It is my birthday. I am now 37 years old, and I feel awful, just awful. My throat feels like a sharpened claw has scraped the entire inside with sadistic glee. I am coughing up sticky yellow phlegm, and I sit in bed for a full hour trying to summon the energy to head to the shower. When the water starts hitting my skin it feels like an assault.
I explain to the doctor at Southwest Medical Associates that I have to spend 24 hours straight at a topless bar, Spearmint Rhino, starting at 5 p.m. tonight.
Like everyone else I tell about thisincluding the management of the Spearmint Rhinohe thinks it is a bit crazy. I don't blame him. "It wasn't my idea," I tell him. "My editor thought it would make a good story. It is for work, an assignment."
The doctor takes out a prescription pad and writes on it:
Please excuse patient from any over-night work for three days. Patient needs plenty of rest and fluids due to illness.
"Since this just started, you are going to get worse before you get better," the doctor warns me.
Driving home I realize I never bothered to ask him what illness I have.
I call my editor while at a Sav-On filling my prescription for amoxicillin.
"It's up to you," he says.
"Do we have a backup plan for the cover story?"
"We'll think of something." He does not sound confident. It's Friday, andbecause of the long holiday weekend about to startthere are only a few hours left to find a replacement. "So, what do you want to do?"
He says this a bit too anxiously and too quickly for my tastes. And, I can't help note, he hasn't even wished me a happy birthday.
"I'll let you know," I say, and hang up.
Maybe it is just the adrenaline stirred up because I'm late, but I am feeling a lot better when I get to the club. The Spearmint Rhino slinks down one side of an otherwise nondescript strip mall on Highlandonly pictures of girls emblazoned along the outside walls hint at the splendors within.
It is so dark inside that when I first walk in I am blind. I bump into a chair, a girl and a dark-suited club bouncer before safely sitting myself at the bar. I order my first Diet Cokethe doctor said plenty of fluidsand try to tune out "Wanted Dead or Alive" by those execrable '80s hair farmers Bon Jovi.
This is not my first time at the Spearmint Rhino. Actually, my work has brought me to almost every strip club in Las Vegas. And, apparently, I haven't always left a good impression.
"I think I ran into this guy doing a 'story' at Jaguars," one dancer says to another after greeting me.
"We like talking to guys who spend money on us," says the other.
I like their attitude, and it helps that one of them is breathtakingly gorgeous. She is wearing a pair of vinyl pants with strategic holes that expose glimpses of perfect body parts. The other dancer might be just as beautiful, I'll never know; they are gone before I can wrench my eyes from the first.
My cell phone rings. It's my mom calling to wish me a happy birthday. "What is all that noise?" she asks.
Obviously, the situation calls for a fib, a white lie or, preferably, a Clintonsque evasion, because lying to my mom is always tricky; she is a lawyer and she doesn't so much ask questions as cross-examine. Shit, I think, I should have anticipated this moment. My mom has real doubts about my life, and explaining this is not going to assuage them.
So I can't exactly say why I start telling her the truth. Maybe it's because I am sick and don't have the energy to blow smoke, or maybe something about a birthday forces you to deal with the facts of your life. Besides, I am pretty sure my mom was joking that time she threatened me with involuntary committal when she found out I was too lazy to fill out the paperwork for work-related mileage reimbursements. To be on the safe side, I leave out that I haven't noted the mileage for the drive to the Spearmint Rhino.
Actually, I don't get much further than the fact that I am in a strip bar before she curtly cuts me off. "I'll call you when you are less busy."
There is a drunken contract painter from San Diego talking at me while I try to ignore him. His spit hits my neck as he tells an incoherent story about a supervisor he had 13 years ago. Though I didn't ask, he says, "I come here to have a good time and spend money." Those last two are the magic words that attract the dancer sitting nearby. He tells her the same story about the supervisor and, miraculously, she acts like she has been waiting her entire life to hear it. Soon off they go to a table for a dance.
The biggest misconception about stripping in Las Vegas is that it is easy money. The work itself is unbelievably hard: on the knees and on the spirit. To succeed, a dancer has to be more than attractive; she must have a strong work ethic, handle all sorts of attitude and rejection and, most of all, be able to stay focused on the sale.
I would make a lousy dancer.
