A TV showrunner trying to learn more about women characters does research in a strip joint. 2,930 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zack was glad in this moment to be in Brooklyn, at this bare bones den of bare flesh. Also, he needed material for Season Three.
He had been given carte blanche as showrunner for Season One and Two. Season Two was “not a dud, by any means,” wrote a critic for The Carrier trade, “yet it paled in comparison to Season One. It was young Faulkner, in over his head. It was strained with forced mystery. One had to wonder if Zack Randke was being pedantic on purpose, in the hopes of disguising an unfleshed-out narrative and betting on the possibility that his work would be seen as too genius to be understood.”
“Eh, take it as a compliment,” his agent had said after an hour-long verbal lashing over poolside mint juleps in Los Angeles. Zack kicked his boots off the end of the lounge chair, pulling his ball cap down lower on his forehead. He was still Zack Randke. That had to count for something. After a year of meetings with his agent Alan, the word poolside now felt like a threat.
“You told me the episodes were good,” Zack had whined.
“Listen, kid, you’re the writer. If you’re going to demand sole writing credit, and you know you need three-dimensional women, then you better know what a 3D woman is like. You researched it, right?”
“A woman was the goddamn lead character of the whole Season Two,” Zack said, throwing up his hands.
“Yeah, but they didn’t like it that she got knocked up at the end, and she didn’t die like the men.”
“What the fuck. Women have babies.”
“Here, this is what that piece of work over at the Crunch Factory blog wrote. “Zack Randke, apparently…”
“I don’t want to hear any more, Alan.”
The agent started reading the review aloud again. “Zack Randke, apparently, can only come up with archetypes of strong women,” He read louder this time, and at a deliberated pace. “Patricia is the only detective that lives and she’s having the male detective’s baby. Which suggests that she literally had to have part of a man inside her to increase her value. Simply outlasting and outsmarting all the men wasn’t enough of a redeemable characteristic on its own.”
“It’s always something, Alan.”
“Sounds like they think you turned your tough lady into a baby factory.”
“Maybe I’ll just make the next female cop a whore. Then everyone will be happy.”
“No one wants that, kid.”
As Zack smoked his cigarette outside the nondescript grey Brooklyn building with a black banner showcasing the club’s logo stretched above the door, he stared at a Fritos bag whirling on the sidewalk and coming dangerously close to a pile of spit. I love how straight forward this dive bar is, he thought. A strip club is what I need. Real grit, and real strippers. Something to take my mind off the conversations with my agent back in Los Angeles.
Zack had read the Yelp reviews. Four stars with some complaints about rudeness. It seemed like the way to go. He had just arrived at JFK direct from LAX that afternoon. He needed to get away. He was tired of all the bullshit. Even strip clubs in L.A. were pretentious as fuck. He had started frequenting Jumbo’s Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard a couple months back, looking for something different than the overly manicured L.A. gentlemen’s clubs, but it had just turned out to be a disappointment. The dancers at Jumbo’s wore pasties over their nipples, and there were no lap dances. Plus, the strippers were smart in an annoying way. He thought maybe they knew who he was. It was hard to tell. He wanted to meet girls dying to be written into a script or to be cast as vixens. But the dancers at Jumbo’s thought they were intellectuals or avant-garde performance artists.
One dancer, named Simone, could not stop making existential literature references. “I believe that truth has only one face, that of a violent contradiction,” she said to Zack one night.
“Well, yeah,” he’d replied as he drank a bullet neat. “But sometimes the opposite could be said.”
“Georges Bataille,” swooned Simone.
“Do you read him?”
“Oh, I have to take a piss,” Zack said, then stood and walked away.
The Jumbo’s girls even had what they referred to as personas, not just stripper names. Instead of Lacy from Michigan, or Destiny from Oakland, it was Genevieve, the visual art director for the gay version of Hamlet, or this one dancer who called herself “A Girl’s Best Friend.” Her costumes were covered in rhinestones and her breasts were always smeared with fake blood. Zack had asked her what she did with herself when she wasn’t “performing.”
“It’s not what I do. It’s who I am,” she’d responded.
Zack felt it was like talking to the goddamn stripper version of the burning bush. Where was the Old School mystery? Dancers with soft glow makeup and street smarts, but otherwise dim or vapid enough to make a guy wonder if there was more there.
So instead of Jumbo’s, Zack was in Brooklyn, tossing his cigarette butt into the street and opening the door to Lucite.
“ID,” a hulking six-foot-five bouncer with a baby face and glasses demanded. Zack pulled out his driver’s license. “Arms out, man.” The bouncer patted Zack down with the perverse efficiency of a TSA agent.
“Is this a preview?” asked Zack, with a smug smirk.
“Yo. None of that homoerotic shit, guy. It’s too early in the night.”
“It was a joke, man.”
“There’s plenty of broads in here for you to practice your comedy routine on. Now either come in and relax or go chat up a bouncer in Chelsea if that’s what you’re into.”
