I wore green skin tight pants and a black long sleeve shirt with cut-outs, and more makeup than I ever wore. I figured the more I dolled up, the less likely I would be recognized on the street. So I wore more mascara, more eyeliner and enough eye shadow to stain my fingers whenever I ran my hands across my face.
The attention was immediate. As I walked towards the bar I was catcalled by the men standing outside. I ignored them only to hear them make sounds of appreciation and approval as I stepped inside where the music waited for me.
It was my first time seeing the bar alive. There were colorful lights and people inside, a stark contrast from what it looked like in the harsh light of day. I remember thinking how it looked much less seedier then, with shadows in the corners and colored lighting to set the mood. What kind of mood, I wasn’t sure.
The owner spotted me and showed me around. He introduced me to the bartender and explained how it worked: I would mingle and dance. For every $10 beer a patron bought me I would get a ticket worth $5 in cash. For every $20 dollar beer, I would get two tickets worth $5. At the end of the night I could trade them in for cash.
This was a slight problem. I don’t really drink, let alone like beer. As a kid my father would slip me sips of Budweiser, his favorite weekend drink. I was curious but always thought the stuff tasted like fizzy piss. But here the game was to get men to buy me this stuff and drink it fast enough so they’d buy me more.
The owner showed me the size of the bottles. The smaller bottles meant less beer, but also less money. The larger ones, the Coronas, would put more money in my pocket but the bottles were clear and made my distaste more difficult to hide. They were oblivious to this. The bartender assured me that I could dump some of the beer with the opaque bottles and no one would be the wiser.
They left me alone, and for a large portion of the night I stood there and waited. I tried to look pretty and enticing, the kind of woman you’d buy a drink for because you couldn’t pay her in cash for attention.
The first guy who bought me a drink complained: $20 for a beer, he asked. That’s ridiculous. I’d rather just give you the money instead, he proclaimed. But he didn’t.
The second guy was a lot nicer. He treated me to a couple of rounds of pool and bought me Coronas. I went to the bathroom and dumped half of the first one down the sink. The second, I stopped caring and splashed portions behind the bar.
When we were both done drinking he asked me to go outside with him while he smoked a cigarette. He confided that he lived close by, that he had to be at work in a couple of hours but had stopped at the bar because of a friend. I told him I preferred to smoke. We made plans to meet the next day so he could hook me up, and he left to get some rest before work.
I went back inside alone.
The last few hours were brutal, a waiting game. We were all dying to leave and make more money at the same time. One woman sat next to me and we talked for a while, waiting for closing time to arrive so we could all go home.
She asked me if my boyfriend knew I was there. I told her I didn’t have one of those. As we watched another girl, a skinny little thing dance with regulars, she told me about her dogs and how much she loved them. She talked to me about her boyfriend, about her own life and I was happy to listen.
As she talked she gave me a pretty good idea of the dynamics of the bar. She pointed to a girl sitting with a patron a told me with a voice full of awe, how she got so many tickets per night. Even on slow nights, the lady told me, this girl we both watched always cashed out twice as many tickets as everyone else.
I watched. The girl was on the chubbier side, but that wasn’t what I noticed, or what mattered. What I did see was how the patron ran his hand across her ass, how she leaned into him like an old lover. She whispered in his ear and giggled. I couldn’t watch for long.
There were a couple of other patrons. I danced and dumped a couple of more beers. When the lights came on I helped clean up a bit and cashed out my tickets. While I waited I asked to cash out for the night, and the owner and manager laughed condescendingly to each other. I wouldn’t get paid per night, they finally told me. Those payments were cashed out at the end of the week. That was the first time they told me.
I walked home slightly angry. I got played. I had to return the next day. But I was more worried that I’d be followed home. I lived a block away from the bar just around the corner, in a building that was clearly public housing and was much seedier than the bar.
I worried that the wrong person would notice. It only took one, but it was well past 4 AM and I walked alone. I checked on my car and walked into the building, making sure the door closed behind me. I took the elevator up to my apartment and washed my face. Then I crawled into bed.
The next morning I woke up incredibly sore. I groaned. Getting out of bed was a chore and I was tempted to stay in bed until I had to go to the bar again. But I had errands to run, so I got up.
For the first time in weeks I had cash to spend. I bought breakfast from the bodega around the corner, just one block from the bar, something simple. Eggs, ham and cheese on a roll. Orange juice and a banana. The guys behind the counter were starting to recognize me and immediately noticed something different. My hair was done. My skin was smooth. They made sounds of approval. I ignored them.
I went back upstairs and counted the cash. I realized for the first time that I was short $5. I counted in my head. I counted the cash. I counted again what I had already spent. I was sure I had been paid less the night before.