"I try to be a student of life, and this is a great place to do it," Tonya, the bartender, says. She is a marvel to behold. She dodges the bar back, takes orders, mixes drinks and juggles our conversation with effortless fluidity.
Her job is a prized one, and like the cocktail servers, she is attractive enough to be a dancer. So, though I know it's rude, I can't help asking her what's the most she has ever been offered to, ahem, take it off: $3000.
"Why didn't you?"
"I'm married, but mostly I didn't want to lose my job."
Of course. She can't just throw off her clotheseven for three grandwithout the proper license. Just as in the casinos, despite the illusion that anything can happen here, this is a regulated industry. Watching Tonya stuff the oodles of tip money into a jar by the register, it is clear she has one of the best jobs in the place, and it suggests how good she has it that even $3,000 isn't worth jeopardizing her employment. Not by coincidence, the number one lie strippers tell to their parents is that they aren't dancers but only serve drinks at the club.
Karen, 25, tells me she has been dancing for three years, though this is her first night working at the Spearmint Rhino. I am guessing it is going to be her last. Karen has issues. She is an example of why being really hot isn't enough to guarantee money here. She has come to Vegas from Phoenix to work the Memorial Day weekend, and she is hoping to bank. But she hasn't left her problems back at homenamely, she has her boyfriend with her. At least, that is what she calls him. When I refer to him that way, she interrupts me: "He's not even my boyfriend. It's not like that. He is my ex-boyfriend." Whatever. The point being she has brought him with her, and not just to Las Vegas, but here to the Spearmint Rhino.
While other girls are selling dances, she is fuming to me. "He's buying other girls drinks, which is fine. I totally don't care. I mean, it's not a jealousy thing, at all. But he's using my money, and they aren't even hot girls. I'm not saying I am the hottest girl here or anything. But these bitches are ugly. And he is using my money, and it's not like I've sold any dances, because it's so empty in here."
I look around. The place is packed. It is standing room only and the men are lined up in rows at both bars and surrounding all three stages. Nor do I see the ugly girls. I am looking for them, because the ones I see are so unbelievably attractive that I would strike out with them in my wildest dreams. It is standard for dancers to pay a floor fee (according to the dancers working this night at the Rhino, it is $60), and the Darwinian truth is that girls who can't earn this back are weeded out.
"It looks to me like there are a few people here. Maybe if you focus on work and pay less attention to what your boyfriend is doing ..." I suggest.
She storms off, and then comes back with him, and they both sit down at my table and begin to argue. When she sends him out to the car to get cigarettes, she says: "It's fine if you don't. But do you want a dance?"
I do not want my picture taken for this story. I think writers are best experienced as a byline. I love the ambiguity of a name known only as black-and-white text. What do you learn from a shot of a guya recently-turned-37 guy, in this caseposing with dancers at least a decade his junior?
But my editoroh, yes, the same one who conceived this adventurehas decided that a picture is essential. So, when a photographer shows up unexpectedly at the Spearmint Rhino, the manager on duty scrambles to accommodate us by finding two volunteers. He then takes us to a VIP alcove where there is no chance of another dancer or a customer accidentally winding up in the picture. I am feeling sick again. The photographer wants us to poseme, sick me, to smile. Then he wants to do it twice, for some reason: with me wearing my glasses, with me not wearing them. I am having hot and cold flashes. The dancers are debating which hurts more, a boob job or childbirth.
My friend, concert promoter A.J. Gross of AJ Presents, arrives to wish me a happy birthday and buy me a lap dance. But the real treat is that he has brought along George Lyons. George hosts my favorite radio show, The Lyons Den, which airs on KUNV 91.5-FM Sunday nights. I listen to him every week, and I am thrilled to finally meet him. George, on the other hand, seems more interested in meeting dancers. Of course, he has just arrived and I've been here almost eight hours.
"What sort of girl do you like?" A.J. asks me.
"One who likes Bob Dylan."
"I meant white or black, or tall or short, like that."
"One who likes Bob Dylan."
This is true. And, though I cover adult entertainment of all sorts, I am not much of a consumer of it. I do not like to have any physical contact, not even a handshake, with strangers, and a hot girl just isn't sexy to me unless I feel some sort of connection. But in many ways, that makes me even more vulnerable to a fleecing here. I crave the GFEthe girlfriend experienceand there are plenty of dancers skilled at offering it. But now is not the time to find a match to my peculiar melancholy. The club is too packed and the music is too loud.
