A man steps out of the Louis Armstrong Airport. He wipes humidity from his brow. In his mind, he holds a story. Maybe you know the one: about a city built upon a river delta. He drives his rental car to his hotel. He goes looking for the Vieux Carré, the center of the old city. The streets caress him. Music, liquor, money, sex. He is entertained.
Last year, nine and a half million people traveled to New Orleans from all over the world, intending to escape their confines in our notorious port city. The people who work to entertain them, though, do so within confined spaces.
Babe’s Cabaret. Rick’s Cabaret. Rick’s Sporting Saloon. The Penthouse Club.V Live Club New Orleans. Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. Big Daddy’s. Temptations. Passions. Visions. Stilettos. Lipstixx. She She. Badboys. Scores. Oz. The Corner Pocket. Deja Vu Showstrippers. Bourbon Pub & Parade Disco. Showcase Bar & Lounge. Chez Joey. Dixie Divas.
Of all the strip clubs in New Orleans, 23 fall within Council District C— the area that includes the Marigny, Bywater, French Quarter, and portions of the 7th and 8th wards. The Vieux Carré Entertainment (VCE) District (the 200 to 700 blocks of Bourbon Street) holds 14 strip clubs. The nine clubs outside the VCE are classified for “nonconforming uses” by the City Zoning Ordinance CZO). They aren’t really supposed to be there. Five exist within 600 feet of the VCE, and the other four just at the margins of the French Quarter.
23 stripclubs. 23 is the median age of a stripper. Part of my job is answering the same questions over and over.
“How old are you?”
“23.” (I’m 30.)
“What’s your name?”
Delta Airlines. Delta World Tire. Delta Force. Delta Faucets. Nile Delta. Mississippi River Delta. Delta Alpha Omega. Delta Dawn. Delta Delta Delta.
“What’s your real name?”
Recently, the city has started calling its strip clubs by another name: Adult Live Performance Venues (ALPV). The CZO defines this as “an establishment that features strippers, go-go strippers, exotic strippers, or similar entertainers or live entertainment, where persons regularly appear in a state of nudity, or where live performances are characterized by the exposure of specified anatomical areas or by specified sexual activities…”
The New Orleans Planning Commission just published a massive study on the status and fate of the VCE’s strip clubs. The “Adult Live Performance Venue Study” is 93 pages long, with 43 pages of appendices and nearly 700 pages of public comment. The Study calls for the closure of more than half—and as many as 20—of the 23 strip clubs in the District. The Study recommends “a cap on the number of Adult Live Performance Venues in the Vieux Carre Entertainment District based on the 7 blocks long defined geographic area. City Planning also recommends to let the number of current venues go down to 7 through natural attrition through a spacing limit and an overall cap.”
Nude dancing is protected under the First Amendment. A city may only limit the magnitude of its strip clubs through demonstrating the “secondary impacts” to the “health, safety and public welfare of the community.” The City Council enacted Motion M-16-22 to research whether New Orleans strip clubs invite drugs, crime, and other “secondary negative effects.” The Study also surveys other cities that have successfully limited strip clubs in size, density, and content, commencing covertly this spring and going public on June 21 of this year.
Motion M-16-22 states that “adult uses create an environment with a high density of suitable targets that attract offenders looking for ‘soft targets.’” Upon this precarious ground, the VCE mixes intoxicated visitors with people who are trying to do their jobs in a pedestrian river of alcohol. Hotels, bars, venues, restaurants, and streets can all be sites of crime, yet M-16-22 is pointed directly at the “soft target” of sex workers and their work places.
I need work but I don’t know which club to choose. I step into the colloid of beads, glitter, beer, ashes, piss, champagne, tears, sweat. A barker barks at me. He says I am cute, I could work here. The club has a neon sign of an apple hanging over it. It’s called Temptations.
I am hired at Temptations on the spot. There are only three strippers working. I twirl on the pole, alone. I look up at the gilded medallions on the ceiling. I sit out by the fountain. The music reverberates off the opposite wall of the courtyard. Black Keys. White Stripes. “I had opinions, that didn’t matter / I had a brain, that felt like pancake batter / I’ve got a backyard, with nothing in it…” The VIP rooms flank the courtyard, beneath a covered balcony above a row of retired stables.
The VCE was one of the wealthiest sections of the French Quarter until it became, as Richard Campanella describes in Bourbon Street: A History, “dirty, depressed, dodgy.” Operation Trick or Treat—a collaboration between the ATC, 8th District Police and the State Police—investigated, cited, and/or suspended the liquor and tobacco licenses of a number of dive bars and stripclubs last fall. Several were forced to close, others had their licenses suspended. A few were treated to a temporary lifting of their suspensions. Clubs close, reopen, change names, move.
