ALL THAT IS EXTRA: EXCAVATING THE VIEUX CARRÉ’S STRIP CLUB DISPUTES

ANTIGRAVITY-NOVEMBER-2017-ALL-THAT-IS-EXTRA-2-by-Lyn-Archer
Published  November 2017

 


Halloween weekend marks my New Orleans anniversary. I began stripping here two years ago, just after “Operation Trick or Treat,” a series of strip club raids coordinated between the ATC, NOPD, and state police. Not long after, New Orleans’ City Council accepted the Planning Commission’s 94-page “Adult Live Performance Venues Study,” a primer for eliminating strip clubs and vice districts, which pulled information from cities around America. Vieux Carré politicians, business owners, and faith leaders poured out 700-plus pages of public comment. During a series of hearings, they pushed for a ban on 18 to 20 year-old strippers, increased police surveillance, and closures of the smaller clubs on the strip.

My first article for ANTIGRAVITY (“Stage Name Delta: Legislating Lust and Labor in the Vieux Carré,” August 2016) came in response to these events, during my first six months on Bourbon Street, as I worked my way through six different clubs. Delivering this paper to each of the remaining clubs on Bourbon (to date, 16) gives me the chance to look in. From my first nights here until today, the press has left a paper trail of anti-strip club political meanderings, including a salacious trilogy referring to Bourbon Street as “The Track.” With the Venues Study coming up for review, the city has hired an attorney who has worked with cities like Memphis and Greenville (South Carolina) to litigate against and close down strip clubs. Kristin Gisleson Palmer, one of the most vocal strip club opponents, has been re-elected to City Council District C. As I enter my third tourist season, a fumbled, multi-million dollar renovation project has left Bourbon Street torn open.


PAPER ROUTE

Babe’s Cabaret (closed, reopened as Kama Sutra Cabaret). Rick’s Cabaret. Rick’s Sporting Saloon. The Penthouse Club. Centerfolds (closed, reopened as V Live Club New Orleans, closed). Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. Big Daddy’s. Temptations. Scores. Oz. The Corner Pocket. Déjà vu Showgirls (closed, reopened as Hunk Oasis). Bourbon Pub & Parade Disco. Chez Joey (closed, reopened as Gentleman’s Quarters). Dixie Divas.

I begin at my home club, climbing the stairs to leave a stack of papers in the dressing room, then back downstairs to wait for the manager in the accounting cage. I have singles, how many can you take? I push a stack of bills between the bars. Is that all you have? the manager asks. Taped to the wall above the counting machine is a picture of Oscar the Grouch, with the words “I LOVE TRASH, BUT DOES TRASH LOVE ME?” lettered above him in capitals. On the cage’s ceiling is one of the pink postcards from last year’s public hearing. A poster in our dressing room had promised three free house fees to any dancer who showed up. The club is still littered with stickers and cards reading LET US DANCE.

CEDING OUR TIME

I had arrived late to City Hall, rainwater steaming off me in the air-conditioned foyer. A security guard waved me down the breezeway, voices rebounding off marble walls. A group of women gathered under an awning, lighting damp cigarettes (the meeting was on a break). We took turns leaning into the automatic glass doors to keep from being locked out.

Called back in, I edged through the crowd towards the back wall, then climbed over a chair to slide in beside Lucky. What’d I miss? Did you speak? I whispered to her. No, I ceded my time. The council members called a list of names from behind their microphones. A hand went up: cede. Then another cede, until a woman stood and walked up the aisle. Lucky explained: Everyone gets two minutes, if you put your name on the list. But most people are ceding their time to someone else. There was a meeting last week: the GMs and owners from the big clubs met with the girls to plan who would talk. At the podium, the woman flattened out her pencil skirt and introduced herself as Heather.

Are you going into work tonight? Lucky shrugged. I got fired, I mean, “terminated.” The manager said I could try to come back when I’m 21. I had assumed she was older: the relentless way she worked, sometimes six days at a stretch, the way she had never missed a Saturday. I was drinking orange juice out of a champagne flute. The waitress served it to me like that! The manager said it was a mimosa, but really it’s because of the age ban.

I thought they weren’t enforcing that after all? I asked. At the podium, Heather’s hand took the mic. Yeah but the club doesn’t want to take the risk. Heather began: “I have been dancing for eight years. I started dancing in college. I have a degree in math. I would pass a drug test. I have never been a hooker. I became a dancer because I wanted to travel the world.”

I turned back to Lucky. Do you have a plan?

I’m going to Portland until my birthday. You remember my friend Bunny, right? She’s out there now. Of course I remembered Bunny. I first saw her on stage, in a big, faux-flower headdress and sparkly boots, as if she’d just beamed in from Coachella. I passed her later at the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with another stripper. You looked so pretty up there. She laughed. That was Lucky, not me! I’m Bunny. The two could have been twins—silvery blondes with huge lashes over kohl-lined eyes.

