In the 1990s, when I was twenty, the little money I had was for Muni and Mission Street burritos. The Lower Haight was where I scored quarter baggies of speed and shopped for white vintage lace slips and black-buckled witchy boots. Used-clothing stores were places of worship. Mixed tapes were my love letters. Dreadlocked girls in studded belts sold records by day and sang raunchy songs about fucking by night at Slim’s and the Kilowatt. I snuck into my favorite bar where TVs glowed on the floor and a boy with spiky black bangs served my underage ass warm sake without asking for ID. The warm rice wine loosened my throat while I crouched on the floor and talked about changing things in a mirrored Edie Sedgwick shift dress and fishnets. I believed I could make things happen and that I didn’t need piles of money to do it.
I didn’t know what things I should change yet so I began with hair. I shaved my head with an electric razor and swallowed pills handed to me by a small fragile Mexican woman in the back of a pharmacy on Valencia Street. I smoked meth from a delicate glass pipe for the first time in a spacious apartment in the Castro with a beautiful blonde chef with gold freckles. From her roof, I watched boats float on the twinkling Bay in my toy city so sharp and fresh, on the brink of another urban facelift. I blinked. Time sped past. The air in San Francisco was brisk and bright and brave. When I crashed, I ate gluey oatmeal at New Dawn Café and tipped in wrinkled dollar bills.
One Thanksgiving night, during that long decade, a couple friends and I walked through the projects on 14th Street where mostly poor, black families lived. A family parked their station wagon full of kids. The parents fussed and struggled and tried to wrestle their four kids out of the car. We reached into the dark and held the kids and grabbed the bags heavy with Tupperware crammed with leftover turkey and stuffing. The family did not ask us for help, and we didn’t discuss it. We carried the sleeping kids and the bags up four flights of stairs and tucked the kids into their beds, and then we walked the rest of the way home to Mission Street. The next day, and for many after that, we rode our flea-market bicycles through the sickly yellow tunnel to North Beach over to Kearney Street and considered dancing nude behind glass. We were babies.
My faux-fur leopard-print shorts and the San Francisco air promised revolution every day. I carried signs pleading for queer rights when my gay friends were too shy to come out about their “roommate” and their HIV. When I needed to get off my friend’s couch and pay the rent I shared with four other people, I became a stripper. I dared the cold sun to stop me. The women who danced at the Lusty Lady Theatre were pierced and collared and well-read. When they weren’t breathing fire or taking writing classes, they stripped. I’d quit snorting meth and stopped guzzling sake, returned to college, stalked Kathy Acker and walked to AA meetings in my scuffed oxblood Doc Martens. At night I, too danced naked at the Lusty Lady. When customers hid cameras under their coats and filmed us from the privacy of the one-way glass from the two corner booths, tiny red lights glowed in the dark. Star said, “Move. You’re being filmed.” She stuck her nineteen-year-old beautiful, angry face in the window and told the man with the camera that she saw him and that she was going to have him thrown out. I moved to the other side of the room.
When Star told management that we were being filmed and we were uncomfortable with this, they told her if she had a problem she should go work someplace else. “You don’t understand,” Star replied. “I’m going to change things around here.” I wanted to change things with her. When she decided to petition to have the one-way glass removed, management refused. They made a lot of money from those one-way booths, they said. The most they would do was tape signs with a picture of a camera with a line crossing it out, but the little red glowing eyeballs still aimed at our asses and our pussies from the corner booths. On stage, I was shushed because if we were caught talking and making plans, we could get fired—and we were making plans. We had the nerve to want to abolish the racist policies, outlaw cameras, and ask for sick leave.
During that time, working at the Lusty Lady was panic-inducing. We handed out condoms and flyers to the suits in the neighborhood. We asked for their support and informed them of our plans to unionize. We told them about our strike and asked them to join us. And they did. I remember sensing fear from some of the other girls too—the ones with kids and teaching jobs and more to lose than me. We were bouncing with hope and bonded in our quest to change things—our great city and its workers deserved better. After months of contract negotiations and the dedication of several girls who agreed to be shop stewards, we won our labor war and became the only strip club to successfully unionize as SEIU Local 790—The Exotic Dancers Alliance. After that, I moved over to the grubby club on Market Street where I could make more money and pay my student loans.
To get on the schedule at the Market Street Cinema, I had to dial a number and listen to a busy signal until I got through the line. This took a half hour or more, because dozens of girls were hoping to get on the schedule that night, too, and they were calling at the exact same time. When I finally get though, I said “Lolita, 7,” the name I went by there and the shift I hoped to work. There were two choices: 7–11 or 11–3. Mike, my gruff Persian manager, barked, “Okay,” and hung up the phone.
My red bike-messenger bag was stuffed with G-strings and sparkly bikini tops, Lucite heels and false eyelashes. Glue. Glitter. Deodorant. Cheap vanilla body spray from Walgreens. Aqua Net. Baby carrots and yogurt-covered almonds in plastic baggies and a cold bottle of water. I walked to the bus stop and stood on the corner to wait for the 22-Fillmore. Sometimes it took ages, but once in a while, it appeared on time. The bus was packed with snazzy tourists and winos, gay couples and young hipsters nodding their heads to the music on their earphones. I annoyed a woman with a cane by accidentally bumping her with my bag as I shoved it under our seat. A wino crossed his arms and hacked. We rode through the city as afternoon became night.
