Prose & Lore is a literary journal published by the New York sex workers’ rights organization Red Umbrella Project. Memoir stories about sex work are collected in two issues per year (Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer.) We at Tits and Sass have been following Prose and Lore since the journal began, and the third issue is even more fantastic than those that preceded it. Featuring selections from movement heavies like our own contributors Mariko Passion, Tara Burns, Lily Fury, Lori Adorable, and Peach E. Keen, plus Kitty Stryker, Rachel Aimee, and Audacia Ray, as well as promising new writers like Dion O. Scott and Leigh Alanna, each and every one of this issue’s pieces are affecting and visceral in their prose, from a frightening account of a client gone suddenly violent to the tale of the slow erosion of a relationship with a subtly whorephobic partner. You can buy a single copy of the new issue or sign up for a print or digital subscription to the journal, including back issues. Those in New York city can attend free readings by the authors on Wednesday, January 29th and Monday, February 10th at Culture Fix and Brooklyn Community Pride Center respectively.
Here, we feature an excerpt of “Crippled Pleaser,” by Dynasty (W) Rex, a story of endurance and take-no-shit survival focusing on Rex’s experiences stripping as a Black woman with lupus and arthritis, with her dancing schedule often punctuated by hospital visits. The excerpt focuses on the piece’s club scenes, but we encourage you to get a copy of Prose and Lore so you can read about the grueling hospital stay which makes up the story’s core. I think the thing we love the most about “Crippled Pleaser,” though, is how well it captures the phenomenon of sex worker outfit envy.
It was the middle of a sweaty summer night in Sunset Park, New York and I was on my way to Gold Rush, the sleaziest titty bar I could find through the internet. The large, but hardly swanky, dive was almost empty around 4:30 p.m., an odd point between the time that day workers come in after work, and when more adamant partiers come in after drunken nights. Even with barely enough people to fill a single table alongside the stage, it was lit up like a Christmas rave: strobe light blaring, music screaming from mounted speakers. I was relieved to find that there were only three men in the club to witness my arrival in dirty, black, barely-there shorts and a tube top. Not because I looked bad, but because after an all day excursion looking for jobs I had aggravated my limp. After a couple of awkward ass pops around middle pole on the stage that served as my audition, I was hired by Dave, the owner and manager at Gold Rush. I was asked to stay onstage for two more songs to start my shift.
Dave, a stocky man with a financial demeanor, is watching my bare feet and ankles pointedly, as if to sear the skin. I wasn’t quite sure if his look was one of approval or disgust. He pulled me aside by placing a sweaty palm on the underside of my arm as I’m walking offstage towards the stairs that led to the dressing room where some of the other girls were making mean faces at one another, or maybe discussing amongst themselves the very same thing that the owner/manager is so obviously about to say to me.
“I’ve been,” he started, “I’ve been watching you on stage, and your legs look funny. Are they always like that?” he asked, perhaps regretting the choice to hire me on the spot after my audition.
“No, I hit them against the bar when I was coming down the pole,” I retorted quickly, so as to not be found out, hoping that the fact that I had not been dancing long would be allow me to continue the night without embarrassment. There was positively no way I was about to tell this dude that I have a disability that makes my fingers and toes swell and my whole body ache. That would essentially amount to announcing my unfitness for the job that is easiest to attain and most lucrative to stay with.
After shaking Dave off with my paltry excuse, I hit the back of my heel against the tip of my other shoe so that big toe didn’t hang over the edge. The swelling and pain in my leg and feet was mostly caused by my shoes. Five inches high, sparkling purple platform stilettos, complete with plastic peep-toe and ankle straps. I bought them for the raunchy, intentionally gauche, I’m-a-happy-third-wave-feminist-college-sex-worker look. The one that says I don’t really need the money, because if I was really in a bind I would just ask my Daddy. The one that makes the game that I play with a john seem like one in which I have the upper-hand. I failed at telling these lies, mostly because of the pronounced buckle in my knees when I walked into the club, but particularly towards the end of the night when I find that my feet have swollen over the stylish peep toe straps. So. Not. Sexy.
