I always tell people that if you want to get to know me read my short stories. You will always find at least a small part of me in my stories. Sometimes it is a much larger part, and not that hard to pick out. However, writing a memoir puts all of your cards on the table face up; it’s ALL about you! Enjoy this follow up chapter to Love At Work, from my forthcoming memoir A Change Is Gonna Come. For more insight into BJ Neblett check out my first memoir Ice Cream Camelot, available in e book form and soon to be released in paperback.
© 2004, 2014
“Ow, she’s a Brick House/yeah a Brick House”
The Commodores’ distorted voices blasted from cheap speakers, ricocheted across the club and split the evening’s silence as I pulled open the heavy steel door. A burly, bearded, tattooed giant in denim and dark glasses gave us the cursory once over, clicked his hand held counter twice, and returned to his Easy Rider magazine. Inside, the well worn 45 RPM record skipped once, twice, three times on the jukebox.
“Damn!” A rough female voice screeched, filling in the unexpected void in the din.
“She’s mighty, mighty/just letting it all hang out”
The music picked up again. Our ears slowly acclimated to the excessive decibels. Our eyes dilated and adjusted themselves to the dim lighting. The thick gray smoke didn’t help.
The club was small I thought, not really knowing what to expect. Most of the ambient lighting came from red candle vases on the tables, the soft greenish glow of the jukebox, and a dusty mirror ball which spun silently overhead. Stumbling through a maze of tables, Bill and I made our way to the bar. A very bored looking bartender begrudgingly replaced the paper napkin under a drink, eyeballed us curiously and then looked out across the room. A total of eight customers, all males, were scattered about, strategically placed to make the club appear busy. I was trying to make my order known to the bartender when my friend forcibly spun me around in my stool and pointed. On our left, a long narrow chest high runway protruded from a small square stage like a huge phallic symbol. A buxom bleach blonde, scantily clad in G string, leather boots and a disinterested smile strutted up and down the glossy black surface somewhat in time to the music. She paused just long enough to bend over provocatively, allowing a wide eyed patron to slip dollar bills between flesh and string.
Bill and I watched agog. It was our third night in Houston, our second evening out and our first foray into the exotic, erotic and enigmatic world of gentlemen’s clubs. It wouldn’t be our last. As our work schedules permitted, Bill and I slowly graduated from the seamier to the classier strip clubs in town. Over the next few months, we sampled all that Houston offered. It wasn’t long before we learned the only difference between a strip joint and a gentleman’s club was the location of the building, the price of the drinks, and the age and quality of the dancers.
Smarting more than I realized from Julie’s sudden departure, I was through with any serious entanglements. I was twenty-eight and single, with a career that provided me a measure of fame as well as fortune. All I was interested in now was partying. One particularly boring night Bill in his infinite wisdom suggested we raise some hell. As we worked our way up through a chain of progressively classier clubs, the object of our boisterous behavior this evening would be The Forum, one of the city’s premier gentleman’s clubs on Houston’s trendy Southwest side.
The great thing about radio is you are known by your voice. You can be Joe Citizen with a private life when you choose. However, with the drop of your name to a doorman or maître d' it’s instant celebrity. Such was the case this evening. Bill and I were ceremoniously escorted to a great table just off the end of the runway stage. We took our seats as a half naked dancer concluded her number and faded into the background amidst hoots and cheers. The house lights brightened a bit and a nasally DJ suffering from either too much or too little cocaine announced with too much enthusiasm the presence of the city’s newest and hottest radio jock. Several barely clad beauties surrounded our table leading a round of applause. The intro was over the top, the scene embarrassing, and the undeserved celebrity status intoxicating. It was a drug I would indulge in repeatedly over the next few years.
The house lights dimmed, the club DJ made a quick pitch about tipping the waitresses, and then introduced the next flavor of the evening a fetching black girl named Licorice. As she strutted, a greasy gentleman with a bushy mustache approached our table. He was accompanied by a gorilla of a man in a fuchsia leisure suit, flowered shirt and dark glasses, following two steps behind. The mustachioed man positioned himself between Bill and me by placing ring studded hands on our shoulders. “Gentlemen, welcome to The Forum,” he proclaimed with a pronounced New Jersey accent. “My name is Harvey. I’m the manager. Anything you need, anything, you let me know.” He turned my way holding out a fleshy hand. “It’s especially nice to meet you Mr. James… Billy. May I call you Billy? Of course I can!”