The hearing ended in applause, the room atmospheric with exhaustion and elation: maybe it was almost over. Most of the crowd had been there all day, many had already left: either heading into work or worn out from the night before. We waited in the doorway for the shuttle bus to arrive, paid for by the Penthouse Club.

In the months that followed, from our respective dressing rooms, Lucky and I would text: she hates Portland. The money sucks and it rains all the time. For me, twelve years ago, the money seemed like a lot, a factor of ten higher than my job as a secretary at the university physical plant. I’d filed purchase orders for contractors’ parts and labor, fielded maintenance requests, the phone ringing off the hook after every rainstorm. For Lucky, though, Portland meant working full-nude at a wage cut of more than half. Being under 21, she was prohibited from working the floor. For my first two years as a Portland stripper, I had sat on a folding chair in the dressing room between stage sets, doing my homework. The one-liner I used to sell $20 lap dances from the stage: I’m already naked.

At one club per every 1200 citizens, Portland’s archetypal strip clubs have the character of a neighborhood dive, with the tips to match. Portland proudly holds the record for the most strip clubs per capita, made possible in the late 1980s with the state provision that:

“Any person can write, print, read, say, show, or sell anything to a consenting adult even though that expression may be generally or universally considered ‘obscene’… appearing nude or exposing one’s genitals in public, can constitute symbolic conduct and be a form of expression.”

Lucky texted me a video of her flipping a cowboy hat onto her head: #hattrick… I’m going to work in Texas. When I worked in Portland, I wore white cowgirl boots and carried a pair of plastic pearl-handled cap-guns that I dry-fired at people when they didn’t tip. She told me Bunny, who she’d gone there to work with, wasn’t dancing anymore. Struggling with substance use, she hadn’t been able to hold a contract in a town with so many strippers. Texas will be great, I told Lucky. If you can make money in Portland, you can make money anywhere. It was almost a year before I worked with her again.

NOT IN OUR NATURE

With the ongoing construction on Bourbon Street, the paper route has become too arduous alone. I’ve been taking Chase or Star on the route with me. Tonight, though, Lucky and I are reuniting. She’s in a gold bikini and beach shorts after a day in the Country Club pool. The rain is intermittent as we dodge across Iberville, the paper-cart catching on a sandbag. Lucky drops her cigarette and tries to relight it as I cut the line at Penthouse, handing a stack to the woman checking IDs. Rounding the corner, the Royal Sonesta Hotel sign is burnt out in the center, still flashing:

D E S I R E… D E S I R E… D E S I R E.

We yank the cart over a go-cup-filled pothole, passing the club where we met. Lucky is 21 now, but has only returned to our club sporadically, avoiding the manager who’d terminated her contract. When I got back, he told me that I have to lose 30 pounds in 30 days before I can work nights. She hits the UP arrow on the Rick’s Cabaret elevator. So I’m here for now. In the sidewalk tunnel made by the construction fencing, a woman in a maxi dress and sneakers tries to pass us in the crowd as a group of men shout to another group of men, up on a terrace out of view.

Unlike Portland’s infamously strict Oregon Liquor Control Commission, New Orleans doesn’t have a last call. The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control is the regulatory body largely responsible for the recent strip club closures. Many clubs sought to avoid an ATC confrontation by voluntarily terminating the contracts of strippers under 21. When the age ban came up for a vote in the state legislature, Republican Senator Kenneth Havard made national news for proposing an amendment that would make it illegal for strippers to be over the age of 28 or over 160 pounds. The age-ban bill passed that afternoon, while Havard called his amendment “a joke,” even as he filed it. The “joke” is a fact: strippers in clubs everywhere are routinely let go on the basis of their weight or age. Senator Nancy Landry fired back that she had “never been more repulsed to be a part of this body.” Havard refused to recant: “I don’t know if I’ll ever apologize for being politically incorrect, it’s just not in my nature… political correctness, in my opinion, has ruined the country, and it looks like it’s ruining the state now.” It’s a cruel joke, being let go for being “Barely Legal” by the same corporate entity that branded the concept.

After losing their jobs, three 18 to 20 year-old strippers brought a Jane Doe lawsuit against the state, citing discrimination and lost wages. In response, ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard demanded that the women’s “real names” be revealed. Citing the First Amendment, federal judge Carl Barbier used a preliminary injunction to both block Lombard’s threat and temporarily lift the age ban. Kristin Palmer, recently re-elected District C councilwoman, called the judge’s move “bullshit.”

