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.