Back in the late 80’s, I was stuck in Bakersfield, CA. It wasn’t all bad; when you live in a sun-baked ultra-conservative place like Bakersfield, your little group of sub-culture friends tends to be cohesive and vibrant. We had to be. No one else would come near us.
Like most bachelors in their 20’s, I didn’t have much money and in order to make ends meet I moved into a cheap but clean apartment complex near a shopping mall. The place was depressing, but we had solar hot water and working air conditioning.
We also had a youthful group of residents. Among them was my neighbor, who I shall call Laura. Laura was a tall, shy brunette who had two or three good friends but no family and no job. I liked her – she was beautiful and unassuming. But she was also kinda straight-laced; if I was a long-haired, dope-smoking, artist-writer Yang, she was a quiet, incurious, unremarkable Yin.
Laura was the girl next door, literally and figuratively.
Laura was sweet, but she was also a bit flakey. She had a hard time finding and keeping jobs. The whole time I knew her, this pretty girl had no boyfriend, either. I tried to remedy that, but Laura was standoffish and had the good sense not to get involved with me.
One day, I was in the complex office paying my rent. Laura came in and I overheard her begging to get an extension on her late rent. She got the extension, but exited the office upset and in tears. I followed her out and offered to buy her lunch. She let her cheeseburger go cold as she poured out her tale of woe.
She was estranged from her religious nutcase family and had no money and nobody to rely on. She couldn’t find work and saw only darkness on the horizon. I know how she felt; I was also distant from my family and knew how it felt to scrape the penny jar in a vain attempt to make the rent.
But I was flush at the time. I told her it was OK to wallow for a while, but that she had to eventually sit down and work out a plan. I advised her to take pencil to paper and create three or four game plans to right her ship. As we left the diner, I gave her a couple hundred bucks to help her meet rent. She needed to know it was not hopeless and that sometimes people actually care about your plight.
I asked for nothing in return. I just wanted to help. She was a nice person.
A few days later, I visited my my best pal Dale. We were working on a kung-fu comic book together and we both enjoyed getting stoned and watching B-movies on the VCR. Dale had two part-time jobs: he worked the graveyard shift at a classic rock radio station and he also deejayed at a local strip club.
As we loaded up the bong and pressed “play” on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, I told Dale about my neighbor Laura. His response was instant: bring her by the club. He had enough sway to get her a job dancing.
I explained that Laura was a shy creature not likely to leap at the chance to strip naked and gyrate in front of a crowd of slathering strangers.
“Ted,” he said, “strippers are made, not born. They all start out that way. Believe me.”
What he was saying made sense. I wasn’t a big fan of strip clubs, but I had visited Dale at his day job a few times. The place was luxurious and clean and the girls all seemed happy. There was a lot of cynical camaraderie among the dancers and they all drove new cars. When they weren’t stripping in front a bunch of morons, the girls were actually quite normal people. I’m sure a few of them were quite Laura-like at one time.
He was right. In the big scheme of things, Laura was a perfect candidate for a stripper. She was tall and pretty and unable to maintain employment in the straight market. To her advantage (and my relief), she was also a teetotaler and abhorred drugs. She’d be very unlikely to become a coke-addled hooker anytime soon.
When we next met, I broached the subject with her. I got exactly the response I expected: laughing incredulity. There was no way she’d consider stripping. No. Fucking. Way. Period.
Oh, well. I was just bringing it up. I told her that Dale was a very kind and non-threatening dude, that the place was really swank and the girls were a working team, not a bunch of sluts. I also told her that I felt similarly about strip clubs. I didn’t patronize them. Not because of moral indignation, but because I didn’t find strip clubs to be worth my time and money. I let the subject drop.
Weeks passed. I’d see Laura now and again. We’d chat and get a bite to eat and hang out together. I didn’t bring up the stripper thing at all. No point in beating a dead horse.
Then, one day, Laura came knocking on my door. She wasn’t all smiles and light like usual. She sat down and started grilling me about Dale and the strip club. What was it like? What do the girls actually do? How much money are we talking about?
I couldn’t really answer her questions accurately. But I assured her the place was swank and clean, the music was loud and the girls seemed to make a lot of money. And as far as I knew, they weren’t whores. There was only one way for her to assess the place properly: she had to drop by and see Dale.
I made the arrangements.
Dale was excited to meet my girl next door. We came by on a dead afternoon. The place was loud and empty. Dale marched us all around to every corner of the club. He showed us how the lights and DJ gear worked. We talked to a couple of the girls and they explained how dances are staggered throughout the night so shifts of girls can maintain flexible schedules. The girls cleared more in a week than I made in a month.
And then came the clincher: nearly all the girls have some kind of shtick that was theirs and theirs alone. Some were rock stars, some were animals, some were fictional characters – pirates, princesses, athletes, etc. The girls built personnas that meant something to them.
Laura loved Cher. Adored her. Wouldn’t shut up about her. Her eyes got wide when Dale said a Cher act would go over big. A perfect choice.
On the ride home, Laura was now fully committed. She chattered endlessly about how she had three outfits already fixed in her head. How to build a giant headdress made out of feathers, etc. She even sang me a few lines from Cher songs. This was going to be so COOL!
I reminded her that this was more than a talent show. In the end, she had to take her clothes off. This put a damper on the plan, but she said she’d tough it out. After all, the girls at the club seemed normal enough.
That night, I worried that I had made a mistake. Laura was a really nice person. She seemed way too shy to pull this off. I was sure she’d panic and refuse to strip and run off in tears and it would be all my fault. This would also make Dale look bad, since he was her champion. I could slink away, but Dale would be the failed field general.
Laura came by my place and showed me her outfits and headdress. It actually looked pretty good. She couldn’t hold a job, but she could certainly sew. She told me the date of her maiden show and insisted I be there. She wanted my moral support. I wanted to see her naked, so it was agreed.
I showed up on time and chatted with Dale at the DJ booth. After a few dancers came and went, Dale bellowed into his microphone and announced the newest addition to the club roster. As a Cher song blasted over the PA, Laura stepped out in her sexy black outfit and huge black feather headdress. The girls had taught her a few moves and although she wasn’t a world-class pole flipper, the sheer audacity of her presence carried the performance.
I do think my mouth hung agape the whole time. The men assembled went wild with hoots and howls. Laura, half-blinded by the spotlight, did her thing and slowly peeled off the outfit. As she finished the show wearing nothing but the headdress and a pair of black heels, I was awed. The girl next door with the flowsy tops and beat-up jeans had a STUNNING body.
Dale kept up the applause by repeatedly enjoining the crowd to “give it up” for Laura. She absolutely beamed. As the music ended, she gathered up her stuff and dashed off the stage.
I re-joined Dale and asked him what he really thought. He was effusive in his praise. It was exactly what the place needed: someone new with a passion for her character and a bod that couldn’t be beat. He thanked me for turning her out.
In the intervening weeks, I’d see Laura but she’d keep it short. She was happy in her new gig, but I reminded her of her “secret” job and wanted to compartmentalize her private life. Dale told me she worked regular shifts and bonded well with the other girls. Everything was good.
Laura eventually left the shitty apartment complex for greener pastures, as did I. We fell out of touch. Dale would give me occasional reports. She was still dancing, she got a boyfriend who appeared not to be an asshole and she wasn’t doing any drugs.
Whether this held and where Laura ended up, I have no idea. I moved to Washington state and left California behind. Once in a great while I think about her. She must be 40 by now. I really hope I did the right thing and helped a friend find a bridge in her life. If not, I’m a right fucking bastard.