Breaking the Code

Courtney Weaver explores the hidden language of a high-class strip joint

By Courtney Weaver
Published April 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I came away from my talk with Vickie, or "Pansy" as she was known at the strip club where she works, more confused than illuminated. It just didn't make sense to me -- she sat and talked to men about everything under the sun except sex and they threw money at her. She didn't strip naked for them, she didn't touch them, she didn't even drink with them. It sounded about as raunchy as NPR's "Talk of the Nation."

"Guess where I'm going Friday night," I said to Q. on the phone.

He paused. "Somewhere without me, from the sounds of it."

"Correct. Carol and I are going to the 'gentlemen's club' where Vickie
works." Now that I'd made the decision and found a perfectly disinterested
female friend who'd agreed to accompany me, I was looking forward to the
evening. "I wonder if I can write this off on my taxes."

"Nice work if you can get it," Q. put in. "Can I come?"

"No," I said firmly.

"Why not?"

"Because you can't." I had already thought all this through. "It'll change
the whole tone of the evening. Besides, Carol has just the right amount of
anthropological curiosity that I need."

"I can be anthropological," he whined.

"No." There was a little silence. "Look, I can't explain it, but I don't
want a man in the mix. Now, what are you going to do that night?"

"I guess I'll just mop the kitchen floor," he said petulantly. We signed off soon after that, but not before Q. got in a quip about what the world was coming to when he was at home slaving away while his girlfriend gallivanted off to a strip club to see naked women.

On Friday, Carol pedaled her bicycle up to the club, where I was waiting. She was wearing red jeans, a fuzzy Peruvian llama sweater and
clogs, with a furry hat on her head. "What's all this?" I asked, motioning
my hand up and down.

"Do I look weird?" she asked, pulling at her pants. "I guess I didn't want to get mistaken for one of the working girls."

"No, you don't look weird," I said. "Just sort of like a homeless Inuit." I'd had the same outfit question too, finally settling on basic black. I felt like I looked like a mime.

"It's $10 each," said the well-dressed Asian woman sitting behind an old-fashioned cash register, after two doormen with tuxedos and headset walkie-talkies had opened the heavy doors for us with a flourish. She eyed Carol's hat but said nothing.

"Cheap," Carol whispered. "I wonder if that's because we're women. Or if
it's before midnight."

"Get a receipt," I whispered back.

It was only 9:30 p.m., and the shadowy club was mostly empty, with more
staff than patrons. At the far end of the room, a large stage showcased a
topless dancer entwining herself around a brass pole to the beat of Seal.
"Should we sit there?" I pointed to the front. "Or there?" Carol motioned
to a little '70s-style shapeless love seat toward the middle of the
room, saying, "Here's a good vantage point."

Tiny cocktail tables with single red votives were scattered throughout
the mix of couches and armchairs. There seemed to be two types of patrons
-- suit-clad businessmen, in groups of two or three, and generic
frat boys in athletic shoes and baseball caps. A few were slumped around
the stage, watching the shimmying woman with expressions that reminded me
of our family Labrador before he got fed.

All around, women in bikini-type bra and panty sets and stilettos were
milling around. "OK, where are these sexy dresses Vickie said they had to
wear on the floor?" I asked. Some of the girls were dancing snakelike
between seated men's legs, gyrating provocatively, while the men stared
at them with that same doggy expression. I looked carefully. The men's
hands were resting on the armchair, or glued to their knees. After the
dance, the woman would sit down next to the man, lean in toward him,
laughing as if they shared a private joke. Reluctantly, they'd slip a dress on
as they talked.

"Required by law to cover themselves," I said. "But it seems pretty lax. I guess this is what Vickie described as the private dance."

"Uh-huh," Carol said. We watched, spellbound. "Do you get the feeling,"
she said after a while, "that all these men here know some private code
that we don't? I mean, how do they know not to touch, and how much to tip,
and what to talk about with these women?"

"Maybe they've been spanked into submission before," I said. The whole
retro decor -- with the abundance of brass and chrome, the well-vacuumed
wall-to-wall carpet, the big bulb lights over the bar and the formless
sofas -- all reminded me of my dentist's office. "It's clean, isn't it?"

"Very," said Carol.

