Baby Doll

by

02/07/2011

Neighborhood: Featured, Tribeca, Uncategorized

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It was 1995. I was a junior in college, working full-time at a Fuddrucker’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. I wore a uniform three sizes too large, in custodial colors, bedecked with promotional buttons for mega-nacho platters and S.O.B. sundaes. (“Son of a bitch?” a customer asked me once, pointing quizzically at the pin over my left breast. “South of the Border,” I corrected, handing him his basket of spicy fries.) I had burns on my arms from hot french-fry tongs, and acne sprouting on my cheeks from where toddlers of the rich and oblivious had hurled greasy chicken fingers. The Rich and Oblivious, suffering through nanny-free luncheons with their fair, genderless children, were irate that the unlimited soft drinks were self-serve. Tips were low. Hours were long. Balloons, for which I had no use, were free. Thanks to a frugality I no longer possess (i.e., my refusal to subsist on generic spaghetti and stolen chunks of raw cookie dough), I had saved up enough money to get an apartment downtown. Weary of the fish-out-of water feeling that perpetuated throughout my years in the airless, blonde East Nineties, I couldn’t wait.

Britt sat next to me in my Comparative Literature class. We compared notes on the rambling of the returning students, middle-aged city divorcees who poured their sexual frustrations and intense bitterness into their comments on Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. I poured out my own bitterness about working thirteen-hour doubles and still being too broke to get a decent lunch.

“You should have told me!” she whispered, passing me half of a lovely sandwich. “You want a job at the bar I work at?” Chewing gratefully, I looked at her. Converse to her sharp wit and love of plants and animals, she looked like a lush biker-girl pinup come to life. I had crescent moons of black grit under my nails. I could smell my uniform, rolled up in my knapsack, all the way down on the floor.

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

Baby Doll Lounge was a topless bar on the corner of Church and White streets in Tribeca. It was across the street from a very fine restaurant, Arqua, and from another skin joint, the Harmony, with which Baby Doll was often confused. The Harmony got raided about once a week. I never set foot in there, but our customers provided vivid description. The most telling was from a mousy man who dashed, stricken, into Baby Doll late one afternoon and ran straight into the bathroom. When he emerged several minutes later, with wet hair and skin rubbed pink, he explained that he had slipped on the floor at the Harmony and fallen on his face. The floor had been covered in used prophylactics and their issue. The man downed the beer I handed him faster than a frat boy on his twenty-first birthday and rushed out. I never saw him again.

Baby Doll was not anything like that. Not at all. Originally a Hell’s Angel’s hangout near the famed Mudd Club, with tattooed, dangerously sexy dancers and a drink-at-your-peril reputation, by the time I got there it had devolved into a haven for eccentrics that Bukowski would have adored. As far as the entertainment, the best comparison I can offer is the Island of Misfit Toys from the old “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” special. If you couldn’t work anywhere else, you could always dance there. “There’s No Place Like Our Place!” the Baby Doll flyers screamed. Indeed.

My first day working there is branded into my memory. There had been no training. I had been hired as a bartender via Britt’s recommendation by phone. (“Yeahyeah, come in Tuesday afternoon,” a voice that sounded like it also suggested men sleep underwater croaked at me one 3 a.m. “You’reafriendaBritt’s, she’s a goodgirl. You must be a goodgirl, too.”) I had purchased an outfit that I thought would be appropriate with the last gasps of my Fuddrucker’s funds. It was some slip thing with a pair of ill-fitting fishnets. Walking down Canal Street in it before the sun had set, I drew stares, and not the admiring kind.

Baby Doll had no windows. Though it opened at noon, whenever you entered, it was instantly night. It was painted red and black and was heavily carpeted, all the better to trap the mix of odors- stale booze, cheap cleaning solvents, dueling sugary perfumes, and decades of smoke- that one would expect of such a place. The woman behind the bar was wearing a raggedy flannel over a polyester negligee and a pair of pantyhose with the control top showing, like in the L’Eggs advertisements. She was fat, in her fifties, and had the crispy, wild mane of an albino witch. The dancer on stage, a pretty girl (a rarity, I would learn) gyrated to Mary J. Blige’s “Reminisce” for an old man seated front and center below her. He looked like Jabba the Hut stuffed into a light grey suit. On the streaky mirror behind her was taped a cardboard cutout of a Santa Claus head, winking lasciviously. It was July fifth.»

Baby Doll
Photo by Anthony Easton

“Stupid girl,” the woman behind the bar muttered at me as I acquainted myself with the workings of their ancient cash register. I looked up, stung. The woman, who I would learned was called Cleo (we all had pseudonyms- I had selected the achingly obvious “Jasmine”) and who spoke even when joyous or enraged in a burnt-out monotone, wasn’t looking at me. She was pointing with one crone’s talon at the pretty girl, who was now sitting with Jabba and smiling as he stroked her leg. “They’re all stupid. They waste their money, they give it up to these fucks if they take ‘em shopping or out to dinner. They never think of the future. When I was a dancer,” I looked at her closely here, trying to envision the unimaginable, “it was different. One girl I knew, she’d been fucked and sucked so many times she could tie her pussy lips in a knot,” Cleo said, lighting a cigarette. “She owns a building now.”

“’Scuse me! Scuse me!” a voice bellowed from the other end of the bar. “Can we get some service here? Nurse! Nurse! I’m dyin’!”

Cleo exhaled a gust of menthol smoke. “Keep your tits on,” she droned.

“I’d rather keep yours!” the voice, attached to a man with a Selleck moustache guffawed. Cleo gave her version of a smile, which resembled a dyspeptic Mona Lisa. He pointed at me. “Who’s the kid?”

