At the Market Street Cinema, a nude club where I stripped in San Francisco, some girls acquired loyal, semi-obsessed customers who became devotees for months or years at a time. These “regulars” were usually married or divorced male clients who had lots of money and they chose to spend it on their one favorite stripper. I was never one of them.
I treated my customers like flimsy scarves I could slip on and off as needed, usually in a big hurry to return to my personal life where I sang in a rock band and sold vintage clothes on Haight Street. The regular thing, I decided, was a psycho way to operate. Only unstable chicks pretended to be invested in these guys, luring them into their real personal lives, right?
I told myself this as I watched my coworkers make mountains of money off regulars, working very little while I hopped from grungy lap to sweaty knees without the help of devoted fans. I repeated this to myself after hearing about the musical equipment a client bought Brook to help kick-start her DJ career and the girl whose regular helped her decorate an entire apartment with designer furniture. Others who were given cars, vacations to Paris or $60,000-shopping trips at Versace.
During the first Dot Com boom of the late ‘90s, money poured through the Bay Area like lava, and no one embodied San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial ethos better than strippers with regulars. They were independent, self-promoters years before Myspace, Facebook, Instagram or texting; before you could receive an email on your phone and respond on the spot; before you could “check in” at Club DejaVu for your fans to see.
Like top salesmen, they recruited prestigious clients, then gave them more time and attention then the other guys. They seemed immune to dead nights and shitty clientele, recessions and vacationing customers. Some of them even were able to plan on making a certain amount of money every month, which for me was unthinkable.
It was a few months into my tenure at Market Street—a nude club with the reputation as the skuzziest in town, as well as a place a girl could pile some serious green—where I began to wonder if I was being naïve for not doing the same. I was missing the point of being a stripper, which was to make the most money I could in the shortest period of time by charming men and becoming their indispensable favorite. It was also when I met Rodney, a client who stood out from the other guys, shockingly non-geezer with his Ben Davis pants, adorable cleft chin, and well-moisturized face. When he wasn’t spending time with another dancer, Jade, a Japanese contortionist who was eventually deported, he settled for me.
Rodney was mysterious and shy; I always tried to talk to him about his life, but he did not divulge. Once he said, “I feel like you’re interviewing me” during our lap-dance, and this became our inside joke. Rather than answer any of my invasive questions, he’d take out a wad of cash, push my g-string aside, lick my asshole like a jolly rancher, and jerk off until he came. Then he left.
That was our routine for years. He showed up at every strip club that employed me from The New Century, to Chez Paris to The Crazy Horse. I stashed an extra g-string in my purse so I could change on the fly after our VIP sessions, which always left me drenched. He was never rude and he never tried to rip me off. I was loyal to him and he was loyal to me. We ignored everyone else when it was our time to be together alone, and it was in our lascivious little bubble that I found that I began to care about him.
It’s not that I didn’t care for customers as human beings in the past. When they were shit-faced, I’d call them a cab. I listened to their troubles ad nauseum. I’d laughed at their jokes and procured their advice in my failed affairs. But when they exited the club, they were gone from my mind completely. Rodney crept into my thoughts when I wasn’t at the club, and I wondered about his life outside of our interaction the same way I’d wonder about a guy who doesn’t call you after you an intense first date. Although he didn’t ask for my number and I didn’t offer him mine, whenever Rodney came for me, I was surprised to realize I was genuinely happy to see him, and not just because I needed his money.
After a couple years, I grew tired of Rodney’ incessant deflections of my questions about him. I had to know why he was always checking his pager.
“Are you a first responder?” I asked.
“What do you do, then?” I asked.
“I do what you do, sort of,” he said.
“Are you an escort for men?” I asked.
“Mostly,” he said.
This made perfect sense to me. Rodney had all the markers of a sex worker: His total comfort with seeing me on the reg, his stubborn privacy, his wad of cash at the ready and his sexual ambiguity. He even showed up at some of my band’s shows and it was slightly socially awkward, but I was touched that he supported my creative endeavors. I also stopped prying into his professional and personal life when he visited me at the club. Sex workers are intensely self-protective privacy mongers. We had this in common too.
