Taxi Dancer: Giving Myself Away, One Song At A Time

And with that, I became a Taxi Dancer. Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me.

I was a dreamy, musical-besotted child, growing up in Manhattan. Because my dad was a movie critic, our family record collection was full of soundtrack albums. One of my chief childhood pastimes was memorizing show tunes and choreographing elaborate dance sequences in which I was both the star and the chorus. All I needed was a twirly skirt, maybe a pair of tights on my head to simulate long, flowing hair, and I was the star of my own personal MGM musical. 

When I was about 11, I became fixated on a song from a movie I had never seen called Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day. The cover art was riveting: Doris in a frothy blue dress cut up to here, a curvy leg peeking out, her arms posed in zesty jazz brackets, pinkies akimbo. She was all confidence. 

I came west to be a movie star and find myself. Instead, I found myself draped over an old man with gold teeth at the Club Flamingo who was telling me about his discount auto parts business. I was as far away from myself as I could get. 

The lyrics of “Ten Cents a Dance” told the story of a lonely, haunted woman who worked in a dance hall, getting paid to dance with strange men. The song was full of pathos and mystery, qualities Doris Day was not known for. The way she sang the words made dancing all night for tips with loutish strangers seem completely glamorous I played this tune over and over every day for weeks, memorizing it, choreographing sultry moves to it, trying to sing it just like Doris Day:

I work at the Palace ballroom, but gee that palace is cheap.
When I get back to my chilly hall room, I'm much too tired to sleep.
I'm one of those lady teachers, a beautiful hostess you know;
One that the palace features, at exactly a dime a throw.

Fourteen years later, I was an actual lonely, haunted woman newly arrived in Los Angeles. I had spent the first years of my young adulthood struggling to recover from heartbreak. I had been seduced in my senior year of high school by a teacher and then expelled from the school when the affair was discovered. My relationships were all dysfunctional, and I was in a PTSD haze. 

Flat broke, I combed the back of the LA Weekly classifieds one day. I was looking for a quick way to come up with rent that didn't involve getting paid for sex when I came across an ad that screamed: “Earn $400-$600 a night as a hostess at Club Flamingo!”
    
The club was downtown on 12th street, far away from the glittering office buildings. I walked up the wide, creaking staircase of an ancient building to the second floor and asked for the manager. The bouncer walked me past the dance area. A mirrored ball sprayed colored dots across a rough, empty floor. There was a bar area, and a long banquette, where a few bored girls sat, legs crossed, their pumps dangling off their big toes. 

Marty sat behind a huge, oak desk in an office cluttered with ashtrays, posters, and cracked disco balls. He wore aviator frames and smoked a cigarillo. 

He explained the rules to me: “No alcohol or drugs, cigarette smoking only on breaks in the designated area. Single men are not allowed on the dance floor, no leaving the club with customers, no blowjobs, no hand jobs, no grinding.” 

He pointed to a closed-circuit TV screen next to his desk. “Every inch of that dance floor is on camera. If you break any of these rules, I will fire you. We run a clean joint here.” 

And with that, I became a Taxi Dancer.

Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me.
Gosh, how they weigh me down.
Ten cents a dance, dandies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown.

Of course, with inflation, it was more like ten bucks a dance. Each girl had a time card, just like a factory worker. The “clients” would look us over, and we would punch in. They could dance with us as long as they wanted. The house took half, and I got the other half, plus tips. I took my place on the red vinyl banquette alongside the other dime-a-dance girls — I was the only one the color of Doris Day in the lineup. The dandies and rough guys looked us over from bar tables. I felt the heat of self-consciousness make me blush. 

In heels, I was good a foot taller than just about everyone in the club. I thought that was going to work against me, but as it turned out, I spent very little time on the banquet.


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My first customer was a stone-faced Hispanic man who followed me out to the dance floor just as “Hello” by Lionel Richie was starting up. As in Doris Day’s days, dances were timed by songs. He put his hands on my waist and drew me close. It felt strange to be held by a stranger. We did an awkward shuffle, my forearms resting on his shoulders, my hands dangling in the air behind his back. I didn’t quite feel like Doris Day, but the night was young. We didn’t speak, and he didn’t even really look at me. I could feel his palms sweating through my thin nylon top. It made me feel cold and clammy.

“Hello” ended and I took my customer over to the desk to punch out and pay up. He didn’t tip me anything. Already I felt I was failing. What had I done wrong? It was a question that was always on my mind in those days. How am I fucking this up? Back in the days of the twirly skirt, I had known who I was: a dreamer, a limerick-lover, a joke-teller, a girl with a dead-on Julia Child impression. But all that disappeared in high school. I was a sex scandal now.

I was the girl who fucked her teacher. I was entirely lost to myself. 

I came west to be a movie star and find myself. Instead, I found myself draped over an old man with gold teeth at the Club Flamingo who was telling me about his discount auto parts business. I was as far away from myself as I could get. 

Seven to midnight I hear drums, loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums, customers crush my toes.

I danced with a chatty, chunky fellow in a loveless marriage. He wanted to tell me his whole sorry story, from his Bahamian honeymoon right up to that very evening when he got in his car and drove in from Bellflower. He kept me swaying through four songs, sliding his hands up and down my back, stopping just at the top of the crack of my ass. He was misunderstood, he said, put-upon, a good provider, a man’s man, married to a cold bitch. I nodded and cooed my sympathy. When I clocked him out, he tipped me ten bucks. I was starting to get the hang of this job.

Back on the banquette, I chatted with a girl named Angela who was the only dancer there who would talk to me; the other girls hated me. 

“There are two kinds of girls here,” she said, “respectable girls and Corner Girls.” 

She pointed to the far, dark reaches of the ballroom where couples were nearly motionless, but for the subtle, curved, jungle boogie of the dry hump. 

