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“I’m not an actress. Hello out there—” rapping my knuckles on my head “—anybody listening? I dropped out of acting school. Can you hear me?”
“You can do it,” he said.
“I can’t, Charlie, I…”
“I can’t pull this off…”
“—to what Myron is saying…”
“Hey!” Myron yelled into my face, smacking my leg to be sure he had my attention. He’d have slapped my face if Charlie hadn’t been in the room. Fat and balding, Myron is the kind of man who’s looked middle-aged since middle school. Back when I’d worked in Myron’s bars, he’d pass the time trying to make me cry. He’d dig and dig looking for a soft spot; like a staring contest, it was a test of who would last the longest. Myron always won. I’d tear up, and he’d look so proud. Everyone has their own way of killing time. That’d been ours. I drank. He made me cry. I drank some more. They were his bars and it was his liquor. Maybe he felt entitled; making me pay for all the booze I drank. I certainly felt entitled to all that booze, I mean, he made me cry for Chrissake. In the end, we both got what we wanted.
“You gonna be a loser your whole life?” he said. Myron’d been a hotshot mob lawyer. He changed his name and moved into the topless-bar business after he was disbarred. For a long time it was more lucrative than lawyering. But he wasn’t making topless-bar or hotshot-lawyer money these days. He was was perched on the corner of his bed in an old robe, bifocals, and cracked leather house slippers.
“Shit. It won’t … this is never gonna work,” I said, looking over my shoulder at Charlie. He stood behind me, waiting. It was two against one. I turned back to Myron. “Fine, whatever. What, Myron? What I gotta do?”
I’d been right, of course. It didn’t work. It wasn’t a sudden attack of moral decency, not one of us was afflicted with that handicap. If I’d had my way, Charlie and I could’ve split ten thousand dollars that first night. Five grand apiece for one night’s work, not even a whole night. Charlie’s part would have taken minutes, however long it takes to scare a guy silly, knock a guy out, or beat him senseless, depending on whether said guy is stupid enough to put up a fight. That was my plan.
If I’d had my way, no one would have gotten hurt, except of course, the guy. The guy in question was David. David would have had a headache, or a broken nose, or a concussion at the very worst, and only if he was stupid enough to put up a fight. Most people gave Charlie whatever he asked for, usually he didn’t even have ask. He rarely hit anyone, unless he was trying to make a point.
You know when you reach that first crest on a wooden roller coaster like the Coney Island Cyclone and you see the places where it’s rotting and peppered with worm holes; you’re on top of all that rotten wood and you’re staring into the abyss? Plummeting forward you scream but nothing comes out; speed shears away sound and sanity, it takes your breath away. This is what you paid your two dollars for, to be thrilled and terrified, knowing if the tiniest thing goes wrong you’ll die violently, screaming, your lifeless body thrown to the pavement mangled and bloody. And you’re more alive when you get off the ride than before you got on. That was Charlie.
We’d met in a East Village biker bar two years before I’d met David in a Times Square topless bar, and a year after I’d met Myron in another Times Square topless bar. Charlie moved a lot – California, Germany, prison – but when he was around, it was all sex, drugs and more drugs. 1981, in my dark apartment at the rear of a six-story white tenement, Charlie was God, and, I thought, exactly the right person to help me relieve David of his burden.
Charlie was the one who said, “Call Myron.” He’d met Myron when he’d picked me up at work.
I worked in go-go bars.
Charlie liked go-go bars.
Myron owned go-go bars.
Correction, Myron used to own go-go bars, solid-gold go-go bars. He’d been a king and the first few were standing room only; money littered the stage like leaves in autumn. Then Myron discovered cocaine and coke whores and burned through all the money. But we all trade something to feel loved.
I paid his light bill every now and again or we’d be sitting in the dark. Charlie hovered behind me; I sat on the only chair. Myron sat on the edge of his bed; the threadbare terry robe barely covered his bloat. He wore shuffle-down-the-hall nursing-home slippers and black dress socks worn thin at the heel. I filled him in on David.
If I’d been better at my job, we might not have met, but there wasn’t much go to my go-go dancing. There wasn’t even much dancing. I didn’t mind taking my clothes off in front of strangers, and that pretty much covered the job requirements. I had nice tits, too, so sometimes I thought of myself as overqualified, despite my lack of go.
“Hey cowboy boots, what’s with the hair?” he yelled over the music, waving his hand at my fire-engine-red Ziggy Stardust haircut. The bar was always on my ass to wear high heels and a wig. “You look … weird.” Then he tipped me a fifty to get off the stage. It wasn’t exactly What’s a nice girl like you…?, but it was fifty bucks and a chance to Sit and Drink.
