Photos by Eamon MacMahon
At the Diamond Cabaret, the Platinum Club, the Jewel Box and the Crystal Palace; at Roxy’s, Miss Kitty’s, Dollie’s Playhouse and PT’s; at the Chameleon Club, the Pink Slip, the S&L Rub and C-Mowes; at all the strip clubs and massage parlours that do business in the communities that ring East St. Louis like a noose, people gather by the thousands in the wee hours of a weekend morning. They come from the farm towns of downstate Illinois and from the anonymous bedroom cities that cluster to the north along the Mississippi River. They come from the Ozark hinterlands of interior Missouri and from the riverine industrial zones south on Interstate 55. But mostly they arrive from St. Louis and St. Louis County, from the gateway metropolis that masses two million strong just across the river to the west. Customers and staff alike, they come speeding in their automobiles on Interstate 64-40, up over the Poplar Street Bridge, and down from Missouri into Illinois. Often they will couple their visits to the strip clubs with stops of varying duration at the billiard-green gaming tables of the Casino Queen, a gambling emporium housed in a fake riverboat. The Casino Queen floats in “port” along the Illinois side of the river, and from the perspective of a car high atop the Poplar Street Bridge, it resembles a giant red-neon cyst. Billboards along the highway announce the bawdry:
Fantasies Made Fresh Daily
Platinum Club USA
Route 3 North to Brooklyn
And their abundance turns other highway signs into messages that are vaguely obscene. “The French Dip—New at Hardee’s.” “Dungeon Halloween Costumes.” “Our Lady of the Snows.” Even the sign at the state line, “The People of Illinois Welcome You,” becomes, somehow, a lurid enticement.
Heading north on Route 3 toward Brooklyn, you can see a floodplain stretching between the road and the water, which for years was used by the local chemical industry as a toxic-waste dumping ground. Off to the west, the Gateway Arch glints against the night horizon like an edifice from some science-fiction city. A defunct spur of the Union Pacific railroad also runs through the plain, and on it rests a sequence of rotted cattle cars. Whatever bovine cargo they may have once hauled was long ago slaughtered at the National Stockyards, which itself shut down a few years ago and is now a vast timber-frame skeleton of former killing floors and animal pens. The Brooklyn clubs are so close to the yards that older dancers still tell of how, if the wind blew wrong, the air outside had a mammalian stink that could make your ears ring.
Once in Brooklyn, a gaudy clutch of commerce occupies two intersections along Route 3: three strip clubs, a porn shop, two peep-show halls of exceeding seediness and a massage parlour—the S&L Rub, a known whorehouse. Men of all ages and classes move in and out of these erotic rialtos—in the jammed parking lots, a black Jaguar rests beside a mud-speckled Chevy pickup—and inside they seek out their favourite dancers or bid for sexual favours that range all along a continuum from dollar-bill peek to three-figure trick. Freelance prostitutes amble about the parking lots or lean against the façades of vacant buildings, their limbs trembling from withdrawal. With the floodplain badlands on one side and the dark sleeping village on the other, a dome of light traps the Brooklyn sex industry, blacking out all views of one’s larger surroundings. As the strippers get off work, they and in-the-know clientele take off for Club 64 (previously known as Mustang Sally’s), a roadhouse down the street, where the party continues until closing time, about 9AM. Anyone who found himself a member of this group would see the sun rise over a place so gutted economically, so pathologically destitute, that the spendthrift decadence of the night before would seem all at once both a cruel and a necessary diversion.
Thirteen strip clubs conduct their business in this part of Illinois, and all are located in four municipalities in St. Clair County: Sauget, Brooklyn, Washington Park and Centreville. The towns lie within a ten-minute drive of downtown St. Louis and are a half-hour sprint along 64-40 from the suburbs of St. Louis County, which slouch west of the city for thirty miles into the Missouri woodlands. The clubs reside in a part of the bi-state area known locally as “the Metro East,” a region that holds the city of East St. Louis as its dystopian centrepiece. When compared with other areas around the country with similar “adult entertainment” districts, the Metro East does not on the surface seem all that notable. Houston has somewhere near forty clubs, Atlanta over thirty and Louisville around twenty. Portland possesses the nation’s highest density of strip clubs, boasting, by one count, sixty-eight. Owing to the Oregon Supreme Court’s liberal interpretation of obscenity law, the louche level there rivals that of Restoration England.
What distinguishes the Metro East from its counterparts, finally, is economics. Or, rather, a lack of economics. The communities of the Metro East are poorer than any other area in the US with similar concentrations of adult entertainment. Most cities relegate their strip clubs to out-of-sight areas zoned for manufacturing. The striptease trade has long since migrated from the city tenderloins (witness Times Square) to those unlivable belts of industry that ring urban areas. In one sense, St. Louis is no different, having banished the business to the Illinois side of the river through prohibitive measures such as liquor-selling hours, which end at 2 AM, and puritanical definitions of what constitutes appropriate public sexual expression—namely, brassieres and underthings must cover the coveted, and from their customers the dancers must keep a yardstick away.