“Jesus,” Zack mumbled, skulking toward the bar.
Sandy was a tomboy. She was awkward in her femininity, like a puppy with overgrown legs. She wanted to be more of a girly girl, but didn’t know how. Her mother had dissuaded her from using cosmetics at a young age, stating that it was all vanity. Sandy had hoped to go to college on a soccer scholarship, but when an injury forced her to stop playing, she dropped out of high school.
Inspired by Joan from the few episodes she had watched of Mad Men, she decided to move to New York and become a city girl. But when she arrived, she realized the glamour she had hoped for had been replaced by hipsterdom with its square glasses and frump aesthetic.
Sandy lived in Brooklyn with four roommates who sat around watching TV shows they thought were either completely horrible or completely brilliant. She felt confused and disillusioned. Now all her money was gone, and she needed a job.
She was walking along Grant Street in Brooklyn when she noticed a group of girls headed in the same direction. There was something mysterious about their collective basicness. Like a uniform, with their devious and boisterous laughter, fur-hooded cropped down jackets in various shades of pastels. They were smoking and swearing like sailors. They had nice butts. Sandy wondered what she looked like from behind. Two of the girls had small cute bubble butts, and the other two had full round heart-shaped backsides that were hypnotizing to watch. The girls appeared to bounce, rather than walk. They were like a pack of sinister bubble gum.
Curious, Sandy followed them into a cement Brooklyn building called Lucite. The girls skipped past the bouncer, never stopping their simultaneous chatter. “ID,” the bouncer said to Sandy as he held his arm out in front to block her.
“Oh, yeah, OK.”
“You seem confused. You here to audition?”
“Audition?” Sandy looked around the purple-lit room, her eyes bulging as a row of three dancers in costumes spinning on poles came into focus.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess or you know?’
Sandy stopped to think. If the bouncer considered it even plausible that she could be auditioning, then maybe there was something about herself she was unaware of.
“But, wait, I don’t have a costume.”
“You got underwear, don’t ya?” Sandy didn’t answer. “Well, if you got underwear then you’re good to go. Wait over there.”
Sandy leaned against the wall. One of the girls from the street stumbled onto the stage, bending over every few steps to fasten her heel strap. Another dancer slapped the girl’s ass, and they both laughed. The girls stared at themselves in the mirror without any doubt about how attractive they were. Sandy could see this, because it was a way she had never looked at herself.
She looked around at the girls in the dressing room. She decided to strip down to her underwear and gingham blouse, tying it in a knot around her waist.
“Come with me,” an intimidating looking man with stark blue eyes said, ushering Sandy downstairs. “Just knock on the office door when you’re ready.”
Sandy looked herself over in the mirror, practicing the expression she had seen on the faces of the girls on stage. She ran her fingertips sensually from her neck down to her cleavage, and then knocked on the office door. The manager looked her over. “Yeah, that works. Have at it. You go up on the hour.”
“You mean, to audition?”
“No. This was the audition. You got the right stuff. So, if you wanna stay, go on stage. One of the girls called in sick anyway.”
“What do I do exactly?”
“There’s two bartenders upstairs — bitchy and bitchier. Talk to bitchy.”
“Which one’s that?”
“The ginger. Kinsey.”
Kinsey had long strawberry blond hair and dark brown eyes. She bartended a few nights a week at the strip club to support herself while she worked on a novel about women working in a strip club. The working title was, Red Yellow Green, and she hoped to turn it into a TV series. She had been a bartender at an upscale cocktail lounge on Park Avenue for three years but had grown weary of bougie assholes asking a million personal questions and then only tipping ten percent. She’d seen an ad on Craigslist for an experienced bartender at an old school titty bar. It sounded like the perfect antidote to her situation. As a writer, she’d felt no inspiration on Park Avenue, except when she’d actually dated a suit here and there. But then it was all the same kind of inspiration because the guys seemed to be proudly channeling Patrick Bateman. Kinsey had lost track of how many times she had snuck out of some drunk banker’s penthouse as he grew sexually demanding.
She liked Lucite. She enjoyed observing the psychology of it, and had figured out which dancers made the most money, and why.
Kinsey was reading a copy of The New Yorker, huddled by the light of her register, waiting for customers to arrive, when she felt the presence of an unsure entity next to her, working up the courage to speak.
“Hi, um, the manager told me to talk to you.”
Kinsey looked Sandy up and down. “Baby stripper? You’ve never done this before, I take it?”
“No. I used to be a soccer player though, and we wore pretty short shorts.”
Kinsey smiled in spite of herself. “OK, well, you need a name. Did you pick one?” Kinsey stared at her, waiting. “Pick something dumb. You’ll make more money.”
“We have a Candy here.”
“Sure, that works.”
“I don’t have any real outfits so far.”
“What you’re wearing is perfect. Men love it when you look like a sorority girl who sits around in her underwear all day.”
“I don’t really know how to dance, either.”
