Matthew Licht

Take It Off and Say Goodbye

Derek’s girlfriend Yvonne was a stripper. She danced two nights a week at Joe Rae’s, on 6th Avenue and 24th Street. Joe Rae took one look and gave her Fridays and Saturdays. She also danced out in Queens, and at another place in Jersey City. She kept her tits and ass busy.

Derek and I worked together, but we weren’t bankers or lawyers or doctors. We were editors at a weekly sex newspaper.

Derek was of medium height, skinny, dressed in black. He wore near-opaque sunglasses, even at night. There used to be a million guys like him in New York. I always thought Yvonne should’ve been involved with someone more interesting. Like me, for instance.

Yvonne’s hair was like neatly stacked marine rope. She was from Illinois, and had a bit of a heroin problem. She’d nod off at odd times and there was a slight, constant trickle from her upturned nose, but it didn’t seem like anything to go into rehab about.

As the sex newspaper’s Art Director, my job was to look at pussy all day. That wasn’t enough, so I went to Joe Rae’s topless bar nearly every night. There’s a big difference between pictures and the real thing, even if all you get to do is look. Though it wasn’t strictly legal, Joe Rae’s girls would pull aside their G-strings for a dollar. If they’d seen you around, or if they liked your face, they’d work finger-magic. Some nights, a low-tide tang clung to my beard like fog.

Pussy’s nice to look at. I guess I like looking at it more than dealing with it. But it wasn’t just pussy that kept me coming back to Joe Rae’s. I really loved his place.

Joe Rae was an old hippie, even older than me. He stuffed the jukebox with Cream, Hendrix and the Stones. Some of the dancers complained there was no disco or Latin. Joe gave them quarters and bills to feed the glowing slot, and strippers became adolescent girls in a department store who’ve been told they can have all the makeup they want for free.

Drinks at Joe Rae’s cost the same as at normal dives. The girls never asked, but you could buy them a drink and they’d sit with you to while they drank.

The decor at Joe Rae’s hadn’t changed since it’d been an Italian social club. The red flocked wallpaper was sticky to the touch, and hung with amateurish oils of Palermo and Naples. There was also a picture of a young man who was killed in Korea.

That hand-tinted photograph bothered me sometimes: a guy in uniform, with a toothy smile and sad eyes, all geared up to kill commies overseas. They killed him instead. Born in New York, 1930, died at Inchon, 1952, Corporal Joseph DeRamo might’ve been tickled from beyond the grave that his shrine was in a topless bar. It always seemed kind of strange that Ma and Pa DeRamo hadn’t taken their boy’s picture with them when they closed up shop. Maybe they left abruptly, for the place where you can’t bring anything along. I asked Joe Rae, but he didn’t know his place’s history. The rolling metal shutters had been down a long time when he bought it.

Bikers sold crank at the Teddy Bare. Boob-job skells hustled ginger ale champagne at the Pla-Z-Boy. It cost ten bucks just to get past the threadbare velvet rope at Limoncello’s. Joe Rae’s had no such drawbacks. I never got diarrhea from the free-buffet meatballs. The men’s room wasn’t a gay pick-up scene, not that there’s anything wrong with it. Even the bouncers acted friendly.

Not all Joe Rae’s women were as beautiful as Yvonne, but some of them were real dancers, and it was nice to be there just to watch them move. A Canadian amazon who could touch the back of her head with the soles of her feet stayed in town long enough to get me obsessed. I handed over ten-dollar bills until one night she was gone.

There were junkie girls, and ladies who looked like they’d carve you up with a  razor for whatever was in your pocket.

Joe Rae gave big women a chance. Baby Blue looked like she was carved from a block of cellulite, but she was a crowd-pleaser. She shimmied hard for her finale. Cottage cheese crammed into flesh-colored pantyhose vibrated and shook while the sweat sprayed. She was powdered with stardust, but I never asked how she got home, or where that home might be.

Yvonne told Joe Rae she didn’t want to strip any more. She’d decided she wanted to get into the music business.

The founder and publisher of the sex newspaper heard of Yvonne’s career dreams through her boyfriend, Derek. Our boss had a soft spot for his employees’ girlfriends, especially the ones who may or may not have blown him for a hundred bucks in the stairwell at one of the XXX-mas parties he threw every year, attendance mandatory. The big man said Yvonne must have a farewell party at Joe Rae’s, and that he would sponsor the event.