In addition to this, I would never have convinced any john that I had my father to fall back on. Customers had remarked about my meager assortment of costumes all night, even when I was giving lap dances. This did not keep me from lining my pockets with a great deal of much needed money, three-hundred-fifty American dollars, to be exact. At least they didn’t talk shit on my curly brown, forty-five dollar Yaki wig, which was sort of Janet Jackson-esque, and my undeniable favorite. When I walked in, I didn’t expect my clothes to look so ratty for where I was. “Everyone is just breaking in to the business at one point, and I need to make the money in order to spend it on better outfits,” I rationalized, before walking into the bar. But against the tropical prints, shiny gold lamé, taffeta and lace, and plastic baubles hanging jauntily from anything that dangled, I looked like a peahen in room full of peacocks. This was fine with me, though, particularly when the money started coming hard. Black and Latino men started to get out of work at blue collar local jobs that started in the early afternoon. These men were unfazed by my humble outfits, they talked about my legs too, but in more awestruck way than Dave did, one remarking, “You didn’t play outside much as a kid, did ya?” I wonder how he would have responded had I told him all the reasons why I didn’t.
While I’m catching the relatively nice, and rather generous, vibes of the men from the night shift, a gang of young white guys from a nearby sports bar stride in, loudly. They could afford to go to a much ritzier club than this, with their pressed khakis and unblemished sweatshirts. They were dressed in their preppiest attire to proposition what they thought of as next-of-kin to prostitutes, or equally often, as prostitutes. I recognize this as ironic, as I much preferred whoring to dancing. Johns never really cared what I wore for a date, so long as I would take it off and keep on the wig, everything would be fine. I could wear my combat boots, sometimes they even requested them. It was a job where I could more or less dress like I wanted, using clothes that I am most comfortable in: short shorts with butt cheeks in contact with whatever I sit on, belly shirts, red lipstick, and above all else, my beloved boots.
I had one older political consultant ask me to take off my wig once, which I was wearing to cover the gayness of my closely shorn head, particularly in light of my visible tattoos and piercings. Like a man less than one fourth of his age, he leaned close to my ear and nearly whispered in his own penthouse apartment, “I like you better without the wig, I think you look prettier.” He said this in a rather vulnerable tone for a john who just paid a hooker partially in quarters while living very close to Grand Central Station. Maybe he caught my look, the gleaming quarters no doubt reflecting off of my eyes. Then he said, “Sorry about, you know, the change.” No matter how outrageous I felt walking out of the door, I knew the fact that johns who weren’t coming to look at what I was wearing would be my saving grace. But after my last date went violent, I quit whoring for a more supervised option.
The white boys, although briefly distracted by the baseball on the big screen television, soon remembered what they came to this shit-hole for: to exotify Black women in a way that makes them feel like they had an authentic Black experience. The first dude, who introduced himself as “The Old Man” informs me that his buddy wants to say hello to me. It is my duty to follow directions, so I try to limp over as gracefully as I can. This did not produce the desired effect; I swayed like a 5’9” palm tree on 5-inch stilts.
When I got over to the friend I saw that he was probably swaying as much as I was by virtue of his drunken stupor. He squeezed out a quick “You’re a really, really hot Black woman, did you know that?” while trying to slip a dollar bill into the somewhat fraying strap of my H&M clearance rack bra, and a hand into the semi-matching panties. I giggle, not wanting to make a scene, and sit down on a stool, cornered. “Well, did you know?” he asks again, I rose and stumbled with my back to the bar my heels betraying me once again as I skidded a bit and squeaked “Do you think so?” with a deft bat of my fake eyelashes. I know it is getting late, 2:04 a.m. by the digital clock behind the adjacent bar island, last call is at 2:30 a.m. so I know this can only continue for but so long. I move away quietly, hoping that maybe I can slip away to change my costume one last time before I have to go on stage. I thank my goddesses for a clean break from an easily distracted drunk.