“You’ll learn, but for tonight act like you can barely walk in those shoes and you’ll make bank. Also, borrow some pink lipstick.”
“I have red in my bag.”
“Red’s too intimidating. Wear pink.”
“What do I say? To the men?”
“Just sit down next to them and act confused and excited all at the same time. Giggle at everything they say even if it’s not meant to be a joke. Then, when five minutes have passed, ask if they want a lap dance. If they say maybe, then just keep sitting there awkwardly until they give in and buy one. If they say no, don’t waste your time trying to convince them. That only works for aggressive girls.”
“How do I give a lap dance?”
“Just rub your butt on their lap. Watch the other girls. You’ll figure it out.”
Zack looked around. He sat down and ordered a scotch. His eyes perused the stage, looking for the perfect girl to give him a lap dance, a real stripper, someone to give him inspiration for Season Three. Zack sized up the three girls on stage. One reminded him of the dancers at Jumbo’s Clown Room: a tall blond with a cowboy hat and boots and boobs tumbling around inside an open fringe leather vest. Too cliché, he thought. The second girl was a conundrum in that she had a nice body but she had glasses and cropped hair. As his eyes settled on the third dancer, Zack felt relief, even inspired. There she was: an athletic brunette with a pleasantly average face who kept flipping her hair and studying herself in the mirror. She didn’t even dance; she wobbled. It has to be an act, he decided. She’s clearly a pro. She knows exactly how to appeal to a desperate man. Zack waved her over.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“I’m Cookie,” said Sandy, holding her hand out for Zack to shake.
“You’re really beautiful. Can I get a dance?”
Zack handed her a twenty, and they went into the back room, which was covered by a sheer curtain. She plopped down on his lap, her ass next to his crotch.
“Turn around, let’s talk a little,” he suggested. So Cookie turned around, scanning the room for an example of what to do, but she and Zack were the only couple. He grabbed her hips and guided her to straddle him. “You like working here?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s a nice place.”
“You get along with the other girls?”
“Everyone’s super nice here.”
“What do you do besides this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I like walking around the city and looking at people and things. I’ve been trying to teach myself about hair and makeup and all that. What do you do?”
“You ever seen the TV show, Real Cop?”
“I think my roommates watch it. I think it’s one of the shows they say is brilliant.”
Zack smiled to himself. “Well, I wrote it.”
“You mean, like you made it up?”
“Yes, I created it.”
“That’s so smart!” Cookie said, thinking of something else he might like to hear. “I wish I could be in your show!” she gushed.
“Well, it’s never a bad thing to dream big,” Zack told her as he squeezed her thighs. “You are a real strong girl, Cookie.”
“I guess it’s from all that walking,” Cookie giggled.
“I gotta get going now. I have some writing to do. Maybe I’ll see you again. I’m in town all week. Hollywood’s getting me down. So unappreciative.”
Cookie nodded like she understood.
Kinsey looked up as Cookie tapped her on the shoulder with excitement. “Hey, Kinsey, do you know that show Real Cop?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“The guy I just gave a lap dance said he made it.”
“Writes it? Directs it?” Kinsey shook her head, trying to decipher Cookie’s nonsense.
“Listen, these guys say a lot of bullshit. I wouldn’t take it all too seriously.”
“He seemed like he was telling the truth.”
After Cookie walked away disheartened, Kinsey pulled out her cell and googled Real Cop’s showrunner. There he was, Zack Randke, the same guy who just had a lap dance from Cookie. Kinsey became agitated.
Two nights later, Zack headed back to Lucite in the hopes of talking to Cookie some more. He was already trashed, and as he neared the entrance, he remembered he had a big bottle of Wild Turkey in his backpack. Maybe it’ll be a different bouncer this time, he hoped. But it’s the same lug-head from the other night.
“You can’t bring this in here, man.” The bouncer held up the bottle of Wild Turkey, shaking his head, then shoved it into Zack’s chest, motioning to the door. “Out!”
Kinsey had been watching the door with hypervigilance, looking up after every drink she poured. An hour and a half into her shift, inbetween a rum and coke and a whiskey ginger, she saw him. Zack Randke. She finished a hasty four-count, slamming the drink in front of a customer. “Eight bucks,” she said, not waiting for payment before she speed-walked toward the door.
Kinsey followed Zack outside, pushing through a crowd of people waiting for their ID checks and pat downs.
“Are you Zack Randke?”
He turned around, the street lamp illuminating a whimsical and uncharacteristic smile on his drunken face. “You know who I am?”
“Of course I do.”
“Of course you do?”
“Yes. Stay out of my territory.”
“You heard me.”
“Is this a joke?”
Kinsey looked him up and down. “If you want a joke, go back to Hollywood.”
“Well, fuck you!”
“Fuck you, too!”
Zack and Kinsey stared at one other, then Zack turned and walked away. The bouncer stuck his head out the door.
“You know that guy?”
“Who is he?”
“Just some fucking asshole.”