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The Myth of the Perfect 36: What I Learned About Stripping and Life From Carol Doda

Carol Doda’s death came to me via the same mechanism as so much news comes to me these days – Social Media. It was Veteran’s Day when I saw the article on SF Gate. I had enjoyed a much-needed day off work though I spent much of it working on things for myself and my kid – artwork, writing, laundry, dishes.

In the evening, I logged onto Facebook and found myself glutted with streams of posts about the passing of Doda at age 78. I read the SF Gate story on Doda’s death which opens with the preposterous statement that “Carol Doda . . . helped take stripping out of the shadowy margins of American society.” My first response was fury and outrage. Really? That is a rather grand and sweeping statement. On what facts are writers Kevin Faggan and Sam Whiting making this assumption? Clearly they haven’t spent a lot of time (or any time) working in strip clubs in America, or more specifically, North Beach. I can’t really blame them. They are writing about their perceptions, what has been fed to them from media and what they have experienced as onlookers.

The SF Gate article was just the tip of the iceberg (or of the nipples in Doda’s case). These writers represent a very small fraction of the hundreds of people who I read voicing their opinion on Doda. It seems like everyone, especially those living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s and 70s, had a story or opinion to share. Her tits were mythic! She revolutionized stripping! She was an icon for female sexual freedom! She changed the landscape of San Francisco’s North Beach from sleaze-ball sex alley to neon lit tourist destination! She put the S in Silicone and pioneered bending sexuality as an act of sexual liberation! She was hilarious! She was a riot! She was iconic! Bigger than her big neon tits glowing over Broadway and Columbus!

People recounted their encounters with Doda, which in the end mostly weren’t encounters at all, but restatements of myths of Doda which were perpetuated by the image of her plastered in the media as a representation of San Francisco’s ribald history and its reputation as a leader in sexual freedom. But these stories weren’t “real.” They were recreations of urban myths that took a real person – Carol Doda – and turned her into a phantom legend. People writing about Doda mostly experienced her from the point of view as spectator and tourist. Few of them had ever really met her, and none that I read had actually worked for her.

People fondly remembered seeing Doda descend to the stage of the Condor while standing on a pristine white grant piano. Doda donned in slinky glitter and high heels belted out songs and jokes to a riotous audience while she made her tits pump up and down and sideways. Or they remembered driving past the large red neon sign outside the Condor and gaping in awe at Doda’s neon-lit larger-than-life-size-tits and blinking incandescent nipples pointed to the San Francisco skyline. Others recounted stories of the barkers standing outside the Condor inciting tourists to step inside and checkout Carol’s show. Real live Carol Doda tits! Woo hoo!

As I read through these stories, my insides churned. I flashed back to a time nearly 40 years ago when I was a fifteen-year-old runaway girl living on the streets of San Francisco, and I happened to land a job in the Condor Club working for Carol Doda. My story is a different story then the ones I have read in the news this past week. Sure, when I walked through the doors of the Condor, I was as aware of the legend of Doda as anyone else growing up in San Francisco at that time. She was, after all, a television icon. Her slinky voice – “This is Carol Doda, and you are watching the Perfect 36”—was the soundtrack to late night TV, her voice accompanied by the ever present snap of the tab on my dad’s beer cans as we watched movies together and he drank down six packs of Budweiser or Olympia.

So yeah, I thought I knew damn well who Carol Doda was when I walked into the Condor in April 1977 looking for a job, but actually, I didn’t know her at all.

I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s, and Carol Doda was a regular household name. My parents and uncles and aunts were part of the Cocktail Generation, the generation that thought getting drunk and wagging your tits was revolutionary. Sure Doda’s face was a staple on the TV in my house, but she and her tits were also emblems of a whole culture that centered on getting wasted and humping each other as some sign of being sexually revolutionary. My parents played Herb Albert albums, the covers featuring naked women  covered in whipped cream. Playboy magazine arrived in the mail regularly, and my mom used Mod Podge to decoupage all variety of household items with the images of naked women and their large Hugh Hefner-endorsed tits. My parents , uncles, aunts and their friends frequently headed to North Beach to play the scene.