Our councilwoman’s vocally anti-strip club stance has its undercurrents in family tragedy. Palmer is one of eight children, the daughter of local “white-shoe” corporate lawyer Keith “Big Daddy” Gisleson. Kristin Palmer’s younger sister, Rebecca, who started stripping at 19, committed suicide. Palmer has stated that “stripping was a major contributing factor to her death.” At the city hall hearing, Palmer stated that strip clubs are “known for a culture of abuse against young women” who “lack capacity and resources.” Rebecca’s twin, Rachel, a young mother (who did not strip), followed Rebecca’s suicide with her own, “unwilling to live without her other half.”

BETTER THAN THAT

We are often confused with our sisters. Sex workers, women, femme people—spoken at, spoken over, spoken around; any preposition except the one most used in English—with. In Anne Gisleson’s memoir, The Futilitarians, the twins’ story reappears, patchworked into the insights of the author’s post-Katrina “Existential Crisis Reading Group,” where writing, drinking, and talking served as digestives for the city’s and her family’s grief:

By severing the connection between sex workers and all other women, we lose awareness of the algorithm that underlies misogyny. Jokes become facts, which become laws, which become bans, which becomes harm, which becomes death…”

One night at Big Daddy’s I had one of those backstage conversations with Rebecca that left me bewildered and depressed… I remember Rebecca as a blur: hot off the stage, flushed and transformed, shimmering and distracted. And probably coked up. She didn’t even bother to cover herself, but then again, we were sisters, and practically shared bodies. She said she was doing great, dancing was so great, so freeing. She had plenty of money and an apartment uptown… Of course, Rebecca seemed to me anything but great, but the force of her conviction made me doubt myself. What was I even doing there? What did I hope to achieve, or worse, get out of it? What were the proportions of judgement to curiosity to concern that had brought me there? Was I projecting my values onto her? Was I the one deluded about my motives, about her life?

Nearly every press article, from mid-2015 to now, has cited the death of another 19-year old, Jasilas Wright. Jasilas’ mother Nedra explained that her daughter had been dancing at Bourbon Street clubs Stiletto’s and Centerfolds, “but moved to Dallas this spring to look for better job prospects,” though she had wanted to return to New Orleans to live and work. New Orleans’ local “baby strippers,” like Jasilas and Lucky, leave for other states when working here proves futile. Limiting young women’s working options inevitably leads to harm. Wright was last seen on Bourbon Street, leaving her workplace and getting into the car of the man who killed her. Adam Littleton, who Wright met in Texas, was trying to force her to return there when he ended her life. “She wouldn’t do anything to provoke a fight,” one of her Stilettos co-workers had said. “She would walk away from confrontations because she knew she was better than that.”

“I love trash, but does trash love me?”

Littleton—who the press describes equivocally as Wright’s “boyfriend” or her “pimp”—claimed he “let her out of the car,” telling her relatives and the court that Jasilas “suddenly decided to commit suicide by jumping out of the car” onto I-10. Likewise, Rebecca Gisleson’s boyfriend/manager was violent towards her. Her sister, in her memoir, speculates that, “given the abusive nature of her relationship with M., couldn’t it just as well have been murder?” Despite their father hiring a private investigator, “M. had conveniently disappeared. No one heard from him again.”

In the press, Wright’s death had been initially linked to the death of another woman, 16-year old Kaylan Ward. Both women were local teenagers, dancers who attended the same studio. Jasilas’ case had a clear perpetrator, while Kaylan’s case remains unsolved. Just as Mr. Gisleson had done, Ward’s mother took on her own investigation, which she later published as a memoir. As the weeks unfolded, the press began describing the deaths as having “no connection.” Rebecca and Rachel: one a stripper and the other not, one a mother and the other not, both young women seeking a viable way to live, died in the same way, within a year and a half of each other. Ward and Wright: one a stripper and the other not, one a mother and the other not, both young women seeking a viable way to live, died on the same highway within a week of each other. Both crimes were called into 911 by passing drivers, both callers reporting “a dog lying in the road.”

By severing the connection between sex workers and all other women, we lose awareness of the algorithm that underlies misogyny. Jokes become facts, which become laws, which become bans, which becomes harm, which becomes death, provoking more cruel jokes. When only liminally aware of our own complicity, any of us can reinforce violence. “They were so mysterious, so hard to communicate with… they were enigmas to us, but then, how hard did I try to reach out to them?” Gisleson writes of her sisters. “I never met any strippers like the ones profiled in ‘gentlemen’s magazines,’ focused and empowered and putting themselves through business school, their dancing just a means to an end. I met ones like Rebecca, sweet or nice enough, who got caught up in the means and lost their way toward the ends.”

