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All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C.
Fuck it." The words whipped through my head as I stood in the cold hallway with my hand on the door leading to the stage. A sign on the door read: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT. The music thumped loudly — all beats, whooshes, and wails, like a gospel diva trapped in a washing machine. I took a rushed breath, twisted the doorknob, and walked inside, going from the sunshine of the hallway to the midnight of the theater.
I couldn't see a thing, not really. It took what seemed like a full minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the brick room painted black. I started to make out the outlines of figures seated in the rows of seats in front of the stage and standing along the back wall. The music continued to thump, louder now that I was inside, and the air smelled of Clorox and crotch. Beads of chilly sweat dripped from my armpits. My heartbeat quickened. Again those words, "Fuck it."
I started up the steps toward the stage and positioned myself in front of a large hanging screen that minutes earlier had been showing the fuzzy projected images of two California surfer dudes fucking by a pool. Once I made it to center stage, the D.J. in the overhead booth switched on the spotlight. I was now burning in a hard white sun.
Dressed in a too-tight T-shirt and shredded, hanging-off-my-ass jean shorts, I looked like the slutty boy at summer camp, the one who frequently disappears with the artsy male counselors. People were always telling me how young I looked, so I thought the camp thing worked for me.
Before my eyes could get used to the spotlight, the D.J. bellowed over the loudspeaker in a seventies game show announcer voice, "Gentlemen, welcome to the Follies. Our next dancer is making his first appearance here. Put your hands together for...[long dramatic pause] Craig."
"This is it," I thought. " There's no putting your khakis back on now." I stood there and started to dance a little bit, moving my feet from side to side with great deliberateness, like the gangly boys at the high school dance. Fortunately, there were no Chippendales-like dance routines needed here. It wasn't that kind of place. The guys who came to the Follies — Washington, D.C.'s oldest gay porn theater and, if you believed their ads, home of the hottest "all male burlesque" — wanted flesh and they wanted it fast. This was less striptease than strip-touch. The dancer's job was to get onstage, disrobe quickly, try to get a hard-on, and then walk out among the customers, who for a tip — generally a buck — got to stroke, fondle, poke, and prod the dancer's bod. It was more like sex than dancing, and it had become my job.
This was quite a change for me, since I spent most of my days as a graduate student and teacher at the University of Maryland in College Park: going to classes, giving lectures, grading papers, all on a campus so idyllic and grassy that it was used as the school in St. Elmo's Fire. But I was ready for a change. I needed it even if I couldn't explain exactly why.
I knew I was taking a risk by dancing here. The Follies itself could be a dangerous place. A 1977 fire took eight lives, among them a congressional aide, a Midwestern minister, an ex-marine, and an economist for the World Bank. Then, fifteen years later, more than a dozen flashlight-wielding cops stormed into the dark theater and arrested fourteen men on sodomy and other sex-related charges. Three dancers got caught up in the sweep. One guy, wearing only cowboy boots, was busted in the middle of his set.
I also was taking a risk because I wasn't sure what would happen if the people at school, especially my students or, even worse, their parents, found out about it.
But I didn't really care about these risks. I couldn't afford to. It was a journey I felt compelled to take — the road less clothed — and this was my first step.
As I stood there onstage, the wailing diva song played on. I knew I had to start taking something off, but I didn't really know how to do it. Like most people, I'd never given much thought to taking off my clothes. It was just something I did. But now I had an audience that was expecting me to do it, and it wasn't like there was a training course or apprenticeship program for aspiring strippers.
First I lifted up my T-shirt, gripping it from the bottom and pulling it inside out over my head. (I'd later find out that this was the girly way of taking off a shirt; a real man grabs it from the back of the collar and pulls it over his head.) Once my chest was bare, I sucked in my stomach and felt my nipples harden in the cold air.
Next I took off my jean shorts, first playing with the front snap, then slowly lowering the zipper and letting the denim drop. I wasn't wearing any underwear, because no self-respecting summer camp boy-slut wears drawers. Then I stepped out of the shorts, one leg at a time. I was now entirely naked, except for my sneakers and two white tube socks on my feet. My grandmother had given me these socks for Christmas a few months before, and I really liked them because they had dark gray patches at the toe and heel.
The next thing I had to worry about was my dick. It wasn't hard. It was even a little shrunken from the cold. I started tugging on it nervously. I didn't know what to do. When I jerked off at home, I was usually lying down watching a porn tape or flipping through a magazine, not standing upright in front of a room of strangers. I probably should've been thinking about something that turned me on, but my mind wasn't really working that way. I wasn't actually having thoughts. It was all a nervous rush.
