“Oh God, M.,” I sighed. “You’re trash.”
He roared as if I was the funniest woman alive.
M. would tell me what his three teenage daughters were up to, and what opera he’d seen lately (he was a huge buff). Often, he’d mention work, some murky finance gig, that, as he told it, had recently attracted the attention of the authorities. “I’m stressed out,” he’d say. “The feds are breathing down my neck again.” Or “The S.E.C. is after us.”
Strip clubs are built around flattering the male ego, and the customer’s own aggrandizement was often part of the package. Many a Steve from Middle Management became Steven the C.E.O., sometimes right down to the fake business card. Honestly, I thought M. was full of it.
But there I sat, in the privacy of my own home, with a letter from him, addressed to me in my real name. I was touched, amused and really weirded out. I hadn’t worked at that club in six years and had moved across the country.
I’d come to trust M. enough as a customer to step out from behind my stage persona. (Why do I call him M. here? Pseudonyms are customary for strippers; I extend a similar discretion to him as a courtesy.) He knew my ambitions, my age. And, thanks to Google, he knew I had a P.O. box. The letter, typed up and printed out, started with a bombshell: The S.E.C. had, indeed, caught up to him. He’d been arrested on charges of fiscal malfeasance and was partway through a multiple-year sentence.
What do you know? That son of a gun wasn’t lying.
Memory is protean. I haven’t forgotten much about stripping, but the significance of things has shifted over time. I recall an evening spent sitting in the restaurant section of Scores listening to a dancer describe her financial plan. She told me how she managed to put away $12,000 a month into a Charles Schwab brokerage account and, widening her blue eyes, she recited what she’d told a chief executive client who wanted to give her something special: “I’d be honored if you’d give me some of your company’s stock.”
I also remember seeing a dancer at my home club frowning at a thick gold chain a customer had just given her. She had it in a Ziploc bag, puzzling over what to do because she couldn’t bring it home. Her husband hated these gifts — didn’t like being shown up by expensive goods, and certainly didn’t appreciate the material intrusion of other men into their lives. I used to see these gifts and the labyrinthine relationships around them as “just business.” But in retrospect, they are more than that. It’s not just stuff that’s exchanged; it’s energy. The cash and trinkets become bonding agents.
Some people carry the imprint of others around with them. For the libertines and polyamorous overachievers among us, it’s probably no great shakes. But for those conflicted about monetizing certain things — romantic bandwidth and emotional access, to say nothing of bodies — such messy connections create a problem. You can’t not know what you know, and you can’t unfeel what you feel. A gift can have a certain psychic stickiness to it. So, too, I learned, can a letter.