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CW: This material contains references to racism and drugs.
This piece remembers Starr, a working mother who passed through my life briefly. Despite the fact that black women are the founders of modern stripper culture and pole dancing, they continue to face systemic discrimination and racism in clubs. My encounter with Starr was brief; a shared shift at a well-known Montreal strip club called Supersexe, which has since closed down. I remember her as a resilient hustler who held her daughter's name above her heart.
Starr burst through the dressing room door on a drizzly Friday night, weighed down by a massive bag that appeared to contain all her worldly possessions. "Christ, is there a bitch in this place who speaks English?"
The room was silent. Most of the girls were French-Canadian. I could sense their eyes narrowing.
After a few uncomfortable moments I said, "Yeah, I do."
"Great. That asshole door-guy says he's busy, so you've gotta show me around. What's the deal, dances are fully nude? Guys can touch your tits and pussy?"
She was at least six feet tall, covered entirely in faded tattoos barely visible on her black skin. She had a giant sparkly Monroe piercing in her left cheek. As I explained the rules, Starr sat down in front of the mirror and plucked her eyebrows, raising them periodically and muttering, "Uh-huh, yup, okay."
Suddenly she interrupted me and swivelled around in her chair. "Ladies, where can I get some cocaine around here?"
There were 'NO DRUGS ALLOWED' posters all over the dressing room, but most of the night shift girls did lines between dances. A Bosnian girl named Gucci sold the drugs. I wasn't in a financial position to support a coke habit, so I stuck to sipping wine out of a travel mug that I kept in my locker. I was drinking a lot, certainly every time I worked, but I rationalised it to myself. When you're throwing yourself at guys all night for so little money, you need to be high or fucked up on something.
After a few lines, Starr transformed into an all-star hustler. Her face brightened and she glided around the club, sliding into clients' laps, playing with their lapels. Taking their hands and guiding them down her glistening legs, into dark corners. Effortlessly seducing them upstairs for a dance. I watched her in awe... She was a vicious flirt; a coercive genius. Onstage, she swung around the pole with this blissful, otherworldly smile on her face. It freaked me out a bit, but she raked in the bills. Her ass hypnotised everybody, whirling skillfully in an impossibly disjointed orbit.
"Gee, you really love the tats, don't ya?" I overheard a client squeak as he got an eyeful of Starr.
"Nah. I regret every single one of them. Except for this one." She pointed to her chest where a name was scrawled: Evelyn. "That's my daughter."
Within the first couple of hours she had done about a dozen private dances. I was having a slow start, which was normal for me as I was still sober. Friday night guys want bubbly bimbos with rosy cheeks and no inhibitions. I could get there after enough booze, but until then I paced myself, working the room for the guys who liked tall skinny girls with minimal curves. There were always a few but not many. Stick-figures may be appreciated on a catwalk, but in a strip club? Not so much.
By 1 a.m. the club was full, juiced up — bills were flying in the air and girls were dragging guys upstairs in droves. I hadn't made any money besides a few generous stage dollars. I kept slipping into the dressing room to sip my wine. My head wasn't in the game and I was impatient to feel good. Come on baby, get the money flowing, I thought, taking deep sips. I refilled my travel mug with the bottle stashed in my backpack. I had just about finished a litre, but I still didn't feel right. Next time, I thought, I'll bring vodka.
When I emerged from the bathroom cubicle and onto the floor I saw Starr, looking dishevelled but radiant, striding towards me and hissing, "Hey kid! Where the fuck you been all this time? Get over here."
I giggled, nervous. "I'm here, what's up?"
"Those two guys over at the far table, see them? The one guy in the sports jacket and his friend? Russians. They want to see a lesbian show. Minimum five dances plus a premium, girl, come on, you game?"
"Lesbian show?" I hesitated. I had heard the term floating around but I hadn't ever asked for specifics. Starr looked impatient. "I've never done one," I told her. "We supposed to fuck in front of those guys, or what?"
"What's the matter?" Starr's tooth gem glinted mischievously. "You not attracted to me, or something? Look, all we gotta do is like, kiss and lick each other's pussies a bit. They're not gonna know the difference. I don't wanna do this with any of those French bitches. Are you up for it, or nah?"
I smiled gingerly. "I've done worse things for money."
"Shut up," Starr grinned and took my arm. "Let's make some bank."
She guided me over to the table of Russians, and ordered us all a round of tequila. "Bambi, meet the boys."
We gulped the drinks. The cut was $350 which, in Montreal, is damn good for a half hour of dancing. My vision started swirling. The booze was kicking in and I felt like I was doing spins around the pole. The bouncer, Tony, led us upstairs to a VIP room I had never seen before, with a miniature bar and a round bed in the middle. Fat lines of coke were measured out, the music twisted loud, and before I knew it Starr was gripping my ass and I was pulling her out of her mesh bodysuit, kissing her entire body right there on the crimson sheets as she arched her back and moaned theatrically. I felt vaguely sick. I started sweating as I went to work, not just for the money but because I wanted to show Starr that she had picked the right girl for the job.
