In the late seventies and early eighties, I worked in the topless hustle bars owned by “the Jewish Mafia.” The clubs thrived for a while, and then closed at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, when the New York City Department of Health shut down most of the bars, and all the gay baths.
I can’t really separate the clubs from my sense of that time in my life and that of the city. There was a feeling that the club world would always be there and go on, but then it ended abruptly. What stopped it for me wasn’t AIDS—I got out before that—but the installation of a large restaurant exhaust system outside one of the two windows in my small East Village tenement. Prior to that, the apartment—backing onto an airshaft—had been kind of a refuge for me. Through the tiny crack between buildings, I observed the changing of weather and seasons. How quickly we adapt to our prisons. A slab of vertical sky, one or two trees, nesting sparrows.
I started my dancing career at the Adam & Eve on the Upper East Side, but soon settled into working three nights a week at the Wild West Topless Bar on W. 33rd Street, one of its down-market sisters. Located on a seedy block near Penn Station across from a church and two doors from a trade union office, the Wild West was equally lucrative but much less competitive. It had an old neon sign with a pair of average-sized tits and a lasso. The Wild West was one of four or five places owned by Sy, Hy and three other guys that made up “the Jewish Mafia.” Old, bald, with bellies hanging down over their belts in cheap white button-down shirts, the owners looked almost identical. Rotating between clubs to collect cash and check over the books, they otherwise kept a low profile. At the Wild West, Ray Mazzione was in charge of us girls. He was about 32, lived in Queens and said he was married; he spent about fourteen hours a day at the club. Ray was the one who hired and fired, figured our pay at the end of the night, and made it his business to know who was strung out, who was just chipping, whose boyfriend was beating her up, and who was giving out “action” in the back rooms. He kept a chart ranking our bottle sales by the night, week, and month. Ray was everybody’s best friend. The girls told him everything.
At that time in New York, there were still old-school burlesque clubs featuring big-name professional strippers with managers. There were “bottomless” bars that offered ‘hot lunch’ where customers put 50 bucks on the table to get a face-full of cunt. But the Wild West didn’t offer these things. The Wild West was all about hustle. While dancers were paid $12 an hour to show up and dance alternate sets, the real money was made selling bottles of ersatz-champagne.
The hustle began on the long t-shaped table that served as a stage. Whenever someone gave you more than a $1 tip, you gave him all your attention and tried to sell him a split. One split equaled $35 equaled fifteen minutes of conversation on a banquette, which you used to push the next drink. It was a dream of eternal postponement. For $150, a guy could buy us a magnum, served in a curtained back-room. These dates lasted about half an hour. Given this framework, giving out “action”—any sexual contact that would result in a customer having an orgasm—was, though not completely forbidden, discouraged and obliquely punished. Because once a guy spent, he’d stop spending. Patiently, night after night, Ray taught us the ground rules of romance and dating. Don’t put out. Don’t act like a hooker. Because once you do, the hustle is over. And Ray was right. Because while a guy might offer you a big tip for a blowjob, he might not deliver. And then where would you turn? Better to keep the guy hoping, buying champagne . . .
Girls who gave action were whores. They were not in control of the game. A “good” girl could keep a customer entranced out on the floor over three or four splits, and then get him to celebrate the budding romance in the back room with a magnum. A really good girl could keep the guy ordering magnums until—whichever came first—the club closed at 4, or his American Express credit line was exhausted. “You’re artists,” Ray told us. “You’re showgirls.”
In a way, he was right. A thin vestige of glamour surrounded the hustle—faint echoes of silvery black and white films, good girls gone astray in the big city, the Great Depression. “Would you buy me a drink? Then I won’t have to dance the next set.” Waitresses in fishnet stockings and cigarette trays uncorked the ersatz-champagne bottles with a flourish while Ray ran the guy’s Amex. “Would you care to order another round for the lady?” When one of us hooked a promising mark, Ray got on the phone to some primitive gray-market hacker to find out how much the guy had on his line. Sometimes he got the good news that the card had no ceiling. Ray transmitted this news to the girl via the waitress and so long as the customer stayed, that girl was Ray’s special princess. Ray, at these times, was like Daddy. The system worked well, because it was so close to routine heterosexual life. The toxicity of the club lay not in its demeaning of our “femininity,” but in the putrid, despicable sense of all human nature it revealed, or engendered.