Sitting and Drinking were the things I was best at.
If strippers were Girl Scouts I’d have earned my badges in Sitting and Drinking.
His name was David and he said he trained racehorses. There’d been a “problem” in Jersey, now he worked in New York. I didn’t know anything about horseracing, but I knew “problem” translated into “I did something shady and got caught,” but I didn’t care. I cared that he was the reason I got to be indulging in my favorite pastimes: Sitting and Drinking. Then he said he had $10,000 in his pocket.
That bears repeating.
He told me he had $10,000. In his pocket. In 1981, you could buy a building on Avenue C for $10,000. Not a really nice building, because there were no really nice buildings on Avenue C, but you could buy a whole building. No matter who or where you are, having enough cash in your pocket to buy an entire apartment building when you walk into any place with strobe lights, streamers, blasting music, naked women and watered-down champagne – which was every strip joint in Times Square – that’s walking in with a sign around your neck that says, “Kick Me,” only the sign really says, “Rob Me.”
David was a soft and doughy man, not much into his mid-twenties. He was loud and lonely, with wiry hair and tinted wire-rimmed prescription aviator glasses. The money was the only thing that made him even remotely attractive, but he would never, not in his entire lifetime of horseracing, have enough to make him anything more than a trick.
I believe God, in his wisdom, made topless bars and whorehouses so lonely men have someplace to go.
I sat next to David at the bar. As long as I had a drink in front of me, I didn’t have to go back on stage. It was my goal to always have a drink in front of me. With a wink and a smirk, David slipped me another fifty as he ordered my second drink. He thought the 10K made him a high-roller. I smoothed the fifty-dollar bill out on the bar and decided I didn’t like him, not one little bit. I did not like his wink and his smirk. I did not like that he thought that if he slipped me fifty dollars, or one hundred dollars, or even one hundred and fifty dollars, that he would be the same as the loan sharks, cardsharps, fences, pimps, hustlers and bookies we – us girls – sat with and drank with for free.
You can’t buy your way into the bottom, you have to earn your seat.
I might have walked away with just a fifty and one drink if he hadn’t had that attitude. That attitude. It made me want to slap him down to size. I wanted all of his money.
In the time it took to pick that second fifty up off the bar and safely tuck it away in my boot with the first, I’d worked the whole thing out in my head.
I put my lips close to David’s ear. “I have to use the little girl’s,” I said. “You’ll wait, won’t you? You won’t leave?” My finger trailed the inside of his ear, and the back of David’s neck as I left him at the bar guarding my drink and headed to the shadowy back end of the bar where the pay phone sat just beyond the bathroom.
I’d walked half the length of the bar. Tazio, the floor manager, smiled at me. He was a good-looking man with unusually neat hair, quiet, kept a low profile; well-dressed and well-pressed, he looked like a Ken doll, or a network newscaster. He knew everyone on the Deuce, all the girls in all the clubs. Also the cops, bar owners, bartenders, barbacks, the doormen, chain-snatchers, and deliverymen of things legal and things less than legal. He knew the customers, wanted everyone to be happy, safe, and the bar, drama-free. Tazio could smell money, and thievery. He touched my elbow, spun me a one-eighty and steered me back to the bar. He didn’t say anything, just smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and nodded.
He’d seen the plan forming in my head before I’d even known there was going to be a plan.
“That’s some bullshit, I need to get paid,” I said to Charlie. I’d told him the whole David story with the racetracks, the money, and Tazio. “He’s comin’ back. I’ll get him to take me to breakfast, or to after-hours, or something. I’ll steer him wherever and you whack him, quick-like. You come up when we’re sitting in his car, Son of Sam style, but you know, without killing me … or him. Seriously, Charlie, no killing.”
“You need another plan,” Charlie said. “The floor guy?”
“He saw right through you. He’s gonna stop you every time.”
He was right, but I wanted David’s money, and I liked how this half-hatched idea grabbed Charlie’s attention. He wasn’t actually focused on me, but it was the closest I’d come to having his full attention and I liked the way it felt.
“You can do it.”
“I can’t, Charlie, I…”
“I can’t pull this off…”
“—to what Myron has to say…”
“Hey!” Myron yelled. “You gonna be a loser your whole life?”
“Just hear him out…”
“Shit. This is never gonna work. Fine, whatever. What, Myron? What I gotta do?”
Myron had a plan. Myron’s own life plan had ended with him in this rundown studio apartment, in worn-out slippers, calling in favors to get his light bills paid, but I listened, because at one time Myron had been a king. They’d lined up around the block to get into his joints. Myron knew things, like how to get people to do things.