During the day, my mom was a bookkeeper and my dad was an ironworker. On the weekends, they were transformed into out-of-control hyper sexual drunks, and Carol Doda incited them to push boundaries while North Beach gave them a place to push them. My parents came home with black eyes, hangovers and tales of public displays of debauchery. They came home saying they saw Carol Doda’s tits.

On my 12th birthday, my Uncle Jerry gave me a dog-eared copy of Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker (1971) as a present. It was the copy that he already read, and I really don’t want to think about what that meant. I think Uncle Jerry thought he was passing along some kind of baton of liberation, but really it was just another way in which the Cocktail Generation fucked up their kids. I was supposed to look to a hooker as a hero? I read the book front to back cover, mesmerized by the story. That book, along with every other piece of sex and booze propaganda thrust on my young self, probably helped pave the way for me to walk into the Condor and ask for a job when I was a fifteen year old girl who barely had lost her virginity.

In my mind, Doda was wrapped into the entire stinking cocktail that soaked through my parents’ generation. They were part of the Rat Pack generation and its taste for excess – booze, sex, and cigarettes – for no other reason than they could do it without any perceivable repercussions and that they felt momentary escape from the confines of their ordinary lives. To them, it was like flipping the finger to the Establishment they worked for but were also part of. Regardless of the myth of San Francisco as some kind of sex-crazed free for all, during the time of Doda’s reign, much of the city was still populated by working class families, like my own, who would head to North Beach as if they were going to Disneyland for the weekend.

This was well and fine for the adults who were exercising their new sense of liberty, especially for the cocktail generation who coopted the ideals of the hippy free love movement into a nightmarish bastardization that included believing it was okay to have orgies in front of their kids, engage in wife-swapping, and feed their children booze because “it was safer in the home than outside.” In this skewed world, these drunken sex-addled adults thought they were doing their kids a favor by removing taboos, when really for a lot of kids like me, growing up at that time was like living inside a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

That was my San Francisco. The era when kids were oversexed before they could crawl. The era that sent a lot of young girls, including myself, fleeing home and landing on the streets with nowhere to go and no way of knowing how to get there. And in the background, Carol Doda reminded us all that we were not only watching but living the world of the Perfect 36.

Of course the first myth to bust (pun intended ) is that Carol Doda’s tits were 36s. They were 44DDs the last time I checked. And I saw Carol Doda’s tits, many nights, as she pumped them up and down and sideways on the stage of the Condor. Those taut globes were the size of bowling balls. Ludicrous orbs ready to burst from their overinflated seams. As a kid looking at those things, I felt like I was watching what happened to Barbie when she took a wrong turn. Holy shit! So much for Disneyland. I was in the seventh circle of Plasticine Hell.

Perhaps my uncle knew something about my future that I didn’t when he handed me The Happy Hooker on my 12th birthday, or perhaps he was writing my future. In any case, my future led me to Carol Doda, and my memories of The Condor and the North Beach strip club scene (where I spent much of my fifteenth year on the planet ) are nothing like the mythic nostalgic recollections I read about Doda when she died last week.

The road that took me to The Condor Club is a long and winding one, to quote a song from the background of my childhood. But through many events in my early life – from alcohol-drenched parents to a strung out brother and a lot of Very Bad Shit – I ended up alone in San Francisco, a fifteen year old girl without a home and nowhere to go. Perhaps it was the fallout of the Cocktail Generation that shook my foundation so hard it threw me onto the streets when I was just a kid. I landed hard, and it was a tough fall, but somehow I learned how to survive, which is certainly obvious by the fact that I am sitting here writing my Carol Doda memories at age 53.

It was late night in April 1977 when I was riding the bus back and forth across the city. I gripped a paper shopping bag that held everything I owned. A pair of jeans, a couple of shirts, and some flip- flops. Buses are good places to go when you have nowhere else to go. You can climb on, slump down into a seat, and ride everywhere and nowhere without a destination or a reason.

