by Mark Dietzel.
The walls outside are inconspicuous enough, even with bricks the color of sealing wax. The sign above glows faintly in the afternoon sun, the bulbs bordering it blinking in sequence. The word JUMBO’S loudly announces itself, and directly beneath are the words CLOWN ROOM, playing second fiddle. Off to the side, an image of a fizzing martini glass with the word COCKTAILS is appropriately bold red. The establishment isn’t quite out of place from its neighbors on Hollywood Boulevard, but neither does it make much of an effort to stand out. Two blank black doors serve as entry points, and immediately upon opening them, a dark, possibly velvet curtain obstructs the path. Radiohead’s “Creep” can be heard from beyond the fabric.
“But I’m a creep… I’m a weirdo… What the Hell am I doing here… I don’t belong here…” At first the curtain’s presence confuses me slightly, but then I remember what sort of business I am about to enter. I push through to the red beyond, where a temporarily lonely pole takes center stage.
Upon entry, my friend and I are greeted by a large man, tall and buzz-cut, manning the bar. “We got some new guys!” he proclaims. I later learn from my informed friend the man’s name is Chase. The fully-stocked bar stands ready for the patrons (no pun intended), and a peculiar machine with 3 upside down bottles of Jagermeister sinking into it catches my eye. Numerous seats are available, but we each opt for a seat at the bar, and Chase asks for our IDs. While inspecting the plastic, he explains the rules: “No photography of any kind allowed inside. We’d rather you guys not use your phones while in here; don’t want you on Facebook while there’s a girl IN your face. And of course no touching any of the girls. These ladies do work for tips and tips alone, so any love you can show them is appreciated. Enjoy!”
After ordering the establishment’s finest, cheapest draft in a plastic mug, I finally get a chance to take in my surroundings. Dim red lighting provides most of the illumination, with the rest filled in by the bar’s backlighting and a few Halloween decorations: two small light-up ghosts above the bar, and a string of jack-o-lantern lights around the mirror behind the bottles. The center stage remains empty for the moment, sporting a single pole, hardwood floors, and mirrors mounted behind and above.
Near the entrance an aged vending machine filled with stale pretzels and neglected funyuns awaits the hungry and desperate. It seems more at home in the lobby of a run-down motel than in a place called the “Clown Room,” with its faded yellow lights and faux wood siding. Next to the misplaced relic lies another aging, but in this case essential, one. An ATM machine, likely filled with nothing but starchy flat singles. The wall opposite the entrance appears black but with no direct lights shining on it, one can’t be certain. Several pictures of clowns, the classic kind, adorn the wall. One particularly large image featuring the proverbial sad clown draws the eye more than the smaller, happier varieties. A large sign with a classic clown in a dotted jumpsuit and a pointy hat points to blue text in a circus-like font above the stage on the right. Occasionally the sign flashes brightly, or simply stays on during a performance: “WE APPRECIATE YOUR TIPS.” The overall dimness of the place limits vision everywhere but center stage, or at the bar. I was expecting the place to smell musty and smoky, based on nothing but my limited experience in dive bars in Upland and Claremont. But everything smelled clean and relatively pleasant, except for the skunk of beer. A modern jukebox displays a wide array of mostly rock songs. My investigation into the device provokes a response from an unknown man’s voice: “The ladies choose the songs.” So much for throwing on my favorite Portishead tracks.
Two young women from the far end of the bar eventually get up to go through a door leading backstage. Assuming the entertainment is about to start, I pass the time listening to the folks at the bar. A short blonde woman with lips suspiciously prominent for a woman of her age passes the time with an older Asian man with glasses and some lady friend of his. Chase cleans glasses on the sidelines. The Asian man begins, “Oh, I have a joke for you!” I get the impression that this guy is a regular, given his relaxed and open demeanor. “How is a martini like a woman’s tit?” He pauses for a rhetorical second. “One is too little and three is too many!” Some light chuckles emerge from all those listening. I can’t quite tell if it’s a genuine emotional response or politeness. What do you think? He goes on with another Halloween-themed joke in the same vein, something about a witch’s lack of underwear and its relation to a metaphorical broomstick. I depart from the bar to busy myself by checking out the board near the stage: black with neon orange marker written all over it. The stage names for the girls stretch all the way down the board and start back up again on the other side. Names like Ziggy, Gemini, and Mixie stand out more than plain ones like Ginger. I return to the bar just in time, ready to attach some faces (bodies?) to the names.
