watching the dancers

janice left her glasses on my desk

The city I live in has one strip club, and this strip club boasts only one permanent stripper. Bylaws have shoved it to the post-apocalyptic industrial park on the northeastern edge of the city, where it cannot contaminate any of the city's schoolyards, parks, or residential zones. In turn, the strip club cannot be contaminated by a liquor license, which means that all your drinking must be done on the way to the establishment. Dancers is one of the few clubs that requires a designated driver to get to the place, but not to go home at the end of the night.

I've never visisted the understaffed and underboozed place, but like most people in my demographic - guys! - I've gone to at least one strip club. The experience was evidence that the universe is a morally indifferent machine in which we are free to build our own engines, and that, when magically cross-fertilized with naked women, a beer will cost you eight dollars.

In the late summer of 1998 I went on a trip to Calgary to visit old friends. For a couple of days we hung out, spent our afternoons and evenings talking, drinking, watching movies, until J___ - a filmmaker with a taste for masculine entertainments that included martial arts movies and monster truck rallies - suggested we all get in a cab and go to the strip club downtown. We relied on J___ to initiate these kinds of things. He had a talent for turning the sleazy and unpalatable into a kind of innocent fun, on par with producing an explosion from a chemistry set.

J___ and I sat in the back of the cab. T___ sat in the front seat and talked to the driver. T___ had a talent for guessing a cabbie's country of origin and then asking about the political situation over there in Eritrea, or Romania, or wherever it happened to be.

The club, a long low flat-roofed building decked out in dark brown shakes, was located only a few blocks south of the river. As we approached the doors we could see the thick river life in the angled light, gnats and dragonflies and plant spoor drifting around us. I had expected the doors to open up on a hallway or a vestibule - somehow the notion of a strip club demands a transitional space - but instead they opened directly into the darkness of the club. A bouncer on a stool, the usual bodybuilder in black jeans and T-shirt, motioned for our IDs and passed them in front of his eyes briefly before gesturing us inside.

In the dark, the jostling crowd of men seemed like shadows expelling the heat of the summer day outside. A waitress caught our attention and motioned us to a booth about ten or fifteen feet from the stage, placed centrally and washed in cold blue light. A woman with brown hair and pale blue-shadowed skin was finishing up her act with a coda that would become extremely familiar as the evening ground on: she was sitting on the floor with her legs cocked up and out, a rolled-up poster balanced neatly on her crotch.

A crowd of guys were taking turns aiming loonies and toonies, trying to dislodge the poster. Coins twanged off her legs and stomach. She smiled with every coin that came flashing through the dark at her.

What do you know, I thought. I have never met that woman, never spoken to her, never learned a single thing about her, but already I've seen her naked. It was a complete reversal of intimacy. I wondered how many men had walked into strip clubs for the first time and had that thought.

My next thought, as I watched more and more loose change being thrown at her crotch, was that strippers had benefited more than anyone else from the adoption of one-dollar and two-dollar coins.

While the waitress took our order, the woman had left the stage, her costume and props gathered up under one arm, a bouncer escorting her through the crowd to the back. My eyes were adjusting to the engineered shadows that kept the crowd anonymous, and as the beers arrived, I started to look around at my fellow patrons.

A row of eager drunks, one wearing a white slip and a faceful of artlessly applied makeup, were whooping and doing shots along gynecology row at the rim of the stage. In the nearest booth sat a group of women in flannel shirts and stylized mullets, all of them shifting their eyes around the room and taking serious swigs from bottles of Pilsner.

The DJ suddenly piped up: Hey, any homosexuals in the audience tonight? A beat went by, then: Nah, didn’t think so. I glanced over at the women to see if they had noticed the unintentional slight, but they were too involved with staring straight ahead and waiting for the next girl. Maybe they’d heard the line before. Or maybe one had dragged the rest down on a whim to the strip club, and now they were adrift in a sea of straight white men.

