I didn’t get to work at Club Paradox for very long. I was there only a little less than three months. I found out that the club was closed for good one week after my twentieth birthday. I showed up to work one Monday afternoon and saw the bars were still over the door. Gradually other girls trickled down the street and we sat on the front step frantically texting Patty, our beloved front desk lady, asking her what exactly was going on. Within a few minutes she gave us the terrible news: she had just gotten a call from one of the owners. He told her they had finally lost their license and might very well never get it back.
As I’ve mentioned before, a few months before I came to work at Club Paradox the place was busted for prostitution. The ‘windowless’ room was actually windowless in those days, and there were two particular girls, Pandora and Nancy, who seemed to be under the impression that a booth with no glass was an invitation to do the horizontal tango rather than pretending to dance with themselves. I don’t know exactly how it happened, though the story I heard first was that Nancy ended up blowing–or at least offering to blow–an undercover cop. Whatever happened, it was enough for the police to bust the place, arrest a few girls, and close down the whole club for quite some time.
I didn’t know it when I applied, but anyone who had even a passing familiarity with the city of Chicago’s general view of strip clubs could tell you the club’s days were numbered. But the owner acted as if everything had been sorted out and didn’t even tell anyone the club was still fighting out their fate in court. Perhaps he feared a mass exodus of his charges, perhaps he didn’t think it was something we even deserved to know. The man wore sunglasses indoors and constantly chewed on a damp stub of cigar; the motivations of such people can never be truly determined.
In addition to the club’s legal troubles, there was reason to believe there were financial troubles. Fall, winter (with the exception of the holiday season) and the beginning of spring are always good times for strip clubs; the end of spring and summer are not. Maybe it’s because during the warmer months men can see so much on the street anyway, but summer is a bad time to own a strip club. The business that had been booming when I first came to the club was flagging severely. Monday afternoons, which had once been a goldmine, bringing in a guaranteed four hundred dollars for even the least popular girls, had slowed down to almost a standstill. There were few non-regular customers, and one of us at a time was posted in the lobby in hopes that our smiling, scantily-clad presence would entice new customers to stay for a show.
It wasn’t that no one walked in, all sorts of people walked in.
“So what’s this?” they’d ask. “This doesn’t look like a strip club.”
“This is a peep show,” the girl in the lobby would inform them. “You pick a girl from that slideshow, you go into a booth, and she dances for you while you do whatever you want.”
“Like Boondock Saints?” the men would ask dubiously.
“Exactly like Boondock Saints!” we’d exclaim happily. “Just, you know, without the murder. There’s no murder here, just fun. And naked girls. Which leads to fun. You know, you don’t have too much to lose by getting a show with one of us. You should get a show. With me. It would be the funnest!”
I admit that I was probably the only girl to use that particular phrasing in the second half of the This-is-Just-Like-a-Less-Violent-Scene-in-Boondock-Saints speech, (and that it probably sounds at least somewhat desperate) but my sense of humor has always been more effective than any kind of slinky come-ons when it comes to seduction. I’m appallingly bad at slinky come-ons, and my sexyface makes me look like I just got off the short bus to special school. I’ve always been the comical sex worker, but here even my jokes failed me. Younger men, especially, were reluctant at best to step into a booth and stare at a naked woman writhing behind glass, and the older men weren’t showing up with the regularity they once did. It was pretty clear that if the club couldn’t weather this financial dry spell, it would be the end for everyone.
Tensions ran high in the dressing room. We were all worried, and it showed in the increasingly dense cloud of smoke that hung over everything. Once, on a particularly slow day, the fire department showed up for a routine inspection. We hid the ashtrays and put out our cigarettes, but as they squeezed through the narrow spaces in the dressing room, they looked at us like they were on to something. When the club closed for a week at the beginning of May, I wondered if perhaps it had something to do with fire code violations.
Random closings were becoming more common, and the night shift that was supposed to stretch from 7:30 in the evening until four in the morning often ended at one o’clock or even earlier, because there just weren’t any customers to make it worthwhile. We all went to Patty in a group, pleading with her to reason with Joe on our behalf. After all, it seemed obvious to us that irregular hours couldn’t possibly help matters. But Joe wouldn’t hear it, nor would he hear Patty’s idea for a full-color flyer depicting all of us lined up in the lobby, arms around each other’s waists, smiling knowingly at whoever the viewer might be. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the owner didn’t want to spend money luring people onto a sinking ship, but at the time it seemed to be a great injustice. This guy, who didn’t even drop by more than once every two weeks or so, clearly didn’t give a damn about our money. Who did he think he was?
When the club eventually closed, it was devastating. At the same time, it seemed–to me at least–to be the natural end of the recent events: a tragic end, of course, certainly an end that I hadn’t wanted to think about, but the natural end all the same. What didn’t seem so natural was the incredible sense of loss I felt. It wasn’t as if I had to lose touch with my Paradox friends. To this day I talk to Destiny, Victoria, and Sandra every so often, and it wasn’t even as if I was suddenly doomed to a life of poverty. I was a nubile twenty year-old girl. There were, I was sure, all sorts of avenues available to me within the sex industry. Of course I couldn’t do whatever I wanted, I had Stanley’s feelings to consider, but it couldn’t be that hard, I reasoned, to find something that paid just as well, if not better.
But there would be no guarantee I’d find a place like Paradox. At work I sometimes felt more at home than I did when I was really in my apartment. The little community of disparate women had become one of the loveliest, most precious parts of my life. Sure, we had each other’s phone numbers, we had exchanged Facebook friendship, but I think we were all very much aware that these slight technological links wouldn’t be enough to keep us glued together. We required the odd little world, isolated from everything most people call ‘reality’ to retain our bond. The end of Paradox brought with it the end of the weird little sisterhood that we had formed in the closet-sized dressing room. It brought the end of the bizarre clients, the end of shared bleeding, the end of the endless good-natured complaints, the pranks, and all the things that made the job so wonderful. At the time, of course, I had no idea, but it would also bring with it the beginnings of my partially self-inflicted imprisonment in the house that would become increasingly less home-like.
I miss Club Paradox to this day. While I’ve discovered that there is better money to be made elsewhere, I would exchange the higher earning potential of other clubs for the closeness and the amusing moments of Paradox. I doubt the place will ever re-open, even the sign is gone. But if it does, I will go rushing back without hesitation to once again be the live nude girl writhing and spread-eagling behind the glass.
Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.