Back to the Gaiety Theatre. New York City, 1977.
I was to audition on a late afternoon, I recall. I am always, always punctual. When stressed, I am early by two hours. There was a Howard Johnson's below the theater, and this Howard Johnson's had a bar. I was then by no means the nigh legendary drinker I was to become. I didn't even
a drink. But circumstance dictated. I need something to take the edge off. It was, as is said in old movies, strictly medicinal.
A scotch and water before me, I looked at my watch many times, and reflected. As I knew the case to be - and, as God is my witness, this was
I thought the case to be - I was about to try for a job that would pay me a lot of money for taking my clothes off while dancing, and for nothing else. No single something else crossed my impossibly naive mind. Nothing else had to. Stripping was enough to scare the hell out of me.
I sipped my drink and went over the reasons which had brought me to this threshold of potential nakedness and big bucks. There was absolutely no moral dilemma to it in my mind. It seemed to me then - as it does now - that allowing strangers to leer at my young flesh was no more reprehensible than smiling at them while fetching bread or clearing their table. Then, too, I entertained fantasies of my own. By day I would write excellent fiction. By night I would thrill commuters, and send them off to their wives in Connecticut, raring to go.
But I was scared. If Tito and Danny made thousands for dancing, I would have to be a very good dancer indeed in order to see my name between theirs on the back page of The Village Voice. Right? Right.
I left the bar, turned the corner of 46th Street, and entered the theater. Nothing before or since has felt so cataclysmic, so laden with destiny. My Shakespeare teacher had said that the true moment of drama in Romeo and Juliet occurs when the hero takes hold of his sword and cries, 'Draw!' (to someone other than Juliet, I believe). Walking through the Gaiety door was such a crossroads. When the door whispered shut behind me, it closed on civilization. Losing my virginity was an insect bite in comparison.
I mounted the stairs, a rather dimwitted lamb to the slaughter. I spoke to the cashier. That is, I let the barred glass with the hands know that I was expected. It buzzed me in and I came into the disc jockey's booth, a surprisingly large and cheery space with the feel of an old-style movie theater's projectionist room (which, in between live performances, it doubled as). I don't exactly recall the name of the young man running the show and my audition, but I can see him still. He was very German, which struck me as odd, with that mixture of attractiveness and fear Germans elicit in children of the Big War. He was as well quite young, and surpassingly polite. He told me where to go and what I was to do. Then he asked me what sort of music I wanted to dance to. I was astounded. This was star treatment. Things were going well. And I was doing my best to appear like this was just another strip-and-strut audition in my young and too experienced life.
Before heading for the dressing room, I informed Gunther - let us call him that, for it in fact was Gunther or something worse, like Rolf or Wolfgang - that I liked Latin music. Then I asked him how I was to be paid, should I be lucky enough to land the job. He stared at me and said nothing for the moment. I think a stunned glimmer of understanding was dawning in those Teutonic eyes, but that may be my memory playing tricks. He did say we would discuss that later. Which was acceptable to me. Off to the backstage regions we went.
The dressing room. All these years later and I can see it before me. The first thing that struck me was how very clean it was. It was not dingy and sordid. There were no cigarettes pluming the air from windowsills, no old newspapers strewn, no foul and ancient curtains bespeaking shame and filth. It was in fact as wholesome as a well-maintained gym, an impression abetted by the six or seven healthy young bucks within, all putting on or taking off clothes, doing push-ups, or combing their hair.
Gunther led me in, introduced me to the boys, and told me that, as the audition piece - was there a pun, there? - I was to go on last. This gave me, I reckoned, a generous fifty minutes or so to build up a respectable level of terror.
That I didn't outright panic is a debt at least partially owed to the stripper boys inside. They were the American dream. Boyish good looks, excellent bodies, even the wayward and disarming curl of hair on the forehead. They were - as far as I knew, we repeat - strippers. Yet in appearance, in attitude, in speech, in everything, they were heroically muscled Eagle Scouts. It was surreal. It made me a little ashamed of myself for having expected tattoos and sneers.
They were uniformly friendly to me, too, and I will go to my grave grateful for that kindness. One was particularly helpful in putting me at ease. We made small talk about the latest clubs in town (I never went but I saw them in the Voice). Sporting two dimples and a cowlick, he recommended something called the Crisco Disco as a great place for dancing. More confusion: these boys went out dancing after work? Do surgeons seek out accident scenes when their ER shifts are over? Extraordinary world I'm entering, I considered. I will get a grand book from this, one day.
