Photo by Anthony Easton
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.
“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.