That night I dumped my quarter into the slot and took a seat. Passengers got on. Passengers got off. The bus wheeled from Fisherman’s Wharf, through North Beach and Chinatown, down to Market Street and back again. Old men hunched over with bags of chicken and beer. Loud drunks fresh out of clubs pounded each others’ backs, their faces red as Carol Doda’s nipples on Broadway. Dreary women slithered on and off the bus and disappeared down sidewalks heading to small apartments on dark hills. Tired workers carried empty lunch boxes as they climbed off the bus and headed home. Home. The very thing I did not have. A fat man with a stack of cardboard boxes stood over me. One of the boxes dropped on my head, and he caught it with a hand the color of dirty socks. The smell of sweat and cigars curdled inside my stomach. I stayed on the seat with my paper bag.

I leaned against the window. My own reflection blurred in the lights smearing past dirty glass. Stringy hair. Flat chested. Barely into puberty. My eyes stared through the city like it was some kind of Anti-Oz.

Eventually the bus emptied. Just me and the old black driver rumbled away from downtown towards The Wharf. We were cresting Columbus when the driver told me it was the end of the line. “You’re going to have to get off soon. Time for me to go home, baby doll. Is there something you need?”

“A job,” I told him.

“Well you’re in the right place then. Lots of girls get jobs up here.” He pointed out the window. We were passing the neon lights on Broadway. The Condor, Garden of Eden, El Cid, and the Hungry I. Signs that said: Live Nude Girls, Topless, No Cover. And Carol Doda’s Red Neon tits held reign over all of them.

I looked out the window and knew what that street represented. I never wanted to end up there. I had determined that I would make it without having to take that route, but at this point, on this night, when I reached the end of the line, I knew that I had no choice. I was a fifteen year old girl with an eighth grade education. I would look for a job the next day. I was armed with a California State ID with my picture and the fake name Tiffany Morrelli printed on the front of it. It said I as 22 years old. Old enough to get a job in the blinking paradise I just passed.

A few minutes later, the bus stopped at Ghirardelli Square.

As I climbed off, the driver called me, “Hey babydoll, what’s your name anyway? I’m Clarence.”

“Tiffany,” I told him.

“Well you take care of yourself Tiffany. Be careful out there.”

I spent the night sleeping on concrete steps on the shoreline of the bay, using my bag for a pillow. Alcatraz loomed in the distance and the Golden Gate Bridge towered above me. My grandfather and great grandfather had helped build that bridge as part of a WPA project. Their bodies were invisible to the tourists who walked across it and shot photos from ferries on the Bay. They held out their Instamatic and Polaroid cameras and could not see the sweat and labor that went into building this iconic image – the Golden Gate – a symbol of freedom, fun, rebellion, and a lot of good times for people with enough cash to have them. They could not see the girl sleeping under it.

In the morning pigeons poked at my feet prodding me off their territory. Vendors began setting up their wares – t-shirts, balloons, and snow globes – as if it ever snowed in San Francisco. But that was part of the myth. None of this was real.

I was real when I wiped my face with my shirt sleeve and looked for a bathroom. I was real when I ran my fingers through my hair and piled on a new layer of mascara over two days’ worth still clinging to my eyelashes. I was real when I walked the three or so miles to Broadway and Columbus because I only had a few dollars left and didn’t want to waste it on busfare.

I was a girl waving a white flag of surrender. I had spent months alone in the city, living here and there, making ends meet by freeloading or partaking in low-end crime, but I never wanted to end up in this place. On this street. This so-called revolutionary landscape of topless dancers. The place where my fifteen year old body would be sold to tourists. Where I would become the distorted Barbie doll, the girl no longer in possession of herself, a thing, an attraction, a commodity, a nothing. But here I was.

I stood on the corner of Columbus and Broadway. In the late morning light, the street didn’t look so colorful. Dark doors of nightclubs were shut against the fog-filtered sun. The street stunk of old booze and rancid Chinese food. Newspapers, cigarette butts, and balled up food wrappers clogged the gutters. The sheen of fantasy was replaced with the stench of old piss. A few men leaned against buildings smoking. They nodded their heads at me as I walked door-to-door studying the landscape. Yeah, I felt like Little Red Riding Hood in a sea of Big Bad Wolves. Some of the men called out, inviting me to talk to them, asking me what’s up, and how ya doin, and whatcha doin. Truth is I had no idea what I was doing, but looking down the street I knew that if I had to take this path, then I was going to take the high road.

