The Banality of Eros

The building that houses the Pelican Theater once operated as a bank. It now looks like any of a hundred movieplexes. You enter and are surprised not to find a candy counter. You pay your money. You pass through a curtained doorway. Here, the lighting is murky enough that before your eyes adjust, you have an urge to extend a hand to feel your way around. Music-something vaguely hip-hop-thunders in counterpoint to the strobes firing away above the stage: red, blue and silver. And onstage, a young woman slithers against a pole. The young woman is naked. She has long hair and a body that seems pleasantly contoured, but in this murkiness, that's all I can tell. I could join two other men sitting at the edge of the stage, looking up at the woman, following her every move with the wide, startled, glassy, head-tilted-back gaze of people in the first row of a movie theater. But I move away and take a table toward the back.On this table, as on all of them, is a flower in a vase.You might say the business of the Pelican Theater is sex. You could certainly say that this particular business was launched only after it became a federal case. The county's newest strip club, the Pelican Theater was able to open only after a federal court panel ordered the city of La Habra to grant it a permit. The fight consumed many years. There were demonstrations by residents and religious groups. There were attempts by the city to apply requirements few other businesses would have to meet (for instance, $250,000 in parking fees while just up Imperial Highway, a new restaurant, which would generate many times the traffic, was assessed only one-fifth of that). This is not unique to La Habra. All across Orange County, city governments are fighting the strip clubs. No touching. Tips must be laid onstage, not handed directly to the dancer (otherwise an illegal drug transaction might take place). Undercover cops are sent in with video cameras.Perhaps, there is an undercover cop here now, his head thumping with the music, as mine is, his eyes blinking through the dimness, sitting at a table with a flower on it, waiting to order a soft drink (the only thing the bar serves) while a naked girl, pale as a Kabuki actress and just as distant, writhes against the pole onstage. At the back of the theater, there is a room with a pool table that's run by a fat man in a T-shirt. Perhaps he is the undercover cop.The theater's manager, Vince Edwards, is short and stocky, his head shaved and shining. He's a pleasant, smiling man who chats for a moment before hurrying off to inspect the installation of a soda machine. He leaves me in his thankfully sound-proofed office with J.J., one of the dancers. She's in her mid-20s and darkly handsome in a matter-of-fact way. J.J.'s sitting across from me in a skimpy black top and black shorts, at ease in what might be a uniform. She tells me she is married and has two kids and a husband who knows what she does. (“If he ever tells me it bothers him, I'll be gone from here in a second,” she says.) She once worked in “corporate America” but got into this business because the hours are flexible and she can spend time with her family. The pay, she says, is decent, too. (She is an independent contractor and must pay for a slot here; she earns her money in tips, averaging $600 per week.)”Working here is a choice I make,” she tells me, leaning forward earnestly. “Every girl here is here by choice, and they do what they want by choice.” She and the other dancers make most of their money from lap dances, which must be done fully clothed, and, she says, as far as she knows, that is as overt as it gets. In some other clubs, she says, the dancers sometimes negotiate for sex, but even so, she adds (again earnestly), “If that's a crime, it's certainly a victimless one.” We chat on. Vince sticks his head in the door to make sure I'm getting the information I need. I ask J.J. if it bothers her to be onstage, an object of male gaze. “No,” she says, “because here I am in total control.” And then she thinks a moment and laughs, an open, girlish laugh. “And if a man offends me, well, I can have him taken out.” J.J. must return backstage and get ready for her number, so I go back to my table with its flower. A light-haired girl dances. She shucks her top and bottom, the material catching on her shoe and unbalancing her for a moment. Once untangled, she wraps herself around the pole. The fat man continues his pool game. Vince is in deep conversation with two workmen around the soda machine, neither one of whom even glances at the stage. One of the dancers comes out in something that looks like a sundress, has a brief conversation with three customers in their 20s, takes one of them to the opposite side of the theater where it is even darker, and gives him a lap dance. She does this by sort of squatting above him, hardly touching him at