“We’re gonna make magic,” he said, his face lighting up. “We’re gonna make miracles happen.”
Myron said that we could turn this chubby nebbish from Jersey into my knight in shining armor. And we would make him pay for the privilege.
“We” turned out to be pretty much just me.
When I was still in high school I got caught up with a guy named Jackson who said he loved me and moved me out of my mother’s house. Eventually, I lost track of my mother. For all I know she’s dead now. I’ve never known my father.
I thought me and Jackson were forever, that he’d take care of me. Then he suggested the go-go bars. I didn’t mind in the beginning, but if I don’t make enough dancing, Jackson threatens to put me to work on the street. I want to leave Times Square, watch New York fade away in my rearview mirror, find my mother. I want a real life somewhere, like other girls have. I know Jackson doesn’t love me, but he won’t let me go. I’m his meal ticket. I tried to hide money, enough to run away. He figured that out, took it all and beat me like crazy. I get hit when there isn’t enough money, and sometimes he hits me just for fun. Sometimes, when he goes out, he ties me to the radiator. I have no one, not even a shoulder to cry on. I’m alone.
I told David about Jackson. He pried it out of me; pushing me into giving each painful, humiliating piece of information. David could see, with each little piece I let go, I was learning to trust him. And he could see, that maybe I could see, I wasn’t alone anymore.
Of course, none it is true, not one bit. My parents were still living in the house I grew up in, just outside the city. I talked to my mother regularly, went home for the requisite holidays and family functions. There’d never been a pimp. Jackson was my cat. I had my own place downtown, sometimes with Charlie, who didn’t take my money or hit me – unless you counted spanking, and he didn’t tie me up – although we liked to play with handcuffs now and again. I could’ve quit stripping and done something else. I’d simply never thought of it.
“If this schmuck thinks he loves you, he’ll do whatever it takes to save you – that’s who he is. So, he’s gonna buy you your freedom…” Myron said.
I was not altogether unfamiliar with the moving parts of a good grift. David had already lost his license in New Jersey. Maybe he’d dosed a horse; maybe something else. To get the money Myron was talking about, David needed to take that same kind of risk again.
“He’s got to be compelled to risk his livelihood,” Myron said.
Meaning, I had to be compelling.
“This jerk is gonna be your only chance at salvation. Your confidante. And in the end, trust me, he’s gonna offer, it’s gonna be his idea,” Myron said, “to buy you from your pimp.”
Charlie would play Jackson the pimp, despite the you-say-pimp-I-think-Superfly and Charlie looking very Hell’s Angels. My job was to make David fall in love with me.
Except I am not exactly a lovable girl, I thought. I’m not the one men marry, or take home, or plan a life with. I’m the fun girl, a stand-up broad. There is no way this can work, I’m not the kind of girl men fall in love with.
I shook my head, looked up at Charlie, and said, “Let’s do this thing.”
We had our mark. We had the players, the plan, and we had our story. In the story I was being beaten regularly.
“You’re gonna be up close, you’re on this guy’s shoulder, in his lap,” Myron said when I’d mentioned using stage makeup. “You’re gonna need real bruises.”
To make David believe the fantasy that I was being beaten, I had to be beaten.
Mouse was my best girlfriend. We worked the same bars, drank in the same after-hours, had slept with the same men. I told her Myron’s plan, how I’d lost ownership of this scheme, how I’d just wanted to have Charlie slug him. One night, bang, and we’d have money. After-hours, over vodka and cheap cocaine, she agreed; it’s the way she would have done it. Bang, nice and quick. After the after-hours, in my living room with the shades drawn against the morning light, she also liked the idea of a real scam. It could really move me up a notch, she’d said. I’d be more than just a pair of tits, I’d have respect. Mouse offered to help. She said a split lip would really speed things along.
Fuck that shit.
I squeezed my eyes closed and said, “Just don’t fucking break my nose.”
She punched like a girl and her aim was lousy – she landed on my cheekbone. The second time she really put her back into it. After a few tries, I put my hand up and opened my eyes. “It’s a little swollen,” I said, looking in the mirror.
“Kinda,” said Mouse, poking at my lip. “Maybe you’ll swell up overnight or something.” She offered to hit me again. I wondered if she thought I’d throw her a cut for all her efforts.
The next day Charlie offered to whip me, for some visible welts. I hate pain, and made him promise not to stop, even when I screamed. I curled up, exposed my back. He started. I screamed immediately and begged him to stop. Charlie keeps promises.
I don’t bruise easily. The welts disappeared within an hour.
“Maybe a thinner belt,” he said.
Fuck this shit.
“Maybe,” I said.
