WHEN YOU ARE ELEVEN and looking at a girl in the fifth grade, a classmate you're fond of, it is part of the biological imperative of our species to wonder what she looks like without the pretty clothes. This is a decidedly non-intellectual mystery, and quite literally twists and forms our prepubescent bodies and souls according to its verbless dictums. When your third-grade girlfriend steps out of the outhouse on her parents’ farm lifts her skirt and drops her panties, bends over, and yells, “See my ass,” you are stricken with a feeling that you are walking up smooth, hot planks in your bare feet. This is desire before it becomes desire. There is the faintest recollection from Sunday school that naughtiness is present, butt here, twenty feet away, is the very bare butt of the beloved. You don't know whether to do a somersault, shit your pants, or run for cover, so you do nothing but stand there and gaze with eyes that are apertures taking a permanent photo, a rendering that will last until your brain dies.
This desire before it becomes desire is a truly fuzzy puzzle for the young mind, which is mere grape juice that has not yet begun to be wine. With other boys you position yourself in front of the swings to watch the skirts flutter up, revealing bare limbs. With other boys you dog-paddle under the ladder up to the diving board to watch the legs and crotches ascend. You can even develop a fetish of sorts for this act of looking upward. There is a somewhat comic category of softcore porn called “raised-skirt photos,” doubtless hearkening back to your first ligaments of desire: the ungainly boy taking a peek here and there and anywhere possible. You took many peaks but hadn't yet taken aim.
I recall quite clearly when I was nineteen and had run off from the Midwest to Boston to become a great writer, and had become by default and hunger a busboy in an Italian restaurant, how a Greek waiter explained to me that young men generally don't begin to know what they are sexually until the age of sixteen. He took me to a club where we watched a belly dancer who performed with astounding grace. Partial nudity seemed well suited to the dance, which hasn't been the case with the prancing hermaphrodite I’d paid a quarter to see at the Michigan State Fair at age twelve. That particular set of plumbing seemed confused. Age nineteen, however, is a time in life when a ballet dancer on the stage a hundred feet away can give you a hard-on. The ballet, Petrouchka, is supposed to be an aesthetic experience, and I remember struggling to be high-minded, but underneath the aesthete a beast of prey lurks. This pink-limbed young woman whirled and jumped with such beauty that the heart, soul, and pecker lifted in unison. It wouldn't have been the same thing if she were dressed in a pant suit or overalls.
I’VE OCCASIONALLY wondered if the raised platform, the runway or stage, in a strip club isn't inadvertently designed to pander to our first sexual feelings. The nudity, full or partial, hearkens our cojones back to aunts and teachers and, God forbid, our moms. “Zow, I saw some hair,” say playmates to one another. The girls on stage or runway look bigger than life just like women did way back when we weighed not much more than one of our teacher’s enormous pink legs. Big eaters are admired in the Midwest, and this teacher always packed five sandwiches in her flower-decorated lunch bucket. Under the desk, the sight was as mysterious as the first view of the Carlsbad Caverns. She shaved her legs short of her kneecaps, which wasn't quite adequate. Over the decades, I've come to know a few strippers, acting as wise older step-uncle, and they are rarely big on ground level. The stage is, in fact, a raised, enlarged pedestal of lust, a grand altar to summon our desire in the form of the dollars we offer. When I was fourteen, a preacher advised me that “a naked pretty girl can pull at your heartstrings.” He was on the money, though I did not accept the intended warning in the statement. Built into both Calvinism and Catholicism is the implicit threat that anything truly wonderful should also make you feel guilty, especially the skin we were all born in. Congress lately has proclaimed itself staunchly opposed to bare butts. As Jack Nicholson once said about film, “If you suck a tit, you're an X, but if you cut it off with a sword, you're a PG.”
Still, in ever reasonably sized city in America there are porn stores, and at least an attempt at a strip club. The opponents of their existence should understand that these are relatively safe environments for lust and usually have not much more character than the steam valve on a pressure cooker, which is their actual function. Strip clubs show you a parody of what you're in for if you have the time and inclination to seduce someone, or to be seduced. On rare occasions, in specific locations, the dancers have extraordinary talent. Sometimes they seem so strung out on downers that they trip over the dollar bills placed on the stage by burly businessmen and younger men who, having finally resolved their skin problems, have freak hots for this fleeting public display of genitalia. And on the rarest, rarest, rarest occasions you become a witness of true beauty, a marriage of nudity and dance so compelling that your breath shortens, and the heart beats its staccato tachycardia of actual lust, the kind that persistently fills the world with people, the summum bonum of desire that the best of the world’s poets have been singing for five thousand years.
