FANTASIES MADE FRESH
Fantasies Made Fresh Daily
At the Diamond Cabaret, the Platinum Club, the Jewel Box and the Crystal Palace; at Roxy's, Miss Kitty's, Dollie's Playhouse and PT's; at the Chameleon Club, the Pink Slip, the S&L Rub and at C-Mowe's, at all the strip clubs and massage parlors that do business in the communities that ring East St. Louis like a noose, people gather by the thousands in the wee hours of a weekend morning. They come from the farm towns of downstate Illinois, and from the anonymous bedroom cities that cluster north along the Mississippi River. They come from the Ozark hinterlands of interior Missouri, and from the river-based industrial zones south on Interstate 55. But mostly they arrive from St. Louis and St. Louis County, from the great gateway metropolis that sprawls two million strong just across the river to the west. Customers and staff alike, they come speeding in their automobiles on Interstate 64-40, up over the Poplar Street Bridge, and down from Missouri into Illinois. Often they will couple their visits to the strip clubs with stops of varying duration at the billiard-green gaming tables of the Casino Queen, a gambling emporium housed in a fake riverboat. The Casino Queen floats in "port" along the Illinois side of the river, and from the perspective of a car high atop the Poplar Street Bridge it resembles a giant red-neon cyst. Once in Illinois, billboards along the highway announce the bawd—
Platinum Club USA
Route 3 North to Brooklyn—
the imminence of which turns other highway billboards into messages vaguely obscene. Some are meant to be. "The Landing Has Hot Spots, but the Queen Has Hot Slots." Others aren't. "The French Dip—New at Hardee's." "Dungeon Halloween Costumes." "Our Lady of the Snows." Even the sign at the state line, "The People of Illinois Welcome You," becomes, somehow, a lurid enticement.
Route 3 South heads through Sauget, where two strip clubs, the region's most highly priced, bask in the stench of a Monsanto Company chlorine-intermediates plant—a monumental thicket of piping and valve. A little further east, out near the gusting oceanic void of Illinois corn country—where the night, so complete, threatens to swallow you—the urban and rural collide intensely. Here, inside converted pole barns and warehouses and tool-and-die shops, the region's most favorably priced joints do business. And if you travel north along Route 3, close-by, now, the Mississippi, you come to Brooklyn, Illinois. Between the road and the water stretches a riverine littoral—soupy of ground, bewhiskered with weed and scrub brush and heroically resilient sapling. For years the local chemical industry used it as a toxic-waste dumping ground. Through this floodplain runs a defunct spur of the Union Pacific Railroad, and on it rests an abandoned sequence of rotting cattle cars. Whatever bovine cargo they may have once hauled was long ago slaughtered at the nearby National Stockyards, shut down for good a few years ago and now a vast timber-frame skeleton of killing floors and animal pens. Off to the west the Gateway Arch glints against the black horizon like an edifice from some science-fiction city. In Brooklyn, a gaudy clutch of commerce occupies two intersections along Route 3—three strip clubs, two peep-show theaters, a porn bookstore and a massage parlor. Men of all ages and classes move in and out of these establishments—in the jammed parking lots, a green Jaguar rests beside a mud-speckled Chevy pickup—and inside they seek out their favorite dancers, or bid for sexual favors that range all along a continuum from dollar-bill peek to three-figure trick. With the flood-plain badlands on one side, and the dark sleeping village of Brooklyn on the other, a dome of light traps the Brooklyn sex industry, blacking out all views of one's larger surroundings. As the strippers get off work, they and in-the-know clientele take off for Mustang Sally, a roadhouse down the street, where the party continues until closing time, about 9 a.m., and anyone who finds himself a member of this group will see the sun rise over a place so gutted economically, so pathologically destitute, that the spendthrift decadence of the night before seems all at once both a cruel and necessary diversion.
Thirteen strip clubs conduct their business in this part of Illinois. All are located in four municipalities in St. Claire County—Sauget, Brooklyn, Washington Park and Centreville. The towns lie within a ten-minute drive of downtown St. Louis and a half-hour sprint on 64-40 from the suburbs of St. Louis County, which slouch west for thirty miles into the Missouri woodlands. The clubs do business in a part of the bi-state area known locally as "the Metro East," a region that holds as its dystopian centerpiece the city of East St. Louis. When compared with other places around the country with similar "adult entertainment" districts, the Metro East does not, on the surface, stack up. Houston has somewhere near forty clubs, Atlanta near twenty, and Louisville about the same. Portland enjoys the nation's most prolific striptease industry, boasting, at last count, sixty-eight clubs, owing to the Oregon Supreme Court's louche interpretation of obscenity law.
What distinguishes the Metro East from its counterparts, finally, is economics. Or, rather, a lack
of economics. The erotic rialtos of the Metro East reside in the poorest communities of any concentration of adult entertainment in the country. Most cities relegate their strip clubs to out-of-sight areas zoned for manufacturing. The striptease trade has long since migrated from the city tenderloins (witness Times Square) to those unlivable belts of industry that ring urban areas. In one sense St. Louis is no different, having banished the business to the Illinois side of the river through prohibitive measures, such as liquor-selling hours, which end at 2 a.m., and strict definitions of what constitute appropriate public sexual expression—namely, brassieres and underthings must cover the coveted, and from their customers the dancers must keep a yardstick away.
Aside from one of the four strip-club towns—Sauget, an industrial sector with only a few hundred residents—the Metro East communities in which the clubs do business are largely residential, and are so poor they've come to depend on the clubs for their very existence. After one topless bar threatened litigation over a town's plan to increase license fees, the club's lawyer displayed a swagger remarkable even for a plaintiff's attorney. "My client," he said to a reporter, "will ultimately wind up owning that village." The per capita incomes of Washington Park, Centreville and Brooklyn hover around $8,000 a year, far below the federal poverty level and roughly that of Iran. Non-sex businesses here are best described as mom-and-pop. Barbecue stands, corner groceries, package stores and car garages constitute the primary trades. In none of the towns does even a gas station exist. None of the towns have a bank. Worse, continuing a three-decade trend, the entire region has suffered from a savage depopulation. Between 1990 and 2000, according to the latest census, Washington Park went from 7,430 people to 5,340; Centreville from 7,490 to 5,950; and Brooklyn from 1,140 to just 667. To put it in other terms, over the course of that ten-year span, those towns lost, combined, eight residents a week. Tax revenue, not surprisingly, comes hard to the municipal coffers. Only one source of income remains constant, and on any given night of the week you can see them, drunkenly pouring forth from the clubs, entering their waiting automobiles, and driving off down the highway unsteadily for the burbs.
All of this has had the effect of creating a certain atmosphere over here, along the Illinois riverbank. For years, since at least Prohibition, the east side has been the site of a roisterous nightlife. Brooklyn, always the focus of the action, was once known as "Little Las Vegas." Gambling and whoredom, in that order, were then the chief attractions. Only in the late nineteen-seventies did striptease, a natural new input, gain a foothold. Connoisseurs of the region's more recent entertainments say that the Illinois strip-club scene reached its raucous, lurid apex in the late nineteen-eighties, before riverboat gambling siphoned off the clientele. Nonetheless, a level of permissiveness endures, and it can only be ascribed to the status the clubs enjoy within the municipal hegemony. Despite a directive from the office of the St. Claire County State's Attorney, g-strings frequently do come off (if they're ever worn at all) and men frequently do lay their hands (and, often enough, other appendages) on the flesh of the clubs' employees. This state of affairs led one club proprietor, the owner of a chain of strip joints in six different cities, to call the Metro East the single most permissive locale, by far, of any of his businesses. The man was Hal Lowrie, head of the PT's consortium of strip clubs, and before he died of lung cancer in 1997, he was about to stand trial in federal court for tax evasion, money laundering, bribery and prostitution—all of it conducted in the Metro East.
