The sign most travelers remember is the one that can be seen clearly from I-65, “The World Famous Boobie Bungalow Club.” My favorite sign is smaller, but still impressive in blinking red neon – “Truckers Drink Free.”  It seems like some crazy inside joke between the club’s owner and the Tennessee state troopers.

The idea to work at Boobie Bungalow was not mine; it was my mother’s suggestion.  She had seen an ad in the Huntsville Times for waitresses wanted at the club. I still wonder if she had some secret, unfulfilled dream to work at a strip club.  By sending me with my friend, Siouxsie, she could experience all of the thrills and none of the consequences. Siouxsie and I drove from Huntsville, Alabama across the Tennessee state line and arrived in Ardmore for our interview.  

The club oozed charm – concrete floors – it has an almost warehouse feel.  There was a rudimentary stage up front (The Bungalow lacked a strippers’ pole – thank God.  I probably would have tried to use it and permanently injured myself.)

The owner, whose name was Bill, or Ken, or possibly Jim, (he’s dead now, so he won’t mind if I call him Bill) proved to be an exceptionally enthusiastic club owner.  After showing proof that we were over 18, Bill, eyes sparkling, produced the November issue of Cherry magazine to show us the four-page spread about Chesty Morgan, the next big star he had booked as a feature act.  

“She has midgets who come on stage with her, holding up her titties!” Bill gushed.  

I attempted my most earnest, “Of course. Tittie midgets. I can see why. That will really bring in customers,” but I managed only a mumbled, “Huh. Um. Huh.” Keeping my gaze fixed on Cherry’s spectacularly explicit level of porn required all of my concentration.  Crafting coherent commentary was impossible at that moment.

After passing our interview, (What, exactly, would it have taken to fail?), Bill asked if either of us wanted to work as a dancer that night, instead of waitressing.  I’d like to say I volunteered for the job because I am such a lousy waitress. While that is true, I must admit I was attracted to the promise of more money. Also, I have the ability to completely compartmentalize experiences.  Dissociation can be a blessing when it is conjured intentionally and a curse when it comes unbidden.

Along the left wall was a long wooden bar. There were only a few chairs there, because the was money to be made at the vinyl-topped tables where scantily clad – and obliging – waitresses served marked-up, watered-down whiskey and bottles of Budweiser.  Siouxsie, always a far better waitress than I, opted to stick with that role for the evening. Knowing her charms and experience as an aspiring actress, I had no doubt she would make a fortune in tips.

The crowd – audience? I’m not sure what the proper nomenclature is for patrons at a strip club – was what you would expect from anything referred to as, “World Famous,” showcased in a clearing just a few thousand yards from the wooded Interstate 65 that runs through southern Tennessee.

The Bungalow Club boasted quite the impressive (read: ear-piercing) sound system.  Before I went backstage to get dressed (undressed?) Bill lead me over to introduce me the DJ. I often wish I could remember the DJ’s name, because he schooled me in the crucial importance of selecting an effective stripper name.

“What’s your name and what are your two songs?” 

“My name is Heather. I don’t have two songs prepared.”

“Honey,” the DJ sighed, “you can’t use your real name.  If you want to make the cash, you need something with pizazz, like ‘Nikita Delight’ or ‘Lucky Lopez.’”

I thought for a few moments, and then blurted the first name that popped into my head.

“Amber St. Clare.”  

My mother was reading Forever Amber while she was pregnant with me and nearly named me Amber after Kathleen Windsor’s provincial-turned-courtesan.  I always will be grateful my father intervened.

As for my two songs, I cannot remember what I chose to be played second (I’d put big money on a Whitesnake song) but I know the first was Poison’s, “Talk Dirty to Me”.  Not too original, but I was a huge fan of 80’s hair bands – and, metaphorically, wasn’t I about to talk dirty to an entire room full of complete strangers?

