By B. DeMarco-Barrett
My Upper Castro studio apartment, with a far off view of the Bay Bridge, sat below Sutro tower on the San Francisco’s highest hill. If an earthquake knocked down the tower, it would skewer my house like an olive, but I didn’t want to move to a more affordable neighborhood, nor did I want to cross the water to live in an East Bay city with oil refineries, cheap housing, or mobs of students. I liked this part of the city, the cantilevered houses clinging to the sides of hills like barnacles, and I liked living on Mars Street. Adjacent streets had names like Saturn and Uranus, and there was no end to the jokes about Uranus, especially in loosey goosey San Francisco.
But I was broke, and my job as a server at the Yellow Rose didn’t bring in nearly enough money. I just turned 30 and was too old for this, repeated my mother every time we talked on the phone. Not that Mother dear had room to talk: She lived with her newest boyfriend Saul south of the border. The last time we talked, she said, “You’re not being yourself, Nina,” to which I replied, “Should I be more like you?” That ended that conversation.
I moved here from New York with my tail between my legs after all my auditions for top-tier and mid-tier Manhattan dance companies didn’t work out. I saved up and drove my beater to San Fran, thinking a dance company here might have me, but no. I tried getting a job teaching dance at one of the million dance studios around the city. Denied. So much for a measly B.A. in dance.
So, I found the Yellow Rose, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and Tammy. We hit it off when, two months after I started working as a server, the owners threw a party at their Marin County ranch. I drank too many vodka martinis and ended up playing an adult version of Truth or Dare where I stripped down to my birthday suit and did jumping jacks. Tammy decided I was the most interesting woman she knew. I liked her, too. She had a degree in psychology and was applying to graduate schools. We had fun trying to figure people out, what their body language said about them, or how the simple phrasing of a sentence said everything about a person’s intentions.
A few nights a week we went to North Beach or south of Market to drink and dance. Sometimes we did Ecstasy together and would get so crazy on the dance floor that everyone would move to the sides so they could watch us.
We also liked reggae clubs where we bopped around, then went home with sinewy Rastafarians who spoke little English but knew their way around the female body like nobody’s business.
Tammy quit the Yellow Rose shortly after I arrived. She got a job as a topless burlesque dancer at the Pink Aviary in the Tenderloin, an aptly named low rent district that was home to the most high school dropouts in the city. Tammy said she loved dancing, but hated guys’ roaming fingers stuffing $20s in her G-string. I’d hate that, too. I didn’t even like getting undressed in Loehman’s one-room public dressing room. And even though I needed that cash, I recently turned down a gig as a model for art classes at San Francisco State. I was a prude when it came to public nudity, but I was getting desperate. I already emptied out my bank account, and had to do something fast if I wanted to stay in this town.
Tammy said she’d help me brainstorm ways to make more money. I admired Tammy. She was short and had big hips, but that didn’t stop her from dancing with wild abandon. She had an apartment in the Marina and went out to eat whenever she wanted. She had a boyfriend who knew she slept with other guys and liked her so much he said okay. What guy agrees to that?
We met for coffee down from the Pink Aviary. We sat on stools in the window as just beyond, homeless people peddled newspapers they wrote themselves and suits rushed down sidewalks poking at cell phones.
“The business dudes from the financial district love the Aviary,” Tammy said, patting her mauve lips with a napkin. “They think no one they know will see them there, but they all end up there, so what are they thinking?”
“It’s not the head on their shoulders that’s doing the thinking,” I said. “I wonder if could do it.”
“Dancing burlesque? You’re so shy, Nina.”
“Not when I drink.”
“That’s true. You can tear up the dance floor,” she said, “and with your body, you’d get a ton of tips. If I can get hundred dollar tips with my raisin sized boobs, think of what you’d get with your watermelons.”
“They’re not watermelons,” I said.
“Pears. Melons. Whatever. How hard up for money are you, is the question?”
“Let’s see,” I said, ticking off the ways on my fingers: “I sold my car, I pawned my grandmother’s ruby ring, and I’m still late on my rent. My cousin Mimi invited me to stay with her but she’s down in Orange County, way down south, and I’ll go nuts if I have to hear about how smart and pretty Ann Coulter is.”