Back to the early days. At twelve, despite your being in a state of continual tumescence, things can go wrong. In the hot tent with the not altogether healthy-looking strippers at the Michigan State Fair and with the extra twenty-five cents still in the offing to view the genitalia of the hermaphrodite, there is the disturbing odor of manure men have tracked in from the exhibition barns for the cattle, pigs, and sheep, not to speak of the cackling breeds. This is not exactly a sexy odor, even to a farm boy. The scent of the manure in the overheated tent mixes with the stomach’s unrest from cotton candy and corn dogs, the French fries that were an effective wick for the grease. You have wiggled your way to the front and are smart enough to know that it all looked better farther back. There are grayish splotches of talc — which smells of the baby powder your mother applies to your younger sister and brother — except around the armpits and inner thighs of the women, where the sweat has absorbed it. One very large and swallow stripper had a bounty of pubic hair, truly a wig dropped in the lard crock. Before the hermaphrodite displays the double whammy, the corn dog has begun to argue with the cotton candy, which shrinks in terror from the French-fry grease. After this, a trip to the swine barn and seeing the ass of a friend’s Duroc sow will be a specific relief.
Once I had drinks in Missouri with a racist, right-wing ex-con, happily married with three children, who spoke with boozy affection for his federal-prison lover, a black transvestite with the marvelous name “Tawna.” I asked him if he ever tried to get in touch with him and he corrected me with “her.” He insisted she was “all woman,” though of course she had a dick. When he returned to my question of getting in touch with Tawna in Kansas City, he said, “It wouldn’t be right,” meaning ethical. This avowed Christian who once had been caught with several hundred thousand Percodans had passed easily from a sexual attitude of any port in a storm to the sacrament of marriage. Life is like that, we agreed. You may control your sex life with a strong mental dog collar and leash, but your brain will continue to spin its own stories for you to enact.
It is our societal and religious rage for order that tries to confine sexuality to marriage. The fact that this leaves out single people and gays is irksome indeed. If we don't behave ourselves, maybe the economy will cease working. If only sex were what we pretend it to be, there wouldn't be all these problems. The statistics on marital infidelity become boggling when you go to a movie, concert, or ballgame and the numbers acquire faces. Doubtless the fear of AIDS has done more for marital fidelity than religion or societal opprobrium. These question is, what is permissible? Self-righteousness has become both a disease and an industry. Sexual content on TV is avidly discussed in Congress as if there were no sexual content in life, but then, historically, political corruption has always been singularly humorless. The most degraded feebs in recent history have all stood foursquare for family values, whatever those are.
Unless you are afflicted with satyriasis, the male equivalent of nymphomaniac, mood is everything in sexual matters, from which a high degree of pleasure is expected even though the pleasure might be limited to the visual. Mood is utterly dictatorial, and often it's as hard to reestablish a good mood as it is to reconstruct a spider web. Improbably, in fact. Sometimes the situation shows how dumb some of us are. In Ann Landers today, a wife has turned off during foreplay when her husband mentioned how sexually attractive he found her younger sister. When he got home from work, this guy must have shut his head in the car door. This particular mood problem will last for a while, in contrast to, say, trying to make love to a girl in the backseat of a car on a college campus the night before the big game. In the distance, a group around a bonfire is singing the college fight song. You are an aesthete, and your pecker wilts when confronted with the naked banality of this song. You drive a dozen miles into the countryside, where through the open window you hear only crickets and the rasping whisper of cornstalks, the moon wishing its own slow arc of light through the steamy window.
AT MY favorite strip club in America, the Night Before Lounge, in Lincoln, Nebraska — which I often visit with prominent academics from the local university, who use me for this purpose, as strip clubs are not an acceptable activity in modern universities — I was feeling distraught one evening and not able to emotionally relate to my then favorite stripper, Bonny, though her pubis in the clutches a violet G-string was a scant two feet from my nose. My mood was sodden but my mind was clear, and I could travel back in memory an entire two hours to when I had ordered an appetizer of deep-fried chicken gizzards to precede a two-pound porterhouse. I can't say these gizzards were delicious, rather they were an acquired taste to give you something to fiddle with delicately before the steak arrives, but they were proving to be obnoxious ballast. I couldn’t very well forsake my cronies and wrestle with the gizzards in the privacy of my quarters at the Cornhusker Hotel (actual name). My academic companions had their faces buried in books awaiting my summer arrival and now their normally mildewed faces were glowing. In short, I had to hang in there despite the fact that the gizzards had come back to life in my tummy.