all. I study them for a moment. The man's face holds a lopsided grin that seems peculiarly remote. I cannot see the girl's face. (She will earn maybe a $15 tip for the three minutes of work.) Neither moves in time to the music. I watch for only a moment and then turn away embarrassed, not at the sexuality but at the banality.At a nearby table is a man who appears to be in his early 30s, wearing a sweat shirt, jeans and glasses. I join him for a moment. His name is Tony, and he works construction. He's married, and he stops here occasionally on his way home from work. As we talk, his gaze rarely strays from the girl onstage, and his eyes are motionless, as if seeing something else.”It helps me relax,” Tony says. “It makes me feel good. It's nice to see pretty girls.” Then he turns and looks at me in what is almost surprise and says hastily that he has to go.While in San Francisco some years ago, I paid a rare visit to a strip club. After dinner, a buddy and I went to a place in North Beach. It wasn't as nice as the Pelican Theater-no flowers on the tables. As we watched the show, one of the dancers came and sat between us. I remember her as short and blond and young and tired-looking, but I cannot tell you what she was wearing. I felt some strange, polite necessity to provide conversation, but she seemed mostly interested in getting me to buy a bottle of weak champagne. She had, I also remember, very bad body odor. At the time, I felt a kind of aloofness, a kind of disgust. Now, sitting here, recalling that time, what I feel is a strange sadness.In the Pelican Theater, the music pounds. The lights flash. Before she left Vince's office to go backstage, J.J. had told me she would be out shortly and that I should stay and watch her perform.But that, I find, I am unable to do.The Secret Lives of Private DancersBy Eddie StephensShannon's a beautiful blonde with long hair and delicate features. She has the quintessential look of a stripper, a look enhanced-or marred-by the presence of two enormous ivory mounds atop her chest, each crowned with a walnut-sized nipple. Shannon moved to California from Wyoming. She was 35 pounds overweight, but she lost it in two weeks by dancing in clubs. Now she's a private dancer who works bachelor parties and private shows. She's quite happy to disrobe and showcase her awesome dancing abilities, but she lays the ground rules early and forcibly. “A lot of guys, when they find out they're not getting any sex, tell me to leave,” she says. “That's really degrading. I'm an entertainer, a dancer. Dancing is an art. I'm just another girl selling a fantasy.”Early on, I'd show up at a guy's door, and he'd say he wouldn't want me because I was too flat-chested. But now I'm so big I get guys every so often who say they want someone a little smaller. You can't win. “Then there's the health thing. My sister back home used to be a dancer. She had implants; they kept falling out, and she's had breast cancer twice. It's aggravating to think about, but I'm keeping mine. They make me good money.”I know everyone looks at [women in the sex industry] as druggies, but I've never done any drugs. I used to hate it when my friends smoked pot. But I've never seen as many drugs as I do at bachelor parties. And I'm still so naive I don't even know what most of them are. The first few times, they kept asking me if I wanted to do something called 'blow.' I didn't know what the hell they were talking about.”At one party, I was trashing some guy on the floor, dancing all over him, wagging my private parts precious inches from his face, when a girl at a bachelorette party next door came storming through the room. . . . She called me a slut and came after me with a bottle. She hit my driver, and the bottle shattered all over his face. I was running around the room, trying to get away from her, and she was yelling at me that I was sucking off her boyfriend! I ran into the room where my clothes were, and they were soaked in beer because a friend of hers had dumped beer all over them. Then I saw the first chick coming at me with a knife. I had to run out of the room in a bikini.”Rita is tall and has a bit of a gut. She has long brown hair, and she's physically awkward and borderline dorky. She's somewhere in her 30s and doesn't wear it well. “I worked as a secretary and was sexually harassed three times. Every time I walked by my boss, he'd let out a small moan,” she says. “So now I'm a dancer. I'm my own boss. It's a power thing. I like to watch men do their thing. I think it's like that for most of us. “The most money I've made was $600 in 10 minutes, and I didn't even have to take off my clothes. All the poor guy wanted was a woman to talk to. But I've met plenty of freaks. I've had guys answer the door with beer bottles stuck up places where long glass objects have no real cause to be. I say, 'What's that you have behind your back?' And