Zanzibar is much bigger than Las Vegas, and pretty much looks like what I’d imagine a strip club should with red stage lights, red vinyl booths and black lacquered tables. The colour scheme seems as suitable as chrome and turquoise would be for a 50s diner. Even the customers matched the standards of the bar, as I’m thinking about how Tom would probably pick this club, a man with grey hair, glasses and mustache turns around and to my relief isn’t my boss.
“Before we sit down, let’s talk to a waitress,” Hilary points to the cocktail waitress dressed in an old-school black leotard with fishnets, white button up shirt tied around her chest with a pink bow tie. All she needs to complete her look is a cane and hat and she’s ready to do Chorus Line. Her brown hair is tied back in a high pony-tail and just to throw off the look, she wears heavy-rimmed glasses.
“Just so you girls know, Zanzibar has a strict no contact policy for private dances – cause of licensing and there’s a designated section in the back called the V.I.P.” she tells us while loading up her tray with bottles of Coors Light and wet glasses. We ask her about costumes. “No, the club won’t give you costumes or shoes, I recommend that you sit down and chat with one of our dancers who are freelancing tonight. I have to go deliver these.” She expertly balances her tray while gliding off, her pony-tail waving to us good-bye. I didn’t quite understand what she meant by ‘freelancing’.
We sit down on red vinyl chairs in front of the stage to watch a muscular black girl with shiny skin perform tricks on their hanging trapeze. We’re silent watching her swing back and forth to “Killing in The Name” a Rage Against the Machine song that always gets the crowd going at Catch 22. Her body-builder-contestant-type frame takes the focus off the fact that she doesn’t have huge boobs which demystifies the idea that you need a big rack to strip. Whether it’s the fact that I’m watching a topless girl seductively swing around on stage, or the fact that we’re the only women who aren’t working tonight, I start to feel anxious. Looking to my side I notice how my partner in crime isn’t fazed at all.
“She’s totally Grace Jonesey kick ass,” Hilary mouths at me and bobs her head to the song. Surveying the scene around me I watch girls in bikini tops and g-strings standing around booths and one girl in a rhinestone strapless mini-dress sitting beside a customer. All of these women are our age or maybe a year or two older.
“Gentlemen it is time to put your hands together for Terrifying Tatiana who’s coming out to do one more song. Next up is Crazy Daisy, so stick around as all of our sexy ladies are available for private dances.” The D.J.’s voice sounds like a radio announcer from Q107 from the (tacky?) delivery and deep kick of testosterone combined. My eyes are drawn to a man in a business suit stand up to follow a negligee adorned stripper with what seems to be a picture perfect Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman black bob, but when I see it from the other angle I realize it’s a wig. Her metal-black lunchbox purse sways back and forth.
“Can you imagine how much money these guys need if they want to come into one of these strip clubs?” I ask Hilary. The waitress returns to us to find out if we got a chance to talk to a ‘freelancer’ yet.
“I think we’re on our way out, but thanks again for your help,” Hilary tells her butting out her smoke. Quickly I ask her about the freelancing comment. She explains how not every girl is a house girl, as some travel from club to club like free agents. I imagine a tour-bus delivering them.
“Good luck!” she wishes us raising her tray.
Our next destination is Le Strip – where Kashara works. Walking south on Yonge past Dundas we pass the famous Burger King where the cops surrounded us on Halloween. The area is busy with kids and people coming and going, all oblivious to where we just were. I revel in that secret, and begin to launch into a tour-guide character’s voice to entertain us. Attempting to mimic the tone of the Zanzibar’s D.J. announcements I enact my own performance, “Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the shitty part of Yonge Street where you can waste your money seeing Phantom of the Flopera, or you can take your hard-earned loonies and save them for the lovely ladies awaiting you inside Le Strip. Oh yes, it’s practically an institution, what with it being the oldest strip club in the city.”
“Is it?” Hilary challenges me.
“Oh yes my friend, one can see by the vintage signage and oak wood fire-proof door they want you to appreciate its authentic historical antiquity.” We make our way up the narrow stairs lit up by the same little light tubing they use in movie theatres.
“Annie! Don’t touch the railing!” Hilary warns me, all of a sudden super germ conscious.
“Okay…” I push the door open with my hip when we get to the top. Unlike the other two strip clubs this place has rows of attached seating set up like in a theatre. The stage juts out matching the level of the front seats and has blue lights setting off a background photo-mural of the Toronto skyline at night. Maybe this place truly is a Toronto institution we should have known about, I simultaneously deeply fascinated and saddened by, reflected upon.
Dark oak wood wainscoting runs all the way through the room with three television sets stacked on top of one another playing porn that has a woman swallowing a huge dick. I am trying to look and not look.
“Why do they play porn when there are real naked girls on stage?”
“I don’t know, but should we stand in the back here or sit down in the back row?” Hilary asks and then moves over to the seats slinging her bag over.
As Debbie Harry croons, “Once I had a love and it was a gas, soon turned out had a heart of glass..” some older stripper’s grayish -blue legs were totally spread eagle on stage and some customer in the front row practically falling over into her crotch. She sticks her fingers inside herself and pulls them out to shove them under his nose.
“Oh my God, I’m totally not going to do that,” Hilary says with more than a hint of repulsion.
