Got to Work!

Got to Work!

Two days out of surgery for removal of an infected lymph node, I had a choice to make: Go to work somewhere, tomorrow, at a job that will get me paid tomorrow. Or move myself and 3-year-old David out of my apartment and go … somewhere. I had been ill for weeks, unable to pay my rent, and the sheriff was at my door.

How to get paid that quickly? Stand on a street corner in a short skirt and no underwear? Or become a go-go dancer?

The job — at a nightclub in Monterrey, California, just outside a military training base in nearby Seaside — was not demanding once the stitches were removed. I was encouraged to learn the latest dances to 1960’s hits: James Brown’s “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” Chubby Checker’s “The Wah-Watusi,” Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike.” There were maybe a dozen dances with equally silly names that I had to master, most of which were variations on stand-in-the-gilded cage-in -your-bright-red-lipstick-and-gold-lamé bikini-and-gyrate. Customers confused about which way the hips should go could watch me. It was fun watching them try to copy my moves.

After some months of working five days a week, however, it seemed no longer possible to get off work at 2:00 a.m., pick up David from the babysitter’s, drive home, fall into bed at 3:30 and get up at 7:00 in time to keep the kid from unlocking the apartment door and carousing around the neighborhood in his underwear. After the police brought him back to me a second time and told me it had better not happen again, I saved up and made a major move back to my parents’ house in Reseda, California. There ensued what seemed like a hundred interviews for office work. My skills at typing and taking shorthand were minimal, but interviews didn’t usually get that far: “Oh, you have a baby. I’m sorry. We don’t hire women with children.“

The costumes in La-La Land were as glittery as they had been in Seaside, but briefer. Now, we wore pasties on top. Yes, that’s right, pasties. Before every shift, we pasted these circular red, purple or gold thingamajigs onto our nipples with rubber cement — it was legal to show every part of the breast except the nipples — and after every shift we unglued ourselves from the itchy things.

Soon, even that little glitter was gone, and lipstick had become irrelevant. After all, who looked at our faces? By then, all of us so-called dancers were “topless.” Then, as soon as laws changed to allow it, we were “bottomless.”

We were all working for agents who had us on a circuit of clubs anywhere from San Bernardino to Irvine to Simi Valley. Each day, we gyrated to ear-piercing jukebox music at a different grungy club, our high heels grinding on a different makeshift stage strewn with cigarette butts. Or sometimes it was two clubs, one from 12:00 to 2:00 pm and another from 9:00 pm to 2:00 am. In that cheap-gas era, we often drove three hours a day.

When I would get to a club, I might not know what to put on, or take off, since if the club were in a city there were city laws that applied and otherwise one of three different county laws might apply. All relevant laws changed almost weekly for a while, often at 5:00 p.m., the better to catch us dancers doing something we shouldn’t. Our agents had watchers in all the courthouses who reported each day on what laws had or had not been passed that day.

So I’d get to work, don both top and bottom in a tiny, dim lady’s room no lady had ever entered, go on stage and then get called off stage for a phone call:

“Keep it on.”

“Top and bottom?”

“Just bottom.”

“OK, thanks.”

Then I’d run back on stage, remove only my top and smile sweetly at two undercover cops with their chicken salad sandwiches and potato chips chatting up the waitress and waiting to pounce on a bottomless dancer.

Wearing both top and bottom was awful: No tips and oh, by the way, when you’re on your hourly 15-minute break we want you to give the waitress a break. Topless was somewhat better: Some tips and you still gotta carry the beer, but if somebody touches you and you don’t like it (I didn’t) you can tell Billy over there and he’ll take care of it for you.

Bottomless was strange at first. I remember my mother’s apt opinion of it: “I do not see how a woman makes money displaying that which every single woman in the world has. It seems a common thing.”

But bottomless was best because it required no interaction at all with customers. As a matter of fact, at one club I was escorted by armed security guards when I went on stage and when I retreated to the dressing room. My security guys prevented anyone from even getting close to me. No more having to detour around grabasses. No more “Hey, I love you wanna mess aroun’?” I loved my security guys.

When I began as a go-go dancer in Monterey, and then when I went topless in the L.A. area, there was just the one child to provide for. That I could do easily working five night shifts a week. Somewhat later, however, there was a husband, who within weeks of our marriage became ill, and his two children, Luis and Vivian. Providing for three more people required bottomless-type tips for the full 10 shifts a week.

It must be mentioned that certain girls could work less than I did and make more. Certain girls went into the men’s bathrooms with customers and emerged several minutes later $10 richer. Certain girls made it known they would go home with the customer who tipped them the most. At every shift where there was a certain girl, the rest of us made less money. So, 10 shifts a week it was.

Ten shifts a week for 10 years. Five days every week, I drove an hour or so to a lunch shift and danced for two hours to music so loud it was terrifying. Then, I drove home, checked on things and fixed pork chops or macaroni and cheese for that night, left again before dinner and drove to a night shift. For five more hours, I danced to even louder, thumping, crashing noise. On weekends, I cooked, cleaned, tended to husband and helped with kids’ homework. And that was that.

So there, children: Now, more than 30 years later, you know why Mom used to insist that you turn off the loud music. She had already been subjected to “Do the Mashed Potatoes” or “19th Nervous Breakdown” a dozen times that day at deafening decibels with the speaker beamed directly at her left ear. When she came home from work, she was ready for some quiet time.

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Also published in Medium Aug 21, 2021.