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Stripping My Way Through College

A nonprofit intern counts down the hours until she can shed her office attire in a Times Square gentlemen's club.

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“I took this guy to Atlantic City last night,” Assad told me that night, “and you’re not gonna believe it — he gives me a thousand-dollar tip!”

When I arrived home, the doorman was asleep. I knocked on the glass and he buzzed me in. I lived twenty-four stories up in a luxury building in Brooklyn Heights, a two-bedroom sublet I shared with another student on co-op. Most nights I’d come in, leave the lights off, and go out on the balcony to smoke and stare at the Manhattan skyline, newly broken, like a crooked jaw missing two of its teeth.

Some nights, at around four in the morning, Jay would come over. Jay was a guy I’d met through my day job, an out-of-work musician who ran errands for my boss. He was staying on a friend’s couch. My roommate didn’t much like Jay or the fact that he came over in the middle of the night, high on coke, locked out of his friend’s house, ringing our bell with nowhere else to go. Jay and I were sleeping together, but I would not say we were “dating.” We couldn’t have dated because I had a boyfriend back home — the guy I’d been dating since high school, Rick. I let Jay in because I liked the company. I liked to smoke Jay’s cigarettes and I liked that Jay needed me, if only for a place to crash.

*   *   *

The nonprofit where I worked, according to our mission, ran afterschool programs for economically disadvantaged girls. My job was in development, organizing fundraisers and other events — cocktail parties, mostly — where I’d get paid to dress up, drink, socialize and promote all the good work the nonprofit supposedly did. Working for this organization, I sometimes felt like I was back in the strip club, soliciting donations for a cause in which I didn’t fully believe.

At the staff meeting each week, my boss doled out our assignments. So desperate to please her, I’d volunteer for everything. I’d say “I’ll do that” and “I can do that, too” so often that Lyn would sometimes yell at me to stop. I was a good worker, possibly the best, and I needed her and everyone to know that.

But at the same time, I never felt as good as my coworkers, all native New Yorkers who’d grown up in ways I wished I had. Adriana, my immediate supervisor, was the product of private schools. Her parents were the organization’s most reliable donors. Grace, the accountant, also taught African drumming. She had the body of a dancer — thin and toned — seemingly without effort. Nancy was a mom of one of the participants. A survivor of the AIDS and crack epidemics of the eighties, she might not have had money or an education, but she was a New Yorker; she had street cred. The program director, Jenny, had grown up on the streets. An underage club kid turned junkie turned NYU grad, she was a real life character in other people’s memoirs. Her style was so copied, she no longer looked original.

Jenny once told me in polite conversation that if she’d had to grow up in Ohio, she would have killed herself — that’s how awful she imagined the Midwest to be. Even though her comment was stupid and mean, I remember thinking that Jenny was right: There was nothing more damning than having grown up in the Midwest.

At work, I kept my night job to myself. No one knew I was stripping. And no one knew I was sleeping with Jay (although in retrospect I’m sure everyone suspected it). Everyone thought that Jay was a loser. I acted as if I agreed.