The first time Dad took us to work was when I was six. He had just started working in the exotic car business after retiring from the California Highway Patrol. On the weekends, my sister and I played hide and seek in between vintage Model T Fords, Rolls Royces, and Porsches. We giggled away as the customers told Dad how adorable we were, and climbed into the cars when no one was looking. “Don’t go into the street,” Dad would yell at us. He also taught me how to drive an ATV bike and once I accidentally ran over my sister’s foot. We didn’t tell Mom.
Mom liked Dad taking us to work. It got us out of her hair and when we returned, we were sapped of energy going straight to bed after dinner. But when I turned eight, I noticed my dad stopped talking to me about work. He had gotten a new job and no longer shared his wild car stories with me. I thought I had done something wrong.
My parents would whisper in the kitchen and, while my sister and I watched Bugs Bunny in the den, we could still overhear some of their conversation.
“I don’t like you coming home every night at three in the morning smelling of booze and smoke.”
“But it’s my job.”
Mom and Dad would shoot each other looks at the dinner table, as I shifted in my seat, wondering what they were keeping from me, or if were upset with me. Mom didn’t like Dad’s new line of business and to rebel she began giving our church large sums of money each Sunday.
Mom was an only child. She never met her father and her mother died of cancer when Mom was fifteen. She lived with her grandma for a while in Wayne, New Jersey where she was from. She was then shuffled amongst relatives until the family decided she would live out in Victorville, California with her Aunt June and her family. Mom finished her last semester in high school there, and was working as a carhop at the local A & W Root Beer. Dad had just finished a stint in the army, and had moved out to Victorville to live with Aunt Deanie and Uncle Derrick, with whom he had grown up in the projects in Hoboken. Uncle Derrick was a chaplain stationed at George Air Force Base. Dad got a job at a local cement factory. Dad met Mom at the A & W Root Beer and they were married four months later. They moved to Apple Valley and both got jobs at the post office until my dad applied to be a California Highway Patrolman in West Los Angeles. After Dad retired from the police department, he went into business.
Mom wouldn’t let me wait up for Dad anymore, but he always kissed me goodnight in bed when he got home. I knew he was coming home when his car headlights flashed in my bedroom window. He loved imitating Elmer Fudd when he said good night and it made me laugh, “I’m gonna git you, you cwazy wabbit!”
One Saturday night, the babysitter canceled for the next day. Mom’s face was strained when she hung up the phone. She had a nursing school shift on Sunday in downtown Los Angeles. The inevitable was happening: she had to work all day, and the neighbors were out of town. After exchanging tense glances and whispers, Dad walked into the den, grabbed my knee, and announced he’d be taking us with him to work the next day.
There was nothing more fun than a day with Dad—hello Fruit Loops and Disney, goodbye Corn Flakes and Mr. Rogers! I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. It felt like I was going to an amusement park the next day.
John Denver music played in the kitchen as Mom made us breakfast that morning, stoically hacking bananas for our cereal. Dad walked into the kitchen wearing a maroon leather jacket with matching ankle boots over gray polyester slacks and a white dress shirt (Think Gene Hackman in The French Connection). He grabbed her in a bear hug and gave her a conciliatory Cheshire cat grin.
She squirmed away to place the cereal bowl in front of me.
“Will you let us dance?” I asked. We only knew two things about his new job: they played disco music and served burgers.
He looked down sheepishly while mom stood there, frozen. “I really don’t like the idea of this,” she said.
Distracted and running late, she needed us out of the way. She donned her white kitty-print nurse uniform and brushed her Dorothy Hamill bob instead of readying us with a backpack of sandwiches and coloring books.
She grabbed me gently by the shoulders, leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Stethoscope and name tag in place, she yelled to us, “Somebody clean Coco’s litter box out,” as she slammed the front door and left without a goodbye kiss.
We took off for the day in the orange van. Dad was letting me play the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on the van’s eight-track tape player. About an hour later, we pulled into a gated parking lot. Airplanes flew overhead as a sign appeared bearing the silhouette of a woman riding atop a plane and the name “Jet Strip.” My sister and I exchanged looks of excitement: maybe he worked at the airport!
Dad parked the car and adjusted the handgun resting in its ankle-strap holster. I decided to leave my Holly Hobbie doll behind.
“Here we are.” We walked to the back of the building. He turned off the alarm, unbolted the door and let us in.
It was like walking into a matinee movie; it was pitch dark and took my eyes a while to adjust. I could smell Windex and stale smoke.
He held our hands and escorted us in until we could see. He tossed his keys on the bar and turned on the stage lights to reveal a rotating disco ball. Soon the Bee Gee’s “Night Fever” played over the stereo system.
Kristen and I ran to the stage and climbed up with Dad’s help. We danced on brightly lit colored floor panels surrounded by mirrors, and laughed as we pointed to where the disco ball reflections hit our swaying bell bottoms. We played hopscotch with the colored panels, and our hands squeaked as we swung around the shiny brass pole in the middle of the stage: little girl heaven.
Then the door opened again and bright blinding sun filled the room as pretty women filtered in one after the other, smiling, laughing and giving us puzzled looks as we carried on. I felt awkward, froze in place, and fumbled down off the stage. We ran over to the bar and met a tall, thin woman named Kelly with perfect blond hair that was straight out of Alice in Wonderland. She played with our pigtails, and asked, “What would you ladies like to drink?” I had no idea what to ask for besides milk. “How about two Shirley Temples?” she suggested, and came back with two drinks for us, with umbrellas and maraschino cherries. “What’s in it?” Kristen asked. I had already slammed half of mine down and asked for another cherry.
