Nude awakening

It was a hot Chicago summer. My stripper year. My heroin year. I had a new college degree and nothing made sense. I was having the best time of my life.

Topics: Pornography, Books,

Nude awakening

First there was Toni in his sparkling cocktail dress, serving drinks at Neo on Clark Street. The bar was dark, there were no windows, only a blue-lit clock. Toni had thin legs covered in track marks beneath his fishnet stockings. He brought me elegant looking drinks on a silver tray. I hid in the corners or in the middle of the dance floor. I went to Neo alone and Toni sensed my loneliness and wanted to mother me to health but it didn’t happen. Toni died at three in the morning in a stranger’s apartment in Humboldt Park lying next to a broken needle, blood streaming from his nose, emerald skirt riding in waves across his hips, tights ripped, a slipper dangling from his toe, eyes wide open.

Then there was Toni’s friend Tony. Tony worked at Berlin, had tribal tattoos covering half his body, long, thick black hair like a horse’s mane, and every year the free weekly paper voted him best bartender in the city.

Tony didn’t charge me for drinks either and I hovered near his bar, an oasis next to the entrance. I danced close to Tony. I never wanted to go home. I had friends but they were sleeping, and they weren’t real friends. I said, “What kind of boys do you like?” and he said, “Straight boys” and I smiled.

Tony had a fashion show and I walked the runway at Berlin in striped shorts with thin straps over my shoulders. There were so many people there, all of them high on pills, dehydrated and watching. I danced slowly past them. It was like being perfect, which is always an illusion. I was followed by a man in a straw hat, his gown covered in pale green bulbs. “Do you have any more swimsuits?” I asked Tony. “I want to go again.”

“You are so vain,” he said, patting my ass. I gave him a quick, sly kiss on the lips, before climbing back on the stage.

It was my stripper year. My heroin year. I danced Thursday nights at Berlin. Two sets, three songs, free whiskey, seventy-five dollars, occasional tips. They called me a go-go boy but I was really just decoration, cheap art. I scored heroin on the west side, piloting my giant car through the burnt out landscape, home of the ’68 riots, the stained remnants of an assassination in Tennessee, the empty lots like broken teeth. Trash and parts everywhere, pipes protruding from the rubble, chassis on cinder blocks, men in lawn chairs on corners in front of vacant three flats. I got robbed. I got beat up. Things weren’t going well. Nothing made sense. I was having the best time of my life.



I didn’t make enough money on a podium at Berlin so I danced at the Lucky Horseshoe, a front for prostitutes on Halsted Street. We weren’t allowed to sit between sets. We had to mingle with clients at the bar. We would stand and they would sit. “They like it when you pay attention,” the owner told us. “Open seats are for customers.”

I met a man who bred dogs. He stuck five dollars in my thongs after my first dance. “It’s like selling people,” he said, laying a rough hand on my waist. “Only it’s dogs, so it’s legal.” Then he let out a monstrous laugh.

The going rate was $20 a day plus tips. The going rate was $80 for a blowjob down at the Ram, a dirty theater with private booths, six painted steps below street level a block away. There were sugar-daddies that came to the Horseshoe but it was up to you to parse them from the fakers and dreamers. They said, “What do you want to do with your life? I can help you.” If you were a writer they were an agent. If you were an actor they were a director, a producer. If you wanted to go to school they would give you a place to stay while you got your act together. They knew someone on the admissions board. The clients at the Horseshoe were whatever you might need. But I needed to be found attractive. I needed to be loved unconditionally. And I was very angry about something.

I had a college degree.

This is all true.

It was 1995, the hottest summer on record, or so somebody told me at the time. It’s a fact I’ve never bothered to check. They were carrying dead seniors by the dozen in a phalanx of stretchers from the nursing homes on Touhy Avenue. I lived in a squat above a garage a bullet away from the project buildings. I could make out the top of the Sears Tower from my porch. I had a roommate and during the day we would go to the slab along North Avenue Beach and lie there like seals, diving into the water every twenty minutes or so until the sun went down. We lay on the warm concrete watching the sunset and then the stars. “Life is good,” he said.

