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Barely Educational: A student exposes his summer job — at a strip club 

click to enlarge SARAH RYAN
  • Sarah Ryan

Summer’s nearly over, and those of us heading back to institutions of so-called higher learning must be prepared for the perennial small-talk question: “What did you do over the summer?”

I’ve had my share of pretty typical jobs — an ice cream stand here, a retail store there. But this summer, not only did I further my education in an unconventional manner, I now have a reply guaranteed to stop anyone in their tracks:

“I worked as a deejay at a strip club.”

Suddenly, the casual exchange will cease to be a tool for the other person to pretend they actually care what I did all summer. They will care. Suddenly, the small talk will become a conversation. “Wow, what was that like?”

And I will reply, truthfully, “It was a learning experience.” I saw a part of the world I never expected to see, and I discovered things about myself and people in general that I never expected to discover.

Just so I don’t have to keep repeating myself — and for those of you who want to “borrow” my story if your summer at the hardware store was a shade too dull — I give you this true and unauthorized account of what it’s like to be a deejay at a strip club in the middle of Vermont.

My local friends who’ve never ventured into an “exotic dance parlor” assume that the performers must be hideously deformed trolls, inbred beyond the recognizably human, unwashed and forever eschewing the dentist’s office — otherwise they wouldn’t want to be strippers, right? Nothing I say seems to change their opinions; maybe its a Vermont thing.

For the record, most of the ladies ranged from merely attractive to drop-dead gorgeous. Think about it: In this age of hyper-self-consciousness, a woman with any serious reservations about her appearance would not take a job which required her to strip down to a G-string several times a night. Also, any woman who’s been in the business for more than a few months has been getting more aerobic exercise than your average health nut.

This isn’t to say that a given dancer might not have a personality as ugly as her body is beautiful. Make no mistake about it: This is a cut-throat business, and the name of the game is money. If a dancer suspects that the deejay is playing bad music, or the bouncers are being a little too intimidating for the clientele, or the bartender’s distracting the customers from the show by talking too much, she’ll inevitably start to think it’s affecting her tips.

Moreover, very few dancers will keep their opinions on these matters to themselves. The other thing that comes with stripping for a living — besides nightly take-home totals of $150 to $500 or more — is a nearly unshakeable self-confidence. The classic “insecurity dream” is to be naked in public; once that no longer bothers you, nothing much will.

The result is sometimes cattiness, brutal gossip and outright hostility. As a deejay, I mustered all my soft-shoe dancing-around-the-topic skills to stay the hell out of arguments, because I worked, like the dancers, on tips and tips alone. The mandatory minimum tipout for the deejay was 7.5 percent of each dancer’s take for the evening. Some tipped more, if you treated them right — and I always did, much as my stomach sometimes churned to do so.

In every other entertainment profession, women are marginalized and often degraded. Some blue-nosed moralists might claim that the very existence of strip clubs does so as well. I beg to differ. A strip club lives and dies by its dancers, and the good ones always get their way. In this line of work, it’s the women who run the show.

I don’t think the majority of our clientele is able to see past the illusion created by the club — the illusion of uncontained female sexuality. That’s unfortunate for them and fortunate for the women. I knew the dancers and saw their performance for what it was: a job.

After a few weeks, I quickly categorized the clientele into three groups. The regulars were the first and most depressing. These were the guys who would come in one to three nights a week to see their favorite dancer. We had pet names for them: “The Quiver Man.” “The Cokehead.” “The Good Little Cook.”

A regular would basically plunk down a wad of money — at least $50 a night — to be teased by a woman more beautiful than he would ever have. And, when she was done with him, she would move to the next table and give his neighbor the same treatment. That’s gotta be humbling. Regardless of the fantasies these guys might have harbored for their favorite dancer, they were the ones getting screwed, so to speak. But their money contributed to my tip, which made it easier for me to ignore my conscience and just play the music.

The next group, thankfully the smallest, were the guys looking for sex — confident that if they got four or five lap dances and tipped generously, they’d have a dancer to take home for the night. These were also the guys who blew up at the bartender when she shut them off, called the dancers “dirty whores” when their gracious offer of money for sex was refused, and sometimes had to be “escorted” out by a bouncer or two.

I can honestly say that I never knew of a dancer who went home with a customer for money. Any dancers suspected of — or caught — doing so would find themselves fired in short order. For all we knew, half our customers were from the vice squad, and any strip club is one accepted solicitation away from being shut down at any time.

The third group of customers were the guys who just came in looking for a good time, and these are every dancer’s dream. They tip, they don’t touch, they drink their drinks, and they go home. Sometimes they’re a group of middle-aged men who took a slight detour on the way home from the Elks Club. Sometimes they’re local college boys. Sometimes they’re a bachelor party.

This type observes the Golden Rule of strip clubs: Every dancer gets tipped no matter what. (In case you don’t know, fellas: The rule of thumb for tipping is $1 minimum to each dancer for every song she’s onstage. If you feel so inspired, feel free to tip more.) The only exception is if the dancer is unusually rude or abrasive. But do tip bad dancers who are showing some effort, because it might be their first or second night onstage, and it is sort of an awkward job.

Oh, and tip your deejay if you like the music he or she is playing.

I know, I know, this is supposed to be a story about what I did at my summer job. First of all, let me apologize on behalf of all deejays everywhere for the music that sometimes gets played in strip clubs. I know how you feel. I was subjected to more Backstreet Boys than should be allowed under the Geneva Convention.

The dancers pick out their own music; if you don’t like it, don’t blame the guy in the booth. On one memorable evening, “Vixen” and “Pepper” — not their real names — danced to a combined total of seven Def Leppard songs, all off Hysteria. I had to play, over the course of five hours, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Animal” (twice), “Armegeddon It,” “Hysteria” (twice), and “Love Bites.” And, of course, there was all that Poison, Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. For a child of the “alternative” revolution, it broke my heart. Sorry, Kurt.

But for every dancer that dances to hair metal, there’s another who moves up a rung on rock’s evolutionary ladder and plays Janet Jackson, or Madonna, or Prince — pre- and post-glyph. And if you think that’s not a step in the right direction, I suggest you lock yourself in a room and play “Unskinny Bop” until you wet your pants and beg for a copy of Purple Rain.

The best dancers, if I may say so, were the ones who danced to my music. The greatest set I ever concocted was for “Sheba,” which included Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams,” Type O Negative’s “Love You to Death” and the Violent Femmes’ “Color Me Once.” Other popular artists at the club were Tori Amos, Pearl Jam, Fiona Apple, Live and, despite all logic, Tool.

There are some who would say I wasted my summer. After all, I attend one of the country’s more prestigious small liberal arts schools, one with a tremendously popular outreach program. Why didn’t I take an internship with Time-Life, or study abroad in Malaysia, or at least pursue an independent research project with my advisor?

To these people I say, there is only so far in this world that book-learnin' will get you. After that, it comes down to drive, experience and, when all else fails, luck. Four years of English majoring might guarantee you a 60-hour-a-week job in publishing for $12,000 a year. One summer of deejaying will allow me to get a job at any club in the country and get paid to hang out with naked women. Now tell me: Who's the dummy?

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