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Today's Story by Janet Shepard

“If anyone’s being exploited, it’s these stupid men who give me money for nothing."

Baby Dancer

At 21 Peach looks harder than she should, given her nutritious suburban upbringing and expensive education. She’s tall and graceful as a deer, with bouncy copper hair and a honey biscuit tan. She makes a face at herself in the mirror, pulling at the dry skin around her mouth. She is getting ready to go to work, organizing her costumes, planning routines.

Peach looks critically over the little Catholic schoolgirl outfit, holding it up to the light for a cleanliness check. The white cotton blouse doesn’t hand-wash well and there’s no time to do a full laundry, it will have to serve for one more night. Schoolgirl is a very popular persona, she can even blush convincingly. The ankle socks are slightly grimy, but passable. The tiny plaid pleated skirt has a rip at the seam, so she gives it a temporary quick fix with glue. Plain white cotton panties turn some guys on big-time.  In actuality, the uniformed girls she went to parochial school with wore Victoria’s Secret glam underwear. Zip up the plastic bag and one costume is ready for the backpack.

Next she considers a rhinestone-embellished thong, rejects it and instead takes the royal blue with pearls. From another drawer she pulls out a handful of pearl rope necklaces, fun to play with. Pearls always make her think of rich old Republican women, maybe she could do the Queen of England tonight. She adds some sparkly blue hair ornaments to the Ziploc, then tucks that costume into the backpack.

Last today is a slinky black minidress with silver mesh dragonfly insets, an outfit custom made for her. Everybody knows that butterflies are the stripper sisterhood symbol – Peach wants to be different, she wants to stand out. She’s adopted the dragonfly as her personal insignia, has a dragonfly tattoo on her shoulder, dragonfly embroidery on her backpack, marcasite dragonfly rings on her fingers and one toe, her bedroom walls hung with psychedelic dragonfly prints bought on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley from the guy who also deals. Into the Ziploc also go a black lace breakaway bra, a couple of glittery wristbands, and there’s another one for the backpack.

She adds a few more plain thongs in case she sweats too much or leaks too much, and two pairs of stiletto heels, mandatory for the strip club’s dress code – the girls have to keep them on all through their eight-hour shifts. They can sit down whenever they want to, but they can’t take off their shoes. The other inviolable rule at Club Galena is that thongs have to fit exactly so – no more than one inch of pudendal flesh may be visible on either side. For this she waxes her legs and her pubic hair daily – though some of the girls have regular Brazilian waxes.  The only hair these men want to see is on her head, even if she is a natural redhead. It’s okay to have a couple of wiry copper crotch hairs escaping, but no more.

Backpack all tucked, closed and zippered, time to stretch out the leg muscles. She turns and grips the back of a chair, arching forward and extending one leg behind her, pointing her French-manicured toes. After a disciplined thirty count, she pulls the leg back in, levers it out to the side, then brings it down. She shifts her weight, then lifts and extends the other leg straight back and up, a classically graceful ballet warmup. She took ballet lessons briefly as a child, hated the formalized structure, hated all of it. She likes to be responsive to the moment, spontaneous. She thinks it would be interesting to experiment with yoga; learning to contort herself into those complicated poses would be a definite asset in working the pole. She could design a routine with some cool yogic moves, maybe adapt some Hindu dances. But first maybe she needs just a little hit of rock candy mountain to help her concentration so she can choreograph it on paper and rehearse a bit before she brings something new into the club.

Leaving the chair and moving towards the shower, she pulls off her yoga pants and sports bra and checks out her new surgically enhanced globular breasts. She loves the way she looks now and she feels confident, competitive. Last night a dweeby guy asked if her breasts were real. “I hate implants,” he said, challenging her. “I don’t want a dance if they’re implants — and I can always tell.” Tall and proud on her six-inch Lucite platform heels, flesh-colored thong and iridescent pasties, she cradled her breasts as if they were her babies. “They’re all mine,” she lied tenderly, looking down at them and then back at him. He took her into the Champagne Room for a private dance.


Peach truly loves to dance, this is the best part of the job. She thinks of dune grass swaying in a beach breeze, Scheherazade telling stories in body language, Venus rising from the sea… sometimes a wicked compliant Virgin Mary with arms outstretched in perverted benediction. This night, again in the Champagne Room, at the finale of a lap dance she releases her copper curls from the high pony tail, tosses her head in an arcing spinal thrust, and brushes her long hair against her customer’s face and neck. They are both breathing hard. He tips her two fifties.

She is thinking about offering him a second dance, goes to the door to signal the manager to restart the timer when that bitch Justine slithers in. Justine with the deep dimples right where her back curves into buttocks, Justine of the black leather wristbands, Justine with her spiky purple hair and thirty-percent tattoo body coverage. She flicks Peach a sideways glance, plants her legs on each side of the guy’s lap and hovers. She looks into his face and he nods weakly, so she starts to work him, rubbing her crotch against his zippered fly. Peach watches Justine slide into a crescendo of phony moans and squeals, and the guy looks like he is going to expire any minute, so Peach decides not to start a territory fight. She’s new in at the club and Justine has been around a long time. Peach already wore out her welcome at one other club downtown, copped a diva attitude ‘cause she was giddy with the thrill of being in a completely new city and fitting in right away, even down to Queen of the Night contests at The Endup. So the bouncers – strange, blank-faced guys – got tough with her. Show up every day you sign for, or else you get stuck with a twelve-hour shift for punishment. Or get out. Peach got out.

