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I was having lunch the other day down at Le Central with my friend Bill. He seemed more chipper than the last time I saw him. Then he had just lost a girl friend in a car accident in Sonoma and was struggling with the loss.

But now there seemed to be lightness about him and I was glad. He had ordered a whole bottle of wine for us—I think it was a Louis Bernard Cotes-du-Rhone—and was sipping thoughtfully. It was nice to see Bill relax.

"So what have you been up to?" I asked.

Bill is a feature writer and a good one. He works for one of our competitors.

He hesitated a moment then said, "Hanging out at strip joints. How about you?"

Oh, boy, I thought. Bill is in trouble. Then he added, "It's work. I'm writing a story."

"Well, tell me about it," I said. Maurice the waiter was just bringing my salad. Bill was swirling his glass of wine, then sticking his nose inside the glass and smelling. He fancies he himself something of a wine expert. I have my doubts.

"Well, it's like this," he said. "I have always been curious about those strip joints over in North Beach on lower Broadway but I've never gone in one. So I proposed a story and Gail, our editor, said 'fine, do it.' I think she just wanted me out of the office for awhile."

"Tell me more," I said spearing a cherry tomato slippery with olive oil.

"Well, to be honest" said Bill, "it was a little hard getting the story started. But finally last Thursday I went over to St. Peter and Paul in North Beach and just sat for awhile. The old church with its double spires seemed like the other end of the spectrum, and I wanted a reference point for the story, I guess you might say. I didn't want it to get away from me.

It was early afternoon and very quite in the church. You know how it is there? The beautiful dark wood, the big confessionals and the soft warm glow of votive candles. The quiet was lovely. I have not experienced that in a long time. Then a couple of tourists came clomping in, and I decided it was time for me to get going. I walked outside and crossed Filbert to Washington Square.

"It was bright and sunny in the square which, as has been pointed out many times, is not really sqaure and has a statue of Benjamin Franklin, not Washington. But not a problem in San Francisco. We do not expect things to be as they seem; only when things are off balance or out of whack are we comfortable here.

"A plump, middle-aged nun with a worried expression on her face was pacing around the inner circle, getting her daily exercise, I suppose. And judging from her rapid pace I would guess she was outpacing doubt or the devil or whatever causes worry. A handsome couple with a baby sat on a bench near a group of homeless guys with a bottle. Now across the square, on the corner of Columbus and Union, is the Bohemian Cigar Store, these days a restaurant. I made a quick stop there for a glass of red wine—to get myself in the mood for this "assignment"—then headed down Columbus to Broadway.

"At the Roaring Twenties the young lady outside smiled mischief at me—normally I avert my eyes when I go by this place—and smiling back, I paid her eleven dollars and went inside.

"From the bright sunlit sidewalk, I passed into a room with black walls, flashing red and blue lights and blaring music. The girl on the round center stage had one arm wrapped snakelike around a polished gold poll and was undulating her lower torso to the music. Need I say, like some writer in National Geographic feigning objectivity, that her breast was ample and full? Yes, she was "built." At first I about jumped out of my skin. So, what had I expected? That the ladies would all be fully dressed and proper inside? I suppose I will remain a fool to the end of my life."

"Yes," I told Bill, "most of us live a sort of sheltered life. There is always some other side that we are not seeing. But don't let me interrupt. Please go on with your story."

Bill had ordered lamb ribs and was now sucking with gusto on one of the bones from which he had nibbled all the meat. There was a little grease on his chin and he wiped it clean with his napkin. He then went on:

"Well, what happened next I was even less prepared for. She finishes her dance—I watch some of it—puts on this skimpy little outfit that is really no outfit at all—and comes straight over to me. I am sitting away from the stage by the wall. The only other guy in the place is sitting right next to the stage devouring her with his eyes the whole time she is dancing. Also, he is wearing a straw hat like a farmer. Maybe I am more attractive because I am hatless. Who knows.

"She asks my name. I tell her and ask her hers. 'Divine,' she says, and she has now slipped her arm around me. 'You dance well,' I say. 'Do you enjoy it or is it just a job?' I have a little list of questions in mind but it is hard getting started without sounding like a boob. I go ahead and sound like a boob. At least I don't wear a straw hat.

