Postcard from Detroit

For months my friend John had been promising to treat me to an epic Detroit bar crawl. When we finally got together one Saturday night in July, John announced that he was taking me to Club Thunderbolt. It was a strip club a guy named Jay ran out of his dead parents’ house, in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, near East 7 Mile. In the perverse unofficial zoning of Detroit, the lack of abandoned homes and grassy “urban prairies” results in more drug trafficking and home invasions—there are still people there to rob. Jay placed small classified ads in the newspaper, in order to recruit both customers and girls, which was how John discovered the place and decided to write a profile.

“This place is really bizarre,” John warned me. Coming from him, this was a statement to be carefully considered. John prides himself on his ability to go anywhere, which he attributes in large part to his appearance (white guy with shaved head), a look that leads people to assume he is either an ex-con or a cop. “I’ve learned to adopt the demeanor of both,” John said. “If I’m either, it’s not a good thing for them.” This talent has proved fruitful for John, creator of the Detroitblog, who has managed to file dispatches from some of the weirdest places in Detroit.

The club was BYOB, so en route, we stopped at a party store and bought a six-pack of lime-flavored Labatts, which John thought the strippers might like. Turning onto Jay’s street, we passed a group of young African-American guys standing around in a driveway, most of them wearing jeans and oversized white T-shirts. They looked at us suspiciously.

Then we pulled up to Jay’s house, a modest brick bungalow. John called Jay to let him know we were outside. Within seconds, Jay appeared on the porch, waving at us to park in the driveway. He cut a striking figure: a six-foot-five rail-thin white man in his early forties, he wore a white dress shirt with an enormous collar tucked into a pair of pants the color of a store-greeter’s apron (a brisk, utilitarian shade of blue), a sharp pair of snakeskin wingtips, and rectangular black-framed glasses. His hair, streaked with grey, was combed back into what could have been a starter pompadour.

Jay had been shot in the face when he was 11, two blocks from his house (not the Club Thunderbolt house) on Detroit’s far east side, where his family moved after his father, a union truck driver, lost his job and the original family home. “We had a lot of gang stuff going on,” Jay told me later, sounding bored with his own shot-in-the-face story. Jay maintained such a rigorous deadpan that it became mildly confrontational, as if he were challenging you to reveal your naivetè. Though in fairness, his skeptical air may not have been entirely intentional. The bullet had passed through Jay’s left cheek, cut a nerve, hit his jawbone and finally bounced up through his right ear, which remains deaf. The left side of his face was partly paralyzed, leaving his voice permanently slurred and locking his mouth and cheek in a half-melted rictus, so that he seemed perpetually on the verge of twisting his face into a full frown, a man prepared for inevitable disappointment.

The cover was twenty dollars, another ten for a lap dance (with G-string on), or twenty (G-string off.) Jay, who also collected ten percent of the girls’ tips, insisted the place was not a brothel, which sounded dubious to me; he also booked larger parties for labor unions (iron workers, tree cutters, carpenters) and bachelors. Before opening Club Thunderbolt, Jay had worked as a bodyguard for a crooked cop and was the owner of a porn theater.

He led us inside. Club Thunderbolt still looked very much like the home of someone’s elderly parents, the decor frozen in time circa the Nixon Administration. The dimly lit family room in the back of the house, where the girls performed, had no stage or stripper pole, just thick blue-and-gray shag carpeting, wood-paneled walls, a sloped drop-ceiling with water-stained tiles, an old stuffed couch of the grandmother variety, and a dining room table decorated with a pair of candles. A white towel was draped over the center of the table, covering a mysterious lump.

Tonight, Jay had three dancers on hand: Paige, who was blonde and dressed in lacy black lingerie, fishnet stockings, and high-heel shoes; Stacey, who was African-American and wore a matching black leather bustier and thong, fishnets, and heels; and Sasha, also blonde, but wearing glasses and a regular black dress. A bachelor party was scheduled for 10, but they were running late. While we waited for the customers to arrive, Jay handed me a thick photo album. Again, it was the sort probably favored by your grandmother: a binder with a floral-print cover and photo-sleeve inserts, appropriate for shots of family vacations, beloved pets or, in this case, naked women with their legs spread wide and yanked up behind their ears.

One of the first women depicted was Paige; this was awkward. I quickly flipped to the next dancer. The book was a menu of sorts, featuring the various women in Jay’s employ. “Sometimes, I’ll tie them to the table,” Jay explained, unnecessarily, when I came to a Polaroid of a stripper hog-tied atop the dining room table. (A creepy detail omitted: the shots were all fading Polaroids.) Gesturing at the toweled lump, Jay asked, “Want to see what’s under the towel?” I have possibly never been less eager to see what was under a towel, but a sense of journalistic diligence persuaded me to nod yes. Jay lifted the towel to reveal an enormous pink dildo—at least eighteen inches—attached to a power drill. “Two-and-a-half horsepower Milwaukee, variable speed,” Jay said proudly. “If you’re drilling that into cement and it gets caught, you’ll break your fucking arm.”

I glanced anxiously at the girls. Detroit was locally infamous for the variety and depravity of its strip clubs. A few days before my visit to Thunderbolt, a place called the All-Star Lounge had been closed by the city for employing a 14-year-old as a topless dancer; the police chief acknowledged at a press conference that eleven nonfatal shootings and three fatal shootings “related to this club” had taken place over the past six years. Still, there was something uniquely depressing about Thunderbolt—or rather, about the thought of groups of men who found legally licensed Detroit strip clubs like Trummp’s, Henry VIII South, and the Booby Trap somehow too corporate or bourgeois, and actually preferred to gather at this creepy Blue Velvet set to watch women confront a weapon-grade vibrator.