The east side has spawned a legacy of corruption as thick as that of Vegas itself, but, of course, on a nickel-and-dime scale when compared to our national capital of vice. Every five years or so, it seems, the Feds will swoop down with warrants and subpoenas and FBI badges, and send another round of club owners to the clink. Some strip-joint regulars maintain that within the last few years this criminal element has been expurgated at long last from the region. A new era has dawned, they say, of clean business practices and above-board municipal dealings. The clubs make so much money these days that owners will no longer risk their considerable cash flow over some penny-ante criminal charge. "They're trying to be good corporate citizens because they come to bat with a strike already against them," says one regular customer, who claims to be on friendly terms with many of the owners. In other words the clubs want to put on as good a face as possible, since public perception has always looked cynically, to understate the matter, at the business. At first glance this perspective seems highly logical. If each week you're making tens of thousands of dollars alone in volume liquor sales, why throw it all away by allowing your strippers to perform a few eighty-dollar backroom blowjobs, and then bribing some cop to look the other way?
And, yet, a perusal of recent newspaper clippings raises all kinds of unseemly questions. Why, for instance, did Brooklyn recently fire its police chief, and why, in its aftermath, did the shunted cop tell reporters, "The real reason why they got rid of me will come out down the line. You wait and see"? What to make of the recent allegations out of Brooklyn that officials tampered with police files relating to the arrest of Sonny Henry, owner of a group of local massage parlors, for beating a woman, a member of his stable of "masseuses?" How should we interpret the strip-club-funded contributions made to the election campaign of the current mayor of Washington Park? And what, finally, should we make of the comments made by W. Charles Grace, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, in which he stated, "Wherever these clubs exist they are taking advantage of a city government that is barely existing"?
Three out of seven days each week the new mayor of Brooklyn arrives at his office dressed in the uniform of the Illinois State Department of Corrections. His six-two, two-hundred pound frame—arms weight-lifted into appropriate prison-guard mass—make his outfit, brown and green and resembling the coloring of a poisonous reptile, seem all the more disciplinarian. A plate on his chest bears his name, Dennis Miller, though this Dennis Miller has little time for cultivating a sense of humor. He is more than anything else a stern man, at least when conducting the public's business, a comportment that contrasts with his face, boyish, just this side of pudgy and, potentially at least, jovial. Miller is just thirty-two years old, but in his eyes the world-weariness of a much older man has already taken hold. He looks like he's been up nights. If insomnia hasn't yet afflicted Miller, long hours on the job, both of them, certainly has. At the prison, Miller works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., arriving at his mayoral desk sometime thereafter, and routinely not leaving until well into the night. On Mondays and Tuesdays Miller has off from guard duty, and he spends a full day in Brooklyn.
He has much to do, not the least of which is renovate a public perception of his hometown that tends toward the tragicomic. To review the village's recent history is to traffic in tales of a near Genet-like absurdity. In April 2001 Miller was elected mayor, having spent the previous four months as interim mayor. His predecessor, a woman named Ruby Cook, had just been convicted of embezzling $45,000 in municipal funds from a town already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, a sewer company, a locksmith firm and other unlikely creditors. Cook struck a figure quite in contrast to that of her somber successor. She was known around town as the "Cheetah." At the TV cameras photographing her trial she liked to stick out her tongue. She invested most of her absconded monies in plastic chips minted by the Casino Queen. (Cook's treasurer, a woman named Frankie Banks, stole about $143,000 from village accounts, and died in December of a heart attack, the resident of a Texas federal prison. Cook, for her part, spent a year in a federal pen in Greenville, South Carolina.) This wasn't all. Though no proof has ever been unearthed, rumor had it that Cook, like many Brooklyn officials before her, was on the take from the local titty bars, receiving salaries and bonuses from their owners in exchange for law enforcement laissez-faire
An alluring, vibrant stew—though Denis Miller would certainly dispute the use of those adjectives—of vice merchandising and its natural cousin-ingredient, corruption, has defined the village of Brooklyn for most of the last hundred years, despite having a history as noble as any town its size in the nation. Its motto, hard in these intervening years not to interpret ironically, reads, "Founded by Chance, Sustained by Courage." Brooklyn is among the only freedom villages (settlements of blacks who had escaped slavery to free states) that still exist today. It has been called the country's "first all-black town," though the truth behind that appellation is a matter of some scholarly dispute. Local lore has it that in about 1829, eleven families of both fugitives and freemen rafted across the Mississippi River from the slave state Missouri, and landed on the banks of St. Claire County. Those banks were then a fertile, Nile-like region known as the American Bottoms, a title that seems far more appropriate today, given the area's status as a wasteland of defunct power plants, slaughterhouses and toxic dumps. That eleven-family exodus was led by one "Mother" Priscilla Baltimore. The child of a slave and her master, a planter out of Bourbon, Kentucky, Mother Baltimore, then living in Missouri and in her early twenties, discovered the Word of God with such furor that she took it upon herself to preach to the local slaves, and impressed her masters enough that they let her pilot a pilgrimage of three hundred of her indentured flock, sans overseer, into Illinois for a religious revival. She eventually bought herself out of slavery, and led a second group of spiritual-minded blacks into the neighboring free state, this time for good. The church she helped found—originally housed, in true Illinois fashion, in a log cabin—still offers its services today. It's called the Quinn African Methodist Episcopal Church (named for the Reverend William Quinn, its first minister), it occupies a little redbrick affair with a miniature belfry and gothic doorway, and it has in its modest garden a white limestone place marker, dating the Quinn's inception at 1839. It served as a way station on the Underground Railroad, and it is the oldest church in a church-heavy town, although recently, Mayor Miller has informed me, a few have gone out of business. The spirit, evidently, is slipping slightly away.
As with most things concerning the village, the very name "Brooklyn" marks an inflection point of racial sturm und drang
. (The town is actually two-named. In 1891, Brooklyn got a new post office, and to distinguish it from another Illinois Brooklyn, it took the name Lovejoy as its mailing address, after Elijah P. Lovejoy, the Alton, Illinois, abolitionist newspaperman.) Not until 1837 did the town receive its Brooklyn christening, at the hands of five white businessmen, who bought the village land and platted it with streets and lots. Brooklyn became bi-racial, the town's blacks presided over by white absentee landlords. Because of the state's so-called "Black Laws," which heavily restricted black suffrage and enfranchisement, so began a reign of white rule that ended only in the early twentieth century, when a group of African-American citizens, the Illinois Black Laws finally defunct, wrested control of the municipal government away from the white minority. And so began an era of white flight that ended only when a cartel of Italian East St. Louis mobsters instituted their gambling houses in the 1920s, bridging the gap between those five white men of the 1830s and the today's white captains of the Brooklyn flesh industry.
