Illustration by Derek Ballard

IT WAS MY THIRD DAY as a data-entry temp for the City of Portland. I spent eight hours entering things like JX167HJ50 into the appropriate spaces of computerized spreadsheets. XC90FH23 <tab> <tab> 1/13/96 <tab> <tab> F2HU33M <tab> <tab> C66 <return>. For all I knew I was dropping bombs on North Korea and turning large tracts of prairie into Walmarts. It didn't feel like honest work in pursuit of beauty and truth, that's for sure. At least it was only a two-week assignment.

"Hey Jack! I just realized that as of today I have 33 years and six months until retirement!" hollered the 300-pound brunette in the next cubicle.

"Oh yeah? I've got 28 years, three months, and five days," countered Jack, the foxy gay office manager.

I resolved to become a stripper or kill myself, and whipped out a little notebook to start a list of pros and cons. Either choice presented a highroad compared to office whoring, that was clear.

I had had the best training in critical thinking our nation could provide and I couldn't come up with anything very critical of the sex industry. Degrading? Not compared to the brain-melting hamster cage I was in at that moment. Exploitative? Of whom? In a free-market situation, each party would enter into the business willingly and prices would be set by the laws of supply and demand. Human sexual appetites being what they were, the supply side stood to make a pretty sweet profit. If only the nice entitled liberal arts ladies could stop twisting their engagement rings long enough to consider who stood to profit most from sex economics, the patriarchy would crumble.

Stripping was the Little League of the sex industry. It represented a safe and not-so-invasive testing ground for my theories. As far as I could tell it was an honest exchange: a dollar for a smile. In fact it seemed to be one line of work in which society's entrenched misogyny was more or less absent. Guys worshipped strippers and totally prostrated themselves at the Altar of the Naked Woman. The women I had met were entrepreneurs. They made their own rules, set their own hours, and drew their own boundaries. There were no middlemen. The girls were free to embrace whatever far-out philosophies they wanted and could even proselytize from the stage. And they certainly weren't unwittingly selling arms to Third World nations. The worst that could be said about strippers was that they were flouting society's conventions.

A flunky came over with a fresh pile of numbers and letters to be typed into the computer, and I snapped out of my reverie. My adrenaline was pumping and my ego had swelled to Che Guevara proportions thinking about so much revolution. I took a walk to the pissoir to cool down. On the way I quietly clocked my fellow hamsters with my best sociologist stare. These kind, bland, fashionless people had swallowed the status quo hook, line, and sinker and Lord look how fat it'd made them! They were beached whales with little fire left in them. They'd given up on beauty and truth—perhaps they'd never even thought of it. Sure could count, though! Twenty-eight years, three months, and five days until big gay Jack could sit in his easy chair and channel surf without interruption.

I'd seen enough people who toed the line in my first five years to know that I wasn't one of them. Maybe I'd finally found my tribe. Strippers! Who disavowed the proverbial fig leaf and were unashamed of their bodies and their sexuality. Who found the key to the Garden of Eden and let themselves back in. Whose mere existence threatened polite society so much that it refused to even think about sex work, and instead made grand pronouncements of degradation and victimization in a fierce attempt to cast aspersions on any words of truth that might fall from a stripper's painted lips. Dangerous broads, man. Total menace to society. I was in.

* * *

As research, I started spending a lot more time at the Magic Gardens. It was air conditioned and offered respite from the hot August sun, and Dave the English cook always fed us. And on Saturdays, Fat Jerry the bartender made us omelets, and we'd sit around listening to Led Zeppelin IV and drinking gimlets until the first yahoo came in.

The Saturday afternoon crowd was depressing as a rule. Old geezers who lived in the transient motels came in wearing all the clothing they had so as not to have it stolen. They'd sit at the rack sweating and offer a dollar every four songs. Jack would hobble in with his cane, dressed in a down parka. His thick glasses magnified his bugged-out eyes as he stared blankly and drooled. Black Larry would stop by—always in a spiffy suit—order Chivas and demand, "Show me the pink, baby," and "Spread it." The girls were inordinately nice to Black Larry because once upon a time he'd tipped very well. But since retirement he'd blown his cash. On them.

Black Larry liked me because I was a big-assed white girl. He was forever croaking licentious crap in my ear, which was uncomfortable and spitty because he'd had a tracheotomy. He had a serious chip on his shoulder and was probably the most racist person I'd ever met. He hated "niggers" and got really weird and schizo when non-whites came in. They were all lazy no-goods in his eyes. And Larry—"Black Larry"—was in fact black. He was so racist he'd get a stick up his ass if a gal so much as danced to James Brown or Jimi Hendrix. One time he gave Zyola, another curvy broad with a big white ass, half a dozen bottles of perfume, each with the word "white" in the name. White Shoulders. White Linen. White Whatever Else. One hundred-and-fifty bucks' worth. She knew because she returned them.

August melted into September and I was hurting for cash. I still wanted to be a stripper in theory, but was just a wee bit terrified to take the stage and drop my trousers. Mona was my stage mom.

