My mother was a stripper at the Au GoGo in San Francisco, right on Broadway in the North End. They sold sex by the pound in those days. Stray men came in off their boats and out of their cars, the few thousand left in the area that weren’t either gay or dead. They all came to see Sugar Go Lightly as she gyrated across the stage, removing one strand of clothing after another with her capped and shinny white teeth. It was the beginning of an era when things weren’t real. Boobs were taken down to the doctors and loaded up with silicon straight out of a caulking gun. Ribs were removed, eyes pulled back, teeth capped. It was all new and all fabulous, while across town, in Golden Gate Park, the hippies flailed themselves around in the grass to strains of the Grateful Dead and weed twirled them into oblivion, Sugar swung around her metal pole, greased up with the sweat that poured out of pores clogged with makeup and cocaine. Sugar had regulars who showered their whole paycheck on her, leaving nothing left for their lonely wives and hungry children. They ruined their lives to have a small piece of her, a good long look, a rise. But, that’s where it ended. Their hands would only get close enough to tuck a bill into her . Any real touch was slapped away, a coy frown would sit them back in their chairs. A frown born from hatred of these pathetic creatures. She would use them as they used her, to anesthetize the pain, the prospect of being alone.
Night after night she wound her delicious body around the slippery poles, winding the men up, getting down. She showed more of her body to the throngs than she ever showed of her heart to anyone who ever knew her. All the outward attention beat at the doors of desperation, but it never got through. The more she took off, the more she covered up. She hardened herself the way the silicon in her breasts hardened over time.
The girls at the club were as close as Sugar was going to get to family. There was a kinship, a knowing. They liked each other as much as you would like anyone you were competing with for fame and fortune. Sugar was the top girl at the GoGo. She made the most money by weakening the most men. So, all the girls were jealous of her. She would take her bow and bound back into the dressing room, arms full of the cash that she had just gathered off the floor, her thong still bulging with tens and twenties. Between sets Sugar would stack the sweaty, greasy, beer soaked money into piles, by denomination and snap them together with rubber bands. She knew damn well that if she would run for a pee or go out for five minutes for a pack of cigarettes, the jealous girls would take off with her earnings, so she would run to Johnny, who owned the club, and make him stuff it into his safe. It was hate money. She hated herself for what she did, the men hated themselves for having no control, the girls hated her for being more adored. So, it was money that had to be locked up and not seen. It was over, all was still at the end of the night. Let’s not look at it.
One night Kiki, one of the low-end girls just beginning, charged into the dressing room and squealed at Sugar, “Sugar go Lightly, you will never believe what I saw last night. A queen across town that I saw last night is doing your act. You won’t believe it. He’s you, right down to the silver nail polish and the way you squat on the chorus of Honkey Tonk Women. Oh, Sugar, you have to go back with me to see him.”
Kiki went on and on gibbering, as she pulled into one of her strip away outfits. She sat down to put on her face, unable to line her lips because her mouth wouldn’t stop moving, “You must have met because, I swear to God, you wear the same dresses, have your hair done the same way, even the make-up’s identical. I tell you, Sugarar baby, this guy has got to have come and watched your act every night of the week, taken mental pictures of you, and then run across town to be you.”
Sugar wasn’t that interested but she listened anyway. “ And he’s a big hit. I think you should sue him. It’s you’re property and he’s stealing what’s rightfully yours,” Kiki went on, wide-eyed as she applied her mascara.
“You’ll see,” Kiki said as Sugar hit the stage, hearing her cue. “It’s gonna blow your mind, I swear to you.”
Sugar, didn’t pay Kiki much mind, after all she was just an air head from Modesto. She just tried to tune her out as she kept going on about him. On a rainy Thursday, when not many guys were coming in, Sugar gave in and agreed to go see this guy, just to get it over with. Three of them, Darlene, Kiki and Sugar left early and loaded into a cab headed for the club, The Naked David, in the Castro. Kiki was beside herself, paying for the cab and everything, because she felt it was so important for Sugar to see who was robbing her blind.
They walked into the David. It was thick with smoke and stank of sex. The place was packed. Large tables, huge parties of ten or fifteen men, hooting and hollering. A spattering of gawking tourists from the midwest sat in the back. The girls sat to the side at the only table left open. They watched for about an hour, having drinks and chatting, looking for tips that may improve their own stage persona, while three “girls” did their thing. There was a Barbra Streisand, a Bette Davis and one guy did Peggy Lee better than she did herself.
