Stripping My Way Through College
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Wallenrock
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This piece originally appeared at Narrative.ly, and is reprinted here with their permission.
They called it the “new” Times Square. I dodged tourists to get to work. There was always a man standing at the corner of 50th Street and Broadway in a yellow vest that read “Flashdancers,” passing out little cards to all the men who walked by. One day, I asked him for one. He looked at me. “I work there,” I said. He handed me a card.
On the card was a picture of a topless woman who did not work at Flash. Come visit me, it read. It was a free pass to get in.
I was attending Antioch College at the time, and they had a program called “co-op,” wherein students alternated semesters on campus with terms of work or volunteer experience anywhere in the world. That fall, I had arranged to “co-op” in New York City, working at a nonprofit afterschool program for economically disadvantaged girls. But more importantly, when I’d made the arrangements I’d also set my sights on stripping in New York City, becoming part of an industry more glamorous and lucrative than any I’d come into contact with. Stripping was something I’d been doing since my sophomore year, when I found myself out of money while on co-op in Mexico. After that, I’d worked at two domestic violence shelters in Ohio, as a rape crisis counselor and at a Somali women’s health organization in London. To afford to live during the unpaid internships so often taken for granted as part of the undergraduate experience, I stripped.
Through two years working off and on in the industry, I’d become more and more dependent on it. I relied on the income, but it was more than that. Outside of work, I kept mostly to myself. Few people knew the true details of my life. Ordinary human engagement ran risks and involved such censure that it hardly felt worth it. Without many friends or hobbies, and with few outside interests, sex work had become necessary not just for my economic survival, but for my social needs and emotional sustenance as well.
At the clubs back in Ohio, I had stood out as exceptional — more educated and, in my opinion, prettier than my coworkers. In New York City, I quickly learned this wouldn’t be the case. My first week in the city, I grabbed a Village Voice, flipped to the back page, made a list of clubs and set out on foot. More than one manager looked me up and down before handing me a paper application without asking for so much as an audition. Most never called back.
New York Dolls was a sports bar up front and a cabaret in the back. It wasn’t as nice as some of the other places I’d auditioned, but business was steady and the money was good.
I’d been working at Dolls for just over a week when the events of September 11th turned downtown Manhattan into “Ground Zero” and we were out of jobs. I showed up at Flashdancers — Dolls’s sister club in Times Square — pretending my manager at Dolls had sent me. This was how I came to work at Flash.
* * *
Welcome to the world-famous Flashdancers. The house fee is one hundred and fifty dollars a night. Each dancer pays her house fee when she walks through the door. Arrive twenty minutes before the start of your shift. Get there a minute late and risk being fined. More than five minutes late and you might be sent home. At Flash, the rules were strict and we girls were expected to follow them. I tried to follow the rules. I wanted to fit in.