I stood and he took my hand. Instead of shaking it he clasped his other hand firmly on my upper arm. Looking me straight in the eyes, Harvey nodded his approval. The last time anyone greeted me this way I was attending a Sons of Italy dinner at Palumbo’s Night Club in South Philly.
Releasing me from his grip, Harvey gave me a once over. “These eyes,” he said, almost poking out his own beagle browns with two stubby fingers, “these eyes, they have been around. I know… I can see.” He nodded with confidence, “James, now that must be just a stage name or something.”
It took me a second. I decided to play along. Hell, I figured I’d better. “You got me Harvey,” I confessed. “I was born in South Philly. My mother’s people are from the old country.”
“Ha!” Harvey slapped me on the shoulder. “I knew it.” He turned to his companion in the bright suit. “Did I tell you, Bruno?” Bruno nodded expressionless.
Unlike his apish friend, Harvey was more conservatively dressed. That is if you consider a pale yellow suite with white Florsheim shoes and a white open collar silk shirt set off by several gold chains conservative. His slick straight back hair showed a touch of thinning while his chin sported a perpetual shadow. He wore his olive skin loosely, befitting a man of fifty trying too hard to hold on to his youth. Turning his six foot muscular frame back my way, Harvey took my hand again, this time shaking it warmly. “Anything you need… someone gives you trouble in this town, you just let Harvey know. You want anything, I’m your man.” As he pumped my arm, from across the club a fetching blonde caught my eye. Harvey took notice. “Ah!” He grinned broadly and patted my cheek then pinched it. “You have good taste my friend.”
Before I could say a word, Harvey turned and whispered to Bruno. The big man almost smiled, nearly breaking his stoic expression. Returning his attention to Bill and me, Harvey laughed, wiggled a finger at us, laughed louder, and then he and Bruno disappeared into the crowd.
Bill was wearing a large grin of his own as I sat down.
“Looks like you made a new friend,” Bill said flashing that knowing expression of his.
“Well, with friends like that I won’t have to worry about enemies,” I replied.
“With friends like that you won’t have any enemies,” Bill corrected.
We turned our attention back to the stage where Licorice was into her second number. Strutting topless, her G string lined with bills, she positioned herself at the end of the stage. Smiling seductively at three guys seated nearby, she suddenly dashed off down the runway, slowing only slightly as she approached the far end of the stage. The nimble black stripper executed a perfect hand spring, throwing herself at a chrome dancer pole. A breathless second later Licorice hung upside down, her legs wrapped tightly around the shiny pole, her lithe body still wiggling in perfect time to the frantic music.
The club went nuts.
Bill and I smiled at each other and joined in the applause. From behind, a pleasant female voice with a pronounced Texas drawl cooed into our ears. “How do, gents?” A tall shapely strawberry blonde with hair down to her waist, a rose tattoo over her left breast and a sexy crooked smile stood between us. It was the girl that Harvey saw catch my eye. Without waiting for a reply, she placed a green bottle of unknown brand on our table. “This,” she said, “is on the house.” Producing four stemmed glasses, she poured, skillfully topping each with a pale reddish bubbling beverage. She then slid my chair from the table and fitted herself comfortably across my lap, one tan arm around my shoulder. “And so are we!”
I looked at Bill befuddled. He had his own hands and lap full with a pretty redhead. Adjusting to the situation quicker than I, he grinned across the table. “Now how’d Harvey know I preferred redheads?”
Kiki, Bill’s redhead, and Mandy, my sexy companion stuck with us all night. They kept us well oiled with mediocre champagne. We kept them well decorated with bills. By the end of the evening we had all become quite friendly.
Kiki was cute as a button and just about as big. Working as a dancer for just six months, she hailed from Louisiana and carried a tough Cajun accent that didn’t match her round girlish face. Her tiny frame and red curly hair, to say nothing of her over ample breasts, came straight out of my friend’s fantasies. At six foot and five foot nothing respectively, Bill and Kiki were quite a sight.
I was enjoying the situation myself. Twenty-four year old Mandy was an old pro, having worked the clubs since before her eighteenth birthday. Thin and shapely on a leggy five foot eight inch frame, her round pointy breasts, heart shaped face, full lips and cute light freckles served her well in the competitive, cut throat business. On her own since fifteen, Mandy’s worldly knowledge, street savvy, and determined confidence belied her age. She was sweet and funny and, unlike many dancers, down to earth and real. From my lap, Mandy batted her long lashes at me and through her crooked smile drawled, “Well, ain’t you just the most adorable thing!” I was hooked. Mandy and I were off on a stuttering, unconventional, fun, no strings relationship that would renew itself time and again over the course of a dozen years.