“Me neither, forget it,” I half whisper as a girl passes me by.
“How can that Katara chick work here?”
“It’s Ka-sha-ra,” I correct her and as I scan the room for her, she appears on stage, not in sandals but a platform pair of ruby red mary-janes. Her Miss Piggy legs stick out of her pink booty shorts that are half-swallowing her tush. She didn’t look that much different in her face than when she came into our store, but after my shock wore off I nudged Hilary.
“There she is! That’s Kashara on stage.” Hilary’s eyes widened. For lack of a pole, the girls make use of platform black boxes to lean against or prance around. We had used similar ones in our drama classes for our scenes. The strange thing about those cubes was that with just a hint of physical or verbal suggesting something could convince you it was a boat, car, or a prop on a strip club stage if you mimed a pole. Like those boxes Kashara was morphing into a stripper. After her set she came out and I approached her. Her face was relaxed about me bringing Hilary here to watch her show. I explained to her, “We’re sort of investigating, and we really don’t know anything about the business, or – “ Hilary interrupts, “what exactly is a lap dance?” Kashara tucks her hair back, takes an inhale and smiles with amusement.
“What happens in a private dance here, is we have a token-system where the guy has to pay first at the counter and we turn in these tokens at the end to get our money, but he can tip us if he wants, and we go into a booth thing that’s like a little room with a bench and that’s where the private dances happen.” She fiddles with her hair and then moves her hands to her pack of smokes lighting one up.
“Can the guy touch you?” I hesitantly ask.
“There’s strictly no touching, but that doesn’t mean some wont try. Like last week this old guy stuck his finger in me and I freaked out and got him taken out,” she exhales nodding without an inkling of embarrassment. I figure maybe she just doesn’t know about the other clubs and how they have real stages with poles.
Before we take off, where did you buy your shoes?” I point to her platform mary-janes.
“Oh… you know at the corner? The World of Shoes? They may have these in blue also,” sticking her leg out we admire their metallic shine. Impulsively I give her a hug. She smells like Impulse body spray and gin.
“Please come in the Have-a-Java to say hi to me anytime, and please don’t say anything to Gavin about us coming here. I’m not sure if I’m going to tell anyone I work with that I maybe want to try this out,” the word ‘stripping’ isn’t something I can say aloud to her. She agrees to keep my secret and waves goodbye trotting off to the back to change. Moving down the stairs as fast as we can we make noises exclaiming, “Ew! Ew! Ew!” for each step we land on. Tumbling back out on Yonge Street we venture north.
“That was soooooo not classy,” Hilary laughs while lighting a smoke. I stick my hand in my backpack to fish around for our mickey.
“Well…I need a stiff drink after that captain,” I say in my Sean Connery accent.
“Yeah… Yesh… me as well.”
Both of us duck into a door-way to have a few swigs before our next club. Hilary and I get to a familiar point in our evening where we know enough to reign in our drinking. That peak hour of being a few degrees under drunk has already passed for me, and more often than not I sober up just when she’s fully wasted, so it doesn’t surprise me that when reaching the enormous, gold-plated shining squares of the Brass Rail sign she starts slurring her words. Holding onto the black sides of the vestibule towards the entrance we cut in front of two men in trench coats. Now I thought I’d see some really big perverts here, but underneath their trench coats were their business suits. The doorman is also wearing a pretty nice suit, and he starts smiling at both Hilary and me when we approach him.
“Hello Ladies, unfortunately we’re at our full capacity and won’t be able to seat you right now,” his large arm could easily smack the both of us into next year if we mess up, I reflect keeping an eye on Hilary.
“Okay, but what if we just want to ask the manager a few questions about working here?” I ask trying not to stare behind him. Hilary shifts her weight back and forth anxiously trying to see what kind of girls work here.
“Do both of you ladies have your licenses?” he asks us as I try to make up an answer while hearing the song Sister Christian, “You’re mo-tor-ing, what’s your price for flight… in finding mister right…”
“Wh-what lie-shunse? Lie-shunse to be sexy?” Hilary slurs, and I worry about his perception of us has been ruined by her comment. Maybe he’s immune to inebriation from working here.
“You girls need to get a Metro Toronto License to work here. You won’t be able to work here without one,” not only did we turn from ladies into girls, but he stopped smiling and instantly got serious. Like a marble rolling out of a netted bag, a stripper pops out of the crowded bar wearing a pair of leather chaps over her g-string. Her eyes curiously look over Hilary and me under a well-worked in cowboy hat. Watching the tassels on her little brown fringed vest wave at me she smoothly spins and puts her hand on a man’s back. There is something sweet, and yet untouchable about that girl which is conveyed in the ten second peek that I’m able to catch a glimpse of her. Nudging Hilary I want her to see this cowgirl, but she’s got other things on her mind – her bladder being first.
“Come on Annie, I need to pee,” she whines and starts pushing her way into the bar. The bouncer sticks his meaty arm out to block her.
“Can’t let you in. Would be a definite fire hazard. Come back when you guys have licenses.”
“Thank you!” I call back dragging her across the street to the Taco Bell. Once inside their washroom we know that we have to see the other clubs, but can’t handle the shlepp across town. Tomorrow is another day.