Three strip clubs today do business in Brooklyn: Roxy's, owned by PT's, Hal Lowrie's Denver-based chain; Platinum, owned by the Kansas City skin merchant Roy Lichty; and the Pink Slip, favored by African-American patrons and owned by Madison "Slugger" Garrett, the only club owner who is a Brooklyn resident. There's also an adult bookstore; two peep-show parlors of exceeding seediness—Buddy's and the Doll House; and one massage parlor, called the S&L Rub, a known whorehouse controlled by the infamous Sonny Henry. Freelance prostitutes, black as well as white, amble about the parking lots, or lean against the facades of vacant buildings, their limbs trembling from withdrawal.
In Brooklyn, a simple question does not receive, nor deserve, a simple answer. When Dennis Miller sits at his desk in his cluttered, poorly lit office, full of mementos of an involved family life, and talks to a reporter, this becomes altogether clear. I had arrived in Brooklyn full of preconceptions, having reviewed in the local papers the progress of the city's most recent turmoil. They were nasty dispatches indeed, the product of reporters bent on exposé, yet they succeeded only in delivering a tone both mocking and derisive. The new mayor was desperate for some good publicity.
But problems far more pressing than bad PR now face Dennis Miller's administration. He has undertaken to return his hometown, somehow, to solvency. Things do not look bright, despite the baby-step he took last year of lifting the business-licensing fees for "adult entertainment" places to $30,000 a year from $20,000. (The other two destitute strip-club towns, Washington Park and Centreville, have made similar moves, passing ordinances that raised business-license and/or liquor-license fees, over which each town in Illinois has control.) Miller has severely cut back village employment, eliminating police dispatchers completely, relying instead on the county's corps, and paring his office staff to one. Village workers must now go without health insurance, and cops receive a paycheck of $7.25 an hour, a little less than two dollars above minimum wage.
But the worst insult appears to be the latest U.S. census. The green placard that rises from the weeds at Brooklyn city limits on Route 3 announces a population of 667, but Miller contends that the number is closer to 1,100. Census forms sent to Brooklyn citizens listed erroneously as their place of residence National City, a now-unincorporated area nearby. People became confused, Miller said, and they failed to send in their forms. Then, in order to make a recount, "The census people sent a bunch of middle-aged white women to knock on doors." When they arrived, the white women saw Brooklyn's roving black youth, its poverty and dilapidation, and left without knocking on any doors. With a drop since the 1990 count of nearly four hundred people, or forty three percent of the population, Brooklyn has lost much-needed tax revenue, disbursed away to larger towns by the reckoners of Springfield.
Miller said, "Our short-term goal is to—we're working on our short-term goals." He shook his head and sighed. "It's pretty rough. Our annual budget is only three hundred and forty thousand dollars. It's pretty rough because for our town to operate sufficiently, we need probably six
hundred and forty thousand." The strip clubs and porn bookstores and massage parlors of Brooklyn constitute by far the town's largest source of revenue. When asked, Miller would not offer any hard numbers. In that case, did he think that proceeds from the clubs made up more than half the village budget? "Probably," he said. His tone of voice, a little defensive, indicated that "more than half" was a betting-man's safe wager. The town's poverty occasionally has brutal results. When an apartment fire recently sent alarms clanging at the Brooklyn firehouse/police depot, the village's only truck wouldn't start. By the time a nearby town delivered its ladders and hoses, the blaze had killed five children.
So poor is the town that it accepts, without question, periodic donations from the clubs, in the form of a new dump truck, say, or funds and turkeys on Thanksgiving for the Brooklyn seniors' center, adjacent to village hall, or the financing of a youth program, which helps high school kids in Brooklyn find summer jobs. One of the clubs will pay its license fees in advance should the town find itself in a particularly tough fiscal spot. If one takes a cynical view of such things—not a difficult task in light of Brooklyn's history of corruption—all of these "donations" can be interpreted as bribes, albeit bribes with a public-service bent. The more the clubs support the town, the less likely the town will be to crack down on whatever illicitness might be occurring, and the less likely the town will be to attempt to oust them.
That's not really an option, anyway. "If the towns wanted to, they could park cop cars outside the clubs and make DUI arrest after DUI arrest," says John Barcivic, the supervisor of St. Claire County. "What they can do is make it hard for the clubs to operate. If the towns don't want the clubs, for instance, all they have to do is reduce operating hours from all-night to par- time."
Though Miller has successfully thwarted Sonny Henry from opening a second massage parlor, the mayor argues that taking Barcivic up on his ideas would bring instant lawsuits filed by the clubs. And Brooklyn certainly could not afford the legal costs. "These places have been in Brooklyn since the late seventies, early eighties. They're established
places," Miller said. "And I would think they need Brooklyn as much as we need them." Miller delivered this last sentence with some ambiguity. What he seemed to mean was that in no other town save Centreville and Washington Park could these clubs find such favorable business conditions. Which raises all kinds of questions about the ethics of even the current mayor of Brooklyn. "People can be bought," the Mayor said. "Votes can be bought. That's unfortunate. It ain't right, but that's the reality in Brooklyn. I've seen it happen."
Brooklyn's long history of corruption represents another heavy albatross around Miller's neck. When I asked him about it, he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. "Corruption happens everywhere, rich white communities, too," he said. "But it's more publicized in Brooklyn than anywhere else around here. One reason is that we don't have a lot of money. If you pick up the Belleville paper, you'll see all this reporting on all these black communities—they feast on it. Washington Park, Brooklyn, Centreville, it's all the same. All negative, nothing positive. Why is that so? Is it because there's nothing positive going on at all?" Miller let out a hiss, and lowered his eyes to meet mine, as if in remonstration with yet another unscrupulous reporter. "Positive stuff just isn't news to some people."
And perhaps he was right to remonstrate. Certainly I was prepared to deal with some evasion on the part of the new mayor, for any expert in corruption-busting will tell you that once it takes hold in a community it becomes quickly institutionalized; once the hand that feeds offers its first spoonful, that hand becomes all the more difficult to slap away. All of this made it easy to believe, even if it was ultimately wrongheaded, that Miller had been, or would be, corrupted, and that he had awaiting him, in that vast pantheon of Brooklyn grifters past, a block of marble with his name on it, ready for the sculptor's chisel. In the end, however, I very much wanted to believe that Miller, idealistic, proud, more than a little angry, had cultivated some kind of immunity.
When a man named Bruce Miller died at the age of 42, on the operating table while undergoing minor surgery to repair a back injury, at a hospital in far away Boston, Dennis Miller decided, "I want to take over right where he left off." Bruce Miller, born and bred in Brooklyn, was Dennis Miller's uncle. He was Dennis Miller's idol. Bruce worked his way out of Lovejoy High School, where test scores annually compete for the lowest recorded in the state, and into the University of Southern Illinois, and then into the law school of same. He practiced law in Springfield. He ran for mayor of Brooklyn in the 1970s, on a platform of reform, on a platform to rid the town of its nascent flesh industry. He lost. When the strip clubs first came to Brooklyn, Bruce Miller organized a protests with pickets and placards and a bullhorn. Fifteen residents showed up. "Most people didn't care," Dennis Miller recalled. To his nephew, Bruce Miller bestowed a portion of his idealism. In 1999, after dropping out of his uncle's alma mater for lack of funds, and then after a career in the Army, where he achieved the rank of lance corporal, Dennis Miller got himself elected to the Brooklyn board of trustees. But, like his uncle, he had his political sights trained on mayor. When his time came, he didn't lose.