Sugar started getting bored after awhile and said she was going to split.
Kiki was already tanked and stood up and started pounding on the table, “Bring up the final act, already!”
Sugar was embarrassed so she slipped out of the booth, in a huff, to go to the Ladies room. Maybe if she did a few lines she could pull something out of the evening.
“You better fucking come back, Sugar. I mean it. You’re gonna thank me for this.”
“Yea, right, Kiki. Thanks for nothing.”
“What you feeling fat and ugly, gonna go throw up, getting old, Sugar, are ya?” Kiki went on, slurring her words.
Darlene pulled Kiki back into the booth with a bang and waved Sugar off, rolling her eyes. This was how ugly things became when strippers got a little loaded. All the jealousy and competition came to the surface and the only way to channel their feelings was to make the other girls feel as if their bodies were going to leave them penniless in a matter of minutes.
Sugar sat on the toilet, infuriated with Kiki, but after a couple of lines she shivered, shook her head back and forth a few times and let out a laugh. “That small tittied ninny. She’ll never do what I’ve done. She’s a great big nothing, the fat pig.”
She sat there on the cold porcelain, snorting some more blow and laughing at all her own jokes when Darlene burst right into her stall and grabbed her, “Come on Sugar, he’s on. Kiki was right. He’s copied your act. You’re gonna die.”
Sugar was dragged out of the bathroom and the moment she took in the stage, she stood there frozen, her eyes popping out of her head.
Oh, my God, she thought. It was like looking into a big twenty four foot wide mirror. There he was. There she was. Her show at the Au GoGo had been transported here. The pin lights were red, the front lights a pastel pink, the way she always had them during Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” He twisted and turned, coming forward to the footlights, then he swung his hips to the left and spun around, “And the hooka-smoking caterpillar….”
Sugar felt her way to an empty seat at a table of kissing boys. He legs wouldn’t hold her dumfounded body any longer. She grabbed the scantily clad waiter when he flew by and ordered two doubles of Jack Daniel’s. She wanted to be mad but how could she be, it would be like getting mad at herself. This was just too unbelievable. It was like God had made too people that were one. She watched herself watching herself. As she sipped the bourbon a warmth slipped down her throat, across her heart and into her belly, which she stroked with her empty hand. After three numbers she was pulsing, every vein in her body throbbing to the rhythms of Happy Go Lucky’s repertoire. He ended with another song that Sugar always lip-synced, of course, “Everybody Loves My Baby.” Right in the middle of the instrumental bridge he did a twirl that Sugar had worked on for years in front of a full length mirror. How did he get around four times when she could only make three, she wondered? She was thinking what he was about to think, prompting him to do his next move. Now take a bow, pretend you’re going to do an encore, tease them but make them come back tomorrow. Now take out your hankie, put it to your lips and with your right hand blow them a big kiss while you push up your titties with the left. Ok, wink and shake your hips. There you go.
Had Kiki looked closely when she ran over to the table after the final curtain, she may have seen tears. Then again she may not have. Sugar didn’t really know what was going on well enough to reveal her emotions.
Kiki slapped Sugar’s numb back, “What did I tell you, Sugar? Now, you owe me.”
Even Darlene blurted out, “I just can’t believe my eyes. Surely you must know each other. Why didn’t you tell us you were rehearsing with someone.”
Sugar blocked their babbling as she shoved herself back from the table, nearly flattening the girls. For an instant she was pissed that fucking Darlene would assume that she would tell her anything. Darlene was nothing to her. No one was anything to her. Didn’t they get it? No one was anything at all.
Kiki grabbed her arm and said, “Lets go back stage and meet him.”
Sugar was already out the front door, pushing aside the giggly boys who were all over each other, “Just fucking move it,” she said, repulsed by their jovial outbursts.
The girls ran after her, “Where you going Sugar? Let’s go get a drink.”
