It's been a fabulous month of essays here on the blog, and I thank all the authors. Go re-read them, and buy their books, and mine, too.
We are going to wrap it up with one of the best. Erika Schickel and I met over the printed word, as contributors on the media website LA Observed. We read each other's work for a few years before we became part of the Bad Girls of LA Lit (that's a teenage Erika in the photo). Her work rides the edge between humor and anxiety, hide and reveal, love and heartbreak. It's a precarious place to write from, but boy, can this girl smoke it. Here she is xx
Ten Cents a Dance
I was a dreamy, romantic child, growing up in Manhattan. Our family’s record collection was full of soundtrack albums that my film critic father brought home from work. These records formed the nexus of fantasy and self-esteem. I spent endless afternoons memorizing show tunes and choreographing elaborate dance sequences. All I needed was a twirly skirt, maybe a pair of tights on my head to simulate long, flowing braids, and I was the star of my own personal, MGM musical. My inner world was one of Technicolor excess where people dressed in improbable colors and fans blew chiffon scarves into infinity. Our couch was Ziegfield stage, a large teddy bear stood in for Gene Kelly and in this world, I was perfectly myself, beautiful, creative and free.
When I was about eleven I became fixated on a song from movie I had never seen called “Love Me or Leave Me” starring Doris Day. The song was full of pathos and mystery, and something almost dirty that I almost understood. It told the story of a lonely, haunted woman working in a dance hall, living for the amusement of rough men -- something that in my film-addled, horny, pre-pubescence, I devoutly aspired to be. I played this song over and over every day for weeks, memorizing it, choreographing sultry moves to it, trying to sing it just like Doris Day:
I work at the Palace ballroom, but gee that palace is cheap
When I get back to my chilly hallroom, I'm much too tired to sleep
I'm one of those lady teachers, a beautiful hostess you know;
One that the palace features, at exactly a dime a throw.
My parents’ bitter divorce when I was twelve launched me into a life of petty theft and heartbreak and I blossomed into a full-fledged fuckup. My mother needed an enemy, and with my father out of the house, she logically turned to me. I was happy to oblige, and engaged in some high-risk behavior that eventually got me shipped off to boarding school, then kicked out of boarding school. At twenty-four I landed in Los Angeles as the lonely, haunted woman I had once dreamed of being.
Broke, with a degree in English Literature and no job skills, I was combing the back of the LA Weekly classifieds one day, looking for a fast way to come up with rent that wasn’t prostitution, when I came across an ad that screamed “Earn $400-$600 a night as a hostess at Club Flamingo!”
The club was downtown on 12th street. I walked up the wide, creaking staircase of an ancient building to the second floor and asked for the manager. The bouncer walked me past the dance area. A mirrored ball sprayed colored dots across a rough, empty floor. There was a bar area, and a long banquette, where a few bored girls sat, legs crossed, their pumps dangling off their big toes.
Marty, sat behind a huge, oak desk in an office cluttered with ashtrays, posters and cracked disco balls. He explained the rules: “No alcohol or drugs, cigarette smoking only on breaks in the designated area. Single men are not allowed on the dance floor, no leaving the club with customers, no blowjobs, no hand jobs, no grinding.” He pointed to a closed circuit TV screen next to his desk. “Every inch of that dance floor is on camera. If you break any of these rules, I will fire you. We run a clean joint here.”
And with that, I became a Taxi Dancer.
Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me
Gosh how they weigh me down.
Ten cents a dance, dandies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown.
Of course, with inflation, it was more like ten bucks a dance. The house took half and I got the other half, plus tips. On my first night I took my place on the red vinyl banquette alongside the other dime-a-dance girls – I was the only Caucasian in the lineup. The dandies and rough guys looked us over from bar tables. In heels, I was good a foot taller than just about everyone in the club. I thought that was going to work against me, but it turned out, I spent very little time on the banquet.
My first customer was a stone-faced Hispanic man who followed me out to the dance floor just as “Hello” by Lionel Richie was starting up. As in Doris Day’s days, taxi dances were timed by songs. He put his hands on my waist and drew me close. It felt strange to be held by a stranger. We did an awkward shuffle, my forearms resting on his shoulders, my hands dangling in the air behind his back, a gesture that connoted a kind of vintage insousiance and got me out of actually touching the man. I didn’t quite feel like Doris Day, but the night was young. We didn’t speak, and he didn’t even really look at me. I could feel his palms sweating through my thin nylon top. It made me feel cold and clammy.
“Hello” ended and I took him over to the desk to punch out and pay up. He didn’t tip me anything. Already I felt I was failing. What had I done wrong? How was I fucking this up? Back in the days of the twirly skirt I had known who I was: a dreamer, a limerick-lover, a joke-teller, a girl with a dead-on Julia Child impression. But all that had long ago disappeared, and I had learned to live outside of myself, looking to men to tell me who I was. I had moved west to be a movie star and find myself, instead I found myself draped over an old man with gold teeth at the Club Flamingo who was telling me about his discount auto parts business. I was as far away from myself as I could possibly get.
