My roommate Emily comes home one day all excited. "I got a job dancing in a bar."
"What?" We crowd around. In high school, I worshipped the go-go dancers on Laugh-In with their white boots and tight striped dresses. Go-go dancers were playful and cute, using their girlishness to express something free and new in society. But New Brunswick, my college town, is an old, grim town, and I instinctively know that Emily's new job harks to something darker.
"It's that Al's Bar on Bayard Street. All I have to do is stand there and dance -- and they're paying me $25 an hour."
I pass that grimy building all the time. It's a place for old men to drink all day, and the smell of cigarette butts damp with beer drifts out the door. In 1972, this is very serious money. My monthly rent is $35. Greed shifts my feelings. "Do they need anyone else?"
I have no idea where this avarice comes from. Money was as taboo in my family as sex. When I asked my mother once how much money my father made, she looked as shocked as if I'd pooped my pants. And I've never experienced a feeling of poverty. When I was in school, my parents paid for everything. Now, I still don't need money. I buy brown rice and cooking oil at the People's Store and I pick the lamb's quarters that grows in the cracks of the sidewalk to sauté in my wok. Clothes at the thrift store cost five cents, ten cents, maybe five dollars for a vintage fur coat. My major expense is dog food for Benson, and she doesn't eat much.
Nevertheless, I'm ready to plunge into a dangerous unknown, doing it for the money -- and it won't be the last time. Why not?
I stop into Al's Bar in the afternoon. Its paneled maple walls are glazed with a century of smoke and spit. The red tile floor is slick with the footprints of worn-out men. Rows of bottles on simple shelves behind the bar obscure the filmy window running behind it. A couple of beer signs cut the glare of bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, illuminating the sad side of drinking. But they'll pay me $25 an hour. Why not?
The bartender is a big Hungarian with a round nose and deep lines running down to his mouth. He looks at me woefully. "I'm Pete," he says. "You're a dancer, huh?"
"Yeah." I'm relieved it's this easy. He understands that of course, I'm a dancer, why else would someone with flesh this firm and sweet have come here? I feel small and weak, though. I've never been in a beat-up bar like this, I've hardly been in any bars, nor have I talked grownup to grownup with a gnarled older man like this. So his quick understanding of my purpose helps me hold my ground.
"What's your name, honey?" He looks me over. I can see that I'm the best thing that's been in here since, well, since Emily. I own something that's wanted and needed, my girl's body.
He points to a platform in the corner where the bar meets the back wall. It's just a plywood box about three feet high with a piece of carpet on top. No pretensions of showbiz or glamour. "You want to work this Saturday night?" He doesn't even ask me to audition. Just being me is enough.
He sighs. "Okay. Be here at eight."
Topless Carol Doda has already made Life magazine, but topless is not even on the radar of New Jersey legislators. Blue laws prescribe tops, bottoms and even tights for dancers. I buy a cheap peach nylon bikini that's halfway between bathing suit and lingerie. I get silver sandals with chunky heels at Leeds. I roll the waistband of my panty hose down below my navel, so it's hidden underneath the panties. Soon, I'll be rolling the bottoms of the panties up to expose my butt cheeks. It makes me feel very naked. And that's exciting.
There's not even a dressing room at Al's. I have to change in the women's bathroom, which isn't a problem because I'm the only woman in the bar. I don't think I’m in any danger, but the smell of old beer and cigarettes is like a rough towel chafing my skin. I can almost feel the wind of the men's attention on my naked skin as I open the bathroom door and walk out. I look straight ahead as I make a beeline for the bar.
Pete's eyes tour my body. "You want a drink?"
"Come on, have a drink. Whaddayou want?"
I bristle at first against the bartender's rough friendliness. He's offering me connection, warmth -- at the same time that he would like to have sex with me, however wistful and hopeless that desire may be. I'm not capable of understanding him as a person like me, full of fear and yearning. I see him as a function: the person who has hired me and controls this night.
I don't drink much, so I take a cherry brandy, and its sweetness in the ladylike stemmed cocktail glass begins to smooth me out inside the strangeness of this rundown bar. A warm place opens up in my belly.
