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In the lion's den

Taxi Driver



Colorado Springs cab drivers have a little bit in common with the strippers they transport.

They must both, for instance, pay to work — a hefty up-front fee to their employers before taking hold of a steering wheel or a dance pole. It's $110 to $115 each night, or no dice. Company profits and costs of business are therefore covered and guaranteed, not wages or incomes.

For this, strip clubs in Colorado Springs are noted as "high houses," or venues that strippers find more financially challenging than others, particularly on full-nudity nights when only non-alcoholic beverages are served. With no Jack Daniels or Smirnoff to lubricate the flow of cash, business suffers.

So the girls, as they tell me in the cab on their way home, feel they must work even harder to get results, though they are appreciatively protected from the fists and chairs that are thrown in Oregon and other states where booze and bare bottoms are permitted at the same time. (The curtailment of lucrative liquor sales makes offsite prostitution even more tempting to them. Nine hundred dollars for sex is a common offer, though rarely accepted.)

Still, "everybody wants to be a stripper," a lithe 26-year-old tells me. "We get new girls coming in every day, and every one gets a chance."

Ready for raunch

"Amber" sees dancing as a financially enabling path toward a career in photojournalism. A repeat rider in my taxi, she's invited me into the club to chat, though the industrial-strength music makes shouting necessary. Before long, we're interrupted by her turn to perform on the main stage.

"You gotta do raunch," she says before departing. "If you don't do raunch, you don't work here."

"Raunch" is definitely the show- and heart-stopping finale requisite of Amber and every girl in the night's lineup, a display of midregion assets that is, in most cases, like a Broadway solo number underwritten by Cuisinart. The removal of any string or thongy bottomwear signals the onset of raunch, and "grind," "chop" and "puree" are as fitting as any other words to describe the seemingly motorized shakes and flexes coming into view.

The effect resembles a kind of lion-taming, as young men are held in their seats as if by whip and pistol while the music and flashing red lights pulse away. Occasionally, an adventurous patron will extend a dollar bill from his teeth for the dancer to bend over and remove vaginally, to everyone's applause.

In truth, a taut interplay of legal codes and commercial requirements controls the action, onstage and off. Girls at some point must throw their legs apart during a performance to keep working, but if asked for a lap-dance afterward, keep themselves and their clients within strict physical boundaries, as recorded by surveillance cameras. Both dancers and customers find lap-dancing pleasurable but, for obvious reasons, "frustrating" when over. Arousal is the objective, not release or fulfillment.

"I don't want my parents to know," Amber says, returning. "It's OK for my sister, she knows I do this, but my parents think I just bartend. I'll tell them soon, just not now."

How all these costs and liabilities are transcended and converted into joy and celebration of the body by Amber, and all the girls present, is a bit puzzling. When not required to dance for the audience, they're dancing for each other, at a smaller stage off to the side as an informal warm-up area or mini-clinic. They may filter out from time to time to engage in conversation or solicit drinks or dollar bills, but otherwise seem to volunteer their talents and fine-tune their routines for anyone caring to watch.

Health clubs that could achieve this style of spontaneous and carefree playfulness would be a huge success.

The name game

"Can you think of another name for the 'universe'? Another word to call it?" she asks.

Huh? We're in the cab now, taking her home to her sleeping boyfriend (who snores, she adds) shortly after 3 a.m. The stars are out in that clear, sparkly way at this altitude.

"What other name would you give the universe?" she says again. "You don't have to tell me now. You can think about it. I can call you and you can let me know. There's no deadline." She laughs at this reference to our previous conversation about the deadlines and time slots we must both observe.

"I read the black-holes book by ... uh ... I forgot his name."

"Stephen Hawking? A Brief History of Time?"

"Yeah, him!" she says. "It was the old version and I found it outside and picked it up and read that he wrote this book with the movements of his eyes!"

Amber, no doubt, is by profession an expert on the movements of eyes.

We continue in this vein till arriving at her apartment complex, and she tips, as always, generously.

Time to think of another name for the universe. Or just another altogether. No deadlines or surveillance cameras. No secrets from families. Spontaneous play and free movement. Picking up knowledge left lying on the ground, as if having dropped from the sky from harmless distant beings.

More things cab drivers and dancers have in common, as I watch Amber walk up the manicured path and into the night. We'll meet, and resume our conversations, again. And maybe find another name for the universe.

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