But, Sugar was fumbling in her purse, everything falling out all over the street, lipstick rolling into the gutter, kleenex flying in the wind. She finally dug out her cigarettes and with a shaking hand, flicked her lighter, almost singeing her fake eyelashes
“I gotta meet a friend who’s in trouble,” was the only line she could come up with as she bolted away from the pleading strippers heading out into the night. She used up her energy walking up and down the hills of San Francisco, throwing her high heels right into a garbage can about half the way home. She puffed away and ruminated, her lungs barely getting her up over the steep slopes. A few wrong turns left her disoriented, nothing a few lines of blow that she luckily had left, couldn’t put straight. She walked until the bottoms of her feet were blistered, processing the night like a big computer churning over an unsolvable math problem. He was her. She was him. There was another person in the world that was just like her. And all this time she thought she was all alone in the world, never having anyone to really talk to or touch her heart. Her parents were long gone, no relatives that she knew of. But, now there was this person who had magically come into her life, that could fill up the empty void.
By the time she got back to her room at the Lincoln-Jefferson Hotel and jammed her keys into the lock, before plopping on the bed, she had it all figured out. This is the person that will save her life. Make her happy, make her whole.
Sugar sat up in bed and stared into the sky, passing by the cracked window panes to the grid of the fire escape. She listened beyond the yelping of dogs and children, the screaming of nocturnal quarrels. She knew that she was no longer alone. Somewhere across town, her double was using Ponds cold cream to rub off his makeup. He would be using his index and middle finger to pull one of his false eyelashes off. There would be tears and confusion as he would look into the mirror. Exhilaration would be left over from the night’s show, the applause still ringing in his ears, the footlights still throwing off the focus of his eyes. There would be half a glass of champagne, losing it’s fizz, sitting on the dressing table and a whole bottle lying empty on it’s side, on the floor. The hardest part, Sugar knew, would be when he had to wriggle out of that tight dress. There would be no one there to unzip the back.
The sadness would come from the empty dressing room, everyone else gone home, because he was always put up last. The crumpled photos taped to the mirrors or the yellowed reviews were never enough to stave off the fact that you always went home alone.
Sugar smoked the last of her cigarettes and moved her focus from the sky to the emptiness of her blank wall. How could she approach him, she thought? How was she was going to convince him that they should be together, a family unit? She watched the stars being pushed away by the sun. She thought about her new life in half sentences and then fell back onto the bed and into oblivion.
Sugar crawled out of the deep haze of sleep. She wanted to come back but the world wouldn’t let her in, her arms and legs were paralyzed by the heavy pull of unconsciousness. In time she woke up almost forgetting that her life had changed. Dreams had pulled her in a different direction. Someone was chasing her through thick mud. A fight with her drunken father in the house that she grew up in. Flying upside down in a land she had never seen. She made it back to a waking state, pushing the hair away from her face enabling her to see the soft morning light hit the walls of her dingy room. She sat up, knowing something had changed, but it was only when she had made her way to the bathroom that she remembered what. It may have been half way through the brushing of her hair, or was it her teeth? But a brush did drop onto the floor when she snapped too. She was so sore, my God, that’s what triggered her memory. Her feet were torn apart from walking so much last night. The back of her heals had bad blisters so she would have to wear her mules all day. Happy would love the mules she thought, and that was that. She was on her way.
“I bet he’s got mules on right now. I know he does, she said to herself in the shower, the hot water hitting her bare throat as she threw her head back to luxuriate in a laugh. She was happy now. The joy propelled her into a grooming session that was designed pull a man out of his misery and into her arms.
She crossed herself between each new gesture that she made; before she smoothed on her makeup base, again before the blush, as she pulled on her Capri pants over her lime green thong. That was Happy’s favorite color, she spoke as if she had known him for years and she was dressing for their twenty fifth anniversary instead of for a man with whom she had never had a conversation. She went on, Happy always liked peach on me. Was she going crazy? No I am not crazy. I just know. Plain and simple. I know.
She looked as good as she could look, considering she had barely slept and hadn’t eaten. Yet she had just smoked her way through the past twelve hours. She was high on life. The blushing bride, flushed with anticipation. Her beauty shone from within, it energized her face. She became shinny and new, her wrinkles seemed to ease and flatten, her skin tone boosted up a notch. She ran over to her little tape recorder and put on her favorite Pasty Cline song, “Crazy” and as soon as the guitarist hit the last cord and held it, she grabbed the door handle and off she went. Ready for a new start in life.
She whistled her way to the elevator and stopped short as her right hand lifted to press the down button. She didn’t know where he lived or where he was. Was he at the club? Of course he wasn’t at the club. He’d be home. But she could check at the club.
