On Bourbon Street, the 24/7 bars have shuttered. Police cars and fire trucks outnumber mule-drawn carriages. A paper sign taped to the door of Beerfest, a hole-in-the-wall pub, reads, “Dear guest, Once you depart, please consider returning home.”
Even though every Louisiana bar, restaurant, casino, and strip club is closed by government mandate until April 13 (at the time of this reporting), the guests of Bourbon Street appear to be considering no such thing. Instead, they’re swilling booze from go-cups, yelling “Yolo!” throwing beads from balconies, and asking to see my tits.
Normally, I’d comply, as long as they sat politely at my stage and tipped a few bucks. But Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club—my home club, meaning the place where I dance most often—is closed. Its doors and windows are battened with plywood, as if in preparation for a coming storm. So are the windows at strip clubs like Barely Legal, Hunk Oasis, and Rick’s Cabaret. This doesn’t bode well for me and my fellow dancers, who are, like many Americans, unemployed for the foreseeable future. As independent contractors who aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits and sex workers whose labor is often criminalized, strippers are especially vulnerable.
Closing the bars, restaurants, casinos, movie theaters, and gyms in New Orleans—and everywhere in the U.S.—is a necessary step to contain COVID-19. Louisiana has become an epicenter of the disease, ranking third in the nation for per capita cases. For strippers and other hospitality workers, the timing could not be worse. March, April, and May are the most crucial months upholding the city’s economy, which sustains itself on tourism. This time represents the peak of the city’s festival and convention season, a long, lucrative slide from Mardi Gras to Memorial Day, when myriad large and small festivals take place. They include French Quarter Fest, a free celebration of Louisiana music that drew 825,000 people to the Vieux Carre last year and generated an economic impact of $190 million. Jazz Fest, which takes place over two weekends in April and May, pulled 475,000 attendees and generated an economic impact of more than $300 million. This year, French Quarter Fest has been postponed to fall, if not later, and Jazz Fest will be, too.
“The end of January to the end of May is when I make at least 60 to 70 percent of my money,” said River, an exotic dancer and professional Dominatrix (the capitalization is their preferred styling) who throws play parties in New Orleans. (River's name has been changed for their privacy.) “Our dead season is right after that.”
As a dancer, I can attest that few places feel bleaker than an empty Bourbon Street strip club during summer, when crime and hurricanes spike and tourism plummets. As independent contractors, we aren’t paid our wages by the clubs we work at—actually, we pay the club for the privilege of using their facilities to try to make money. (It’s kind of like how vendors at a flea market pay fees to claim a space there.) All the fees, tip-outs, and cuts that we are expected to give supporting staff add up.
“I pay a fee to work, a cut out of each of my dances. I pay about half of each one of my rooms, and then I pay credit card fees to get my money,” River said. “I tip out staff that helps me with anything. Before I make anything, I'm shelling out $150 to $200 a night.” During the slow season, it’s very possible for dancers to leave work with less money than they had when they came in. To make up for these sluggish and hard months, strippers work as much as possible during the lucrative tourist season.
“This is the time that’s supposed to pull us through summer until we get a small pop in October,” said Holly Tamale, a dancer who does private parties in New Orleans and works at a club outside the city in Broussard. “Hopefully, all the boomers haven’t died by then.”
My friend Lana is a Portland-based dancer who travels around the U.S. for big events. (Her name has been changed for her privacy.) She hits up South Dakota in the fall for pheasant season and New Orleans in the spring for festival season. Obviously, her recent trip here was a bust. Shortly after returning to Portland, Lana found out her strip club and the bar where she bartended had both shuttered.
“I went into crisis mode and drank all the wine,” Lana said. Then she considered her options. As a dancer, she was ineligible for unemployment benefits, but her bartending gig qualified her for $150 a week. “It’s not enough,” Lana said. “I called the governor’s office. I called financial institutions. I called unemployment. I called everybody. Nobody wants to put a stay on our bills. My friends who strip full time are completely fucked. There is zero help.”
My friend Katie, whose name has been changed for her privacy, has danced on Bourbon Street for more than a decade. She’s biked alone across countries the Peace Corps won’t send volunteers to. Consequently, she’s good at living in rustic conditions with very little money. Now, she and her husband might camp out in the woods for a few months, or she might hole up in her French Quarter apartment and do live cam shows online. Or she might brush up on her programming skills. “The fact that we have money stashed aside makes me want to get this quarantine over with,” Katie said. “The sooner we do it, the less damage it will do.”
Katie isn’t afraid of getting sick. She is afraid of what could happen now that New Orleans’ tourism sector, which keeps the city’s approximately 45,000 hospitality workers afloat, is defunct. New Orleans had the nation’s highest poverty rate in 2017, and, still now, many of its residents live close to the financial edge on the best of days.
“The months ahead are going to be pretty dark,” Katie said. “New Orleans post-Katrina was extremely dangerous. That’s part of my worries. Based on past experience, I’m expecting complete incompetence and corruption. I’m going to buy a gun. I’ve never had a gun.”
As a Hurricane Katrina survivor, I relate to Katie’s fears. In the days after the storm, I remember volunteering in shelters and evacuees asking, “When’s FEMA coming?” and not getting an answer. I remember salvaging possessions from my flooded home, and staying out past curfew and being told by the National Guard that I’d probably get shot. I remember the complete civil breakdown and the government’s failure to protect its citizens on every level.
New Orleans dancers who weathered Hurricane Katrina know what it’s like to wait for a cavalry, or any aid whatsoever, that comes too late or not at all. Many have a well-honed sense of the post-apocalyptic. A mother of two who spent Katrina’s aftermath in the strip clubs, Tamale experienced those dark days, which, to her, feel so much like the present time. She’s using her hard-won resilience to formulate a plan. Without the club to fall back on, Tamale is relying on her sugar daddies and her namesake side hustle—slinging hot tamales. “I exploit anyone who’s ever slipped into my DMs asking for a nude,” she said.
“There’s going to be a lot of changes, and the people who’ll come out on top are going to be the military and sex workers,” Tamale said. “We’re just so versatile. We always have been. The nature of someone who puts on a pair of six-inch heels and puts themselves out there to audition… it means you’re willing to do what it takes to survive.”
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