I noticed on my way upstairs that my feet were turning purple at the toe tips and on the top in a “V”, which was not helped by the rubber band of money around my ankle. I didn’t get called on stage again by 2:15 a.m., so I figured it was time to start packing up. I definitely didn’t have enough stuff to fit in a locker, so I had just shoved my filthy backpack into an unobtrusive corner of the room when I came for my audition. I pull on my black shorts, my combat boots, take off the wig and cover the H&M bra with my tube top, all without glancing in a mirror. Why would I need to look at myself when all of these women are giving me pointed glares? Chocolate, who told me she was bisexual shortly after meeting me earlier in the day, starts to address me in a louder voice. “Now I see it, you are gay, that’s really funny,” she quips, with an incredulous chuckle at the end of her realization. In traditional fashion for me, I failed to see the humor of this exchange.
I had been sick at home and not going to work for close to a week and was down to my last five dollars. Not having brought enough money to pay for a cab back to my home from the hospital, or even a trip on the bus. I limped slowly and painfully towards home in the early November snow. By the time I reached my third floor walk-up apartment, it was four in the afternoon: time to get ready for work. Shit, shower, shave my pussy. I emptied my hospital bag and turned it back into my work bag; I filled it with my make-up, clear Pleaser heels, three outfits in their separate sandwich bags for quick retrieval, 20-inch wig in color 1B-40, money bag, body spray, baby wipes and a red bull.
“Dynasty!” my manager, Stratos, exclaimed in a heavy Greek accent when I walked through the door. Ys is a black club, with some Latinas and only one consistent white girl, but it is owned by Greek men. “Where have you been, baby?” he asked with the kind of actual concern in his eyes that makes working at a low-rent dive worthwhile, “Mom has been asking about you.” The house mom and my reluctance to lose weight are the reasons that Ys has been the longest employer of my adult life. “I was in the hospital,” I explain, which he responds to with a nod. “Can I pay the house fee once I make it?” I asked. “Of course,” he agreed, and waved me toward the dressing room.
I dressed in my typical haste, and emerged on the floor in my all whites: white thong with silver sequin details around the hips, a minuscule white triangle bikini top, and a backless cowl-neck minidress with a geometric design at the bottom made of black and silver lines that covers the top of my hips and ass and then stops. I ask Kevin, the Rastafarian DJ who is doubtless the best in the club, to play my first set to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails and “I’d Rather Be With You” by Bootsie Collins. He knows that I will tip him accordingly, so he obliges. The stage is inside of the bar, and a bit below it. This means that if a customer didn’t want to throw money on the stage, but rather wanted me to come get it out of his hands, I would have to climb down and over the fridges behind the bar to get him. The stage has four poles that amounted to three separate areas, all of which were visible from every part of the bar. The part of the stage closest to the door is below the bar level. On the top stage you can look down on the customer, on the bottom stage, especially while doing floor work, the customer looks down at you.
Most of my show is on my knees or back, with my back to the pole, or in a state of pole oriented elevation or upside down-ness, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to walk from pole to pole while being sexy in front of the roughly ten guys who were at the bar. So when the time came to go to from one pole to the next to make sure that the dudes in another corner of the bar got a good look at my open legs and super fat pussy, I crawled the uneven, rhythmic, booty popping crawl that is my routine at the beginning of Closer. Sure, I slipped with my back against the pole from time to time, but like all the dance fails of my career, I just kept smiling. Like my knees were supposed to buckle when I crouched to a squat, like losing your balance was the new hot dance move at Onyx, like I had saw it in a Big Sean video. This is MY club. Bitch. Ima dance how I want to. And you’re gunna fuckin’ pay me for it.
My set ended and I limped around for tips. Not a single customer mentioned my sweet little limp, even though it was very much exaggerated by the addition of 6-inch heels. Work heels are not that bad to walk in, because they’re balanced, of course. The only catch is that they are essentially stilts. One misstep, or stretch of fucked-up carpet, or abandoned thong in your path and kablam: you’re making friends with the floor. And that was exactly what I did when I rounded the corner of the bar too quickly in an attempt to stretch my limp into a stride.
I got up quickly, laughing through the hurt and embarrassment. I checked for scrapes, and found one on my knee. “No more floorwork tonight,” I thought out loud, as I reached for a cocktail napkin from the bar to sop up the blood. I steadied myself on the back of a high stool and walked to the next customer. “You owe me a dance for a fall that impressive,” I said, brandishing a smile and jiggling my tits.