Novelist and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman went on tour to promote his new novel, Please Step Back, which has its own theme song courtesy of funk legend Swamp Dogg. In Portland Greenman stopped at a coffee shop, Powell’s Books, and a strip club. His dispatch is below.
We dropped off his fiancé and went to the club. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was more crowded than you’d expect it to be at midnight on a weekday. The crowd was diverse, in a sense: there were two beefy young guys with crew cuts, a few weedy types wearing warm-up jackets, one older obese man with a Kangol-style cap. There were two dancing platforms, and, in the corner of the room, a middle-age woman announcing the dancers and playing music: “Paradise City” and “Toys in the Attic” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” My friend pointed up to the speakers. “Pretty alternative,” he said.
We sat at the bar and watched one woman on the pole. Well, my friend watched. The woman was behind me, and I felt strange turning and gawping. It was easier facing the other way, where I could track the action in the room. Across the club, girls in skimpy outfits approached the guys in the banquettes and at the bar. We were at the bar. A girl approached us. She was short, with long brown hair and gigantic brown eyes. She would have been pretty outside of the strip club, and she was pretty inside of it. I told her that my friend was getting married, and he smiled sheepishly and bought her a drink. I bought a second drink. Then, because he’s a writer, he started to ask
her questions. They were fairly innocent questions, so innocent she might not have heard them before. Did she like her job? What was it like? Was it ever depressing? She told us about the club manager, and how he watched all the private rooms on closed-circuit TV. She told us about how some of the dancers drank too much over the course of the evening and ended up drunk and compromised in the parking lot at closing time. She was in school, of course, like every other stripper in the world — she said she was studying graphic design, which was plausible, and that she was nervous about her final exams, which was sensible. Behind her, a girl went up and down the pole. My friend asked her for her name, and she said something I couldn’t hear, but which I doubt was real anyway.
“What do you guys do?” she said.
“We’re writers,” my friend said. He motioned at me. “In fact, he’s in town for his book tour.”
“What’s the book?”
I borrowed a pen from the bartender and wrote it down for her on a napkin. “Thanks,” she said. “Listen, I’m dancing in a minute. Come over and see me, okay?” She went into the back to undress.
My friend turned his hands palm-up in disbelief. “You gave her your real name?”
“Sure,” I said. “Otherwise, how will she buy my book?”
“But what if she mentions you on her blog or something?”
“She has a blog?”
“I’m just saying.”
“I guess I could have told her my name was Joe Smith, but who’d believe that? Plus, maybe this way I’ll make the Stripper Best-Seller List.”
“There’s a Stripper Best-Seller List?”
“I’m just saying.”
The house DJ announced our new friend’s appearance, so we collected our drinks and went to sit on the edge of the stage, next to the obese guy in the kangol cap. When she came out, she was naked, which was entirely unsurprising and even a bit dispiriting — during the conversation, she had been attractive in part because we couldn’t exactly see what she’d look like without clothes. She was a beneficiary of imagination. On the stage, she was perfectly pretty, but somehow lesser. She put her legs wide apart. She bent over and looked backwards at us. She hung her head over the edge of the stage into my friend’s lap. We dropped a number of singles onto the stage, and she smiled, which displeased the kangol guy; he tried to regain his advantage by outbidding us. I looked, then looked away, then looked again. It wasn’t particularly sexy, which confused me. Was it my fault? Maybe I needed to drink more. I finished my beer to try to fix things.
The dance lasted two songs, and then that was it. My friend and I went to a banquette, and the girl came and sat with us. It was difficult to pick up the thread of our conversation. Were we supposed to congratulate her on her dancing? Was she supposed to thank us for dropping dollar bills next to her naked body? Something had been added
to the dynamic, and also subtracted.
For a little while, she was quiet, and then she cleared her throat. “No one’s falling in love with me tonight,” she said. It was half-announcement, half-lament. She gave us one brief, fascinating, possibly true glimpse into the economics of the club — she had paid fifty dollars to dance on the feature stage, and to make the money back, she needed to entice at least a few men into private dances in the back rooms. “Those are more expensive,” she said. “But they’re worth it.” My friend and I were done. He went to the bathroom and I went to stand by the door.
As we were walking back to my hotel, it occurred to me that strippers and writers aren’t very different. Both of us demonstrate our skill for the benefit of others, never knowing exactly how we will be repai… No, no. It didn’t occur to me. That’s ridiculous. Strippers and writers are nothing alike, except for their common humanity, and their outsized expectations, and their sadness when those expectations aren’t met, and their essential fragility. I hope her finals go well.