3 Naked Ladies with Essence Alexander: Coming Out

3NL logo3 naked ladies talk about their view from the stages and laps of the 70′s, 80′s, 90′s and today. 

For as a long as there’s been music, women have danced for the entertainment and titillation of men. Scheherazade. Minsky’s Burlesque. Cage dancing go-go girls in the psychedelic 60′s. Times Square strippers, pole dancers and lap dancers. Women dance….Men watch.

This entry was originally written and posted on October 21, 2009 at 9:00 am on the now defunct dirtygirldiaries.com

This week on Three Naked Ladies, Essence Alexander sits in for Rachel Aimee.

For ESSENCE ALEXANDER, the next logical step after receiving dual degrees from a prestigious university, was, of course, dancing in upscale gentlemen’s clubs from New York to Vegas. Since 2001, dancing has enabled her to stave off “starving artistdom”. Her one woman show, Essence Revealed, reveals it all.

Editor’s Update: Essence now goes by the name Essence Revealed, The Bubbling Brown Sugar of Burlesque. She has toured and performed Canada, Europe, China and South Africa and can be seen in the documentary, RED UMBRELLA DIARIES.

***

Jodi Sh. Doff: Lauri, I loved your piece in Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys about coming out to your mom — but what was it really like?

Lauri Shaw: In Mother-Daughter Day, a stripper tries to win her mother’s love and approval by taking her out for the afternoon. Mom bulldozes over countless boundaries, makes a colossal pest of herself, and finally demands to know point blank what her daughter does for a living. When she gets the answer she never really wanted in the first place, she goes completely ballistic, and any warmth that was left between the two women unravels in full.

The story isn’t quite verbatim, but it’s close. After that day, my mother did her best to pretend the whole thing never happened. When I tried to bring it up, she changed the subject. If I persisted, she said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

My father was a different story. He didn’t speak to me at all for several years. Which was a neat trick, since my parents are still married and living together. My father’s a complicated man–extremely religious and very controlling. He was also an officer in the military, a reservist, but I spent some time on Navy bases as a child.

I never had a good relationship with either of them. Stripping was probably beside the point. As a child, I got my ass beat for eating non-kosher food. So anything at ALL having to do with sex? Are you fucking kidding me? I was out of that house by the time I was 15.

JshD: Just the opposite, my dad had worked in the burlesque houses and the carnival side shows, so I somehow thought down ‘n dirty was my birthright.

LS: What sort of things did your dad say about strip clubs?

JshD: He’d always glamorized burlesque, Bettie Page, and even the underworld. My mother blamed all my wrong moves on his stories and truthfully, they were a bit of an inspiration. They knew I tended bar in a skimpy leotard, but not about the stripping until after I’d quit. Even so, they hated me working the clubs. They couldn’t separate my drug abuse and the strip clubs. But then, neither could I.

I’d wanted them to see that it wasn’t so bad, that the flames of hell weren’t licking up from the floor, so I forced them to come have a drink at the Mardi Gras where I worked. My mom had been a “good girl,” she’d never even sat at a bar before and here she was, music blasting, creepy men hunched over their drinks and naked women everywhere. I was all la-ti-da about it, but it was pretty traumatic for them. They saw seedy people & scary things. But, in the 80s, that’s exactly what it was: seedy & scary. It confirmed all their fears.

LS: Sounds like it was traumatic for them because they loved you.

JshD: My mom kept a Rolodex card listing my height, eye color, scars & tattoos — so she could claim the body when I was found dead in the streets. Seriously. She also worried about appearance. She didn’t want anyone to say anything bad about me. At 79, she still worries about that with my writing, god bless ‘er.

Essence Alexander: Writing was the catalyst for me telling my mother that I stripped. I had been writing my show about stripping. My mother knew I was working on a play, but I was cryptic about the particulars whenever she’d ask about it. When I was finally ready to workshop the piece, I told her the dates, not thinking anything of it. Then she told me she planned to come to the reading. YIKES! I knew I had to tell her now, but how?! My mother is the queen of good appearances from the conservative British West Indies. As a child, she went to church six days a week. This is a woman who didn’t allow me to have boyfriends until I was in college and she had no way of stopping me anymore. I gave the script to my “cool” aunty, her sister, to read first. “Uh, this is kinda my true story and I’m going to tell Mum.” Her first reaction was a concerned, “Does she have to know?”

JshD: I’ve totally used my writing as a way to let my mom know things. After spoiler alerts and disclaimers, she reads. Then if she’s up to knowing more, we talk.

EA: Yes, I wanted her to hear it from me and have time to digest the info before seeing the adventures of her first born in America as a stripper on stage. My aunt called me the next morning and said, “It’s your life to live and she’ll be OK or not. I love the script by the way!”

So I called my mother and said, “Soooo, while I was writing my show, I worked as a stripper off and on. But I don’t do it now.” My mother replied, “Well, why aren’t you still dancing now? Your legs broke?!”

LS: Ha! Your mom’s got serious character.