I kept yanking on my dick. Hours, years, a full millennium seemed to pass. I tugged some more until I finally got it to a respectable hang. Once again I thought, "Fuck it," and headed out into the audience, walking down from the stage, carefully taking one step at a time.
I stood in front of the rows of seats and instantly felt safer. It was dark here, away from the spotlight of the stage. My heart rate slowed.
There was no one in the first two rows, which had several broken seats covered with duct tape, so I walked over to an older guy in the third row. He smiled as I stood in front of him and lifted my left leg, propping it on one of his armrests. He placed a folded dollar bill into my sock and put one hand firmly behind my balls, using the other hand to grab my dick. I got rock hard as he moved his hand back and forth. I couldn't explain why. It wasn't like he was hot or anything, and I could even make out a bit of old guy smell beneath the general Follies funk. But here I was, as hard as I'd ever been. It wasn't so much what the guy was doing to me as the fact that, after thinking about it for a long time, I was really doing this.
I stayed with him for about a minute. In my mind, I imagined a parking meter. I was wondering how much time he should get for a buck. My set lasted only ten minutes and there were about six other customers I had to get to.
I slowly pulled away from him, leaned over, and whispered, "Thank you."
"No," he responded. "Thank you."
I smiled and moved to my next customer, another older white dude, who asked, "What are you?" as he grabbed my package.
"What are you? What nationality?"
"Um, American, the last time I checked my passport."
"I mean, what's your ethnic background? You look Hispanic or Filipino or something."
At the clubs, most of the dancers were white, with the occasional black, Latino, or I-dunno-looking guy like me thrown in. It made for some interesting conversations as customers tried to figure out if who you were matched who they wanted you to be.
"I'm black," I said.
"Really? You don't look it." I shrugged my shoulders.
"Is one of your parents white?" he asked.
"Oh, well, you have an interesting look."
"Thanks," I said, adding in my mind, "I guess."
I left this guy and moved on to the next customer, who sat in the back row. He was an Asian guy in his twenties. I positioned myself in front of him, my dick still at full mast.
"That looks dangerous," he said as he put some bills in my sock and started stroking me. "What is it, about ten inches?"
"I don't know," I said. "I've never measured it." I really hadn't.
His head lowered and his eyes fixed on my dick like it was some kind of target. Then he pulled on it with all his might like he was in a yanking contest at the county fair.
"Whoa, man. Slow down," I said. "Jeez."
I put my hand over his and moved it slowly back and forth.
"Like this," I said. He looked up sheepishly and gave me another tip.
With my time almost over, I made my way to the last guy in the back row, who was by far the weirdest. He was short and fat, with pale, pasty skin and a few shellacked wisps of hair plastered to his nearly bald scalp. When I stood in front of him, he tipped me and then reached for my dick with his thumb and forefinger like he was examining something in a laboratory. ("A human male penis. Interesting. Notice its firmness and veiny texture.") His clinical manner made my cock deflate instantly like a whoopee cushion underneath a fat ass.
"You can tell a lot about how a guy masturbates by the way he touches you," said Casey, one of the two other dancers I was working with, after I finished my set. We were sitting in the dressing room — which was also a functioning broom closet — waiting for the finale, where we all danced together. I used the time to debrief.
"Some of them are just plain weird, though," I said, "and then this one guy pulled it so hard that it was like he wanted to take it home as a souvenir. My dick felt like one of those metal handles that people hold on to while riding the subway."
Casey laughed and told me to buy a tube of Elbow Grease, a creamy, oil-based lubricant, from the front counter. "It helps cut down on the wear and tear," he explained, rubbing lotion over his arms, which had tattoos curling down them like colorful snakes.
We waited in the dressing room while the other dancer went through his set, then we went back to the theater for the ten-minute finale. I don't remember any of the other songs that played while I was dancing, but the last song of the finale was Madonna's "Where's the Party."
As I walked through the audience again — butt naked, hands on my dick, Madonna thumping in my ear ("Where's the party, I want to free my soul / Where's the party, I want to lose control") — I felt that I'd made a transformation as surely as Superman slipping out of a phone booth or Wonder Woman doing a sunburst spin. I was bare-ass in a room of paying strangers, a stripper. After years of wondering what it would be like, I had done it — faced a fear, defied expectation, embraced a taboo self. It was only the beginning.Copyright © 2008 by Craig Seymour
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