Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Stripper Who’s Also a Social Worker

Honestly, the two jobs aren't that different.

Secret Life of a Stripper Who’s Also a Social Worker

It’s slow as shit at Showgirls. Summer in the Coachella Valley is a sadistic blow-dryer you can’t turn off, and business comes to a screeching halt because all my regulars leave for their other houses in colder places or go on fancy European vacations with their wives. I’m “Candy” here but my regulars call me “The Lady in Red.” Riley and I always work on Tuesdays, waiting for the rare drifter to pop in for a happy hour beer and a quick blast of AC so we can talk him into a twofer and pay our bills. Riley’s the best pole dancer here by a long shot — she can do the Running Man while suspended in midair. Right now, she’s a superhero perched to fly, but there’s no one to dangle upside down for, so she leans on her fists with her elbows on the bar and talks, while her long, toned legs drip off the barstool. She tells me about her recent relapse and her anxiety disorder while our buns stick to the vinyl barstools.

“You can start over,” I say.

I show her the crooked, barbed-wire-shaped scars that line my forearms. They’re faded now, covered up by a candy swirl of tattoos. Twenty-three years ago, after failing to kick meth for the third or fourth time, I opened my left arm with a serrated knife, awarding myself an extended stay at a psych ward.

I decided to live and gave myself a fresh start, or at least began to believe in them. I still do. Decades later and still clean, I’ve collected a couple college degrees and a university teaching job. I taught literacy to at-risk youth for nearly seven years, then became a social worker, teacher and a writer. I’ve had a dozen fresh starts.

“You can do anything you want,” I say. Riley sips her Coke. The look on her face is cynical, but she always looks that way. “Yeah, maybe,” she responds, leaning onto her fists again. Inspirational talk over. I glance at my watch. Almost 6.

About 20 minutes later. I smell money. A pack of guys fill the seats to our left, on the main floor between the bar and the stage. They all have neck tattoos and their biceps bulge like cement blocks. A fat guy with blurry, black hand tattoos sits in a wheelchair. They remind me of the guys I’ve seen on shows like Lockup. To them, I must look like the girls climbing poles in the background of The Sopranos and in so many rap videos. It’s safe to say they wouldn’t have guessed I’m a professor at UCLA with a background in social work.

In 2001, I got a job working at a residential facility for triple-diagnosed youth in San Francisco, meaning my clients had HIV, drug/alcohol problems and psyche issues. It was my first salaried direct-service job that wasn’t scrubbing toilets or lap dancing. As an R.A., a polite term for entry-level security guard who can also bake chicken fingers, I walked the ammonia-scented halls with keys jangling from my hip. It was the only time I stuck to a permanent work schedule: four 10-hour shifts, noon to 10 p.m. The clients were all on some kind of tilt I could relate to. My favorites were Danny, the skateboarding junkie punk who always talked me into helping him organize his closet, and Marvin, who stood in the courtyard staring up at a spot in the starless gray Tenderloin sky no matter how many times I called his name for dinner.
Other than cooking meals, my main responsibility was doling out HIV and psych meds from a clear plastic container with days of the week on the little flaps. The facility’s harm-reduction model did not insist on abstinence, so red plastic containers for needle disposal (sharps) were fastened to the walls, and we let clients know where and when to get clean needles. After a couple of years, I finished my degree, moved to Los Angeles and scored a part-time gig as an HIV counselor, drawing the blood of porn performers so they could remain on the payroll. I volunteered to serve meals for homeless youth in Santa Monica and participated in a literacy program for incarcerated teenage girls, but none of these gigs paid much. The sex industry, however, kept me in cat food and car payments when teaching jobs and freelance gigs left me with an overdrawn bank account. Also, I’m a great fucking stripper. I always found my financial footing back in scuffed stilettos, utilizing harm-reduction methods and counseling skills on the laps of sorrowful, lonesome, horny men.
The general perception of strippers has been constructed by men and the system that caters to their whims. They see the bleach-blonde hair, the Beverly Hills boob job and the tattoos. They most definitely do not see an engineer of her own circumstances with a rich interior life and an MFA.
In reality, being a stripper is exactly like doing social work, only with more glitter and less clothing. People here need an uncanny amount of babysitting. I may be uniquely qualified to provide counseling and a breast to cry on — which happens a lot — because of my vocational and professional background, but this is a skill set also used by every other sex worker I know. We dance on a spandex tightrope between social worker, stripper, mother, mistress, confidant and human vacation.
For instance, Aaron, a freckled construction worker in his late 30s, used to show up every week during my shift. He’d been waiting so long one day that I sent him out for Tylenol and gum because I had other clients to tend to first. Later, in the lap dancing area, Aaron told me, “I’ve been dying to see you.” I asked him why he was all of a sudden coming into the club every week. He told me that he had recently caught his wife in bed with another man when he thought she was at work. Then he asked me to hurt him for money. I said something like, “Hold up, I will only do this if you think it will help the issues in your marriage and not do more harm.” I told him to think on it. We could discuss it the following week after he made a clearheaded decision. I would have agreed to do it if I thought it could enhance his life and help him process complex feelings. Fetish and BDSM scenes are cathartic, sacred things to me — something that can help. They can also pay incredibly well. But they’re not something I do on demand for a guy who is obviously hurt and itching to get back at his wife. The strip club isn’t an emotional drive-through and strippers aren’t happy meals with whips.
The harm-reduction model I learned to employ as a social worker taught me to meet people where they stand as opposed to solving their problems for them or forcing them to abstain from anything. Aaron chewed his cuticles and paced on the smoking patio. Then he reached out and hugged me briskly. His jean jacket reeked of weed. His cheeks were wet with tears. “You’re an amazing person,” he said. Then he left. I haven’t seen him since, but he’s not the last crier who’s come undone at Showgirls.
Eroticizing grief can also be a group sport. Once, a couple of guys in their 60s or so walked into Showgirls smelling like they’d been drinking on the golf course for hours. As they walked by, one cupped his hand over his mouth to discreetly tell me, “His wife just died.” I followed them to the dark seats they collapsed into, side by side, several feet from the stage. I nodded knowingly to the friend and reached for the hand of the widower, Fred. He avoided eye contact but followed me to the VIP area anyway. It took Fred a couple of songs before he told me about his wife. I held him. He turned his head away, but you always know when a man is crying into your bra. You have to move your money away from the flood — tuck it into your purse.
I’m not sure if social work has made it easier for me to deal with a stranger’s grief while hustling in my panties, but it definitely taught me how to recognize it and not shy away from raw realness in a place of make-believe.

