A version of this piece originally appeared on Rhonda Talbot's Open Salon blog.
It's impossible not to notice all the signs, billboards and ads for NBC's upcoming show "The Playboy Club." In fact, I can hardly go shopping without being confronted by a glossy photo of scantily clad girls wearing onesies, bunny ears and poofy rear-end tails, smiling as if it's fun to be pawed by sinister, alcohol-fueled men. I don't think that's how my mother remembers it.
I grew up in a splintered home. My mother was young and pretty, and since she had to make ends meet for her six kids, she took a job as a Playboy Bunny.
At the time, Playboy Clubs were common in the high-end areas of cities. We lived on the fringes of such wealth; we had so little of our own that my mother regularly lifted all sorts of items -- from glasses and plates to canned goods and oil paintings -- from her housekeeping jobs.
When Mom landed the Playboy gig, she was excited. She'd toiled as a secretary, housekeeper, baby sitter, factory worker and possibly a prostitute (that was never confirmed). We kids looked after ourselves, and I raised the younger ones.
Mom saw the Playboy opportunity as her ticket out, and was desperate to make the right impression. She already had the youth (she was 26), beauty, perfect white teeth, long, golden tresses, sexy figure (despite the kids), and an incredibly outgoing personality I can only now chalk up to bipolar disorder. One essential thing was missing: balance.
Unfortunately, balance was No. 1 on the Playboy Bunny cocktail waitress's list of instructions. Night after night, after I finished my homework, we trained. Mom would walk on sofa pillows, carrying a laundry basket filled with water glasses over her shoulder, wearing impossibly high heels. We broke all the glassware -- but she had stolen it anyway, so it didn't really count.
We would practice the balancing routine for two hours a night until finally Mom could negotiate the pillows without breaking more than one glass. Then she felt ready. Next up: a trip to the local drugstore to steal eye makeup, false lashes, push-up bras, fake tanning creams and four pairs of high heels. I was tasked with the actual stealing. "They will never suspect a 10-year old. I will cause a distraction," she'd say -- and that she did.
"HELP! SOMEONE! I'm having a stroke!" she would cry. People would rush to gather around, and I'd quietly slip out. On cue, my mother would rise, saying, "Oh, never mind. I think it was gas."
Mom was incredibly proud when she aced her audition and was invited to begin -- but I could never quite relax. On nights when she was working at the club, I would stay up into the early hours waiting for her to come home; it was often well past 2 a.m. before I could finally get to sleep. Although Mom didn't give me too many details, I had read the "Bunny Manual" for myself, and knew how hard the job must be for her. So many rules -- hell for a woman who loathed regulation in general.
One night, I peeked into her bedroom after she arrived home. Because Bunnies had to leave their satin corsets and pantyhose at the club, I never actually saw my mother entombed in her painfully tight uniform. What I did see was the outfit's devastating physical impact: deep gashes that ran down the sides of her waist, rope burns outlining the tops of her thighs, and bloody blisters on every toe. She walked like a cripple before falling into bed. Sometimes she had to peel dollar bills and coins off her naked body. She later explained that the Bunny Mother would take each girl, stuff her entire upper body in the corset, and yank out her breasts, all the while instructing, "Suck it in! More! Stand up straighter!" (The whole process was a miserable experience known as "suck, stuff and hook.") The girls referred to the Bunny Mother as Haggis the Meat Grinder.
"I lasted three months," Mom tells me now. It seemed longer to me at the time. "I broke four toes, probably had a hernia, possibly broke a rib, and never met an available man" (dating customers was technically off-limits anyway). "Because I was 'older,' I was never invited to the private parties. One married man did take a liking to me, and gave me a diamond bracelet, which I later pawned to get my car fixed. Funny thing is, there was nothing nefarious about the place -- no sex, no inappropriate behavior. We were just glorified waitresses in straitjackets. Hefner had an image to maintain."
Why did my mother, who had taught me never to let myself be put in a cage by a man, stick with the job (even only for a few months)? For one thing, she suffered from this delusion that she would meet Hugh Hefner -- not likely, given that we lived in Detroit -- or another rich man who would marry her and get us all squared away in some beach-side California paradise. Forget that she had six kids all under the age of 13, ranging from teenage heroin addicts to toddlers in diapers -- not to mention a Canadian goose she had dragged home, a litter of Siamese cats, and a couple of warrants out for her arrest.
In fact, my mother and I did move out to Marin County shortly after she left the Playboy Club (but by ourselves, since the others had disappeared into various state-appointed facilities). At age 15, I too finally left, determined to make something out of my life. I had grown tired of being Mom's drinking buddy, bailing her out of jail, being late for class.
After I emancipated myself, she changed. Maybe she merely got too old for her insane Marin County lifestyle: falling off bar stools, going home with complete strangers, jumping naked out of sailboats, getting arrested for drunk walking. ("We all have our bad decades, honey," is the best advice she ever gave me.) After I left for college, Mom even started a number of successful businesses; somehow, all of her kids got out of Detroit alive.
My mother had her delusions -- meeting Hugh Hefner among them -- and I have mine. For the past 15 years, I've dreamed of living in a pristine, minimalistic Cape Cod home with a lovely white interior (complete, of course, with assistant, personal chef, a few nannies and an on-call masseuse); instead, my life takes place in a crowded, unkempt house, filled to the brim with three kids, two dogs, 25 fish and half a dozen reptiles. Add to that a challenging job, low funds and no help, and you get one woman's recipe for discontent. It's nothing like the hand-to-mouth existence I knew as a child -- but somehow, it's still not enough.
It doesn't take much to set me on edge these days. That may be why, as I passed a "Playboy Club" ad in town recently, I was hit with a tsunami wave of memory, dissatisfaction and grief. Naturally, my immediate impulse was to call my mom.
After our familiar back-and-forth -- my litany of complaints followed by her rant about struggles of her own, troubled years of parenthood ("Take your head out of your ass. You think you have it bad?!") -- I changed the subject.
"Did you know they are making a series about the Playboy Clubs?"
"Oh, I saw. They play ads on TV all day. It's the 'Mad Men' syndrome -- anything from that period surely has to be interesting. I think there is one about Pan Am stewardesses, too. I applied there, but they didn't think I was tall enough."
Abruptly, my thoughts adjusted. I looked around town, taking in the "Playboy Club" ad and more, and realized that I have an awful lot to be grateful for. I'll never have to jiggle my boobs and wear a bunny tail -- or work in a factory, or clean toilets -- to make money, even though my mother accepted these jobs as a matter of course. I probably won't get to live my Cape Cod dream either, but it's only because Mom was willing to make significant sacrifices that the memories dredged up by "The Playboy Club" represent her past and not my future.