I on LA by Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel

Biased reporting from Los Angeles

Ten cents a dance

Note: This piece was written for a recent "Bad Girl" reading I did. The song lyrics are meant to be sung.

I was a dreamy, romantic, MGM Musical-obsessed child, growing up in Manhattan in the '70's. My dad was a movie critic, so our family record collection was full of soundtrack albums. One of my chief childhood pleasures was memorizing show tunes and choreographing elaborate dance sequences to them. All I needed was a twirly skirt, maybe a pair of tights on my head to simulate long, flowing braids, and I could transform my parents' living room into a soundstage. I leaped off of ottomans, flung myself into sofa cushions and belted out ballads while my parents tried to write in other, quieter, parts of the house.

When I was about ten I became fixated on a song from a movie I had never seen called “Love Me or Leave Me” starring Doris Day. “Ten Cents a Dance” told the story of a woman who works in a dance hall, getting paid to dance with strange men. The song was full of pathos and mystery, and something almost dirty that I almost understood. I played this song over and over every day for weeks, one of my mother's unlit True's dangling from my fingertips, leaning against a buffet, letting the unshed tears of the lonely, haunted woman fill my throat as I sang:

I work at the Palace ballroom, but gee that palace is cheap
When I get back to my chilly hallroom, I'm much too tired to sleep
I'm one of those lady teachers, a beautiful hostess you know;
One that the palace features, at exactly a dime a throw.

Fourteen years later I was an actual lonely, haunted woman newly arrived in Los Angeles. I had spent my last dime moving west to get away from a man who didn’t love me enough. I was combing the back of the LA Weekly classifieds one day, looking for a fast way to come up with rent that wasn’t prostitution, when I came across an ad that screamed “Earn $400-$600 a night as a hostess at Club Flamingo!”

The club was downtown on 12th street. I walked up the wide, creaking staircase of an ancient building to the second floor and asked for the manager. A beefy bouncer walked me past the dance area. A mirrored ball sprayed colored dots across a rough, empty floor. There was a bar area, and a long banquette, where a few bored girls sat, legs crossed, their pumps dangling off their big toes.

Marty, sat behind a huge, oak desk in an office cluttered with ashtrays, posters and cracked disco balls. He explained the rules: “No alcohol or drugs, cigarette smoking only on breaks in the designated area. Single men are not allowed on the dance floor, no leaving the club with customers, no blowjobs, no hand jobs, no grinding.” He pointed to a closed circuit TV screen next to his desk. “Every inch of that dance floor is on camera. If you break any of these rules, I will fire you. We run a clean joint here.”
And with that, I became a Taxi Dancer.

Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me
Gosh how they weigh me down.
Ten cents a dance, dandies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown.

Of course, with inflation, it was more like ten bucks a dance. The house took half and I got the other half, plus tips. I took my place on the red vinyl banquette alongside the other dime-a-dance girls – I was the only Caucasian in the lineup. The dandies and rough guys looked us over from bar tables. In heels, I was good a foot taller than just about everyone in the club.

My first customer was a stone-faced Hispanic man who followed me out to the dance floor just as “Hello” by Lionel Richie was starting up. As in Doris Day’s days, dances were timed by songs. He put his hands on my waist and drew me close. It felt strange to be this close to a stranger. We did an awkward shuffle, my forearms resting on his shoulders, my hands dangling in the air behind his back, which struck me as a gesture that was Doris Day-worthy, and got me out of touching him. We didn’t speak, and he didn’t even really look at me. I could feel his palms sweating through my thin nylon top.

“Hello” ended and I took him over to the desk to punch out and pay up. He didn’t tip me anything. Already I felt I was failing. What had I done wrong? It was a question that was always on my mind in those days. How am I fucking this up? Back in the days of the twirly skirt I had known who I was: a dreamer, a limerick-lover, a joke-teller, a girl with a dead-on Julia Child impression. But in the wake of my parents’ divorce, a troubled adolescence and a broken heart all that disappeared, and I looked instead to men to tell me who I was. I came west to be a movie star and find myself. Instead I found myself draped over an old man with gold teeth at the Club Flamingo who was telling me about his discount auto parts business. I was as far away from myself as I could possibly get.

Seven to midnight I hear drums, loudly the saxophone blows,
Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums, customers crush my toes.