I headed toward Carol Doda’s tits.

In my young mind, I evaluated the terms of my present state. I was going to have to get a job on the strip. I was a fallen girl, so I would have to play the hand I was dealt. I sorted through the memorabilia of my childhood, and inside the filing cabinets in my head, Carol Doda shimmered in black and white from our old TV. She assured me that I was watching the Perfect 36. Certainly Carol Doda’s place – The Condor – must be better and safer than everything else. If I stayed there, I could protect myself. I would be okay. I could work as a waitress and not a stripper. Nothing wrong with that. I had it all worked out. How to hold onto dignity and status and class, even when I was a fifteen year old kid without a home and about 15 bucks and chump change to my name.

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the clubs were already alive. Men stood outside the doors hawking the candy inside. Outside the Hungry I, a man promised “the sweetest ass on the strip. Come inside. Take a peek. Tits so close you can touch them.”

Two doors down, a man in a maroon velvet suit called to me, “Hey sweet thing, you want to look inside?” The woman next to him was done up like a spider all webbed in black, her lips a red hourglass slashed across her face. “C’mon baby,” she called to me as she cupped her black bra in her hands. “We won’t bite.”

I made it to the corner of Broadway and Columbus. The Condor sign loomed above me. Carol Doda’s body winked in red neon. It was the biggest sign on the strip, and the only sign that I recognized.

For a brief moment, I left space and time. I was sitting on my dad’s lap watching Godzilla and Mothra. The Gargantuans were destroying Tokyo while Carol Doda’s boobs and voice calmly announced that I was in the world of the Perfect 36. I could hear my dad’s voice joking with my mom, “Hey, take a look at those tits. They’re made of silicone. You want some like that?” My mom was a small breasted woman. My dad was a practical man. He probably figured there was a kit somewhere, like at Sears Roebuck, that could turn my mom’s tits into Carol Doda’s.

I took a deep breath and walked over to the man working the front door. Sleepy puppy dog eyes peeked out from under a mane of long wavy hair. Sporting a bushy mustache, a plaid shirt and cowboy boots, I imagined this man invented himself as some kind of Jerimiah Johnson of the strip club scene.

“Hey sweet thing, how you doing today?” he poured in a liquid voice.

I gulped and spat. “I need a job and want to work here.”

He lifted his eyes, jerked his head back toward the door. “You want to work here?” he asked raising a bushy eyebrow.

I nodded.

“You 21?” he asked.

I nodded again.

“Sure?”

He scrunched up his eyes and bore into my face.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’m twenty-two.”

“What year were you born?”

“1956.”

“What’s your name?”

“Tiffany.”

“Bill.” He stuck out a large soft paw and wrapped it around my hand. “Wait here, Tiffany. I’ll see what I can do.”

Bill slipped inside the Condor. I stood on the sidewalk and waited. A few doors down, a tall thin woman stood in front of the Hungry I. Her hair hung long and black down to her ass. She looked like Morticia Addams in a G-string. Later I would learn that her name was Poppy and she was Bill’s girlfriend. I would learn a lot of things later. Like how to be a stripper. Poppy would teach me. Like how to tie myself off and shoot heroin. Bill would teach me. But that was later. At this very minute on this very day, I just wanted a job at The Condor.

Bill slipped back outside. “Come on. Follow me. Don wants to meet you.”

It was like a movie inside that place. Light spilled off rows of glasses and bottles at the bar and made everything glow red. Red pulsed out of dark corners and from behind mirrors. Red shown through green glass, bounced off barstools and spilled across the black stage and the backs of empty chairs. It was like I stepped inside a Roger Corman movie, the kind where women were sacrificed on altars, laid bare by men and monsters. The kind of movie Carol Doda would have introduced on the Perfect 36. It was a Baroque sexscape. Wild, delicious, and terrifying. I expected to be stripped and dipped in wax at any moment.

Bill broke my trance. “Tiffany, this is Don.”

