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January 21, 2011

This is first article in a series exploring the realities, motivations and morals associated with the sex trade.  NSFW.

Most of them wore no more than a bulging, shiny sock.

The spandex or leather was stretched perilously tight and held on by a thin string that went through their legs and up their cracks and around their hips to form something that could be called, by the imaginative or the kind, underwear.  A few of them also wore baseball caps.  Several of them had dog tags, or sported tattoos on their muscled legs, arms and butts.  They were all in great shape.  Most were young, but a few had that smoker’s leathery worn out quality.   I hadn’t known beforehand that ‘dancing’ meant strutting around on low tables, the thrusting out of hips and the waggling of rears.  To me, dancing is swing or salsa.   If I was being generous, I’d include that sort of white-boy bob nerds do at senior prom.  These dancers didn’t bob.  They stretched seductively.  They flexed their muscles.  They pulled coyly at their loins, readjusting fabric and goods alike, inviting peeps of flesh.  They encouraged touching. They didn’t smile.  Most of their eyes were a little un-focused.

One didn’t go to The Pirate’s Mark for the beer.

Last fall, I was visiting several university friends in Chicago.  One of my good friends and I decided to spend Saturday night on the town.  Spencer and I started off the evening classy: both of us dressed up a little and we went to Russian Tea Time in the loop for dinner.  Our dining cohort were well-dressed families with well-behaved children and old couples with carefully coiffed hair and subtle gold jewelry. Our waiter was polite and called us “Ma’am” and “Sir.”  The food was delicious, and the napkins were cloth.  Afterwards, we decided to go to this North Side comedy club Spencer liked, called “The Playground.” We got on an el train, I made us mistakenly get off at the wrong stop, and we got back on the same train but on a different car.  There we saw an advertisement for The Playground that asserted if we took a picture with us and the ad in it, we would get one free ticket.  Right before our correct stop, I managed to snap a photo that depicted the ad (blurry) and Spencer’s face (well, a third of it, anyway).  We started our walk towards the comedy club, marveling at our good fortune.

Halfway there, Spencer stopped for a moment and stared at a bar we were about to pass. “This is the place I sometimes go,” he said.  “You know, my sanctuary on bad days.”

I looked at the sign.  “The Pirate’s Mark?”  I smiled at him, playfully.  “I’ve heard so much about it.  After the show, let’s go in!”

“I’m not sure I should take you in there.”

“Spence, it’s not like I’m going to judge you or anything.”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s a gay bar, Luca.  As a straight girl, you might be a little uncomfortable.  It wasn’t made for you.  You might even make other people a little uncomfortable.”  He looked serious.

“Alright.  I’ll defer to your judgment.”  With one last look, we continued to The Playground.

Once we got there, we realized they only accepted cash, and even with our free ticket, we were two dollars short.  We were about to duck out to go to the ATM across the street, but a jovial man behind us tapped Spencer on the shoulder and said not to worry about it, he’d take care of it.  He then made his wife pay up, and she was very confused why she was giving over two bucks to a couple of nicely dressed strangers.  We thanked him profusely.  It felt like a charmed night.

The comedy show was uneven but fun; the singing comedy group was clever, and the long, free-form scene about a gently racist woman on a cruise was actually endearing.  As we left at around 10:30, Spencer suddenly turned towards me and said that he did want me to see The Pirate’s Mark after all.  He wanted to get my impressions of it.  He said that it was strange to him that a bar felt so welcoming and friendly.  He felt like he belonged there, and yet there was a perversity driving him to go there as well.  It left him feeling dirty.

Once pass the scarred wood door, it became clear to my why this wasn’t just another gay bar.  It had all the trappings of a bar: the friendly bar tender with a single earring, beer on tap, the rack bottles, stools and chairs and worn tables and a crowd like you’d expect on a Saturday night.  But on a low table in the middle of the room was a young Hispanic guy who was letting a fifty year old man rub his hard on.  Other barely dressed men were circulating the room, being extra friendly, letting men slap their asses as they walked.  And there was only one other woman present.

I sat down and ordered a beer.  Franklin, the bartender, turned out to have a bevy of geography and great lake trivia questions, and once he realized that Spencer and I were nerdy enough to enjoy thinking of the state with the longest coastline, he kept them coming.  When Spencer got a question right, Franklin would send a free drink his way.  Once we all got comfortable with each other, he asked the million dollar question.  Looking sideways at me, he asked if Spence was straight.  After Franklin was assured that was not the case, Spencer got another free drink and the confident vote that he was batting for the right team.  No offense to me, of course.  He was sure I was lovely.

