Amnesia at Flappers

Flappers is a 2x4 operation with a construction credo akin to toothpick cabins and popsicle stick houses. It sits at the corner of Western and Blue Island, a dusty triangle on Chicago's southwest side that roars with semitrucks twenty-four hours a day.

A faded plywood sign propped above the door reads: Flappers / Live Nude Dancers / $9.99 Video Sales / XXX Quarter Arcade. Red Christmas bulbs strung around the sign do a decent imitation of blinking neon lights--that pathetic ho hum harbinger of American lust. Once inside, a visible stench blindsides you like a scabby hooker jumping out from a dark alley squirting you in the face with liquid v.d. It grows worse as you walk past the XXX quarter booths and the peep show booths and then finally the girls' dressing room which is shared with a menagerie of fleas, flies, roaches, foot-long alley rats, and little brown flecks that dance across the rug. Passing time in the dressing room, dizzy from holding my breath, a thin newsman voice creeps into my head, bland and drippy like the voice-over for a PBS nature documentary, praising the

wonderfullyinfinitelycomplexuniverseoflivingbreedingmicroorganismsbreedingmultiplying breedingbreedingbreeding, all within a toenail clipping or something. God knows what special microhabitat exists in the bacterial stinkpit of the Flappers dressing room.

This is a list of odoriferous offenses:

1.) stopped up toilet containing fecal matter that's as old as the building itself (so around ten years--ten years worth of black soupy turd)
2.) old cum spewed from thousands of penises wanked off to hundreds of naked chicks gyrating for sloppy wet bills
3.) ten years worth of built up urine that didn't make it into Monster Size soda cups the dancers are forced to pee into because the toilets stopped up and
4.) the general stink of all kinds of girl funk and pussy

Flapper's is not a hygienic place. Employees are not required to wash their hands after using pee cups.

Two girls dance per shift. Today I'm working with Amnesia. Business crawls. Only three customers since noon and it's going on five. A customer asks the clerk who's on stage. 'Sockitome' he says, referring to me. The customer walks away. Sockitome is a name the housemother, Sally, came up with because she didn't like any of the names I suggested, like Sue Nami, Clamydia, and Summer's Eve. "These aren't brain surgeons kid, they're anemones." Sally was a burlesque dancer in the '60ss and fills my head with flashy sequined costumes and grand orchestral numbers: "The days when being a dancer was like being a movie star," she says, wistful and bleary-eyed. The bleariness started a long time ago when burlesque houses started shutting down and she embarked on her new career as a potty-mouthed platinum lush. She thought Sockitome was funny, and when I imagine Sally-- brassy, vodka dribbling, customer bashing Sally-- demurely spreading her ostrich fans in a twinkly wonderland of cigar tips and impossibly gorgeous starlets twirling their tassels to Herb Alpert, so do I.

Out of boredom, I accept Amnesia's offer to share a bag of heroin. One thing i like about addicts is their generosity, most apparent when their need to get high surpasses any sense of frugality. Amnesia pulls out a Marilyn Manson c.d. and spills a bag onto it. Her hair is pulled off her face, exposing scabs and purple valleys. She's really pretty in a painful, gothic way and it's difficult to imagine such a ghostly body pumping out a kid, never mind three.

"I thought you were so straight," she says, pushing and chopping the powder with the edge of a matchbook. "This stuff's good, you won't need a lot."

I appreciate her diligence and focus. My nose starts to itch, dying for that first snort.

"Don't look at my scabs," she says, "god they're bad..."
"Stop picking them," I say.
"Like I can help it," she says.

I wait for her to finish divvying lines and am very pleased when I notice how big they are.

"You're gonna feel so good,"" she says, "I'm jealous. I wish I could still get high. I don't even remember what it feels like anymore."

I wonder about that for a moment, about the nature of desensitization and how repetition can really screw up a good thing. When I was 19, I moved to San Francisco, and shacked up with 8 other kids in a 3 bedroom Victorian. One of my housemates was this club kid who hustled old gay guys on Polk Street. At the time, one of his sugar daddies was making LSD somewhere out in the avenues. That meant books and books of free acid for the entire household. I did acid everyday for a year. With a constant background noise whining, "crinkle crinkle crinkle," I wholeheartedly dove into the world of wasting time. This included my job, which was selling Nathan's hotdogs on the embarcadero, where I also did a good side business selling acid to the skaters. It was a decadent life. Rolling out of bed, I would find tiny paper tabs stuck all over my skin and flick them off like dandruff because there was always a mountain of fresh books in the freezer. One day, I wanted to get high so bad I ripped out an entire sheet and licked it over and over and over. 100 hits of acid. I didn't feel a thing and went to work sober.

