But the real reason is: Robert’s the first real lowlife I’ve ever met, and I want to make a good first impression.

So I stay.

***

Robert’s changed back now — he’s nice Robert, funny Robert. He keeps bumming smokes off of me and tearing off the filter. One time, he takes the cigarette, tears off the filter, tears the cigarette in half, puts one half behind his ear for later, and then smokes the other. Two Nordic businessmen ask him for a cigarette, which he gives them out of a full pack of his own he’s had stashed in his pocket, and then turns back to me. Goes right on mumbling.

Laughing at Robert, I’ve let my guard down. The girl who was on stage is now, topless, in my lap. She introduces herself as Chastity, Charity, something… she’s asking me questions about myself, and the panic is back more than ever, I’m going to vomit in her lap…

But then she gets me with The Eyes. As she asks me questions, The Eyes say, “I know how lonely it is, but I am honestly interested in who you are and what you have to say…” and I know it’s a game, but The Eyes feel so good on me, I want to nuzzle into her glitter-flaked chest.

And I understand the true draw of the strip club: Come for the nudity, stay for the illusion of companionship.

***

And I would like to say that knowledge meant something, let me look in on the situation from the outside and gain some perspective. But she says something about going downstairs and I look, and see the door. Framed by an, honest to god, red curtain. And there’s no panic now, ’cause I’m at the center of it, the storm or whatever it was I was afraid of.

And I know that if I go down there now, just jump into that instinct, that action, that hedonism or whatever you want to call it, I could end up a drunk, a perv, a burnout who calls his mom 4 years from now for bus fare home… just 4 years of wasted time… but I also want to know: Why not just go for it?!? Because it’s there and it’s there and I want it, just like Blake or Williams or Kerouac or O’Neill or Gray or…

And I stood up.

And said no.

Not like this. Not like this.

Paying for sex, however romanticized, however poetically down-and-out, is still paying for sex.

Tonight, I will not be the world’s oldest patron.

***

We all have to scoot forward when a legless man in a wheelchair (with neon blue running lights!) passes by. He says something to Chasterity about smoking a joint, and then, thank god, she’s gone.

When Robert heads to the bathroom, I salute him in absentia and make for the door. The bartendress stops me on the way out, but I think quick and say that this place is exactly what I was looking for… I just didn’t expect to find it so quick. I’m jet-lagged, tired, and only really have enough money for one go-round. I’ll be back tomorrow.

My little epigram any hustler can understand: When you only got enough money for one Big Easy fuck, you wanna get the most bang for your buck.

She bite-kisses my ear, again, and I’m gone.

***

Outside, it’s fresh air. Free. Everything’s back to normal, nothing has changed. I’m still that same ol’ Dave, still capable of wearing the mantle of ‘Good Guy’.

But maybe not.

Because when a group of girls comes walking towards me, all dressed up for the night, I don’t look down like I always have before. I look right at them. Let them know they look good. And they, not I, look down. Giggle. We watch each other over our shoulders…

One of them breaks from the pack and yells, Heeeeeeey! It’s casting call for Girls Gone Wild. And, unsure how to handle this new swagger o’ mine, I run for my hotel room.

***

But I didn’t always run for my room —

Just two nights later, in the lobby of my motel, they’ve lit a fire. New Orleans has been unseasonably cold, and a churning fireplace in a normally warm climate makes the mood even warmer.

2 in the A.M., and the only people still left awake are me and a female concierge who finished her shift three hours ago.

We’re both fairly drunk and have been flirting. I have absolutely no interest in dating her, and yet I’m physically attracted to her, and for once, I’m okay with the fact that both those facts are true.

It’s the strangest feeling — this liberating reluctance to apologize for my own desire — and when she crosses the room to light her cigarette with one of those long fireplace matches, I rise and meet her halfway.


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