Loud music begins, and the first dancer comes onto the stage. One warms up with what appears to be yoga stretches for creatures with rubber bones. I attempt to avoid the display by checking out the bar or roving my eyes everywhere but the stage. Purely out of an observational reporter’s instinct to catalogue the environment. My eyes function as an output for my thoughts. My brain wants me to transfix my gaze to the stage, but the other parts sternly remind me to be respectful to women, not treat them as sex objects, and that beauty is only skin deep. All the platitudes combine with my natural social anxiety to not create an awkward fool. After several minutes, I am ready to focus on the stage, or more accurately, the gorgeous woman now strutting elegantly across it. She has short cinnamon colored hair down to her shoulders, and bright blue eyes. She’s wearing just the right amount of makeup, enough to make the flaws virtually invisible without making her look… well, clownish. A black thin top and long dark leggings compliment the heels nicely. She begins with slow twisting, getting into the groove as her shift begins. Slowly, carefully, she pushes herself against the pole, and upon brushing it the thin top she has on drifts off, exposing a dark, silky bra underneath it. The routine continues, and I only catch glimpses of it between my distracted glances around the establishment. Sustained eye contact results in a bizarre guilty feeling in the back of my head. No full nudity happens here, so it’s more of a burlesque approach, not a full-blown strip club. Frankly, anything more than what I just saw and I would have immediately grabbed my non-existent coat and hat and run out the door into the Los Angeles sunset. As the dancer begins to perform some anti-gravity techniques involving the pole and careful leg placement designed for optimal viewing, I order a gin and tonic from the bar. The hope was to calm my nerves a bit, because beer alone wasn’t doing the trick. “Shifting gears are we?” Chase playfully remarks as I order. He’s begun cutting up some fresh limes, and the refreshing potent sting of the fruit lingers in the air.
Immediately after the first performance, a second one begins. My friend has already thrown out a few singles onto the stage for the last performance. “So how does this work?” I ask. “Do you just, walk up and drop some money on the floor of the stage like that?” He smiles in a condescending “aren’t you cute” kind of way and confirms the practice. The next dancer comes on stage without any pretense, already displaying her limited negligee. This time a persona presents itself. Her hair is wound in something between dual buns and pigtails on the sides of her head, extra-large, and bright blue throughout. A glittering orange jack-o-lantern is affixed to the left side of her hair, and dark lipstick stains her mouth. Plenty of eye-shadow dominates, and long socks going up to her knees sport a rainbow of horizontal stripes. Her routine involves lying on the floor at one point, waving her socks through the air like she’s riding some phantom bicycle to the mirrors above. I did not fully understand the purpose of the mirrors until this very moment: angle availability. At one point, she locks eyes with me and flashes a dangerously warm smile, and I immediately look to the flashing clown sign to break the gaze. “WE APPRECIATE YOUR TIPS.” I heed the jester’s command and obey the siren’s call by walking over to the stage and relinquishing exactly five dollars at the edge of the hardwood. I assume this is the correct amount to tip. 15% of a dance performed by an erotically dressed nymph valued at “priceless” is exactly five dollars to me, apparently.
At the conclusion of her routine, the music calms in volume, and the first dancer emerges from the back-stage door. She puts on a large, fierce smile of glittering teeth, and saunters over to the barstool next to my friend. She introduces herself to my buddy. Her name is Ziggy. He pauses to give me a chance to introduce myself, and I state my name with a grin that I hope doesn’t look as creepy as it feels. “So guys, where are you from; what do you do?” I keep telling myself that this is a ploy for more tips, but some other part of my brain continuously attempts to override it. A GORGEOUS WOMAN IS TALKING TO YOU. YOU MUST DO SOMETHING. My friend explains that he’s here from D.C., taking a break from med school to re-visit southern California. He’s dressed dapper as can be, featuring slicked back, professionally cut hair, with an elegant vest and purple button-up shirt neatly tucked in. She shifts her irresistible gaze towards me. “So, what’s your story?” I do my best to respond eloquently and with a measure of confidence, but after my buddy, an underemployed college drop-out wearing, jeans and a heathered red shirt would seem like a serious downgrade. I jokingly comment on this discrepancy, and she replies, “Don’t worry about it, you look great too, just like your friend here.” When that phrase comes from a beautiful face and a perfect smile, it’s hard to detect how orchestrated the whole conversation might be.