Amnesia chatters away going over the same story she told me two months ago, the last time we worked together. And even though I keep saying yeah yeah you told me that already, she shoves on assuring me no no but I didn't tell you THIS part... Something I've noticed about working with strippers is that they often repeat stories. Unlike other jobs where you interact with coworkers pretty much on a regular basis, you can go for months not seeing certain dancers. This forgives the repetition but often lends a strange pathos to the job that makes time stand still and Deja Vu a bad stage name. Even though there ARE some strange girls who act all secret and coy about what they're doing--like you don't know!--something about being naked and whoring your body for anyone with a dollar opens people up too. I can't count how many stories I've heard or how many women have told them. After a while, bits and pieces start to connect, drawing themselves together into one long, neverending narrative, as tenuous as it may be. When I find some nobility out of this line of work, I recognize individual voices in there, and faces to go with them. Then names sneak in. I always like the girls whose names are off. Not like Mona or Desiree or Candy...which are all so lame. I like the personalized names, which in such an impersonal reality exist like a snazzy fuck you to the establishment. It's a way of preserving some semblance of dignity and ownership, no matter how small. I remember the hundreds of strippers I've met as a crowd of faces, some more distinct than others. It's like being on the el at rush hour and another train is riding neck and neck with yours. You see all these gray shapes sitting, standing like shadows of some parallel universe. And then your train, or the other train, passes, and you're left with this haunting feeling of lives transiting with yours and the glorious fact that you will never know them. They ARE in a different world. Except on the stripper train, the shadows are wearing diamelle chokers and satin g-strings with delicious smiles, all mouthing my name ...Sockitome ... Sockitome...

"Sockitome!" Amnesia bleats out, "Hey! You want a kitten?"
"My cat Scarlet just had three. They're still pretty young," she warns, "they won't be ready for awhile."

Amnesia begins another story, another story I've heard before but one I like.

"I don't know who the father is..."

She breaks to hand over the c.d. case, two ashy worms cutting across Marilyn Manson's eyeballs. In the projects they call heroin 'blow' which usually means cocaine and we discuss how confusing this can be. "So you don't know who the father is..."
"No!" She says, "And I'm praying to god it's not her brother.""

The story becomes familiar and her words echo in my head then come out of her mouth.

"She got pregnant by her brother before and it was baaad. I mean, everything seemed okay at first. Then suddenly, one of the kittens disappears," she goes on, explaining how she found its head on her front porch the next morning. "So I'm thinking, 'maybe some dog got to it.' Then the next day, another one's missing, and the only one left is looking pretty nasty." So she moved that one into the house, into her bedroom closet where it was warm and safe. "Then check this out! I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, and when I'm done I decide to look in on the kitten. When I look in the closet--there's Scarlet--eating the last kitten!! I totally freaked out!"

I ask her to describe the carnage in detail again.

"She only did it because they were incest babies, like she knew they were wrong. I thought Scarlet was a bad mother or something, but she was just being natural."

I'm all fuzzy and overheated from the heroin but I catch Amnesia's last statement in between waves of nausea. Something sizzles around in my head. A vague remembrance of being natural. I notice the time and realize my shift is over. As I'm gathering my things, Amnesia asks,

"How do you get home?"
"The 49 Western. How bout you?"
"Well I'm totally broke and it's been I'll probably hitch a ride."
I give her a couple bucks for the bus, "Thanks for getting me high," I say.
"Hitching's not all that bad," she says, "I mean, I don't do it as much anymore, not as much as I used to when I was pregnant. It was safer then, cause who would hurt a pregnant lady right?"

A parade of customers enters my mind like a nightmare sequence of "This is Your Life." Shadowy faces and nameless.

She says, "Hey, I've been doing it since I was little and it just seems normal."

Her head bobs down for another line. She tells me she'll be busy over the weekend but before I leave she hands me her pager number, just in case I decide I want a kitten. I fold the piece of paper into my pocket and forget about it.

The next week Amnesia and I are scheduled together again. I walk into the dressing room and catch her as she's peeing into the garbage can.

"Hey!" she says, "You want a kitten?"

- CH