Photos courtesy of the author
Twenty miles away from North Pole, Alaska, there's a strip club where I danced during the 2006 holiday season. My friend Tara, who I had met on a stripper forum, told me I should visit Fairbanks for the holidays because a huge deployment of soldiers was returning to town. Like many strip clubs in isolated areas, the Alaskan club had some strange house rules (I remember a convoluted check-in procedure and a rule forbidding dancers from tipping the staff), but they did give us little Christmas gift bags. I took some of the best pictures of strip club signs I'd ever see—and returning military men filled the club. One soldier told me shooting people seemed like poetry to him, and a young woman lieutenant asked me how to tell if she was a lesbian.
It was very cold—40 below, I think—so Tara and I didn't leave our laptops in the car. Fairbanks in the winter looked like the moon, gray and rocky and not like any place on Earth I had ever seen, and the town didn't look like a Christmasy kind of white. The club had the obligatory Christmas tree, and most of the people I talked to were spending their holiday far away from home. Not unhappily. People often move to Alaska because they don't care for social conventions, only to discover that in sparsely populated places, just existing in proximity to other people makes you a part of the community.
In this way, strip clubs are similar to Alaska: Anyone can show up, few boring people stick around for too long, and anyone in it for the long haul is either determined or constitutionally unsuited for anywhere else—usually they're a combination of both. In the last ten years, I've moved five times for reasons I find simple but that can seem complex in the explaining. Mostly, I just moved because I wanted to, but wherever I lived, I found familiarity at work.
Strip clubs are an ideal place to spend the Christmas holidays, if you like the holidays enough to be around other people but not enough for a typical celebration. I like working Christmases because I like the casual celebratory atmosphere, not necessarily because the customers are extra generous. The clubs run on skeleton crews, the staffs act goofier, and the customers are happy to have escaped their families and office parties.
I spent my first Christmas at a strip club at age 20. As I worked, I ran into about half a dozen boys who had attended my high school—nobody I'd had a secret crush on or anything like that, of course. They were just customers now, anyway. The same evening, I danced for a father and son who earlier had Christmas dinner at one of Austin's classiest restaurants, and saw my old neighbor, a guy from a punk band who had lived next to me and my BFF when we were teenagers working at our first strip club. I got the DJ to play a lot of goofy Christmas songs and wore a pine-needle-green gown and a hat. It was a pretty great time.
The next year, I bought my first sexy Christmas red Lycra/white marabou bell-sleeved top and miniskirt and a pair of red vinyl gladiator-strap heels—Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money" became my favorite strip club Christmas song. In more recent holiday seasons, I have gone for a more subtle style, wearing a red onesie and black thigh-highs, though I do still have a red velvet/black PVC Santa outfit that I like to wear with black thigh-high boots. I wore this outfit on stage in Missoula when a festive post-party crowd came in and I climbed to the top of a 20-foot pole as AC/DC's "Mistress for Christmas" played.
Some places and people are immune to holiday feeling. Dayton, Ohio, was no fun on Christmas Eve, but at least it had strip clubs to commute to from my home in Cincinnati, a city that had banned strip clubs. One of the few customers at the bar was a talkative trucker from New Jersey. He told the bartender to put a round for everyone—her, me, and a local guy at the bar—on his tab. When the trucker asked, "Hey, man, can I get you a drink?" the local said, "Why?" with suspicion, a wholesale rejection of hospitality. Later I recognized his behavior as mere foreshadowing of the weird insularity and distrust of outsiders that characterized many Dayton locals.
The next Christmas, I moved happily across the country in Portland, where they did the opposite of banning strip clubs. (Portland claims to have the most strip clubs per capita in America.) The day before Christmas Eve I was supposed to fly to Texas to visit my family, but a freak snowstorm blanked the Pacific Northwest. When the train to the airport stopped because it was literally frozen to the tracks, I turned around and called my club to see if they needed anyone to cover shifts for Christmas Eve and Christmas. This weather prevented people from getting around town, so I walked a half mile in the snow to the club to help entertain a sparse crowd, which looked more festive thanks to the weather-enforced halt of normal activity.
This Portland club also hosted the only employee Christmas parties I've ever attended. At every annual holiday party, the club owner reads a poem she has written about the preceding year's events and gives all of the dancers personalized Christmas gifts. That year, it was a personalized hoodie, perfect for pulling over your head when you leave the club for a busy downtown street. In subsequent years, I've received a personalized tip purse and a silkscreened robe/slip set.
The greatest stripper-related Christmas present I ever received was a bigger-than-life painting of my own ass in gold lamé bikini bottoms and stripper heels. The painting started as a photo from a shoot that was inspired by the dressing room selfie I'd used as my avatar on Twitter. My husband conspired with the artist to surprise me with an enormous version of it on canvas on Christmas. I've never been so surprised and delighted with a Christmas gift—he'd put it under the tree, which was decorated in part with ornaments made from pasties and stripper thongs in clear glass balls.
When we moved back to Austin in 2011, I returned to the club where I'd danced in college, finding that an old friend still managed the place. Since that year, Christmas in this club has marked a tragic anniversary. Two days after Christmas 2011, one of my coworkers was sitting in the dressing room crying when I entered. She told me our manager's 17-year-old son, along with his girlfriend, had died after a car had hit them as they crossed a South Austin street. I had known our manager since 2002 and considered him a friend. He had always been a huge music fan and would tell me about the shows he'd taken his son to, how he loved sharing all his favorite punk records with him, and what a great, frustrating teenager he was. Now he'd lost him two days after Christmas. Last Christmas, I forgot what he associated with Christmas and texted him to ask if he was working. I immediately regretted sending the message.
I'll be there working with him this year, for my last week in Austin before moving back to Portland. There's a tall and fun dancer I work with who wears a lot of Texas Longhorns gear during football season, and every once in a while, maybe when she's had a couple of drinks, she'll stop me in the dressing room and say, "Susan! Those little white cookies you brought in last Christmas! I love them. You have to tell me how to make them." She's talking about what my grandmother called sand tarts, which are more commonly known as Russian Tea Cakes or Mexican Wedding Cookies or Viennese Nut Crescents, depending on where your grandmother came from. They're my favorite Christmas cookies to eat and make, out of the five or six kinds I give away every year, and I always bring a big box to the club. I'll have to remember to give her the recipe.
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