Don sat at the bar counting fat rolls of cash. Tubes of money lined on the bar like Lincoln Logs. Don flipped through the bills with fat fingers then snapped rubber bands around each tube. In between, he picked up a cigar and sucked on it a few times.

“So you’re looking for a job?” he asked me.

I nodded.

“You know how to wait tables?”

“Sure. I’ve done lots of it,” I lied.

“Yeah, where?” Don asked.

For a minute I froze. Then in a flash I saw the roaring flames of the fireplace at Lion’s restaurant in Daly City. “Lion’s in Daly City.”

It was the only thing I could think of. When I was little, my mom’s dad Papa took me to Lion’s for lunch because Papa liked their club sandwich. I was terrified of the place. I hated walking past the roaring fireplace at the front entrance. I often sat petrified in the car. I cried and blubbered and begged not to go inside until Papa would grab my arm and drag me across the parking lot. I’d pass the huge stone fireplace with real flames licking at the walls. I didn’t see fire. I saw the gaping menacing maw of a blood thirsty lion whose mouth was roaring with flames. I knew that if I walked past his mouth, that fire breathing lion would snatch me up and burn me alive right in front of the restaurant while my grandfather ate his club sandwich and laughed.

“Lion’s?” Don asked. “When?”

“Uh, last September,” I lied again.

“Hunh,” Don grunted. “You twenty-one?” He asked. “Let’s see some ID.”

I pulled out my Tiffany Morelli ID card and slapped it on the bar. Don picked it up. Looked at the girl in the picture. Looked at me. Just then a light strobed on the stage. I turned my head to see what was happening.

A white piano descended from the ceiling. Two stilettoed feet stood on top of it. Then a long blue satin robe spilled over bare legs. A woman’s body shimmered in the light as she stood on that piano. She was big. Bigger than life big. She cocked chin to the side, and a stack of blond hair gushed from her head. Her whole body rippled as she climbed off the piano, slinked off stage and walked over to the bar. Two round white globes pushed out of her open robe and stared at my young face like some kind of dare.

“Who’s this?” Carol Doda asked Don and poked her nose in my direction.

“New girl,” Don said. “Tiffany. She’s going to cocktail.”

Carol looked me up and down. “How old are you Tiffany?” she asked.

“Twenty-two.”

Carol scoffed and curled her lip. Don waved my ID at Carol. “Says 22 right here,” he pointed.

“Right,” Carol said. “Well you be sure to push those drinks, Tiffany. That’s how we make our money here. Don’t be slacking off. Two drinks per customer and make sure they order seconds. And use that young ass to get some tips. We take 20 percent of every dollar you bring in, and I could use a new wardrobe.”

Carol sauntered off and disappeared down a dark hall at the side of the stage.

Don called across the room, “Hey, Simone!”

A tall, black woman swaggered across the dark room. She was hard and firm and solid as a cement wall. Her tight afro didn’t budge when she tilted her head and studied me head to toe. There wasn’t a wrinkle on Simone’s body. She towered over me. Her body was packed tight inside a white shirt tied in a knot over black leotard panties. She balanced on her high heel shoes like they were made of steel. Nothing could topple this woman.

Simone knew her shit, and she wasn’t going to take any shit. She told me everything I needed to do to be a cocktail waitress at the Condor. The list was specific. I needed this kind of leotard, that kind of shirt, and those kind of pantyhose. I needed to push drinks and not cut in on any other girls’ customers. We took turns at the door, and it was our job to make sure that anyone stepping through that door stayed and put out some heavy cash while they were in the place.

Simone told me about the store up the road – The Foxy Lady – where all the girls bought their clothes. Strippers and waitresses all shopped there because that’s where you got the real deal. The fancy stuff. It was the kind of place that separates the wheat from the chaff. You could be Gypsy Rose Lee. You could be a star, and even if you weren’t one, you could act like one.

Being a cocktail waitress at the Condor wasn’t any smalltime game. Carol Doda ran the place, and Carol wasn’t going for any second rate crap. The Condor was first class, so the girls needed to be first class too. Fine. I got it. I’d do it. I walked up to The Foxy Lady. One pair of black leotard panties cost thirty bucks, twice as much as the wad of cash shoved in the pocket of my jeans.