“Who talks about Ann Coulter?”
“Orange County Republicans?”
Tammy held up her petite hands. “Enough. I get the picture.”
“I’d find a rich boyfriend,” I said, “but rich guys are boring.”
“Look, tonight we’ll meet at the Pink Aviary,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to the manager.”
“First let me look at my book,” I said dryly: My appointment book was as dry as a swimming pool without water.
That night I caught a streetcar down Market to the Tenderloin and walked a few blocks to the Pink Aviary. At night, the neighborhood was seedy, and a little scary. From the outside, the club looked plain, but inside, ropes of pink twinkle lights strung along pink brocade walls and crisscrossed the room. Women danced inside huge white metal birdcages on either side of the stage. Between the cages the stage was backed with pink velveteen curtains and right in the middle a woman wearing a feather skirt swirled about, trancelike. Maybe that’s what it took to dance in a place like this before salivating men: In your head you had to go somewhere far away.
I didn’t see Tammy and turned to go when this big honkin’ bald guy all in black said, “Go on in and take a seat.”
“I’m meeting a friend,” I said.
“Your friend’ll find you.”
I could see why—the only other woman in the audience was a skinny redhead wearing an emerald green sequined hat sitting with a sea of Asian suits.
I found a small round table covered with a pink tablecloth and a pink rose in a white hobnail vase.
I had never been in a burlesque club, or a strip club, and was a bit unnerved. But I also couldn’t forget Tammy saying I’d make 10 times what I made at the Yellow Rose.
Where was she, anyway? I looked at my phone. No texts, no voicemail.
So many men in suits, alone and in groups at just about every table, neckties loosened, top buttons undone, all looking a little glazed.
I liked men, not women, but the dancers were titillating, and I could see how they could get to you, though how much could you take, just watching? Wouldn’t you want to do something, and fast, with all that pent up erotic energy?
I ordered a sloe gin fizz, the specialty of the house—because it was pink?—and then another, and I starting feeling tipsy. A suit appeared and said, “Is this chair taken?”
“It will be when my friend arrives,” I said.
“I’ll warm it up for him.”
“Her,” I said.
“I’m Rob,” he said, sitting down with his half drained highball.
“That’s a nice anonymous name.”
“And you are?”
“Tipsy.” An uncharacteristic giggle escaped my throat. I should never drink in public. I get too loose and say and do things I later regret.
He scooted his chair closer to mine. “What’s a pretty woman like you doing sitting here all alone?”
“I told you—I’m waiting for a friend.”
“And why would two ladies meet at a place like this?”
“What’re you doing, writing a term paper?” I said.
He looked like he was trying to figure out a comeback when I said, “I’m considering working here.” I tipped back my glass and caught an ice shard with my tongue.
He appraised me. “I can see that.”
“You’ve known me all of two minutes. How can you see that?”
“I’m a good judge of people?”
“But I get cold easy.”
“They’ll give you feathers. Feathers keep birds warm, right?”
“Witchy Woman” came on over the loudspeakers. The lights on stage dimmed, then came up a deep pink. Rob finished off his drink as a server in pasties and chaps appeared, her toned heinie hanging out.
He said, “Another highball, and whatever she’s drinking.”
B. DeMarco-Barrett’s first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within (Harcourt, 2004; 10th printing), made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list. Her short story, “Crazy for You,” originally published in Orange County Noir (Akashic, 2010) was anthologized in USA noir: Best of Akashic Noir Series (Akashic, 2013). In March 2014, “Message in a Bottle” was published in The Big Click Magazine. Her essays and articles have seen print in The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, The Toronto Sun, The Los Angeles Times, and more. She teaches “Jumpstart Your Writing” online for Gotham Writers Workshop and hosts Writers on Writing, KUCI-FM, also streaming at www.kuci.org and iTunes / college radio. DeMarco-Barrett received a Distinguished Instructor Award in at UC-Irvine Extension. She is founder of the Pen on Fire Speakers Series.