My waitressing gig at the strip club was supposed to be a quick way to make easy money for college. But then coaxing tips out of wasted men gradually turned into more elaborate scams, until I was in way too deep.
Blue and pink strobe lights danced in my eyes as I made my way across the cheap floral carpet that blanketed Eden’s Cabaret. I balanced a tray in my right hand as I scanned the room looking for empty drinks, feeling the air conditioner blow big cold breaths on my exposed legs.
It was a slow night at Eden’s, the stack of money being held to my wrist with a rubber band was too light and I was becoming very bored.
I saw an overweight man in a suit a few yards away and watched as his head lolled from side to side. He was slumped deep in his chair, his face resting on the mountains of chins connecting his mouth to his neck. He looked like he had money. I smiled and kneeled down next to him.
“Can I get you another drink?” I squealed in a high-pitched, flirty voice, the fakest of smiles breaking over my face. I crossed my arms at my stomach, trying to push my small A-cups up and into the man’s gaze. He mumbled something that I couldn’t hear.
“Do you want another Bud Light sir?” I asked again, this time more firmly. He blinked a little, hardly registering that I was in front of him. He didn’t need anything else to drink.
“How about a drink for me?” I said brightly, changing my tune and putting my hand on his knee. He gargled something that I couldn’t understand. “It’s $25 to buy me a drink and I need the cash first.”
He slumped deeper in his chair.
“Sir, I need the cash. Where is your wallet? You need to pay for the drink.” He reached for his wallet, struggling to finger it open. I saw a stack of hundred dollar bills and reached for one.
“I can keep the change right?” I asked, folding the bill deep inside my palm without waiting for an answer. He started to nod off and fall asleep, his squishy face becoming one with the black leather chair, his wallet still resting in his lap. I walked towards the bar giggling to myself, folding the $75 I just made into the stack on my wrist. A strong feeling bubbled in the pit of my stomach and shot through my veins like white light: I had power.
I started working at Eden’s Cabaret a few weeks earlier, two days before I graduated high school. I’d gotten into a college in New York City and I needed a lot more money than what I was making at the local pizzeria. I’d been working for years to make sure I had the grades I needed to get scholarships for the out of state colleges I was applying to. My parents didn’t have the money to help with college and I’d been working, more or less supporting myself, since I was fourteen.
South Florida’s relentless sunshine and sparkling beaches were the backdrop of my childhood, but life was far from postcard perfect. The small beach town I grew up in offered few options to bored teens looking for something to do. My friends and I would get high together on warm damp nights, nursing the addictions we’d end up struggling with for life. I was desperate to leave Florida, desperate to leave behind the vacant souls and sunburnt hearts that littered my life there. I would’ve done anything to get out.
“As a waitress, you’re not allowed to do anything with customers except have a drink with them,” the manager told me on my first day at Eden’s. Her red hair was cut into a bob and her eyes burned as she spoke to me. “No private dances, no lap sitting and no champagne rooms.”
“If a guy wants to buy you a drink, you need to sell them a staff shot, which costs $25.” She explained to me that this wasn’t a real shot, but instead a shot of water or soda that I was to pretend was a real shot. “Go back to the table and quickly drink the shot before they notice it isn’t real. Make sure you act it out, squint your eyes when you take it and pretend it tastes bad.”
Every time we sold a staff shot, we earned an extra $5. I made it my mission to sell as many as possible — for the extra cash, and for the bragging rights that came along with a man willing to spend $25 on a drink for you. I was a little nervous that the customer would find out it was a fake shot but I was excited. It felt like a game.
After a month or so at Eden’s, I started to get the hang of it. Whenever a large group would come in and order a round of shots, I’d always say “one for me too, right?” I wouldn’t mention the high cost of the drink and I’d instead lump it all together into one price.
I whimpered and moaned to customers that I was bored and that I wanted to have fun with them. I made them feel like losers for not wanting to spend the $25 and I made promises about meeting them in places where drinks didn’t cost $25.
Whenever there were drunk rich guys spending a lot of money, the waitresses teamed up. We’d kneel on either side of the customer with our hands on their knees, nodding our heads when we needed to, cringing at the right parts, laughing out loud at every bad joke. They would bask in the attention, their fat faces glowing as their ears turned deep shades of pink, their mouths stretched wide into wet, wrinkly smiles. We’d butter them up until we took all the money they were willing to give. Standing up and rubbing our aching knees, we’d tell them we’d be right back, only to avoid them until their drink was empty.
I started selling on average ten staff shots per night, which was a lot more than the other girls. I was different than most of them — many were mothers with no plans for college in the foreseeable future. The customers would play favorites with us, knowing we were all in fierce competition.
There was a guy who would come in and only order from specific waitresses even though it was an open floor. He would waddle into the club in all black, with dark sunglasses and gold jewelry, hardly able to keep all 300 pounds of him standing. I’d hear a few girls squealing, because they knew he bought staff shots.
