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Vignette, Portland

Before the show in Portland, two of us and a local friend head out to a strip club. We had heard about one particular place, and it piqued our curiosity. I have always had a thing for women who rock the punk aesthetic, and that is the specialty of this club. I have never been to a strip club, nor particularly seen the point, but for some reason I am suddenly into the idea. A combination of the sense of adventure that comes with being on tour, and the fact that someone is willing to drive me, and my general underlying desire to look at women in various states of undress. I have a flash of panic walking in. Am I a bad feminist now? I am explicitly perpetuating the commodification of the female body. Like, even more explicitly than I do every day by just normally participating in capitalism. Is this okay? But I’m already there, and my curiosity gets the better of me. I get us a round of drinks, and we have a seat at the stage. My concern evaporates when the first dancer starts talking to us. Just making small talk, like we were at the office, which for her we are. She is buck naked and completely at ease. This is normal. We are looking at her and she knows we are looking at her and she is carefully directing our gaze with her movements. She knows how each motion highlights a particular muscle or curve, or exposes another square centimeter of the previously unseen, often just for a moment, before concealing it again. I do not feel at all like I am the one in charge in this situation. I am mesmerized by all the skin. She is not just extremely pretty but also in impeccable shape, doing all these twists and flips off the pole and the bars on the ceiling. Things most human bodies cannot do, in >6 inch heels, all while discreetly sweeping tips off the table and making small talk. The effect is a lot more like going to the circus than it is like watching porn, and I am not so much aroused as transfixed. When you see an attractive woman in public, you don’t stare. It’s rude, invasive. But in this context I am not only allowed but expected to stare, and I can really take in every detail. Tonight, I am the male gaze. The level of personal grooming on display here is like nothing I have ever seen. It is highly problematic how much I am enjoying this totally unrealistic standard of beauty before me. Smooth, unblemished skin, and not a hair anywhere, with the exception of an expertly-trimmed little tuft on the mons. She is truly a sight to behold. She must make all her girlfriends really self-conscious when they go out together.

The first dancer is just finishing up when we arrive, and another takes the stage. She is better at the pure mechanics of swinging and climbing and twisting into intricate shapes, and she conveys the impression of having a really good time. She is less sultry and more fun. It seems like everyone does two or three songs, gradually taking off more clothing, until at the end they are naked, and then they collect their tips and go sit at the bar to see if anyone wants a lap dance. We have pretty much the same conversation with the second one as the first: we’re musicians, we’re on tour, we heard about this place and had to see what it was about. She knows a guy who works the door where we’re playing, but he’s off tonight. She finishes, we tip, and a third takes the stage. The third dancer is the best looking one so far, and she is also covered with intricate tattoos, which add a new dimension to the spectacle. I can admire her body and also this other layer that goes on top of her body. She is covered with not just pictures but also text, which I can see is written backwards but cannot otherwise make out, and it is all in the shape of a garter belt and stockings. A lot of care and a great deal of money went into this woman’s appearance, and she looks fantastic. All six breasts I have seen at the club appear real, which I appreciate. You heard it here first: Ethan Bassford absolutely loves looking at naked women.

We knew when we arrived that we’d probably only have a half hour or so, and I am vaguely aware of it being about time to leave. The guy who has to play first is with us. I become aware of my phone vibrating, and take it out to check. The dancer angrily demands that I put it away. They have a rule about phones by the stage. This makes sense in retrospect, they don’t want you just coming in and snapping a bunch of pictures and not sticking around to pay the dancers. I apologize, and explain that we’re on tour and have to play a show. She counters: “Well I’m a writer, but I’m not writing right now.” Touché. This is not just about the rules. I have disrespected her by not paying attention while she exerts herself to look sexy for us. She’s only doing this because we’re here and will look at her and give her some amount of money in exchange for the looking. I knew I would screw something up. I put a few more dollars on the stage and pay close attention. We really have to go, this is the last song. The promoter is cool and we don’t want to piss him off. I wonder if she is writing a book about this job. Whatever else she’s working on, I feel like she must be. At least a short story or an article. How could you not? In our rush to leave, I manage to spill the remains of my whiskey soda down my pant leg. Fortunately none of it gets on the stage and she is cool about it. “It happens to a lot of guys”, I say as I leave. She laughs.

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