Bill and I continued to explore Houston’s seemingly endless stream of strip clubs. From Southwest plush to Eastside sleazy we sampled them all. Sometimes Mandy and Kiki would tag along. Sometimes dancers we’d meet in one club would lead us to other clubs and more wild times. Either way, the young ladies we encountered were always eager and willing to make sure a good time was had by all.
By the summer of ’79 I was something of a radio star in Houston. The fame wasn’t lost on any false modesty as I continued to live the part. A string of casual, quick relationships peppered with one night stands, plus the always ready for fun Mandy, fueled by alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy became my modus operandi. When I wasn’t on the air; doing a remote or personal appearance for the station, or mixing records at a disco, I could usually be found on the town.
My party partner Bill on the other hand all but ended his nocturnal reveling. He was in love. The elusive object of his affections was a lovely divorced black woman who worked alongside of him at Texas Instruments. Hopelessly smitten, Bill relentlessly pursued her, leaving me for the most part to party on my own. It didn’t take long for me to grow accustomed to going it solo.
Honey and Summer
One sticky night in July I wandered into a new small club off of Highway 290 on Houston’s northwest side. Finding a comfortable seat away from the deafening music but in good view of the stage, I ordered my usual gin and Seven Up. I was just finishing my second when a petite blonde took the runway.
Her movements were faltering and unsure. Self-consciousness shone through her painted smile. Looking around, I doubted anyone in the small club was paying attention to her face. Shedding the skimpy baby doll top for her second number, the DJ re-introduced her as Honey, “The newest bee in the hive.” From her movements and youthful looks, I estimated her to be very new. I watched as she nervously strutted to the end of the runway. Pulling a wad of bills from my jeans, I strolled up to the stage. Honey smiled and stooped, allowing me to line her G string with ten singles. She brushed my cheek with a kiss. I whispered, “Come join me at my table.” Nodding discretely, Honey rose and returned to her dancing.
A very cute girl with golden brown ringlet curls followed Honey’s performance. She too seemed nervous, refusing to make eye contact with customers. After a time I had given up and was about to leave when I spied Honey crossing the club. Dressed in a black teddy with garters and a sheer black cover up, she approached my table, followed closely by the cute ringlet girl. “Hi.” Honey’s voice lived up to her name.
I stood. In tall heels, she was barely my height. The ringlet girl took her place beside Honey as I held out a hand. “Hello.”
“Hi,” she repeated with a nervous tremble. Her hand was tiny in mine, her skin smooth and baby white. She cast her chocolate bunny eyes downward and her cherry cheeks flushed a deeper red. “Hi, I’m Honey. This is Summer.”
Studying the fetching pair, I realized these two belonged on the side lines of a high school football game shaking their pom-poms, not shaking their young bodies on stage in a Houston strip club. “Nice to meet you both,” I said holding a chair. Honey sat next to me. Summer sat close to Honey.
A waitress arrived with another drink for me. She placed what looked to be a cola with cherries in front of Summer, and a Shirley Temple by Honey. At the time, in Texas you could work in bars and clubs, serve drinks, even dance topless at the age of eighteen. You just couldn’t drink alcohol until you reach twenty-one. Honey looked up from the innocent beverage, her cheeks redder than before. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, biting her lower lip. “We aren’t old enough to drink.”
I smiled back at the both of them, bemused by the situation, “Of course not.”
Honey noticed my gaze landing on her silent partner. “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I should have asked, but Melissa… I mean Summer…” She cast her eyes down again as if expecting to be scolded for the slip. “Summer is my best friend. We do everything together.”
I felt as if I were back in high school, my timid blind date forcing her reluctant girlfriend to tag along, just in case. It wasn’t a bad feeling. “It’s nice to meet you both. I’m Billy.”
Summer silently sipped her drink. Honey continued to blush and stare at the table. “We know who you are, Mr. James,” she said almost apologetically. “We seen ya up in the DJ booth at the Library Club. We love your station.” Summer let the straw slip from her kissable lips long enough to nod in agreement.
“Well then,” I replied, trying my best to ease their nervousness, “you should know I like to be called Billy.” Both girls smiled. “So, you know who I am, tell me about you.”