I was saved by an electric moment. The Night Before allows you to hoist yourself over the stage rail and proffer a bill, a five or a ten, in your teeth while flat on your back, and the stripper plucks the bill away by clutching her buttocks. According to Kinsey, this is a view savored by many of our male citizens. The electricity came from a sturdy but attractive ranch girl who took off her cowboy hat, revealing a pale forehead above a face darkened by the sun, a sign of authenticity, and flipped onto the stage with a fiver in her teeth. She lay down with a pretty grin, and a hundred male faces tightened. The stripped paused, shrugged, laughed, then went for it. There were suitably wild cheers, in themselves a nod to sex in our time. Despite a hundred thousand laws, mostly enacted by dead-peckered suits, everyone gets to do it. This experience is as vital as a bean-soup punch and an envelope of cash is for a Washington lawmaker.
Meanwhile, my gizzard gristle dissolved, only to be met by a full discussion of sexual taste. Books have been written on the subject, albeit clumsily, not taking into full account our twelve billion brain cells and thirty billion synapsed that impose this taste with greater speed than Bill Gates’s gizmos. I don't feel drawn to tall women, but once I saw a tall stripper who reminded me of my tall seventh-grade teacher, Jeannie Blank, over who I had fantasized moment by moment within visual range. Suddenly tall women became a possible source of rapture. A friend with you might exclaim that a particular girl reminds him of Planet of the Apes, without the pelts. Her eyes are too close together and her left heel is excessively calloused. Her voice has a trace of the clarinet, and her grammar is bad. I'm not marine, I'm a poet. Luckily for them, not one woman out of a thousand reddens my ears with lust. The ratio goes way up in strip clubs because you're not going through weeks of quiet suffering before you see their butts, plain and simple.
IN A YEAR, I probably don't spend more time in a strip club than I do reading the Bible, another childhood habit, and just any old strip club won't do. If they're too fancy, as in New York City or on my one tip to Las Vegas, I don't feel at home. I feel shabby and literary among natty men flashing their bull-market or gambling thatches of cash. The air is excessively sanitized, the decor as expensive as a Westin lobby. The bouncers are in tuxes and call you “sire.” All the titties tend to be artificial, well-fleshed softballs. The girls are Olympic gymnasts with a little too much gym time showing, and possessing all the spontaneity of beauty-pageant contestants. And sometimes the girls are simply too beautiful, too perfect, in the manner of the ten thousand anonymous starlets drifting around Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. There's a tinge of the android, of a miraculous walking form of Madame Tussaud’s genius. Maybe they don't even need toilets in their apartments! In public they seem to eat lettuce and raw vegetables, and perhaps, like Peter Rabbit’s sisters, they leave only discreet droppings in the shrubbery.
During my visit to Las Vegas, a matter of sixteen hours, my stomach muscles ached because I had been laughing nonstop at the actuality of the place, which deafened [continued on page 123] my senses, a place that had zero to do with the history of Western culture but had everything to do with its future. In a place called Club Paradise, all of the girls resembled these L.A. starlets. Seated a few feet away, I looked hard, pondered, and craved a few flaws. During a twenty-buck table dance, my nose brushed dry skin that should have been moist. I wouldn't have been surprised if I had heard an electronic hum from insider her butt, which wiggle-waggled close to my nose and looked like it had been used only in outer space. I admit my worm turned and my heart beat faster, but the girls were simply as unimaginable as Christmas every day, or God actually saying to you in basso profundo, “Take heart, kiddo.”