The editorial offices of the sex newspaper were on 14th Street. They occupied a high floor with sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. The walls were covered with obscene graffiti left by contributing cartoonists and illustrators.

My office was next to Derek’s. We spoke to each other through open doors, but not that often. Since he had a year or two of college English under his belt, he turned our illiterate employer’s ramblings into sentences and paragraphs. He drew from readers’ deliria and edited stories from outside writers on an Army Surplus electric typewriter. Derek had created the publication’s voice.

The paper’s scumbag look was my baby. I dropped out of Art School. The black-and-white pictures came from inexhaustible battleship-gray file cabinets.

Our boss ran the operation with his own money. He was the one who went to prison when The Man said he must, which was often.

A few women worked at the sex weekly. Miss Gloria was the boss’ long-suffering personal assistant. A slightly addled Jewish lady handled accounting and advertising. Long tall Cindy did the cut-and-paste layouts. She was from Florida.

The entire staff was practically ordered to attend Miss Yvonne’s Farewell to the Stripper Life party.

The affair started at nine. Everyone went home to change into festive attire. In my case, a basement dump in Brooklyn and the last shirt left with a collar, which had grown tight.

The underground scene was represented by a grizzled poet and a director of nudie art films. Vinnie the Bouncer stood at the door and told the businessmen and college guys, “Sorry, we got a private party tonight. Joe Rae’ll buy you a beer next time.”

What went on at Yvonne’s goodbye party was the same as what went on any other night, except the drinks were free. Felt like in a dream I had, a nightmare, I guess, in which New York City was Hell. The only things different were that the subway was free and there was no Statue of Liberty in the burning harbor.

At midnight, Yvonne would do her last show. Then, like a princess in a fairy tale, she’d disappear and keep her clothes on forever after.

We ripped into the greasy spread, catered by the boss’ favorite deli. Free liquor made things jollier. Cindy the Paste-up Girl, who’d held onto her Florida accent, talked about how she used to hit Plato’s Cave every weekend, before Town Hall shut the place down.

She seemed wistful, as though the swinger scene had been some glorious chapter in human history.

There were so many women like her in town, loose and slightly nuts. They can’t all own art galleries or run ad agencies. New York was a Hell for dashed female aspirations.

Yvonne emerged from the toilet. The other girls onstage applauded and lingered briefly to fondle her. Hendrix played “Little Wing” from the jukebox.

Hendrix was dead. So many evenings I’d sat there thinking that this was what it was all about, in the end. Joy and rage and thinking things could be different boiled down to thighs spread for a dollar.

Yvonne went all the way. Her G-string flew. Decency laws exploded. She backed up against the mirror wall streaked with femme-grease, spread her legs and sank down slow.

Goodbye to being young. Goodbye to whatever it was that everyone thought was supposed to happen. Goodbye to the idea that dropping out could lead somewhere good. Goodbye to topless bars.

The music biz, in Yvonne’s case, turned out to be selling used records at Bleecker Billy’s.

There was a positive side to her career change, though. She met a skaggy guitar player and dumped Derek. At least I thought it was positive.

Yvonne’s last move on that final night was a backwards bend-over. I didn’t want to see her go. I couldn’t have her. She wouldn’t be mine. I asked, once.

Turned out I couldn’t have Joe Rae’s, either. The laws changed, and the place went through a brief bikini-dance phase, but not many guys will tip girls in bathing suits on the off-chance that a nipple will pop out. There’s hornier stuff on television.

Joe Rae, unlike Yvonne, had no last hurrah. He didn’t sell his business, he closed it. Or maybe he tried to sell the place. I heard he moved to Mexico.

The green awning out front said Joe Rae’s Topless. Then for a while it said Joe Rae’s STopless, with the S hand-painted on, not even stenciled. The wind tore the awning, and it flapped like a flag. It still said STopless, but it wasn’t true.

One thought on “Matthew Licht

  1. Topnotch piece of writing! Consistency of voice, quick brushstrokes balanced with here and there fine detail, storyline nun-twat tight. What can I say? — I’m chartreuse with envy.


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