Honey looked up, obviously relieved at the simple question. “Well, Summer and I are from Enid, Oklahoma.” She placed a delicate hand on the other girl’s wrist, looking at her affectionately. “We’ve known each other since the third grade.” The two smiled warmly at one another before Honey turned her attention back to me, leaving her hand resting on Summer’s arm. “We’ve been best friends ever since. After graduation last month we moved here. Enid is so boring. We wanted some fun, excitement.” Summer readily nodded again but remained silent. They both relaxed a bit. “We’ve met some really nice people working here, and the other girls are so sweet and helpful.”
Their simple, trusting naivety was overwhelming. I wondered if they truly understood where they were and what they were doing. Born Amanda and Melissa, they took jobs dancing on a dare. Both had been cheerleaders back home in Enid, Amanda – Honey – head cheerleader and the quiet, lovely Melissa prom queen.
Honey’s mention that they did everything together proved an understatement. I never saw the two apart. That evening, after the girls got off work we drove over to Jo Jo’s Restaurant for breakfast. Away from the club they slipped comfortably back into their innocent, mid-western selves. A few nights later I was invited to spend the night at the apartment they shared. I quickly learned the true meaning of we do everything together, and why the shy pair were eager to leave the moralistic judgments of small town America behind.
Like all of the dancers I dated, Honey, Summer and I carried on a comfortable, casual, on again off again relationship. As it was, the pair followed the well trodden path of other dancers, perfecting their trade, learning to deal with the advances of overly eager customers, and honing their skills at juggling several regulars at the same time. They also followed the downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, partying and too much too fast.
The last time I saw the affectionate duo the three of us spent a fun Easter weekend on the beach at Galveston Island. The girls seemed to be handling their chosen careers well, having graduated to the nicer gentleman’s clubs. But the effects of cocaine and late hours had already begun to wear away at their natural beauty. Returning to the city, we discovered someone had broken into the girl’s apartment. Although visibly shaken, they shrugged it off as just another random burglary in the big city. I sensed it was something more.
Summer had become acquainted for a time with a well known drug dealer. She hadn’t seen him for at least a month. Still, three days after the break in, an addict, strung out on crack and heroin showed up at the girl’s apartment ranting that he had been burnt by Summer’s friend in a drug deal gone bad. They desperately tried to reason with him, explaining through the chained and locked door that he wasn’t inside.
He wouldn’t be convinced.
Leveling a sawed off shotgun at the flimsy apartment door, the crazed addict fired both barrels. The two innocent eighteen year old's from Enid, Oklahoma, who were only looking for fun and excitement, were killed instantly.
Through my relationship with the enigmatic Mandy, I became a full time denizen of the world of strip clubs. It was a world unto itself, with its own set of rules, priorities and standards; a world that existed primarily while the rest of the world slept. For the most part, this was a world ruled over by money and drugs. But there were exceptions.
Mandy was one.
Every bit a party girl, Mandy had a good head when it came to that very same partying. A junior high dropout, she was fond of quoting Mark Twain, the Bible and Oscar Wilde. Her very appropriate mantra was Wilde’s Moderation in everything, except moderation. They were wise words for someone dealing with the readily availability of drugs.
And then there was Molly.
Along with The Forum, Sweeties and The Second Look were the premier gentleman’s clubs in Houston. The three were written up in Playboy and Penthouse magazines. Here the prettiest girls at the top of their game danced for high rollers from the sports field and the board rooms. Here drugs took a backseat to dollars. The three clubs were no nonsense money makers and the Holy Grail for every serious dancer. Molly was the poster girl for the Hollywood ideal of what a stripper should be, and what America wanted to believe.
Just thirty-three when we met, Molly was a devoted mother of two, holding down two jobs while putting herself through paralegal school. The wildly beautiful brunet was full of boundless energy and optimism. An athletic body that she somehow found time to keep in shape belied her age and rough early life at the hands of an abusive husband. Classic looks, long sexy legs, and a sharp, caustic sense of humor made her a favorite among regulars at The Second Look. She also enjoyed her role as nurse maid, surrogate mom and mother confessor to the other girls.
We actually met in the club’s parking lot late one night after closing. “Perfect ending to a perfect day!” she fumed aloud, almost in tears.
“Perfection is an over rated concept,” I said, strolling over.
She looked up, wiping mascara from her piercing blue eyes, “One that has been the downfall of many a good man.”
“Touché, but chivalry is alive and well, my lady,” I replied, feeling the effects of the evening’s gin.
“And does Sir’s gallant steed carry a spare to fit a ’76 Volare?”
