Twenty years ago, I drove back through the Delta to Berkeley. Life was lush here, tempting, I pulled off the county two lane on Fabian Island. Wind was still, air warm, sun was behind Mount Diablo. I parked in a dirt lot to walk the dog up along the banks of Old River. Swallows darting about, the buzz of insects, life in the Delta is set at a low idle. Stockton was thirty miles east, San Francisco sixty-five miles west, Mongolia seemed just an ocean and continent further over the horizon.
Sam’s Market, the local landmark was open. Fishermen grabbed their bait and tackle here. Ice cold beer was popular, bag of chips, bug spray.
Next building over a tavern was opening, the paintjob exhausted by sun and time. When I looked inside, I could see a room full of indolent men who had finished chores in the surrounding fields. It was quitting time.
Crop duster pilot bought two beers, “I’ll have whatever he’s having.” We were along a defunct meandering waterway, yesteryears San Joaquin River, bellying up to slake our many thirsts. Behind the joint were smaller shacks, cracker boxes. Farmworkers lived behind Sam’s and the tavern, reckoning they toiled in the nearby fields.
A pair of working women had arrived from Tracy ten miles south. Crop duster pilots once off duty swagger as dare devils all do. Working girls and duster dudes seem to fetch glances and seem familiar, each are persons of interest to the other.
Small talk next to a field planted with 100 acres of tomatoes needs some streamlining. Mister Fancy Pants showman-juggler could go along or be asked to move along. Thinking it best to coax conversation I nudged my airman, might get the flyer to tell me a piece of aeronautical truth.
Nonchalance is pilot poker face. By now I’m putting two and two together. I try buying my barstool Romeo dusting dare devil a round, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my generosity, bought the next round.
Jukebox was shutoff. Entertainment would commence soon, what did I know, we are outside city limits, and the clientele and tavern were dead set on enjoying the coming exotic attraction. As unlikely as this worn-out old joint appeared to be, sited right off a two-lane country road sitting right on the famous Old River next to a field of ripening tomatoes.
I was the dandy out of towner in the crowd. I had played a pair of libraires in San Joaquin County, first show was in Manteca then the second in French Camp. I am certain E Vitus Clampus has graced this monument to places all but forgotten.
The two professional dancers worked on a platform against a wall in the tavern. Each took a turn. The exotic dancing and skimpy costuming I had not expected, but its unvarnished honesty I found ordinary yet endearing.
Two young women had skills, costumes, music, and courage. I had only been in fancy joints where out of this world strippers worked. This was the first encounter I had ever had with much less pretentious exotic dancers surrounded by farms in the middle of the countryside had come to practice whipping a working man’s tavern into a rural frenzy.
While one danced the other woman walked from customer to customer with a hat. After one dancer finished, they switched roles. The duster pilot was a regular. Each danced just for the pilot. After he explained he’d buy lap dances from both women, customarily he’d get one lap dance early on in the evening and a second toward the end of the night. When he was really feeling his oats, he’d get the pair to dance for him at the same time.
The whole idea of a lap dance is to decrease the range from which a paying customer may best enjoy the pleasure found in exotic dancing. My crop duster pilot acquaintance played along, the dancer tugged on his ears, mussed his hair, ran her finger across the tip of his nose, and dared to stroke his leg, all his while she kept on dancing or hopping up on top his lap for some unbound choreography.
Having no experience with any of this I decided to not look too serious, keep smiling, try not to turn beet red, applause seemed a good idea.
“What are you waiting for?” My duster pilot friend asked. “Ten for one, twenty will get you two.”
Imagining an exotic dancer sitting on my lap in a roadside tavern putting me into a moment where what would happen next had put me out of my depth. I was in over my head.
First off all I had wanted to do was buy one beer, and I hadn’t even been able to do that. Being cornered I felt forced to play along, act like I was having fun, be courteous, show the dancers respect, I was duty bound to hold up my end of the transaction.
I was too embarrassed, didn’t know what to do, negotiations were sorted out with help from the bartender, the duster pilot and gentleman in the room. Everybody seemed to be waiting on my decision. Best part of these kinds of entertainments has to do with how much hot water the so-called lady killer can find himself being boiled alive in.
The dancer put on a shirt and buttoned it up, ostensibly, at least there were a few strategically left unfastened. Next, she gets out from her bag of tricks a genuine extra long peacock feather. Her partner spins a tune, a familiar song to the dancer as she moved intricately to each beat while taking my measure. My role was to stop smiling and focus my attention on the dancer and the dance. Teasing and taunting commenced, once she’d finished with the feather, she gave me a pat on the cheek, patting a second time, third time I got slapped, that was popular with the crowd, she puckered her lips blew me a kiss, ran her fingers through my hair, then pawed on my leg with one hand while unfastening the buttons of her shirt with the other. My job during this part of the performance was to look at her hand on my leg, the fingers on her buttons, look up into her eyes while we waited for the moment when that shirt would fly open and who knows when the vice squad was going to fly through the doors and arrest us all. I could see the headlines now— library performer arrested in tavern charged with participating in lewd behavior with exotic dancer.
I had overcome feeling embarrassed, circumstances were considerably more dire. I wanted to be good at this new work I’d been enlisted into. I wanted the dancer to feel her performance pleased, that I appreciated the experience, I wasn’t supposed to indicate that any of this was too frightening, that my dancer wasn’t anything other than the most wanted woman in the world, and if I could dig a little deeper into my pocket that I’d likely bring my first lap dance to a dignified conclusion.
The likelihood of my throwing my life away to shack up for the rest of my days on this good earth with an exotic dancer from Tracy, California had been tested.
I’d already decided I’d tip the second dancer before I got caught then hogtied and dragged into having a second round in this low budget roadside unrequited romance game I’d stumbled upon.
Things you’d never have the nerve to do lineup with things that just happen sometimes. Pulling off along a country road on a late summer late dusky day and there a show business veteran finds himself trying to extend common courtesy to my kindred sisters out hustling much as I’d been doing, working in the small time, for the small crowds, you give a show, you get a show. I took my bows as the curtain fell and walked off out of the tavern into the budding night.
Dumb luck, the human condition and life in the Delta had a head on collision with the naked truth. Doing the one thing you’ve always put off doing so you may leave this mortal plain having completed your life’s purpose, so you are not called upon to return for yet another infinite round of reincarnations, until you put to rest all the curiosities, set down all the temptations, cast out all these yearnings and misbegotten cravings. Fate would not allow my coming to earth and then leaving without buying at least one lap dance. The night out in the Delta was preordained. People who know me best said the fact was that all of this wasn’t just inevitable, it was my karma coming to the present moment to teach my soul. As the saying goes— I learned my lesson.