Off Bourbon, Inc. (Dixie Divas). Iberville Ladies, LLC (Chez Joey). Silver Bourbon, Inc. (The Mansion on Bourbon). Platinum Bourbon, Inc. (Lipstixx/Fais Deaux Deaux). The House of the Rising Sun of Bourbon (Centerfolds/Fais Deaux Deaux). The Swamp. Stilettos. Babe’s Cabaret. Big Daddy’s. Bourbon Cowboy. Last Call Bar. Bamboulas.
I give a lapdance and am interrupted by a security guard, who tells me not to get too close. There is an atmosphere of suspicion. I learn that many of the clubs in the Vieux Carré have had their liquor licenses suspended and strippers arrested or fired during a sting over the Halloween weekend.
The outward facades of the clubs, in physique as well as reputation, come under the Study’s scope, especially those that endured the raids. Regulating the size, shape, and public entryways invites a “nonconforming use” CZO classification. Many of the clubs are set into small, historic buildings. Their facades will never meet the new CZO standards, just as many of the peripheral, “nonconforming” clubs already fail to do.
The Study calls for a combination of thinning and crowding tactics: the removal of any/all clubs that fall outside the VCE, and implementing spacing regulations for those that remain. The Study also outlines nine alternative zoning plans to cap, space, and thin the 14 VCE clubs, with options to close as few as one and as many as 20. On the last page it states, “the staff recommends limiting ALPV’s to one (1) per either blockface between intersecting streets with an overall cap of fourteen (14) within the VCE Vieux Carre District. This option creates a system where ALPV’s may reduce in number over time with no option to increase.” They will eventually close by either “amortization” or “natural attrition.”
Amortization: a fancy word for sudden death.
Attrition: a fancy word for slow death. grinding. wearing away.
In one of his 25 letters submitted as public comment, William Khan writes, “As a business owner of a family-friendly establishment, I am concerned about the crowd that strip clubs and adult-oriented businesses attract: prostitutes, pimps, johns, addicts, unsavory people, the mentally disturbed.” Khan’s businesses include a handful of retail shops where bachelor party-goers buy novelty t-shirts. Recently, shops like his were cited under zoning ordinances similar to those being leveraged against strip clubs today.
I got Bourbon-faced on Shit Street.
Katrina Gave me a Real Blow Job.
Will Fuck for Beer.
Whiskey Will Do.
Master Baiter. It Isn’t Going to Lick Itself.
Life is Hard. It’s Even Harder if you’re Stupid.
I’m with Stupid. I’m with Stupid. I’m with Stupid. I’m with Stupid.
My manager at Temptations pulls me aside. “I know it’s slow right now. It’ll get better soon. We lost a lost of girls in the Halloween raid. You’re lucky you weren’t here.” She explains that a handful of clubs are all owned by one family, so the security, bar staff, and strippers rotate as a team, working at different clubs on different days. “We’re at Lipstixx next week. Come and work with me and my crew. We have fun.”
When any club closes, large or small, hundreds of people lose their jobs. The team of hospitality, managerial, accounting, custodial, service, and sex workers will seek work in the clubs that haven’t closed. A round of hirings and firings will ensue. Discrimination, especially racial and sexual, prevails in the clubs. Like the “nonconforming” clubs, strippers whose weight, height, or age fall outside of the ideal numbers, who are tattooed, who are pregnant, who are undocumented, who have a criminal record, who “read” as gay, male, transgender, or genderqueer, will all watch their options vanish.
I show up to work at Lipstixx (where my manager said she would be), but when I arrive I don’t recognize anyone. It is slow here too, but there are many strippers working. The club has a round stage with a pole on a bearing. The strippers gyrate upside down, heels touching the ceiling, slam down and pop their heels against the granite, angry. A single customer holds out a dollar. I go out and stand in the entryway. The barker tells me not to step out onto the street: I could be arrested for soliciting. We wave at the people. They look us over, walk by. The stripper beside me in the doorway wears a beauty queen sash, with money pinned to it. It’s her 22nd birthday, the first day of her 23rd year. We see two women in cocktail dresses walk up the block, then back down again with two men in dress shirts.
“Don’t make eye contact. I know those girls from high school.”
