Night Crawler

What They Want to Have
"Girls want action just as much as guys do," states Laney in a tone that resonates with that none-too-rare brand of street-savvy sexual know-how contracted from fertile sources such as Details magazine. She is the perfect club kid -- slim, trendy, slightly sunned, casually coiffed. Laney started having sex when she was barely 14; now, at 19, she knows exactly what she likes. Dark, cut, and well-hung are her primary criteria.

"No, really," says Laney as her adamantly rapacious disposition dissolves beneath a slight blush and a sweet, calcium-fortified smile. "We just wanna have some fun. You know, see the guys work it a little."

Laney is one of a couple of dozen women who have turned up early enough to claim a stageside seat for the all-male exotic dancing portion of Ladies' Night at the Palladium. While the Palladium is best-known as an 18-and-over dance club, it recently became one of the only joints in town to offer strippers who cater to women on a weekly basis. Tonight, the usually callow crowd is sprinkled with a few seasoned faces who are seeing the inside of the club for the first time.

"I wouldn't normally come to a young place like this," says 44-year-old Denise Houseman. "But my girlfriends thought a male strip show would be fun. We tried to find one last year, but they were mostly for gay men. I mean, in North Beach, you can't swing a cat without hitting a stripper, but how many of them are men? Very very few, if any."

That changed when Whiz, the Palladium's newest club manager, transferred to San Francisco from Seattle, where he used to run an all-male strip club.

"It's very different in Seattle," says Whiz, a handsome African-American with pierced ears and long braids who is himself an ex-dancer. "In Seattle, we get crowds of two or three hundred women. We can keep men out, or allow them in only with a female escort. Here, we get complaints about discriminating against gay men. So the best we can do is keep the men in the back, away from the stage, until after the show is over. We're not discriminating against anyone, but we want the ladies to feel safe. A lot of women don't feel comfortable [at a strip show] with a lot of men sitting around."

Laney and her friends seem comfortable enough tonight, sipping soda through long straws, trying to decide where best to keep their carefully arranged pile of single dollar bills.

"If you put the money in your pocket, and the dancers sit on your lap, you can't get to it," explains Laney, "but it's kind of lame to leave it out on the table. I had this problem last time."

"Younger women don't have quite as much money to spend, and a lot of them have never been to a show before," says seven-year veteran dancer John Paris. "You have to give them instruction." Paris smiles as the lights in the Palladium lower. Music blankets the intimate crowd, seated in a semicircle around the stage. The girls wiggle in their seats, singing along with the chorus, "It's raining men." When Paris is announced, two girls near the stage let out an amazingly long, piercing scream.

Paris saunters onstage in a tight shirt and baggy jeans. The girls scream again. He laughs easily and begins running through the rules. "Hold your bills over your head -- not your PG&E bills, dollar bills. The more money you hold up, the more clothes the entertainers will take off, and the real fun begins once the guys are out of their clothes." Somebody squeals.

Paris explains the three basic forms of tipping: "Conspiracy," a move used to get shy friends in on the action by waving a dollar behind their heads; "Search and Seizure," in which the dancer removes money with his teeth from between a customer's cleavage; and "Slam Dunk," which entails shoving the bill down the dancers' bikini shorts.

Paris seduces the ladies with suggestive innuendo like "I'm half Italian, but you'll have to guess which half" and erotic euphemisms like "fig and berries." He takes a nervous young woman onstage and sits her in the hot seat, commenting on the "cute wad of sweaty bills" she holds crushed in her fist as he rubs against her. He divides the crowd into two sides -- nasty and freaky. Each half screams to verify their sexual self-possession. Paris encourages it, working them up until the Palladium sounds like a summer night at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. He announces the first entertainer.

Steve Mitchell, a muscular dancer/actor/model dressed as an airplane pilot à la Top Gun, does a couple of semidramatic things with his landing flares before the ladies begin to yell, "Take it off." He strips down to a gold chain, a yellow G-string, and a pair of motorcycle boots. The ladies scream. He turns around to adjust his "berries," jiggling his buttocks as he does so. The ladies scream. Mitchell begins making his rounds, wrapping his legs around women in the crowd, burying their heads in his glistening chest, gyrating, pumping. The women scream and whistle until he gets too close, then they each fall quiet, looking for somewhere to put their eyes, trying to shove money into his G-string while looking anywhere else. He kisses them lightly on the neck and moves on.

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