As our conversation wore on inside his office, Mayor Miller, the young politician, expanded into his role. He waxed both platitudinous and sincere. His talk became stump speech. "I'll say this today. We'd be better off if the clubs never came to Brooklyn. They wore the entire county down. You may ask, 'How would the town survive without them?' I don't know. But I will say this. They've hurt business. Businesses that would have come to Brooklyn—who would want to move into a place next door to a strip club? That's how they've hurt us. If I ever put together a referendum, and put it to a vote, asking the residents if they wanted to shut the clubs down—I think they'd say they want them. I think I'd lose that one. I really do."
He addressed, as well, his own potential for swallowing that corrupting spoonful. He said, "I have everything to lose and nothing to gain by doing it. I've got a family. I've got a wife and three kids. I love them, and I love where I'm from. I could move. I've got a good job; I get paid well. I could live somewhere in St. Louis, somewhere nice out in the County. But my friends can't get out. A lot of people here can't. And that's why I do what I do. For my family, for Brooklyn, for my neighbors. It's not worth wasting all that for a few hundred dollars a week. I'm not trying to hide anything. All of the town's financial information I've made public. Of course, no on has come up here to look at it. If people came here and sat down and talked with me like you're doing today, I think they'd get the feeling that he's for real. I've got nothing to hide. I keep everything on top the table. Like the donations from the clubs. In the past, you never heard anything about it. Never heard about it at council meetings. That's because the mayors were getting a piece of the pie. But now, I'll tell you all about it—bank statements, what the nature of the donation was. I work in the prison system," they Mayor concluded. "I don't want to be a resident of it."
Jack Corbett and I are sitting at the bar inside the Chameleon Club, in the town of Washington Park, drinking Budweiser. It is a cold November night, a Friday, about seven o'clock. Around the room walk women clothed only in brassieres and panties, bikini cups and thongs. They chat with men and sometimes disappear through a door at the back of the bar, behind which lies not only the typical strippers' dressing room, but also the site of an ancient commerce. From the street outside, the Chameleon Club looks innocent enough, with its Budweiser iconography and modest size, but people in the know in the Metro East call it something else. They call it, simply, the Whorehouse. Its façade is painted pink. When Corbett and I entered the bar, a woman approached us. She wore lingerie under a translucent robe that tickled the floor flamboyantly. Her skin was glowing and deep amber brown. She could have been an extra from the set of a Pam Grier film. She singled me out with her eyes, and almost all in the same moment she smiled sweetly, winked, leaned in toward my ear, and whispered something into it. Her perfume was as powerful as a perfume counter. In addition, attached to my crotch was her hand, playing scales. All the blood in my body seemed to rush toward the core of the earth. The something she had whispered was, "Let me help you out with that." This I did not determine until later; her words did not directly unscramble. I nonetheless understood her intent and, not feeling particularly William Vollmannish, declined her offer. Then, stupidly, I felt compelled to apologize. "Sorry about that," I said, for some reason also in a whisper. She smiled again, more sweetly I thought than even before, and walked away. I missed her immediately.
Aside from tricks, the women of the Chameleon Club have other duties to perform. On a raised platform along one wall they will sometimes climb and cavort about indifferently. It's as if they're a little sleepy. A single metal bar, oily as an axel, rises floor-to-ceiling from the stage. One by one in a desultory progression the women will ascend the dais, grab hold the bar, squat, spread their legs, flap them open and shut, rise erect again, give a little wiggle at the waist, and swagger off stage, their swagger less a function of any confidence in their ability to look good on this night at this place, than on the fact that they've been lifted up, a bit tentatively, on five-inch stiletto heels. Although some of them, I'm just noticing, are barefoot. They represent a personnel not remarkably attractive, as far as these things go, in the hierarchical comeliness rankings of the east side strip clubs. One woman steps down from the stage and gives me a come-hitherish look. When she smiles, two front teeth are missing. Her hair, dyed and permmed and coarse as corn husks, is rather more yellow than blond. In the official commercial nomenclature of Washington Park the Chameleon is not a strip club. It is a tavern, licensed only for on-premise liquor sales. Thus all the female coverage, which the women do not remove, out here in the main room at least. A few men populate the bar, dry-docked there like broken-down towboats. On average they appear to have been of age for the Korean draft. Their stomachs are thick, and so are their forearms. The Chameleon clientele is, by and large, paying more attention to the insides of their drink glasses, or to the bar top (a warped and scaly Formica) than to the Chameleon Club women, unless a man knows a girl, in which case they gab and laugh like gossips in a sewing circle.
Jack Corbett, sipping his Budweiser, is comfortable here. He has been to the Chameleon many times before, and for him the echt roadhouse atmosphere of the place bears no notice. He is chatting avidly about his chat room, an Internet meeting place for strip-club aficionados. The chat room is part of a larger Web site, Alphapro.com, built and maintained by Corbett as a kind of outlet for his passion. In one sense Jack Corbett is not who he seems, for "Jack Corbett" is a nome de plume
. About four years ago he published Death on the Wild Side
, a 465-page vanity-press novel, loosely autobiographical, based on Corbett's own experiences in and out of the Metro East clubs. If admittedly amateurish, it is a lively read. Whoring and car chases and bar violence and knife wounds, for instance, abound. Despite its constant hawking on the Alphapro Web site, where sample chapters are available for study, the book has not sold well. This no longer concerns the author. He has moved on to other pursuits. In his apartment in Collinsville, a St. Louis commuter town not far from Washington Park, he has converted one bedroom into a "studio," with mirrored walls and complicated tripods and beds with fleece blankets, in which he's attempting to set up a business: taking photographs of the variously posed bodies of willing east-side strippers. For a reasonable fee—sixty dollars an hour, say—strippers suitably interested in advancing their careers will pose for sets of nude or scantily clad pictures, depending on their degree of modesty. Corbett wants to become something like a headshot photographer for erotic dancers. He knows them by the hundreds. With many of them he has struck up close friendships, and often they stop by his apartment to visit. Indeed, Corbett's circle seems to include only people involved somehow in the strip-club business.
While Corbett, at the Chameleon club, talks avidly about one chat-room regular from San Francisco who very nearly funded the relocation there of a Chameleon prostitute with whom he had fallen in love, I can't help but glance, occasionally, toward the front of the bar, where a group of men sits around a table. Upon entering the place earlier this night, Corbett had introduced me to the most prominent figure among that group—Tommy Davis, Chameleon Club founder and owner. Davis is massively overweight. He balances on his chair like a golf ball on a tee. He wears a black mesh-backed baseball cap and a black nylon jacket, and his face is red and tight. A brown mustache grows from his lip like a hellgrammite. Next to Davis sits a man almost identical to him in all physical aspects, except smaller, like Davis's interior Russian nesting doll. Two more men sit at the table—another diabetes-scale fat guy, this one with long pony-tail, and a black man, who wears a white Nehru jacket, baggy white trousers and white-framed sunglasses, rectangular in shape. From glass mugs they all drink yellow beer. After Corbett said hello to the owner and made an attempt to introduce us, Davis looked me up and down. He said nothing. I told him my name (first only), and said it was nice to meet him. Davis remained silent, staring. When I offered to shake his hand, he placed his in mine—limpidly, femininely—like a bishop offering his ring to be kissed. Then, without a word, he withdrew it and turned back toward his entourage. As I stood there in front of Davis, every member of his party surveyed me viciously, and now, as I sit at the bar half-listening to Corbett, I envision shanks thrust into my love handles over piss-streaked urinals; I envision crowbars to the kneecap in the parking lot; I envision Washington Park cops pulling me over for no reason, at the request of Tommy Davis.