"Watch and learn. Watch and learn."

So I did. I watched Sasha—a diminutive Irish sweet-tart who had an outsized attitude that more than clothed her when she was naked. "No greenery, no scenery!" she'd snarl in her hoarsey brogue. She had black hair cut in a shag—way before the shag's comeback—and wore suede cowboy boots she'd picked up at Goodwill. She danced to a lot of INXS.

I marveled at Rose, an older gal with chubby cheeks and wide, childlike eyes. She had a tattoo of a rose on her right shoulder. That and her head of dirty blonde pin curls were all you could see as she sat on the stage with her back to the room. Only when you looked at her reflection in the mirror did you notice that she was all but finger-banging herself, making naughty porno faces for the benefit of the completely engrossed guy sitting at the rack behind her.

I watched Jenny, a tiny Asian chick with fake tits who wore white chaps and white leather stiletto thigh-high boots. She danced exclusively to heavy metal and somehow managed to do flips and cartwheels and other wacky gymnastics on the Magic's five-foot-by-eight-foot stage. That's how tiny she was. She had a big husband, though, to carry her bags.

It was evident that there were as many styles of stripping as there were girls. What I found least moving were girls like Jenny, who, from the moment they hit the stage, were a dance routine with fewer and fewer clothes. This seemed silly to me. What kind of sexuality is implied when a girl swings around a pole upside down or does gymnastics or a Solid Gold dance routine with no clothes on? To me stripping was not about dancing, it was about stripping—the act of disrobing. The girls who really got under my skin were seductresses who knew instinctively that the more you tease your prey, the sweeter the kill. The allure of the striptease wasn't so much the gynecological show as it was the slow unveiling of forbidden fruit. My absolute favorite naked ladies could keep you on the edge of your seat for an entire song by simply undoing a garter belt. Ladies like Mona.

* * *

Black Larry kept bugging me. When was I going to audition? I'd let him know, right?

I'd wink and say, "Any day, Larry, any day."

But the truth was I didn't know when or if I'd audition. I was scared, intimidated. Something told me that once you started, you couldn't go back, that stripping was an all-consuming lifestyle choice and not just a means of putting off the real world for a few months or years.

Mona, Pink, and I went to lots of clubs. Mo was the queen of scamming free drinks and steak dinners, so we three skinflint vagabonds lived pretty well for a while. We'd get up around 10 am, ease Mona through her treacherous morning existential crises, then drink coffee and smoke cigarettes at the hipster coffee shop, Umbra Penumbra, until our free ride presented himself. By two we'd have some poor Joey roped in, buying us fancy champagne cocktails and escargots at a swanky hotel bar or something. We'd ditch him and head to the Magic for the after-work regulars who were so desperate for relief from the humdrum that they were a guaranteed free meal. Probably pot, too.

My favorite hours were those spent at the strip clubs. Mona was respected by the other strippers. They'd all come by and say hi, and soon I knew Sasha, Claudia, Morgan, June, Nikki, Tracy, Teresa, Rain, Venus, and more beyond the fake-name basis.

"Watch and learn!" reminded Mona, knowing full well I'd take the plunge sooner or later.

If a really hot '70s song came on—say, Al Green or Marvin Gaye—she'd bounce off her barstool and slither gracefully around the joint, usually forcing me to join her, teaching me the Texas two-step along the way. Occasionally she'd oblige us all with an impromptu striptease, provided the working girls would cede the stage for a song or two. Seeing Mo strip out of her wool lumberjack jacket, Elmer Fudd hat, ratty cashmere sweater, patched blue jeans, clunky boots, and stinky socks (she always ceremoniously sniffed them, sitting catlike onstage) to reveal her superhero body—big tits, humongous bush, and bald head—was art incarnate. Certainly not a dry crotch in the house.

I felt so at home in these sleazy dive bars, the customers quickly becoming my trusted friends. Mo would point out moves she thought beyond disgusting. The rather standard hip grind, for instance, which she said, "makes you look like you're taking a shit."

Mona's brand of striptease was psychological. It required getting into character—the vixen temptress—and never dropping it for a second. She was all class, even when holding a stinky sock or pair of panties to her face and inhaling deeply. Even when hurling an ashtray at a cretinous customer's head. Even when collapsing in tears at the bar.

I started practicing moves in front of a mirror in my cramped studio apartment to a soundtrack of the Ramones, the Clash, David Bowie, and Marlene Dietrich. I picked through slips and robes at Goodwill and looked for underthings at Fantasy Video, which had lots of creepy '80s lingerie: dollar garters, peek-a-boo bras, crotchless panties. When I came across a pair of $55 "worn and refinished" seven-inch platform heels, covered in sparkly burgundy glass bits and three sizes too big for me, I knew it was time. I'd found my ruby slippers. I could click my heels three times, say, "There's no place like home," and take it off.

Viva Las Vegas will appear as a guest on the Ed Forman Show Tuesday, Sept 1, Dantes, 9 pm, FREE. See vivacide.com for complete, updated information on upcoming readings, events, and parties.