“Wanna go to a strip club?”
This is a question that will usually inspire a resounding “No!” from me. I’m not offended by strip clubs as a concept, nor morally outraged by the various branches of the sex industry. I remain academically interested in all things sleazy and perverse. But, as I’ve said here before, I don’t like my porn looking back at me. It’s creepy.
My past experiences with strip clubs have not been positive ones. Aside from the usual variety of ill-advised bachelor parties, and the one drunken crawl along the Montreal stripper strip that ended with a body count (the less said the better), there was the television shoot for Strip Club Confessions I was recruited for several years ago. I did that one as a favour for a friend (although the C-note helped grease my wheels) and thereafter swore off crossing the threshold of one of those dives ever again (bachelor party attendance out of sheer politeness aside, of course). They simply do nothing for me. Frankly, I’ve felt more blood flow to my cock swimming in a bone-chilling Canadian lake than I’ve ever felt in a strip club.
What was unusual about this particular “Wanna go to a strip club?” query was that I was the one asking the question. To my wife.
To understand why I would ever ask such a thing, you have to know the history of Picasso. Not the painter, the legendary 24-hour feed bag along Rue Saint-Jacques in the sleaziest stretch of the Montreal-West/N.D.G. area. For thirty years, if you wanted a good breakfast at 3:00 am, there was no better (or other) place to go than Picasso – a hybrid restaurant/diner/truck stop of a place within easy walking distance of any number of drug dealers, prostitutes and no-tell motels. St. Jacques was, once upon a time, the main artery into downtown Montreal from the west island. But then they built highway 20, and the artery turned into a varicose vein of dodgy economic blight. The legit businesses withered and died, the fast-food franchises got obscurer and greasier, and the motels started charging hourly rates as they shut their doors to family road-trip vacationers and opened them to solicitors of various rentable orifices.
Picasso had stood as a friendly oasis in this post-highway era from 1979 to 2009, but then abruptly closed overnight following a labour dispute with its staff. Attempts have been made to renovate and reopen, but they all fizzled out and the place has stood there rotting ever since.
At this point, Picasso looks like a post-apocalyptic prop. The elements, particularly Montreal’s harsh winters, have taken their toll, eating away at anything wooden. The windows and walls are covered in tags and graffiti, some of the windows are boarded up, the interior looks like it’s been frozen in time for centuries and covered in the expected amount of dust and debris, and the numerous plants and trees inside what was once a verdant greenhouse of a dining area have turned a pale brown and formed a petrified forest.
Picasso’s east-side entry.
What used to be Picasso’s roadside sign, now communicating nothing.
Graffiti, rotting wood, and stripped wiring.
Some of the dead jungle inside.
Abandoned interior with evidence of past non-starter attempts to renovate.
Lens flare as the sun sets on Picasso.
Graffiti on one boarded up window suggests a former employee’s take on the restaurant-ending labour dispute.
Graffiti on another board eulogizes what someone once liked best about Picasso.
Even a parting sentiment painted on the window fades under the constant assault of time and the elements.
Any other building in such a condition would have been a prime candidate for the wrecking ball. But Picasso persists. Not because there’s any hope for a revival, but because there’s a business in the basement. And you can’t destroy one without levelling the other.
Cabaret Les Amazones is the lone strip club on the street. Montreal has no shortage of strip clubs and has been a target destination for many a south-of-the-border youth looking for a titty-bar smorgasbord and a lower legal drinking age for decades. The fact that Amazones is the only business of its kind the area can support goes to show what an economic dead zone St. Jacques has become. Its weather-beaten and decayed sign towers at the side the road, beckoning commuters with promises of nudity and contact. The single uninviting entry point leads directly downstairs, into whatever debauched dungeon lies beneath the skeletal remains of Picasso.
East-bound traffic is solicited with this sad, sun-washed and weather-beaten sign.
West-bound traffic is apparently not even worth advertising to. The glass on this side of the sign has been shattered and missing for years.
Picasso’s boarded-up west-side entry and the door to the debauchery below.
I would wonder, sometimes to myself, often aloud, what sort of shithole must that place be to exist under the derelict remains of a decomposing restaurant in one of the ugliest corners of the city. I’ve long been curious to see, but reluctant to go. Not without a bodyguard.