Because Tommy Davis, I know, is not a man to be fucked with. Rumor has it that somewhere inside the bar he keeps a Louisville Slugger. Davis is also, Corbett tells me, on cozy terms with the Washington Park police. One night a few years ago, after taking his leave of the Chameleon Club, Corbett received a speeding ticket. He returned to the club and told Davis what had happened. The owner immediately made a phone call. Minutes later, a cop car pulled into the parking lot, and Davis went outside to meet the officer. When Davis re-entered the bar, he tore Corbett's ticket in half.
This level of familiarity, on Corbett's part, with the owners of east-side strip clubs is the product of an inestimable amount of time spent frequenting their confines. In many ways Corbett is the arch titty-bar customer. He pays no cover charges, and has interviewed many an owner, manager and stripper for the articles he contributes to a few strip-club trade magazines (Connecticut-based Xtreme
, Kentucky-based Wild Times
) or for his own Web site. Within the east-side scene, Corbett is a figure of some public standing. He favors Birkenstock sandals, worn over woolen socks, and Kangol caps of varying shades, a piece of haberdashery that has become the man's emblem, making him instantly recognizable to regular clubgoers, even if they don't know his name. Corbett speaks with a lisp reminiscent of Rudolph Guilliani's, and he laughs somewhat stutteringly, a mannerism that brings to mind a teenaged boy who has smoked too much pot. He is small in stature, about five-eight, and he is 54 years old, an age clearly marked by his white mustache and thinning pate of white hair. But he also has wiry arms knotted with vein and the waist-width of a high-school quarterback, a physique made flinty by two decades spent working his family's ancestral farm, a four-hundred-acre plot near Springfield, Illinois, where he grew corn and soybeans. Before retiring from the farm last year, Corbett was merely a patron, if a rather intent one, of the clubs of the Metro East. Only after a messy divorce and the composition of his novel—which had less to do, perhaps, with relating his experiences inside the clubs than wreaking on his ex-wife, who took him for six figures, a sort of literary vengeance—only after completing these tasks did Corbett decide to dedicate his life to chronicling the east side scene.
I had met Corbett earlier that day, for lunch at the Diamond Club in Sauget, widely regarded as the best of the clubs on the east side—in terms, at least, of the good-looks of its strippers. We sat in the blue-lit demilight of the club's dining area, which overlooks the stages. Our menus glowed a radioactive cobalt. Corbett wore faded jeans, a green polo shirt, the obligatory Birkenstocks and Kangol, and a black nylon jacket, on the back of which was embroidered the insignia of Corbett's Alpha Productions—a chevron with the group's name and the Greek letter alpha, all of it superimposed over the image of a wolf head. Stitched on the jacket's breast pocket were the words "Jack Corbett." All in all, his appearance suggested that of a head football coach for a squad of porn stars. Corbett had brought along with him a copy of Death on the Wild Side
, which he sold to me for a few bucks below its list price of $19.95. Published by a vanity press called the Nirvana Printing Co., Farmersville, Illinois, the book is bound in purple paper stock, its lettering is hot pink, and on its cover is the photograph of a stripper, smirking happily. Corbett says he has sold just 200 of the 2000 copies he had printed, his audience composed almost wholly of his friends and acquaintances among the strip-club set.
Opening the book at random, I once read this passage, an exchange between a stripper and her customer, a character named Frank Herring, the novel's protagonist (and, of course, a thinly disguised Jack Corbett):
"Do you think I'm one of those weirdos out there Debbie?"
"Sure. You come here don't you? Everybody who comes here is weird."
"What about the girls who work here then?" Frank countered.
"We're getting paid."
"But look what you have to do for it. Is it worth it? Take a look at some of the guys you have to put up with. Some are old farts. Some have two heads, some have hair lips, some are green, some are orange. I mean we're talking about the losers of the earth."
"Beats pumping gas."
"I'm saying I used to pump gas for a living before I started to work here. One of my girlfriends got me drunk and dragged me in here. I thought No way can I do those lap dances, but look at me now."
"The money's pretty good here then?"
Debbie pulled out her g-string and beckoned toward her vagina. Frank gingerly slipped in another five. "See what I mean. We haven't been here more than six or seven minutes and you've already given me ten dollars."
"You are utterly shameless. And you are heartless as well. Taking my money like that."
"My boyfriend doesn't think I'm heartless."
"Neither does my wife. She still thinks I'm a nice guy, but I'm not what she thinks I am."
"And what's that?"
The book's epigraph, if it had one, would probably read, "You always pay for sex. It never comes for free," which is the quip of a club-owner Corbett knows well. When asked why he began frequenting the titty bars, Corbett responds, "Me and my neighbor, we decided to divorce our wives." As his marriage grew ever more troublesome, and as the divorce proceedings looked ever more ominous for him financially, Corbett began to muse on the metaphorical connection between prostitution and marriage. If he was paying all this money to his ex-wife—now via the courts, but previously as the couple's only breadwinner—why not just pay for sex on the open market? This is something of a simplification of Corbett's "logic," which at the slightest provocation he will explicate thoroughly, expansively, to nearly the point of sketching a graph. Corbett decided to plunge full bore into the Metro East club scene, this time seeking not private dances but that site of that ancient commerce. "For around a hundred dollars an encounter, I could get laid any night I wanted and have a number of pretty women to choose from," Corbett wrote in "Whoring in the Metro East," an essay on his Web site. "My theory," he added for emphasis, "turned out to be spot on."
Corbett thinks of himself as a professional, and in a sense he is. He has a master's degree in business administration from St. Louis University, and he spent a year at law school. But these days his professionalism extends to his conduct inside the titty bars. He sees himself residing in a caste far above the average strip-club customer. He no longer purchases prostitutes. He has no commercial contact with strippers—he shuns private dances, he spurns tipping. "Why? It's not professional. I'm not a customer. I'm the guy that's going to make you famous, get you known. In addition, I have the ability to put you in a dimension where I'm fun to be with, on my own merit. I'm fun to hang out with. Why should I pay you guys for that?"
To achieve fame for his stripper contacts, Corbett is pursuing his second career as a portrait photographer. Already he's amassed a substantial portfolio, although up until now he's done his work pro bono. (He's attempting to build a reputation, he says.) He owns two digital cameras, one of which he recently purchased for about $1800, including the outsized flash and high-resolution meg cards that Corbett has deemed necessary for the pursuit of his craft.
One could think of it also as a hobby, if a manic, all-encompassing one. In Corbett's apartment in Collinsville, exotic dancing trade magazines (Xtreme
, Exotic Dancer Bulletin
, Wild Times
) lie strewn about floor. On the dining room wall hangs a blown-up photograph, an example of Corbett's work. It pictures a blond and supple specimen, name of Renee, a stripper out of Springfield, her recumbent figure superimposed in front of a roaring fireplace. The photo bears the legend, "Alpha Pro Woman of the Year." In addition to the female form, Corbett's interests run to weaponry. For a few years he taught history at a local high school, and his scholarly specialty seems to have focused on the militaristic. With wire and fishing line he has suspended from the walls of his apartment a retrospective of antique rifles and pistols. Resting horizontally in a stand on the coffee table are what appear to be two samurai swords. In Xtreme
Corbett will often publish reviews of guns. Strippers, of course, model the armaments: for instance, two .30-caliber belt-fed machine guns, circa World War II, resting in the arms of Pleasure and Pain, a daughter-mother stripper team, respectively, out of Columbus, Ohio.