Lesbian shows are no-contact for clients. The Russians sat watching without a sound — so close I could almost feel their breath on my naked ass — but they didn't try and touch. I didn't make eye contact with them. I left that to Starr. She buried her face in my pussy and made sounds like she was cumming. She pinched me hard so I started moaning too. The whole thing was ridiculous but the coke clung in the back of my throat and propelled me forward. I was finally starting to feel good.
The music stopped and Starr sprung into action, pouring us all shots and hustling the guys into paying for five more songs.
"Come on, boys!" Her voice was like syrup. "We're just getting started."
The Russians spoke to each other in hushed tones. They looked sceptical. Starr slid up to the taller of the two, pulled his cock right out of his pants, and started teasing it lightly with her fingernails. It was already hard but perked up even higher.
"This time," she purred. "You can touch." She gripped the guy's cock. "Let's keep this thing going."
At that moment I realised, so long as the money was flowing and the club got a cut, the rules went out the window.
The shorter of the two men turned to me. He was ice-blonde with small squinty eyes that darted all over. I ran my fingers down the front of his pants and smiled suggestively. I didn't trust myself to speak. I think he was smiling too. His breathing changed but his lips didn't move. The two men pulled out their wallets and Starr called Tony to come in and collect the cash. He looked nonplussed... Didn't even react to a man's dick in plain sight.
We racked out more coke, drank more tequila. Starr's eyes sparkled as she handed me a shot. I was thrilled. I felt like we were two dazzling hustlers against the world. We could really do this, I thought, me and Starr.
We were tongue-kissing in a whirlwind, hands gripped my tits, someone was fingering my pussy and I didn't know who it was. I didn't care. Starr tasted good, she smelled good, she had some kind of sugary body spray on and the last thing I remember before I passed out was the sweet, chemical taste on my tongue as I licked her breasts. Cotton candy.
"Bambi! Jesus Christ. Wake up, bitch. Come on!"
I came to in the dressing room. Panicked, cold, and confused, I realised that Starr was slapping my face with cold water.
I sputtered. A sharp pain pulsed my skull.
"What the fuck is wrong with you? You passed out cold after taking a damn tequila shot. How much booze did you drink tonight?"
I stared back at her, horrified. A bottle a shift had always been my limit. But lately... And with the shots... I couldn't remember.
"Look, here's what we're gonna do. The guys upstairs are real pissed cuz the Russians complained. Now listen: we're gonna tell them it was the Russians' fault. They spiked our drinks with GHB and then you passed out, okay? Got it?"
I nodded, confused. I wanted to cry but I was determined not to humiliate myself further.
"Look, you just lie here and keep looking sick. Once this is over, I'm gonna kick your drunk ass. But for now, sit tight. Let me do the talking."
She turned to the mirror, wiped the mascara from under her eyes and straightened her wig. Her face was cold. She marched out of the dressing room. If she didn't kill me, I would be indebted to her for life. I closed my eyes and tried to will the pounding in my head to stop.
Ten minutes later, Lorenzo, a silver-haired Italian, bulging with megalomania, barged through the door. He was followed by Tony, who dragged a kicking, cursing Starr by the forearm. Lorenzo looked at me in disgust. He shook his finger in my face.
"You, and your ghetto friend are out. Now! We don't tolerate prostitutes and drunks around here, so pack your shit, and get the fuck out of my club."
My face burned but I found my voice. "Lorenzo, it was my fault okay? It was all my fault. Starr didn't do anything. She was making you guys money! You can't fire her. I'll go."
Lorenzo sneered and waved a hand. "I don't need any black prostitutes working for me, and if I do, I'll go down the block and find one. Now get the fuck out, you good-for-nothing garbage whores."
He punched the door as he left. Tony refused to meet my eyes and followed him out. I turned to look at Starr. Her face was oddly calm. She cocked one eyebrow and made a sound.
"Mmm," She shook her head. "Alright."
"What the fuck?" I couldn't conceal my horror. "Starr I'm so... Fuck. I am so fucking sorry. This is total bullshit, they can't..."
"Crusty French-fry pieces of shit," Starr muttered. "I knew I should never have come to this busted-ass province. What the hell was I thinking?"
"There's got to be something we can do... That kind of racism, and... I mean..." I was stuttering. "It's just entirely unacceptable..."
Starr turned to look at me. "Girl, shut the hell up. Let's get out of here before I kill your dumb ass myself."