Aside from Sauget, an industrial sector with only a few hundred residents, the Metro East communities in which the clubs do business are largely residential and so poor that they’ve come to depend on the clubs for their very existence. After one topless bar threatened litigation over a town’s plan to increase entertainment-licence fees, the club’s lawyer displayed a swagger remarkable even for a plaintiff’s attorney. “My client,” he said to a reporter, “will ultimately wind up owning that village.” The per capita incomes of Washington Park, Centreville and Brooklyn hover around $8,000 a year (all figures are in American dollars), well below the federal poverty level and roughly on par with Iran. Non-sex businesses here are best described as mom-and-pop. Barbecue stands, corner groceries, package stores and auto-repair garages constitute the primary trades. In none of the towns does even a gas station exist. None of the towns have a bank. Worse, continuing a three-decade trend, the entire region has suffered a savage depopulation. Between 1990 and 2000, according to the latest federal census, the population of Washington Park declined from 7,430 people to 5,340; Centreville from 7,490 to 5,950; and Brooklyn from 1,140 to just 658. To put it another way, over the course of that ten-year span, the three towns, combined, lost almost eight residents a week. Tax revenue, not surprisingly, comes hard to the municipal coffers. Only one source of income remains constant, and on any given night of the week you can see them drunkenly pouring forth from the clubs, entering their automobiles and driving unsteadily down the highway for the burbs.
All of this has created a certain atmosphere over here along the Illinois riverbank. Since at least Prohibition, the east side has been the site of a roisterous nightlife. Brooklyn, always the focus of the action, was once known as “Little Las Vegas.” Gambling and whoring, in that order, were then the chief attractions. Only in the late 1970s did striptease, a natural new input, gain a foothold. Connoisseurs of the region’s more recent entertainments say that the Illinois strip-club scene reached its raucous, lurid apex in the late 1980s, before riverboat gambling siphoned off the clientele. Nonetheless, a level of permissiveness endures, and it can only be ascribed to the status the clubs enjoy within the municipal hegemony. Despite a directive from the office of the St. Clair County State’s Attorney, G-strings frequently do come off (if they’re ever worn at all) and men frequently do lay their hands (and, often enough, other appendages) on the flesh of the clubs’ employees. This state of affairs led one club proprietor, the owner of a chain with strip joints in six different cities, to call the Metro East the single most permissive locale, by far, of any of his businesses. The man was Hal Lowrie, and before he died of lung cancer in 1997, he was about to stand trial in federal court for tax evasion, money laundering, bribery and prostitution—all of it conducted in the Metro East.
The east side has spawned a legacy of corruption as thick as that of Vegas itself, although strictly on a nickel-and-dime scale when compared to the American capital of vice. Every five years or so, it seems, the Feds swoop down with warrants and subpoenas and FBI badges, and send another round of club owners to the clink. Some strip-joint regulars maintain that within the last few years the criminal element has at long last been expurgated from the region. A new era has dawned, they say, of clean business practices and above-board municipal dealings. The clubs make so much money these days that owners are no longer willing to risk their considerable cash flow over some penny-ante criminal charge. “They’re trying to be good corporate citizens because they come to bat with a strike already against them,” says one regular customer, who claims to be on friendly terms with many of the owners. In other words, the clubs want to put on as good a face as possible, since public perception has always looked cynically (to understate the matter) at the business. At first glance, this perspective seems reasonable. If each week you’re making tens of thousands of dollars in liquor sales alone, why risk it all by allowing your strippers to perform a few $80 backroom blow jobs and then bribing some cop to look the other way?
And yet a perusal of newspaper clippings from the last four years raises all kinds of unseemly questions. Why, for instance, did Brooklyn fire its police chief, and why, in the aftermath, did the shunted cop tell reporters, “The real reason why they got rid of me will come out down the line. You wait and see”? What to make of allegations out of Brooklyn that officials tampered with police files relating to the arrest of Sonny Henry, owner of a group of local massage parlours, for having allegedly beaten a member of his stable of “masseuses”? How should we interpret the strip-club-funded contributions made to the election campaign of the current mayor of Washington Park? And what, finally, should we make of the comments made by W. Charles Grace, the outgoing US Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, in which he stated, “Wherever these clubs exist, they are taking advantage of a city government that is barely existing”?
Three out of seven days each week, the mayor of Brooklyn arrives at his office dressed in the uniform of the Illinois Department of Corrections. He has a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound frame, his arms have been weightlifted into appropriate prison-guard mass, and the brown and green of his outfit resemble the colouring of a poisonous reptile. He appears all disciplinarian and pure no-nonsense. A plate on his chest bears his name, Dennis Miller, though this Dennis Miller has little time for cultivating a sense of humour. In 2002, when I first met him, Miller was just thirty-two years old, but the world-weariness of a much older man had already taken hold in his eyes. He looked like he’d been up nights. And if insomnia hadn’t yet afflicted Miller, long hours on the job—both of them—certainly had. Miller works from 7 am to 3 pm at the prison, arriving at his mayoral desk sometime thereafter and routinely not leaving until well into the night.