Back in the main lounge, she looks over the glass-topped tables and decides to sit with Kadi and Lana who are passing around a pipe full of something. Sometimes the other girls invite her to join in private at-home dances for their “clients,” and so far she has declined. She’s not sure how deeply she wants to get into weirdness, strictly does not want to do anything bordering on physical abuse. Peach is all about pleasure and oblivion, has no interest in the psychologically complex and ambiguous patterns of aggression, dominance and retreat that can be found at the next level down. But here at Club Galena between dances she finds her mind drifting, feels a little surfeited with her own naughtiness, a little bored. A little hit of something will put her back in the mood.

Kadi is a gaunt, narrow-eyed blonde, a recent immigrant from one of those Eastern European countries perpetually at war. She carts around her worldly possessions in a large wheeled suitcase because she has no permanent home, can’t seem to get together enough money for a place of her own in San Francisco’s high-rent sweepstakes. She stays with anyone who extends an invitation – another stripper or one of the bouncers or a friendly janitor. On the nights nobody wants her, she rents a cheap hooker’s hotel room on Broadway. Peach started out feeling sorry for Kadi, but that ended when she discovered Kadi wearing dragonfly hair clips that she denied stealing from Peach’s backpack. When Peach started paying attention, she spied Kadi routinely foraging through all the girls’ stuff, taking anything that appealed. So Peach bought a tiny combination lock for her backpack and set the combination to something she could easily remember, her mother’s birthday.

On the opposite end of the stripper personality spectrum is Lana, a pearlescent dark-haired beauty whose middle-class Chinese family out in the avenues thinks she’s working the night shift at a South City computer plant, putting together silica microprocessor chips with tiny tweezers in her gloved hands. Lana and Peach have one thing in common – their bachelor’s degrees in fine arts. Peach’s degree is a sham – she signed up for courses, passed her tuition checks from her mother to the bursar and mutely attended classes, but she never did a lick of homework. She could always find a guy to write her papers or pay a girl to take her exams. So she has the degree that her mother wanted so much, but it’s a hollow symbol. Peach isn’t comfortable with Lana, thinks the Chinese girl looks down on her for being slow and unintellectual. Lana brings big lush art books to the club to read between dances, and they work well as conversation pieces with some of the more shy techie types.


“It’s the worst environment, I’m ashamed, horrified, disgusted.” Her mom during the weekly phone call. “You’re being exploited.”

“If anyone’s being exploited, it’s these stupid men who give me money for nothing. NOTHING. I don’t even make skin contact, it’s all pure fantasy. How pathetic can you be? It’s not the strippers who are dumb, it’s the men. I hate them, they’re awful.”

“Why do you want to work in a place that’s so awful? You have a college degree, you can do anything, you’re a smart girl. You have options, you’re not like those poor cows who can’t do anything else in the world but take off their clothes.” Her mother, as usual, is missing the point. As well as the signpost.

“I can be a smart stripper. Not all strippers are dumb, there are smart women out there mentoring me.”

What exactly “mentoring” means in the world of commercial sex is best left unexplained.

Peach works four nights a week and takes home a thousand dollars on a good night. She doesn’t have a checking account so the IRS can’t track her cash flow, though she uses her credit cards lavishly and carelessly. At the end of every workweek, she goes through her backpack and tosses out all the business cards stricken men have given her. Doctors, lawyers, technology chiefs, rich men, shy men, beggar men, thieves. Peach is a romantic, but not about the men who come to watch her dance. She has no illusions that Prince Charming is going to enter Club Galena and choose her to be his princess. She knows these men don’t see her as worthy. She sells an act, but she prides herself on knowing what’s real, so she never keeps a business card. At the end of the week they’re old news and dead letters. Ask her if she likes being looked at and she’ll just shrug and say, “I guess.” She has always been a magnet for male attention.

She was a pretty little girl with precocious sexy ways and a remarkable allure. Summers at the beach, Peach had a crowd of little boys following her around from the time she was eight. Her photographer father snapped film at every chance. “You’re so beautiful, Peach, so graceful, so lovely, so sleek, so sunny, you’re just outstanding.” He worried about the boys who swarmed around her, worried about drugs and alcohol and teenage drivers. And then he died before he remembered to worry about the inadvertent legacy he was leaving his ripe Peach, who thought the way she looked was the only thing about her he had found worth loving.

After her shift is over, walking through the cool pre-dawn fog to her car, in a rare moment of reflection Peach focuses on a song claiming her interior attention, Neil somebody, one of the old guys her father had liked, something about a sad unloved girl with stones inside her head. She had always thought the song was about smoking weed, old stoners, but tonight she hears it differently, hears herself in it, hard-armored inside her own head…and always full of longing.


Janet Shepard is a writer living in Northern California.


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