My Stripper Year

Male TorsoFirst there was Toni in his sparkling cocktail dress, serving drinks at Neo on Clark Street. The bar was dark, there were no windows, only a blue-lit clock. Toni had thin legs covered in track marks beneath his fishnet stockings. He brought me elegant looking drinks on a silver tray. I hid in the corners or in the middle of the dance floor. I went to Neo alone and Toni sensed my loneliness and wanted to mother me to health but it didn't happen. Toni died at three in the morning in a strangers' apartment in Humboldt Park laying next to a broken needle, blood streaming from his nose, emerald skirt riding in waves across his hips, tights ripped, a slipper dangling from his toe, eyes wide open.

Then there was Toni's friend Tony. Tony worked at Berlin, had tribal tattoos covering half his body, long, thick black hair like a horse's mane, and every year the free weekly paper voted him best bartender in the city.

Tony didn't charge me for drinks either and I hovered near his bar, an oasis next to the entrance. I danced close to Tony. I never wanted to go home. I had friends but they were sleeping, and they weren't real friends. I said, "What kind of boys do you like?" and he said, "Straight boys" and I smiled.

Tony had a fashion show and I walked the runway at Berlin in striped shorts with thin straps over my shoulders. There were so many people there, all of them high on pills, dehydrated and watching. I danced slowly past them. It was like being perfect, which is always an illusion. I was followed by a man in a straw hat, his gown covered in pale green bulbs. "Do you have any more swimsuits?" I asked Tony. "I want to go again."

"You are so vain," he said, patting my ass. I gave him a quick, sly kiss on the lips, before climbing back on the stage.

It was my stripper year. My heroin year. I danced Thursday nights at Berlin. Two sets, three songs, free whiskey, seventy-five dollars, occasional tips. They called me a go-go boy but I was really just decoration, cheap art. I scored heroin on the west side, piloting my giant car through the burnt out landscape, home of the '68 riots, the stained remnants of an assassination in Tennessee, the empty lots like broken teeth. Trash and parts everywhere, pipes protruding from the rubble, chassis on cinder blocks, men in lawn chairs on corners in front of vacant three flats. I got robbed. I got beatup. Things weren't going well. Nothing made sense. I was having the best time of my life.

I didn't make enough money on a podium at Berlin so I danced at the Lucky Horseshoe, a front for prostitutes on Halsted Street. We weren't allowed to sit between sets. We had to mingle with clients at the bar. We would stand and they would sit. "They like it when you pay attention," the owner told us. "Open seats are for customers."

I met a man who bred dogs. He stuck five dollars in my thongs after my first dance. "It's like selling people," he said, laying a rough hand on my waist. "Only it's dogs, so it's legal." Then he let out a monstrous laugh.

The going rate was $20 a day plus tips. The going rate was $80 for a blowjob down at the Ram, a dirty theater with private booths, six painted steps below street level a block away. There were sugar-daddies that came to the Horseshoe but it was up to you to parse them from the fakers and dreamers. They said, "What do you want to do with your life? I can help you." If you were a writer they were an agent. If you were an actor they were a director, a producer. If you wanted to go to school they would give you a place to stay while you got your act together. They knew someone on the admissions board. The clients at the Horseshoe were whatever you might need. But I needed to be found attractive. I needed to be loved unconditionally. And I was very angry about something.

Stephen Elliott
April 7th, 2009
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Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries (September 2009) and Happy Baby, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion Award as well as a best book of 2004 in, Newsday, Chicago New City, the Journal News, and the Village Voice. In addition to writing fiction he frequently writes on politics. In 2004 he wrote Looking Forward To It, about the quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Elliott's writing has been featured in Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is a member of the San Francisco Writer's Grotto. He is the editor of The Rumpus.

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