Out the bus window, I watched the silver fog fill the spaces between the buildings on Market Street. It was cold and windy. Trash blew up the sidewalk from the street, and fried salty smoke from the Vietnamese place on the corner stung my eyes. My mouth watered. I had eaten the oily noodles and onions several times before, but I was too anxious to eat before work. My stop was two long blocks away from the Market Street Cinema.
A black guy approached me with greasy, tight curly hair. “Hey, Lolita,” he said. I smiled and asked how he was doing, but I didn’t really listen to the answer because I was in a hurry and unsure if the guy was a little bit crazy or a junkie or what. He never came into the club for dances. He only stood outside next to the windows that displayed old porn stars who featured at the Market Street Cinema: women with watermelon-sized boobs and hopeful, blank eyes. I walked the rest of the way into work and he walked beside me. He said something like “Have a good night.” Once in a while, he handed me a small gift: Chanel No. 5 perfume or a brown leather checkbook that he had engraved with “Lolita.” This was our routine for over five years.
PJ Harvey moaned in a loop in my mind while I walked past the marquis that read, “See the Beauty, Touch the Magic.” I handed Omar, the DJ, my three CDs and walked downstairs into the basement of the Market Street Cinema, which was affectionately referred to by the girls as “The Skinema.” The Skinema was the gnarliest, seediest strip club in town. It was where terrible things happened, and it was where the serious money happened. Like the others, I kept coming back for more.
Downstairs, in the dressing room, a skeletal blond girl applied black liquid eyeliner for a half hour. In the bathroom stall next to me, l heard the sounds of a girl shooting up and watched her painted, chipped red toenails relax into Lucite shoes like warmed marshmallows. We had to be naked by our third song. Omar called, “Lolita,” so I rushed backstage to begin my set. Aside from the Capp Street hookers and teenage runaways who screamed at their pimps from the payphones (payphones!) in the dressing room, the dancers at the Skinema were mesmerizing performers. Like Adriane, a petite black-bobbed, Uma-Thurman-in-Pulp–Fiction look-alike who danced slowly to heavy, fast house music like a David Lynch daydream. She dripped and nodded off on stage with her black opera gloves to hide her tender track marks. She was always at the Skinema. And the girl with the long red hair, full sleeve tattoos, and bubble butt who danced barefoot to Tricky. I still see her dance when I hear her music.
Dancing at the Skinema was like standing in the eye of a dizzying tornado with hundred-dollar bills pouring through my hands—never easy money, but fast money. Some girls froze their money in soup, but I kept mine under my bed in a black, metal lunchbox that was decorated with Lunachics stickers. Unlike the Lusty Lady, where the glass partition separated us dancers from customers, at the Skinema, our job was to skillfully fight off hands while offering entertainment and solace. This was the work we did until we left with our bills paid, and our college degrees, and our families. We staved off loneliness and stuffed bills into wallets while we grinded on laps, hid our orgasms, and laughed about it later. When I left San Francisco in 2003, I extracted fingers from my hips and the doors closed behind me. The music stopped.
It’s 2013 and the Lusty Lady Theatre is about to lose its lease. The Market Street Cinema has shut down for indefinite renovation, and Tony and Mike, my two managers there, died. Adriane passed away recently too. Peep shows have long been obsolete due to the free and widespread availability of free porn. The Internet has cut out the middleman altogether with adult sites such as Backpage and Eros, where hiring a freelance, live nude woman can be done in a couple of quick clicks, without the club and its distracting inhabitants; but that has nothing to do with a lost lease. A lost lease means that rent has skyrocketed and a business can no longer afford to remain intact. Along with the lost lease, workers who have enjoyed employment are dismissed. Where have they gone, San Francisco? What have you done with your dismissed work force—your working class, your strippers? What happened to the affordable housing on 14th Street and the families we helped on Thanksgiving? What the fuck happened to the Lower Haight?
The first dot-com boom financed my undergraduate degree from Mills College and paid my exorbitant rent in the Mission for years. I met thirty-year-old billionaires who were lonely and too rich, yet honest enough to pay their strippers for the intimate touch they lacked. The service industry thrived alongside the tech industry. The transgressive lifestyle that San Francisco has traditionally flaunted was supported by the first-wave techies, while the recent closing of clubs in the red-light district indicates a major shift in priorities. The current billion-dollar biotech generation has forced artists to move to Oakland, Emeryville, Portland, and Los Angeles. Its workers are adorned with gold, Google glasses, and couture, and their offices are tricked out with foosball, personal chefs, and gyms. And they’re rocking that shit in the Lower Haight.
When I left San Francisco for Los Angeles in 2003, it was like leaving a lover who had become my best friend. I had fought and flourished and wanted to be in a new city to write new stories. No longer a baby, I also wanted cheaper rent and grad school. My friends who still live in San Francisco cram into apartments with up to six other people and struggle hard to pay their rent, which saddens me, because San Francisco was a city founded on innovation and intellectual pursuit, musical genius and queer flair. They deserve better than that. I’m convinced they will rise up and make waves the way that we did when we’d had enough and had little to lose. They will love San Francisco enough to defend her honor, the way we did, naked on Kearny Street, for one rare and delicious moment, when a door opened just a crack and we kicked it open with a fierce stiletto.
Featured and last image credit: Romy Suskin
Third image credit: Farika