You know how, when you see movies, all the leggy, impossibly beautiful showgirls are sitting gracefully – donning stunning costumes in front of Hollywood-style lighting?  They gossip and trade advice about men and makeup and seem to revel in the life they live. Backstage at the Bungalow Club was a rude awakening. I tried not to watch as one girl held another dancer’s hair back while she vomited into the toilet.  A second girl, who I soon learned went by, “Elektra Pryde,” sobbed uncontrollably at her mirrored reflection. Whispers around me revealed that a few hours earlier, Elektra’s boyfriend discovered she was stripping and cut off all of her long, dark hair as punishment.  

“Uh, hey . . .” I began. I had no idea what I was doing or how to continue. Unexpectedly, the girls were welcoming to me. In a flash, they transformed my hair and makeup, lent me costumes, and explained that the 6-foot Boa Constrictor in the cage behind the stage curtain was off limits to new girls. (Good note.)  The crowded dressing room was a confusing juxtaposition of glamour and pathos.

The Bungalow Club’s feature act that night was an impossibly buxom blonde named “Candy Apples.”  “Stars” command their own dressing room. Curious, I peered around the half-closed door. I still wish it we, as humans, possessed the power to un-see.  I stood, transfixed, observing an almost tender Eucharistic ritual, as a man (her manager I assumed) placed handfuls of multi-colored pills and capsules into Candy’s open mouth. Yet, there was no holy rapture in her eyes – only the unfocused stare of a helpless child.

When the time came for Candy to perform her act, the rest of the dancers were permitted to stand just offstage stage to watch.  She entered the stage area, her hair in two ponytails, dressed in a young child’s short white party dress. She pulled a red wagon and carried a doll in her arms.  The blankness of her eyes and the silicone enhancements were the only things that betrayed her as an adult. I watched her gyrate mechanically for the cheering crowd, and, as she removed the dress to reveal a sequined G-string, I was overcome by sorrow.  Despite the thunderous clapping and howling from the audience, tears welled in my eyes. I was afraid to let them fall; Elektra had painstakingly applied multiple layers of mascara to my eyes. Plus, there I was, standing in a sequin tube top and sparkly G-string the other girls had been kind enough to lend me for the night.  Who was I to judge Candy? Instead, I focused fury on her manager. I refused to believe any young girl could chose this life for herself. The cruel truth is, drugs and money can make almost anyone who stumbles into that life keep dancing and dancing, even when the dancing breeds so much pain.

Then, it was my turn.

When I stepped on to the stage, I was terrified, but only momentarily.  Images hit me in brief flashes. I saw men leaning on their elbows, crowding the stage.  I was less than 3 feet off the ground; they must have been seated at tables pushed up along the side of the platform.  I remember tanned arms, hands. Hands waving dollar bills.

Some of the crowd members grasped money firmly between their thumb and fist, while others displayed a five or ten wedged casually between two fingers.  They beckoned and motioned with their money toward their open mouths, hollering, whooping. Some lips pursed in a whistle. My mind wandered to oddly random places. I’ve always wanted to be able to whistle through my fingers, the way these men could.  The sound is so distinct. So shrill. I have often heard dogs summoned by their owners with that shrieking whistle. Now, I was the one expected to answer to that call.

The other girls had instructed me to “work my way” to topless.  I had two, three and a half minute songs to get through during my ‘set’. Layering seemed to be the key and a white sequined crop top covered my gold lame bikini bra.  It seemed odd that there was no buildup to my glittery G-string. I guess at the Bungalow Club, all the art is up top. (Do they specialize?)

Since that night, I have had the privilege to watch truly talented burlesque artists. They tease endlessly – tantalizing the audience by slowly, rhythmically shedding garter belts and spangled stockings. Oh, to be 20 with the knowledge of a forty-five year old.  I would have loved to have taken the stage, draped in a complex gilded tear-away gown. Undulating. Mesmerizing. Shedding each layer with grace and art, while my audience anticipates, cheering, even the deliberate removal of one long . . . taffeta . . . glove.

But I was already nearly naked in front of men jostling against each other as I leapt, gyrated, and rolled around on the thinly carpeted stage floor.