Soon a cocktail waitress in requisite white shirt and black skirt
approached us.

"Hi, ladies," she said cheerfully. "What can I get you?"

"Hi," I said, feeling apologetic. "How about a Sierra?"

"Calistoga?" Carol squeaked, and I shot her a look. "I'm not much of a

"Well," I said, after the waitress disappeared, "how do you feel being the only women in the room that aren't working?"

"You are working," she reminded me.

We sat there for a while, the mime and the Eskimo with our drinks,
watching the interactions that were being played out around us. "Such a
power structure!" Carol commented, and I was about to ask her if she meant
the men, or the women, or the security or the club owners. (But I realized it
didn't really matter who she meant -- each group had power or didn't have
power, depending on your perspective.) Burly men in tuxedos paced
around like the Secret Service.
Cocktail waitresses chatted among themselves, or with the dancers. Nobody
bothered us -- no one even looked in our direction.

"We're invisible," I said finally. It was gratifying in a way, watching
all these men watch all these women, who each corresponded to a certain
female stereotype: the exotic Asian, the bodacious African-American, the
fat bad girl, the skinny snooty dancer, the elegant courtesan. The club was
a strange mixture of sleaze and civility, with private rules and dress
codes and tightly run security and money surreptitiously changing hands. It
was not in the least bit a turn-on.

"I'm sure they think we're together," Carol said dryly. She turned to me
suddenly. "Where's your friend?"

I'd forgotten all about Vickie. In fact, I'd even forgotten to call her
beforehand. Now I wondered if she would scream if I saw her here. Perhaps
she'd think I was stalking her. This must be how men feel, I thought:
paranoid about how an innocent action might be perceived by a woman.

We went upstairs to the "VIP" room, where a man finally asked us to remove some clothing: He was the doorman, and he told Carol she couldn't enter
unless she took off her hat. It was more of the same, but with more
warrenlike rooms off to the side: dancers straddling men's legs, shaking
their bare breasts and G-strung asses in the men's faces, talking with them intimately, stroking their shoulders and thighs. Music from the stage show thumped loudly, making chit-chat too difficult unless you were sitting right
next to your interlocutor.

I was beginning to understand how this all worked. The women ran the show and if the men didn't like it, well, then they could leave. But most seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement -- all were "good boys," wagging their tails, forking out 20s and 50s, overjoyed that a beautiful, sexy
woman of their choice was paying attention and being nice to them. Just
what Vickie said. In some ways it was all so sterile and unspontaneous, but
in other ways it was much dirtier than she'd described -- more skin, more
bare asses, more mock sexual intercourse being played out on the floor. But
of course to her, it was all business. Naturally she'd describe it in terms
more fitting to an office environment than how Carol and I perceived it.

"There she is," I said, as Carol and I started to make our way out, after an hour. Vickie was in a skin-tight ankle length white Lycra gown, her hair piled on top of her head, delicately weaving strands of angel hair pasta
around her fork as a couple leaned in on either side, talking intimately
into her ear. I wondered if I should wave, but Carol looked at me as if to
say, "Don't."

Outside, Carol unlocked her bike and tugged her hat back on firmly. "You
know, that was like a dream," she said.

I knew exactly what she meant. "It's like the dreams when you do outrageous
things -- pee in your shoe, sleep with your disgusting neighbor, fly to
Azerbaijan to visit your childhood home -- that feel completely normal
during the dream but when you wake up you think, 'What in the hell was
that?'" She nodded and we said our goodbyes before she pedaled away into the night.

I waited for a cab in the brightly lit entrance. A man -- one of the
well-groomed suits -- emerged from the club, eyed me and very deliberately
stepped in front, looking for a cab. I started to seethe: How typical --
guy goes to one of these clubs, pays to have some semi-naked chick feign
sexual interest in him, then comes out here and is going to jump the queue and
unchivalrously steal my cab.

But a yellow taxi roared up and he stepped away, ushering me to it with
his hand and smiling. One of the burly tuxedo guys sprang into action and
opened the door. I thanked him and jumped in, wondering if perhaps I just
wasn't meant to understand this gentleman's club idea, that there was a
reason that the private code would remain, for me, always elusive.

Courtney Weaver

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