Sunday afternoons I danced between films at the Bijou. Twenty minutes of porn then one boy on the stage, one boy in the audience. The men pulled their penises out, stroking themselves, sliding a dollar in my pants with their free hand. The Bijou smelled of bleach. I climbed over the seats barefoot. I was like a spider, crawling along armrests and chair backs, never touching the ground. I stayed away from the older men. They had been around too long. They were looking for a good deal. I paid special attention to a fat boy who sat in the second row. He was probably my age and I felt sorry for him. He was so obese with all this skin falling around his face. His hair was flaxen and I worried that nobody loved him the most. I was projecting my own feelings. I sat on his lap, squeezed his shoulder, kissed his neck. I wanted to be capable of loving him for more than a few minutes but I wasn’t. He gave me a dollar and I hugged him, pulling his nose against my naked chest. “It’s OK,” I said.

There were rooms above the Bijou. Offices, a movie studio. The manager kept a picture of me in his desk drawer. He asked me to act in a bisexual porn movie. I said I didn’t mind. I was put in a room and given five minutes to get a hard-on. This was my audition. The room was giant and empty with slanted beams holding up the roof and great windows looking across Old Town. I jerked off, paging casually through the porn next to the bed. The director burst in with a Polaroid camera. “Yes,” he exclaimed when he saw my hard-on.

The pay was $300. I was told it was very important to be nice to the woman. She was a queen. I wanted the money but I was ambivalent about the film. What I really wanted was to be tied up. I wanted to be humiliated on tape. I wanted women with strap-ons to grip me by the throat and slide inside of me. I wanted to be wrapped in cellophane, like a present, unable to move. That was the kind of film I wanted to be in. But I didn’t know how to say that at the time and people that don’t know how to ask rarely get what they want.

I danced at the Manhole on lights out night. I was four feet above the floor on a square pedestal. I had to be careful not to step over the edge. Hands came from everywhere, palms stretching below my balls, fingers trying to find my asshole. I couldn’t see past the elbows. “Stop it,” I said softly. The music was so loud, nobody heard me.

It was my heroin year. I shot bags next to the couch and slept on the living room floor. I missed a night at Berlin. Then I missed another one. Summer was over. We stopped going to the beach. It got darker earlier. It was almost Thanksgiving. I dated Stacey, a Barbie-doll stripper with a bad coke habit and implants that didn’t take. They felt like twelve-inch softballs inside her breasts. She made $400 a shift. She knew about bars in Cicero that never closed. She crashed her car and the bar maid asked if she spilled her drink. Her other boyfriend was a police officer. “He’s very violent,” she told me. “He wants to put his gun in your mouth and ask you some questions. He broke the lock on my door. Do you want to come over?”

After Stacey I dated Zahava. Zahava came from a good southern family. She had been a pom-pom girl. She had been to finishing school. It seemed like she was always happy. She was the only person I knew with good posture. She wanted me to go to law school. I turned her on to heroin. Years later she would tell me I was the first bad thing that ever happened to her. Zahava said I was handsome. I told her when you’re a stripper you don’t worry about your appearance. You always feel attractive when people are willing to pay to see you naked. It was the biggest lie I ever told. I stared at the other strippers, the bricks in their stomachs, trapezoids like baby mountains. It made me nauseous to think about. I wasn’t good enough looking to dance at the Vortex but they let me in for free. I was low-rent and I knew it. I had an eating disorder and long hair. The only advantage I had over anybody was that I knew how to dance.

I was in a small room with dark wood floors on top of a big house in Evanston near the lake. I took a hotshot and passed out with blood streaming from my nose and foam gurgling at my mouth. Just like Toni a year earlier. My friend turned me over so I wouldn’t choke on my own vomit, then he left me to die.

But I didn’t die. Firemen came the next day. They were strong and good. They strapped me to a chair, carried me down three flights of stairs. “Where’s your family?” the owner of the house asked as they hauled me past her. “What’s your parents’ phone number?” I didn’t tell her. It was the first good decision I made that year. I was paralyzed for eight days and the nurses let me piss all over myself. When I was discharged from the hospital I walked with a limp. I told people I fell down a flight of stairs. Eventually the limp went away but it took time. And it took time to learn how to eat. I lost thirty pounds.

I didn’t strip again. Or shoot heroin. I got a master’s degree. I moved to a ski resort and the clients would sit at the bar unbundling their scarves. I wore black pants, a white shirt, and a patterned vest like all the other employees. We looked like dancing monkeys. Every day someone would stare at the mountains while I refilled their cup. “I wish I could trade places with you,” they would say, maybe dropping a dollar into the plastic pitcher sitting empty on the counter’s edge.

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including "Happy Baby." His next book, "The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder," is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>