"'I love it,'" she says. She now has her fingers in my hair and asks me if I would like a 'private dance' with her. 'I could do a lot more for you up there,' she moans, indicating the direction of the staircase at the back of the dance hall.

"Another girl is up on the stage dancing now, and the other dancers—about five of them—hang out along the opposite wall from where Divine and I sit. They are watching the dancer on stage and look like they are having a good time; one even shoots a picture. They remind me of little girls at a party who instinctively know what to do and how to have fun. So what if they remove their clothing and play doctor? Mommy isn't home and daddy doesn't live here anymore.

"'So what do you think?'", asks Divine, now stroking my beard. 'Care for a dance?' I tell her maybe latter and she soon departs. But soon a long-haired blond girl is sitting by my side, asking the same question. She presses up against me but is a bit more reserved than Divine. She goes by the name of Laser Lady. I ask a few questions and discover that she is a student. My body now seems to operating independently of my mind—yes, I wouldn't mind walking up those stairs with this kid—and I decide to impose a curfew on myself. I am stripped out for one day.

"Outside the Sun is bright in my eyes. I put on my dark glasses for protection—from the sun and from the attractions of Broadway. Truth to tell, I am beginning to dig the scene.

"Now the strange thing is this," says Bill. "They don't sell liquor at that place. They provide customers with free soda from a fast-food restaurant machine that looks like it is made by the Coca Cola company. You know, ice dispenser in the middle with push levers for drinks on each side. On the way out I asked the bouncer about this and he explained it to me. There are two kinds of place on Broadway. One kind, like the Roaring Twenties, is totally nude. The other kind is only partly nude. At the partly nude places they are allowed by law to serve liquor. Apparently the law feels that total nudity combined with alcohol could lead to some kind of improper conduct. Hence, the totally nude places serve only soft drinks. There, if you want a real drink, you just go to the bar next door, have one, then come back."

Bill hesitates and stares for awhile at one of the lamb ribs on his plate. "So is that the end of the story?" I ask.

He looks up startled. "Oh, no," he says. "I came back the next day."

"And?" Bill can be frustrating. But he sure does know how to write a good lead.

"I went to Enrico's. You know Enrico's?" he asked.

"Yeah, I know Enrico's but it is not a strip club to my knowledge. Has Enrico's changed?"

"No," said Bill "but they make a hell of a martini. I really felt like I needed one before going over to Centerfolds. Do you know Centerfolds?"

"No. Tell me about it."

Bill got serious at this point.

"Well, it is the big place on the corner of Broadway and Montgomery. It is owned by Deja Vu Showgirls, like just about every other place on lower Broadway. They open at noon everyday and go to 2 AM. I ask the woman at the door how business is and she makes that tight face that says not that good.

"I walk along a hallway—again the interior is all black—that leads to two stages and an upstairs and a downstairs. As I turn the corner to go down to the main stage, I am intercepted by an attractive young Asian girl wearing a filmy peach-colored garment that leaves little to the imagination.

"She tells me her name is Temptation and almost immediately asks if I would like to have a private dance with her. 'Maybe,' I say but tell her I would like to just hang out a little first. We sit and watch one of the other girls dancing. The room is more spacious than at Roaring Twenties, with different seating levels, so you can not only look up at a dancer, which most guys seem to want to do; but you can look down as well.

"Temptation looks very young, and I ask her where she is from. Los Angles, she says. She moved to San Francisco about three months ago. 'Nice to be away from parents,' she says smiling. It looks like this is her first venture into the world. She is a student at San Francisco State University with interests in biology and architecture. Her English is not good and later I see her sitting by an older Chinese gentleman wearing a workers cap. He is gently stroking her leg, but he does not look like a customer. He looks more like an uncle who is watching out for her...."

Here Bill hesitates, as if not knowing whether to say something or not. I guess what is going through his mind. "Did you go for a private dance with her or not?" I try not to sound like a courtroom prosecutor.

Bill looks out the restaurant window onto Bush Street. Today we have the mayor's window seat. If it were Thursday we would not; the mayor would be there with two beauties handing onto his every word while he swirled a glass of wine and made both of them laugh with some sly remark.