My hands shook as I cleaned out my locker. I thought about my colleagues: Amanda, Destiny, and the others on day shift. Almost all of them were hookers on the side. It wasn't a secret. Most of them had been doing it for years. The girls who hooked didn't generally associate with the ones who didn't, and vice versa. I was beginning to get a glimpse as to why.
My mind was racing; I didn't want to go quietly. I thought about making a scene, throwing a drink in Lorenzo's face, leaving this place I had spent the last several months in with at least some dignity. But I was powerless. I knew that whatever I did would come back and hit me tenfold.
Starr had replaced her pleasers with black lace-up boots and was wearing a fuzzy white oversized hoodie with a cigarette tucked behind her ear. Her bag was open in front of her, overflowing with clothes, cash and makeup. I counted my own cash, which was stuffed inside my bra. The bills were crumpled and stained. $700 for the two half hours, or rather, one half hour and then some. The most cash I ever earned in a single night at Supersexe. Thanks to Starr.
I put on my jeans and pulled the wig off my head, breathing heavily.
"What the..." Starr choked on her own laughter. "Oh my God, don't tell me you're a real dyke. Oh my God!" She started cackling like crazy.
"I'm... Yeah." I shrugged and managed a small smile. "Sorry."
"Oh girl, I knew something was up with you." Starr wiped away tears. "You liked that shit way too much. I thought jeez, either I'm tripping or this bitch is a real dyke."
With a great heave she managed to zip her bag closed, then pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked the time.
"Okay, it's half past two. Where can we get a drink around here? What about that place a block down with the pool tables?"
"Um, you mean Piranha bar?" I was stunned. "You want to have a drink with me?"
"I'll have a drink, you're having a soda, stupid. I'm high on this shitty cocaine and won't be sleeping for another hour or two. Come on."
We went out the back door. I didn't see Tony, Lorenzo or anyone else. Crystal, the club gossip, would no doubt be on top of this first thing tomorrow. I wondered briefly if anyone would miss me, or notice I was gone.
Piranha bar was full of metal guys singing Black Sabbath on karaoke, throwing fists in the air and saluting us with their beers as we walked in. There were no women in sight. Luca, the bar manager, was in the back, hunched on a chair, rubbing his shiny, bald head furiously and yelling into his cellphone. He waved as he saw me walk in and held up one finger.
I ordered Starr a tequila sunrise and a ginger ale for myself.
"I'm going to have a cigarette, you smoke?" Starr held her pack out to me.
"No, thanks," I smiled.
"Well, come keep me company, then. I don't want any man trying to talk to me for free tonight."
Out on the terrace the stars were glittering. It was an oddly clear night and it made me feel calm. Starr's cigarette smoke swirled between us, doing pole tricks.
"So... where are you from anyway?" I hoped my question wasn't invasive, but I was desperate to know.
"Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia," she replied. I couldn't believe it.
"That's where I grew up! You still live there?"
"I don't live anywhere, kid. I keep moving. But my daughter, she's there. So I always go back."
Evelyn. I stayed quiet for a while as Starr took deep drags. I thought about my own mother, somewhere out there, still praying for me. I felt a pang in my chest. Finally, I asked, "When did you start dancing?"
"Well, I was born and raised in the Valley," she said, lip curled. "When I was seventeen, I took a bus downtown to Halifax to visit some friends. The whole time I'm on this bus there are these guys sitting behind me, right? Saying shit like: Oh my God baby, you're so fine, where you going baby? and so on."
Starr crushed her cigarette in an ashtray. "A whole hour they spent saying shit like that. I ignored them. When we arrived downtown I got off the bus, walked straight into the nearest strip club and said: Somebody better hire me cuz apparently I'm hot shit." She laughed like a starling. "I made $800 that night. Never looked back."
"Hey, Bambi!" We turned. Luca was standing in the doorway, motioning for us to come inside. "What's the occasion, baby?"
"I'll be going, kid. Thanks for the drink." Starr picked up her bag, threw it over her shoulder and marched out of the bar. I knew I wouldn't see her again. Strippers keep moving.
"I'm sorry, did I interrupt?" Luca smiled at me as I came indoors.
"Nah, she was just leaving." I sat at the bar and put my head in my hands.
"Oh no, rough night? Who do I need to beat up, huh? Just say the word." He passed me a shot of something. His phone, which was lying on top of the bar, started ringing. "Just a second, honey."
I picked up the shot and poured it down the back of my throat. Tequila.
A toast, I thought. To hustlers and mothers.
Zuzanna Gabrielli is a queer sex worker based in Berlin. She writes stories that touch on the topics of sexuality, sex work, and religion, and is intending to publish a collection of these short stories by early 2021.
Zuzanna also hopes to someday purchase a Mediterranean villa where workers from around the world can come, kick back, and make jokes around the campfire whilst sipping Prosecco.
Find Zuzanna on Twitter @zuzugabrielli
See Zuzanna's website at zuzugabrielli.com