He’d fall into the deep, black leather chairs that surrounded the stage and snap his fingers in the direction of whichever waitress he chose. From across the room, I’d watch her dart from the bar to his table, ignoring all other customers she passed, giving the sort of service only given to VIPs. They downed a few shots of Hennessey and he left a fat stack of one-dollar bills on her tray. I gleaned that he might have had some money and I decided to move in when I saw his drink was empty.
“Can I get you another drink?” I chirped brightly, flashing my best smile at his pale, sunken face.
“Nah, I’m good,” he said, with his greasy eyes fixed on the stage, not bothering to look in my direction.
I gave him a confused stare before walking away towards the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. What the fuck was his problem?
I hoisted myself up onto the bathroom counter next to the attendant and lit a long Newport 100. She frowned in my direction and turned to face the stalls. I saw one of the other waitresses fixing her hair next to me.
“Hey what’s up with that fat guy in the sunglasses? He just, like, refused to order a drink from me,” I explained, my eyes burning, long wisps of menthol smoke falling from my mouth and nose.
I was the type of girl that needed to prove she could run faster than the boys in elementary school. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get beaten in a strip club.
“Yeah he only orders from certain girls, he’s kind of an asshole,” she said in a bored tone, pulling her boobs from her bra so they rested on top of her red corset.
“Well he’s fucking disgusting. Fuck him.”
I angrily threw my cigarette in the sink, and walked back onto the floor.
I glared at the customer from across the room and sneered at the waitress as she walked past me smiling, her tray dotted with shot glasses and cups of blue liquor.
I leaned against the wall, my arms crossed and my mouth turned down and thought about the trick this guy was playing on all of us. I realized he was winning by letting it get to me. This is the only time this guy means anything to anyone, this is really the best he has it. He wanted us to wonder why he was only buying drinks from one girl and he wanted us to feel inferior for not being chosen. Having scantily clad waitresses fight for his attention and bicker over who can serve him is probably the closest thing to affection this man ever got.
I thought of all the other men that came in to see me, to buy me shots, to tell me about their dead-end jobs or messy divorces. I thought of the way shooting stars crossed their eyes when I told them I liked them better than the other customers. I thought of the dancers, strolling around in shimmery six-inch stilettos and billowing ball gowns, floating like they were in a dream they would wake up from in the morning. The empty promises they made hung flat across the room. Together, we were selling one big fat lie: that these men meant something to us.
I was filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness and my heart started to ache all the way down to my toes.
So I switched from water shots to tequila shots and began drinking every night I was there. What started with two or three shots a night blossomed into six to ten. I just wanted to numb myself, to not allow myself to care. I started to see the men as horny idiots who should expect to get fleeced when coming to a strip club and it made me want to fleece them harder. I was mad at them for being stupid, for needing to pay for affection, for not understanding it was a game to us. Mostly, for treating us as vacant objects, making requests like “Can I smack your ass for five dollars?” as if we were just walking pieces of body parts and not humans.
It became so frustrating that I started outright stealing. I was done with the five-dollar tips, with having to run from one end of the room to the other, balancing ten drinks on a tray, just so I could scrape together $20 and have to do it all over again.
Whenever guys would ask me to change their $100 bill into singles, I’d always take a fat stack of ones straight from the top. I’d lie and say the drinks were more than they cost and I’d never bring back the correct amount of change.
I kept drinking and cared less and less each night, becoming ruthless and sloppy in my approach. One particularly drunken Friday night I made the mistake of stealing from the manager’s friend. The customer had paid for a $10 drink with a hundred dollar bill. I brought him the drink and scampered off with no intentions of returning with the change.
I started waiting on other customers and forgot about it for a few hours when the manager called us to the back for an emergency meeting. He was standing with the guy whose change I stole and told us he was going to look through the cameras to find out who took his money. I played dumb and looked at the money on my wrist, slurring that I thought he said to keep the change. I counted out the $90 in change I’d taken and gave it to my manager who told me he’d fire me if it happened again. His words rushed past my ears like water as I stumbled away to smoke a cigarette in the bathroom.
Things had become very bad. I was drinking to the point of blackout basically every night I was there, driving home with one eye closed and falling asleep in the parking lots of gas stations.
One Friday night a war veteran who now worked as a construction worker came in. A pile of dirt rested beneath his boots and the smell of cement and sweat burned my nose when I brought him his third Bud Light. He fingered his dog tags, continuing to eye a pair of black girls he’d been watching all evening. He decided he wanted a private dance — not three songs for $20, enjoyed in a sweaty cubicle whose thin walls barely would barely separate him from dozens of other lascivious guests. He wanted one of the private rooms, upstairs, where the girls could promise anything they wanted.
He decided on the Zebra room, swaying slightly from side to side as he surveyed the deep orange glow of the walls and the black and white velvet bedspread. I told him it would be $600 every half hour. Per girl, that is.
“It’s gonna be a twenty percent tip for me and twenty percent for her,” said stripper number one to the war vet, breaking his trance. Her white bikini sparkled against her dark skin as she flicked her Newport onto the floor and cocked her hip to the left.