I liked coming home from the bar in a cab around 4 in the morning. I’d get into bed, sometimes still in my clothes, and read myself to sleep. Cabs lined up outside the club when our shift ended—and I rode downtown in the deep quiet. Once I was in a cab and the driver pulled out a knife and told me to give him a blowjob. But that was only one time. In bed, I read Joyce, Merleau-Ponty, Djuna Barnes, all the Greek plays, and Colette. If I could fall asleep before dawn, I could wake up at 10 or 11 not as “Sally West,” my club name, but as myself, with the mysterious addition of two or three hundred dollars cash on the dresser.
You make me feel like dancing, dance the night away.
But the days between shifts passed by in a daze. Within this pile of cash, there were usually thirty or forty dollar bills creased in a vertical fold. These were the tips that customers inserted into my g-string (or, more often, lace nylon panties – the dress code in the clubs at that time was not very exacting. It was an era of humanist generalism, before specialization ruled. No one had silicon implants—any tits, so long as they were attached to a person who could cajole men to buy outrageously priced fake champagne—would do. Likewise, the definition of “dancing” was loose. “Dancing” consisted of jiggling around on the stage to let the men know you were available for a “date” in the back room. I remember using these bills at the delis and drugstores and restaurants in the East Village, wondering each time if the (usually female) cashier knew from the vertical fold how I’d acquired the bill. The folded-up bills were every whore’s signifier. Any girl who’d ever danced, knew.
It was 1978, and then it was 1981. My life could have gone on like that for a very long time, but when the exhaust fan was installed 3’ from my bed outside the window, I could no longer come home late and sleep undisturbed into the morning. The prep cooks turned on the fan when they came in at 8 and it roared. The sound scared the sparrows, who stopped eating the seeds on the fire escape. I could no longer pretend my room was a monastery. The fast swirl of capital was putting an end to this dreamtime all over lower Manhattan. Vacant one-bedroom apartments were now renting for $1400 a month. The hardware store on the corner turned into a paella restaurant. Karpaty’s, the Polish shoe-store downstairs was replaced by Bandito’s, the first in a rapid succession of high-concept pig troughs that did business there.
Within months, the street was alive with ambition. With their short skirts and high-heels, the Bandito’s waitresses looked more convincing as sluts than I’d ever looked in the clubs. Everyone was going somewhere. This extreme movement forced you to look at yourself, where you were. Time was no longer so aboriginal. In this new environment, we who just wanted to sleep looked like pale maggots under a freshly turned rock, abruptly exposed to the sun.
A typical night at the Wild West found Maritza onstage, doing her floor-work. At 45, this Dominican grandmother was well past her prime as a dancer, but that didn’t stop her from grinding her cunt near a customer’s face with a smile. She wore rhinestone pasties and g-strings, a marabou boa—the only girl in the club with real costumes. As a professional, she was stiff competition for the rest of us junkies, aspiring writers and artists and rock & roll whores. “Look at Maritza!” Ray would say, when one of us stepped out of line or was suspected of giving out action.
Maritza knew how to turn on the charm. She was often the night’s top-ranked bottle-seller. No one knew much else about her. She confided in no one. While the rest of us bitched and complained and swapped the most intimate confidences, Maritza dealt only with Ray. (Though no matter how close to each other we were in the club, these friendships stopped as soon as we walked out the door. In “real life,” us art girls crossed rooms to avoid saying hello at parties or openings.)
Gabrielle, waitressing on her “working holiday” from Australia, walked briskly around pushing drinks. Tall, athletic, with long chestnut hair, she wore her fishnets and leotard like a school uniform. No one could figure out why she was here. She had no drug habit, abusive boyfriend, or illusions about being an artist. For reasons we never knew, she had chosen to share our place in hell.