JshD: Amazing. Obviously, you expected worst…

EA: I wonder if my aunty padded my fall. I told my sister and she burst into tears because she had the movie Player’s Club as her only frame of reference. She came to work with me one night: watched, ordered Chinese food, got bored and went home. I’ve never told my father and I’m not sure my mother did either. I think parents can be OK with other people doing something but NOT their child. I would have taken it to the grave and not told my mother were it not for the show.

Shoot Me

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

Big Edie: It wasn’t such a good day.

Me: What can I do to make it a better day for you, Ma?

Woman with gunBig Edie: Shoot me? (Big Edie’s standard answer.)

Me: I don’t have a gun anymore.

Big Edie: You had a gun? What did you do with it?

Me: I sold it to my coke dealer.
(silence)
I bought it from my heroin dealer, sold it to my coke dealer, and gave two pockets full of hollow-point bullets to a dirty cop who moonlighted in the after-hours clubs.

Big Edie: A cop?  You should have called the cops on him.

Me: That’s what you took from that story? I bought an illegal gun from a heroin dealer, sold it to a cocaine dealer, and you think I should have had the cop arrested?

Big Edie: Well, they’re not supposed to moonlight.

She’s got a point, there. You have to admit it.

 

 

 

Thinking About the Brownsville Rape

These are the facts, so far:

I can’t stop thinking about this, and following the details as they come out. He was drunk. She was drunk. Still, something is missing. Something in our culture is broken and I’m struggling to make sense of it.

I’m childless, but I still wonder what I would do if it were me and my child. Or me and my father. When I was raped I kept it a secret from my parents; I was afraid my father try to go after the man who had done it. That man would have killed my father and not lost any sleep over it. I did what I did to protect my father, maybe this father did what he did to protect his daughter.

Maybe he thought he’d be no help at all if he was dead. That they’d have to kill her too then, so there’d be no witnesses to the murder. Maybe he didn’t think at all and just acted on instinct–a gun in your face, running seems like a natural reaction.

She will have to come to terms with the rape. Rapes. With that feeling of safety having been ripped away. A trust in the world, shattered. At least one in every five women have had to do the same thing–figure out who they are after they’ve been raped. Figure out if they are the same person, or if they’ve changed and how. But, I wonder how this girl will process the knowledge and memory of her father–a father who only recently came back into her life–running away and leaving her with them, no matter what his reasoning was. I wonder how he will come to terms with the knowledge and memory that while he was running away from her, she was being brutalized. I’m trying to find the missing pieces of the puzzle that might help make sense of this whole thing.

Being raped at gunpoint by five men when you’re alone.
Being raped at gunpoint by five men while your father runs for help.
Is one worse than the other?

He didn’t seem upset, said one store owner, when he asked to use the store phone. Maybe that’s how he handles stress,  I say, maybe he shuts down, closes off his emotions. He wouldn’t be alone in that. Or maybe he was in shock. After I was raped, and my rapist had left the house, I called my job to let them know I would be late to work. And then I started to get ready to go to work. Shut down. Survival mode. It’s one way to deal with extreme stress.

Another store owner said the man was frantic and didn’t make any sense. Maybe that’s how he handles stress, he falls apart. He’s not alone in that either. When my rapist was still in the house, I crawled on the floor like an animal, the sounds I made not even close to words. I was frantic, and I didn’t make sense.

Did her father put up a fight, or did he run away as fast as he could?

What if it wasn’t random at all but some awful payback for something he’d done but his daughter had to pay for. Some drug deal gone bad. Or money owed. Maybe she was payment. I feel awful for thinking that, but it happens. People sell their children to stay alive, to feed the rest of their family. People do awful things all the time, to survive or for the pleasure they get from their cruelty.

The youngest boy is 14. He is four years younger than the woman he raped. He is someone’s son.  Someone raised this child in a way that he thinks this is acceptable behavior. This is a child who gets pleasure from his cruelty, from someone else’s pain, from dominance.

Someone pointed out that we do things in groups we would never do alone. That’s true. Maybe that’s the get-out-of-jail-free card that explains the 14-year-old. And gang rape is certainly nothing new. But I cannot get beyond that idea that someone, people, parents, or the state raised these boys to think rape is okay, that it is manly, powerful, and some kind of birthright they’re entitled to.

Except two of those boys were turned in by their parents when the discovered what had happened. Those two were raised by parents who knew right from wrong well enough to know their children had done wrong.

Where did things go wrong that those moral lessons did not penetrate these children deep enough so that this couldn’t have happened?

 

Early

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

I got up early to call Big Edie and wake her for her hearing aid appointment. She no longer feels confident in her ability to set the alarm or remember why she set it.

I did the same thing yesterday—woke her at 6am for a 9am hearing aid appointment. She was exhausted and it took a bunch of r-r-r-rings for her to hear the phone, realize what the sound was, and answer. That exhausted. That deeply asleep. But, she made the 9am appointment in time. Early even.  Real early. Her appointment was not for that day, but for the next day.

