There is a very special strip club located in Richmond, Va.
This particular club has produced some of this industries finest Southern East Coast pole educators and entertainers. Lux, myself, Heather Williams, one of the girls from Hudson Valley Pole in New York; we all have history at Luna*. Our successes were birthed from the hustle this space taught us. Luna is like those all-star state championship winning high school football teams in towns you’ve never heard of. They seem to come out of nowhere, guns blazing. Its the type of story you hear that grows champions from nothing other than time, and drive. When you have that, you’re unstoppable.
Luna produces the best entertainers and educators in the pole industry because that club’s unique business model combined with the unapologetic mediocrity that is Richmond, Va creates a perfect storm of women who are too good for the hand of cards they’ve been dealt, and don’t have enough resources to change it. I don’t know what it is about that place, but its alumni have an education and method of applying it that I haven’t quite seen elsewhere. This is a story about a girl named Alice, who’s story isn’t finished.
I walked into Luna with my friend, Lux ATL on a warm March night. We sat down, ordered our drinks and talked about the things that have changed about the place, and the things that stayed the same. We discussed the lessons that very space taught us, except this time we conversed from the other side of the stage.
About an hour into our meeting with nostalgia, Lux and I tipped a young girl on stage; her name is Alice. The way her beautiful breasts fit in her bra indicated to me that she has already had a baby. So young, I thought. There was no way this girl was a day over 18. Her facial piercings, her hair, her body. She presented undeniable biological youth. My next thought was that she must have been making a killing, because old men love when girls look underage.
Alice finished her stage set. She gathered the $12 in singles that Lux and I tipped; a number that adhered to unspoken club protocol of $2 per song per customer, minimum. Alice came to sit next to us. Her vibe was unexplainable. She was happy, but her eyes were tired. Her body was brand new, but used. She was chatty, but shy. I was drawn to her more than I was any other girl in the club. Her spirit was like a shiny beautiful sphere right in the middle of her chest, but it was hidden under a patina of grime, sadness, and a history to long for a girl so young.
Alice sat down close immediately. Most strippers do. We are two female customers in a shark tank. We are safe. We might not be guaranteed money, but we are guaranteed safety, and Alice looked as if she had had never been safe a day in her life. She did in fact, have a baby. No mention of the father. Her body was covered in stick and poke tattoos and cut marks. Alice had been working at the club for 2 months. She started on her 18th birthday.
Throughout our conversation about summer festivals she wanted to attend, the new piercings she wanted and the idiotic management of Luna, Alice mentioned that she wanted to quit, but did not think she should because she was worried that she would never make this volume of money elsewhere and that she really really needed it. Her voice was urgent when she talked about the money and how badly she needed it. Lux, quick on the draw, explained that she was making more money now than she ever did in the club through her entrepreneurial prowess learned right there in that club. She assured Alice that better things lie ahead, and that not earning enough was not a danger as long as you stay focused. I took a different approach and focused on how no one is ever ready to do anything; that risk is almost always followed by reward, and that if she was unhappy she should leave. Both tidbits of advice are essential to any dancer endeavoring to leave club life: you are in charge of your own destiny, and nothing is ever easy.
We sat with Alice for about 30 minutes before she had to go back to work. We tipped her well, and she was off. I asked to add her on Facebook. I was taken aback by how much she trusted a total stranger, especially in that environment. Her honesty and vulnerability in that space was shocking. Her cuts, her tattoos, her body that had already birthed a child, her tired eyes all said one thing, but her spirit, trust, and openness said another. It was clear through the narrative of her body that she had no reason to be so trusting, but she was.
We left. I kept up with Alice by reading her Facebook feed, but we never spoke another word.
I got a Facebook message from Alice saying that she needed help. I offered to drive her to the emergency room and then seek out inpatient detox and recovery services for her. She said no.
Alice’s Facebook statuses were getting more desperate. I watched this decline for weeks before I finally reached out again. Alice was looking for a place to stay. She was asking for something as soon as possible, a couch, anything. Her Facebook “Friends” were calling her names, saying that she deserved this, that she was a whore and an addict and that maybe she wouldn’t be in this mess if she kept a needle out of her arm. The diction in Alice’s responses reminded me of a little girl who was simply pleading for love, defending herself as best she could against people who were up in arms over her life, as if the nature of her addiction were a personal affront to them rather than an illness that was effecting her. They took away her totally legitimate feelings and made it about themselves, which seemed like a repeating pattern in her life, as I found out later.
I messaged her. We set up lunch for the following Sunday. Her voice sounded slow, but urgent. The day before we were supposed to meet, I got a text from her saying she really needed to talk. I was at work and unavailable, but I promised her I’d see her Sunday. When I arrived at the address she gave me on Sunday, I was too late. Three police cars were already there. I parked and called her to let her know I was outside, hoping those cars were there for another unit in the building.
She answered the phone and said that someone had called the police on her. I asked if I could come in. An officer met me at my car to ask who I was. When I explained that I was a customer of hers and somewhat of a friend, that I was visiting her simply because I was concerned for her, the officer grew skeptical.
“So, you are just checking on her out of the kindness of your heart? That’s it? You just want to be NICE?”, says the man.
“Actually, yes.” I responded, matter of factly. I wondered why he was so skeptical of me.