He has much to do, not the least of which is to renovate a public perception of his hometown that tends toward the tragicomic. Miller was elected mayor in April 2001, after spending the previous four months as interim mayor. His predecessor, a woman named Ruby Cook, had just been convicted of embezzling $45,000 in municipal funds from a town already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, a sewer company, a locksmith firm and other unlikely creditors. Cook struck a figure quite in contrast to that of her sombre successor: She was known around town as “the Cheetah.” She liked to stick out her tongue at the TV cameras taping her trial. She invested most of her absconded monies in plastic chips minted by the Casino Queen. (Cook’s treasurer, a woman named Frankie Banks, stole about $143,000 from village accounts and died in December of a heart attack while a resident of a Texas federal prison. Cook, for her part, spent a year in a federal pen in Greenville, South Carolina, and then returned to Brooklyn. She now works for the school district.) That’s not all. Though no proof has ever been unearthed, rumour has it that Cook, like many Brooklyn officials before her, was on the take from the local titty bars, receiving a salary and bonuses from the owners in exchange for law enforcement laissez-faire.
An alluring, vibrant stew—though Dennis Miller would certainly dispute the use of those adjectives—of vice merchandising and its natural cousin-ingredient, corruption, has defined the village of Brooklyn for most of the last hundred years, despite it having a history as noble as any town its size in the nation. Its motto, hard in these intervening years not to interpret ironically, reads, “Founded by Chance, Sustained by Courage.” Brooklyn is among the only freedom villages—settlements of blacks who escaped from slavery and travelled to free states—still in existence today. It has been called the country’s first all-black town, though the truth behind that appellation is a matter of some scholarly dispute. Local lore has it that in about 1829, eleven families of both fugitives and freemen, led by one “Mother” Priscilla Baltimore, rafted across the Mississippi River from the slave state of Missouri and landed on the banks of St. Clair County. Those banks were then a fertile, Nile-like region known as the American Bottoms, a title that seems far more appropriate today.
As with most things concerning the village, the very name “Brooklyn” marks an inflection point of racial Sturm und Drang. (The town is actually two-named. In 1891, Brooklyn got a new post office, and to distinguish it from another Illinois Brooklyn, it took the name Lovejoy as its mailing address, after Elijah P. Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaperman who operated out of nearby Alton, Illinois.) The town received its Brooklyn christening in 1837, at the hands of five white businessmen who bought the village land and platted it with streets and lots. Brooklyn became biracial, its blacks presided over by white absentee landlords. Because of the state’s so-called Black Laws, which heavily restricted African-American suffrage and enfranchisement, a reign of white rule began that ended only in the early twentieth century, when—the Illinois Black Laws finally defunct—a group of black citizens wrested control of the municipal government away from the white minority. And so began an era of white flight that ended only when a cartel of Italian East St. Louis mobsters instituted their gambling houses in the 1920s, bridging the gap between those five white men of the 1830s and today’s white captains of the Brooklyn flesh industry.
When Dennis Miller talks to a reporter in his cluttered, poorly lit office, which is full of mementoes of an involved family life, one thing becomes altogether clear: a simple question does not receive, or deserve, a simple answer. I had arrived in Brooklyn full of preconceptions, having reviewed the progress of the city’s most recent turmoil in the local papers. These were nasty dispatches indeed, the product of reporters bent on exposé, their tone both mocking and derisive. The new mayor was desperate for some good publicity.
But Dennis Miller’s administration was and still is faced by problems far more pressing than bad PR. The mayor has undertaken to return his hometown, somehow, to solvency. Things do not look bright, despite the baby step he took just after coming
into office of raising business-licensing fees for “adult entertainment” establishments from $20,000 a year to
$30,000. Miller also severely cut back village employment, eliminating police dispatchers completely (relying instead on the county’s corps) and paring his office staff to one. Village workers now go without health insurance, and cops receive a paycheque of $7.25 an hour, a little less than two dollars above minimum wage.
But the worst insult appears to be the 2000 federal census. The green sign that rises from the weeds at the Brooklyn city limits on Route 3 announces a population of 667, but Miller contends that the number is closer to 1,100. Census forms sent to Brooklyn citizens erroneously listed National City, a nearby town that has since unincorporated, as their place of residence. People became confused, Miller said, and failed to send in their forms. In order to make a recount, “the census people sent a bunch of middle-aged white women to knock on doors.” When they arrived, they saw Brooklyn’s roving black youth, its poverty and dilapidation, and left without knocking on a single door. With an apparent drop of nearly five hundred people, or 42 percent of the population, since the 1990 count, Brooklyn has lost much-needed tax revenue, disbursed away to larger towns by the reckoners in Springfield. The town’s poverty occasionally has brutal results. When an apartment fire sent alarms clanging at the Brooklyn firehouse/police depot in 1994, the village’s thirty-year-old truck took ten minutes to travel the quarter-mile to the scene. In that time, four children died.