Brandy was a stupid slut from the boroughs who liked to walk over and jiggle her tits in a customer’s face just as you were closing the deal on a split. This served her well, because despite her limited conversational skills, Brandy sold lots of bottles. Mary, a pretty blonde woman had two kids and an unemployed coal miner husband. She caught the bus in from Allentown two nights a week and slept on a girlfriend’s couch. Lorraine was everyone’s negative role model, the girl in the ratty pink slip you don’t want to end up as. She had track marks all over her arms and cigarette burns on her legs. Susan (now a lawyer in Silicon Valley) had her own band.
The night shift began around 7 PM. The day girls—mostly bridge and tunnel types who saw this as a regular job—changed and went home. Costumes were more or less optional. Girls danced alternate “sets” (six jukebox songs) and the rule was that whatever you wore over your underwear had to come off by the end of the first song. Your tits had to be bare by the end of the third, then you used songs 4-6 to hustle splits and do floor work.
Selling splits didn’t excuse you from dancing, but you were let off the next set if you were in the back room on a magnum. Until 8 or 9, the clients were straggling New Jersey commuters, guys who just wanted to see some bare tits on their way home from work and had no intention of draining their wallets by getting into the game. Best case, they’d be good for a split. They already knew you’d use the fifteen minutes to try and sell them a bottle, so this rarely worked. Often you’d just give up and let them tell you their problems. Listening was a lower-grade failure than giving out action, but they were in the same class because you’d lost control of the game.
The real hustle began later on, around 9 or 10 when our real customers, the ones from Manhattan, arrived. These men were professional gamblers just back from Las Vegas, solitary stockbrokers in three-piece blue suits, advertising executives, foreign businessmen, frat boys, and furtive lawyers. Literal sex was not what they came to the club for. As Ray liked to point out, they could get blown in Times Square for less than the price of a split. They were legitimate hustlers in their own right and I guess they got off, seeing the hustle reduced to a girl’s desperate bid to protect her own piece of pussy.
Keeping these guys in the back room ordering magnums was vastly more difficult than jerking them off. For a hand job, you just closed your eyes and took out a Kleenex, but to keep a guy ordering you had to dig deep into yourself to sustain the con. My worst moment of shame came in the back room one night when I’d run out of banter. I didn’t know how to talk to the guy. Unlike most of the others, he was not intelligent. Exhausted, I let him put his cock in my pussy. He left without tipping. Two nights later I had to pay Ray back my share of the bottle because he’d called Amex and disputed the charge.
Lawyers were my special niche. They had the best sense of irony. Sitting there in my thrift-store jacket and boa with my legs spread, I was a study in cubism: lips mouthing well-bred earnest truisms about postcolonial theory, hand guiding their hand up under my skirt, it was, on a deep level, hilarious. And at these times, my pussy often got wet.
These are some of the songs we played on the jukebox:
“The Tide Is High”
“Heart of Glass”
“Ring My Bell”
I didn’t have a regular boyfriend during the years I worked at the club. Outside the club I rarely had sex. For a while, a man who called himself John came in at 10 PM once a week, bought me a magnum and tipped me $75. On our first night together, during the very first split, John said: I have a hobby. His hobby was cunnilingus. John knelt on the floor and I lay on the couch, lifted my long lace-tiered skirt and pretended I was pretending to come.
During the day, I worked for trade unions doing theater with old people. My life at that time had become completely improbable. But at times like these, I believed. Like everyone else who worked in the clubs, I was always trying to leave. Girls saved, quit to travel in Europe or start their own business and then came back broke three months later.
A few months after the exhaust fan went up outside my window, a friend got me a job teaching college. English Comp, Greek and Roman Literature. I didn’t have any degrees, told them my records were “lost in a fire” at a university 10,000 miles away in New Zealand. I taught under a false name with a false social security number so I could collect unemployment from the trade union under my actual name at the same time. Meanwhile, the college itself was defrauding the state and federal government by enrolling dead and fictitious low-income students and collecting tuition grant reimbursement. The scam came straight out of Gogol’s Dead Souls, one of the books we were teaching.
Two years later, the whole thing got busted.