At the hearing, Stephanie, the second of three strippers, takes the mic: “I’m curious if you can hear me, because I have a voice, like many of my sisters in this room… it’s completely appalling to think we are subhuman beings, with no voice, who can’t take care of ourselves and make choices for ourselves. We choose to work in this industry because of the voice that it gives to us. And that’s all I have to say.”ANTIGRAVITY-NOVEMBER-2017-ALL-THAT-IS-EXTRA-3-by-Lyn-Archer

BUT WE WILL BE

Lucky and I pass the shuttered doors of V Live, formerly Centerfolds—one of a family of clubs under the same ownership—the first to have its liquor license revoked the week I arrived in New Orleans. At Scores, the tongue-and-groove floorboards buckle with storm water as I make my way to the back. In Temptations, the club I’d quit after facing off with a dog-sized rat in the dressing room, I mis-step into a familiar puddle gathering at the threshold marked “Private.” In Lipstixxs, I leave a stack of papers with the house mom, who had texted me every night to ask when I was coming back, long after I’d admitted to moving up the street. In Stilettos, I dodge a shrine of trash cans, bus tubs, and pails, ensconcing a leak in the stairwell. The woman who’d passed us in the street is here, putting on her makeup, her maxi dress on the counter beside her.

The third stripper takes the mic, anonymously: “[Kristin Palmer] seems to think we aren’t independent, intelligent women who work at these places because we want to work here. She thinks we’re being forced to work here… we’re all here because we’re intelligent, independent, and we want to keep the jobs that we have.”

Babe’s has a new sign hanging over it. Unlike the innumerable news articles showing only a picture of an anonymous stripper’s shoes, the article on Babe’s closure shows the manager, standing below the marquis, cowboy hat in hand. The caption below reminds the reader that over 20 employees were let go when the club couldn’t make its rent. We knock on the door beneath the new marquis, Kama Sutra Cabaret. We’re not open yet, the door girl says, but we will be next week. I pass her some papers and we make our way to the end of the block. A pair of teenage boys are vogue-ing, the silver paint on their faces and arms dissolving them into the construction equipment: a stack of culvert pipes, each large enough to lie down in.

Under the awning at Oz, we avoid a downpour, the papers curling wetly. Lucky goes in for a drink while I run across the street to Parade Disco and drop a stack inside. The last stack tops the cigarette machine at the Corner Pocket, where we’re told we need a male escort to enter. We’re just dropping off the paper, I say, folding the empty cart and wheeling it towards Rampart Street for a drink.

I order vodka and soda for her and campari and soda for me. We are in the bar I came to first when I moved here, trying to summon the courage to ask for a job before deciding to return to stripping. How can you drink that? Lucky asks. It’s so bitter.

I comb through my wet hair, my reflection beside hers in the fogged glass. It’s what my dad drinks, so it’s what I drink. It occurs to me that she looks different. In a year of knowing this person, this is the first time I’ve seen her without her big eyelashes on. Are you going into work tonight? She shrugs. Maybe. You?

OUR INHERITANCE

That night, I round the corner onto Bourbon Street into a crowd that thickens as it nears my club. I push between elbows and Hand Grenade cups, trying to keep hands off my purse and person. The construction fence sags inward, towards the gulch of “exploratory trenches” dug after the plans—dated back nearly a century—proved obsolete. What the explorers found: water mains colliding with buried electrical lines, sewer and storm tributaries draining into the same basins, and badly-diverted restaurant grease traps sludging up the street’s intestines, described in one article as “the most disgusting grey peanut butter you can imagine… To call it positively vile is an understatement.”

The crowd slows to total stoppage, airless and frustrated; I cast about for a way around. Two wingmen in dress shoes step through a fence-break, towards the glow of backlit “gentleman’s magazine” covers that line the club’s walls. I steady myself along the fenceline, my colleagues waving from the balcony above. The street hasn’t been excavated since the 1920s. This fossilized, octogenarian sludge beneath dates from that prohibitive era when clubs like mine were disparaged, referred to as “fleshpots.” This is our inheritance: the sum of citizens’ unconcern, of city inefficacy, all that lagniappe and laissez-faire, all that is extra. I step over a puddle with the acridity of paper pulp as I climb through the fence and into the club’s foyer. It is Halloween weekend: the walls, stairwells, and ceiling are decorated with faux spider-web, like a catacomb. Inflatable dolls, the spider’s prey, are mummified in the polyester fluff, hanging by their heels. I brush strands of this ectoplasm out of my hair as I leave the club, morning coloring itself in. A road crew, at last, is starting to pave the street over. I stop to watch. I am standing on the same corner, at the same hour, as Jasilas Wright did when she made her last exit.


photos Lyn Archer

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