I had an English boyfriend once who took me to Atlanta's legendary strip joint the Gold Club on our first date. It was a clichéd alcoholic swirl of whipped cream-basted hard bodies, beery frat boys, dollar bills peeking out of lacy garter belts, and suburban husbands in from Lilburn or Smyrna, already rehearsing Sunday's confession.
Of course, the early-morning hours found us across the street at the Waffle House, scarfing down cheese eggs for $2.99.
I imagine most women would have been outraged. But me, I felt initiated. I had taken part in the delicious rite enjoyed by legions of conventioneers in Atlanta. I only wished I'd had a wedding band to slip off my finger and a tie to unloosen. Actually, that's not true. The conventioneer's experience is a man's experience, and the main reason I enjoyed it had everything to do with being a woman. That's because the real fun at the Gold Club wasn't found in those murky backrooms where various celebrities supposedly got their dicks sucked. Maybe it's because I'm not a celebrity and I don't have a dick, but for me, the real fun was in the bathroom.
You see, at the Gold Club, the few female patrons had to share the bathroom with the strippers. This meant you had to walk through their dressing area in order to find the toilet.
Sneaking into the backstage world was fascinating. As I turned the corner to get a full view, I saw a topless woman noisily munching on a fat hamburger. She belched afterward. Another woman was adjusting a G-string, lamenting the tiny bit of cellulite on her right cheek. Another was doing paperwork of some sort in spiked boots. Another woman, clad only in a tattered Aerosmith T-shirt, shouted, "All right, which one of you filthy bitches didn't clean the shower? Looks like a pubic hair emporium in there!"
It was fantastic. I hung around there for as long as I could, listening to stories about deadbeat dads, techniques on maintaining balance while dancing in 6-inch heels, and where to buy cheap wallpaper. I didn't want to leave.
When I finally returned to my seat, one of the women I'd gossiped with backstage came slinking onto the floor. Even as she grasped a brass pole and started her rather graphic and limber stunts, I felt a certain solidarity with her. It was as if we were in 10th grade and had just shared a joint behind the gym. Now we were back in history class together, grinning slyly across the room at our secret. She wasn't a sex goddess -- she ate burgers and belched. She knew where to get a good deal on wallpaper.
It was strangely comforting to have this vantage point. The limber Burger King vixen and I were in this thing together. Even though I was a spectator, I wasn't leering at her, judging her, or drooling on myself. I wasn't getting turned on. I wondered if she was curious about what I got out of the deal. But when she winked at me, I knew we were both in on the joke.
My Gold Club experience triggered a strip club enchantment. Over the next three months, I visited nearly every strip club in Atlanta. I ventured bravely into the obvious ones with names like the Cheetah and the Pink Pony. I progressed on to a place that featured naked men on one side and naked women on the other. One of my gay friends accompanied me. He took one look at a naked woman opening and closing her legs, announced, "Look -- it's talking!" then quickly scurried to the men's side.
The same friend later escorted me to Swingin' Richard's, a gay men's strip club. As the only woman in the joint, I was a novelty, like a pair of Yosemite Sam mudflaps on a Miata. As such, I attracted a lot of attention and got more than my share of hugs from sweaty, beefy men wearing nothing but baby oil and chaps. "You look just like Grace Kelly!" they cooed. "No. That's not right. Sarah Michelle Gellar! No ... that's not it either. Charlene Tilton. You know, Lucy Ewing from 'Dallas'!" I left soon after, to avoid the downward spiral of comparisons. I feared Pia Zadora was next.
At the end of the three months, I finally found the dirty old granddaddy of them all -- the Clermont Lounge. It made sense that the last strip club I went to was the polar opposite of the first one I entered. Established in 1968 and situated on seedy Ponce De Leon Avenue, the Clermont Lounge is tucked under the Clermont Hotel, a place that rents rooms by the hour, if you want. The ceilings are so low that I'm sure tall men have had their pompadours and Mohawks flattened. There's wood paneling throughout. Cheap gin is served in urine-test plastic cups. The women's toilet is separated from the strippers' dressing area by a piece of sheer material hung from the ceiling.
