Night Crawler

Tea and Strumpets
It's a lazy Sunday-like Saturday afternoon, one of those early springtime days of warmth that make Northern Californians feel wealthy. Weekend chores have been abandoned for sun-drenched patches of grass and hazy backyard barbecues; the few folks remaining on the street move with graceful aimlessness, content to admire sidewalk sales or loll on street benches indulging in the easy vices of iced cappuccinos and cutoff bluejeans. A light breeze rustles through an abandoned nest of SF Weekly and San Francisco Bay Guardian pages scattered in a doorway until a single Weekly sheet flutters loose and languidly slides across the sidewalk to wrap itself around a street lamp. Marie Powers smiles from a Wild Side ad, her hands coolly gripping the muscular torso of her bare-chested hubby. Like the day, the couple is fleshy, warm, and decadent, inviting passers-by for "Hot Sex and High Tea." Refusal of the wind-swept proposition seems unreasonably existential on such a day.

Outside the Power Exchange -- the city's largest and only licensed sex club -- tango instructor Christy Cote stands in a sparkling blue evening gown and matching boa. She smiles from the shadow of the entranceway and indicates the stairs with a gracious wave of her hand. Under a canopy of oversized balloons a sign reads: "No poppers. No drugs. No alcohol. No smoking. You must wear a condom when having sex." The hall is cool and dark, and, for a moment, taking high tea here seems like an affront to the sunlight outside, but muted giggles from the lounge around the corner mitigate the gloom.

As with all the rooms in the Power Exchange, the windows of its social chamber have been painted black. Neon, dim overhead lamps, candles, and the red twinkle lights that festoon the stage illuminate a pool table covered in finger sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and crudites, and a juice bar strewn with china teacups and punch bowls. Over 50 women -- between the ages of twentysomething and 60-not-telling -- sit around tall soda fountain tables and on low couches, most of them holding their backs very, very straight and their hands very visible. Some wear straw hats and flowered dresses, others wear knee-length skirts and summery blouses, or trim shorts-ensembles with clean white sneakers and tennis socks. Even with a bevy of unabashed female exhibitionists wearing sheer white shifts over black lingerie or nothing at all, the crowd is one of the most unlikely ever assembled in the Power Exchange. Scraps of tight-throated conversation and goosey laughter are exchanged over the croissant tray: "I don't know, it seemed interesting, and it's for a good cause." "Oh yes, breast cancer affects us all and it's certainly more San Francisco than attending a stodgy old dinner party." "They aren't really going to make us strip, are they? I can't."

As promised -- and reiterated in countless reassuring phone calls -- there are no men present, except four bare-bottomed serving boys in dog collars, who circulate trays of edibles and pitchers of punch. With maternal concern and a swish of her crimson micro-minidress, Marie Powers encourages a table of ladies not to be shy, and sternly reprimands one of the faceless men in leather masks for allowing their glasses to run empty. The women smile and chuckle, while one leans in to tell the others the punch is spiked with champagne.

"Thank god!" says "Melissa Mackman," a 33-year-old floral arranger with a straw handbag, who downs the contents of her glass in one deft swig and holds it out for more. As the slave retreats, she stares for a long moment at his pink, hairless butt cheeks; then, catching herself, she glances at her friends with a coy smile.

Christy Cote, who was diagnosed on her birthday last year with breast cancer and whose suggestion it was to benefit the Breast Fund, steps onstage, happy to be in remission and feeling well qualified to teach the ladies some sexy moves. The women rise to their feet, leaving the center of the room conspicuously vacant. The first move is shoulder wiggling. The ladies smile and stiffly wiggle their shoulders, tittering together in support.

Cote laughs, "C'mon, we're just shaking our shoulders, here!" She demonstrates a sexy shake: head up, eyes forward, cleavage proudly realized. She demonstrates a not-so-sexy shake: head down, shoulders slumped, everything hidden. The ladies respond with genuine laughter; the champagne begins to rise in their cheeks. The music and alcohol help, and the ladies shake.

Then, it's on to running their hands over their hair, raising one arm a la Monroe to frame their faces, running their hands down over their bodies, and wiggling their hips. After 15 minutes, inhibition is all but gone and the crowd resembles a libidinous jazzercize class, with the ladies sexy-walking from one end of the room to the other. A few of the women stand out as naturals, including Leslie Landberg, a slender girl with curve-revealing jeans and wavy red hair flowing well past her waistline.

"I used to be a dancer," says Landberg. "Now, I'm an escort. I advertise in the Weekly, but I came here to meet some cute girls and maybe spank a few cute boys."

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