Ten years after I retired from the strip clubs in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles, Rodney found me on Facebook and asked me to stop by for a session after I posted that I was in San Francisco for a weekend. I thought long and hard about whether I felt like seeing him in that capacity. I was curious about him and flattered he still remembered me. Turned out, I did care about him and I wanted to see if he was happy and safe. I agreed to meet him.
Rodney’s apartment was a tiny basement box apartment in the Sunset down many narrow stairs and through a garden. He had a kitchenette and a porch with orange bougainvillea hovering over his door. Above his bed was a large TV showing body-builder porn on a loop. Greasy muscular women with monster veins and itsy bitsy yellow g-stings flexed their muscles. I asked for some water and walked over to his bed. I sat down. A black suitcase was on the floor spilling over with fishnets, size 11 shoes and lacy bras: low-rent cheap slut outfits, for sure.
“You live with your girlfriend?” I asked. He sniffed poppers from a glass brown bottle. “She’s transgendered,” he said. I looked closer at the framed picture of the black tall skinny woman in the photo and noted her Adam’s apple.
“She’s pretty,” I said. I kept my red heels on while Rodney licked my butt like he had a thousand times before, paid me a few hundred bucks and then I drove to a rock show downtown with my asshole chafed from his stubble.
Visiting Rodney’s apartment was strange. I felt like I could easily get lost in that small, dark place and lose my footing there and never leave. It could happen so quickly: I’d lose the upper hand and turn him into something he wasn’t; the same way I was wary of the regular game. I needed a man and he would disappear. I was so afraid of sliding into a dark, grasping place, and yet I needed to visit it for two paid hours. I figured Rodney was a safer bet. He just wanted to cheat on his hot transgendered girlfriend, do drugs and lick my butt, right? It wasn’t much to ask, but when I left, that darkness and confusion stayed with me.
The following year, when Rodney wouldn’t invite me to his apartment in San Francisco, he apologized in a text message. Then he admitted he had to tiptoe around his lawyer boyfriend, a moneyed man of seventy-two. We would have to wait until he fell asleep and then he would sneak out to meet me. I, too, kept him a secret. No one knew I was going to meet him. I left a dinner with friends abruptly to walk to the bus, but instead of catching it, I met Rodney downtown.
In the modern, burgundy hotel room, an iPod played 90’s Indie music: PJ Harvey and The Sugarcubes, exactly what I used to dance to in the Market Street Cinema. I was pleased by all the trouble he went to in order to make this meeting happen. I hugged him and kissed him on the mouth. This was not a normal part of my routine with customers, but we were something like friends now; meeting for sex and hiding together in a stolen time warp.
His breath reeked of the cat piss bleach smell of crystal meth. It was so strong, my eyes watered. I didn’t know he was on meth, but I wasn’t surprised. He held the same tiny bottle of liquid poppers in his hand and sniffed deep and slow. His jaw jerked from side to side. He was thinner than I remembered. Paler. “Is your boyfriend nice to you?” I asked. He paused so long I thought he wouldn’t answer me.
“I couldn’t pull off the twink thing anymore, he said. “Had to settle down.”
Then his expression changed to tender. “I used to see you around town,” he said.
“It’s a small city,” I said.
“You got mad at me when I told you that at The Crazy Horse,” he said. He looked hurt for a half-second.
“That was a long time ago,” I said. I lay down on the bed. Peeled off my jeans. “I Bleed” by The Pixies played. I remembered a Market-Street stripper in a tight black cat suit spinning on the pole to that song, her long, red braids whipping her back as she hung upside-down. I wondered if Rodney remembered that girl too or if I was the only one from that time he still thought about.
“Will you lift your legs for me?” He asked. I lifted my legs up and pointed my toes like I did back at the club. He needs me here, I thought. He has needed me here for nearly sixteen years. I began to think I would be sad if he found another girl. I liked being his one favorite—his throwback. I wanted to be there with him and make sure he felt cared for and appreciated. I moved my legs around in a circle in the air, like I had for nearly two decades.
“I saw you exit a cab full of beautiful girls in the Castro,” he said. “I thought look at that rocker girl. It would be so cool if she were my girlfriend.”