Miller said, “Our short-term goal is… we’re working on our short-term goals.” He shook his head and sighed. “It’s pretty rough. Our annual budget is only $340,000. It’s pretty rough because, for our town to operate sufficiently, we need probably $640,000.” The strip clubs and porn bookstores and massage parlours of Brooklyn constitute by far the town’s largest source of revenue. When asked, Miller would not supply any hard numbers. In that case, did he think that proceeds from the clubs made up more than half of the village budget? “Probably,” he said. His tone of voice, a little defensive, indicated that “more than half” was a betting-man’s safe wager.
All this adds up to a state of affairs in Brooklyn similar to the status of Spain following the Peace of Westphalia. So poor is the town that it accepts, without question, periodic donations from the strip clubs, in the form of a new dump truck, say, or funds and turkeys on Thanksgiving for the Brooklyn seniors’ centre, or the financing of a youth program, which helps high school kids in Brooklyn find summer jobs (although not at the strip bars). When the town finds itself in a particularly tough spot, one of the clubs will pay its licence fees in advance. If one takes a cynical view of such things—not difficult in light of Brooklyn’s history of corruption—these “donations” can be interpreted as bribes, albeit bribes with a public-service bent. The more the clubs support the town, the less likely the town will be to crack down on whatever illicitness might be occurring, and the less likely the town will be to attempt to oust them.
That’s not really an option, anyway. “These places have been in Brooklyn since the late seventies, early eighties. They’re established places,” Miller said. “And I would think they need Brooklyn as much as we need them.” Miller delivered this last sentence with some ambiguity. What he seemed to mean was that in no other town (save Centreville or Washington Park) could the clubs find such favourable business conditions. Which raises all kinds of questions about the ethics of even the current mayor of Brooklyn. “People can be bought,” the mayor said. “Votes can be bought. That’s unfortunate. It ain’t right, but that’s the reality in Brooklyn. I’ve seen it happen.”
Brooklyn’s long history of corruption is another heavy albatross around Miller’s neck. When I asked him about it, he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “Corruption happens everywhere, rich white communities too,” he said. “But it’s more publicized in Brooklyn than anywhere else around here. One reason is that we don’t have a lot of money. If you pick up the Belleville paper, you’ll see all this reporting on all these black communities—they feast on it. Washington Park, Brooklyn, Centreville: it’s all the same. All negative, nothing positive. Why is that so? Is it because there’s nothing positive going on at all?” Miller let out a hiss and lowered his eyes to meet mine, as if remonstrating with yet another unscrupulous reporter. “Positive stuff just isn’t news to some people.”
Any expert in corruption-busting will tell you that once a rot takes hold in a community, it quickly becomes institutionalized; once the hand that feeds offers its first spoonful, that hand becomes all the more difficult to slap away. This made it easy to believe that Miller had been, or would be, corrupted, and that he had awaiting him, in the vast pantheon of Brooklyn grifters past, a block of marble with
his name on it, ready for the sculptor’s chisel.
As our conversation wore on inside his office, Mayor Miller, the young politician, expanded into his role. He waxed both platitudinous and sincere. His talk became stump speech. “I’ll say this today. We’d be better off if the clubs never came to Brooklyn. They wore the entire county down. You may ask, ‘How would the town survive without them?’ I don’t know. But I will say this. They’ve hurt business. Businesses that would have come to Brooklyn—who would want to move into a place next door to a strip club? That’s how they’ve hurt us. If I ever put together a referendum, and put it to a vote, asking the residents if they wanted to shut the clubs down, I think they’d say they want them. I think I’d lose that one. I really do.” He addressed, as well, his own potential for swallowing that corrupting spoonful: “I’ve got a family, I’ve got a wife and three kids, and I love them and I love where I’m from. I could move. I’ve got a good job, I get paid well. I could live somewhere in St. Louis, somewhere nice out in the County. But my friends can’t get out; a lot of people here can’t get out. And that’s why I do what I do. For my family, for Brooklyn, for my neighbours. It’s not worth wasting all that for a few hundred dollars a week. I’m not trying to hide anything. All of the town’s financial information I’ve made public. Of course, no one has come up here to look at it. If people came here and sat down and talked with me like you’re doing today, I think they’d get the feeling that [I’m] for real. I’ve got nothing to hide. I keep everything on top the table. Like the donations from the clubs. In the past, you never heard anything about it. Never heard about it at council meetings. That’s because the mayors were getting a piece of the pie. But now, I’ll tell you all about it: bank statements, what the nature of the donation was. I work in the prison system,” the mayor concluded. “I don’t want to be a resident of it.”
