college life

(the photos featured are generally of college life and are not directly tied to any of the college guide articles and do not represent the individuals in the stories.) (Audrey Gatewood / August 19, 2014)

At 10 p.m. or so on a given Saturday night, around the same time my friends were leaving for some party or another, I threw one more pair of heels into an enormous duffle bag already blooming with black lace, makeup, and stray dollar bills. As they pre-gamed outside, I packed my booze to-go and drove towards a dark parking garage downtown. “Next time!” I thought as we parted ways. As a dancer at a Baltimore strip club, my peak hours were late ones on the weekends, so I suppose in that time I passed up a lot of opportunities to fraternize with my peers. 

But there was money to be made, and in my opinion, I wasn’t missing a thing.

In my sophomore year of college, I moved off campus in anticipation of “discovering myself” and the city around me. But realizing quickly how much money it took to really take care of myself, I struggled to feel like a grown-up, pulled back and forth between the prospect of financial independence and the comfortable fold of my parents’ checkbook. At around the same time, I made a fateful wrong turn downtown one night onto the dusty fishnet spectacle that is East Baltimore Street. And you see, a young woman will never feel as employable as she does on “The Block,” where bouncers catcall brazenly from pink-and-purple doorways—“You lookin’ for a job, sweetheart? You’ll make money here! You are so goddamned beautiful, come work here and I’ll buy you your first drink.” Disgusting—or was it? I did want a job . . . I wasn’t even allowed to drink in any other part of town, which made the Block the first part of Baltimore that didn’t seem stagnant. I was feeling broke and existential (the governing humors of my art-school education), and I liked that the doorman of a certain club barely skipped a beat when I asked him for a tour. “Right this way,” he said, his arm cutting through a neon fog as he gestured down a dark flight of stairs.

If you don’t know how to grow up, any road will take you there—but the sex industry is a fast track of wrong turns. The first time I scored a private dance with a customer, my manager left a condom in the room. “Just in case,” she said with half a wink . . . Jesus. Pitfalls were present in between every pole dance; men came in every night with depraved intentions to cross boundaries. And I’ll admit up front, I pissed most of the money away on drugs and petty expenses, not my ever-looming student debt. But I never felt out of control, because after seeing enough glazed faces from the stage I got the joke pretty quickly: I was the circus master here if I did my job right, and most patrons of strip clubs acknowledge that power structure. The peculiarly feminist allure of dancers is that they know what they’re doing, don’t really attempt to conceal their motives, and (apart from the dustier, cracked-out specimens) they’re the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Art school had already taught me to love female bodies, and nowhere have I encountered more arresting feminine beauty that I have on the stage. Long black weaves, thick bodies, and shining dark skin are the norm in most of Baltimore’s strip clubs, and as a lanky white woman these dancers have defined my concept of female perfection. It’s the brash self-assurance of them, and it’s something that can be learned (must be learned) in the face of such judgment . . . there’s a cold confidence to the craft that I carry still.

Nonetheless, if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then “totally nude” surely corrupts with some totality. After a while the glittering naked spectacle gripped my imagination to an exhausting extent: When I started counting my money a lot and shopping online for lingerie all day, the returns ran out for me. Luckily, quitting the job was as easy as getting it, and I feel fortunate that (for now) I have other options—while it’s easy to respect dancers’ motives, it’s hard to imagine that most of them are really satisfied by it. So now I work a tamer job and feel more honest; I still wear stilettos, but they’re not latex boots packed with five hundred dollars cash—each. And when the tips are bad I smile wryly at the thought of that time that I now remember as a weird dream, when the money was great and I had no idea what I was doing with it. But I won’t regret any of it, because college is a time for finding your limits as much as a time for cautiously fielding your future.

Not to suggest that anyone else should don the lucite heels for the sake of adventure—adult entertainment is not for anyone with doubts about their self-worth. Or anyone who really can’t dance. But given the strange grace I found in the whole experience, I refer casual visitors to the Block perhaps too eagerly now: “Hampden is great for lunch, but if you really want to get down with Baltimore you should check out the strip clubs tonight.” My time on Baltimore Street was one of the most genuine encounters I’ve had in this place, so I invoke that proverb spoken about many a sacred city with its share of dark alleys: What happens in Baltimore, stays here.

*A pseudonym