In the early-afternoon light, the Show Palace looks pretty innocuous. The Queens strip joint is at rest, hours away from powering up at night. Mike Diaz, the club's manager, meets me there in a slick grey suit and lifts up the metal gate. He's an old-school NYC character – constantly cursing, teasing, and jabbering away, the kind of guy who always seems a little bit angry but in a charming way.
He's been running the day-to-day operations of the Show Palace since the summer of 2012, when the club first opened its doors. Back then, it was on track to becoming a run-of-the-mill NYC titty bar. But then the strip joint was denied a liquor license, the result of a citywide effort to hurt the profitability of adult clubs by making them go dry . Around that time, a lot of clubs in red-light areas like Hunts Point had to close their doors because they lost their licenses along with their booze-related income streams. And national chains like Rick's Cabaret, which were looking to expand at the time, got rebuffed from opening up new spots when they couldn't lock down a license.
But the Show Palace soldiered on without booze and used it as an opportunity: Not selling alcohol absolves it of the regulations that govern other exotic dance clubs, thanks to loopholes in the city code. The club is still fighting in court for a liquor license – but in the meantime, its girls can offer fully nude, full-friction entertainment to a clientele that is 18-and-up. (Other strip clubs in New York City that serve alcohol can provide merely topless entertainment to their 21-and-up crowds.) Upping Show Palace's ratchet level is the fact that it's the only after-hours strip club in the city. On Fridays, it's open from 4 PM to 8 AM. And so here I am.
The inside of the Show Palace comprises multiple levels. Although the main floor of the house – with its poles, booths, stages, and non-alcoholic bar – is what gets most the of the attention, prior to opening hours, all the action happens elsewhere.
I follow Mike downstairs to take care of some technical stuff in the basement, which is a drab, all-concrete affair. We then ascend to his office on the top floor, which is painted a heavenly white. This is where he runs the club from his computer, watching a live feed of strippers strolling in and undressing in the locker room.
On his office walls is a framed newspaper clipping about Belle Knox, the infamous Duke University porn star. "The first time she ever danced was here," he says. "She had no idea how to do it. I had to literally pick her up on stage and show her how to move."
The Show Palace often hosts high-profile dancers like Knox. "Because we're alcohol-free, we have to go the extra step," he says. "So we come up with a lot of ideas to promote the place." Tonight's attraction is Jessica Bangkok, a busty 34-year-old Asian porn star whose videos have racked up more than 100 million views on XVideos.com. Jessica also boasts more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, where her profile describes her as a "True cumm guzzler!!! There isn't a load I don't want to swallow."
After a bit of clerical work, I head downstairs with Mike. The club's technically open, but it's dead. One sexy dancer named Dior is on the stage working the pole to Divinyls's " Touch Myself ." She's slowly stripping for the only customer in the joint, twirling around on the pole and then lying down and twerking her booty as he stuffs singles between her cheeks.
We make our way backstage to the dressing rooms, where more girls are filing in. The dancers can show up whenever they want, but a lot of them try to get in before the evening rush, which starts around 9 PM and goes through the following morning.
In the dressing room, there are makeup-less dancers getting outfitted in thongs and high heels. They stand half-naked in front of the vanities, chatting with one another and dolling up their faces for the night. It's a pretty sexless scene. One dancer, clutching her stomach in the corner, tells Mike she feels sick.
"Go take a shit," he says.
Mike works the room – hugging the girls, grabbing their wrists, kissing them on the cheeks, teasing them, complimenting them, or insulting them in jest. One gets so frustrated she lets out an "ughh" and walks away. But the way Mike looks after her betrays a real compassion.
"I hold these girls in high regard," he says as we walk out of the dressing room. "I treat them with respect, and so they treat the customer with respect. Some strip clubs, they're run like a brothel, the girls act like they don't want you. That doesn't happen here."
More customers trickle in. Many of them are young and alone, here to escape whatever their post-adolescent realities are confronting them with. Other patrons are older, family men with wedding rings on their fingers, here to have a good time before they go home to a cold can of beans, a disappointed wife, and SportsCenter...