Jack Corbett and I are sitting at the bar inside the Chameleon Club drinking Budweiser. It is a cold November night
in Washington Park, a Friday, about seven o’clock. Around the room walk women clothed only in brassieres and panties, bikini cups and thongs. They chat with men and sometimes disappear through a door at the back of the bar. From the street outside, the Chameleon Club looks innocent enough, but in the Metro East people in the know call it something else. They call it, simply, the Whorehouse. Its façade is painted pink. When Corbett and I entered the bar, a black woman approached us. She wore lingerie under a translucent robe that tickled the floor flamboyantly. She singled me out with her eyes and, almost all in the same moment, smiled sweetly, winked, leaned in toward my ear and whispered something into it. Her perfume was as powerful as a whole perfume counter. In addition, attached to my crotch was her hand, playing scales. All the blood in my body seemed to rush toward the core of the earth. The something she had whispered was, “Let me help you out with that.” This I did not determine until later; her words did not directly unscramble. I nonetheless understood her intent and declined her offer. Then, stupidly, I felt compelled to apologize. “Sorry about that,” I said. She smiled again, more sweetly I thought than even before, and walked away. I missed her immediately.
Aside from tricks, the women of the Chameleon Club have other duties to perform. They will sometimes climb onto a raised platform along one wall and cavort about indifferently. It’s as if they’re a little sleepy. A single metal bar, oily as an axle, rises floor-to-ceiling from the stage. One by one, in a desultory progression, the women will ascend the dais, grab hold of the bar, squat, spread their legs, flap them open and shut, rise erect again, give a little wiggle at the waist and swagger offstage, their swagger less a function of any confidence in their ability to look good on this night at this place than on the fact that they’ve been lifted up, a bit tentatively, on five-inch stiletto heels. Although some of them, I’ve just noticed, are barefoot. They are not remarkably attractive, as far as these things go, in the hierarchical comeliness rankings of the east-side strip clubs. One woman steps down from the stage and gives me a come-hitherish look. When she smiles, two front teeth are missing. Her hair, dyed and permed and coarse as corn husks, is rather more yellow than blond.
In the official commercial nomen-clature of Washington Park, the Chameleon is not a strip club. It is a tavern, licensed only for on-premise liquor sales. Thus all the female coverage, which the women do not remove—at least not out here in the main room. A few men populate the bar, dry-docked there like broken-down towboats. On average, they appear to have been of age for the Korean draft. Their stomachs are as round as a bear’s at hibernation. They have forearms of the build that seems to want tattoos of anchors. By and large, the Chameleon Club clientele is quiet, each man paying more attention to the inside of his drink or to the bar top (a warped and scaly Formica) than to the Chameleon Club women, unless a man knows a girl, in which case they gab and laugh like members of a sewing circle.
Jack Corbett, sipping his Budweiser, is comfortable here. He has been to the Chameleon many times before, and for him the echt roadhouse atmosphere of the place is hardly worthy of notice. He is chatting avidly about his chat room, an Internet meeting place for strip-club aficionados. The chat room is part0of Alphapro.com, a larger website built and maintained by Corbett as an outlet for his passion. While he goes on and on about one chat-room regular from San Francisco who nearly funded the relocation there of a Chameleon prostitute with whom he had fallen in love, I can’t help but glance, occasionally, toward the front of the bar, where a group of men sits around a table.
Upon entering the place earlier this evening, Corbett had introduced me to the most prominent figure among that group: Tommy Davis, Chameleon Club founder and owner. Davis, massively overweight, balances on his chair like a golf ball on a tee. He wears a black, mesh-backed baseball cap and a black nylon jacket, and his face is red and tight. A brown moustache grows from his lip like a hellgrammite. Next to Davis sits a man almost identical to him in all physical aspects, except smaller, like Davis’ interior Russian nesting doll. Two more men sit at the table: another diabetes-scale fat guy, this one with long hair, and a black man who is wearing a white Nehru jacket, baggy white trousers and white-framed sunglasses, rectangular in shape. From glass mugs they all drink yellow beer. After Corbett said hello and made his attempt to introduce me, Davis looked me up and down. He said nothing. I told him my name (first only), said it was nice to meet him. Davis remained silent, staring. When I offered to shake his hand, he placed his in mine—limpidly, femininely—like a bishop offering his ring to be kissed. Then, without a word, he withdrew it and turned back toward his entourage. As I stood there in front of Davis, every member of his party surveyed me viciously, and now, as I sit at the bar half-listening to Corbett, I envision shanks thrust into love handles over piss-streaked urinals; I envision crowbars to the kneecap in the parking lot; I envision Washington Park cops pulling me over for no reason at the request of Tommy Davis.
Because Tommy Davis, I know, is not a man to be fucked with. Somewhere inside the bar he keeps a Louisville Slugger, with which he has been known to bludgeon customers unfortunate enough to have gotten on his bad side. Davis is also, Corbett tells me, on cozy terms with the Washington Park police. One night a few years ago, after taking his leave of the Chameleon Club, Corbett received a speeding ticket. He returned to the club and told Davis what had happened. The owner immediately made a phone call. Minutes later, a cop car pulled into the parking lot and Davis went outside to meet the officer. When Davis re-entered the bar, he tore Corbett’s ticket in half.