A.J. picks a blonde from Russia for my first dance of the night.
"Why do you close your eyes when I dance for you?" she whispers in my ear.
"I don't know," I say.
There is so much I want to talk about with George. He was in the original Grateful Dead taping section, knows as much about Dylan as I do and can possibly even explain to me what makes people who otherwise have great taste like Phish. But we are guys at the nudie bar and, as such, our conversation has a more pressing theme: real or fake.
George has discovered the wild girls from Brazil. He buys a dance from one and then another. "The girls here are as beautiful as any I've ever seen," he says.
"You know, you can get them both to dance for you at once," I suggest.
George looks at the girl to his right and then at the one to his left. He smiles broadly at me like I've given him a revelation. "Yes!" he says.
Both girls go to work writhing all over him, and George raises his fist in the air and screams, "I am the king!"
I am not sure if it was A.J. or George who invited this 28-year-old from Sacramento to join our table. I had spaced out for a momentin dire need of more DayQuiland now I notice that she is suddenly seated between them. She says she is shy, and they suggest it would help if she gave me a back rub. I miss the connection. To my relief, she doesn't. Her hair is permed into perfect locks.
George says something about the Grateful Dead that I don't quite catch.
"You know who I love?" she says. "Actually, I've been obsessed with him since I was a child, and if I saw him I would" and she completes the sentence by spreading her long legs.
"Bob Dylan!" I say.
"Bon Jovi," she says. "I know his favorite food is spaghetti. I know the name of his high-school girlfriend. I know everything about him."
"Well, you sure have his hairstyle down," I say.
A.J. and George leave. I want them to stay. These have easily been the best hours of the night. Hint: It is more fun to be with friends at a strip club spending money than to sit around taking notes by yourself, slurping Diet Coke. I check with the club manager to make sure the parking lot counts as part of the clubI wouldn't want the editor to think I was shirking my dutyand walk them to the car, enjoying the fresh air and a moment's more companionship.
"That was the best strip club experience I ever had," George says. "By the way, make sure you listen to the radio show this week. I am doing four straight hours of Dylan." Ah, George, if only you were a hot woman
This is unbelievably tedious. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. And girls keep coming at me asking for dances, and I feel horrible each time I say no. This is my editor's fault, I tell them, for not approving a big-enough expense account for the lap dances. He'll be here soon to answer for it, too. I order a chicken sandwich. The worst part is that I am really, really looking forward to his visit. Has it come to this?
My cell phone vibrates.
"I didn't wake you did I? It's 8 here," my mom says, referring to the time in Philadelphia, the only time that should matter, in her view of things. "I didn't really get a chance to wish you a happy birthday yesterday, because you were in that place. I thought I'd call when you were less busy."
"Thanks," I say.
"What's that noise? Are you still there?"
"You mean, it's still going on? That's disgusting!"
My kingdom for some dental floss. I am watching a German tourist snap his fingers to a techno mix of "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones, and he is unfailingly missing the beat.
The customers fall into clear categories here, the tourists being the largest. There are plenty of frat boys here to party. Lots of bachelor parties, of course. Then there are the wannabe players who think they are going to score a girl. There are also a surprisingly large number of couples. On the seedier side are a few strange loners. Many of them congregate around the stages not tipping, just staring. Why are they here this early in the morning? A few even more sinister ones sit alone off in the dark corners of the club, lone freaks. I think I should go try to talk to one of them.
But do I really need to? What category do I fall into, sitting here by myself, shooing away girls, scribbling furiously on a notepad, in dire need of dental floss?
Elizabeth sneaks up behind me and rests her head on my shoulder. I turn to more fully take in her wonderfully expressive face and gorgeous long chestnut hair. "What are you writing?" She asks.
I tell her about my story and ask her to tell me hers for it.
"I worked here a couple years ago," she says. "And then I retired to become a housewife and raise kids. I was a MILF. I'm back because I need money. That simple." Then she leans into my ear and whispers, "Well, since you are working, too, I'm not going to ask you if you want a dance. I'm just going to say, I'll stop by later and see how your work is going."