“Ah, a rare breed indeed. Me thinks not. However I am at my lady’s service. My name is Billy.”
Shaking my hand, her eyes narrowed and her smile widened to a shrewd grin. “I know who you are. I’ve seen you in the club a number of times.”
“That’s not exactly what I would call a stellar recommendation.”
“Perhaps not, but I know you’re one of the good ones. My name is Molly.”
Molly tossed a small travel bag into the stranded car’s back seat. “Honey, when you work with fifty other girls there are no secrets.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” I said, blushing and making a mental note to watch what I said and to whom.
“Besides,” Molly locked the car’s door and turned, her large purse slung over one shoulder, “you can observe a lot just by watching.”
The passage made me laugh. “Now how can I leave someone who quotes Yogi Berra stranded; especially such a pretty damsel in distress?”
Molly and I ate breakfast at Denny’s, breakfast and nothing more than a quick peck on the cheek. One night stands weren’t Molly’s style. With the busy pace she kept she barely had time to herself. The next day, after my show, I had Molly’s tire repaired and brought it to her apartment. It was her day off. I enjoyed her company the night before and my plans included talking her into going out to eat. Instead, I sat down to my first home cooked meal in years.
The apartment’s homey atmosphere, barking dog, ringing phone and bickering kids dispelled the typical stripper’s image I held. Over delicious homemade manicotti, Molly explained that many of the girls, especially at the better clubs were just struggling working moms as herself. “Just don’t tell the regulars,” she joked, “or we’ll all be out of work.” Later that evening, as we drove to pick up her car, Molly surprised me. Sliding across the wide bench seat of my vintage De Soto, she kissed me tenderly. Then she looked at me with soft but tired eyes. “Tomorrow is Saturday. I have a rare weekend off. Please don’t send me home to my screaming kids and lonely bed.”
Her touching plea caught me off guard. “What do you suggest?”
She shut her eyes and sighed. “It’s been a long time for me. I guess I’m just out of practice at this.”
I kissed her cheek. “Don’t worry,” I teased, “it’s just like riding a bicycle.” That won me a big laugh and another kiss. Twenty minutes later we entered my apartment. Molly made some phone calls while I made some hot chocolate against the cool, damp February night. When I carried the tray into the bedroom I found her curled up on the bed fast asleep.
Late the next morning I heard the shower running as I fixed omelets and toast. Molly appeared wearing my bathrobe, looking refreshed and beautiful. She sighed and sampled the orange juice I handed her. “I guess I should have told you. I never learned to ride a bicycle,” she confessed and we both laughed.
Molly and I dated for around a year. It was a very easy, casual relationship, both of us enjoying what was missing from our lives. We did normal things, like normal people: movies, dinner, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and the annual Renaissance Festival. We agreed on the basic ground rule of not mentioning work.
I got to spend some time with her kids as we visited Astroworld Amusement Park and took in the Astros. Molly turned out to be an avid baseball fan. I became an instant hero to her son the afternoon I threw out the first pitch at the Astrodome and introduced him to some of the players.
Molly graduated from school and left the club life behind. She landed a good job in a judge’s office. Shortly afterwards Molly married. The last time I heard she, hubby, the kids and new baby were doing just fine.
And so it went. Four years dissolved into a blur of over indulgence. Like the dancers I dated, I too found myself awash in a sea of too much too fast.
The spring of ’81 my friend and fellow DJ Misty reluctantly accepted a good job offer from a station in Baltimore. At a going away party she hugged me a little longer and cried a bit harder than I expected. It gave me pause. But her career was on the move. It was time to let her go.
Later that same year I stood up for my best buddy Bill. He finally managed to charm his heart’s desire. Or, as Shirley put it, she slowed down enough for the old guy to catch her. Bill and Shirley made quite a pair and I never saw my best friend happier.
December 1981 I turned thirty-one. I spent my birthday alone, mostly by choice. The clubs were closed. Mandy was off with friends to South Padre Island. Molly was busy with family, as were most of my friends. Bill and Shirley were spending their first holiday together as husband and wife.
I sat alone in the darkened air studio on Christmas Eve drinking heavily spiked eggnog. Looking out on the city, I pictured the Astrodome as a giant chocolate muffin with a single lit candle. I really didn’t need to be there but I had nothing else to do; no place to go. I volunteered to mind the on air board, giving the married jocks time with their families.
I looked over my shoulder often, thinking I heard something. The ghosts that haunt every radio station were restless.
It was a lonely uncomfortable night.