The Study also includes an overview of major cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, that have successfully thwarted strip clubs with registration and licensing laws for strippers and their clubs. In a section on the history of adult entertainment in New Orleans, the Study nods to the VCE as today’s iteration of the famous Red Light District. In the mid-1800s, sex workers registered and paid fees with the city to work. These “Lorette Ordinances” were declared unconstitutional, yet persisted by changing shape and name for 40 years. The Study calls for strippers and their clubs to wear the familiar scarlet letter, one of the same practices that, ultimately, led to both Storyville’s creation and destruction.
“Where are you from?”
“No you’re not.” (I am.) “It’s the Brooklyn of the West.” (No it isn’t.) “What brought you here?”
“This.” (I gesture at the room.)
“Don’t they have that in California?” (Alameda County law prohibits any strip clubs.)
“You know, they call New Orleans Hollywood South.”
“You know what else they call it? First Vegas.”
“So… what else do you do?”
Many of the municipal and criminal code laws about physical contact and distance aren’t being enforced in strip clubs, the Study notes. Much of the work of stripping falls just on the line between legal acts and “lewd and obscene acts.” Whether or not a stripper actually engages in these acts, they can be fired or arrested if a customer or police officer solicits, entraps, or assaults them, regardless of what that stripper actually says or does. Convicted or not, the stripper experiences the stigma associated with an arrest. If they report a crime against them, they run the risk of being arrested instead of protected.
I need an answer for the question “what else do you do?” I need paystubs so that I can rent an apartment. A new friend helps me get a job at the drag club where she cocktail waitresses, called Lucky Pierre’s, owned by Larry Flynt. I fill out a mountain of paperwork while sitting on the wrought iron balcony overlooking Bourbon street.
The customers order cocktails called RuPauls and don’t tip. The drag queens do backflips and vogue. After work on my third shift, I get a text from my manager: come to the office at midnight – emergency staff meeting. It is a few weeks before the holidays. The next day I get another text message: the club will close in the next 48 hours and everyone will be fired. I thought it was a joke.
I audition at a larger club. I fill out another mountain of paperwork. One page reminds me that I will be fired if I try to sue, organize, or arbitrate. Another page reminds me I will be fired if I touch my body in several “lewd and obscene” ways and places. When I worked in Florida, a state that allows full-nude strip clubs, I would have been fined or fired for not doing these same “lewd acts.”
When I sign in at 10 p.m., the list of strippers is nearly full. The club has two floors with a wraparound catwalk. A group of strippers sit together on the main floor of the club, leaning over a legal pad. One of them asks me, “Will you sign this petition?”
“What’s it for?”
“It’s for better couches in the lapdance room.”
Kristin Gisleson Palmer, former Councilwoman of District C (2010 to 2014), circulated a petition to close 65% of the strip clubs in the VCE. It garnered a mere 80 signatures, but provoked a 690-page digital filibuster of rhetorical gaslighting. In the Adult Live Performance Venues Study, not a single quote, thought, or comment is from an adult entertainer or any worker in the adult entertainment industry. The Episcopal Archdiocese weighs in: “There is so much beauty to our city do we really need to offer strip clubs a place to operate? …Why drag our city into the gutter. I just read a report on what happens to the young strippers who work in these strip clubs. They get involved in drugs and human trafficking. Some commit suicide, some battle drug addiction for the rest of their lives. For what? A few dollars?”
Prostitute. A fancy word for Stand. I am standing in the street.
Traffic. A fancy word for Move. I am moved in the street.
Arrest. A fancy word for Stop. I am stopped in the street.
Solicit. A fancy work for Ask. I am asking in the street.
Tara Burns, sex worker and writer/ researcher/activist, reminds us that “sex trafficking (on the federal level) means the use of force, fraud, or coercion against people performing commercial sex acts or the existence of minors in the industry.” Trafficking charges are often leveraged by law enforcement upon sex workers— when they work in pairs, travel between states, or work or stay in each other’s homes. “Words mean things. Trafficking does not mean that a person is doing the work involuntarily. In all of the charging documents for sex trafficking cases, [Tara has] never found one where the person was doing the work involuntarily.” Trafficking laws undermine sex workers’ ability to protect each other: isolating, separating, intimidating. Sex workers need the same human rights, civil rights, and labor rights as anyone. As Amnesty International notes, the only way for sex workers to have safe and sound lives is to decriminalize sex work the world over.
This club’s upper floor is decorated like an Arabian Nights caravan. I count the LED stars on the ceiling while I give lapdances on the tan leather couches. One couch is worse than the others. It sags in the center, with its back pressing through the upholstery like the spine of a worn-out racehorse.
