I thought I was safe. Six pm, I figured, on a Monday night, and your average strip club has got to be nearly empty. But pulling into the parking lot at Cheeks, Santa Fe's only-let's call it what it is-titty bar, I counted 16 cars, nearly as many as might be parked in front of my favorite organic food co-op around the same time of evening. Resigned to the fact that I would not be alone, but among relative throngs of happy hour thong fans, I slipped into Cheeks, pulling my winter hat low over my eyebrows in a labored attempt to look like I belonged, and doled out $6 for a cover charge and $4 for a PBR draft. The entire time my ***image1***beer was being poured, I actively resisted turning toward the stage, where everyone else at the bar was staring. But I could discern, via a network of mirrors lining the entire club, that an unexpectedly attractive woman was working up a sweat by actively humping the shit out of something invisible.
I was terrified. Being born to hippie parents in 1970 and raised in a pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-women, pro-therapy, anti-racism, -sexism, -anything-at-all-demoralizing-to-anyone-ism kind of household, my instincts tell me that being in a strip club is about on par with trading Jewish jokes in a bunker full of Nazis. Feminism was such a dominant force in my home that by the time I was 5, I was pretty sure Gloria Steinem was an aunt whom we loved but just never managed to visit. All through high school, if a girl had even suggested I was objectifying her, I probably would have cried. Later, in college, I encountered a different kind of feminism-a radicalized notion that true freedom and empowerment meant stripping, and even prostitution, should be legal and supported for women who choose it-but Marxism and powerful hallucinogens also seemed like pretty good ideas at that point, and I've maintained a healthy fear of all those things ever since.
Still, it's not every day one's editor calls up and says, "I'd like to buy you a lap dance." You'd think there would be better options around the SFR offices for reporting on the strip club experience-anything other than the sensitive, dopey art guy who was raised to faint from nervous anxiety when trying to decide whether he should, or emphatically should not, open the door for a woman. I think I was chosen because of the absurd nature of my previous, and only, encounter with strippers.
A friend of mine was getting married and it fell to me to provide the bachelor party. Usually, in my circle of art-oriented types who were all raised in the same era, if not exact circumstances, as I was, what passes for a bachelor party is camping out for the night and swapping stories or getting together and making a nice meal: vaguely wimpy activities that revolve around support and friendship with nary a bill stuffed betwixt oiled flesh and panty line. But this particular friend is a strange breed of post-sensitive and premetrosexual-the only person I know with a subscription to both Playboy and Men's Health-and I knew that a quasitraditional celebration was required. Thumbing through the yellow pages, I settled on a listing for "exotic dancers" in Albuquerque. Describing my need for just such a dancer, I was met with a deadpan description of the available inventory for the night I wanted to book.
"OK, I have a thirtyfourtwentyeightthirtysix and athirtytwotwentyfourthirtyfour. Which do you prefer?" My God, I thought, do strippers have model numbers like cars? Am I supposed to recognize the code and choose options like fuel injection or sport suspension? Or perhaps they no longer use names like "Candy" or "Dusty" but simply numeric sequences for easy tracking or the interchanging of pirated body parts in a brave, new, digital-age robot sex economy.
What I said was, "Uh…"
"Measurements," the woman on the phone said with a dramatic sigh. "I'm talking about her measurements."
Eventually we settled on a sort of "buy one, get the second one for half off" deal, saving me from guessing at the ideal proportions. When the actual event rolled around, it played out in a succession of comedic errors. A bunch of timid artists clung to the outer edges of the room looking appalled and shameful while two strippers disgustedly tore through a pile of alternative and techno CDs looking for something that would pass as danceable music. The only guy bold enough to really get into it accidentally speed-dialed his girlfriend while he was slapping one stripper's ass and yelling, "Yeah, baby, yeah!" This is how bad it got: In the middle of a routine, skimpy outfit in a pool around her feet, one of the women stopped, just stopped, and loudly asked, "What the hell is wrong with you guys?"
So now I was at Cheeks in order to, I don't know, challenge myself to enjoy it? Cadge a beer off the SFR expense account? Take notes for a wry account of contemporary life's dark underbelly? This latter task was going to be tough, since when I pulled out my small notebook in the club, where the dominant motif is black light, it was like whipping out a ball of lightning. It fluoresced. Nothing else in the bar was as clean and white and shiny as my notebook. Not even me. The music was disturbingly aggressive, and the only man consistently approaching the stage and stuffing money into panties with practiced aplomb looked, predictably, a lot like a judge. The one object in the room spot-lit as well as the dancer was an ATM machine. I resolved to finish my beer, pay for the fastest lap dance in history, go home and make some pasta.
My lap dance came courtesy of a kind, young, practically nude girl we'll call Gigi. She was originally from Mexico City, but now lived in New York, she told me. She visits Santa Fe every once in a while for a kind of working vacation. Cheeks, she said, was a very safe, very low-key place to be a stripper. For $5 she would dance for me at my barstool. For $20, though, I could get a much better dance. Cheers, dear editor, I thought, and opted for the deluxe version. Which I immediately regretted as she led me toward a door marked "private VIP lounge." I almost spit with relief to find that someone else was also having a "private" dance. Settling down into the comfortable chair while Gigi waited for a new song to start, I tried to feel some sense of arousal. The whole scene was pretty hot, I had to admit. But I suddenly became preoccupied with the dorky and dreadful realization that the most prominent physical sensation I had was that of my USB flash drive hanging around my neck on a lanyard. Also, I thought, I'm going to have a hard time proving I paid $20 for this.
Picture it: I'm nervous and slightly reclined in an oversized chair. The music starts, a constant bass beat breaking through a sort of a poppy overture. Gigi begins to undulate slightly at the hips, as though her midriff is the point at which a pendulum initiates its swing. At first it's slight, but the building momentum is unstoppable. As a new, rhythmic tempo drops in over the bass, Gigi bends down and then slowly toward me, rising from the dark muddle of thick carpet as her hair and face graze just over my own. She continues shimmying upward and, miraculously, her thin, glossy, top peels off just as her breasts come level with my eyes. Suddenly, she turns away, almost coy, until her round, tan behind begins to orbit ever closer to me, a deliberate, well-toned meteor threatening to burn through my outer atmosphere if not for the one, delicate strand that suspends her just above my crotch. Maybe the "G" in G-string stands for gravity, I think, and then stop thinking altogether as the smooth dale of skin where the top of her ass graces up into her back reaches high enough to push against my breath in an improbably dexterous money-making shake. You can imagine, I'm sure, the absurdity of asking for a receipt at this point.
Then the song was over. The other guy in the room quickly ponied up another $20 in order to keep going, but I resisted Gigi's insistence that the next track would probably be longer-songs can vary a lot in length, you know-and drained my beer to leave.
"Come see me next week," Gigi implored with a deep appreciation for the cycle of paychecks. "I'll still be in town." I smiled encouragingly, but I knew I wouldn't be back. I could see that hanging out at the strip club wasn't quite as evil as choosing a Nazi bunker. I could see how, much in the same way people talk to a therapist in order to throw their problems past an impartial third party, it might be helpful to sometimes toss your sexual trip out toward an impartial professional, one with the skills to handle it. Who am I to assume all these women are forced here by hard economics and that these men are not only enabling that system, but are perpetrating subtler dynamics of power, obsession, even rage? Maybe it's all quite therapeutic.
But then, I'm just as uncomfortable with therapists as I am with strippers.