I am blessed with flexibility and I soon found doing the splits or some variation thereof resulted in more hands waving more dollar bills.  It became as much a game as a dance. If I bend this way . . . oh, polite applause. Backward shoulder roll into splits . . . huge reaction, but difficult to gather up the money. Rolling fan kick right downstage in front of the audience . . . best of both worlds. Roll and tuck the dollar bill. Roll and tuck – all the while, fumbling with the stings on the gold bikini. The sequined top had been abandoned – an obligatory casualty shed toward the middle of my first chosen song.

For the second song, I knew I was expected to be topless.  There was nothing artful about the deep breath I drew and then exhaled, dropping the tiny triangles of gold on to the floor.

Blissfully, at that moment, my brain compartmentalized or dissociated or did whatever it does for protection.

It used to bother me when I would lose time.  I would dissociate when I was under extreme stress or sensed I was in danger. It started small.  There was a bridge I had to take over the Tennessee River when driving from Huntsville to Tuscaloosa where I attended college.  No matter how intensely I would concentrate on remembering, I always found myself on the other side of the bridge with no recollection of the drive.  I suspect things like that happen to everyone at one time or another. You drive the same way to work each day, and after a while, you can’t really remember making the drive. 

The first time I lost a great deal of time was when my father came to visit me at the Menninger Clinic when I was a patient there in my early twenties.  He stayed for a week. I was so upset to have my routine at the hospital invaded by someone from the outside that I still cannot remember him being there at all.  I know that episode caused my dad a lot of emotional pain; I felt nothing but guilt for weeks after he left. I know he bought me new boots for hiking while he was there.  They were my only proof of his visit.

I don’t remember anything more about the Bungalow performance until I was standing, slightly breathless, leaning against the cool glass aquarium that held the boa constrictor (off limits). And I was done.

Another way a dancer could make money was to have customer “buy her a drink.”  The drink, in this case, was a $10 glass of water. For buying a dancer a drink, the customer received his thanks in the form of a table dance.  This was probably the hardest task I had to perform during the course of the night. Dancing on stage – with the lights in my eyes – I could barely see the people watching me, unless they came up to the stage to put money in my garter belt.

But with a table dance, I was alone, standing maybe a foot and a half away from one customer – having to make eye contact.  There was an . . . I don’t know . . . an intimacy (?) to table dances that prevented me from just shutting down. I could not manage to compartmentalize the way I could while dancing on stage.  To make myself that vulnerable for $10 felt wrong, but it was part of the job. I got through those table dances the best I could. I tried, each time, to go to that numb place in my mind, the place that lets me pretend I am only an observer of a situation, rather than a participant.  For some reason, my brain refused to let me retreat into myself. Some experiences even I cannot escape, I suppose.

At the end of the night, after the club had closed, the dancers gathered on stage to receive their hourly pay for the night.  The salary for an 8-hour shift at about $4.25 an hour was not where the bulk of a dancer’s money is made, but the conversation between Bill and some of the regular dancers revealed an aspect of the operation I would not have guessed.  It seemed Bill, conveniently, owned the apartment building where many of the girls lived. Basically, he would hand a girl money which she had to give back immediately to pay her rent. I strongly suspect that a similar income turnaround game was played with the drugs that were so prevalent in the dressing room.  Ironically, dancers were not allowed to drink while working. I presume that would have cut into the profits.

Over 20 years later, my Boobie Bungalow Club adventure remains one of the most important experiences in my life.  I had been fortunate enough to live, ever so briefly, among women whose everyday reality was an existence I had only read about in books or watched portrayed in films. For the first time, their world was real to me. In sharp contrast, my ‘real life’ was that of a recent college graduate with loving parents and a job lined up to work as a technical writer at NASA.  I had been dancing on a whim. The girls at the club had to dance to survive. I began the night a fraud, but I left that club with an experience that changed me. I no longer have the ability to judge or fear people that society often labels (arbitrarily) as “others”. I am grateful to Bill, Candy, Elektra, and the other Boobie Bungalow regulars for teaching me the import land lesson that we all share – our humanity – and, occasionally, sequin G-strings.

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