Corbett’s level of familiarity with the owners of east-side clubs is the product of an inestimable amount of time spent frequenting the confines of these establishments. In many ways, Corbett is the arch titty-bar customer. He pays no cover charges and has interviewed many an owner, manager and stripper for freelance articles in strip-club trade magazines (Xtreme, Wild Times) or for his own website. Within the east-side scene, Corbett is a figure of some public standing. He favors Birkenstock sandals, worn over woolen socks, and Kangol caps of varying shades, a piece of haberdashery that has become the man’s emblem, making him instantly recognizable to regular clubgoers, even if they don’t know his name. Corbett speaks with a lisp reminiscent of Rudolph Giuliani’s, and he laughs somewhat stutteringly, a mannerism that brings to mind a teenaged boy who has smoked too much pot. He is small in stature, about five-foot-eight, and he is fifty-four years old, an age clearly marked by his white moustache and thinning pate of white hair. But he also has wiry arms knotted with veins and the waist of a high school quarterback, a physique made flinty by two decades spent working his family’s ancestral farm, a four-hundred-acre plot near Springfield, Illinois, where he grew corn and soybeans.
When asked why he began frequenting the titty bars, Corbett responds, “Me and my neighbour, we decided to divorce our wives.” As his marriage grew ever more troublesome, and as the divorce proceedings looked ever more ominous for him financially, Corbett began to muse on the metaphorical connection between prostitution and marriage. If he was paying all this money to his ex-wife—now via the courts, but previously as the couple’s only breadwinner—why not just pay for sex on the open market? This is something of a simplification of Corbett’s logic, which at the slightest provocation he will explicate thoroughly, expansively, to nearly the point of drawing a graph. Corbett decided to plunge full bore into the Metro East club scene, this time seeking more than just private dances. “For around a hundred dollars an encounter, I could get laid any night I wanted and have a number of pretty women to choose from,” Corbett wrote in “Whoring in the Metro East,” an essay on his website. “My theory,” he emphasized, “turned out to be spot on.”
In one sense, Jack Corbett is not who he seems, for “Jack Corbett” is a nom de plume. About four years ago, he published Death on the Wild Side, a 465-page vanity-press novel, not so loosely autobiographical, based on Corbett’s experiences in and out of the Metro East establishments. “I misnamed the clubs to protect the guilty,” he says. If admittedly amateurish, his book is a lively read. Whoring and car chases and bar violence and knife wounds abound. Despite its constant hawking on the Alphapro website, where sample chapters are available for study, Corbett has sold just 200 of the 2,000 copies he had printed, his audience comprised almost wholly of his friends and acquaintances among the strip-club set. The poor sales no longer concern the author, who has moved on to other pursuits. In his apartment in Collinsville, a St. Louis commuter town not far from Washington Park, he has converted one bedroom into a “studio,” with mirrored walls and complicated tripods and beds with fleece blankets, in which he photographs the variously posed bodies of willing east-side strippers. Corbett knows them by the hundreds. He has struck up close friendships with many of them, and they often stop by his apartment to visit. Indeed, Corbett’s circle seems to include only people involved in some way in the strip-club business.
Corbett wants to use his bedroom studio to start a business and to become something like a headshot photographer for erotic dancers. He specializes in shots of strippers carrying weapons—for instance, a .30-calibre belt-fed machine gun, circa World War II, posing with Pleasure and Pain, a daughter-mother stripper team out of Columbus, Ohio. He now thinks of himself as a professional, and in a sense he is. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Saint Louis University and he read law for a year at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He says, “I knew enough about the law to know that I was going to get fucked royally from the divorce.” These days, his professionalism mostly extends to his conduct inside the titty bars. He sees himself residing in a caste far above the average strip-club customer. He no longer purchases prostitutes, and he has no commercial contact with strippers—he shuns private dances, he shuns tipping. “It’s not professional,” he says. “I’m not a customer. I’m the guy that’s going to make you famous, get you known. In addition, I have the ability to put you in a dimension where I’m fun to be with, on my own merit. I’m fun to hang out with.”
Corbett recognizes a woman dancing on stage. She is the stripper of the corn-husk hair, overweight and dentally negligent. Her age could be reasonably estimated at anywhere from twenty-five to forty. We move toward her, and Corbett engages her in conversation. Their acquaintance, it turns out, goes beyond the casual. Her name is Amy, and a few years back Corbett gave her refuge on his Springfield farm. She was attempting to get off crack. Corbett’s charity in this manner has extended to more than one stripper from the Metro East. The0degree of success achieved during these rehabs remains, however, unclear. Now, rising above us on the dais, Amy addresses the issue of her drinking, which has recently gotten her into some kind of trouble, the nature of which she does not feel it necessary to explain. Periodically as she speaks, and for no evident reason, Amy will plunge to her back on the floor of the stage and wrench her legs behind her ears, a posture that looks painful but apparently is not. She wiggles her tongue grotesquely. She is barefoot. Her thighs are patterned with bruises, and over them grows a brown coiling riot—pubic spillage. By the grace of God, she is wearing underwear. Up to her feet she jumps again and resumes the discussion, which has shifted to Amy’s country holiday at the Corbett farmstead some years ago. If not in the vein of drug rehabilitation, she had while there a life-altering experience. One night, outside for a little walk, she beheld in the clear black Illinois sky a UFO. Over the soybeans, flying saucers. Not entirely bereft of earnestness, I ask if her encounter developed into one of the third kind.
