Sometimes, one tires of the incessant cable news punditry; the same talking heads spouting the same talking points. Sometimes, one yearns for a fresh perspective on how issues affect regular Americans. You know, regular Americans who also happen to be dancers at a vegan strip club.
So off I went to Casa Diablo, the world’s first vegan strip club located in Portland, Ore. (Of course it is in Portland.)
The club is famous for a couple things beyond veganism: employing Lynsie Lee, whose Twitter friendship with Cory Booker briefly delighted everyone last September; and fake-blood tinged $2 bills that triggered a federal investigation and annoyed the other strip clubs in town.
Strictly speaking, most of the dancers are not vegan, although there is one from Hawaii who is not only “98 percent” vegan, but also doesn’t wear makeup because it’s so hard to find stuff not tested on animals. Once they step into work, however, they are temporarily vegan: They can’t bring in non-vegan food or wear fur, feathers, or leather. Multiple dressing room signs remind them of this, many of which are signed “—THANK YOU, THE ANIMALS.”
For Bambi, a green-eyed blonde in her 40s, mental health reform is the issue she’s most concerned with—especially since the death of her 26-year-old son last year. He had paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “The cutbacks that have been done to social and mental health services is atrocious,” she said.
She said she kept trying to have him committed to a mental institution, but instead he bounced in and out of jail for five years. “There’s a ton of people in jail with mental health issues,” she said, just before being called to the stage to the tune of Warrant’s Cherry Pie.
Before the spotlight shone a light on a soon-to-be abandoned black satin bra, she also condemned the effects of Obamacare. She said her 78-year-old neighbor whom she looks after now has to choose between buying food and paying for her increased insurance premiums.
“These people live on a fixed income!” she said indignantly.
Back in the dressing room, twenty something Kiki, with her vibrant pink-purple-black ombre hair, said she’s all for immigration reform—the Canadian has been trying to secure her U.S. citizenship any way possible, sinking $20,000 in legal fees into the effort and going so far as marrying a friend who then “immediately fucked off to Bangkok.”
He was supposed to come back to “masquerade the relationship,” but no such luck. Now, she’s starting to give up hope. “They lost my paperwork—twice … so now every person I date, I have to be like, ‘Will you marry me?’”
Then, she turned to a coworker and started complaining about an old guy who never spends money, but insists on describing her lurid, starring role in his dreams.
Harlo, another twenty something with ombre hair, is one of the club’s top dancers. Her figure is zaftig — “And I have giant boobs. Put that in there. They’re real; I grew ‘em myself.”
Her political affiliation? “Well, seeing as I’m a woman and I’m queer, I’m obviously a Republican. KIDDING!”
Her main side gig is sex worker activism; two years ago she helped organize the Portland SlutWalk, though she also dabbles in stand-up, plus writes poetry and sci-fi. But she loves stripping, and has been at Casa Diablo for almost six years.
“Men come in here for a lot of reasons,” she said. “Sometimes, men come in because they’re lonely or sad and don’t know how to reach out to a therapist. Life and sexuality is not like what we’re told about when we’re young. It’s more complicated.”
Later, a burly older man comes in, and Harlo squeals and hugs him. She whispers to me that she bought him a kitten — now a cat — a few years ago, after she decided he needed some regular companionship.
“But please mention that he was in the market for a cat,” she said, lest anyone think she is the kind of person that forces kitten ownership on people against their will.
Sedona, who is indeed from Arizona and looks like a very kind Bettie Page, said she has mostly stopped paying attention to the news, aside from NPR.
“I don’t like following politics because it feels like the illusion of options,” she said. “It seems like it’s all been bought; it feels like misdirection— ‘Look over here! Feel upset!’—while the real issues are being slipped by you.”
She’s particularly concerned about the American food supply, and to that end is setting aside almost all her stripping money toward the goal of buying a 30-acre parcel of land, which she will move to with like-minded individuals.
“We want to grow our own food as much as possible, though we’re not planning on growing grain—hopefully, we’ll grow enough to trade for that,” she said, adding that they plan to be off-grid, and are looking into the energy possibilities of humanure (human manure).
“Right now, there’s a company in the Midwest that’s doing it; they’re using it to run trucks,” she said.
When questioned about Crimea, Sedona said she hasn’t formed an opinion yet.
“I feel like I really need to do a lot of research and reading before I can make an informed decision,” she said. “Listening to a couple stories on NPR isn’t enough.”
She then headed to the stage and started peeling off her leotard as Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” boomed through the mostly-empty club.
Wednesdays and Thursdays are audition days at Casa Diablo, and a successful applicant was heading through the dressing room with a bouncer.
“Remind me of your stage name?” he asked.