“Wanna go to a strip club?” I asked my wife as we drove past one day. I don’t know how functional she’d be as a bodyguard, but she’d be sure to scare the shit out of any ne’er-do-wells if I made sure she was tired and hungry when we went. Tired plus hungry equals cranky, you see. You discover these sorts of things after years of marriage.
“No,” she answered, although she shared my curiosity as to what lied beneath. “But I have a writing assignment for you.”
The assignment was simple: Recruit two of my writer friends, arrange an expedition into the bowels of the Picasso/Amazones hybrid beast, and then, should we survive, each write something about the experience. This is me holding up my end of the bargain.
A posse was formed and, after the usually wrangling about an appropriate time and date, we piled into a car and headed out one evening, hoping for a truly vile, horrible night on the town that would fuel some future piece of writing.
We pulled into the nearly vacant parking lot after nightfall. It was still early as bar-hopping/clubbing goes, but the giant grid of empty paved spaces, shared with a neighbouring supermarket, seemed particularly barren after hours on a Saturday night. Stopping for a quick look through the dark windows of the Picasso ruins, we noted a light on in the kitchen that suggested it was still being used to serve up food to the club customers below.
We opened the door and descended to the basement. A sign on the wall dictated a dress code, more detailed and specific than your typical “No shirt, no shoes, no service” decree. Among the more interesting forbidden items of clothing were do-rags, because apparently the establishment was still having a lot of problems with time-travelling gangstas from the 1990s. This was borne out by our requirement to pass through a metal detector on our way inside after coughing up a cover charge. The metal detector was probably just for show and likely not even plugged in. We all noted we got inside without our pocket change and house keys provoking so much as a blip.
These reasonably ominous signs were promising, but then we sat down. It was with crushing disappointment that we realized we hadn’t entered a dive. The place was spacious and clean and glitzy and looked like the sort of higher end titty-bar you might see depicted on any random TV cop show. They even had a decent beer on tap for a reasonable price which, in my limited experience, is unheard of in the stripper-industrial-complex. This was all wrong.
Being early, we could have grabbed a stage-side table of our choice, but opted to sit back a distance. I may not like my porn looking back at me, but I really detest having my porn look back at me from only inches away. That takes a step beyond creepy and goes straight into spine-chilling territory.
The place was dead and the number of strippers taking to the stage sparse throughout our first pitcher of beer. But around 9:30, the place suddenly came alive and started filling up. The dancers and songs went into a steady cycle as the booth-bound announcer picked up the pace. An hour later, the club went from looking like another one of Montreal’s dead businesses that are used solely to launder mob drug money, to a thriving gold mine of vibrant economic viability.
Even the audience was animated, which is something I’ve never seen in a strip club before. Usually such places are full of guys quietly drinking, embarrassed to even be there, but compelled to stay until they’ve had an eye-full to their satisfaction. This place, however, had more of a party atmosphere, with the sorts of hoots and hollers you’d expect to hear in a strip club if your only experience with them is how they’re depicted in the aforementioned TV cop shows. The stage-side seats we had so cavalierly passed over were quickly topped up by “reserved” signs, and then promptly filled by groups (sometimes a mix of men AND women) who apparently needed to slip the doorman a fat tip in order to secure one.
Although there were large television screens placed strategically all over the club running sports, nobody was watching. It made for a very Canadian dilemma – naked girls and hockey competing for attention. Shockingly, the girls were winning out.
“The worse the economy, the hotter the girls.” So says the adage, if that is indeed an adage. I don’t know if there are all that many adages concerning stripping, but I’ve certainly heard this one before. It’s something to do with the fact that poverty allows this sort of skin market to be more choosy about who it serves up to the public. Certainly the ladies on offer landed firmly in the “attractive” category. Degree of hotness is something for the individual to decide.
Despite the sorry state of the economy, the ladies didn’t seem too motivated to solicit private dances, allowing the customers to come to them with money and requests. Tellingly, the one I considered least attractive of the crop was the only one actively working the room, going from table to table, trying to interest individual observers in her wares and a session of touchy-feely in a private booth. And she didn’t mind getting a tad grabby herself in order to scare up business.