“Were you abducted by the aliens?”
“I think I mighta been.” And with that she flops immediately to the floor, legs flung back, split along her longitudes, divulging once again her sanctum sanctorum.
By the end of the night, Corbett and I find ourselves in Brooklyn, at a strip club called Roxy’s. The place is maybe five hundred square feet. Four low stages are situated like islands around the club. The lighting is dark and ruby red. When compared with the sprawling emporiums of Sauget, the atmosphere at Roxy’s is intimate, noirish, classic strip-club. And when compared with the staff of the Chameleon Club, the female employees seem Swimsuit Issue.
Nor do the Roxy’s girls double as prostitutes, or at least not so blatantly, a point of distinction that everyone associated with the more mainstream clubs is quick to express. Historically, any and all strippers become instantly vitriolic at the mere suggestion that they turn tricks. They exist on a plateau set far above that filth. They do this job because the money is good. They have their sights set on even higher plateaus, set on mountain ranges.
Aurora, for instance, twenty-one years old, born and raised in distant suburban West County, quite new to the trade, whose favourite club costume is that of a half-naked firefighter in cherry-red hip-high boots and G-string, wants to be a professional dancer. At eighteen, she dropped out of high school and moved to Puerto Vallarta, a place where her parents often vacationed and with which she had become smitten. She got a job selling time-shares, sold zero time-shares and was back in St. Louis within six months. She received her GED last summer. She says, “When I was little, we used to write papers about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I always wrote ‘dancer.’ I just always thought I’d be, I always thought I’d be on Broadway.”
Deedee, twenty-seven years old, a stripper for four years, blond and lanky, wearing gowns and gloves, self-described “high-class,” is enrolled at the University of Phoenix, Internet campus, her degree-track business. She says she makes $60,000 a year stripping. “I think of it as sales,” she says. “It’s not about looks, it’s about what’s up here.”
Reese, nineteen years old, rising nearly to six feet, well muscled and deeply naveled, her shoulder-length blond hair teased into a flip, says she’s dating the drummer from Nickelback,
the mush-metal pop band with platinum records. Her sister, twenty-three, is also a stripper. Her mother, forty-one, is a former stripper. Reese says she plans on moving soon, to Vancouver, where Nickelback evidently lives.
Mocha, twenty-six, with flawless black skin and a firm stomach, mother of two children—one nine years old, the other a toddler—offers parental advice: surround your kids with family members; give your kids as many authority figures as possible. Unlike other strippers, who are fiercely competitive about the aesthetics of their routines, Mocha says she does not dance. Her only gauge of success is “how much money I take home with me at the end of the night.” She says that when girls dance onstage, the clientele’s collective mind is tuned to a single channel. They’re imagining fucking the stripper. Mocha, therefore, choreographs for her performance a series of “positions.” Like a man orchestrating sexual manoeuvres with his partner, she moves onstage into each of her positions. Her rule is no touching above the knee. It is Mocha’s belief that her routine is the match of fellatio. “You know how when you’re getting a real good blow job and you don’t even want to touch her head because you might fuck it up?” she asks rhetorically. “That’s how my customers are with me.”At Roxy’s, when it comes to the demilitarized zone between stripping and prostitution, circumstantial evidence suggests that the line more closely resembles the US-Canadian border. I have heard from several people, their credibility a sliding scale, that the double-wide trailer sitting just across the parking lot from Roxy’s, its windows blocked out with the same metallic-looking material one sees stuck to car windshields on hot days, has a utility in exact accordance with what its appearance would indicate. I have not attempted to gain entry into that double-wide, so I cannot, sadly, corroborate these allegations.
The club has achieved a certain measure of fame. From all over the Midwest, patrons convene at Roxy’s for one reason only, and it has nothing to do with intimacy or atmospheric lighting or even the mysterious trailer outside. At the back of the club there is a glassed-in compartment, shielded from the club floor by windowpanes that don’t reach the ceiling. Two spigots sprout from the compartment’s walls, head high. Every so often, a few strippers will enter the shower from a secret door at the rear and commence washing, spigots open. Their antics slowly escalate into the gymnastic. Positioning for their cunnilingus is of porn-film quality. The girl below has her tongue aflutter, vigorously, a machine. The girl above has hoisted herself up by grabbing hold of the window ledge; she squeals in ersatz ecstasy. Water from her body drips onto the club floor. Men crowd up near the shower and cheer. The rest of the bar is suddenly drained of customers. Balled-up dollar bills are lobbed into the steam. This shower contraption, I’m later told, is categorically illegal according to state law, bringing the number of Roxy’s infractions to, at the very least, one. To bring the club owners to justice, however, you will not find Mayor Dennis Miller ordering SWAT raids on a double-wide and a shower stall. At this hour, the lights at Village Hall are extinguished. It has just passed 1 AM. The mayor is almost certainly at home and asleep.
