I go most places alone. It’s not that I don’t have friends, many friends, good and dear friends with whom I’ve shared good and bad times, people I respect and care about, and who seem to feel the same way about me.
My friends, though, have responsibilities, houses and children, others who depend on them, jobs that require their full attention, savings plans that are a life raft against future tsunamis. Adult stuff. Insurance. Taxes. Paperwork. Caring for the future.
Me, on the other hand? Not so much.
If I spend a night out drinking, the only one who pays is myself, and time (or more drinking) erases the immediate cost. I don’t own a car so I won’t drink and drive. And if I blow my savings on strippers and pizza… if I run off to Vegas on a whim… If I jump out of a perfectly good airplane… there are no children’s tummies which will want for nutrition, no widow left behind to mourn my passing and curse my foolhardiness, no estate that will go unclaimed amongst my heirs, no work left unfinished.
As long as I pay my bills and my rent, I feel free to do whatever I want with whatever is left over.
So last week, on a Monday night, I walked into the Devil’s Point in dirty southeast, a fat roll of cash in my pocket.
I flirted with the bartender, who appears to be a former (or current) exotic dancer herself, though clad in t-shirt and jeans, and got the Drink of My People (Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic, twist of lime). I small talked with the folk at the bar, and looked around the place.
Being alone a lot in venues like these, I’ve been de-sensitized to how I must appear to others. But lately I’ve realized that people can, and do, notice. What’s the best way to counter the “lonely guy” look? Strike up a conversation with others, join their group, and show that I am, in fact, just as much a social creature as any other hairless ape. Or, better yet, talk to many groups. Be the life of the party, the host with the most, the guy with a gift for gab.
Those of you who know me can stop smirking now.
Drink in hand, I walked, shoulders back and relaxed, smiling, moving slowly but with determination amongst the tables full of hipsters and goths, to the stage. A dancer I did not recognize was finishing up, and there were two groups of people seated at the rack, on opposite sides of the stage. By pure chance I chose the group closest to me. Two guys and a girl. The guys wore button shirts and slacks, dress shoes, one with tie, the other in a sweater vest. The girl had on dress pants and a white blouse, blonde short hair, glasses.
I sit down. I engage them in conversation. We banter back and forth. They ask me if I have a light for their cigarettes, and I decline, and tell them two out of three vices are enough for me (drinking and lap dances). The blonde guy makes a joke about being French and I make a comment about him knowing his vices, but he takes it as a comment about surrendering and the French, which gets a little personal (I meant no insult, but I can’t tell if he took it that way or was just playing along with what he thought I’d said) so I drop that thread and mention to the whole group that I think Monday nights is “Fire Dancing” night at the Devil’s Point, which causes them to grill me on what, exactly, that means and am I sure?
I’m not sure, but I like the idea of being the guy who knows, so I play it off. Depends on who’s dancing tonight, I tell them. It’s a good show, I understand. One of the dancers is especially known for her fire dancing; if she shows up, wow, watch out.
Several songs of banter go by, but no dancers take the stage. I came in right at shift change. Old shift leaving, new shift getting ready. I notice Stormy, and Rocket, and Selena, all coming and going from the dressing room, talking to the bartender, talking to the DJ.
Finally the dancers come out, one at a time, two or three songs each, slowly getting naked as the songs progress. This is the show. This is the entertainment. The punk rock, the Goth-y dancers, the buzz of alcohol, the sting of smoke. This is why I’m here.
I toss a dollar on stage for each song. If I like the song, sometimes I’ll toss more than one. It’s strip club etiquette.
The guys I’m with are throwing fives, tens and twenties on the stage. Each. Per song.
Who are these guys? That’s my first thought.
I hope I don’t look cheap next to these guys. That’s my second thought.
I picked exactly the right group to talk to. That… man, I wish I could say that was my third thought, but that did not occur to me until much later.
The dancers give the big spenders attention, but they give me attention, too, just as they give attention to the group at the other end of the stage. In fact, the group at the other end of the stage get a little more, because they seem to be regulars and well-known by several of the dancers, Selena in particular. I don’t particularly care, but the party I’m with… they notice. And they start throwing more money on stage.
They run out of bills, so the guy in the tie gives some money to the girl, who goes back to the bar to change it. She comes back with a huge stack, maybe singles, maybe more, I can’t tell. I make note of that transaction – tieguy, to girl, to bar, back to tieguy.