Some peruse the menu, which is full of peculiar beverages like "Fre Merlot," "Fre Chardonnay," "Fre Champagne." All fake. The bottle service isn't cheap, either – non-alcoholic champagne costs $100. There's also a full kitchen, pumping out everything from steak to seafood pasta, which I order from a pantless waitress.
Dior comes back onstage for the prime-time crowd, clearly pulling out all the stops now that she has a real audience. Rihanna's stripper anthem "Throw It Up" booms out of the house speakers as she flips up and down the pole like a sexed-up acrobat.
I walk over to her and pull out a stack of singles. She moves closer to me, and I start to "make it rain" on her, the way I've seen in rap videos. Cash engulfs her in a plume of green, her smile getting wider with every dollar I toss out. A hundred dollars is gone in seconds.
Then she grabs my hand and leads me to a dark corner of the club. In my lap, her gyrations seem to test the limits of human physicality. She's like an Olympian gymnast, using my knees like balance beams. As she moves, she tells me she's only 20 and has been dancing at the Show Palace since she graduated high school. When our song ends, I give her $50 – $25 for the lap dance, $25 for the tip.
In addition to lap dances, the Show Palace also offers private rooms upstairs where a customer can spend much longer periods of time and money with a dancer. I follow Mike into one with two women – Nikki and Amber – who he grabbed from the dressing room.
Mike and I sit down and the girls began to grind on us. Mike and Amber laugh at the situation. "This is awkward," Mike says. "I know her so well. It's like getting a lap dance from my sister."
I'm matched up with Nikki, who makes jokes to me and runs her fingers through my hair. She tells me stories of certain guys' less-than-savoury behaviour during dances – "I looked back and I was like, 'Damn,'[this dude has] a third leg!'" As she dances, she grabs Mike's shaved head, strikes a pose, and says, "Ball is life," then collapses into a fit of laughter. Nikki also fills me in on the drama in the club – apparently a dancer from another club has come in tonight and is trying to steal some of the girls' money off the stage – the girls of Show Palace are rightfully pissed.
It's time to pick up the porn star guest of the night, Jessica Bangkok. We leave the club and hop into Mike's medium-size black car outside. It's clean, with plush leather seats.
On the trek, Mike plays his favourite podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. He talks about how he is trying to bring in Mia Khalifa – one of PornHub's top actresses – as the club's next guest star. But apparently, according to Mike, the Lebanese-American actress, who occasionally wears a hijab in sex scenes, is scared that her family might try to do something extreme if she did a public appearance.
Jessica's hotel is close, a five-minute drive away. When we pull up, she's waiting for us under the chandelier of the hotel's well-lit lobby with the doorman at her side. She has on a thick black coat that obscures her famous curves.
When we get to the club, we walk upstairs and hang out in Mike's office. Jessica talks about her plans to walk around New York City and soak in the tourist attractions. Then I head back down to the main floor to let her get ready for the show.
The DJ cuts the music off and Mike grabs the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, waving his arms in the air. "The moment you've all been waiting for. Jessica Bangkok, all the way from California! Are we ready to see Jessica nude?!" The crowd cheers in response.
Jessica struts out on stage in a firewoman outfit. "New York State of Mind" rings out from the sound system. She works the crowd like a pro. She pulls off her panties and holds them against one man's face, then tears them away, leaving him to fall over. She pulls another guy's face into her bosom, and then sits him back down. Jessica gives the men glimpses, whiffs into a world of their dreams, then, once they give her all their cash, she pushes them away.
After her show, she agrees to give me a private lap dance. We walk upstairs to one of the private rooms, far away from everyone else. "You ready?" she says before pushing me down onto a couch and straddling me. She put her boobs in my face and guides my hands down to her ass, catering to me for five minutes straight.
I walk downstairs with Jessica, where about a half a dozen men are lined up to get photos with her. They rave to her about how she "changed their life" and tell her they're her "biggest fan." To her credit, she beams, hugs them, and makes them feel special. They hug her back, touching beyond the limits of normal social acceptability. They break away, then suddenly spark up a new conversation topic just to stay near her her a bit longer, and hug her again at the talk's conclusion. They can barely contain their ids. When one guy finally takes a parting picture, she puts his hands on her boobs and jiggles them for him. His eyes pop out like a fish's. He hugs her one more time, squeezing her tight.