Inside Roxy’s, the customers and employees have little or no awareness of the problems and contradictions of Mayor Miller’s office—indeed, they could not tell you who Dennis Miller is, other than a former commentator for Monday Night Football. The proceedings proceed as if indulged in a vacuum. Breasts are compelled against pains of glass, flattened wetly. At the bar, candy shots are poured and consumed by the test tube. The beats of MC Hammer thrum on and on. A DJ wisecracks, implores his audience to attend with currency the female forms that surround it. Bills are slipped, bills are handed over in wads. In darkened corners, girls squirm on the laps of men.
Jack Corbett, leaning against the DJ booth, smilingly assesses the setting. In a more serious mode, he said earlier, “It’s a war, Scott. It really is a war.” A war, he says, waged by the fun-loving proprietors and customers and staff of the strip clubs against, in his words, “this huge moralistic movement that I call the Mothers of a More Boring Nation.” For Corbett, the issue is reduced to a matter of pop politics: laissez-faire vs. the religious right wing. Alphapro vs. Jesus Christers, vs. Soccer Moms. About this battle, Corbett is adamant; he is grave. Without downtrodden, virtually unpopulated towns such as Brooklyn, the clubs would not exist. If a club opened in a well-heeled community among the Olive Gardens and the Outback Steakhouses, such as in, say, the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, “the Mothers of a More Boring Nation would gang up on ’em.” It is an old argument—Not in My Backyard (NIMBY). “The clubs are here in these desolate areas because there’s not a lot of the politics of the better areas. It’s a good thing. Who’s going to complain? Hardly anyone lives in these desolate areas.”
Back at village hall, inside his mayoral office, Dennis Miller is not bereft of optimism. He says that soon matters may not be so bleak. He has a plan, he has a dream. Part of Brooklyn’s territory borders the Mississippi River, where the now defunct spur of the Union Pacific Railroad stretches. Here, along this waterfront land—which in more virginal times was the lush and fecund American Bottoms—there also stretches a mayor’s fecund imagination. From a prominent spot on his desktop, Miller takes two thick binders, the pages of which contain preliminary but elaborate plans. He opens the top binder to a map schematic. Buildings and facilities are shapes on the page: a museum that will document the history of Brooklyn; a hotel of substantial room-capacity; a train station that will load and unload passengers from a projected light-rail commuter line; a technological park just this side of the Research Triangle. The mayor estimates the total cost of the project at $100 million. Miller often drives down to the riverfront, taking an access road through the Union Pacific penumbra. He steps out onto the levee, the river sliding beneath him, and envisions. Buildings rise from the muck, the muck is transformed into lawns and gardens. “It’s a project, it’s a project,” Miller now says with excitement. He roots around in some cupboards for additional materials. Papers and binders fill up his arms.
How realistic is the Mayor about the development? Does he believe he’ll have success with such a plan?“I think we will, I think we will. If everything goes the way we want it to. A comprehensive study is being done right now by the Army Corps of Engineers. A land-use study. The first draft will be done in September next year. We got everybody at the table. The state, the SWIDA—which is the Southwest Illinois Development Authority—the federal government. We’ve even been in the federal government office to talk it over with them. It’s gonna be a big project.” In conjunction with another state-run endeavour, the refashioning of two-lane Route 3 into something a bit more superhighway, Miller is putting together his plan. By the time the highway is complete, the Mayor wants his project ready and geared for the green light. I ask him how long before this all comes together. He hisses, he chuckles. He says, “It’s a long way off; 2020 or 2021.”
The Mayor draws a connection between the Brooklyn waterfront and the Brooklyn sex front. “If everything happens the way we hope, I believe that one day these clubs won’t be here. They’ve made enough money already. They’ve made a lot of money already. It’s time for us to make some. And I believe that they know…it may not be five years from now, it may not be ten, but they know that one day this business won’t be here. I believe it. I really do.”
Miller leans back in his chair, arms resting on armrests. He is serious, statesmanlike, in bearing far more Mother Priscilla Baltimore than Ruby “Cheetah” Cook. “You know, I have this dream. Where I work, at the prison, people know where I’m from, and they read the paper, and they laugh. They laugh when they read in the papers about this village, all the corruption in its past, all the strip clubs and all the busts. But in this dream I have, I’m up at a podium. All around me are microphones. Cameras are flashing. The development has been built and I’m overlooking the riverfront and there’s this big audience in front of me. The governor is there, senators and congressmen are there. All the big shots. And all the people who laughed at Brooklyn and made fun of Brooklyn, they’re all in the audience watching me too. And I say into the microphones, ‘I told you that one day I was going to do this. I told you Brooklyn would change. I told you so. I told you so.’ And that’s my dream.”