Monday, December 26, 2016


I could tell something was about to happen. Whatever it was, the bouncers wouldn't be able to handle it. Because they hadn't been properly trained.

Kash and I are both martial artists, but with different backgrounds. He first trained in Brazillian jiu-jitsu, and then added Muay Thai kickboxing when he competed in mixed martial art, later blending in Russian sambo and kali/eskrima. During his formative military years he invented STT, Strike Trap Throw, awarding himself a gray belt because he was a perfectionist.

I, on the other hand, have a red belt in tae kwon do, a blue belt in aikido, and a black belt in hapkido. Studying jeet kune do concepts gave me experience in ground fighting and American-style boxing. So our fighting techniques are similar, but different. Also, he's an assassin, a mercenary for the US military under Special Operations, and an Army Ranger, while I'm a content editor for the NSA.

But although I wasn't working in Special Forces, I could still tell when a bouncer was in over his head.

Falco's Pub is a small karaoke bar in Hazelwood off Mall 205. It's the southern section of a larger building spanning between Stark and Washington housing the Mystic strip club, not to be confused with Club 205, which was a strip club next-door, just on the north side of Washington Street. And Club 205, the strip bar, was itself often confused with the Club 205 branch of Cascade Athletic, the Gresham-based gym/health club located just on the other side of I-205. Go figure.

With so many taverns in the Greater Portland Area specializing in nude dancing, it's difficult to keep track of them all. And with all the competition, it's a wonder how many are able to stay in business. Strip bars offer a service that regular bars don't, but unless you're there to watch the artistry of their dance, you're generally not going to get the service you're hoping for. I mean, you might actually meet a woman in a regular bar and get laid, whereas in a strip bar that would never happen. The difference between a regular bar and one with nude dancers is like the difference between a regular apple and an organic one. The latter is more expensive, but you're not getting anything more...unless, of course, you believe that you are. In short, the success of a strip bar is based mostly in marketing, and what they're primarily selling is blue sky, the psychological concept of what could be. This is why, when I stepped into Mystic, I was a bit disappointed.

Lots of purple. Too much purple paint on the walls, in layered tones of lavender and blue. The word “Mystic” was painted several places in large and gaudy font, 80s-era bubble letters outlined in silver, that gave the interior the general look of being vandalized by pre-teen taggers. The place looked clean, as in swept and wiped down, but the overall atmosphere they were going for was “dirty.” But the lighting just wasn't right.

The odd contrast was that, with all the dark, moody paint and interior decorations, the lights were too bright. There were blue, red, and purple lights providing a color-themed ascetic, but too much white light came in near the front door, that side of the building consisting of too many of glass windows painted on the inside. One bouncer stood just inside the door, checking ID, and along a short railing was the music booth and PA system where the DJ announced what girl was up next. They looked like security guards, but they were basically girl handlers, and they totally ruined the aesthetic.

When I left Falco's, where my friend was KJ-ing (karaoke jockeying), and went over to the front door of Mystic, the fat bald guy with a goatee was a little too serious about seeing my identification, as if this was a high security area, or something. I joked around with him a little, but he didn't seem very relaxed. I was just there for a drink, to check the place out and bask in the irony that seven linear feet and one plywood wall from the couple from Minneapolis in their 60s singing “Someone Like You,” a 19-year-old professional dancer named Sabrina provided a three-dimensional show of her vulva with a display of jazz hands.

I went over to the one bar at the end of the room, opposite of the wall that joined the karaoke bar next-door, and got a seasonal draft from one of the strippers working behind it. They were polite, but short with me verbally, naturally suspicious when a single guy walks in that doesn't look like a transient. The beer, from one of the popular Bend breweries, had a delicate complexity that I enjoyed, and I turned to lean back against the bar with the whole place laid out before me.

The center of the room featured the main stage, a raised circular dais with one pole in the middle and chairs set around it. There were two smaller stages behind that, one on each side of the room, each with their own pole. And just behind those two stages was the back wall, on the other side of which was part of the kitchen and the karaoke station of Falco's Pub. The rest of the place was just a smattering of empty chairs, with a handful of patrons here and there looking on. I watched the bouncers watching the dancers and the other customers, but nothing interesting was happening with them yet.
I started a conversation with the only other person at the bar, a woman who was leaning against it, like me, watching the action. Young, and with several tattoos, I figured she was a dancer in-between sets. She took her drink to the main stage, inviting me along. Her name was Dusty.