As for the strippers, they're almost incidental. You might even forget about them until you get up to grab a drink from the bar, and you're confronted with a gyrating ass in your face. There's a dance floor, beyond which I'm told female patrons who are so overwhelmed by the sheer glamour of it all can rip off their clothes and begin their stripping careers on the spot. Like most stories about the Clermont, this may or may not be true.
But the stories are plentiful. There are rumors of a mother-daughter team working the joint, as well as a congressman's ex-wife and a trained wrestler. The star of this den of iniquity is Blondie. Folks will tell you she's 60 years old -- but she does not look it. She looks about 20 years younger. Then again, this is the kind of place where a stripper would lie about her age to add to the giddy perversity of the atmosphere.
Blondie is also a pioneer of the tit-punch. Usually reserved for festive occasions, such as bachelor parties, birthdays and the death of wealthy relatives, it involves ramming a gentleman's face in her ample bosom, and punching her own tit repeatedly, looking strangely like Fred Sanford in the process. She also crushes beer cans between those resilient mammary glands.
On the subject of body parts, you have never seen so many peculiar body types on display. Bulbous asses with flat pancake tits, squat legs and long necks, sexy mamas who are 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The women dancing listlessly on the bar could be fry cooks at the high school cafeteria or the salesperson who demonstrates hardware products at the mall.
I went to the Clermont for a goodbye party in 1999, where we bought one guy a lap dance. Unbeknownst to us, when a lap dance is purchased, the dancer will use whatever song is blaring from the jukebox at the time. Consequently, our friend was treated to a naked, writhing Jezebel, attempting to coerce a boner to Ray Parker Jr.'s Casio classic "Ghostbusters." Afterward, whenever there was a lull in the conversation, one of us would thoughtfully inquire, "Who you gonna call?"
The Clermont Lounge is the Baltic Avenue, the Wal-Mart, the Spam sandwich of the strip world. Charles Bukowski could have written 300 short stories here. Tom Waits could have sung a million melancholy notes here. But it got me thinking about the only real similarity between the glitzy Gold Club and the seedy Clermont Lounge, the common thread that connects the high-end, celebrity-soaked club and the low-end, freak-infested club. The answer is hidden in this one small fact: In both places, the women's bathroom is connected to the strippers' dressing area.
And that's what makes it the ultimate archaeological tour for a gal. The fact is, no strip-club owner would ever allow men to see that side of the show -- no matter how low-grade the illusion is. Men can salivate and stare at any number of saucy body parts onstage, but backstage is strictly off-limits. Backstage is a place that plays host to the humble, dreary rituals behind the sexual fantasy. No male strip-club patron would want to be exposed to the deodorant with tiny armpit hairs clinging to the top, wadded-up tissue and used douches in the wastebasket, teary calls home, or complaints of cramps and sore tits. It destroys the magic: The swish of the curtain reveals too much.
But women already know about all this. The curtain was pulled back for us from the onset. We have already caught the Floridian mermaid at Weeki Wachee going off to the side of the tank to steal a gulp of air. We know which shoes make us tall, which bras make us buxom. We know that Tampax doesn't really instill enough confidence to prance around in white clothes like they do in commercials, and that coverup never really conceals a bruise on your face.
So it doesn't matter if women see this side. We live it, daily. We are always catching glimpses of bra straps fixed with a safety pin, dark circles from staying up all night with a sick baby, dark roots hidden under a scarf, disappointment over a birthday gift. It is these familiar observations scribbled in a pink diary, the uninspired monotony of our daily routines that link us together. And sometimes, it's comforting to sit back and appreciate the sweetly mundane pact of dull little secrets that all women sign, whether they know it or not.
In August 2001, the Gold Club became the property of Uncle Sam after a long, celebrity-filled racketeering trial. The last I heard, the city government was going to tear down the big black building and turn the property into a park.
I'm all for it.
I'd like to think of the ex-Gold Club strippers taking their kids to the park. I picture them walking along on their slender legs, pushing baby carriages and lifting little Jenny or Joey onto the swings, careful not to scratch their chubby arms with a long red fingernail.