In Corbett's living room, a powerful late-model Dell sits on a big roll-top desk. The desk is a swamp of papers and photographs and high-tech miscellany. A white microphone—which Corbett uses to speak with friends over his PC—juts up from the desk's surface. Given the milieu, for an instant I thought the mike was a dildo.
From this spot in his apartment Corbett constructs and maintains the byzantine pages of his Alphapro Web site. Among the site's facets is the ongoing saga of a fictional character, dreamed up by Corbett, named Dick Fitswell, whose elephantine equipment—which fits not very well in the places it's normally being fitted—is forever forcing its owner into a series of amusing incidents; an area called "The Writers Nook [sic]," which includes short nonfictional essays by Corbett with such titles as, "The Night the Police Raided Chameleon," "I Want You for a Sugar Daddy," "Left in a Bar with the Red Necks," "Suzie the Floozie," "Banging Nipples in the Hot Tub," and "Two Girls on a Hernia"—diverting reading all; interviews with, and photographs of, strippers, including the nationally prominent Nikki Lynn, who once told Corbett, in a spate of humility, "I'm just an average person. I don't like that uptight stuff. When I go into Steak and Shake, I don't want to be embarrassed because I have to be sent in a limo which winds up getting stuck in the drive through;" a directory of east-side dancers and links to their own personal Web sites; the "Jack Corbett Guide," a Zagat
-esque listing of strip-club reviews from around the country; and the "Lost Angels Forum," Alphapro's chat room, which serve partly to assist strip-club regulars in locating favorite dancers who may have disappeared, perhaps crushingly, from their lives.
I was visiting Corbett at his apartment one evening when an ex-stripper named Lindsay, stage-name "Skie," arrived for a visit. She opened the door and walked in unannounced. She said, "It's just like me to barge in without knocking." Several weeks earlier Skie had quit her job, also at Platinum. She was 20 years old. Her hair was short and bottle-blond, and it ripened at the part into an orangeish shade of gold. She had vague Slavic features, her face was small and round, and her front teeth slightly overlapped. It made them look chipped, but this had the effect of enhancing the total picture, like a flaw in a Rembrandt. She wore blue jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, which nonetheless failed to conceal a lissome body that could have belonged to a professional figure skater. It was February, and since Christmas Skie said she had last 20 pounds. She blamed the winnowing on relationship anxiety caused by a boyfriend, now ex-. "I lost it all in my tits and my ass," she said. "I went down to an A." Skie stayed at Corbett's for about an hour. He made her a supper of breakfast—scrambled eggs ("runny, country style," she suggested to him), bacon, toast. As she dined, seated impertinently on Corbett's desk chair, the plate on her lap, Corbett leaned against one wall, arms folded, and took a long silent look at the girl. She smeared her toast with yolk and ate it all hungrily. Corbett's eyes were puppyish. He said, paraphrasing Voltaire: "Lindsay, if you didn't exist, you'd have to be invented."
On her way to PT's, in Sauget, where she now worked as a waitress, Lindsay had stopped by Corbett's apartment to pick up a series of photographs he had taken of her during a session in his studio. Corbett removed the photos from an envelope, and displayed them to her one by one. They were surprisingly chaste—none were nudes, but a few got close. She stood in various poses in a baby-blue kimono with a sky-and-cloud print, no doubt an allusion to her former stage name. In one picture she acted as if asleep, prone on the studio's bed, and her profile against the pillow resembled that of Drew Barrymore.
"You want me to explain these to you?" Corbett asked her. Again he displayed the pictures one by one. "In this one you could be standing on the White House lawn, meeting the president. Or you could be in England, at the Duke of Marlborough's castle. You're being introduced to royalty. In this one—this is the coquette in you. The Coquettish Lindsay. And this one, this one is you just being yourself. The Yourself Lindsay. You're saying, 'Jack, you slob. Your apartment's a mess. You've got cum stains on your couch, for Christ sakes.'" Corbett let loose one of his stuttering guffaws. "This one is humorous. The Humorous Lindsay. You're saying to me, 'Oh, you're full of fucking shit, buddy. You think you're some fucking photographer for Playboy or something?'"
Skie seemed impressed by the product. When Corbett had finished his exegesis, she embraced him. She said, "Oh, I've missed you." Then she sat on his lap in the desk chair. "I'm just gonna hold you real tight," he said. Corbett continued to flatter her, almost whispering in her ear. "You're beautiful. You're great. You're so sweet."
Back at the Chameleon club, Corbett recognizes a woman dancing on stage. She is the stripper of the cornhusk hair, overweight and dentally negligent. Her age could be reasonably estimated at anywhere from twenty-five to forty. She is the opposite of Lindsay when it comes to looks, but we move toward her anyway, and Corbett engages her in conversation. Their acquaintance, it turns out, goes beyond the casual. Her name is Amy, and for a period of time a few years back Corbett gave her refuge on his Springfield farm. She was attempting to get off crack. Corbett's charity in this manner has extended to several Metro East strippers, but the degree of success they've achieved during these rehab sessions remains unclear. Now, rising above us on the dais, Amy addresses the issue of her drinking, which has recently gotten her into some kind of trouble, the nature of which she does not say. Periodically as she speaks and for no evident reason, Amy will plunge to her back on the floor of the stage and wrench her legs behind her ears, a posture that looks painful but apparently is not. She wiggles her tongue grotesquely. She is barefoot. Her thighs are patterned with bruises, and over them grows a brown coiling riot—pubic spillage. By the grace of God, she is wearing underwear. Up to her feet she jumps again and resumes the discussion, which has shifted to Amy's country holiday at the Corbett farmstead some years ago. If not in the vein of drug rehabilitation, she had while there a life-altering experience. One night, outside perhaps for a little walk, she beheld in the clear black Illinois sky a UFO. Over the soybeans, flying saucers. Not entirely bereft of earnestness, I inquire if her encounter had developed into one of the third kind.
"Were you abducted by the aliens?"