YOU SEE A LOT of boozy camaraderie in strip clubs that has more to do with cronies on a night out than anything onstage. An intimate part of what “we wish sex to be but isn’t” is a false male gusto, an uncritical and affected enthusiasm for all things sexual. Even the most careworn business dweeb, the most devout techno-lackey, like to feel a little “naughty,” though that word is slipping from usage. Once again, how can you have a pathology when everything has become pathological? Naughty presumes adventure, and only failures have time for it. Unbridled lust is a rare commodity that isn't liberally doled out to all eight girls in the rotation. Sometimes you have to wait a whole hour to again see the girl you liked best and the other seven seem to diminish with your impatience. You become as sullen as the twelve-year-old you actually are at a strip club. During the downtime you gaze around and note that all of these men are trying to look more attractive than they are. A man in an unmodish business suit strides to the men’s room in the manner of a top-of-the-line street fighter. Whenever men stand up, they are filled with the effort of sucking in their guts or modestly flexing their muscles. They cast smoky smiles just short of drooling. However old they are, they have become younger. With the help of naked women they are back at the fantasy stage of “Women want me, but they don't seem able to express it.” But all in all it's not the least bit pathetic. And it's not voyeurism, which assumes that the object dont know theyre being viewed. It's been going on a long time and it seems apparent that it's not going to stop. Men say to themselves, “At least this is real life, not fantasy.” Of course strip clubs bear the same relationship to reality as do the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. If our man Herbert believes that this highly structured ritual is reality, the management should be congratulated. This public display of beauty institutes beauty. This is an important point. We have all read recently of the rampant sexual misbehavior in a western senior citizens’ community. A jaunty geezer feels a nut twinge and goes for broke, and equally often it is a granny who makes the first move. None of the residents are, by our culture’s definition, attractive. There is a somewhat wretched country song that goes, “The girls all get prettier at closing time.” In a bar, a lady your own size, say about two hundred pounds, flutters at you with a witty, “My body belongs to Marvin, but he's a Navy SEAL stationed in the Philippines.” No one wants to be attached by a vicious SEAL, real or military. You feel smarmy desire. Certainly she is as attractive as a pork roast, and you love pork roast. She leaves three lit Kools in the ashtray as she gets up, saying wittily, “I gotta take a piss.” You have become part dog, and you either hang in there or don’t. She's drunk maybe a dozen Kahlúas mixed with orange pop, according to the bartender. What if she pukes in the family Subaru? This is another clear case of sex as it is, wherein desire turns a pumpkin into Cinderela, a sow into a bulky Cameron Diaz.
IT IS A DESPERATE July with thirty-seven galleys and manuscripts on my cabin desk, plus a pile of half-written poems and two partially written books, and precisely fifty-three unanswered letters. It has been very hot, and both male and female bugs — mostly black flies and deer flies — have been finding me attractive. My solace has been rowing a little brown-and-blue boat counterclockwise around a big lake, which takes four hours, lovely but somewhat autistic behavior. On a steamy morning I recall that the great Zen master Yuan-Wu said, “Abandoning things is superior” — so I plan a road trip, settling on the most exciting state in the Union: Nebraska. For the past thirty year, long and aimless road trips have refreshed my body and mind. I have several dear friends in Nebraska, and the Niobrara river valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth. The capitol building in Lincoln is clearly the niftiest state-capitol building in the United States, but perhaps more important, Lincoln is the site of my beloved strip club the Night Before. My mom and dad always advised soul-searching before making a big decision, always advised soul-searching before making a big decision, so I meditated a full second. My mom and dad preferred the straight and narrow, whereas I, for nongenetic reasons, have favored the wide and crooked.
As I drive west I begin to wonder if my own taste might be far from or near to the norm. Men, above all, are excitable boys, but that doesn't mean that my own aesthetic principles are readily expunged by any thigh on the block. For instance, I once spent an evening at the Crazy Horse, a naked cabaret in Paris, including at least two hours backstage with the owner and friends drinking vintage wines. Lets just say this experience brought me very close to the heart of the matter. I felt a reverence that maybe Steven Spielberg owns after he creates one of those dawn-of-creation scenes. I tried to effect a mood of Parisian blase about the girls who brushed my left elbow on their way to the locker room. It means a great deal more to be a writer in Paris than in New York, and the girls wanted a group picture with me. Sophie Bernadin, the present owner, told me that her father, who began the club, would audition a thousand girls for every one he selected. It's a hundred bucks to enter the front door. Standing there with my arms around the moist bevy, I simply trembled. I've addressed several thousand people in a theater with far less agitation. This was a clear case of too much, the moral equivalent of drinking a magnum of ‘49 Lafite Rothschild in thirty minutes. I felt the aftershocks, the tremors, for days, the experience similar to that which a friend described when he called during an L.A. earthquake and said, “The fucking tectonics are grinding the shit out of each other.” In a perfect world the girls would have followed the lumbering Pied Piper out of the club to a remote manor in Burgundy where a gross of Viagra would have been depleted. Two years later I can still scent the lilac in the air, the laughing, dulcet French syllables, the weight of my thumping heart.