“Oh. We already have a Lotus, so if you want to come up with something else?”
The lean and athletic Katniss was dressed in sweats and halfway through the extensive process of putting on her face. As she pulled products out of a camouflage makeup bag, the Alaskan Army vet said she misses George W. Bush.
“He was going in the right direction,” she said wistfully, adding that no matter what you can say about the wars he started, at least they created jobs.
She veers toward libertarianism when it comes to guns— “I’m all for gun rights,” —and the drug war.
“If they were to legalize marijuana, it’d free up a LOT of jail cells,” she said. “There are people who are serving the same amount of time as murderers or rapists that were caught selling weed.”
The women’s bathroom wall is covered in creepy doll wallpaper and graffiti. In all caps, someone wrote “SPREAD LOVE — That’s what a good stripper do!” Someone else crossed out ‘do’ and wrote “does. Plus, mind your grammar and stop reinforcing the negative stereotype that strippers are dumb!” which kicked off an extensive written conversation about vernacular, who has too much time on their hands and who should mind their own fucking business.
Evany, who sat outside with the smokers in big fake-furry boots, but otherwise minimal attire, said she’s of two minds on how Obama is doing. On the one hand, she’s now able to get health care, which she was often denied before due to past medical history.
“But I’m not a fan of him trying to put restrictions on gun laws—I have five firearms,” she said, plus a concealed carry permit. “I’m sorry, in this industry, customers can and do follow you home, and I need to be able to defend myself.”
Infinity—“spelled like the symbol, like I’m limitless,” she said sarcastically—jumped in at this point to lobby for stricter gun regulations.
“Go through nine fucking background checks,” she said. “If you need a gun in a hurry, you don’t need a gun.”
I asked if she was a vegan; she is not, but can’t stand the idea of hunting or fishing.
“My life should just be about creation—creation of boners, creation of art,” she said, adding that there’s no space for destructive hobbies like killing.
JC is relatively unique amongst the dancers—she doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs and has a stressful corporate day job for which she ties her long, thick hair into a buttoned-up bun. She prefers stripping.
“This is much easier,” she said. “It’s the same [type of] men I deal with at my other job, but there, I can’t tell people to fuck off.”
As a dancer, she said, she can never appear too smart; it ruins the illusion. A few weeks ago, a customer was explaining his job to her, which involves imaging satellites, “and I was like, oh! Yes, for Google Earth!” and he blanched, at which point she did some strategic hair-twirling and giggling to reassure him.
So how does she think things are going in America?
“That depends on how you look at it,” she said. “The state of the union is not the best, but there are good things—people who have never been able to afford health care have it now; that means a lot. … As for the war? We should get out of there sometime soon. We shouldn’t have veterans younger than me.”
And if she could ask one thing of Congress?
“I would tell them ‘You need to trade places with someone else—someone that is the same age as you, born on the same day, but whose socioeconomic background is completely different,’” she said. “I think most people over the 36 percent tax bracket have no idea what it means to live on welfare. [Politicians] don’t view them as people, they view them as numbers on a spreadsheet.”
Back in the Keno lounge, Red, whose stage name comes from her red hair and red lips—“I’m well-marketed,” she said, gesturing casually to herself—was relaxing between songs. Why does she strip? The money, of course.
“As a woman with a history degree? I’d be making $13 an hour, at best,” she said. She volunteers outside of work, and has been doing so since she was 17, working on behalf of sex workers, the homeless and for reproductive rights.
She gave up on idealism a long time ago.
“Plus, there’s a NASA study that came out last week that civilization is going to end in 15 years,” she said, adding dryly, “it sounds dire.”
If she had five minutes to talk to Obama, she said she’d talk about the “conflation of sex work with trafficking in policy.” Then, she she paused and added, “Oh, wait, I only have five minutes? Maybe water conservation.”
Kate, dressed in a vintage-looking floral bra, sits down next to Red and chimed in: “I’d probably be up on his desk yelling about some Keynesian shit,” she said, before getting into a complicated discussion of how the evolution of global finance has made trickle-down economics moot, and what constitutes good debt versus bad debt.
She didn’t stop there.
“I think Crimea’s just the start of them annexing the Ukraine, and it’s going to become much worse,” she said. “I don’t see it ending with Crimea at all.”
Then she and Red got into an argument about Putin, the Russian character and when Tsarism and feudalism truly ended in Russia. Kate said the 1917 revolution, while Red argued that it happened in 1860s, then expounded on about how the 1905 revolution was the truly progressive period in Russia, followed by a discussion of the geography of the natural gas pipeline versus the crescent of ethnically Russian Ukranians.
But sadly, this correspondent was out of $2 bills, and it was time to head home.