I rolled a cigarette. As I ran my tongue along the strip of glue, a gigantic arm reached out of the darkness and curled itself around my shoulder. A man in a mint green polo shirt with a blond cube-shaped head was holding me by the shoulders. A silly, drunken grin wavered across his face.

— Hey buddy, how’s it going?

— Good, I said. What else can you say when the Aryan Nation has captured your upper body?

— What are you smoking there? Any of that funny stuff?

I pointed at the pouch of Drum on the table. No, just a cigarette.

— ‘Cause you look like a guy who’d have some of the funny stuff.

— Just tobacco.

— Okay man, he laughed, then delivered a solid, manly, almost paternal clap to the back. That’s good. That’s good. Then he wandered off, leaving me to wonder whether I’d just talked to a jock with a taste for adventure or a cop looking to bust someone in the off-hours. Always be closing, I guess.

— Alright gentlemen! The DJ boomed out. Are you ready for some more girls? It turned out the crowd was indeed ready. Our next dancer was Miss Nude America for the last two years running, and she’s here all the way from Cali-FORNIA!

The erstwhile Miss Nude America stepped up in a blaze of light, giving the crowd a strong-jawed grin that reminded me more of a performance athlete than a pole dancer. She whipped her long ash-blond hair out from her cloak and started to move around the stage in a propulsive step that I could only describe as a muscular skipping. She shed her cloak, revealing a weight-trained body with a pair of breasts that looked a bit like pinkish apples bolted high up on her chest.

With a graceful wave to the audience she skipped over to the pole and began to weave herself around it, threading her body in and out of pose after pose. It was more like watching naked gymastics than anything else – impressive but not very erotic. Not that the crowd cared. What was most important to them was the very fact that a woman had taken her clothes off in front of them, that she was smiling as she spun her body around a pole. Here at last was the kind of woman they all imagined they wanted, one who would show up and demand nothing but that you watch.

Midway through the spinning, another woman jumped onstage, and the cheering rebounded. She had the same kind of muscular body as Miss Nude America, but a little slighter. She took up the pole while Miss Nude walked around the stage or slunk around on all fours. Eventually both were slinking around, and every so often they would mash their bodies together and hold the pose while the crowd, already cheering, erupted.

After a few minutes of crawling around, Miss Nude and Also Nude started pulling out posters and doing that human carnival routine where men lined up to throw the contents of their pockets at the women’s twats. A couple of the seated women got up and joined in, which prompted a wink and a bigger smile from Miss Nude. The guy in the slip fell over in mid-throw and the bouncers hustled him away.

The music dipped in volume and the lights dimmed. Okay, said the DJ, let’s hear it for Miss Nude America and her friend! The crowd cheered and clapped again, drifting over to the bar or back to their booths. The woman I’d seen dancing when I first came in was sitting up at the bar, holding a purse with one hand and grasping a tumbler with the other.

I took a sip of my beer and looked back at the stage. Miss Nude and her friend were still there, gathering their clothes and remaining posters from the floor. Then they knelt down and began to hunt for change, plucking loonies and toonies from the floor with their laquered nails.

The sight of the dancers gathering change and dropping coins into their cloaks was more shocking and intimate than their sudden and casual nakedness. Even though they were surrounded by people, they were as separate from us as if they were already backstage, putting on street clothes and lighting cigarettes. This was the strangest reversal of the night, the sudden convex rupture of private space into the middle of a crowded room.

A few years later I visited T___ again, and he asked that we go back to the strip club. It was a cold weeknight, and T___ had armored himself in his black trenchcoat. The club was close to empty. The dancers seemed older, or heavier, and a few had dark circles under her eyes.

— Thanks for coming out tonight, T___ said.

— No problem, I said. This time around, I knew better than to watch the dancers too closely.

— It’s just that I’m really angry at women right now, T___ confessed. The only way I can deal with them right now is to objectify them.

To that frighteningly perceptive statement I had nothing to say.