I took my new first class ass down to the second class Mission District and bought some cheap imitation crap. I spent three bucks on some black underpants that could pass for a leotard and another ten on a Chica white shirt full of lace and frills. I had nothing left for pantyhose.

When I wobbled through the door of the Condor the next day wearing the platform shoes my Grandma bought me for Christmas and my $13 waitress outfit, Simone barreled across the club, grabbed my leg, and spat, “What you doing showing up here with bare legs? Just cause you have legs up to your ass doesn’t mean you don’t wear pantyhose like the rest of us.”

I was scared shitless of Simone at this point. I was sure she was going to kick my pathetic scrawny white butt back out onto the streets.

“I didn’t have money for pantyhose.” There was nothing else to say.

“Well you’re going to get some money tonight, and you better show up in pantyhose tomorrow.” I gulped. I got it.

I busted my ass that night at the Condor. Named after the largest bird of prey that mostly scavenged on dead remains, it was the perfect name for a bar stuffed with girls circling like vultures while the Queen Condor watched over us from her pole on the white piano.

Cocktail waitresses huddled by the door luring in customers with the promise of live sex and lots of flesh. They lowered their heavy chests into the drooling faces of male tourists and coerced them into buying watered down booze for ten bucks a drink with a two drink minimum. Girls pressed their tits and asses into sweaty faces while thick fingers stuffed five and ten dollar bills in their cleavage and butt cracks. This place was all about survival of the fittest, and the though bitches that worked the tables knew how to survive. When they weren’t chewing me a new asshole for stealing their turn at the door, they taught me the ways of the trade. Problem was I wasn’t very good at it.

It was Bill’s job to get the customers in the door, and the waitresses’ job to keep them there and make them empty their wallets. We did whatever we could to push drinks and get tips.

I let customers grab my ass and stick their fingers inside my shirt. I endured comments from drunken wives calling me a slut and a whore. I promised to meet men after the show, even though I knew it would never happen. I nodded my head and listened to them tell me everything they wanted to do to me as I held out my hand out for more tips. Every word meant more dollars. I talked sexy. I made promises I’d never keep.

My first night working, I left the place loaded with cash. Nearly a hundred bucks in tips. Seemed like a fortune to me. At the end of the night, Don and Carol sat at the bar and counted the night’s take. Carol was the first to leave once she knew how much the club took in. Her limo purred in the back alley as Carol wrapped herself in fur and slid into the backseat. Then Don counted out cash for the waitresses. The minute we got our money, it was like we became invisible. We all left and didn’t look at each other or look back until we walked through the door the next night.

It didn’t take me long to fuck up. Like the night a man spat his drink in my face, said it was water, accused me of ripping him off, and demanded his money back. I asked Don for the money. “Are you fucking kidding? Where is this guy?”

Don pushed back from the bar and headed toward the spitting man. “You spit on my girl?” Don shoved his face two inches from the man’s angry face. “You’re selling water for booze!” the man complained. Don lifted the glass from the table and slammed it back down. “This is top notch Scotch. You don’t like it, then get out.” The man’s wife grabbed his arm and said, “Come on, hon. Let’s go.”

Just then the music stopped. The stage went dark. A spinning disco ball came to life and lit the whole place with swirling stars. The spitting man went quiet. Don went quiet. I stood and stared at the stage. Carol was being lowered on her white piano. At this point, the man forgot about his rip-off drink and sat with his mouth hitting the floor as Carol made her tits move up and down to the rhythm of the music.

I looked down at my flat chest and wondered how she did that.

When Carol was on stage, we had to walk a fine line. We had to keep pushing drinks and tips, but we also couldn’t interrupt Carol’s show. It was a tough act.

Later that night, I was convincing a customer to buy a second round of drinks. He wrapped his arm around my waist and asked, “How about I buy you a drink?” He pulled a money clip loaded with 100s out of his jacket pocket. “I can’t drink. I’m working,” I said.