“This is Jasmine. She’s new. You want the usual?” she asked, reaching for a bottle of Dewars.

“Youse need to ask? Hey, Jasmine, I’m Mike," he said, flashing me a very white smile. There was something very open and likable about him, as with many of the regulars and dancers, I would come to learn. If you blocked out the nipple parade perpetually in the background, you could almost pretend it was a regular bar. "Cleo, get Jas a drink."

I smiled at him. “Oh, thanks, but, I’m working,” I said lamely. Everyone burst out laughing, even Cleo.

“You ARE new,” Mike said.

“You HAVE to drink here, girl! It’s the rule!” the dancer said from the stage. She was on all fours, shaking her ass in Jabba's face.

"Mind your business, Sapphire!" Cleo barked. "Talking onstage. How unprofessional. These girls. She's right, though, you gotta drink, you gotta get drinks bought for you. It makes money for the house and for you. You get a dollar for each one."

At that point in my life, I was not much of a drinker. "But what if I get drunk?" I quavered.

Mike and Cleo laughed. "I'll show youse how to make fakes," she said.

"But not right now!" Mike said. "You don't drink fakes with me. What're you having?"

"Gin and tonic," I said, because it was the first thing that came to mind.

"Go get her one," Mike said to Cleo. Just then, a quick, unwelcome flash of sunlight as a customer entered. He was wearing sunglasses. He never took them off. I ended up working there for four years, and this man came every Monday, and I never saw his eyes. They called him Jack, because he looked like Jack Nicholson. Gone to seed.

I returned to where Cleo and Mike were standing. Mike handed me my glass.

"Cheers," he said, "Salud."

I lifted my glass to toast- and screamed. Mike's dentures were floating in it. The entire bar erupted in laughter. Apparently it was tradition.

"Now you're one of us!" Mike brayed. "Welcome to hell. Now gimme my fuckin' teeth back."

I did and then I had a drink (a different one) and then another, and Cleo finished training me. Many, many things happened there over the next few years, and I remember them all. But those are different stories.

Jessica Faller is a writer, actress and comedienne. She is currently deep in the quicksand of writing her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

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§ 6 Responses to “Baby Doll”

  • Ms Faller: You are an excellent writer and I wish you the best for the novel, which I will keep an eye out for. I used to hang out in the Baby Doll in the 80s — I knew to trust your sensibility early in the piece because I could never think of the place without thinking simultaneously of the gorgeous Arqua across the street, which in the 80s when it opened had these remarkably vivid, almost inner-lighted peach colored or not peach-colored but almost peach-colored painted walls, visible through a huge front window glass out on the street. The juxtaposition was always somehow telling, and important. The color was neither peach nor salmon but some Florentine exterior version of that.

    I saw a girl dancing there once — the only woman I remember from the place, either behind the bar or on what was in the 80′s a 30 inch high, two yard long wooden box that passed for the ‘stage’ — with dark dark hair and dark eyes, hardly moving to the music, this was totally not her thing, a lovely figure but pale and little bruised; I saw her twice. Something haunting about her stayed with me. Some years later I began seeing her, with a toddler, around my neighborhood, shopping in the fruit market, etc. It was odd, this one reality transposed to another. The few times our gazes crossed she looked away with such intent that I believed she knew where I remembered her from. I felt bad, even existing in her plane of vision, introducing that tension in her life. She was around for years, almost a decade, until the child was pretty big — a boy — and then I stopped seeing her.

    There was a film society or archive or some such, name not coming back to me, up the street on White, first floor of an old warehouse, with second hand folding chairs on a broken wood floor, where I saw various super-8 and 16mm indie films including one by a very smart good looking young woman who’d done an adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash all filmed as I recall on the Jersey Turnpike. This long before the Cronenberg. It was good.

    So as you can see, I enjoyed your very well written piece. Thank you for it.

  • B.George says:

    Most amazing about any memories of the BD is that the darkest place in NY is now one of the brightest, replaced by an upmarket, all glass Italian eatery. And those bikers were more likely to turn right to Tier3, rather than left to the Mudd, for a hang. B

  • sarah singh says:

    Jessica,

    This is searing, entertaining, with so much texture. Please do write more of your memories of this place…….I bet there are some pretty great stories from a particular tv show you might like to share some memories of, too.

  • Jessica Faller says:

    To Mr. Passaro: Thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your own beautiful memory of that most memorable establishment. No small compliment coming from you, and I am grateful.

    Ah, Sarah: You know THAT one’s coming down the pike. In fact, it’s a rainy Thursday, perfect time to spin a good yarn about our favorite show business experience.

  • ramonag says:

    i worked at the baby doll in the early -mid 80′s. it was a trip, to be sure. the place was owned and run by low level mob and the day mgr sold really bad coke out of the office. everyone used to hang out there because it was known as a cool spot; lots of artists, writers, musicians. i had no idea the place stayed open so far into the 90′s. i’m hoping they cleaned the bathrooms and replaced the stale pretzels.

  • Rob says:

    I passed by the place just this weekend. Having moved out of NYC in 99 I wanted to do a little reminiscing and saw that the place had gone. The Babydoll girls were for the most part a great bunch of gals each with a story to tell. I worked in a bar up the street in the 90s where a lot of the girls came to grab a burger and a little peace for a half hour. There was no love lost between the Harmony girls and the Babydoll dancers I remember. Must have been some experience behind the bar there. I remember two regulars from there used to drop in to me before the went to ” feed the pigeons” as they put it. Roy and Lenny were some team.
    Nice to read your piece.

§ Leave a Reply

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