When I first decided to strip in the grubby clubs in the Tenderloin, I lived in a tiny square room in a dilapidated Victorian apartment with three other roommates I'd met on Craigslist. My room had a legal-pad-sized window with a view of a drippy gutter. I slept on a borrowed mattress on a dusty hardwood floor.
It was the 1995, pre-tech, perma-fog, home-of–Queer Nation, Food Not Bombs, underground-gay-sex-clubs, needle-exchange San Francisco. I was always moments from getting evicted. Each month, I begged the landlord for one more week, until finally I came home to a note on my door from my roommates asking me to please move out.
I was 25 and scary-broke. I worked minimum wage at a clothing store where I sold my used T-shirts on my lunch break to buy a burrito next door. Most nights I sat in chilly yellow church basements holding hands with other addicts, praying for sobriety, transcendence, and rent control. I'd recently kicked meth and was startlingly alive, even though I was reeling from loss after dozens of my friends had died from AIDS.
My mom knew I'd quit doing the drugs that made me paranoid and skinny because I'd started returning her phone calls again. She also knew about my bisexuality because I'd brought my girlfriend, Austin, home one Christmas. The two of them sat close, sipped whiskey-Cokes, and giggled while Mom's cheeks turned rosy. "I always thought being bisexual would be the best of both worlds," she said. She knew I struggled financially and that I was in AA, too, but she didn't know I'd slinked away from our small town to be a sex worker. Would she be ashamed of me if I told her? Would she stop loving me?
I didn't grow up poor. Neither my dad nor my brother molested me. I was raised on Flashdance and Xanadu in a cow town with lots of pot growers and churches filled with Republicans. A creek trickled outside my bedroom and the dewy clover glistened like Mom's Avon Coco Crush lipstick. Shadows were long and quiet — echoes of endless rain.
My pretty, paralegal mom raced around getting ready for work each morning. The minute her blow-dryer stopped, I ran upstairs to watch her curl her wavy brown hair and apply sparkly bronze blush with a greasy round sponge. When I was late, she'd bark, "Pay attention" and "Hurry up." She pressed a menacing eyelash curler onto her eyelids and counted to ten under her breath, then packed frosty blue eye shadow on top with the ferocity and efficiency of a python swallowing a gerbil. I stood in her fresh Pert-shampoo steam and inhaled. In those moments together, it never occurred to either of us that I'd become a stripper.
As a kid, I slugged it out in tap and ballet classes from ages five to fifteen. Dancing onstage anywhere was simply dancing, wasn't it? The same way a lifelong swimmer seeks refuge in the water — the stage was my habitat. The stripping-as-performance-art aspect of the service industry in San Francisco made sense. I wanted my mom to be proud of me and not worry about me anymore. But every time the subject of work came up, I lied.
I didn't inherit my mom's steadfast punctuality, but my heart still races whenever I leave for work, cramming in too many tasks in too short a time, drunk on the circus of unwarranted optimism — panicked to get to my job at the university, restaurant, or strip club. I inherited her preoccupation with having a purpose. For both of us, work is never simply work.