The officer scoffed. He said that I could go in to talk to Alice, but that they found an outstanding warrant for her arrest, and that they were going to have to take her away. I asked him if I could go in.
Upon entry into the apartment, it was immediately clear to me that I entered a trap house. Four young people sat silently on a couch with accoutrements on the coffee table and fear in their eyes. I was escorted to the back room where Alice was. It was the first time I had seen her face to face since that night in the club. I tried as best I could to hide my shock, but I heard myself gasp when I saw her. She was a ghost. Her body, voice, and face said very plainly that she had been using daily by that point. It had been 10 months since I last saw her. It happened that fast. I sat on her bed that had no sheets and I hugged her. She sobbed in my arms, shaking, starving, addicted. I asked her if she had even remembered my face or Lux’s. She said that she only kind of remembered us, but nonetheless, there we were together in a trap house bed with no sheets and full of cigarette burns. She cried in a total strangers arms and said thank you for caring about her. There was a blood stain about 12 inches in diameter and several very fresh slices on her leg from the night before. She was sad, she said. I remembered that I was unable to answer the phone the night before. I stared at my lack of availability in the form of blood stains and serrated cut marks. We sat on that bed for about an hour and talked while the police did whatever it is they do.
Alice’s rabbit hole appeared when she was just a little girl. She lost her mom at 12 due to addiction and her dad was “a very mean man.” She was ripped from the innocence of her own being so young, and to this day has lived more tragedy than most people do in their entire lives. She had her first suicide attempt at 12, started using at 13, pregnant at 16, had her baby at 17, started dancing at clubs and was jailed once for possession at 18, and was headed to jail again at 19. We talked about her life, and about getting on track. I told her that maybe this was the call for her to do that.
The police officer that was handling the case entered the bedroom and told her it was time to go. Alice and I got up off of the trap house bed, dirty and bloody and picked some clothing up off the floor for her to put on. I scribbled my phone number onto her arm in red sharpie and told her to call me as soon as she could.
She got dressed, finished her cigarette and was handcuffed and escorted to jail for the second time in her life, 5 days after her 19th birthday. I wiped her tears as she stood there because her bound wrists prevented her from doing so. I hugged her. She was being taken away for failure to appear in court for a paraphernalia charge. Paraphernalia for an addiction that came as a result of someone else putting a needle in her arm first. Because she trusted them, I suppose. Because she had no one else that cared about her, I suppose. Because that looked like caring, I suppose. I remember in that instant a lifetime of things that used to look like caring to me, too. She looked at me through her tears and her habit and she told me she was not a criminal in the kind of voice and sincerity that rips your heart right out of your chest.
I looked right at her and said “I know, Alice. I know.”
Myself, Alice, and two police officers walked together out of the trap house. Alice was put into a car and driven away with tears in her eyes.
“What about all that other stuff?” I said, gesturing toward the coffee table of implements that I know we both saw.
“I’m not here for that. I was here for her.” he said, as if there was some great pride in arresting a clearly ill girl, but not the four people that played a huge role in getting her that way.
I asked if she would be taken to the hospital first, for her cuts or to detox safely. I was never given a clear answer, and found out later she was put into psych and detoxed alone.
Alice’s boyfriend called me out of the blue. He told me where she was in jail and how to visit. He and I agreed to go there together and do a one hour visitation with her. We arrived on a Thursday evening. I got there early and sat in the lobby waiting for her boyfriend. He arrived early too and we talked for about 45 minutes before our visitation slot was available.
He shared a few details about her prior stint in jail. I won’t share them here out of respect for her privacy, but the stories I heard that day were Earth shattering. We walked back to the visitation room and Alice approached the glass barrier with a smile on her face. She looked like a totally different girl from the Sunday in January when I literally feared for her life on that bed. She was chatty and lively. She told me about the free books she was given in jail and how she wishes she had more. Alice said that she also wished she had a hula hoop; that if she had a hoop she might have something better to do with her time. I resolved in that moment I would give her a hula hoop the next time I saw her.
Alice said she wanted to stay clean, but that she wanted to go back to Luna to work and that she needed her boyfriend to take care of her to make sure she didn’t start using again. Hearing this was heartbreaking, because the club is no place to stay clean and further, it isn’t anyones responsibility but her’s to stay clean. I asked myself in that moment who would have taught her that, though. I spent my 45 minutes talking to her about her light and resilience. She consistently returned to wanted to stay clean but how she wanted to try out a few more drugs before she was 30. Alice desperately wanted to go back to Luna because it was the best job she ever had; the most money, and the most fun. I shuddered at the thought that a strip club was the best option and remembered when the same was true for myself.
Her boyfriend and I left after our hour.
“She isn’t ready to get clean.” I said to him walking down the hall back into the parking lot.
“No. She’s not”, he said.
We parted ways and I haven’t seen him since.
Alice was released from jail and given 3 years of probation and mandatory counseling because it was her first offense. I spoke with her over the phone and asked if she was safe, had a home, and a place where she could stay off of drugs and out of Luna. The answer was yes. I offered to drive her to counseling or NA anytime she wanted. We are meant to get together but scheduling is tough. Our communication has gotten less frequent.
I heard it from another dancer at Luna that Alice was living in a tent in North Carolina. I am not sure if this is true.
I got a Facebook message from Alice desperately asking to borrow $20. I still have the hula hoop.
*Club name changed.
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