“Those girls think they will make more in tips if they let guys take liberties. But it’s bullshit. And watch out for that,” she said, pointing to a large, square pillar in the center of the dance floor. “Guys will try to get you back there because it’s the one area in the ballroom where Marty doesn’t have a camera.”

I would drive home to my chilly hall room, my purse crammed with small bills, my clothes rank with sweat and Hai Karate. I would stand in a scalding hot shower at 3 AM, trying to wash it all off of me, but I couldn’t because it was inside of me, like mold.

This was back in the 90s, so a lot of our clientele were Japanese businessmen. They all politely asked me to remove my high heel shoes, but I towered over them in stocking feet anyway, and I got splinters from the ancient parquet floor. I tried to make conversation, but they didn’t have enough English. They were as far from home as I was, and their loneliness rolled off of them like tsunamis. They were quiet and deferential, and I felt like a big, tacky neon sign fritzing in their arms. 

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero,
But it's a queer romance;
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance.

I took a bathroom break. The ladies room was cavernous, with broken sinks that dripped, and soap dispensers filled with powdery Borax. I was washing my hands when two girls came in. One of them bee-lined for the sink and began furiously yanking out paper towels, dabbing at the front of her mini-dress. “The guy fucking came on me! I’ve got jizz on my fucking dress, mija!”

“Damn, Alicia, that’s what you get for being a Corner Girl.”

“Fuck you, Yvette, I got kids to feed.”

I went back out to the banquette and was immediately picked out by a slick trick in a shiny suit and pointy shoes. He asked me questions about myself. I told him I was a runaway, that my father beat me, that I had three kids and was trying to put myself through school. He barely listened as he tried to dance me toward the pillar. I tried to dance us back out into the open. He danced me right back to the pillar and slid his hand up my shirt.

I let him linger a moment before I pushed his hand away. He tipped me twenty bucks.

Fighters and sailors and bow-legged tailors
Can pay for their tickets & rent me.
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor
Are sweethearts my good luck has sent me.

After that, I pretty much became a Corner Girl. I told lies about myself as I let men dance me behind the pillar and grind their hard-ons into me. I let them grope, grab, and lick whatever parts of my body they could expose as I talked about growing up on a farm or some other shit. I did it for the money, sure, but also out of a strange mixture of boredom, perversion, and self-abnegation. I felt most like myself when I was being treated like someone else.

This was one place where I felt sure of my power.

I was constantly being propositioned by “clients” for dates after work. I considered each proposition carefully, let my imagination take it for a spin. I knew it would be crossing a line to meet up. I had a boyfriend sleeping with his phone by the bed, so I could call him when I got safely home. This boyfriend had no idea who he was courting. In a year’s time, I would try, unsuccessfully, to wash this whole dirty episode clean with a wedding dress. 

I would drive home to my chilly hall room, my purse crammed with small bills, my clothes rank with sweat and Hai Karate. I would stand in a scalding hot shower at 3 AM, trying to wash it all off of me, but I couldn’t because it was inside of me, like mold. I thought about those men probably more than they thought about me. Their cries for connection rebounded off my own, hollow heart. 

We were the same, wandering around alone in a world that didn’t really want us or know what to do with us. 

At the Club Flamingo, we were all in limbo, dancing to bad Top 40 songs, feeling the meter running as we waited to punch out.

The Foot Doctor was a regular at the club. He rented girls, bought us Cokes, and then rubbed our feet for a paid hour. It was a solid arrangement. My feet felt like raw hamburger, so I let him go crazy. He looked at me with soft, wet eyes as he cracked my toe knuckles. I purred with pleasure. He told me he was falling in love with me. What I gave him of myself felt precious. I had real value in this world. During the day I dressed up and drove out to Burbank to audition for “Girl #2” roles in sitcoms for which I was never hired. In this world, I got paid to play any role I wanted.

Though I've a chorus of elderly beaus,
Stockings are porous with holes at the toes.
I'm here till closing time.
Dance and be merry it's only a dime.

Over the three weeks I worked at the Club Flamingo, I let men take greater and greater liberties.

I never made $600 dollars in a night, but I came damn close. Things were starting to fray. Angela moved on to greener pastures, and I never spoke with one other girl on that dance floor. One night a client waited for me in the parking lot and begged me to take him home. I got scared. I didn’t tell my boyfriend about that either. 

On my last night at the Club Flamingo, I danced with a tall, elegant, black gentleman named Bill. He held me at a respectful distance, not too far, not too close. He was a remarkable figure for the Flamingo; he was poised and spoke in full sentences, asked questions, and listened to the answers. Because he was the first intelligent, aware person I had met at the club, and because I liked him, I decided to tell him the truth: I was new to Los Angeles. I was from New York. My father was a film critic, my mother a novelist. I had been kicked out of boarding school for sleeping with my teacher. I had just graduated from Barnard College in June with a degree in English Literature. His eyes bugged out in disbelief. 

“What are you doing here?” he asked me. 

“I don’t know,” I told him.

He put me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. 

“This is not the place for you. The choices you make today will affect the rest of your life. Choose carefully, young lady.”

I drove home that night through the spooky, deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles and thought about Doris Day. The world had changed, or maybe I just saw how it really was. Nothing about adulthood was turning out to be what I had thought back in those halcyon days when I danced around my living room with such abandon. Pretty girls are the wampum of the adult world. We are currency, but we have no power.

I never returned to the Club Flamingo.

It would take me another two decades to understand what Bill meant, and by then it would be too late. I will have married the boyfriend and embarked on a different lie about myself, whispered during a long slow dance with a lonely man.

Sometimes I think, I've found my hero,
But it's a queer romance;  
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.


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