Then she started panicking, what if he went out on tour? Perhaps, just that morning he had left to go down the coast to the clubs in LA for the weekend? What if he was working the Shagrila in Catalina, as so many did in the summer time? What if he had died walking home last night? She started crying and wiped the thought from her mind. She stood on her short heels and whirled around, the brown stained wallpaper floated around her. A picture of George Washington hung on the wall outside her elevator. The coy smile he had on his face seemed to make fun of her folly.
“What would you know, you had everything all lined up for you?” she bellowed at the painting.
“You and your fucking ugly wig,” she said as the doors closed and she dropped down the elevator shaft. “At least Hap and I know how to dress,” she kept talking, under her breath, as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and she strode confidently through the lobby. “You’ll see,” still talking to the president as she flew out the front door.
She hailed a cab and popped in the back seat, telling him too hurry over to the The Naked David, “On Castro, right off Market.”
“Please hurry,” she leaned forward to plead with the cab driver. “Someone’s dying.”
She wasn’t sure who. Her? Hap? The president already was dead.
Sugar jumped out of the cab, puffing up her mussed hair in the side view mirror before the driver tore off. She knew Happy wouldn’t be there but she just had to be where he had been. She walked up to the front door and there was already a small line of men buying tickets for the movies they showed there during the day. Eight in the morning and there they were, all desperate to have a little pleasure. Surely someone in the booth would give her his phone number. She would say it was for a big booking. Sugar walked up to the booth, then got bored with the line and walked around the back of the building, looking for a stage door. She tugged at the door and to her surprise it flew open, the door handle coming off in her hand. She chucked it down onto the pavement and tucked her head in the door. As her eyes adjusted from the bright morning light to darkness, she let her nose adjust to the dank smell. It was the salty smell of stale urine and semen, odors she was far too accustomed to. The residual waste of a human body too desperate for love.
She crept down the hall, looking for what might be his dressing room. She knew exactly how it would look, of course. Her dressing room could have been cut out of the Au GoGo, loaded onto the back of a truck and wheeled into the back hallways of the Naked David.
The backstage was dark and empty. There were two bare bulbs swinging in the gentle breeze that came in the door with her. A dark green velvet curtain, dusty from years of use, cloaked the back of the stage. The wooden planks she tiptoed along were uneven and squeaked as she crept along . She followed a beacon, an open door that made a strip of light stretch across the boards.
She tiptoed towards the door that held in the light and just as she touched the door handle to have a peek, the door was flung open, her wrist pushed back in an awkward twist, her face all but flattened by the force.
It was Happy, dragging a chest full of who knows what with both hands. Gone was the makeup that must have taken hours to apply. What was left was the jaundiced skin of someone in distress. The eyes were hollow even though they had been reapplied with some day time liner. The lips had a stain of pink that was blurred around the edges. Tears had done this damage. A proper lady would not move into the light of day that off course, unless they were harboring such strain that they couldn’t make it home any other way. The dark glasses would have to do. Sugar knew he was hoping it wasn’t raining.
“It’s not raining, you know?” she said to him, grabbing a handle on the bag to help him pull it through the darkness.
“It’s not?” Happy replied, indeed relieved. “I was hoping it wasn’t.”
“Yes, I know.” Sugar replied, pulling his bag out the stage door and clomping it down the few stairs until it hit the sidewalk that divided the Naked David from a pharmacy next door.
She pulled the bag as he adjusted his dark glasses and fluffed his hair. It was his hair, she noticed. It was thin and ratty, barely brushing his shoulders, where a mint cashmere cardigan lay. It was the color of her hair before she started in on the Revlon 151, last week. She would have to bring him up to date.
He didn’t even bother to ask why she had walked him the twenty blocks home. Not a question as to why she helped him lug his bag up the four flights of stairs to his studio. He sat silently while she scrambled him up some eggs, burned him a couple of pieces of white toast and poured him some tomato juice, that had soured from being in the fridge too long.
He just sat and stared as she went through his bag, pulling out whatever needed to be hand washed. Sugar washed it in the bathroom sink, carefully hanging the nylons over the shower rods. The other clothes she hung up on hangers and placed them all on the clothes line that stretched across the one side of the room. She hung the dresses according to color, pulling back the garments that were already there, to make room. She knew where everything went. She had done it a thousand times. The shoes went in the rack in the closet, the jewelry in the teak box on the bedside table.
It was only when Happy woke up in the middle of the night to adjust Sugar’s arm, that was wrapped around his chest so tightly that it was hard for him to get a breath, that he asked her, “Who are you, anyway?”