I tossed a couple ones on the stage and took a seat beside Dusty, who really had a lot of ink showing on her arms, legs, and neck. The girl on the stage, in pigtails and sparkling red shoes, was named Dorothy, and every time the announcer mentioned her name he had to add that she wasn't in Kansas anymore. I didn't know how long this had been going on, but I figured something like that had to get old quick. Dorothy is such an old-fashioned name that there's not much else you can do with it; she should have picked something with a modicum of longevity, like Daisy. She also had a fair amount of tattoos.

The pole doesn't spin,” I said to Dusty, the stripper sipping her drink next to me.

That one doesn't spin,” she said. “The two in the back spin, but that one is fixed.”

Isn't that more difficult?” I said.
No,” she said. “It's just different.”

Dorothy did a partial back flip by hooking one arm around the pole and bracing against it to pull herself legs up, and then paused mid-air to hook one leg around the non-spinning pole.
Can you do that?” Dusty asked me.

Sure, but this part is difficult,” I said, pointing to the dancer who slowly lowered her legs down in a pike position. And this is when I heard a commotion among the bouncers at the front door. The fat guy with a goatee was speaking animatedly with a woman dressed in a bikini under a red flannel shirt. Her hair was long and bouncy in curls, but her jaw was set, her eyes scanning the room. She pushed him aside with the palm of her hand and stalked across the floor, behind the main stage and toward one corner.

A tall, mostly-nude blonde jumped down from one of the back stages and ran at the flannel-shirted woman with the bouncy-curly hair, shouting,“Fucking bitch!” They locked arms, swatted at each other, and then locked arms again before the fat, goatee'd bouncer grabbed the flannel-shirted woman from behind, his arms around her waist in a bear hug.

But here's the thing: they just kept fighting. The bouncer had held her loosely with both arms, careful not to grab too low or too high, and she just kept swatting and punching at the other stripper. After a couple blows landed the girls started wrestling, the fat bouncer's look turning from amusement to concern, as he was beginning to breathe heavily.

The DJ/announcer then jumped over the barrier and grabbed the other stripper by the arm, but she easily slid out of his grasp, gracefully squatting and snaking her torso in a move that perfectly matched the music still playing. All the dancers who were performing kept dancing, and watched the fight with a smirk on their faces. The DJ bent over and reached again, but grabbed thin air, falling to the ground. The fat bouncer had crashed to his side, his grasp broken when he tried to get a better hold, and now had both hands on her ankle. It didn't help the bouncers that both women were well-oiled, with little clothing to grab on to, as well as being in better shape than the two men put together.

Here's the thing about martial art: it's singular, not plural. In a philosophical sense, all martial art is one. What is known as different “martial arts” are simply different forms of practicing the one art. Once you put the gloves on and step into the ring or octagon, or step onto the mat, all the forms work the same, according to the laws of physics and the level and efficiency of training. The rules are different according to the parameters of the competition, or, in the case of self-defense or warfare, there might not be any rules.

And most importantly, martial art is a science. It's not magical, and it's not mystical. Martial art isn't merely some ancient thing, nor is it an Asian thing, any more than, say, mathematics. Science is universal.

Although the fight up to this point had all happened within several seconds, it was now getting serious between the two women, with straight punches glancing off the temple and jaw. The left eye of one was starting to swell, and the lip of the other was bleeding. They fell to the ground again in the clutch as two more guys ran into the room from a door behind me, a small office door behind the bar. One was a large, muscular guy in a button-down, black shirt, and the other wore a white shirt with a tie. Both women were wrestling on the floor, the blonde going for a rear naked choke, when the two men running in reached them.

Both women instantly let go of each other and stood up, and that's when shit got real for those guys, because the woman in the bikini and flannel shirt kicked one guy in the nuts like she was punting a football, lifting him off the ground several inches, while the tall blonde punched the other guy in the throat, and then kicked him in the nutsack.

The DJ stood cautiously, his hands out in front of him in a mime, as the fat bouncer sat on the floor, crying. The fat one had pulled out his pepper spray in the tussle, and it had gone off in his own face. His eyes shut and swollen, he wiped his hands over his face, smearing red-stained tears and mucous. The flannel-shirted dancer suddenly turned and walked out, ending the conflict as the other went to the dressing room through a door at the back wall.