they say, 'Oh, nothing.' And they leave it in the whole time I'm dancing.”I've had a few repeat customers, but most of my clients are on business. You'd be surprised at what corporate America is paying for. And they'll do anything I say. It's amazing what you can make a man with an erection do. I don't do any weird stuff, but if I tell a guy to stick his finger in his, um-you know-it's always, 'Duh, okay.'”One guy had a foot fetish. He'd lie on his back, and I'd put my feet on his face. One of my first times, he kissed my foot, and I told him, 'If you ever do that again, I'm leaving and never coming back.' I saw him every third Sunday for a year, and he never did it again until one day out of the blue, he kissed my foot and my knee, and that was it.”I got another call from a guy and showed up at his hotel room. He looked familiar but I couldn't place him. So I started taking off my clothes, and all of a sudden, he asks me to go get him a glass. Bingo. I remembered what it was about him: the last time, he did his business in a glass and then wanted to swallow it but couldn't. I found out he'd finally succeeded.” Tanya's a beach girl with a killer body and a face that could stop a clock and make it fall off the wall and run out of the house screaming. But she can dance, and she's accommodating and quite willing to run her hands all over her clients' bodies. She's freer with her body than her tongue: she rarely talks. She always travels with a leather-clad, heavyset man who has a few chains dangling from his belt and a few scars across his face. He watches TV while Tanya dances; his favorite show is The Beverly Hillbillies.Pauline's a short, dumpy redhead on speed who is convinced that people are following her. Seems some other women at her agency are threatening to kill her, and this is the first call she'd had since the threat, and she thought maybe I was in on it. She took her clothes off, but I asked her nicely to put them back on-quickly. We talked, and I was struck by how unremarkable she was. She's still the only woman I've met who has absolutely no business being in her line of work. Here's her take on first-time clients: “The first time I visit a guy, I take off my clothes and dance, but I don't break out the toys until the second or third time. I have to know I can trust him before I shove anything in my body in front of him. You never know what that's going to do to a guy.” Morgan's a slim, pretty blonde with a pierced clitoris. She likes talking about art, aliens, palm readings, and Sedona, Arizona. She's quick, efficient and friendly. I tipped her $30 and gave her an M.C. Escher book. I would have loved to call her again, but the next day, plagued by guilt, I threw away her number. Do Gay Bathhouses Produce Monogamy?By Archie MantleGay bathhouses are in every major metropolitan city in the world. There are several in LA County, an easy drive from my house (OC has none, so don't call us asking where they are), but I never had the urge-or the desperation-to venture into one. I'm an out gay man, and a curious one, and I've always been intrigued about what goes on inside one (besides that, of course). Do they feature live music, like the bands in which Bette Midler got her start? Do they employ midgets with little coaster hats, so you can rest your drink while they service you? Are they crawling with closeted Republicans? Or is it all just one hot, heavy, endless orgy, with really awful dance music blaring everywhere? On a trip to a large Southern city last year, I decided to find out. Here, then, is my journal:The baths are in a converted warehouse, not an unusual locale for such places. I walk in and shove $20 at a cute, clean-cut boy on the other side of a window. He slides me a towel and a key and tells me my room number (you can just rent a locker, but this could be the only time I come here-so to speak-so I opt for the full experience).As bathhouses go, this one is a monstrous five floors, a veritable Gay Hilton. My room is one of about 80 spread over the fourth and fifth floors. It's tiny, just enough room for the basics-a mattress, a locker, and a TV that has gay porn on three stations, plus Sally Jessy Raphael. I strip, stuff my things in my locker, wrap the towel around my waist, and go exploring.Bad house and disco music is indeed blaring everywhere, and the whole place is pitch-dark, making it barely navigable. In the stairwell are framed posters of buck-nekkid pretty boys lit by garish, '80s-style neon tubing. I walk down to the first floor and find showers, two hot tubs, a sauna, a steam room-and absolutely nobody in them. The baths are deserted, but I'm not really surprised because it's a Monday afternoon. On the second floor, there's a lounge with a TV-gay porn, again-couches, lockers, and benches where you can sit and gaze down on anyone showering below. The third floor features vending machines and a