As Spencer has said earlier, it was a strangely comforting place, bizarre considering it catered to such a blatant and gross form of raw sexuality.  It was a male sanctuary.  For men, by men.  You were gay until proven straight.  You were given permission to experience, to look at forbidden/’disgusting’/adventurous feelings and sights.  You were in fact encouraged to look, forcibly surrounded in the institutional acceptance of the desire to look.  Old men were pawing at dancers, and that was okay.  Oh, you feel self-loathing at your weakness for objectifying other human beings in such an obvious way?  That’s okay, too: let a dancer make you feel better about that.  No one asked any questions.  No one judged you for being there.

A blond dancer came over and draped his arms with a practiced casualness over the shoulders of Spencer and I.  His sweat slicked body rubbed into ours as he began to make playful banter.  For me at least, it was disconcertingly non-sexual experience.  He just seemed tired.  He looked young, younger than me.  He reminded me of a little brother.  If not mine, then somebody else’s.  I was weird having a normal conversation with a stranger who was almost completely naked.

He talked to us for a long time, that dancer.  Maybe it’s because Spencer and I looked non-threatening.  His name was Max.  He was nineteen, not even old enough to drink legally, and this was his second job.  During the day, he worked at a Pottery Barn.  We asked him what he was doing for the holidays.  He told us of his family in Michigan, of his two moms, two dads, and about ten siblings, half siblings and step siblings.  He drew a diagram on a napkin to elucidate the lineage further; this seemed to amuse him.  He joked how if he put in the napkin in his jock strap next to the money, a funny guy might get the idea of paying with a signature instead of cash.   When talking of his folks, he described leaving the house young, but spoke of affection towards his little siblings.  He hadn’t made it around to college yet.  Maybe next year.

We asked him if he wanted to sit.  No, he told us, he wasn’t allowed.  Management’s rule: a dancer’s butt may not grace a chair.  He could lean though.  He demonstrated this fact by leaning further into Spencer.  We asked him if he liked what he did for a living.  He didn’t, but it made a lot of money and he was better suited to it than most other things.    He said that a lot of the other guys were whores on the side, and he was tired of being asked if he did that too.  He didn’t do drugs either, but occasionally drank at work.  At least he was gay, he said, a few guys who danced weren’t, and they had a harder time of it, usually.  He thought for a second, and then added how he wasn’t a huge fan of having to buy his own ridiculous underwear either, but it beat sharing someone else’s.  We drank to that.

Max left once or twice to dance in the other room, but he always came back to talk to us afterwards.  There were so many other questions I wanted to ask but felt I couldn’t, that it would be gauche and rude and display my prejudices and ignorance.  Did he consider himself sexually exploited?  How comfortable he must have been with his body to think so little of showing it off!  Did he judge customers who came into the bar?  Was he aware of this male orientated sphere that The Pirate’s Mark had created, this rare place where male on male sexuality was nothing to be hidden?

At 3:00 AM or so, he came back to us fully clothed and we stepped out into the Chicago cold.  We had offered to buy him a burrito dinner (what was the protocol with this?  Should we pay him for all the conversational time he bestowed upon us?) and thankfully he wasn’t offended and accepted.  We went together to the surprisingly crowded Mexican joint just down the road.  He exchanged numbers with us, and we parted ways.  When Spencer and I made it back to the South side, we crashed into that deep sleep that exhaustion provides.

But as I fell asleep, I couldn’t shake the feeling of how raw and exposed it all was.  Max was exposed, of course, in the most literal way possible, but it was more than that.  Our society was exposed too; we live in (a time? a place? a world?) where sex is a commodity people will pay for.  Exploitation didn’t fall down gender lines: these male dancers were objectified as much as any lithe showgirl.  Belonging, acceptance, other abstract concepts can be bought and sold too; friendly bartender Franklin seemed to represent that.  And Spencer and I had exposed ourselves as well: we were people who desired this commodity, this sexual display.  We were as responsible as the rest of the society of perpetrating a place where 19 year-olds made more money than those with entry-level jobs and master’s degrees.  All they had to do is dance in a thong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    November 16, 2011 10:17 AM

    lol Russian Tea Time is not classy gtfo

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