Seven to midnight I hear drums, loudly the saxophone blows,
Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums, customers crush my toes.
By the end of the first week I started to get the hang of it. I danced with a chatty, chunky fellow in a loveless marriage. He wanted to tell me his whole sorry story, from his Bahamian honeymoon right up to that very evening when he got in his K car and drove in from Bellflower. He kept me swaying through four songs, sliding his hands up and down my back, stopping just at the top of the crack of my ass. He was misunderstood, he said, put-upon, a good provider, a man’s man, married to a cold bitch. I nodded and cooed my sympathy. When I clocked him out he tipped me ten bucks.
Back on the banquet I chatted with a girl named Angela who was the only dancer there who would talk to me, the other girls clearly hated me. “There are two kinds of girls here,” she said, “respectable girls and Corner Girls.” She pointed to the far, dark reaches of the ballroom where couples were nearly motionless, but for the subtle, curved, jungle boogie of the dry hump. “Those girls think they will make more in tips if they let guys take liberties. But it’s bullshit. And watch out for the pillar,” she said, pointing to a large, square pillar in the center of the dance floor. “Guys will try to get you back there because it’s the one area in the ballroom where Marty doesn’t have a camera.”
I danced with a lot of Japanese businessmen who all asked me to remove my high heel shoes, but I towered over them in stocking feet anyway. I tried to make conversation, but they didn’t have enough English. They were as far from home as I was, and their loneliness rolled off of them like Tsunamis. They were silent and polite, and I felt like a big, tacky neon sign in their arms. The ancient parquet floor of the Flamingo was ragged from years of wear, and the splinters snagged my nylons and lodged in the soles of my feet as we danced.
Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket,
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance.
I took a bathroom break. The ladies room was cavernous, with broken sinks that dripped, and soap dispensers filled with powdery Borax. I was washing my hands when two girls came in, one of them bee-lined for the sink and began furiously yanking out paper towels, dabbing at the front of her mini-dress. “The guy fucking came on me! I’ve got jizz on my fucking dress, Mija!”
“Damn Alicia, that’s what you get for being a Corner Girl.”
“Fuck you Yvette, I got kids to feed.”
I went back out to the banquette and was immediately picked out by a slick trick in a shiny suit and pointy shoes. He asked me questions about myself. I told him I was a runaway, that my father beat me, that I had three kids and was trying to put myself through school. He barely listened as he tried to dance me toward the pillar. I tried to dance us back out into the open. He danced me right back to the pillar and slid his hand up my shirt. I let him linger a moment before I pushed his hand away. He tipped me twenty bucks.
Fighters and sailors and bow-legged tailors
can pay for their tickets & rent me
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor
are sweethearts my good luck has sent me.
The cries of anguished, empty men rebounded off my own, hollow heart. We were the same, wandering around in a world that didn’t really want us. We were all in limbo there at the Club Flamingo, dancing to bad Top 40 songs, feeling the meter running as we killed time, waiting to punch out. Three weeks of my life disappeared into the halflight of the Flamingo like cigarette smoke in a turbine.
The Foot Doctor was a regular at the club. He rented girls, bought them Cokes and then rubbed their feet for a paid hour. It was a solid arrangement. My feet felt like raw hamburger, so I let him go crazy. He looked at me with soft, wet eyes as he cracked my toe knuckles. I purred with pleasure. He told me he was falling in love with me.
Though I've a chorus of elderly beaus,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes
I'm here till closing time
Dance and be merry it's only a dime.
I let men take greater and greater liberties. I became a for real Corner Girl, letting customers dance me behind the pillar and grind into me. In the outside world I knew what I was doing was wrong, but the Flamingo felt like the arena of my confused soul made manifest. The rules didn’t apply there. I was sexually and psychically aroused by the power I had over men. I never made $600 dollars in a night, but I came close. I would drive home to my chilly hallroom, my purse crammed with small bills, my clothes rank with sweat and Hai Karate. I would stand in a scalding hot shower at three AM, trying to wash it all off of me, but I couldn’t because it was inside of me
In my fourth week at the Club Flamingo I danced with a polite black gentleman named Bill. He held me at a respectful distance, not too far, not too close. He spoke in full sentences and asked me about myself. Because he was the first intelligent person I had met at the club, and because I liked him, I decided to tell him the truth: I was new to Los Angeles. I was from New York. My father was a film critic, my mother a novelist. I had graduated from an Ivy League university in June. His eyes bugged out in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I told him.
He put me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. “The choices you make today will affect the rest of your life. Choose carefully, Young Lady.”
I drove home that night through the spooky, deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles, and knew I would never return to the Club Flamingo. The next time I put on stockings and drove downtown, it was during daylight hours to work as an office temp – which was prostitution of another sort.
It would take me another two decades to understand what Bill meant, and by that time it would be too late. I made a lot of bad choices based on the bad notion that I was intrinsically bad. But now I know I wasn’t really bad, I just got swept up by a song and gave myself away.
Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.