big TV room showing-you know. In the back are eight boot-camp-style bunk beds that are available to anyone wanting to act out their wildest military/uniform fantasies. Farther back, oddly, is a full-size, 18-wheel semi. Trucker fantasies! How they got this up on the third floor of a building that has no elevator, I'll never know. It looks innocent, but in the back of the cab, held up by steel chains, is a leather sling and harness. Wow-they never had this on B.J. N the Bear!At the rear of the fourth floor is the glory-hole room-stick your privates in any of the cutout holes in the walls, and you just might find a warm, willing orifice waiting on the other side. On the fifth floor is a room with a large king-size mattress in the center, ringed with benches on the sides-the orgy room. For the truly horny, this is a sexual Disneyland. Only here, Mickey and Donald wear cock rings. The cruising action is slow. During the first few hours, just a few guys trickle in, and none is even close to my type. One man who looks like he's in college takes a shine to me, though. He keeps opening the door of my room, where I'm trying to watch Sally Jessy (you can only ogle so much gay porn without falling asleep), obviously looking for someone to shag. This gets really annoying, so I lock the door, but he keeps jiggling the handle. Several times, I leave my room and go wandering about, always finding the place more or less empty. This is one of those wild, queer bathhouses I'd always heard about? What a snoozer. If I'm going to see any action, it looks like it's going to be with my right hand. Just as I'm about to get dressed and split, along comes Jim, an older, stocky gent from Montana who's in town on business. Jim is married-to a woman-and has a kid. That's not an unusual bio for someone who frequents gay baths. He goes exploring, as I had. He finds the truck. I follow him in. We get down, baby-lots of groping, fondling, petting and lip schmacking, but no penetrating or sucking. We both know better. Condoms are available everywhere, but why take chances by even going there?We hit the showers, and I figure that's it. Then Jason walks by on his way to the hot tubs. Very cute. Jim and I follow him in, introduce ourselves, and then the three of us start getting into it. Several others filter in, and we feel a tad conspicuous, so we cut out for the orgy room, not even caring how all those mysterious stains on the mattress got there. More groping, fondling and carefully controlled climaxing, then back to the showers. We're all hungry, so Jason, the local, suggests a restaurant. He drives us over, and we have a nice meal, albeit a bit awkward. We were rolling around naked with total strangers one minute and eating dinner with them the next. Afterward, Jason drops Jim off at his hotel and me at mine. I will never see them again.The vast majority of gay men have never been to bathhouses or sex clubs, just as most gay men don't hang out in public parks scoping for anonymous, illegal (not to mention dangerous) sex. In the cities that they're in, the baths are totally legal-whether they're necessary or needed is another matter. But years ago, back in the pre-Stonewall days when the baths were the only place where gay men could socialize without fear, they were an important, liberating meeting place. These days, they're more about getting laid. My few hours in the baths were fun, but now that I've been to one, I feel like I never have to do it again. For this queer, at least, monogamy is cooler. I'd rather have a husband.My Date With Raggedy DarcyBy Tom Hartley Even if she had tried to dress as an adult, she wouldn't have looked older than 16, but she was wearing a blue-and-white polka-dot dress, knee-length white socks, and blue high-heeled slippers; her hair and her eyebrows had been dyed blue, and a pair of pigtails hung from the sides of her head, fastened by white shoelaces; two big dots of blue clown makeup highlighted her cheeks. She was Raggedy Ann, but with a different color scheme-a cousin or a sister of Raggedy Ann, maybe Raggedy Judy or Raggedy Darcy. She stood facing the pathway-between a Baja Somethingorother sports bar and a clothing store-that led into the heart of a shopping mall, but she didn't take the path because she wasn't here for shopping. She turned to look one way, then turned to look the other way, and finally turned to face me. I was sitting on a concrete bench about 10 feet away. Our eyes met-too late for me to pretend I hadn't been staring. With some effort, she managed a smile, and after one or two seconds of hesitation, she approached me. She was obviously embarrassed, and until she spoke, I assumed this was simply because I had been staring at her. She stood before me, and I remained seated, looking up at her, and after more hesitation, polka-dotted, blue-cheeked, blue-haired and pigtailed, 14, 15, maybe even 16-year-old