ON THIS NEBRASKA TRIP I had only three evenings at the Night Before. People talk about discretionary time on their cellulars, when they should throw them into a garbage truck and do what they want. Three nights was probably enough for a man who needed to get back on the Cornhusker Hotel and read Wittgenstein and a pile of civics textbooks. I was accompanied by an eminent folklorist and a well-known mental-health authority. Both wish to remain anonymous, having recently seen on CNN a man arrested for sticking out his tongue at women in a traffic jam. These are perilous times, when the Supreme Court would turn the great Henry Miller into chum were he still alive. Don’t stick out your tongue, even if there's a dung beetle biting it. Nowadays, you'll only be safe when you're dead.
I’d say that out of at least thirty evenings, my current three-day cycle was high medium. When the local University of Nebraska is in session, a portion of the girls are from modern dance classes, which adds a certain bourgeois zeal. On my last night, a fetching lass picked up the slack by wearing a sorority-type pleated skirt. I had also seen this taxi in a Tucson club, but in Lincoln the girl had the advantage of looking like a young Deborah Norville. Years ago, just before the cameras roller on the Today show, I had made Deborah blush by dropping a pencil and pretending to look up her dress. This archaic midwestern sorority look has greater appeal onstage than it does in a motel, where you learn they haven't even read Soren Kierkegaard.
I spoke with Ken Semler, who has owned the Night Before for nineteen years, about certain political pressures from the Lincoln city council. The criticism was concentrated on two other Lincoln clubs, which had a somewhat more permissive police but which were too loud for me to bear, what with my ears having been undimmed by rock music. Not oddly, Semler reminded me of the manager of a first-rate restaurant. The man was obviously shrewd, with a sharp eye for clean quarters, good air, and manageable behavior in his patrons. I mentioned my own notion that authorities are often threatened by a reality that doesn't exist. The arena of sexual confusion is wide indeed, and the media insists on a state of lust we can feel only in isolated moments. Men and a fair number of women come into this club, have a few drinks, chat, and watch nearly naked women dance often a comic parody of lust. As a freeborn American I am obstinate in thinking a nude woman does not jeopardize civic health and that, if anything, she encourages it.
Ironies abound. A parameterized greed has been the core of our society for the past decade, and this is evident in strip clubs. In the Night Before, the closest allowed contact with the stripper is, as I said, putting money in your mouth and having it taken by clenched buttocks or breasts. This is an improbable metaphor of fascism at play that we cooperate with because it is far, far better than nothing. By all evidence, the majority of interested men confine this activity to magazines and computers. I've noted for a long time that I am flesh, and I wanted to be there in the flesh. The nakedness of women by all standards is the glory of God. Men, too, for some. Why settle for virtual reality when you can be there?
On my last evening, between the dinner slab of Nebraska prime beef and our arrival at the Night Before, we stop to look at a university agricultural display of native grasses and wildflowers. I am swept away by this beauty in the middle of the city. In the late twilight, the cicadas are deafening, as you would be if you had been buried for seventeen years and had just emerged for sex. Even Shakespeare said, “We are nature, too.”
Meanwhile, it's hard to figure out public entertainment what is thriving and what is waning, though I suspect strip clubs are in the latter category for reasons greater than sniveling politicians. The world of Aldous Huxley, or of George Orwell in 1984, is much closer than we think, in fact, its peculiar tendrils are wrapped thoroughly around our lives. Both Orwell and Huxley would be amused by the “safe sex” represented in computer porn sites, not to speak of the dominance of politically correct behavior. And gradually the idea of a job, which once was not much more than a livelihood, has come to be equated with a life. Discretionary time to “booze and cruise” is rapidly fading into the past.
Once men in large numbers traveled to the tenderloins of cities to “let off steam,” as the euphemism goes, and this still happens in convention cities, where high-end strip clubs remain popular. Historically, the waxing and waning can be seen most clearly in the Northwest, where Seattle strip clubs were once a vast draw for loggers, commercial fishermen, cowboys, and farmers from the outlying areas. With the business gentrification of everything, the torch has passed to Vancouver, a city closer to the true outback, where, in half a dozen fine clubs, no rules are noticeable.
I suspect, then, that this is the twilight of stripping rather than the high noon, but then twilight has always been my favorite time of day. When you're far from home and having a fine dinner with cronies, and you are all tired of talking about how the lower 50 percent in our society are becoming social mutants (luckily I don't have friends who talk much about the stock market), you certainly aren't going to a movie where you can have a drink, or to a simple bar where you will continue talking about politics until your collective pores bleed. Instead, you go to a strip club, abandon politics, have a few drinks, and dwell on what you've always thought was the most beautiful thing on earth, the body of a woman.
This story was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Men's Journal.