She was messing around with her ex-boyfriend,” Dusty said as she stood beside me, readying herself to go on stage next. She had just downed her drink and was putting her hair up.

That sort of thing must happen a lot,” I said.

All the fucking time,” she said.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Dances with Strippers

It was someone's birthday. Kaylee, I think it was. That was the reason for the gathering.
Kaylee was a friend of friends, most of which I knew through the running club that met for beers on the first Friday of every month. Two of those friends I had known for 15 years or so, and the rest were relatively new to both the running club and Portland. Like most sport-related social clubs, the turnover rate was fairly high, with almost an entirely new crowd every two years. It had been six years since I had been a regular member, so the board had already gone through three presidents, and I had never met the current one. Tom, I think it was. Or Terry, or maybe Tony.

The Northeast bar wasn't one I had been to before, but it was a decent enough fern-bar brewpub with a patio. As I didn't see familiar faces or any sort of obvious group in the main area, I went to the bar to get a beer on my way to check the patio, and that's where I saw the new president, wearing a t-shirt with the running club logo.

Hey, Tony,” I said, offering a handshake.

Brent,” he said, correcting me before shaking my hand limply.
I told him my name, and asked if the rest were outside.

Yes,” he said. “We're all out on the patio.”

He asked me what my login was, thinking he might be able to recognize me by identifying my name as it would have appeared on the club's online message board. I told him my name again, which was my login, which I hadn't used in years.

Great, great,” he said, turning his head in fake sincerity. “I still don't know you, but welcome.”

Thanks,” I said. “I joined the club about 15 years ago, and was an active member for nine years.”

Oh, great,” he said. “Welcome to the club. I moved to Portland two years ago, and was just elected president this year. Maybe you might want to re-up your membership.”
Yeah, maybe,” I said, turning toward the patio entrance. I noticed he had just ordered one beer for himself, instead of pitchers for the tables outside. Once outside, I noticed not that many were drinking. There weren't any pitchers of beer, just a pint here and there.

Two rows of picnic tables pushed together made up the bulk of the patio, with a small fire pit and wood-slatted fencing around the perimeter. There were easily 35 people there, and it wasn't very lively. I wasn't early, so the party was pretty much just this.

Recognizing my two old friends, we met at the center and clinked glasses.

Yeah,” one of us said.

Uh, yeah.” Another one of us said.

So who's birthday is it?”




So...should we head out, go somewhere else?”

No, Kaylee and her friends are going out dancing.”


Yeah, all her friends, here.”


Kaylee I had known for a few years. She was single, and I think she was a dentist, or something. She looked a bit younger than she was because she wore her hair in bangs. A couple of her friends copied her look, trimming their hair in bangs also, but it didn't quite work for them. All of her friends were married or had boyfriends, anyway.

Okay,” I said to the other two. “Let's follow them to wherever, if we're invited.” It didn't sound promising, but you never know. There were three or four conversations going on at once, but the lack of enthusiasm was deafening.

I chatted with Kaylee for a minute, wishing her a happy birthday. She seemed excited, but she was the easily excitable type. She acted as if a bachelorette party was going to erupt any moment, where I saw no evidence of that whatsoever. Still, I got the name of the bar where they were headed, a hip dance club in the Pearl district, and committed myself to finishing the rest of my pint before driving over.

We converged on the dance club, about ten of us, total, and went upstairs to the main bar. The music wasn't too bad, and it was loud enough, but the dance floor was mostly empty. It apparently was still too early in the evening to see much night life. Kaylee and most of her followers went to one side of the open floor and started dancing, behaving, en masse, as the cartoon Peanuts gang jiving to Schroeder's jazz piano, all elbows, craned necks, and shuffling, looping feet. The rest of us bought beers at the bar.

Two drinks,” I said, sipping a locally-brewed IPA favorite. “After that, I'm heading home.”

It's bound to liven up,” one of my friends said. “More people are coming in now. The night is just getting started.”

We joined the Peanuts gang and danced half-heartedly, with more attention on holding and drinking our pints than anything else, and at some point we formed a circle. We were an oddly-swaying circle on a mostly-empty dance floor, and the whole thing seemed so pathetic that I started doing the hokey-pokey in mockery.

You put your right foot in. You put your right foot out. You put your right foot in, and you shake it all about.”

It almost went with the music.

You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around...”

I got a couple of smiles with that, but I was already bored with it.