I piped in there would be a ten percent service charge as well, not that the ocean of alcohol in his brain was shallow enough to hear me. I felt small next to their mile-long stiletto heels and what seemed like boundless tenacity. The waitresses on the floor thought we had balls tricking guys into paying $25 for a shot. These girls literally could have promised anything from a threesome to anal sex, just to get him in the room.
“Here’s the card,” he slurred, waving the thin blue plastic at my chest from his new place on the plush purple couch. I walked downstairs and dutifully ran his card before distributing the $1,200 between the bouncer, the two girls and myself.
Thirty minutes later I walked upstairs to break up the party and free the girls from the groping hands paying to molest them. Any promises of sex to get him into the room were kissed goodbye under the blinking camera that was positioned above the bed. The girls likely spent the thirty minutes making out with each other while giving him a hand job over his jeans.
I flipped on the lights and told them their time was up. I turned to leave to give them a moment to get dressed when the honest vet grabbed my arm.
“Wait miss, I have to pay!”
Fuck. He thinks he didn’t pay.
The four Patron shots I already had in my system danced behind my eyes as I tried to register the fact that this man was about to pay us twice. I was crunching numbers in my head, realizing the girls and I were about to walk away with double, not needing to pay the house again. I couldn’t help but instinctively reach for my pack of Newports that were nestled deep in my fuzzy black boots, even though I knew I couldn’t smoke up there.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. He thinks he didn’t pay.
The strippers stopped mid-dress, one boob still hanging out of stripper number one’s outfit, when four dollar signs flipped like a slot machine on their eyes like some cheesy Looney Toons cartoon.
The girls looked at each other. I looked at the customer, who was nearly passed out on the couch. His eyes rolled as he struggled to keep up the weight of his head.
“Yes that’s right! He does have to pay! Go run the card,” said stripper number two, shaking the card in front of me. My same old rationalizations came swimming back to me. Well, that’s why you don’t go to a strip club…
My hand grabbed the card but my brain said it shouldn’t. He’d already spent a lot of money, it was wrong to make him pay again. This isn’t just a couple hundred dollars, this is over a thousand dollars. I moved downstairs towards the credit card machine, a dull throb forming behind my eyes.
The green glow of the credit card machine shined bright against the darkness of the room and my hand numbly swiped the card. I thought of the war vet’s dusty jeans and his tired face.
I shouldn’t do this, this is wrong.
In went the amount of $1,200.
I have to think of something, I was raised better than this.
In went the last four digits.
What would my mother think? Do I have any morals?
The final green okay button I had to push stared back at me, mockingly reminding me of the $450 I could potentially walk home with that night. I thought of New York, of getting out of Florida.
I pressed okay and immediately regretted my decision.
I’m a good person and this is a good man. He’s too drunk to know what’s going on.
My trembling hand pushed the red button over and over again. Cancel, cancel, cancel, cancel, cancel, cancel. I heard the receipt start to print. Fuck.
I ripped off the receipt and it told me the charge went through already, except only for the amount of $783. The machine said it still needed $417.
Holy shit. We cleared his fucking bank account.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. My cheeks flushed red and my racing heart increased its beating as the throbbing behind my eyes quickened its pace. This is not the girl I was raised to be. This is not the girl who has been robbed several times and believes stealing to be the worst thing you can do to someone. This is not the girl I wrote about in all of those godforsaken college essays. This is not me.
In went the void button and in went the four digits.
The honest war vet got to keep the $783 left in his bank account and the girls and I were able to keep the money we already rightfully made.
“Sorry girls, it got declined,” I said coolly to stripper number one and two, who were waiting impatiently downstairs. I walked to the bathroom and sat on the counter, pulling a Newport from my boot. I lit the cigarette and felt the cool mirror press against my exposed back, deciding then that I was done. Done with the scams, done with Eden’s and done with the lifestyle I had grown to accept as okay. I hated the feeling of an innocent person being taken advantage of when they were going out to have a good time. I had enough money to move away with, and I only had another three weeks in Florida.
I dropped my Newport in the sink, hopped off the counter, glancing around at the life I was soon to leave behind. I started towards the door, smiling to myself before disappearing once again into the twisted, strobe-lit jungle that was Eden’s Cabaret.
* * *
Gabrielle Fonrouge is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, NY whose work has appeared in the New York Post, National Public Radio and VICE. She is working on a book about her experiences growing up in South Florida and is an advocate for social justice and human rights. When Gabrielle’s not covering shootings or staking out the city’s latest unscrupulous politicians, she enjoys traveling, writing poetry and hanging out with bodega cats.
Korean born Alex Azalea Jin, is an illustrator currently based in Toronto. Her illustrations are driven by conveying concepts re-imagined from her dreams and past memories. Alex explores vast methods and practices in visual communication and focuses on mood, color, shapes, and atmosphere to deliver dynamic narratives solutions. Follow her on Instagram @azazooj.