Raggedy Darcy said, “Do you want a date?”And that's when I was finally able to look away. I looked down at the open book in my lap, a paperback copy of (Dickensian coincidence!) The Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, and said, “No.”I was sitting at one of the bus stops in front of the mall. I hadn't actually been inside; I was here to change buses. I had traveled 30 miles out of my way to keep an appointment with my current “primary-care physician” (fuck you very much, HMO) and was on my way north, back home. Obviously, I couldn't go back to reading my book, but I could look down at it and pretend to read, letting Raggedy Darcy know she would have to find another date that afternoon. I heard the same question again less than half a minute later; it came from a few feet to my right, presumably addressed to the next male she could find who looked old enough to be interested in girls: “Do you want a date?”I didn't hear the answer, but I didn't need to. A few seconds later, and from a few feet farther on, I heard the question again-“Do you want a date?”-and so on, every few seconds and a few feet farther away, and I couldn't hear any of the answers, not one, but I could hear that question every time it was asked: “Do you want a date?”I didn't look up from the words I was staring at and not reading (none of them was as compelling as that question) until I finally heard the bus pull up, and there she was, coming back to the bus stop, walking as fast as she could without having to run, and getting in the line forming at the bus's front door. All the men in the line and all of the other men at the nearby bus stops paid no attention to her, even though she had just asked every one of them out on a date. The women also ignored her. None of us called the police or mall security. None of us called one of those shelters for runaway teenagers. None of us even bothered to say to her: “If this is what you're going to do, don't do it in a crowded place in broad daylight, and don't do it at a bus stop. If any of us could afford you, we wouldn't be riding the buses.”We were all cowards that afternoon. We all let her get on the bus, so she could move on to another bus stop and ask every male who looked at least 12 years old: “Do you want a date?””Do you want a date?””Do you want a date?”If any one of us had seen a stray dog wandering down the middle of a busy street, we would not have looked away from that dog. Mere seconds might have passed before one of us would have run out into the street, waving our arms and shouting to hold up the traffic to pick up that dog and carry it (or grab it by the collar and drag it if it was too big to carry) back to the intersection, back to a lost-and-found department. We would have stood there behind the counter at the lost and found while someone announced on the intercom, “Will the owner of the brown-and-white collie please come to the lost-and-found department?” just to make sure that the announcement was made, that there was at least one other person on Earth who cared whether this dog lived or died. That dog would have to be growling and foaming at the mouth like the reincarnation of Cujo to keep me away from it. But nobody reported Raggedy Darcy to lost and found. Some of us got on the bus with her, and every one of us was thinking about her, and every person at that bus stop remembers her still, and if any of them are reading this, they're saying to themselves, “No, her hair wasn't blue; it was blond,” or, “She was wearing a checkered dress, not a polka-dot dress,” or “The dress didn't have a pattern; it was just a white dress, and her hair was done in a ponytail, not a pair of pigtails,” or “She wasn't wearing a dress. She wore a white dress shirt and a blue-and-white checkered skirt. It looked like a schoolgirl's uniform. She didn't look anything like Raggedy Ann.”If she had gotten off the bus near my house, I might have at least offered to buy her lunch so she would receive at least one unselfish act of kindness before she finally met up with the guy who, when the two of them were alone in his bedroom and undressed, would ask, “Are you into golden showers?” or “Do you like to be strangled?” and maybe this would be the night when he just wouldn't take no for an answer, especially since he'd be paying for this, so he might have to use a little force, just a little, just enough to show her that tonight is definitely not the night to say no to him, and if she gets excited, then he might have to use a little more force, and . . . well, sometimes a guy just doesn't know his own strength, does he? But she didn't take the bus to my place; she got off long before, and that was the last time I saw her: sitting on a bench at the bus stop, not approaching any of the men there-but just sitting on the bench and staring at my bus as it drove away.

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