I stepped backward, away from the circle, and held my beer up to the disco light. With less than a third left to the pint, I formed in my mind a sense of prayer to Ninkasi, the goddess of fermentation and fornication. I breathed in fully, and then out, and downed the pint, walking my empty vessel back over to the bar, where I could exchange it, for a small fee, for a real drink. Specifically, a local whiskey and cola in a tumbler, over ice, with a tiny, black straw. So armed, I was ready to go back on the floor and dance. But not with them.

I walked out into an open spot, all on my own with just the taste of the whiskey blending with the cola and ice to anchor my soul, and felt the music pick up. Now more people came flooding into this section of the night club, and I danced. It felt good, and I was pretty awesome, until a fantastic-looking woman crossed the room and looked over at me on her way to the bar. Then I was more than awesome, especially after she walked up to me and started dancing.

Whatever she was wearing looked like a complicated interweaving of lingerie and evening wear, some sort of bikini with a short, glittery skirt and a see-through shirt. And she had glitter on her face. I didn't complain.

She danced really well, like a professional, and she leaned in to ask me something, shouting over the music. I smiled and nodded, not understanding all the words, but interpreting her intentions to dance more exotically, using me to keep her balance as she bent over, lifted her feet up, or twirled around. I was exactly right.

She asked me my name, and I told her. When I asked for her name, and she bent all the way over and wagged her ass at me. At first, I thought this was very funny, as the image of one dog sniffing another came to mind. But the second time she did this, I noticed a tattoo on her lower back. The five capital letters looked like this:

V E G A S  

And that, apparently, was her name. She turned back around and smiled at me, proud of herself.

After a few more songs, I bought her a drink. We went down one floor, to another bar that was quiet enough where we could talk. After another drink, a couple of stories, and a line of humorous observations, I got her number.

After I had walked her down to her car, and she drove off, I remembered about my friends. Walking around to the front entrance, they were just then filing outside, moving toward their own cars.

With a slight irritation in her voice, Kaylee asked me where my stripper had gone. My two good friends looked over, smiling, and I told Kaylee the girl had to go home.

So the thing with the running club, back in the day, is that almost everyone had nicknames. These weren't nicknames they chose themselves, but ones that would be rewarded due to certain behavior. I wasn't among those with a nickname, but I didn't mind. There were a couple attempts, but nothing stuck. But with the current version of the running club, that sort of thing fell out of style. This generation of born-again club members weren't really into that sort of creative camaraderie. But when I met my two old friends a couple weeks later, they told me I finally had a club nickname, because Kaylee wouldn't stop talking about the incident at her birthday with me and the exotic dancer.

The new nickname, they said, was Dances with Strippers. Like Dances with Wolves, only with strippers.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

craft beer and strip tease

Mary's Club is Portland's longest-running strip club. It's at the center of downtown, on Broadway just south of Burnside, and next to the city's four most-expensive hotels, all within a three-block radius.

The free speech laws in Oregon allow entertainers to dance completely nude; there's no legal requirement for G-strings or pasties, so artists can work uninhibited.

Some of them dance well. Others not so much.

Some of them are very beautiful. Others not so much.

There is one stage, a pole, and a jukebox that only takes dollars. Most of the dancers do a kind of walk, and then grab the pole, walk around it slowly, and slide down to the stage floor. Here they start to undress, and then they walk back and do the same routine over again, only with ass-slaps, slow-leaning stretches, boob waves, and bouncy shakes. They might lean against the heavily-padded black leather wall while holding their hair, concentrating on belly-dancing pelvic thrusts. They will almost assuredly drop to the floor on their back at some point, knees bent, and quickly kick one great-heeled shoe twice in a circle, kicking the other shoe up at the last second to clomp the heels together in a shockingly loud self-affirmation, just to make sure everyone is still awake. And eye contact. Always eye contact.

Some are dancers: ballet, jazzy modern, and classic hip-hop with a twist. They can make more money a few nights a week than an entire month at White Bird or the Oregon Ballet Theatre. Plus, ballet is hell on your toes if your feet aren't naturally shaped like cheese wedges.

And, there is the pole. Some dance around it in a lithium haze, and some twirl and sashay. The latest trend is to climb like a coked-out monkey, then come spinning downward, clutching with thighs or the crook of an arm or leg. When they start to master the pole, everything becomes slow and deliberate, fluid and efficient. This is when the dancing becomes really good, with athletic prowess, flirtatious acting, and raw beauty.