"Well," said Bill at last, "how the hell do you do a story like this without some involvement? Write about what you think goes on in the back rooms? Interrogate departing Johns? Anyway, I did not want to ruin her day financially. She's the one selling her stuff, not me. I'm just the buyer. Okay, so I did go for a dance with her but I kept the contact minimal. She probably thought I was weird."

"And what did this little indiscretion cost you?" I asked.

"Twenty dollars for the dance," said Bill. "That goes to the house. Plus tip. The tip determines the amount of contact."

"Are there limits?" I asked.

"I'm sure there are," said Bill. "But I did not observer too many." Bill smiled then looked embarrassed.

I asked no more.

"Now when I came back from my dance," said Bill, "I sat for awhile watching another dancer. Then, as I was about to leave, I notice this other girl standing a few feet from me. She was small, also Asian, and very pretty. I mean like exquisite; she could have been a princess. She too is watching the dancer on stage. I walk over and asked her how it is working at Centerfolds. 'I love it,' she tells me without reservation.

"She goes by the name of Secret Desire, and she dances four days per week. She is an engineering student—she is thinking about switching from mechanical engineering to electrical—and is twenty years old. She has been dancing since she was eighteen. She explains her feeling about dancing this way: 'Don't you ever walk down the street, see someone, and wonder what it would be like to make love to that person? Well, here you can do that.' It's fantasy she says. Strange as it may seem, she says this with childlike innocence.

"Her enthusiasm overwhelms me. I think you only find that in the 'first flush of youth,' as the older writer say; and even then it is rare to find it in such concentrated form. She simply seems to be floating and I do not think on drugs. At the same time, I will have to admit that this made me feel sad. I felt the self-righteous impulse to drag here away from the place. She seemed just too pretty, too fine, to be doing something like this. But I do not act judgmental. At some point she tells me, 'My mother would probably would not approve.' Yes, I thought, and your father and your brother and your uncle and your grandmother ...

"Part of the appeal of this job is quick cash. But clearly there is more; all of the girls I talked with admitted they got a kick out of it. I had not really expected that.

"Back out on the street and blinking in the sunlight, I'm suddenly struck with the fact that there are two worlds of sex. One that is 'proper' and traditional, though it has many varieties, some of them quite strange; and one that is based on money. That is the big divide in the world of sex. And I am astounded at how easy it is to walk right through the door of the money world of sex and make a purchase. Astounded, I suppose, because I usually have my mind closed to this possibility. Anyway, the ease of it leaves me feeling giddy; I felt like singing."

"Are you planning to put that in your story?" I ask Bill.

"No, probably not," he says in a low, serious voice. "Astonishment is not a story. But I was moved by this probably-rather-simple revelation."

I had finished my main course, a tasty seafood paste, and now ordered a double espresso. Maurice poured more wine for Bill.

"So what then?" I asked.

"Oh, I went home and slept on it. But the next day I was back out on Broadway."

"Now the next day I felt a lot more comfortable on Broadway. I guess I was getting used to the scene, maybe even enjoying it.

"I went back to Centerfolds, and my first encounter there was a small bundle with dark-brown hair named Heavenly. I really got to like Heavenly and she even told me her real name, something no one else did. She told me she had been dancing about a year. And it came as no surprise to me that she, too, was a student. She wants to be a dentist— 'open your mouth,' she says, 'I want to see your teeth'—and the job allows her to be independent and go to school.

"I asked her if she had a boyfriend. I had wondered how this line of work affected relationships. She said she didn't. She tells me that she was engaged before this job but her fiancé couldn't handle her job. 'He didn't like other guys touching me.' So she let the boyfriend go. Now she just dates.

"Does she get pleasure from the private dances? She says she does. 'I'm sensitive,' she says.

"About working at Centerfold, she admitted that she had good days and bad. That is not something others had said. Most seemed to wear a mask, presenting a smile at all times. She has a pierced naval and a tattoo on her right shoulder. She is Hispanic and looks like she might have grown up in a rough neighborhood. She has a tough warmth about her. I understand her better than the others.