Tieguy makes some joke about how there’s not enough girls in the club for him to… do… something. The punch-line is lost in the noise. I laugh anyway, and nod, and turn back to watch Stormy take the stage. Sweet, hot, Stormy.
And tieguy catches my eye. Pulls a twenty dollar bill off his roll. And tosses it at me, across the corner of the stage.
I remembered him giving a twenty to the girl to get change. Is that what he’s doing with me? I suddenly felt a power struggle. Was I the knowing insider, helping these newbies have a good time on my home turf? Or was I the help, the service staff, here to help them and make them comfortable?
We had what an improviser would call an imminent status game. Was I high status to them, or low status?
I smiled, oddly, crookedly. I slowly reached out, poked the bill, picked it up, held it in the air, looked at tieguy…
…and I tossed it back at him.
His eyes got big. His companions grew quiet. I did nothing more.
“Seriously?!” tieguy said. It was loud, but I could hear him. I heard incredulity in his question.
The girl looked at tieguy, then leaned over and whispered at sweatervestguy. Sweatervestguy leans over to me.
“Dude… he just gave you twenty dollars.”
“I know,” I said. Did I misinterpret something?
“And you just threw it back.”
“Right.” I nodded at the money. “Did he want me to get him change? A drink?”
He looks at his friends, back at me. “No. For you to spend.”
He scooped the bill off the stage. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle this. I’ll go get some ones, and when I come back I’ll split them with you.” He leaned back to his friends, they whispered amongst themselves. I turned back to the stage, tossed a dollar up for Stormy, finishing her set. Did she see this interaction?
Tieguy got up from his chair and came over. His initial whatthefuck look had been replaced with flummoxed. “Dude? What just happened?”
“I meant no insult. I just wasn’t sure what your intentions were.” I sounded calmer than I felt. Drug dealers? Organized crime? Was I going to get whacked when I left here tonight? Did the blonde dude go to call in reinforcements? Did I watch too many Mafia movies? Let the defendant state for the record, your honor, that to the best of my recollection, none of them appeared to be packin’ heat. “You have to understand – stuff like that doesn’t normally happen to me.” I hoped that didn’t sound as lame to him as it sounded to me.
“Right, right… true. I was just being… It’s just…” he shook his head, looked back at the girl, glanced to see where sweatervestguy was in the bar, “that guy? He’s my boss.” This last seemed dragged out of him. He appeared loathe to say it.
The dymanic changed again, with just a few words spoken. Boss? Tieguy is subordinate? He seemed the more powerful one, when he was handing money to the girl and tossing large bills on stage, and joking about not having enough women. Now he appeared small, diminished, trying to puff himself up in front of his supervisor, his foreman, his manager. His boss. Boss? Really?
I nodded as if I had any clue what he was talking about, and fell back into the role of knowing advisor. “Well, you know, these things happen.” I waved at the stage, where Rocket was taking over from Stormy. “Why be angry or upset when there’s beautiful naked women?”
He laughed, and clapped me on the back, and stood up, and pulled out more money. “You’re all right!” he yelled out, and he rained down singles in front of me, and shouted for Rocket to “take care of this guy!” When Rocket came by, he tucked a one hundred dollar bill into her belt, for which she kissed him on the cheek and called him “sweetie”.
For the next half-hour or so, I couldn’t spend my own money even if I wanted to. They still wanted to show off, still wanted to be the big spenders, but realized I was too proud to accept it directly. They brought me drinks, and spread waves of singles and fives in front of me on the rail. And when I stopped Stormy to ask her for a private dance… they paid for it.
Remember that status battle, though? They had tried to buy my attention. If I had accepted, I would have confirmed my lower status to them. By refusing… I had retained higher status. And now, even though they were still trying to buy what I’d refused to sell them, they had accepted lower status to me. The harder they tried, the more it lowered their social value.
They grew bored with me, and wandered away from the stage for a while. I lost track of them. Finally, sweatervestguy came over, tossed more money down in front of me, thanked me for a great time, and made his goodbye.
They were gone. I don’t know if I’ll see them again. I still don’t know why they had so much money and were so willing to spend it. Expense account? Money laundering? Blackwater or just normal Republican corruption?
I’ll never know. But I will keep on talking to strangers.
Though I doubt it will often be as lucrative as that night.