I danced with a chatty, chunky fellow in a loveless marriage. He wanted to tell me his whole sob story, from his Bahamian honeymoon right up to that very evening when he got in his K car and drove in from Bellflower. He kept me swaying through four songs, sliding his hands up and down my back, stopping just at the top of my ass. He was misunderstood, he said, put-upon, a good provider, a man’s man, married to a cold bitch. I nodded and cooed my sympathy. When I clocked him out he tipped me ten bucks. I was starting to get the hang of this job.

Back on the banquet I chatted with a girl named Angela who was the only dancer there who would talk to me, the other girls seemed to hate me. “There are two kinds of girls here,” she said, “respectable girls and Corner Girls.” She pointed to the far, dark reaches of the ballroom where couples were nearly motionless, but for the subtle, curved, jungle boogie of the dry hump. “Those girls think they will make more in tips if they let guys take liberties. But it’s bullshit. And watch out for the pillar,” she said, pointing to a large, square pillar in the center of the dance floor. “Guys will try to get you back there because it’s the one area in the ballroom where Marty doesn’t have a camera.”

Japanese businessmen usually asked me to remove my high heel shoes, but I towered over them in stocking feet anyway. I tried to make conversation, but they didn’t have enough English. They were as far from home as I was, and their loneliness rolled off of them like Tsunamis. They were silent and polite, and I felt like a big, fritzing neon sign in their arms. The ancient parquet floor of the Flamingo was ragged from years of wear, and the splinters snagged my nylons and lodged in the soles of my feet as we danced.

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket,
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance.

I took a bathroom break. The ladies room was cavernous, with broken sinks that dripped, and soap dispensers filled with powdery Borax. I was washing my hands when two girls came in, one of them bee-lined for the sink and began furiously yanking out paper towels, dabbing at the front of her mini-dress. “The guy fucking came on me! I’ve got jizz on my fucking dress, Mija!”

“Damn Alicia, that’s what you get for being a Corner Girl.”

“Fuck you Yvette, I got kids to feed.”

I went back out to the banquette and was immediately picked out by a slick trick in a shiny suit and pointy shoes. He asked me questions about myself. I told him I was a runaway, that my father beat me, that I had three kids and was trying to put myself through school. He barely listened as he tried to dance me toward the pillar. I tried to dance us back out into the open. He danced me right back to the pillar and slid his hand up my shirt. I let him linger a moment before I pushed his hand away. He tipped me twenty bucks.

Fighters and sailors and bow-legged tailors
can pay for their tickets & rent me
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor
are sweethearts my good luck has sent me.

The Foot Doctor was a regular at the club. He rented girls, bought them Cokes and then rubbed their feet for a paid hour. It was a solid arrangement. My feet felt like raw hamburger, so I let him go crazy. He looked at me with soft, wet eyes as he cracked my toe knuckles. I purred with pleasure. He told me he was falling in love with me.

Though I've a chorus of elderly beaus,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes
I'm here till closing time
Dance and be merry it's only a dime.

Over the three weeks I worked at the Club Flamingo I became a for real Corner Girl. I never made $600 dollars in a night, but I came close. I would drive home to my chilly hallroom, my purse crammed with small bills, my clothes rank with sweat and Hai Karate. I would stand in a scalding hot shower at three AM, trying to wash it all off of me, but I couldn’t because it was inside of me

I was dancing with a polite black gentleman named Bill. He held me at a respectful distance, he spoke in full sentences and asked me about myself. Because he was the first intelligent person I had met at the Flamingo, and because I liked him, I decided to tell him the truth: I was new to Los Angeles. I was from New York. My parents were authors. I had graduated from Barnard College in June with a degree in English Literature. His eyes bugged out in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I told him.

He put me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. “The choices you make today will affect the rest of your life. Choose carefully, Young Lady.”

I drove home that night through the spooky, deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles, and knew I would never go back to the Club Flamingo. The next time I put on stockings and drove downtown, it was during daylight hours to work as an office temp – which turned out to be prostitution of another sort.

It would take me another two decades to understand what Bill meant, and by that time it would be too late. I made a lot of bad choices based on the bad notion that I was intrinsically bad. But now I know I wasn’t really bad, I just got swept up by a song and gave myself away.

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.

More by Erika Schickel:
Baby's first bust: guerilla postering with Robbie Conal
Chalk it up to troubled times
Ten cents a dance
A girl in no man's land: Singing for Johnny Mercer
Previous story: Scat!

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