Monday, January 19, 2009

The Stripper, The Wrestler And Me

Marisa Tomei and I share a birthday - December 4th. So do Tyra Banks, Jay-Z, Jeff Bridges and Wassily Kandinsky, but Marisa and I have more in common - we're New York City brunettes around the same age who, it says here, are risk-takers who never play it safe and who enjoy being different and living on the edge.

Which may be why Marisa chose to play a stripper in the very fine film The Wrestler, which I saw this weekend, and, as I've mentioned previously, I chose, briefly, to be one.

Mine was largely an economic choice. I'd gotten my first magazine editorial job, which I loved, but was making so little that I could barely pay my rent, so I needed something I could do to make money at night. I'd already tried waitressing, and hated it, but I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a place called the Go-Go Agency, which was looking for dancers.

So I went to their dusty offices near Times Square, where a mustached man in a loud shirt handed me a spangled pink g-string and asked me to put it on and stand on a round platform in his office while he walked around and inspected me.

"Okay," he said, after I'd put my clothes back on, "you can work nice, or you can work strong." The difference, I learned, was a back room and what you could do there - one-on-one work that went beyond lapdancing, which had not yet become widespread in the industry.

"Nice," I replied. He explained the rules to me, and the next night I was standing on a long platform behind the bar at a small place in the West 40s, wearing nothing but a black lace g-string (the only one I had) and high heels and gyrating to music while the men on the far side of the bar passed me dollar bills to tuck into the g-string's elastic.

Every few songs, I would climb off the platform, put on a short robe and sit down with customers, which was the real work - the dancing was the fun part. I was only allowed to drink "champagne," which meant that the bartender would open a split of Tott's, which I would sip from a champagne coupe. Then I'd spit the awful stuff into a frosted glass filled with ice while pretending extreme thirst. As I recall, after three bottles I got an extra $20 for the night; after 10 (by which point the bartenders were only pretending to open the bottles, refilling them with club soda instead), I earned $250.

I learned a lot from that work, which I only did for a few months, until a better-paying day job came my way. I learned how to talk to anyone about anything; how to make men feel good about themselves; and how to keep wandering hands away while still seeming enticing. And dozens of Tott's bottles later, I also learned that I had considerable sales skills, and was not shy.

But I did like that I was ostensibly getting paid to dance. And that's when Tomei's character in The Wrestler seemed to be having the best time too. She also looked damn good doing it. Which she apparently credits to hula-hooping, a pastime that's never interested me.

I also worked in the wrestling world for a while (which would take too long to explain now), and thought Mickey Rourke's already lauded performance was extraordinary, and worthy of many more awards, both because of and despite the role's parallels to his own career.

Everyone over 40 eventually has to face up to the idea that there are some things we used to do that we just can't or shouldn't do any more. What we do with that is what determines whether the rest of our lives is satisfying.

That's why I'll be taking a class at the School of Burlesque soon. There's always a way to channel that risk-taking stripper energy.


(Tomei onstage in a scene from The Wrestler.)

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