Bare Necessities

Sometimes a girl -- even an almost-naked girl -- just needs a mom.

Then again, some things never change. "The girls are always very gutsy," Pat says. "The prevailing attitude is they're prostitutes, and I will grant you that I've met one or two over the years -- not here, of course. But usually it's different. I had one girl tell me she and her husband were building up the down payment for a house. A lot are working their way through school; a lot are moms themselves."

Pat quickly made herself comfortable in La Boheme's locker room, occasionally venturing upstairs to watch one of her girls dance, return dirty dishes to the kitchen, or marvel at the glitzy surroundings.

"There is gold tile in the upstairs ladies' room," she says, "and a TV inside the mirror, which I don't understand at all -- and some of the marble, I think, came from Italy."

Girls! Girls! Girls! Pat Patterson oversees the action in 
La Boheme's basement dressing room.
John Johnston
Girls! Girls! Girls! Pat Patterson oversees the action in La Boheme's basement dressing room.
The lowly Red Garter.
Gary Isaacs
The lowly Red Garter.

"You should see the looks she gets on her way through the bar," Rusty says. "People do double takes. It's like, Mom?"

It is early evening, and for the moment, La Boheme is dead. An Asian stripper sits on the lap of a man with a biker/Buddha physique. On stage two, a girl in a plaid evening gown and thigh-high boots does a desultory dance, lowering herself into a kind of erotic push-up. There is one man at the bar -- not much older than 21, and not dressed like a rich guy. On the TV screens, the words "Drink Bud" appear.

But last night, at a party thrown for hotel concierges, the club was hopping.

"It's just incredibly unpredictable," Rusty says, wondering when he will take an actual day off, one that consists of no time spent at La Boheme.

Down in the dressing room, Nelly emanates from the sound system: It's getting hot in here/So take off all your clothes/I am getting so hot/I wanna take my clothes off. And, okay, the strippers take their dresses off and put others back on. During slow periods, dancers sometimes change outfits just to pass the time. One girl, not yet hired, plans to audition later tonight. She hopes for at least a semblance of a crowd.

"I think I'll call myself 'Italia,'" she says into the mirror.

"You know," replies Pat, who's unpacking her supplies for the night, "I think we already have a Natalya. That's awfully close."

"How about Brooklyn?"

"I danced with a Brooklyn," says her mirror mate, who has just changed into a minute white baby-doll dress and put a tropical flower behind her ear.

"Oh, well. I'll think of something."

Dancers keep arriving for work, wearing overalls, cutoffs, flip-flops, prescription glasses. They disrobe and begin applying false eyelashes, hairspray and eyeliner, then step up into ultra-high heels.

"You get them online or at porn stores," one dancer says. "They come in four inches, fives, eights -- I've seen elevens. They're tough to walk around in, but it's all at your own risk. Like if you climb up the pole and fall off -- that's your problem and no one else's." With that, she picks up a kid's metal lunch box -- which she uses for tips -- and struts upstairs in a shimmering silver gown.

Men, even management, are supposed to knock before entering the locker room. But the new cook doesn't know this yet. He comes in unannounced, holding a stainless-steel tub full of dinner, and comes upon at least five girls in five-inch heels and lace tap pants, none of whom show the slightest interest in his arrival. Stunned, he scrams, not even registering the sign on the door that reads: GIRLS! NO TOUCHING BREASTS, BUTTOCKS OR PUSSY!

Pat puts down a package of cookies and the book she's reading (Atlas Shrugged). Lou-Ann, a representative of the town's Vietnamese stripper-clothes manufacturing cartel, arrives with four bags of slinky garments and hangs them on a clothes rack. Dancers will riffle through them for the next two hours, after which Lou-Ann will check the supply of T-bars she leaves with the house moms for emergencies.

Italia/Brooklyn is still deciding on an outfit. She has chubby cheeks and long, curly black hair and seems younger than everyone else. "Hey," she says, mildly perturbed, "I'm not as skinny as the rest of you guys."

"Mom, do you have any tape?"

"Mom, can I have a cookie?"

"So, what's dinner?"

"Last night it was mystery meat," says a woman who sits on the floor balancing a plate on her knees, her eight-inch heels putting them almost level with her eyes.

"Dinner tonight is some kind of chicken parmesan pasta thing, and it's very good," Pat announces. No sense in letting the dancers complain. They'll be complaining soon enough, anyway, if business doesn't pick up.

After a while, Gidget comes out from her office to eat with her employees. Dancers and former dancers may be the only women on the face of the earth who can eat while looking in the mirror.

While she eats, Pat talks about the occupational hazards of her girls' job. Overly enthusiastic customers, for example. "In my day, we would have called them an 'octopus.' Now they call it 'handsy,'" Pat explains. "They come back ranting and raving about some handsy guy. They have to say, 'Don't touch me -- you need to stay eighteen inches away.' They really don't want them thrown out, though, so it's tough. If it were me, I'd have them thrown out, but they sort of have to think differently. On the other hand, the club is very good about watching these guys. You never, ever want to pick a fight with a security guard. I never heard of a soul winning an argument with them."

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