We met other women with names like Crystal, Amber and Destiny. I can’t be sure, but I could swear I met one named Jell-O. “Those are their stage names, not their real names,” Dad revealed. Why would anyone want two names?
We grabbed our drinks and followed Dad into the back recreation room complete with cigarette machine, pool tables and video games. Dad pushed some buttons so we could play Pong for free. I was buzzed from all the excitement and the chance to experience the adult world. But what was so adult about it? It was the perfect place for kids.
The club officially opened at 11am as customers trickled in. Dad told us the women were professional dancers and while they would each dance to three different songs, we were only allowed to watch the first, which sent my mind racing, wondering what the difference was between each dance.
Crystal, wearing a long, red rhinestone dress with slits up the side, slinked onto the stage and danced slowly. She looked like a beauty pageant contestant. She seemed to be floating around on the stage, with the fake fog in the air, I couldn’t believe how easily she maneuvered around the stage with those high heels on – she looked so natural. Men were whistling as she started taking off her dress, one shoulder at a time. Men tossed dollar bills on the stage and applauded when the music ended.
As another song started, Dad rounded us up and led us over to a secret door that led upstairs to an office with wood-paneled walls, beige shag carpeting, a gray metal desk, and a worn-out burgundy pleather couch with gold rivets. I liked the old sliding sound the couch made when you sat on it. There was a TV sitting on of a glass coffee table. Along the wall opposite from the couch were several security monitors offering small, fuzzy, black and white views of the parking lot, the bar, the door and the stage.
A door opened onto the roof, and we joined Dad out there to watch airplanes fly overhead. It was bright outside compared to the club’s interior and we could barely see. We returned inside where Dad slipped a bootlegged copy of Star Wars into a Beta player.
Dad told us we could eat anything we wanted from the kitchen, and his cook Carl entered to take our order for lunch. We couldn’t believe that we could order anything we wanted. Our meals at home were very healthy, well-thought-out and we had to finish our plates or else we’d be sent to our rooms. I went straight for the hamburger with extra ketchup and pickles.
“Don’t watch the security monitors,” Dad said sternly, “I’ll come back up to check up on you both in a bit.” We sat on the couch, ate our burgers, and watched the movie, drinking Cokes garnished with umbrellas.
After lunch, we shoved Double Bubble gum into our mouths, read the comics on the wrappers. There was nothing else to do, so we ran over to the monitors. Our jaws dropped. There was no audio feed, but we could feel the music vibrating through the floor and walls as a dancer, now topless with high heels and dark hair swung around the pole.
Carl returned, collected our dishes, and led us back downstairs for a tour of the kitchen. We stood mesmerized by ice cream and the raw meats of the walk-in freezer, and as Carl walked away, we glanced through the order window for a peek at the live stage. Kelly came on, wearing high-heeled shoes and a sheer nightgown.
She shimmied out of her nightgown to reveal bright pink sparkling underwear and as she swung around the pole, I noticed the back was missing. How did she get her underwear to stay on? The customers whistled, and she seemed to be having fun – dancing around, flipping her hair, legs in the air. The song ended, Kelly grabbed her clothes and the dollar bills, and scurried off the stage. Our mouths were open in shock: who gets naked in public?
Dad came into the kitchen and found us staring at the stage. “I told you not to leave the office, what happened?” We were caught red-handed, and sent back upstairs to watch more Star Wars. At the end of the day, Dad drove us back home. We were tired from all the excitement but felt so satiated that we had demystified the Jet Strip and Dad’s job.
On the ride home he promised we could visit the Jet Strip again, “Just don’t tell your mother you saw the dancers fully nude.”
“Why were the dancers naked?” I asked.
“They make really good money, that’s why.”
“So are they real dancers like me? Do they take ballet?”
“Yeah, some do have a dance background.”
“Do you feel bad about the dancers being naked?”
“No, sweetheart. The girls make good money, so I make good money, which means I can provide more for our family. Do you understand that?”
His customers were mostly married, he said, but wanted to look at pretty girls with nice bodies.
“Not all women have bodies like that.”
“Why do the men’s wives let them come here?”
“Oh, I doubt they tell their wives, honey.”
We walked in the front door as John Denver blasted on the stereo, and Mom greeted us with dinner. Liver and onions with Del Monte canned green beans and a glass of milk on the side. Kristen and I told her all of our stories. She mostly responded with curt “mhmm’s,” but continued listening. “Mommy, don’t you want to know who we met?” We told her about Kelly serving Shirley Temples and Carl grilling us burgers. We left out the naked dancing part because we wanted to go back.
I was afraid to tell her that I was still full from all the food I’d eaten, and tried to finish dinner. Her face was stiff, her eyes weary, but I knew she wouldn’t be mad at us if only she knew how much fun it was. And then she said, “Girls, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell your friends at school about the Jet Strip.”
Kristen and I looked at each other and giggled, trying to conceal our smiles. And that’s when she knew.
After dinner, we ran to play in the backyard where we put two picnic benches together in a T shape. I played Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” on our tape player, and Dad introduced us with our new stage names, Holly and Coco, as we walked onto our stage, dancing around.
“Look Mommy, look!” we waved to her in the kitchen window as she washed the dishes. She gave us a half wave and said “Hi girls.” Then she bowed her head down to the sink and returned to her work.