"In anticipation of doing a private dance with a customer, I notice one thing that Heavenly and all the girls do. They actually try to get to know you a little. 'What's your name? Where are from? What do you do? ...' True, it is superficial; but at the same time I think it makes contact more palatable. Or, who knows, more pleasurable. This may be a simple a coping mechanism. I'm not a psychologist and am not going to try to analyze it; but I do think it serves a purpose. They are then doing what they are doing not with just a pair of lusty hands but a person with some identity. Maybe that makes it okay or at least better. Heavenly was like that; she wanted to know everything."

I stirred a small lump of brown sugar into my espresso and said, "Well, I see you have given this a lot of thought. I hope you write some of this down. I think people might like to know how the girls feel, rather than whether they're in a union, are suing the house .... You know, the kind of stuff they put in all the other stories. But tell me where else you went before we have to go."

"Well," said Bill, "the next evening I went over to the Hungry i. That is one of the places that serves drinks but is not totally nude. To tell you the truth, though, I did not see a difference. There must have been some kind of legal distinction between the order in which clothing was removed.

"Now the Hungry i itself is interesting. It is where Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby once performed, and it has a beautiful old wood bar that looks like it might go back to Barbary Coast days. The interior is wood and brick—all red—and there are gilt-framed pictures of bawdy ladies on the walls. Even though it is owned by a corporation—yes, Deja Vu—it has an authentic look to it.

"This was my first time out in the evening, and I learned one thing: The evening crowd is very different from the day crowd, which is really not a crowd at all. If I were going to make a habit of strip clubs, I would go during the day. It is relaxed, and the girls are more fun. At night your experience will be partly blighted by the presence of horny young guys. Like fraternity brothers with too much beer, they are obnoxious. But the girls seem to be able to navigate around them without much trouble.

"One young lady comes out and dances like a sex kitten. She is popular with the fraternity boys. She is followed by Fawn who dances "goth"—in black leather and beret. Her lip is pierced and her head shaven. Despite taught, ample breasts, she is not in hot demand after the dance. The frat boys want their fantasies fulfilled by blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls.

"Later Fawn comes over and sits by me at the bar. After asking her a couple questions, she asks me, "Are you writing a story?" None of the sex kittens have asked that.

"Outside in the entrance archway, curtained from the interior by heavy black drapes, the manager tells me that running one of these places is not an easy job. He is tall, good-looking at 50 plus, and looks like he has been around. He says he has managed most of the place on the strip. One problem, he says, is that the girls can be moody. I could have guessed that. One of the girls comes out. If she's in a mood, however, it's a laughing mood. We stand facing the lights across the street at the Garden of Eden. Steve the bouncer, who works for Visa during the day, tells me some of the girls make as much as $600 per night and then complain they can't pay the rent. Some of the girls have got it together, he implies, while others don't; those who can't pay the rent don't.

The electric bill at the Garden of Eden must be huge. Broadway's Eden is not a place of cool shade trees and vines but dazzling light. Somewhere a corporate account must have figured that its expense is well compensated by the cash of customers it attracts."

Maurice was bringing us the check now, and I was hoping that Bill would wrap this up soon, as I had work back at the office. Maybe I had also heard about enough. Six hundred dollars per night! Jeeze, no wonder they were doing it. Bill went on with his story:

"By Friday," Bill said, "I was exhausted. Nevertheless I wanted to make one more round. I felt there were things I still didn't know.

"About one o'clock in the afternoon I popped into Carol Doda's old place, the Condor, on the Corner of Columbus and Broadway. I ordered a Vodka martini, the perfect drink before facing the girls, and Princes, the busty bartender filled me on Carol Doda's downfall. Carol had a white piano that descended by some kind of mechanism from the ceiling—it's still up there on the ceiling—and apparently a gentleman got crushed in it one night while doing something lewd. That did not exactly cause the fall of Carol Doda and the Condor, Princes told me, but it caste a pall over the show. Now the Condor bares the historical plaque out front—San Francisco is always proud of its sins—but the Condor is now a sports bar. When there are not customers there, the place is fine. But my advice is avoid the Condor if there is more than one other person in the place. When I visited, there was just Princes and I and one other customer, an older gentleman who looked like he had lost the power of speech but not the ability to hoist a glass of booze.