Soon the second dancer joins Ziggy on the next barstool. She introduces herself as Mixie. I ask her to repeat the name twice, as it confuses me. At this point, I order another gin and tonic. I’m not sure if I can continue talking to the girls for long without making a complete ass of myself sans something to dull the nerves. I ask Mixie if her colored hair and makeup are just for show while working or if this is her look. “The hair changes all the time, even outside. As far as the rest of it, we’re roommates and costume-buddies.” Ziggy and Mixie met at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening and became friends. They moved in together a while back and, in addition to their day and night jobs, were chasing dreams. Ziggy was an aspiring actress, who moved to LA from the mid-west to pursue her acting dream. Mixie dabbled in photography, and expressed her desire to live off of her hobby one day. Throughout this fun conversation, the next dancer began her routine of twisting and turning on the pole, with a… twist. Whenever she spun around, every so often she used her momentum to slam a sharp shoe into the hardwood, or clack them together violently while spinning around in midair. The sound was impossible to ignore in such small quarters. And it periodically would break the conversation up into bite-size pieces of triviality.
Mixie and Ziggy soon depart to perform their second set, and once again I tip what I assume is fair. This time, I find myself comparing the two, one more of a traditional, pretty, thin girl who would look out of place here, were it not for her sparse clothing. Mixie was much more exotic and more voluptuous, and suited the theme of the Clown Room perfectly. We never would hear from Ziggy again, but Mixie moved to sit next to me a second time, my tips possibly motivating her return. Or her previous conversation with the patron sitting next to her other side was ended and I was a convenient distraction by proximity. This time she filled a tight black top with a Batman logo on it. Either she knew her mark or there was genuine interest. I tell her, “You know, with your hair and everything, I’m surprised your name isn’t Harley Quinn or something.”
“Oh I know, I thought about it, but then I remembered the bikers we get in here and I thought they might not like that.”
I fail to understand why bikers might find this offensive. I imagine Harley riders would love a girl named Harley to personify their chrome steeds in such a stimulating fashion. Then again playing it safe around such large men sounds prudent. I ask her where she got the name Mixie, and she says she changed it from the word Pixie. “I’m really into mythology and all that stuff, but people didn’t get it when I was Pixie, so I changed it to something else.” I do not inquire further, despite the nagging thought that, again, this makes zero sense to me. Keeping on the mythology topic, I ask her if she’s ever heard of Neil Gaiman. She brightens and says that she loves Sandman and American Gods. We continue to discuss the merits of Mr. Gaiman’s work, and segue into music. My friend and Mixie are huge fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and they begin to gush over the band’s work. After, I ask Mixie if any of the jukebox songs are slower or jazzier, something I would find more appropriate for the situation. There are some of those songs, but not many, and she agrees that there should be more. As if on cue, the current dancer begins to sway to Portishead’s “Glory Box.” Now it’s my turn to gush. I’m not a huge fan of the dancer, but I tip a few dollars purely out of appreciation for musical taste. Right when I start to really enjoy the conversation, and press further regarding musical preference, Mixie stands to leave. “I have to get ready for my next gig, but it was great talking to you!” Business before pleasure, or sometimes pleasure for business. Beth Gibbons’ voice permeates the dim scarlet. “Give me a reason, to love you… Give me a reason, to be… a woman.”
Later on in the evening, after finishing my third drink and taking it slow, Mixie returns to the stage, selecting a popular Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song for the pleasure of my friend, sitting barstool adjacent. He tips handsomely. The next act has the performer angling herself in such a way on the pole so as to display her most prominent (some might say majestic) backside. I find myself tilting my head toward the ceiling in an attempt to pretend I’m not interested, the alcohol must be fading. The mirrors on the ceiling reflect the dancer, and her shapely form phases in and out of existence between each one, disappearing and reappearing. The creature within the silver appears desirable, all smooth curves, silky hair, and flawless flesh. Except when caught in the middle of two panels, the image morphs to one of mismatched angles and disjointed limbs, like Dr. Frankenstein’s prototype brides. The song is Man in the Box by Alice in Chains, another favorite of my friend. He tips generously once more.
Shortly after this performance, we decided to head out. We received a hearty good-bye from Chase and some of the dancers on break, and I exited with the kind of relieved exhalation that comes after a comfort zone has been successfully breached. Like a sky diver touching ground after their first jump, or riding that horrifying roller coaster for the first time and departing unscathed. All of my anxiety was revealed as unwarranted, and in fact it might have been part of the fun. But there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. While the Clown Room is a business, and the girls are talking and dancing their way to better tips, I couldn’t help but feel myself somewhat drawn to the personality I got to experience from Mixie. Being aware of the secret behind the magic doesn’t necessarily inoculate against the charm. All the painted faces, mood lighting, bare skin, and libations, are mere covers; a veneer over the indecipherable something gliding between the mirrors.