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Bare Market

Come a little closer, baby—pull your barstool over, lean in, inhale the haze of cigarettes and perfume so thick it’ll make your throat burn—and Phoenix will tell you everything you want to know.

She’ll tell you about her parents, who hate her job of course but stand by her because stripping is just a temporary thing and they support her no matter what because that’s just the way they are, y’know. She’ll tell you about what she really wants to do, which is become a police officer, after maybe another month of this bullshit so she can pay her way through college. She’ll tell you about her tattoos—dark, angular stars blooming on her shoulder blades—which are a tribute to her family. And if you hang around long enough, she’ll tell you about her three-year-old son, Junior, who thinks she’s a waitress, although he doesn’t really understand much of anything yet.

Phoenix is 21 but her low, serrated voice makes her sound older. She is wearing fishnets and a dog collar necklace with spikes. There is a wad of bills tucked into her underwear string. Her heels are so dizzyingly high that I can’t stop staring at them. My scuffed flip-flops look really unsexy in comparison. Phoenix smiles and stands, her legs unfolding endlessly.

“This is a tiny bit of fame, a tiny bit of celebrity,” she says. “It makes you feel good about yourself, to be watched, to be admired, adored by others.”

Meanwhile, I can feel the eyes on me: What’s up with this chick? Ayyyee she’s from Yaaale. Girl, look at her squirm.

At East Street’s Catwalk Club, which opened in 1996, the electric pulse of hip-hop and pop and rock is in the air till 5 a.m. and chandeliers throw spangled shadows on the walls. The pole reflects constellations of colored lights. At the bar, the off-duty girls cross their legs and sip Red Bull, casting sultry looks through thick black lashes.

“You get all different kinds of people in here,” says Mark Rhatigan, the manager. The older businessmen come in early, watch hungrily from the outskirts of the room, eyes big and glazed behind their glasses. The college kids come in real late, after 2 a.m. Sometimes they get a little too aggressive with the girls, but Mark, a former bouncer, doesn’t let that fly.

Mark was in the army for five years. He is round-shouldered with a greased coif and huge pecs that strain against a tight black shirt. He looks like he could break your face without even trying.

“It’s the worst when a guy tries to touch you,” says Valentina, who is 27 and has a big, brassy voice. Her hair is a crunchy orange cloud. She used to work as a computer teacher but got laid off. “I went to school for almost three years, I’m certified at Microsoft, and I work in a strip club,” she says. “I mean that showwws you something, baby girl. Come onnn.” Running her tongue over her teeth, she adds, “The economy sucks.”

Serenity is 19 and skinny and about my height—five-foot-three—except for the heels. Her eyes are thickly lined and winged at the edges, Cleopatra-style. She wears a black corset and huge hoop earrings and has a dented pack of Newports tucked into her garter. There’s no hourly wage for exotic dancers; they earn whatever customers decide to give them. Still, the pay is solid, Serenity says. She’s made two thousand dollars in a good week.

But she can’t stand the slow nights. When one or two guys saunter in, sit at the bar, sip drinks, and pay no mind to the girls. She’s grinding up and down that pole for 15 minutes and basically dancing for no reason. Nothing pisses her off more than being ignored. Later, I watch her walk from the bar to the stage. She is slow, slinking, like a cat. Her small hips sway fiercely.

The music starts up, low and sassy.

Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me.

Serenity steps onto the platform and caresses the pole. When she bends over, a college boy in the front row leans forward, snaps the string of her underwear, and slips in a bill. She swivels towards him, her long legs opening slowly like a fan. He is hypnotized, and she locks eyes with him and won’t look away.

Dontcha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me.

In the corner of the room, I am perched on the edge of a big velvet chair, feeling small and clumsy. I could never pull off those heels. I don’t have the swagger. Or the legs. The way she owns every inch of that stage, works every inch of the pole. My neck is itching and all I want to do is be out in the cold, quiet night. Jesus, I feel dumb in this prissy sweater, these neat, hemmed jeans.

I know you want me, it’s easy to see.

Their eyes are saying what the hell are you doing out here, with your tape recorder and your button-down top and your stupid half-smile? Walk in walk out, cap your pen and all that’s left of us is the cigarette smoke in your hair. Phoenix says, we’re all just trying to find our place. It’s hard. Money is money. And she laughs loud, too loud, and one heel catches on the edge of the carpet. She leans on the pool table and stares at me. Her makeup looks clownish under the bright lamps.

But onstage, where the music pounds and the light melts blue, she is smooth, so smooth, and when her eyes catch you, baby, you can’t stop watching.

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