Pete hands me six quarters for the jukebox and I pick rock songs. Climbing the three wooden steps and getting up on the little platform beside the bar is like tearing off my swimsuit in front of everybody to get under the hot water shower at day camp. It's like letting the doctor spread my legs for the first time. It must be done, and I do it.
"Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" fires me up with its insistent downbeat. I can't help but dance to this song. I'm moving my arms and stomping my feet, letting the beat lift my chin into the air and toss my head around. Half of me is having fun dancing, and half of me is painfully aware of the two thin layers of polyester hiding my genitals, not eight feet from the nose of the man sitting at the closest table.
I begin to feel confidence that the 15 or so men in the room will stay where they are and not knock me down and touch me. Pete gives me another cherry brandy. I let the songs fill me up and spill out through my body. I'm not acting out the words; I'm finding a different meaning inside me. "You're So Vain" isn't bitter; it's a righteous celebration of my desirability. "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" is about my body, decorated in the costume of go-go. Tonight, I can be the sunshine of these men's lives.
When I've danced to my first six songs, I get a break. I flee to the bathroom and hide out there, adjusting my tights and licking up the cherry brandy dregs from the bottom of my cocktail glass.
My second set, I'm brave enough to look at the men individually. They're not college boys, but men with masks of serious life and some hardship overshadowing the lust in their eyes. Some of them look back at me like one person looking at another. Some look at me through a glaze of alcohol and sex so it's like looking into the mirror when you're in disguise and you don't recognize yourself for a moment. But I see they're easily pleased, and they're cheering me on, grateful to me.
A couple of younger men are sitting at the bar, one fair, the other maybe half-black, with caramel skin and kinky auburn hair. They have the somewhat hip, somewhat greaser look of guys who haven't been to college but hang out with the dropouts and hippies who can't pry themselves away from the old college town. It's easier for me to look at them because they're not so much older than me. They don't have frightening wrinkles and grey hair.
I'm dancing to "Louie, Louie, Louie, Lou-eee. Louie fell in love with the night." The slow groove oils my pelvis, sends it snaking in circles. There's a moment when the brown sugar darkness of the song melts inside me. I look at the caramel man and see that he's seen that sweetness come down, and he felt it too. I feel the liquor send a flush across my skin like a brush fire.
My skin becomes an organ of communication that absorbs the men's heat. I can feel how a bump of my hip increases the atmospheric pressure. I can raise a man's temperature by looking at him over my shoulder, and I can calibrate the wideness of his pupils with my breasts. I do more of what they like. They are teaching me a language, a lexicon of moves that they're passing along from pornography and girlie magazines.
Pete feeds me brandy whenever I want it, and I feed his quarters into the jukebox. The bar turns into a party with me as the birthday girl. I'm flushed and delirious with the attention. Yes, you can have me, I tell them all.
At midnight I get down from the box for the last time and Pete hands me $100 in sweaty bills. I feel like I've won something -- and not just the money. The caramel man with his creamy friend comes closer. "Do you want to go get some beer?" he asks.
"Yes." I am all yes.
We crowd into the bench seat of his car. I’m delirious with brandy, dancing and anticipation. We head off, "his place," Caramel at the wheel, Cream riding shotgun, me the jelly in the center. When Caramel pulls over at a liquor store, Cream and I stay in the car. As soon as he slams the door, I turn and open my mouth to Cream. I take his tongue deep in my mouth. By the time Caramel is back with a six pack, Cream has my jeans zipper down and is worming his hand down inside. I feel Caramel hesitate; he thinks I've maybe chosen. No, I let him know with my body. I open my shoulder to invite him and let him have my breasts. Both their hands are on me and I'm touching them, feeling for them. We come to a breathless pause, Caramel starts the car and we drive on, gasping. The lust that usually can't break free from the cellar where I've stuffed it is running my body. I am all yes.
Susan Kuchinskas used to prowl the streets of San Francisco as lead singer for the punk band Boy Trouble, and pose behind glass at the worker-owned peep show The Lusty Lady (now defunct). Today, she produces content for tech companies and writes literary, crime, erotica and science fiction.