This happens a lot. Sometimes she’s a day early, sometimes she’s a day late.

To be fair. She’s 85 and she hasn’t had a real job in twenty years. Hasn’t had to keep a schedule in two decades. As far as she’s concerned, it’s been year after year of weekends and holidays.

While my week looks a lot like this:

Businesswoman resting head on desk

Hers looks more like this:

0original

 

Ever since she’s started to forget things she’s been keeping a giant calendar with all her appointments written on it. And I remind her to tell me when she makes an appointment, and I keep an electronic calendar with all her appointments. That works, most of the time. Sometimes she forgets to look at the calendar. Not yesterday. She had the calendar, but forgot what day it was.

I set my alarm for 6am to wake her today, and before it even went off, the phone rang and it was Big Edie, calling from her cell phone. Usually a call from the cell phone means someone is in the hospital. Usually, her 93-year-old boyfriend—one of the reasons she’s so exhausted all the time, looking after him. Worrying after him. And waking up on a regular basis at 3am, not being able to go back to sleep, and playing solitaire online until the sun comes up, then dragging herself through the day because she “can’t” nap.

Instead of a nap, she regularly falls asleep sitting at the kitchen table, in the passenger seat of any car that’s moving, has been known to “close her eyes for a second” at a red light, reading a book, and watching any movie or TV show. At Broadway shows, my father fed her M&Ms one at a time to keep her from falling asleep. She never sleeps when she is eating. M&Ms. One at a time. There are mini-Milky Ways and chocolates secreted all over her house today, a leftover habit of the M&M days.

This morning she called, she’d been up since 3am. Her phone is dead. All the lights in her bedroom are down, except one. And she was afraid, really afraid, that I would call at 6am to wake her, not be able to get through, and I would worry. So she stayed awake for three hours to call me at 6am and tell me not to worry.

A blown fuse, and she’s still got it together enough to know that, but when she checked the fuse box they all looked fine. And this is the part that she never remembers, that a blown fuse, or actually a flipped breaker, doesn’t always flip all the way. Go turn them all off, then turn them all on again I tell her, and hang up the phone.

She calls back a few minutes later. Caller ID says she’s calling from the home phone now, so it worked.

“But now something is beeping. I can’t find it. I think it’s the box. You know, the box.”

I do know. I know that if something is “where you put things you eat with” it’s in the silverware drawer, and “the box” means either the fire alarm or the CO2 detector. The fire alarm is kept on a bookshelf, with no batteries. I direct her to the CO2 detector, plugged into the wall behind a bench.

“Pull it out of the wall,” I say, “just unplug it for now.” She does, but I can still hear beeping.  “What did you unplug?”

“Something. I don’t know. Something. Do you think this isn’t it?” I am thirty miles away, on the telephone, and I know she’s holding something up for me to look at, which I would certainly do if this was thirty years into the future and we all had videophones, or bat phones, or it was today and we were Skyping or Facetiming or GoogleHangouting or anything else that we’re not doing because she is 85-years-old and are you kidding me? She has unplugged something else entirely.

She finally gets the CO2 detector unplugged and all is right with the world again. Her phone works. Her lights work. Her apartment doesn’t beep. I will go out there this week and put batteries in the smoke detector, reinstall the CO2 monitor, mark which breaker corresponds to the lights in her bedroom.

It would be so much easier for her, she would feel so much safer, if I lived in her building on Long island. It has a swimming pool, she reminds me for the millionth time. It would be so much easier for me, and I would feel so much more at ease, if she lived in my building here in Jackson Heights. There is an empty apartment on my floor. Two of them. One with a balcony.

But she would be miserable here, even with a balcony, in a neighborhood she doesn’t recognize, with no familiar faces, no landmarks, no friends. And I would be miserable there, even with the swimming pool, in a neighborhood I know like the back of my hand, with landmarks of an unhappy childhood and ghosts of my own personal teenage wasteland, and no friends because we all got out of Dodge as fast as we could.

She says it’s early stage Alzheimer’s, that it’s not that early because she got a diagnosis five years ago, or eight, from some doctor I don’t know. What I know is that two years ago a doctor I do know said she was high functioning with mild cognitive impairment. But that it’s gotten worse since then. That whatever it is it’s still early stage, that things only get worse, or harder, or more confusing, or heavier, or more difficult. That this is the hardest stage for her but the easiest stage for me. That at some point she won’t realize how many things she doesn’t know or can’t do or doesn’t remember.  What I know is that it’s later than I know because she is hiding things from me and I discover them little by little. Like how she sometimes gets lost coming home from familiar places.

“What would I do without you?” she says.  I wonder that too. And I wonder what I will do without her.

Chocolate happens

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

tjchocBig Edie: She handed me a Trader Joe’s milk chocolate bar. “Here, I got this for you. It came two to a pack, but I ate the other one.”

Me: “Who you kidding? These come three to a pack.”

Big Edie: She looked at me, shrugged, and turned away to hide the smile. “It happens,” she said, giggled and added a little skip to her step.