On New Year’s Eve, I hear the midnight countdown from the elevator of the club. When the season starts, I work nine shifts in 11 days. Just after Mardi Gras, at the end of my shift, I am handed a pink piece of paper that amends my contract. I can only work the day shift. I ask why. My manager says it’s because of my appearance. Two of my friends are handed the same “pink slip” the next night.
I get my hair done and audition at another large club. In the vast entryway, the manager looks over my paperwork. “We like the girls to have more normal-sounding stage names here. Delta is too strange.”
I’ll try to think of something.
“We don’t like too many pole tricks here. This is just to make sure you appear confident… natural.”
From a peripheral stage attached to the bar, I look up at the chandeliers and try not to move too much. When I finish, he tells me he isn’t going to offer me a contract. I ask why.
“Come back in a month. When festival season is over. We have eight auditions a day right now.”
Just do something else for work. It occurs to me that I could go back to being a cocktail waitress at another Larry Flynt club, since I now know their Point of Sale system. When I arrive at the club, though, I find myself auditioning again. I fill out another mountain of paperwork. The job application is on pink paper. I check the boxes under “Skills and Experience.” Ability to communicate well with others. Dancing. Coordination and flexibility. Familiarity with make-up and costumes. Check. Check. Check. Check. Last line: Other. I write in: pre-school teacher. lifeguard.
There is a massive picture of Larry Flynt and his wife hanging on the wall at the entry to the club’s long VIP hallway, each room with a different theme and a different price. I memorize the names of the bottles and prices of the rooms.
“Would you like a tour?”
“What’s down there?”
“I like to call it ‘The Aisle of Temptation.’”
This was our name for the aisle closest to the register, at the organic grocery store where I used to work. Wine, chocolate, chips, cosmetics. I sold fancy liquor bottles there, too, from the display behind my register. Our most expensive bottle was a Japanese Suntory Bourbon, packaged in a blue box. It sold for $150. 15 minutes in this club’s smallest room is more than $150. I made less than $15 an hour at the grocery store, and arrived to work at 6 a.m.Tonight, in a champagne room, a man falls asleep with his head in my lap. I put on jeans and a t-shirt. I read a flier posted in the dressing room: Public Hearing. Let us Dance. They want to limit strip clubs. I leave work at 6 a.m.
Not a Morning Person.
I Hate Morning People. And Mornings. And People.
Don’t Talk to Me Til I’ve Had My Coffee.
The Bags Under My Eyes are Designer.
I Woke Up Like This.
I Woke Up This Way.
This morning I am standing on a corner. A man in a white rental car pulls up to me. “Can I ask you a question?” He motions towards the building behind me. “Is this The House of the Rising Sun?”
No. (it’s the former mansion of a Confederate Civil War general, colloquially known as the “Little Napoleon.”)
“A lady told me it’s around here somewhere, but I went to the address and it was just an empty lot. Do you think she was telling the truth? Do you think it was around here?”
I don’t know. Maybe it washed away.
Last year, nine and a half million people traveled to New Orleans from all around the world. The houses and the stories and the people you let wash away today are the ones you go looking for tomorrow. While we work, the people who own establishments or hold office or ceremony in the French Quarter covertly study us. The people that enforce municipal and criminal codes surveil us. Our places of work are separated from one another. We are separated from where we work. We are separated from others because of our work. We are separated from one another. We are separated from ourselves.
I reach out to a local friend who owns property in the French Quarter. I text him, ask him to come to City Hall to speak at the hearing. He is in Moscow. “They’ll listen to you.”
“Relax. They’ve been pushing this agenda since I was an itty bitty boy. If history has anything to say about it, it’s just another ploy to appease the straight lace.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t they just ask Disney to regulate Bourbon Street?”
“There’s a rumor they’re trying to put a Disney Cruise Ship dock at the end of Poland Avenue.”
“No. It was a joke. That’s not going to happen.”
Henry Miller said “Life should be a joke, not a tragedy.”
I can’t relax.
I talk with my coworker. She used to live in Alaska, in a port town. “Every time the Disney cruise ship would dock, they’d play ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ over the loudspeaker. The whole town could hear it.
Imagine it. Like a skyscraper on its side. A floating mountain of paper.
Today, standing at The End of the World, where Poland Avenue touches the Mississippi, you can hear the sound of the Natchez Steamboat calliope every afternoon. District C. Bywater, Marigny, French Quarter. It’s a small world. When you wish upon a star / makes no difference who you are.
Melissa Del Rey contributed to this piece.