It used to be that Henry Weinhard's was the best they could offer. The other beers on tap were Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller, or maybe Pabst. Henry's used to be Portland's greatest beer, a staple of the Northwest since 1856. But then it was bought out by Miller/Coors/Budweiser, the corporate giant that produces 99% of the world's swill passing itself off as beer. Oregon, however, has led the beer revolution, and I'm happy to say Mary's boasts several craft beers on tap, including their very own.

Mary's Topless Blonde is brewed by Cascade Brewing exclusively for Mary's Club. Cascade Brewing started at the basement of the Raccoon Lodge, the brewpub owned by Art Larrance, one of the founders of Portland Brewing Company and one of the progenitors of the of the internationally-known Oregon Brewer's Festival. Cascade Brewing opened a second pub on the east side to focus on sour beers, and it's now a champion in that specialized field. But Mary's Topless Blonde isn't a sour beer. It's a perfectly-balanced blonde ale, and a fair representation of how the strip club has evolved over the years.

I saw Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons in here once, when he was in town to play the Trailblazers. And Courtney Love used to dance here, back when she was just Michelle Harrison. But that was all a while back.

Daphne's posture is sad, like a wet dog. She looks like she's been crying, but I get the impression she looks like that all the time. She used to dance at the Magic Garden, and she's a little beside herself since that place shut down. I'm here at Mary's with a friend of mine who used to be a regular at the Magic Garden, and he's supporting her first gig after their bar was replaced with a new restaurant, an expansion of a hot wing and waffle wrap food cart.

She's kind of hungry. She might order egg rolls from across the street. Mary's boasts some of the best Tex-Mex food in town, but she doesn't want to fill up too much because she's going back up in a few minutes, and then dancing another shift later. Meanwhile, cranberry vodka cocktails are providing some nutrition.

While Daphne is chilling with us, Veronica is up there, doing her routine. After Veronica's set, Daphne goes back up for another round. I saw the energy in the room rise when Veronica walked on stage, and then drop again as Daphne goes back up. Daphne's not ugly, she just looks preoccupied, like she's not really having fun.

An explosion of noise enters from the front door while Daphne is up there, and the room is suddenly electrified. This is Taurine, wearing old-fashioned, four-post roller skates, and she is loud, clapping and encouraging the front row to tip. She flashes a new tattoo at the barmaid, the owner's daughter who retired from dancing to make the shift into management, and they both admire the artwork, laughing and smiling. Taurine is up next, so she sucks down half a rum and Coke as she scans the room, appraising her opportunities.

With Daphne now back at our table, she confesses she's a little unsure of her future. She still looks pretty young, but she's been dancing for ten years. She's ready for a change, but hasn't yet accumulated her goal in savings. Rent is getting more expensive. She'll have to pick up another couple shifts elsewhere, but she's wary of the politics involved. She has friends working elsewhere, and picks up from them where the best places are. Some girls are supportive and have your back. Others will stab you in the back.

Mary's is good because all the dancers are private contractors, so they can dance elsewhere. Some clubs operated similarly, while others were the opposite, encouraging their dancers to work only at that one club. The good money comes from getting good shifts, which comes in part through putting in your time.

She mentioned Frank by name, as she wanted like to work at one of his clubs. He owns Dante's, which isn't a strip bar, but a popular cabaret with live music and post-modern burlesque. Go-go dancers that hula with flaming hoops and breathe fire, that kind of thing. Very Portlandia. He also owns several strip clubs, including Devil's Point (with stripparaoke), Lucky Devil, and others.

I picked up on the devil theme and asked Daphne if he owned the Black Cauldron. My friend and I had just gone there a few weeks before it closed down. A renovated family restaurant with a weird, bent-stovepipe Enchanted Forest kind of architecture, it was a vegan strip club with a dark fantasy theme. Witches, elves, devils, maybe vampires. That sort of thing. It was practically empty at the time, but you have to figure that with more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the US, the Portland market should be fairly saturated. The Black Cauldron is now a transition shelter/clinic for women with bad domestic situations.

No, Daphne tells us that wasn't Frank. The Black Cauldron was owned by Johnny, the owner of the Casa Diablo strip bars. She gives us a short review of twenty-three different establishments in town, and what the pros and cons are for each.

I would visit all these places, and more, in the name of research. And although I didn't know it then, Casa Diablo would be where I would meet my fiancé.