Op-Alt: Life on The Block

July 7 2015 City Paper

“Lotta new girls. Keep your shit stashed. You don’t know who you be trusting,” one dancer said to another, looking directly at me. The changing room upstairs at Chez Joey serves a couple of purposes. The bathroom doesn’t have a door and one wall is lined with lockers, but you’ve gotta bring your own lock if you want to secure anything like your purse or phone. Another wall is lined with mirrors. There’s one small bench. Girls getting ready between shift change scarf down huge meals in Styrofoam packaging from the carry-out next door, bickering like sisters sharing a bathroom, taking selfies.

I saw an ad on Craigslist under the ominous “ETC” category that said a national chain strip club on Baltimore Street was hiring shooter girls, and although I assumed it was Hustler Club and that, at 32, I’d be too old or not quite fit enough to get the gig, I applied. I’d been digging through journals from when I dropped out of college to join a circus in San Francisco, and resurrected a list of interesting “dream jobs” I wanted to have in my lifetime. They included: cemetery or morgue, strip club (but not as a stripper), truck driver, etc. Considering I was a few months into my new gig as a full-time freelance writer and musician, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to have some experiences worth writing about. And I got the job. But it wasn’t Hustler Club, like I thought. It was Chez Joey.

Chez Joey is technically a chain because there’s another location in New Orleans and in Myrtle Beach, but there’s nothing really “chain” about it. It’s one of the dive-ier spots on the block. Between mid-March 2015 and June 25, 2015, Chez Joey, and a few other clubs, were raided twice. The first time was regarded alleged gang activity, the second, human trafficking.

I can’t pretend to be an expert—I worked two shifts and stopped in a few times to have a whiskey off the clock. Although I imagined I’d be walking around with a tray of Jell-O shots, the job was really what they call a “sitter.” A sitter is basically a scantily clad conversationalist. As one regular put it, “a sitter is a girl who just hasn’t become a stripper, yet.”

For both shifts, I wore a silver wig because I have alopecia, and I feel prettier incognito. I shoved my C-cups into a Victoria’s Secret push-up bra that made me look injected with plastic. I wore black boy shorts and covered my torso in a tight, black lace slip that barely covered my ass. Strappy black stilletos, a pound and a half of makeup, and full-figured, false eyelashes—and I looked the part. The other girls wore much less. A string of neon elastic here, a small patch of stretchy fabric there, but nothing permanent—the club features full nudity. Some dancers didn’t even wear makeup. They all had better shoes than me, but nobody really seemed to enjoy wearing them for very long.

I went into this whole thing thinking I could get to the bottom of the business for a story—the dirty side dealings, the unfair wages, the shady prostitution, the drugs. And I did to some extent. But what I ultimately walked away with was something profoundly different.

Prostitution through the club happens. It’s called bottle service, and can cost a john somewhere around $160 for 30 minutes upstairs. Upstairs, because there are no cameras upstairs. More time or more than one girl will cost extra. One girl warned, “Get your tip first.” She told me about a guy she had who was so fucked up, she thought she could just wait the 30 minutes out. “I was so grossed out when he got his shit on my thigh,” she said. She thought about stealing his credit card, because he wouldn’t have noticed, in his inebriated state, but decided “to be honest instead.” He wound up staying for 60 minutes and she walked with a few hundred dollars, untaxed.

Some girls would get to their shift semi-fucked up. Some would get to their shift in an obvious, immediate need to get fucked up. Others were clean, or drank responsibly. “I was looking like I was pregnant,” a dancer said. She said she got off dope and coke in prison and subsequently gained weight. But, she said, she was ultimately happy to be “off that shit.”

If a dancer or sitter made arrangements to meet a john outside of the club for “bottle service,” they’d be fired on the spot. One dancer explained that you could get away with it, but you’d have to be clever about it. Tell the john to meet you somewhere far enough away, like the McDonalds.

The bartender was both a hard-ass mom and strict boss. She handled not only the booze, but the wheeling and dealing, jukebox, payment, and cutoffs. “Put something on the jukebox and get your ass on stage,” she would say numerous times throughout the night.

As a sitter, I could earn $100 cash base pay per shift only if I got johns to buy me four $25 cocktails over the course of the night. In lieu of the drinks, I could also earn my base pay with, I think it was, three lap dances. The first night, I got five or six $25 cocktails (a small, glass tumbler with a fruity alcohol concoction that tasted like guava juice), and the second shift, I got four or five. But I had to hustle.

The bartender played a major part in my getting juiced. She’d come over after I started a conversation with a john and pressure him, in a friendly way, to buy me a drink. Most of the time, they wouldn’t. She’d sort of instruct me to move on to the next, if there were any nexts. Sometimes the place would be empty for an hour at a time.

I could also earn tips, but “if you don’t show your tits, you won’t get tips.” I somehow managed to get some tips, despite keeping my clothes on. But it was a rather extraordinary circumstance where a wealthy (and handsome) lawyer wanted to “save me,” “Pretty Woman” style. Ten dollars goes to the jukebox, even if you don’t dance, and another 10 goes to security—even if you don’t make your drink quota and therefore shift pay. But, if you are the first girl to arrive for a shift, your jukebox fee is waived. And the bartender will usually throw you a couple of shots throughout the night, on the house.

Everyone who worked during my shifts could dance. Except me, of course. But even more impressive was each dancer’s ability to hustle. We were all there for the same reason, to make money.

A 19-year-old mother of one said her boyfriend was locked up for being involved in an armed robbery. She was distraught because she hadn’t been able to get in touch with him, or find out where he was for a few days. She tried to teach me how to twerk. I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough “junk in the trunk” to make this happen, but she pointed to a few skinny dancers in the room and said, “If they can do it, you can do it.” She told me to hold onto the bar, and move my ankles in a back and forth motion, starting off slowly, but moving faster until it would happen. But it never happened. I asked if I could do it kinda like Tina Turner’s classic shake, but she didn’t know who Tina Turner was. I never did successfully twerk, but sometimes in the privacy of my bedroom, I practice like she taught me.

At the end of my second shift, before the raids, I knew I would probably not be coming back for another shift. There was no real clear reason, other than I was starting to care about the women. I liked the dancers and the bartender. They were good people.

While I was upstairs changing into my yoga pants and sweatshirt to walk to my car in the parking garage at 3 a.m. that night, I kept my wig on. “You got cancer?” one dancer asked. I told her I didn’t. I said, “I have alopecia.” She and the other girls came around me and said they knew what it was and that I shouldn’t be ashamed. That I didn’t need to cover up or hide behind anything cause I was pretty, however I was. “I mean, you weird, but you good weird,” one said. They decided my name, “Heather,” didn’t suit me. They said, because of my silver wig, I was like a hurricane. “Your name is Katrina, but we gonna call you Trina.”

I haven’t been back since the raids, but I hope if I did visit, they would welcome me, just like before.

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