"Properly anesthetized I headed for the Roaring Twenties. As I transitioned one more time from bright sunlight to a black interior, my eyes began adjusting. When my eyes focused and I could see, I found that I was the entire audience for a very busty blond with short hair who was on stage dancing. She had removed everything before I had come in, so there was no nudity-adjustment period for me; and as her entire audience, I felt obliged to look interested. Truth to tell, I was still thinking about Princes; she looked so good fully dressed.

"Now while I was watching the blond, another girl, wearing a thin blue garment, had sidled up to me. After asking my name and a few other questions, she asks if I might like to go upstairs with her. I say my usual maybe and ask her if she is a student. I guessed it right. This time the school was San Jose State University. She has light brown hair and a magnificent figure. Her name is Sindy—'with an S,' she says—and she is a freshmen.

"Sindy is all energy, like a SesameStreet puppet, but does not have the warmth of Heavenly. 'My dad gave me the feeling that I could do anything,' she tells me. Though he may have not had this in mind, she seems to exude a kind of can-do attitude that seems very American. Her interest is in athletic medicine, though she has not determined a major just yet. She also likes theater. In high school she was a cheerleader. She has always been very outgoing, she explains to me.

"She does not seem to mind questions at all—in fact, they seem to please her, as though each new question were another layer of clothing that she gets to remove—so I ask more. She tells me that when she worked nights she made over $600 per night. It costs her 10 dollars to take BART up from San Jose. For each private dance she pays the house $20 but all the tips she gets to keep. Tips can be a lot, depening on the customer and how good a private show he wants. From what I gathered, 60 dollars or more is common. A dance lasts about five minutes—it's timed to music—and when it is over the customer usually wants seconds."

Bill was again staring out the window. He seemed to be deep in thought. I cleared my voice and that seemed to bring him back inside. He went on:

"Well, I finally had to ask myself if these girls were being exploited. I have read many articles that say that. But my own feeling, the more I think about it, is that if there is exploitation, it is exploitation of self. If they were poorly paid and being forced into this, then it would be exploitation. Or if there were not alternative work. But that's just not the way it is. About the most you could say is that money is corrupting. So what's new?"

"Do you think they will be sorry someday?" I asked Bill.

"I have no idea," he said sounding wiser then he unusually does. "Youth can write off a whole lot of mistakes, and I'm not even calling this a mistake. I sensed in some a kind of elaborate delusion fueled by money. That can be harmful. I mean, how many times can you sell flowers before they begin to look old? And being old before your time?—that is surely a loss.

"I asked Sindy if she had a boyfriend. She did. 'And does he know about your sideline,' I ask. He does, and she somewhat reluctantly admits that he is not totally comfortable with her job. 'We don't talk about it,' she says, as though this were the one thing she did not care to talk about with me either. Had I found her Achilles heel? I think so.

She was up next to dance, and as I was still the entire audience in the early afternoon, I stayed to watch her. She looked as healthy as one of those mouthwatering beach goddesses you see in Santa Cruz playing volleyball—except perhaps when she caressed her own breasts and spread her legs and smiled at you with half-parted lips from the stage. But that was all just an act, wasn't it?"

Bill paused here. "Well, was it an act or not?" I finally asked with a touch of annoyance.

"No, she told me later that she enjoyed it. I guess honesty is a virtue, though, right? It is, isn't it? ... Boy, did she have the body. I'll be honest with you ... Okay, this is the thing: Sindy had exuberance but no depth, not like Heavenly. Heavenly told me ..."

Bill was staring out the window of Central looking lost in space. I think he was going to have to think about all this before writing it down. But that's what Bill is good at. He'll work it out.

Finally I brought Bill back inside the restaurant with a question. "What did you think of these girls? Did you like them or not?"

"Oh, yes," said Bill. "I thought they were terrific. I just hope I don't see them in a few years walking the maze at Grace Cathedral with worried expressions."

We split the check and parted company on Bush Street. I headed up, Bill down. Divine, Laser Lady, Temptation, Sweet Desire, Fawn, Heavenly, Sindy ... I think Bill was intoxicated by all this young female flesh. Right now he seemed like an overinflated bicycle tire. Well, it was better than the sour face. I can understand why Gail wanted him out of the office. But would she like this new Bill better? I had my doubts.

Note: The "girls" in this story are real. But their stage names have been changed for the obvious reason.

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