But when I looked over at the dancers, they were just talking to John, who was sitting on the couch drinking a lime-flavored beer. I detected no signs of distress on their part. If anything, they seemed relaxed and far less narcotized than strippers I’d met in the past. “It’s a little different,” Paige acknowledged, smiling in a knowing way, when I asked her about the gig. She also evinced what seemed like genuine fondness for Jay. One night, she said, a customer tried to follow her home; unluckily for him, Jay was dropping her off. “I had to go tap on his window with my .357,” Jay told me. “He said, ‘I’m resting!’ I said, ‘No you’re not, motherfucker!’ I don’t put up with any bullshit. Everyone who comes here gets shaked down when they come through the door.” When Jay crouched down to adjust a computer monitor set up on the floor, I noticed the butt of a gun sticking out of the back of his pants.

Sasha’s phone rang. The other girls giggled. Her ringtone, a parody of a song by the children’s group the Wiggles, featured the lyrics, “I’ve got the clap and I’m giving it to you!”

Jay’s phone rang. It was the bachelors. They were still at a bar. “Finish your fucking drink and get over here,” he snapped. “I’ve got girls waiting!”

John gave me a look. “We should get going soon,” he said. But Jay wanted to show me his website, which would soon involve a web cam but for now seemed to be a slideshow of naked girls similar to the scrapbook photos. Jay fired up the slideshow. Whenever he caught me glancing away from the monitor, he would shout, “Mark! Pay attention! You know how hard I worked on this?”

I still couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. There was something inscrutable about Jay, and my emotions towards him continually shifted during our brief time together. There were moments where I felt guilty for taking notes, like some Arbusian exploiter of freaks. But then that would seem condescending, and I would wonder why I pitied this guy, who for all I knew was a sinister pimp with severe anger-management issues. I also hoped he would make telling comments about Detroit that I might use for the book I was working on. But when I asked him how the city had changed since he was a boy, he only snorted and said, “It hasn’t. It’s always been a shithole.” Then, “Want to see the War Room?”

Jay led me to a room upstairs, where he’d set up a backdrop for photo shoots and, in the corner, had stacked a pile of cardboard boxes. “Brand new AK-47 here, and 10,000 rounds of ammo,” he said, patting one of the boxes. Then he leaned into the open doorway of his bedroom and emerged holding a double-barreled shotgun. “I’ve always got this ready to go,” he said. “I sleep with numerous weapons.”

I could see a pair of nun chucks and a crossbow hanging above his bed, and a Kevlar vest hanging closer to the door. “I even have a 55-gallon Zep drum out in back,” Jay said. I nodded as if I knew what he was talking about. Later, I looked up Zep and discovered the company makes industrial-strength cleaning solutions used to remove, among other things, blood. “You really don’t want to fuck with me,” Jay continued. “Shit, with the police we have here I could dig a hole in the backyard and nobody would know. I saw a cop car seven days ago. And I saw a sheriff at the gas station yesterday. That’s it, in this neighborhood, in a week.”

I asked Jay why he didn’t move to a safer place. He explained that his parents had fallen behind on their mortgage payments before they died, and that “the motherfuckers at the bank” wouldn’t cut him a deal. “It’s true, I have a feeling things aren’t changing around here,” he said, shifting his shotgun from one hand to the other, then added, “But this joint? They’re not taking it.”

The apparently hard-drinking bachelors still hadn’t arrived, and John and I said we really had to leave—we were meeting some friends at a less creepy after-hours club. But Jay insisted we have lap dances first. This was not how I wanted the evening to end, but Jay was very persistent. I found the dance stressful and unsexy, and spent most of it worrying my obvious lack of enthusiasm might hurt Paige’s feelings. I wanted to whisper, “It’s not you, it’s the entire concept of the lap dance,” but instead I thought about how perfectly Club Thunderbolt fit into the standard narrative of Detroit decline: Jay’s violent past, his father’s lay-off, the danger of imminent foreclosure. Jay told us that since the publication of John’s article, he’d received a call from both a documentary film crew and Vice magazine.

It was almost too neat. Detroit! At times the city seems so real, it ceases to be entirely plausible. Some of the people whose parents ostensibly fled the city because of its lawlessness and danger and vice return, on a regular basis, for that very reason—to visit crazy strip clubs and downtown casinos, to buy drugs (one of the longest-operating dopehouses is located just off the freeway, for convenient suburban access), to illegally dump trash in vacant lots, to sneak into abandoned buildings and take “urban exploration” pictures for their Flickr streams. Places like Thunderbolt exist to fill a demand. Maybe my being disturbed was simply a sign of my own uptightness; maybe there was something quaint and Etsy-ish about a 21st century entrepreneurial sex business happening live and not on the Internet. Was Club Thunderbolt essentially the porn-enthusiast’s equivalent of a DIY spot I might like—a punk-rock show in somebody’s basement, or a clandestine supper club in a Brooklyn brownstone?

Well, okay, no. But Detroit’s decades-long collapse—the lack of jobs and city services and adequate policing, its lingering existence as, essentially, a failed state—has left wide-open spaces for all sorts of possibility to flourish. It’s not exactly anarchy, but the place doesn’t operate by the rules of a normal American city.

Jay walked us to the front door, which, I now noticed, was patched with a mosaic of wooden boards. The door had been this way since last fall, when one night Jay was sitting in bed watching Jay Leno—Leno was still on at 10 at that point—and  heard a burglar creeping up the stairs. He grabbed his shotgun and chased the man outside, firing at him through the door.

“I shot high, because I didn’t want to kill somebody,” Jay said.

A cop showed up five-and-a-half hours after Jay called 911. When he arrived, he told Jay, “Next time, aim lower.”

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