“Get your fucking hand off my knee and go the fuck away,” were my only thoughts on the matter when it was our table’s turn to get the hard sell. I was too polite to articulate this in her presence. I knew she was just doing her job, grotesque as that job may be. But must we all make each other feel like a piece of meat in this transaction? I guess that’s the appeal for some. Me, I just wanted to return to my beer. My beer doesn’t objectify me. It just makes me fat. And we don’t judge each other.
“This is the best strip club I’ve ever been to in Montreal!” declared one of my accomplices.
I could see his point, though “best” is a relative term, and even the best of something I dislike still kinda sucks. It still wasn’t my thing, as confirmed when my focus briefly flittered back to the stage in time to see The Eye of Sauron yawning at me from between a pair of widely spread legs.
“Meanwhile, back at the gynecologist’s…” I commented, averting my gaze again.
By far the most interesting stage act, from my jaded point of view at least, was The Pole Sanitizer. This wasn’t a stripper, or even one of the girls. It was some poor schmuck whose job it was to mount the stage amidst sarcastic catcalls from the audience and spritz the stripper pool during a between-song interlude. He’d then wipe off the spray-bottle antiseptic with a rag, top to bottom, take his bows, and depart.
There was a brief intermission while we waited for the cleanser to evaporate from the stage before the next girl began her dance. It wasn’t long before she was grinding all over the pole, with only the flimsiest of thongs to protect the chrome plating from the assault of her nethers.
“That pole needs to be cleansed again,” I commented only minutes after it had been washed off, and hours away from when it would be wiped down again. Indeed, I spent much of the evening calculating how much fecal bacteria was being transferred to the pole by all these women wiping their ass crack all over it, one after the other and the other. The math was nauseating.
One custom of this particular strip club was something I’ll refer to as “the stage flop.” It’s sort of like stage diving, but in reverse. Apparently it was acceptable protocol for the clients to approach the stage during an act and, gripping a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill in their teeth, flop onto the stage. There they would lie, on their backs with the twenty standing erect, awaiting special attention from the stripper of the moment. Eventually, she would come over to retrieve her twenty-buck tip and reward the donor by battering his face with her boobs, or poising her groin over his nose at an olfactory distance I found unnerving even seated fifteen feet away.
Exactly what sort of close-encounter exhibitionist thrill you got for your twenty dollars seemed to vary depending on the girl. One of the strippers seemed to have made a reputation for herself by going the extra distance. When it was her turn on stage, she had two clients do the stage flop at once. I have to say, forty bucks for a three-minute dance is good money, but what she did to earn it would haunt my nightmares for weeks to come. She was, you see, a spitter.
Spitting disgusts me. The deep-routed psychological reasons for this will be explored in a future blog post, but suffice to say, “Ew!” Keep your expectorate to yourself, please.
The first stage-flopper received what I can only interpret as a contemptuous wad of spit hocked onto his t-shirt, which was then rubbed in by the stripper before she went through additional boob-and-crotch related moves to retrieve her twenty dollars. The second stage-flopper, however, got the deluxe treatment. To the audience’s delight and my horror, she crawled over to him, removed his belt, rolled him over onto his stomach, and yanked his pants down. She then – pardon me, I have to step back a moment, I’m suffering a bout of PTSD dredging up this memory – spat on his meaty ass, rubbed it in with her bare hand, and then proceeded to flog the wet spot with his coiled belt until he couldn’t take any more and started blocking the blows with his open palm.
He, too, paid twenty dollars for this privilege.
“There’s no amount of soap in the world that would ever make me feel clean again,” I confided to my less enthusiastic friend. I’d have shared this thought with my more enthusiastic friend as well, but he missed this disturbing spectacle. He was off in a booth somewhere, getting a private dance. What exact services or visuals he had selected from the long and confusing menu of options posted at various points on the wall remained mysterious. I didn’t ask.
Suffice to say, our plans to go and check the place out for an hour, and then retreat back to my screening room to watch a movie once we’d been thoroughly horrified, did not pan out. Instead we spent a few hours experiencing a spectrum of reactions that ranged from delight to disgust, and then called it a night far too late to begin a movie.
I don’t know if anything was really learned from this experience, but at least one mystery was solved. We now know why the eyesore that used to be Picasso is still standing, safe and sound from the wrecking ball. The property is still raking in far too much money to quit now, even as the above-ground portion of the building slowly collapses under the weight of time and neglect.
Sex sells, even when the economy is shit.
The twin businesses, fused together forever.