7:30 p.m., Erotic City gentleman's club
Ashli struts through a white curtain onto a dingy gray stage in a dark room no bigger than a Starbucks. The sharp crunch of Metallica provides a harsh contrast to the four disco balls sending specks of light across her black bustier, lace panties and thigh-high patent leather platform boots--one of what she calls her "moneymaker outfits." She heaves a 50-pound duffle of similar attire into Erotic City each night she works and has numerous boxes more of the expensive gear piled up at home. Within minutes, all but a tiny g-string and the boots are scattered around the stage's pole, while Ashli gives four men lap dances for a dollar apiece.
She smiles distantly at the face attached to each lap, asking harmless questions over the deafening music--"How's your night going?" "What do you do?"--to young men often too scared to reply. Hers is a laissez-faire approach to stripping, based on the premise that "some guys just want someone to talk to." Other dancers take a different attitude, growling veiled commands into eager ears about the wonders available in the four private booths along Erotic City's back wall. Almost everybody obeys.
When Ashli's two-song set is over, she unceremoniously gathers her discarded clothes and a few crumpled singles into a ball, presses it against her latex nipple covers and strolls offstage. It quickly becomes apparent that her approach has worked when a heavyset middle-aged man emerges from the back of the room and hands the bouncer the $40 required for two songs' worth of Ashli's undivided attention. She leads the man into a space just larger than a voting booth and draws the curtain behind him.
Ashli's shy demeanor and open ear is her "thing"; the character she plays and her non-physical allure, capturing just enough local imaginations to allow her to support two children and pursue a psychology degree with only three or four nights of work a week--all while keeping her family and close friends completely ignorant of her job.
It is also a curse that "causes" some of her fans to waver dangerously between "fiscally in lust" and "dangerously in love." She has been proposed to twice while working at Erotic City, once with a ring, and has briefly felt the greedy glare of her own personal stalker. These fixated loners are the special cases, but the blindly horny rabble can be just as unpleasant.
"Here at Erotic City the guys are young and innocent ... I feel like Mary Kay Letourneau," she explains of the 18-and-over club, having also worked at most of the bikini bars around Boise. "I've personally had very bad experiences with the really old guys. One, I found out, was a higher-up in the Mormon Church. He always wanted me to dress like a little girl and inappropriately touched me. I finally got tired of it and told him off, and he moved on to other girls. I don't need the money that bad."
Of course, when Ashli first arrived in a strip club, she didn't need the money either--at least not in the stereotypical "starving on the streets, raging meth addiction" way. She was, like so many Idahoans in their mid-20s, a veteran of numerous "real" jobs at call centers and restaurants who was "tired of working all the time at a high-stress, good-paying job."
"My kids were being raised by daycares and my marriage was a sham," she recalls. "Something just made me want to try this." Her only training was a fondness for Striptease and Showgirls, but after a one-night tryout and a two-month mulling-over period, Ashli decided to bare it all. That was three years ago.
Approximately three seconds after the second song ends, Ashli and her companion emerge from the private booth. The taps of her massive heels are drowned out by the beginning of a Salt n' Pepa song as she totters backstage to prepare for her next turn on stage. He sits down next to his waiting buddy and says one word: "Unreal." Then he heads for the bathroom. The friend gets up, takes out his wallet and walks over to the bouncer.
"Weird vibe in the club tonight," Ashli explains with an hour and a half left before closing time. "Everyone seems to have glossed-over eyes and looks bored." Even though 25 people line the stage and the handful of surrounding tables, most look beaten down, buzzed and exhausted. They clap at the end of routines, lay down dollars when girls come near but hardly seem conscious of the intended effect of the spectacle transpiring before them.
The girls each respond differently to being stonewalled. A couple of hours earlier, when the entire four-girl lineup (which is repeated all night like a batting order) performed consecutively without earning a dollar, several stopped removing clothing altogether. Others berated spectators into tipping. Ashli simply stared vacantly into a mirror on a nearby wall and practiced her acrobatic pole technique. "When they are like that," she states simply, "we are like that." As such, even though Ashli has made as much as $400 in a night, she has also made as little as $20.
In such dire straits, and with strippers not earning the $2.13 an hour bestowed upon waitresses and other tip-dependent workers, the private dance room takes on added significance. Unfortunately, that is also when Ashli's psychological training encounters its most unnerving case studies.
"I lucked out tonight," she says toward closing time. "All of the guys who bought private dances with me were very nice." After just three years, though, she has an unlimited supply of stories where they aren't. She can recall handfuls of "dances that are wrestling matches to keep the guys from touching"; men who beg her to remove her pasties, risking fines and a criminal record; girls who get vomited on, or who grind on such robust-smelling laps that they are compelled to slather their bodies in antibacterial hand gel afterward. "I've been exposed to a whole new world, and I've seen a lot of things that I never thought I would see," she says. "I grew up rather protected. My family would just die if they ever found out."
After 3 a.m., once she tips out the owner, DJ and bouncer, Ashli heads home with over $200--not a bad haul considering the lethargic post-holiday crowd. The secondhand smoke she has been breathing for the last nine hours will keep her up past five watching infomercials and tinkering on the computer. But that's okay; her rush also gives her time to remove her copious eyeliner, heal her "bruised, battered body" with a super-hot bath and then count and recount her money. "I've only rolled in it once," she insists.
At 8 a.m., she stumbles out of bed and off to class, or to look after her children, or to shop for more boots and lingerie. Her hair is up, her clothes are sensible and her secret is safe. Nobody she talks to will know, and the glaring three-year gap on her resume is one night larger. That's the price of the huge wad of singles in her purse.
Note: Nicholas Collias' three-part series on Boise's adult entertainment scene continues next week with a look at bikini bar customers and concludes Jan. 26 with a look at the business side of owning and operating an exotic dance club.