October 19, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Strip Club

On Thursday, October 12, 2006, I visited The Brass Ass, a strip club in Newport, Kentucky. Unlike many lonely men in this world, I didn't show up expecting a lap dance. My goal wasn't to ogle naked women. I simply realized humanitarian wannabes must visit dark places in order to bring light to the oppressed. It's a prerequisite to changing the world. Although I received criticism from some of my conservative friends, I felt compelled to take a leap of faith.

To be honest, on the day of my scheduled visit, I wanted to chicken out. I wanted an excuse not to go, but I knew there was a story waiting for me behind those smudged, tinted windows concealing the Brass Ass's innards, so I made plans to show up at nine o'clock and make myself available.

That afternoon, a married, female friend asked to join me on the adventure. Amazingly, her husband was okay with it. (He was either super-secure or super-naive.) Unfortunately, she later realized she had to work that night, so it looked like I might have to fly solo. Of course, going by myself would have been a strategically poor decision, so I finally had my excuse to give up. I was prepared to use it, but moments before pulling the plug, my married friend called back and said she was getting off work early. I picked her up twenty minutes later, and we were on our way to Newport.

I was so nervous that I could barely focus. People may think I want to be in a strip club, but trust me, I don't. Even though I have an "interesting" sexual past, I had never been in a strip club until a group of my friends visited The Brass Ass many years ago as a bachelor party joke. To this day, The Brass Ass is the only strip club I have ever stepped inside, and I'm perfectly fine with that.

We walked in and sat down. Describing the ambiance of the Brass Ass is challenging. Dirty is an understatement. Grimy is a better word. Everything seemed sticky. The men's bathroom might have been the most sanitary room in the entire building. After walking through the main lobby and down a hallway, guests enter a large, dimly lit room. A bar sits to the immediate left; booths align the walls; tables are scattered throughout the room, and a small stage is positioned against the back wall. Servers and bartenders are clothed. One stripper performs on stage while others roam the floor looking for customers. Because The Brass Ass serves alcohol, no one is legally permitted to be naked, although it was common to see strippers flash the audience. Which wasn't always a good thing. While some of the performers were relatively attractive, most looked rough around the edges. Some seemed to be in their forties or fifties. More than half were overweight.

For a long time, no one approached us—maybe because we were a couple; maybe because I looked more uncomfortable than size thirty-two jeans around Ruben Studdard's waist—hard to say.

Finally, a woman (I'll call her Sally) sat down with us and explained the rules. We could pay fifty-five dollars to sit with her until she finished her drink or twice that much to move to a secluded booth hidden in the club's shadows (where sex acts were performed). Of course, we could also pay over three hundred dollars to hang out in the VIP room (where crazy sex acts were performed). We passed on the VIP opportunity, and instead, opted to pay fifty-five bucks for one drink's worth of her time. The three of us talked for approximately thirty minutes, and wow, what a conversation.

Sally had been working at The Brass Ass for thirteen years. She just had a baby three months earlier, but broke up with the father because he stabbed her and tried to shoot her. Before Casanova, she spent the previous twelve years as a lesbian. Before that, she got married at age thirteen. At the time of our conversation, she had four children, ages three months to sixteen years.

Sally seemed shocked that my married friend and I weren't having an affair. She couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that someone could be loyal to her spouse. I suppose Sally is exposed to a lot of dishonest men in her line of work, and admittedly, our strip club adventure probably did look bizarre to outsiders.

We asked what her job was like on a daily basis. She told us men have offered her money to burn their penises with cigarettes, have sex with them while wearing strap-on dildos, drink her urine, and the most disturbing—there is a guy who pays two girls eight hundred dollars each to take Ex-Lax, tie him up under a glass table, and then have bowel movements above him on the glass table.

And she has done them all.

Then, a man in his seventies walked in, and Sally got very excited. She explained that he was a big spender. His wife had died a few months prior to our visit, and ever since her death, the widower would bring in his dead wife's perfume, spritz it on the stripper sitting with him, and then make out with the lucky lady. I couldn't believe it, but since she was almost done with our fifty-five dollar drink, we told Sally she could go sit with him (after all, she had bills to pay). We then watched her leave our table, sit with the old man, get spritzed with the perfume, and make out with him until we left a few minutes later.

This world can be a pretty messed up place. What do we do about that? What do we say to someone who has shit on a glass table for eight hundred dollars? Or been spritzed with a dead woman's perfume before making out with an old man? Is there any hope for her? Is she too far gone? If there is a God, this has to break his heart, right? How does he do it? How does he look at our world and put up with this mess we have created? How can he love his children so deeply and stand to watch them drink someone's urine in a strip club? Fathers would be crushed to see their daughters in that environment.

I'm still not sure what "lesson" I was meant to learn at The Brass Ass. But the experience made me realize there are very few easy answers on this planet. The world is definitely not black and white. It's easy to isolate ourselves in a world of relative normalcy, but what about the people who have never experienced "normal?" How do we love and serve them? Is there really hope for the hopeless?