"I think I mighta been," she says. And with that she flops immediately to the floor, legs flung back, split along her longitudes, divulging once again her sanctum sanctorum
By the end of this night, Corbett and I find ourselves at a strip club called Roxy's, in Brooklyn. Here, when compared with the staff of the Chameleon Club, the female employees seem Swimsuit Issue. Nor do the Roxy's girls double as prostitutes, or at least not so blatantly, a point of distinction that everyone associated with the more mainstream clubs is quick to express. Historically, any and all strippers become instantly vitriolic at the mere suggestion that they engage in turning tricks. They exist on a plateau set far above that filth. They do this job because the money is good. They have their sights set on even higher plateau, set on mountain ranges. Aurora, 21-years-old, born and raised in distant suburban West County, quite new to the trade, whose favorite club costume is that of a half-naked firefighter in cherry-red hip-high boots, G-string, wants to be a professional dancer. At 18, she dropped out of high school and moved to Puerto Vallarta, a place where her parents often vacationed and with which she had become smitten. She got a job selling timeshares, sold zero timeshares, and was back in St. Louis within six months. She received her GED last summer. She says, "When I was little we used to write papers about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I always wrote dancer. I just always thought I'd be—I always thought I'd be on Broadway." Deedee, 27-years-old, for four years a stripper, blond and lanky and wearing gowns and gloves, self-described high-class, is enrolled at the University of Phoenix, Internet Campus, her degree track "business." At stripping she says she makes $60,000 a year. "I think of it as sales," she says of her job. "It's not about looks, it's about what's up here." Reese, 19-years-old, rising nearly to six feet, well muscled and deeply naveled, her shoulder-length blond hair teased into a flip, says she's dating the drummer from Nickelback, the mush-metal pop band with platinum records. Her sister, 23, is also a stripper. Her mother, 41, is a former stripper. Reese says she plans on moving soon, to British Columbia, to Vancouver, where Nickelback evidently lives. Mocha, 26, with flawless black skin and a firm stomach, mother of two children, one nine-years-old, the other a toddler, offers parental advice. Surround your kids with family members; give your kids as many authority figures as possible. Unlike other strippers, who are fiercely competitive about the aesthetics of their routines, Mocha says she does not dance. Her only gauge of success is "how much money I take home with me at the end of the night." She says that when girls dance on stage, the clientele's collective mind is tuned to a single channel. They're imagining fucking the stripper. Mocha, therefore, choreographs for her performance a series of "positions." Like a woman orchestrating sexual maneuvers with her partner, she moves on stage into each of her positions. Her rule is no touching, except from the knee down. It is Mocha's belief that her routine is the match of fellatio. "You know how when you're getting a real good blowjob and you don't even want to touch her head because you might fuck it up?" she asks rhetorically. "That's how my customers are with me."
At Roxy's, when it comes to the demilitarized zone between stripping and prostitution, there exists circumstantial evidence that may make that line resemble more the Canadian border. I have heard from several people, their credibility a slide scale, that the double-wide trailer sitting outside just across the parking lot from Roxy's, its windows blocked out with the same metallic-looking material one sticks to car windshields on hot days, has a utility in exact accordance with what its appearance would indicate. Again not up to the standards of Vollmann, I have not attempted to gain entry into that double-wide, so I cannot, sadly, corroborate these allegations. Hal Lowrie, patriarch of the PT's strip-club chain, opened Roxy's in the early nineteen-eighties, his fourth outlet in Illinois. Lowrie named the club after his favorite stripper, eventually his wife. Four low stages, like islands, are situated around the club. The lighting is ruby-red. The place consists of maybe fifteen hundred square feet. When compared with the sprawling emporiums of Sauget, the atmosphere at Roxy's is intimate, noirish, classic strip-club. It has also achieved a certain measure of fame. From as far afield as Chicago patrons convene at Roxy's for one reason only, and it has nothing to do with the intimacy of the place or the atmospheric lighting or even the mysterious trailer outside. At the back of the club there is a glassed-in compartment, shielded from the club floor by windowpanes that do not reach the ceiling. Two spigots sprout from the compartment's walls, head high. Every so often a few strippers will enter the shower from a secret door at the rear, and commence to wash, spigots open. Their antics slowly escalate into the gymnastic. Positioning for their cunnilingus is of porn-film quality. The girl below is on her knees. She has her tongue aflutter, vigorously, a machine. The other one has hoisted herself up by grabbing hold of the window ledge, and she squeals in ersatz ecstasy. Water from her body drips onto the club floor. Men crowd up near the shower and cheer. The rest of the bar is suddenly drained of customers. Balled-up dollar bills are lobbed into the steam. This shower contraption, I'm later told, is according to state law categorically illegal, bringing the number of Roxy's infractions to, at the very least, one. To bring the heirs of Hal Lowrie to justice, however, you will not find Mayor Dennis Miller, for reasons already laid out, ordering SWAT raids on a double-wide and a shower stall. At this hour the lights at Village Hall are extinguished. It has just passed 1 a.m. The Mayor is almost certainly at home and asleep.
Inside Roxy's, the customers and employees have little or no awareness of the problems and contradictions of Mayor Miller's office, Brooklyn, Illinois—they could not tell you, indeed, who Dennis Miller is, other than a former commentator for Monday Night Football. The proceedings proceed as if indulged in a vacuum. Breasts are compelled against pains of glass, flattened wetly. At the bar, candy shots are poured and consumed by the test tube. The beats of MC Hammer thrum on and on. A DJ wisecracks, implores his audience to attend with currency the female forms that surround it. Bills are slipped, bills are handed over in wads. In darkened corners, girls squirm on the laps of man.
Jack Corbett, leaning against the DJ booth, smilingly assesses the setting. In a more serious mode he has said before, "It's a war, Scott. It really is a war." A war, he says, waged by the fun-loving proprietors and customers and staff of the strip clubs against, in his words, "this huge moralistic movement that I call the Mothers of a More Boring Nation." For Corbett, the issue is reduced to a matter of pop politics—laissez faire v. the radical right wing. Alphapro vs. Jesus Christers, vs. Soccer Moms. About this battle, Corbett is adamant; he is grave. Without downtrodden, virtually unpopulated towns such as Brooklyn, the clubs would not exist. If a club opened up in a well-heeled community, among the Olive Gardens, the Outback Steakhouses, such as in, say, the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, "the Mothers of a More Boring Nation would gang up on em." It is an old argument—Not In My Backyard. "The clubs are here in these desolate areas because they don't have a lot of the politics of the better areas. It's a good thing. Who's going to complain? Hardly anyone lives in these desolate areas."
Corbett, inside Roxy's, relates the tale of a friend and fellow strip-club attendee, a pilot of river-born tugboats, a Mark Twain. When he gets his shore leave, thirty days at a time, this pilot heads straight for the strip clubs. This, however, has not always been so. Feeling a bit hedonistic because of his habits, the pilot decided one day to call it quits. Like a normal person, he would do his drinking at normal bars. Like a reformed pimp, he decided to go square. His abstinence lasted about half a shore leave. "Jack, I just can't do it," the pilot confided to his friend, "These regular bars, they're boring." Corbett continues the story. "My friend said that there was a surplus of guys. He said the regular bar situation in Belleville, that's where he lives, is that there are eight guys trying to pounce on the same girl, and she might not even be that great. The guys outnumber the women, and the women—they're stuck up. At the regular bars you've got to put up with all that crap. It's always the same shit, and it's fucking boring. He says anyone who's savored and tasted the strip club scene here—and he's single—you'd be outta your mind to stay way. At a strip bar you hang out with the strippers, you go to stripper parties, all that. He's a good guy, though. He doesn't try to get into the girls' panties, try to hustle em, you know? He's an intelligent guy. He just likes the social aspect of the strip-club scene here. He missed their raw energy."
Listening to Corbett I begin to understand why the fix of a "regular" bar could never meet the heightened requirements of the habitual strip-clubgoer, for out there, out in the real world, what man among us hasn't sat on a barstool—mute, dumb and staring—as our minds made objects of the women among us. Outside the pale and among the strippers, obtaining female companionship, though artificial, though commercial, is a matter of simple proximity. "Dream girls" they call them, these strippers who, for a price, will turn the aching desires of their clients into a fleeting fulfillment. Only at home and alone does that fulfillment vanish with the night. In the morning we all awake with hangovers.
Mayor Dennis Miller pilots a patrol car through the streets of his hometown. He wears the uniform of the prison guard. Outside a light rain is falling. The day is cold and gray. On the odometer the mileage reads 105,369. Crown Victoria, 1995. The upholstery has split on the passenger seat, its yellow-foam guts upchucked. Recently, from the far more affluent Madison County, just to the north, Brooklyn received the car—a municipal hand-me-down.
