July 6, 2014

The Inevitability of the Strip-O-Gram


As titty bars go, it wasn’t the nastiest or ugliest joint Philly had to offer. It wasn’t anything like that stretch over on east Market Street, hooboy. Those places could get pretty scary sometimes, and it had nothing to do with the customers or the bouncers. This place at least had carpeting. I forget the exact name—Chumley’s, maybe—but it was close, right across the river, tucked away in the basement of the Chili’s, just a block or two down from the Chestnut Cabaret. The best thing about it was the neon sign over the door, which portrayed an apparently terrified man tied to a chair as a woman thrust her hips at him. God how I wanted that sign for my living room.

            I’m not sure what prompted Dave and me to head over there one night. My guess is my future first wife was out of town, and whenever that happened (this is such a fucking cliché) I always felt compelled to do the worst things imaginable. At least in her eyes. Usually this meant hanging out at some punk rock bar or another then stumbling home incoherent and sick, only to stay up until four or five in the morning watching stupid, filthy violent films. But that night Dave and I decided a strip club was in order. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be able to see anything. My future wife, see, had a weird, almost psychotic puritanical streak, and either exploded into hysterical paroxysms of rage or was dropped into an impenetrable depression whenever confronted with anything that even hinted at the sexual. Random passages from Henry Miller could set her off, and that’s understandable, but so could a sideshow banner featuring a woman in a bikini. It was weird is what it was. So yes, a titty bar was the worst possible thing I could do.

            I think we walked across the river to Chumley’s, leaving Dave’s car at my place. It was a cool Tuesday night in 1989. At the bottom of the short flight of stairs dipping under Chili’s, we were met by a bear of a man in a tuxedo. He smiled as he took a ten spot from each of us and told us to have a good time, handing us the tickets that entitled us to two free drinks and access to the “hot food bar.”

            The interior was neon-lit, cold, and loud. Van Halen and Poison traded off on the deafening stereo system with 2 Live Crew and Run-DMC, depending on whether the stripper onstage at the time was black or white. Being a Tuesday night the place was half-empty, so Dave and I worked our way around the horseshoe-shaped bar and took a couple of seats. We ordered our first drink and sat there. Dave was smart enough to order a bottled beer with his ticket, while I ended up with a juice glass filled with bourbon that was half ice and a quarter water.

            There was something happening on stage, there was no question of that, but what it was exactly we couldn’t say. I couldn’t see anything anyway, but neither could Dave, given that a large pole and the cash register were blocking his view. Still, he did what he could to describe what was happening.

            “Well, now this black stripper is lying on her back, spreading her legs. Can’t see anything else, ‘cause the cash register’s in the way.”

            “That makes sense, I guess.”

            As each stripper finished on stage, she worked her way around the inside of the horseshoe bar, pausing to gyrate and squeeze her boobs together for each customer individually, in hopes of earning a few extra tips. Given the volume of the stereo and my dim eyes, I had no idea this was happening until I slowly crunched a few ice cubes from my empty glass and a moment later heard a small voice say to Dave, “Your friend is a very serious man.” Apparently she’d been grinding her dead little heart out in front of me for some time without my noticing. For her incisive commentary alone (and because I felt a little bad) I had Dave give her a dollar. I figured it was better to let Dave do it, since chances were good I’d shove it in her mouth or poke her in the eye with it.

            We stayed a few hours, had a couple of drinks, Dave handed out a few more dollar bills, then we left, and my girlfriend would never be the wiser. All in all it was a fairly boring evening. From my perspective it wasn’t that much different from my usual night at the bar, though I generally stayed away from the neon bars that played Poison. As per usual the next day I typed up a little story about Chumley’s and turned it in to my editor to run the following week.

            It seems a stupid move, right? The whole idea of sneaking off to Chumley’s when my girlfriend was out of town rested on the premise that she would never find out. Even as I was typing I knew if she did learn I went to a titty bar with Dave, she’d set me on fire, simple as that. Set me on fire, then shoot me in the head, ridding the world of another chauvinist pig. Then she’d go over to Dave’s place and do the same to him. If my girlfriend was gonna blow a gasket, why in the fuck would I just come out and recount the evening in a public forum like that? The answer was simple. She despised my column, everything about it, and so refused to read it on principle. That was fine by me. Never had any patience for someone reading over my shoulder.

            Sure enough the story hit the streets, she never bothered to open the paper, and a week after that when the next issue came out with another story, the Chumley’s story was gone forever and forgotten. Ah, those blessed pre-Internet days. I was in the clear, yes sir.

            About a month later, my girlfriend and I were at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for some gala opening or another, something else I was supposed to be covering for the paper. I didn’t much care about the show, but the Art Museum always put out a good spread at their openings, I could get away with enough wine and goat cheese to last me a couple of days, and she liked arty crap with that illusion of class, so there we were.

            We were standing near the wine table when the paper’s editor-in-chief, a red-haired tight-assed fellow I generally tried to avoid, approached us.

            “Hey Knipfel,” he said in that wealthy nasal voice of his, and I knew immediately he was going to rag on me for something. He had little patience for my column, either. “Hey, just wanted to say how much I really liked your column about going to the strip club.”

            I could feel my girlfriend’s cold, cold eyes snap toward me, and heard the muscles in her jaw and neck contract and crackle. Fuck me, I was a dead man. I couldn’t very well kick this guy, either. It was too late for that. “Oh, um,” I said. “Thanks.” If he left it there, just left it where it was with that and walked away, I might be able to talk my way around it. (“Oh, honey, don’t even think for a second I’d ever consider writing something like that. You know what a hophead he is, and a drunkard, too. He never has any idea what he’s talking about.”)

            But no, no, I knew that was asking too much.

            “Yeah, I particularly liked that part where you and your friend Dave were talking to the stripper and she . . . ”


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