We talked a bit more. Then one boy came off stage to substantial applause and quickly disappeared into a shadowy zone in the back of the house. Then my new friend asked me if I'd ever hooked before.
With my subjective reality around my naive head like thick gauze, with my staggeringly idiotic notions of just where I was, and with that sweet and innocent face before me, I heard wrong. I thought he said, 'hoofed', a slang for dancing obsolete long before this boy was born.
Nevertheless, perhaps he'd seen an old movie or two. Or maybe it was becoming a hip word again. So I told him, No, not professionally. But I had done some in school. And I had taken classes. More clearly than the dressing room can I see today the look on his face, all those years ago. He said nothing after that. It may be he thought I was European, or something.
Another dancer joined us, told him that he had a 'john' who wanted them both and would pay accordingly, and both boys trooped off to that mysterious region to the rear. Oh.
Oh. We think we get it now. We think we see that there was a reason why each boy danced for only five minutes of the hour, and that they weren't playing Parcheesi for the remaining fifty-five. Cross into the light. All are welcome, all are welcome. I was divested of my illusions.
But there's a lesson here. Note: a fool, educated beyond one bit of folly, can then move on to demonstrate his obtuseness at another level. Me, I could do it forever, and like nobody's business. My fresh alarm in light of my new knowledge was centered on the predicament of achieving the eight-to-ten orgasms per day necessary to earning those thousands of dollars per week. I mean, really. If men were paying to get you backstage, you are obligated as a professional to deliver. Aren't you? And just what diet are my new friends
(If the reader wonders how I can set down this testimony to imbecility so unflinchingly, I beg to relate: one strangely touching thing about the backstreet world of sexual conduct is that ignorance, even spectacular ignorance, is somehow all right. Even the most hard-bitten warriors maintain a singular respect for the unarmed. Then, too, there is such a thing as perverse pride. My thinking wasn't merely stupid. It was
Back to the clean and robust dressing room. I was on next. I did not form the words in my mind at the time, but the gist of 'sweet merciful Jesus' was ricocheting within my skull. My sweaty palm was sticking to the wall of the wing - there was the tearing sound of Velcro when I pried it off - and my temples throbbed. I stared hard at the gaping gulf of stage awaiting. Gunther urged the crowd to "give a warm, Gaiety welcome to...Jack". I went on.
Of those five minutes I recall little, except that they felt like a lot more than five. When I found the courage to look out at the audience I had the peculiar thought that I was to address a board of directors on some topic of which imbecilic eighteen year-old boys are expert. For the audience was a sea of middle-class suits. The only other specific issue crossing my mind was technical. I had been instructed by Gunther to dance for a few minutes, then take off my pants and dance for a few minutes more. All right. But in the process I came to the conclusion that strippers are customarily female only because there is no graceful way to remove trousers while dancing. One assumes that the pants initially are worn to induce salivating in the paying customers. A sensible strategy. But getting the damn things off in the middle of the routine is a tricky bit of business, I can tell you. A Madame Van Der Plasse was the savior of British laundresses everywhere when she introduced starch to England, back in the sixteenth century. Somewhere, perhaps in a back alley of the Times Square district, must stand a statue in tribute to whoever concocted the break-away trouser.
Be that as it may. The volume of the music decreased and my audition was over. I escaped into the dressing room to what I like to think of as more than polite applause. There were no wolf whistles, but what the hell. Nobody booed. Booing might well have destroyed me. We strippers are people too, you know.
A few of the boys - my comrades, now - genially slapped me on the back or ass, as happens in locker rooms after football games. Gunther appeared. The job was mine, a fact owed less to my virtuosity and stud appeal, I suspect, than to their ever-present need and my not having been a complete train wreck on stage.
The job was mine. Gunther told me to report for work on the next Friday. I remember that I asked about the money again. He said all that would be explained on Friday, and he said it with a wink of his steel-blue, German eye. I believe he must have concluded that I was joking, or that I was protecting one of us from potential solicitation charges stemming from one of us entrapping the other.
I never went back. I knew full well that I wasn't going back as soon as the ordeal was ended. I am not proud of this. To this day it gnaws at me that I did not even call, that I treated Gunther and company in so dismissive a fashion. Strippers may be prostitutes but good manners are good manners. I would call now, today, but the urgency has probably passed.
I never went back. I wonder why. Still. Most likely my free-thinking morality was not quite so free as I had supposed, that unknown parameters of behavior, forged in the wilds of New Jersey, made themselves felt when trespassing was about to occur. That is logical. Yet I am not so sure. I think it more likely that the stumbling block of summoning those nearly militarily timed, eight-to-ten orgasms a day was the bridge too far, for me.