The Mayor says, "You don't just want to see the clubs, do you?"
"No, no," I say. "The whole town."
Up Canal Street, hanging a left on Fifth, the whole town appears low-slung. Falling somewhat short of the square yardage of a golf course, it is a grid of trailers and shotguns and wood-frame ranches. Sidings of pool-blue aluminum, of beige-rust aluminum, of peeling or unpainted clapboard. Parts of the town verge on Desire Project shack. Elsewhere, sturdy houses rise from a few plots of well-tended land. They startle with their smartness. In the center of town the trees are twiggy, short and sporadic. At the edges of town they're high, canopied and dense. Stray dogs, unleashed dogs, their fur matted with rain, trundle through the streets, mangy and purposeless, like the reincarnated craps shooters of Brooklyn past.
"They're a problem," the Mayor says of the dogs. "A major problem."
Soon we pass the Mayor's home, a trailer, tidy and whitewashed, close-by its neighbors. The Mayor grew up in the Brooklyn projects (which, though regimental and barracks-like, is no Cabrini Green), a series of five-story apartment buildings on the south side of town. A few blocks away from his trailer, we pass vacant lots, loose trash snatched up by the weeds, and next to these vacant lots a private junkyard. The Mayor stops the Crown Victoria. A look of disgust crosses his face. For some time now, he's been trying to force the owner to clean up his yard. In it are burn pits, heaped cordwood, toppled charcoal grills, tires, a motorcycle, and two cars in varying stages of disrepair. A trailer house, pocked with rust, sits in the middle of the yard, its windows draped with black garbage bags. A hand-painted sign is posted to the trailer. It says, in unsteady blood-red script, "KEEP OUT." I will have no trouble following its orders. The Mayor says that once the town gets a dump truck, it will begin forcibly clearing such "KEEP OUT" eyesores.
At an intersection we come to a barbershop and liquor store, which occupy the same cinderblock building. Outside these vital businesses, on the sidewalk, maybe a half dozen men idle in clusters. A floodlight is attached to the side of the Crown Victoria. The Mayor tilts the light, aiming, and beams the men with its high-wattage ray. Shielding their eyes, a few of them disburse. "I'm trying to get em off the corners. That sign says, 'No Loitering,' so they're violating a city ordinance. This is one of the drug areas. We've made some drug busts recently, but we don't have the resources. We've had to use outside resources in the past. We do the best we can."
Passing the Wells Pool Room, one-story, cinderblock, light-industrial in appearance, we come to what was formerly a skate rink, at one time a prideful affair for the town of Brooklyn, the site of a wholesome recreation. Village funds, however, ran short a few years ago, and the rink got closed down. Toward the roof of the building, knocked-out windows have now been boarded with plywood. Graffiti decorates the façade. Inside, the Mayor says, the floor is gone. The roof torrentially leaks. His words are plaintive. "We don't even have one place for kids to go after school and play."
We arrive suddenly behind and beside Roxy's, just to the south of the rink, having already driven past Sonny Henry's S&L Rub, which occupies a two-story wood-frame house. A neon sign above its door glowed red and "OPEN." Now, the Crown Vic moves slowly across a parking lot gridded with weed, apocalyptically rutted. The car jounces. In front of us, across the lot, there rises a sprawling white barn, its iron-pipe portico thrice-gabled. A sign out front says, "Fantasyland," and a subtitle below that, "Night Club." Frequently in the newspapers it was referred to as a "sex mall." A man named Everett Baker once owned the club. In 1999 a federal court ended a ten-year investigation by sentencing Baker to fifteen years for operating a prostitution racket. Fantasyland was his bordello. It and similar interests earned Everett Baker $9 million over the course of seven years. Fantasyland was seized, shuttered—Mothers of a More Boring Nation. Baker also lost his house in St. Louis, his Mercedes-Benz. Along with a nonprofit out of East St. Louis, the Housing Authority of St. Claire County had planned to convert the sex mall into a children's recreation center. In the Fantasyland basement, federal agents found catacombs, dungeons—S&M in outfit. Under its proposed new use: foosball tables, basketball courts, a library, reading rooms. The plan, however, was abandoned. Uninhabited for two years, Fantasyland's roof began to leak, its walls corrode. Someone broke in and made off with an air-conditioning unit of industrial size. Estimates for repair came in at $100,000, and the authorities deemed that price too much.
Despite this bleak scene, Dennis Miller is not bereft of optimism. Back at village hall and inside his mayoral office, he says that soon matters may not be so grim. He has a plan, he has a dream. Part of Brooklyn's territory borders the Mississippi River, occupied now by the defunct spur of the Union Pacific Railroad. Here, along this waterfront land—which was, in more-virginal times, the lush and fecund American Bottoms—there also stretches a mayor's fecund imagination. From a prominent spot on his desk, Miller takes hold of two thick binders, the pages of which contain preliminary but elaborate plans. He opens the top binder to a map schematic. Buildings and facilities are shapes on the page—a museum that will document the history of Brooklyn; a hotel of substantial room-capacity; a train station that will load and unload passengers from a projected light-rail commuter line coming in from St. Louis; a technological park just this side of Research Triangle. On late afternoons when he's feeling a bit pensive, Miller sometimes takes an access road through the U.P. penumbra and drives down to the riverfront. He steps out onto the concrete levee, the Mississippi River sliding beneath him, and envisions. Buildings rise from the muck, the muck is transformed into lawns and gardens. "It's a project, it's a project," Miller now says with excitement. He roots around in some cupboards for additional materials. Papers and binders fill up his arms.
How realistic is the Mayor about the development? Does he believe he'll have success with such a plan?
"I think we will, I think we will. If everything goes the way we want it to. A comprehensive study is being done right now by the Army Corps of Engineers. A land-use study. The first draft will be done in September next year. We've got everybody at the table. The state, the SWIDA, which is the Southwest Illinois Development Authority, the federal government. We've even been in the federal government office to talk it over with them. It's gonna be a big project." In conjunction with another state-run endeavor, the refashioning of two-lane Route 3 into something a bit more superhighway, Miller is putting together his plan. By the time the highway is complete, the Mayor wants his project ready and geared for the green light.
I ask him how long before this all comes together. He hisses, he chuckles. He says, "It's a long way off. Two-thousand nine or two-thousand ten."
The Mayor draws a connection between the Brooklyn waterfront and the Brooklyn sex front. "If everything happens the way we hope, I believe that one day these clubs won't be here. They've made enough money already. They've made a lot of money already. It's time for us to make some. And I believe that they know . . . it may not be five years from now, it may not be ten, but they know that one day this business won't be here. I believe it. I really do." Miller leans back in his chair, arms resting on the armrests. He is serious, statesmanlike, in bearing far more Mother Priscilla Baltimore than Ruby Cheetah Cook. "You know, I have this dream. Where I work, at the prison, people know where I'm from, and they read the paper, and they laugh. They laugh when they read in the papers about this village, all the corruption in its past, all the strip clubs and all the busts. But in this dream I have, I'm up at a podium. All around me are microphones. Cameras are flashing. The development has been built and I'm overlooking the riverfront and there's this big audience in front of me. The governor is there, senators and congressmen are there. The big shots. And all the people who laughed at Brooklyn and made fun of Brooklyn, they're all in the audience watching me, too. And I say into the microphones, 'I told you that one day I was going to do this. I told you Brooklyn would change. I told you so. I told you so.'
"And that's my dream."