At the table of men with neck tattoos, I sit close but not too close to the young one — a kid really — with dimples that pop when he smiles and dark eyes that go blank when I stare too long. He grabs my arms to look more closely (I have full, colorful tattoo sleeves), searching for possible kinship or affiliations.

The kid says he’s “fresh out” of prison and his name is Ray. I tell him we should celebrate. “Let’s party,” I say, my gestures filled with festivity. He asks if he can pay me in edibles. I shake my head.
The fat man in the wheelchair holds out a softball-sized roll of $20s and $100s. I smile in delight. He hands Ray some bills and I lead him to the VIP section, where lap dances happen on soft red chairs against a scratchy wall.
“Aren’t you happy to be out?” I ask. Ray frowns and exhales.
“I make $2,500 a week inside — dealing white, yellow, green, you name it,” he says. “Only half that on the outs.”
Ray asks for my number, but I don’t want to give it to him. I change the subject. “You’re a businessman. You should go back to school. The community college here, COD, is cheap and close by.”
“I need someone to clean my money,” Ray says. I’m grinding on his lap while he tells me this. I swivel around so my nipples are in his face. We do this for several songs. He’s got the wrong idea about me. I smile warmly and say, “I’m on the straight and narrow.”
He asks if I will go out to the smoking patio with him. He pays me, probably a hundred dollars. I follow him outside, where we sit on metal chairs and sweat in the smoky arid night. He hands me another crumpled $20. Asks for my number again. I give it to him, knowing I will immediately erase his and block it when I leave Showgirls. He asks what his chances are of seeing me outside. Again I try to talk him into going to classes and again he tries to talk me into laundering his drug money. It’s a cute, hopeless game of rock, paper, scissors that keeps ending in rocks.
“I’m considering it,” I say, because I’m afraid of saying “no” to a dangerous man. He tells me he doesn’t mind going back to prison. “I would kill anyone,” he says out of the blue, as if to impress me with his bravado. But it has the opposite effect. Ray’s face reminds me of my older brother, who has fathered several kids but is always in and out of jail and prison and usually high and homeless. He does not pay child support or raise any of them. My brother and Ray share the same angry-baby look of an infantile, explosive bully.
One of the bigger guys from Ray’s table comes out to the patio. He stares at Ray with his eyes bulging and gives him a slight nod. Ray tells me again to consider it, then follows the staring guy back inside.

“Think about school,” I say.

It’s not yet midnight, so I decide to make one more round to scrounge up some cash before I go home. I avoid eye contact with Ray. A different guy agrees to get some dances in VIP. He’s built like an MMA fighter. I ask if he’s with the others.
“I’m alone,” he says. After a song or two, he grabs my rib cage hard and nibbles my neck; for a second I’m genuinely scared. My body feels small and frail, like tinfoil he could crush up in one fist. He’s got a teardrop tattoo on his temple.
“What were you in prison for?” I ask.

“You don’t want to know.” He tells me to keep going, then abruptly stops after about five songs. He’s done. So am I.
In the dressing room, which is a locker room with round mirrors and a long table stained by eye shadow and curling-iron burn marks, I change into white jean shorts and a baseball hat, with my hair tied up in a single side braid. I sneak out of Showgirls incognito, relieved that I have a long drive away from the palpable male violence and creepy hot wind.
Around 2 a.m. I’m sleeping when my phone buzzes with a message. A text from Ray reads, “Swoop me up.” I block the caller, annoyed that I forgot to earlier.
The next day, news channels report that at 1:52 a.m., a fight broke out between two rival gangs inside Showgirls. Outside in the parking lot, shots were fired. One man was killed and two others critically wounded. After looking at all of the photos online, I am sure that “Ray” was not the one who died. He may have been the shooter.
The next Tuesday, I go to Showgirls again, ready for the next version of Ray to reveal his despair during a lap dance. Maybe this time, he will allow himself the dignity of a fresh start — whatever that looks like.

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