I went to the bar and spoke to the manager. He told me he was sure I was mistaken. If he had paid me any less, his register would’ve been off. I didn’t have much to argue with. Everything was cash, and I had already spent a portion. I got played again.
Later I went to the Chinese food place close to the bar to meet the Pool Guy from the night before. He sold me some cheap smoke and we talked for a bit. I ordered pork fried rice and chicken wings and took it home with me.
When I got back to the apartment I had a text from Pool Guy. He asked me out, said he felt we had a connection, one that had nothing to do with smoking. He was wrong and I told him so. I never heard from him again.
I took a nap before working again. This time I wore a dress.
As I danced the night before I realized wearing pants and long sleeves had been a mistake. It got hot very quickly. It made me sweat. Besides, if I was going to be treated like an interchangeable piece of meat I might as well dress that way. So I wore a short green flowered dress and kitten heels, and then I piled on the makeup and brought with me a Chinese paper fan.
Then I walked to the bar.
I walked in like I owned the place and sat at the bar, fanning myself. I gave the manager a good laugh when he saw me. I was asked immediately to dance.
And, oh I danced. The music was a mixture of Cumbia, Merengue, Salsa, Reggaetton and Bachata. I learned a bit of Cumbia, everything else I already knew from house parties growing up.
That second night I met a short older man who I’d later realize was a regular. I say he was older because he was definitely older than me, about 10 years or so, but what struck me was that his hair was completely gray. He was however, incredibly fit and slim and with skin better than most men I know. He was distraught over a woman who had broken his heart. She left him for someone else, and he was inconsolable.
Do you know how much I make? He asked me. I didn’t, so he told me. I was impressed. Then he went on: you women should be grateful, he told me. If it weren’t for us men, you wouldn’t have a job. I stopped dancing at that.
He tried again, complained that all we women want are men with jobs and cars.
What’s wrong with that? I retorted.
All you women want are men with cars, he repeated.
I have my own car, I told him.
Then he tried again: tu haces perico, he asked me. I had no idea what he meant. What the fuck is perico?
Que es perico? I asked, but instead of answering he leaned on the bar and cried.
I looked around for someone else to dance with. The bar was full, but a number of the men were sitting down, either chatting in groups or nodding off. That didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand why would someone come to a crowded bar only to fall asleep.
A guy walked in with two girls, a blonde and a brunette. At first it wasn’t clear who he was really with, then it became clear that he was with both, taking turns with each of them, kissing and feeling them up, a show for all of us to see.
There was another guy a little closer to my age. We danced a few times and I think he bought me a beer, I actually don’t remember, but it was nice getting to dance again. As we moved, he brushed a hand across my breast. I thought it was a mistake and ignored it. He told me I was pretty.
When we stopped dancing we sat at the bar with his friend. As we talked they were getting too close for my comfort. I stood to get more space, and just as I moved the guy I had been dancing with reached out and grabbed my crotch and squeezed, hard.
I reacted immediately. I snatched his arm away and yelled. “No!” they way one would scold a misbehaved dog. “No!” I said again and walked away. I told the manager. He shrugged me off like there was nothing he could do. I told the girls, and they all repeated that it was up to us to set boundaries. That the men would try anything unless we made it clear it was not okay.
The trio was still putting on a show by the pool table. The girls were both in short dresses that kept riding up. They interchanged kisses.
I was livid. I hated that it was assumed my body was game unless I said otherwise at a bar that clearly wouldn’t have any women in it unless they were paid.
Later the guy came up to me and apologized and pressed cash in my hand, a way to clear his conscience, I guessed. I looked down in my hand. It was a dollar. A fucking dollar for assault. I walked away.
The trio was dry humping against the pool table.
As the night dragged on perico guy came up to me as I sat on the bar and tried to pull me towards him. I was done with him, but before I could say anything the bartender spoke up for me.
Are you going to buy her a drink? She asked. He made a pitiful face and tried to pull me again, but I wrestled my arm free.
Are you going to buy her a drink? The bartender asked again. He looked like he was going to cry and walked away.
The blonde and the brunette started kissing as the man felt them both up. Everyone watched. It was hard to look away.
They were there until the lights came on. Perico guy was passed out on a table. I avoided him as I cashed out. I got my money for both nights, $70 plus whatever drinks were bought for me that night. I made sure to count my tickets twice.
The girl who cashed out the most tickets, the one that was pointed out to me the night before rubbed up on the owner and laughed as I stood there, a private joke. As I walked away he made me promise to come back the next weekend. I sad yes, and walked home to sleep the rest of the night.
I never went back.