I walked over to the bar and gave the bartender the guy’s order. I told Don that some man wanted to buy me a drink but I said no. “What do you mean you said no? You didn’t let him buy you a drink?” Don’s face bulged with fury. “When someone wants to buy you a drink, you let him buy you a drink. You don’t drink the drink, Tiffany. You tell him it’s rum and coke, and you drink the coke.” Lesson learned. I ended up drinking a lot of coke.

Carol Doda’s tits may have been the main attraction, but what they were really selling at the Condor were lies. Booze that wasn’t booze, and sex that would never be sex. Sure some girls turned tricks after work, but that was all kept hush hush.

In between Doda’s act, strippers took the stage and twirled around a pole while Donna Summer sang about Bad Girls. Glittered G-strings up their butts and tassels swinging from their nipples, the strippers’ bodies shone like plastic dolls under the artificial light. These girls weren’t real, until they felt threatened. And I was a threat. Nothing more threatening to an aging stripper than a fifteen year old girl without a mark, scar, a piece of fat or flab on her body.

I got really good at selling those overpriced drinks and raking in the tips. Problem was that my young body was outshining the girls on stage and the ones working the floor. It’s hard to compete with a fifteen year old body when you’re pushing forty and have spent the past twenty five years working The Strip.

The Condor was becoming a bit of a hostile environment for me.

One night after about three weeks of working at the Condor, it was my turn at the door when a little man in a tidy gray suit walked inside.

“Is Carol here?” he asked me.

“She’ll be on any minute now. Come on in and have a seat,” I told him. Carol was always coming on any minute now. That’s what we told the customers. That’s how we got them in. That’s how we sold them water for booze. The promise of the Perfect 36 who was really a 44D.

“No, I want to see Carol,” the man told me. “I’m her old friend.”

This was a new one. “I don’t know,” I said. “I have to ask someone.” I turned to go get help.

The man tapped my arm, “Don’t you know who I am?” he asked. I stared blankly into his face. “I’m Jack LaLanne.” He beamed a row of white teeth right at me. “Jack La Lanne,” he repeated and pushed his face toward me to make sure I heard him.

For a moment, I flashed back to my childhood. I was standing in the kitchen pouring myself a bowl of Cheerios while Jack LaLanne did calisthenics on the black and white TV. My mom lay on the family room floor sucking on black coffee and cigarettes while doing leg lifts. Then my mind shifted gears to the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show which I much preferred to Jack’s calisthenics and my mom’s attempt at doing them. I fondly drifted to the world of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale because inevitably they’d capture a damsel-in-distress, tie her to the railroad tracks, and leave her to die. The hopeless young sweet girl was always rescued at the very last minute while Boris and Natasha plotted their next scheme to do her in. I snapped out of my reverie.

“You’re Jack LaLanne?” I blurted out. “I know who you are. I watched you every morning before school!”

Jack winked and grabbed my right ass cheek. He gave it a firm squeeze with his strong fingers.

“I can tell,” he said then pulled his hand back and slapped my butt.

“Oh, there’s Carol now.” Jack waved his hand up in the air catching Carol’s attention. Carol came swooping over.

“She didn’t know who I am!” Jack exclaimed to Carol.

Carol bore her eyes into me and then stared down at my butt where Jack had just had his hand. “When Jack comes, you let him in,” she quietly hissed. Then she smiled at Jack, threw her arm around him, and they disappeared backstage full of cheek kisses, laughter, and tangled arms.

That was my last night at the Condor.

When I showed up to work the next evening, Don called me over to the bar. “Carol says you got to go,” he said. “You’ve been interrupting her show.”

I stood stunned. “What?”

“You got to go,” Don said. And I could tell the word was final. He handed me a paycheck and then told me I might want to look for work up the street. He told me to try working for Duke who ran a couple of low-end strip clubs and massage parlors. Then he told me to leave and not come back.

I had fallen from grace. I walked out the door holding my check. I walked across Broadway and down Columbus. I walked past Clown Alley and through Chinatown. Finally, I landed in the financial district where the buildings my dad helped build towered above me.

I lay down on a bench and looked up at the Transamerica Building. I lay there for hours. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Around 2 am, I glanced over at Kearny. A black limousine quietly cut down the street. I could just catch a glimpse of billowing blonde hair as Carol Doda headed home from work.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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