The third day I started hitting myself in the leg with a hammer, hoping for the black and blues. Using my great grandfather’s hammer, his initials carved into the wooden handle, I perfected a technique that created the perfect bruise every time. I added one or two new ones each day.
After a week, I upped the ante; I heated a metal coat hanger over the gas stove, and held it to my wrists. Radiator burns.
Each night I looked worse than the night before, and my story of being beaten daily became easier to believe. I covered my bruises and burns with makeup until David showed up, then wiped away enough for him to notice them.
David felt sorry for me, Myron was right. I turned to him for strength and he started to fall in love. He mooned over my hurt parts, cuddled me, stroked my hair, kissed my wounds. He comforted me and drove me home after work. At “secret” breakfasts he’d slip me an extra fifty or a hundred, hoping it would keep Jackson from beating me again. It took just over two weeks, but David did, as predicted, offer to buy me from my imaginary pimp.
“I’ll get the money,” David said. “I’ll take care of it. I can’t do anything about what happened before, but I’m here now and I will take care of you.”
Just pay the fucker.
I’d begun to lose sight of the fact that there was no actual fucker, no Jackson, no pimp. Some days I’d forget that the person beating me each night was me. I knew money would stop the beatings and I wanted the nightly beatings to stop.
The initial ten thousand was gone the way fast money always goes and I’d gotten less than two thousand of it. David spent $1000 at the bar on watered-down champagne so I could Sit and Drink with him, for which I earned a $100 commission. We met “secretly” other nights and he’d buy a nice dinner for which I got no commission, just a fifty or a hundred to “satisfy Jackson.” David wanted to hold me, to put his wet lips on me. His glasses pushed up against his spongy face when he latched onto my mouth. He pushed his thick tongue in, sucked on my tongue.
I prayed for the first time.
I prayed that the beatings be over soon.
I prayed David would pay so I didn’t have to have any part of him touching me.
I prayed not to vomit directly into his mouth when he kissed me.
I was not built for the long con.
I wanted to quit. I didn’t want him mooning over me, didn’t want to be around him at all. I wanted to end it. I told Charlie and Myron that I was willing to take the loss. Charlie cared about the game, not the money. Myron was counting on it.
Fuck Myron. I can’t do this anymore.
Then David showed up at work. He’d fixed an upcoming race; it would bring in the 50K needed to buy my freedom.
Myron had come up with that number. $50,000. He didn’t think I was worth that much; it was what he thought I could convince David I was worth. Of which, Myron thought he deserved the biggest slice because it was his plan. I thought I did since I’d found the mark, and I was taking the beatings. Charlie was in it for fun, not money, and he would take what he wanted no matter what we decided.
David wanted to take me home to meet Mother. He’d told her all about me. “One more race, baby,” he said “and we’re free. You can leave that downtown dump and we can get married.”
Oh, clearly, you are fucking insane, I’m not marrying anyone. Fuck that.
What was supposed to happen after? Did I have to disappear? Or thank him nicely, “Thanks for my freedom buddy, but I think I’d like to enjoy it for a while so step off”? Our plan did not extend as far as after.
David called. They’d suspended his license in New York now.
“Keep going,” Myron said, “He’s on the hook; he’ll find a way. Don’t be a loser. Hang in there a little while longer.”
We were well into week three, maybe even a month. I beat myself daily to pretend I was being beaten daily by someone who didn’t exist. Charlie whipped me, although not every day. Mouse occasionally punched me in the face. David was banned from racetracks in New Jersey and New York. Myron, home in his bathrobe and slippers, called every day to make sure I didn’t quit.
David called again. He said even though we hadn’t met yet, Mother didn’t trust me; she thought I only wanted his money. He waited for me to say it wasn’t true.
Mother was right, of course.
I couldn’t say I loved him, that mother was wrong, that I’d leave with him, that money didn’t matter.
I couldn’t tell him that I couldn’t bear his touch, his smell, or the texture of his hair. I didn’t tell him I prayed not to vomit into his mouth, that I’d rather hit myself with a hammer repeatedly than have him touch me gently even once.
I said nothing.
He was going to Virginia to look for work; maybe he’d call if he found something. He was sorry, but his mother said I didn’t love him.
I didn’t tell him there was no Jackson, no radiator to be tied to, that it was all a lie. Maybe his mother was as imaginary as my pimp, someone to do that talking, to say what needs to be said to get us where we want to go. I knew he wouldn’t call again if I didn’t say something. I couldn’t do it anymore, not even over the phone.
In a week or so my bruises healed and I went back on stage, and when someone sends a twenty up, I get to Sit and Drink. I wasn’t built for the long con. David had offered me my freedom, and I took it.