This, as Mike predicted, is when the real ballers come in, and the hip-hop look takes over. Guys walk in wearing fur coats, leopard jackets, crazy sneakers. The music changes to accommodate them with a healthy mix of trap and rap hits. The girls are getting wilder, too.
Most of the ladies aren't even stripping anymore – they're just walking around butt naked. They sit in guys' laps, twerking on their crotches. On stage, it's a lot of simulated sex, with girls clapping their booties with no panties on and dancers pretending to eat each other's asses.
I get another lap dance from Nikki, this time in a private booth in the back. I ask her what she likes to do during lap dances. "I really like hair," she says, as she plays with mine. "You got nice hair." She tells me a little about her life. She played tennis in college. She lives in the Bronx, but she grew up upstate, which explains her accent. "It's part country and part New York," she says.
We talk about the music playing. I tell her if I was DJing I would play a ton of Gucci Mane. "Yo, I love Gucci!" she says, laughing. "I like you. You're funny." The song concludes but she keeps dancing on me. She puts her leg up on the table and grinds against me. "You gotta come back," she says. Her friend walks over. "This my new boyfriend," Nikki says to her. "I don't even like Asians, but damn you sexy," her friend says to me.
I know they are just playing with me – both of them are five years older than me, and were flirting with me in the way that seniors in high school flirt with freshman. But it still makes me feel special.
Closing time. They turn on the lights and expose the mess. There are simmering hookahs on the tables and cups and bottles strewn everywhere. Without the flashing lights, turn-up music, naked girls, and guys with money, it's just another party to clean up.
We watch as the strippers file out of the dressing room, bundled in thick dark coats and boots. Their bodies are concealed, their extravagant makeup gone. You'd never guess they were strippers in the light of day. Some of the guys hang around and try to talk to them. One takes out his phone and tries to get a girl's number. She smiles. It doesn't work that way.
Then the maintenance crew comes in. Mike, who's Puerto Rican, shouts, " Hola, amigos!" and other various Spanish non sequiturs at them. They rifle through the joint, picking and preening the refuse.
The half-naked waitress I saw earlier in the night notices I'm still hanging around. "You're still here?!" she gasps. I say the same thing to her, and she just shakes her head. The angry exhaustion is evident in her eyes. The end of a 20-hour shift is no time to be making jokes.
Mike's behind his desk, closing the club down. Nikki and some other remaining dancers hang around his office as he counts out their money. Each one holds fat wads of cash amounting to a few hundred dollars, mostly in small bills.
Mike then explains to me the way the system works. The dancers pay the club nothing if they come in early, and $140 if they come in after hours. Other than that, all the singles stuffed in their orifices are theirs to keep.
We go downstairs with Nikki and a few other strippers and wait for their rides. I try to talk to Nikki more, but without the pretense of a lap dance in between us, I stumble and trip over my words. Mostly, the girls chat and gossip among themselves about which guys they liked and which guys were creepy before they get driven off to their homes and their lives outside the Show Palace.
Soon the strippers are all gone and the place is looking just as it did when I first arrived. I go back up to see Mike in his office and hang out until the end of his shift, when he's finished wrapping things up. He kindly offers to take me home.
Off in the distance, we see a fire raging – plumes of smoke blot the sky. (It turned out to be a major Brooklyn warehouse fire.)
"I haven't seen something that big since 9/11," Mike says to me. "I was living in Manhattan. It was like a movie. I turned on the TV and literally saw the second tower being hit. Then I knew we were being attacked. I ran down to the hardware store, bought an American flag, and ran down the street, waving it up and down. Then the police stopped us, and we watched the first tower fall. Then I started to cry and went home. It was over."
We talk some more as we drive across the Williamsburg Bridge and into Lower Manhattan, but I can't keep the conversation going because I'm exhausted. Before he lets me out of the car onto Houston Street, he looks over at me and catches me rubbing my eyes. "Tired?" he says. "Now you know how I feel! [Running a strip club is] like having sixty girlfriends and all of them have PMS, but you never to get to fuck any of them!"
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