For some reasonthe mix of illness, exhaustion, intermittent boredom and Bon JoviI find this so moving it almost brings a tear to my eye, and it inspires me to make her the most romantic promise I can think of: "Elizabeth, my boss gets here at 6, and I am going to get him to buy me a dance from you."
I scribble all this down, and then I look up and she is gone. I realize I don't have any idea what her body looks like; it doesn't matter.
He can't take it. The weasel can't take it. I've been here all night at his command, and though he has promised to stay at least an hour, he already is trying to beg out early.
He is married and has three kids and has sent me out to do his adventuring. A girl whispers something in his ear and he turns purple. I am going to have to start shooing the girls away from him because he looksI am being seriousabsolutely terrified. I am enjoying myself again.
"Which girls do you think are hot?"
"I can't see any of them. I have bad club vision."
"Bad club vision, right. I promised this girl you would buy me a dance."
"I can't. I give you permission to expense it."
"Fine, loan me $20 so I can expense it."
As I watch him, his $20 in my hand, I think he is happy to get out so quick and cheap. I call Elizabeth over to buy her a drink and talk a bit morehoping to get a little GFEbefore the dance.
Elizabeth turns out not to be a single mother. She is still married. Has three kids. She tells me this, of course, because I would never know it looking at her body. And I am looking closely. At first it seems odd to have some guy's wife and the mother of three kids lap-dancing for me. But then it occurs to me to pretend that she is my editor's wife, and suddenly all is well in the universe.
"I see you are enjoying yourself," she purrs in my ear.
"And you are probably thinking, I have to get diapers on the way home."
"Not at all. I like it when a guy isn't ugly or too smelly."
I clench my mouth closed and wish I had remembered to have my editor bring dental floss.
My voice is gonenothing left, blown out like a tire. I wheeze. Girls ask for a dance and I go, "Croak, croak, croak." Almost no one still working knows I am doing a story. I am thinking about giving up. No one here would notice if I slid out the door. I call my editor.
"It's up to you," he says, his tone implying I'd be a less-than-ideal employee if I bailed now. "Hey, I am going to be out of contact. I'm taking my kids to a movie."
Kate, in addition to stripping, works as a Montessori teacher. But what really matters is that she wants to share a recipe for a martini:
Kate's F*cked-Up Martini: vodka, Chambord, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, a splash of pineapple juice, shaken and chilled.
I know the doctor said I needed fluids, but I wouldn't drink one of those on my deathbed.
A 35-year-old dancer sits down with me. "Croak," I say in greeting. I spend my last money to buy a drink for her.
"I like to work days because I am 35 and there is less competition. The place is calmer now," she says. She seems sad. "We were '80s kids and don't really fit in anymore. We grew up on Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, you know." She excuses herself to make a phone call and promises to be right back. She never returns.
I disagree with her, and not just about Bon Jovi. I like everything about getting older. I am, of course, very lucky to be a writer, a trade that rewards my years of practice with improved skills instead of obsolescence. But more importantly, as I get older I get better at understanding what truly makes me happy, which, by the way, includes all of the things my mom worries about.
I like living alone. I like not owning a home. I like having nothing in my life except writing, and though that might make anyone else miserable, it suits me most of the time. Of course, I have moments when I wish some smart, sweet Elizabeth was in my life. A real-life GFE. But would I want three kids? Maybe someday, a Dylan-loving damsel will enter my world, but until then, to be honest, I am happy to have come no closer than renting the experience from Elizabeth.
I stumble out into the light, saying good-bye to no one during my inglorious retreat from the Spearmint Rhino and this stupid assignment. I am exhausted, sick, voiceless and broke, and once you're broke in a strip club, you're just furniture. My eyes are watering so badly I have to wait five minutes for them to clear enough for me to drive. But perversely, I feel exhilarated. And for one of the few times in my life, it would not be wrong to call my mood optimistic. There is really only one thing I want right now, and that is to be home writing. As for my editor, when it is over, he can fix my commas. I am 37 and am looking forward to living like this for years to come.
I turn up the radio with a flourish. It is Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." No matter! Tomorrow night on The Lyons Den there will be four hours of Bob Dylan, and I can write the entire time. Happy birthday to me.