On the edge in Edge City

Brad Tyer finds fun, more fun and big fun on the Richmond Strip

Richmond outside the Loop is plastic. Prefab, soulless, rootless, charmless -- most all the adjectives of disdain apply in spades. But it is also very much of our time and of our city, and if it lacks a certain bohemian charm that has come to pass for genuine, it's not because of some corporate-planned conspiracy to suck the soul out of a city's citizenry. It is because the secondhand bookshops and cafes and mom-and-pop establishments do not thrive in this town. They are not known for raking in the bucks, and when the reigning credo of a city's development screams big as loudly as Houston's does, the character of its corporations is not likely to thrive on smallness. There will certainly always be a vocal minority of design professionals and artist-architects and aficionados of European style who don't like it that way -- perhaps because they're more comfortable with a smaller scale that more closely approximates that of human interaction -- but the unavoidable fact is that the collective, democratic We seems to be as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine with the arrangement. That's why the Yucatan Liquor Stand sells more alcohol than any other bar in the city. That's why Dave & Buster's thrives in laboratory cleanliness. That why Billy Blues can pay a local blues musician twice as much as an independently run and perhaps more appropriately funky venue could.

And before anyone gets too weepy about the new sterility of pre-packaged fun or the diluted character of the blues, it's well to remember that the musicians who played the blues into the history books were playing not to small, fervent and cliquish crowds who stroked their beards and appreciated the music's anthropological force, but to seedy nightclubs full of people dressed to the nines, on the town, and out to get laid. If Richmond seems to you soulless, it's because Richmond is not where you've made your memories. But there are thousands of people making their memories on Richmond Avenue every night. This is where the action -- such as it is -- is, and Houston is too young, too fast and too big for nostalgia.

Even More Fun: Company on the Company
Not to say that you canÕt indulge certain forms of nostalgia on the Strip. Many grown men, for instance, harbor an unweaned yearning for the female breast, and one place to service that desire is Centerfolds.

My friend and I arrived at 9:30 on a Thursday night and paid a $5 cover to enter a large room appointed with tables and padded chairs, upholstered booths along the wall, a bar with no barstools, and mirrors galore. Upstairs was a designated V.I.P. room, slightly quieter, which one needed no particular qualification -- aside from the desire to self-designate oneself as Very Important -- to enter.

Excepting a drunken miscalculation at an establishment called the Hot Box in Corpus Christi many years ago, this was my first visit to what the dancers called a "titty bar," and I was eager to find out how they work.

A woman wearing a very small red dress took our drink order -- two bottled Budweisers and a Jack Daniels on ice -- and relieved me of $16. We watched a woman sway lackadaisically on the main stage. There is also a secondary stage, really only a platform, on the ground floor, another upstairs, and dancers rotate from stage to stage to songs of their own choosing. We drank our drinks and watched and wondered if we could afford another round. Another woman in a very small black dress put her hand on my shoulder and asked if we wanted "company." We procrastinated and she left.

Shortly afterwards, another young lady, this one in a very small blue dress, asked the same question.

"Well," I replied cautiously, "what's the going rate for company?"
She smiled. "Company is free. Table dance is twenty dollars, but you don't have to do that."

My friend and I paused, unsure of the proper etiquette, and she sat herself down at one of our table's empty chairs, to be joined shortly by one of her co-workers.

"So what's your name?" she asked, with great and seemingly genuine friendliness, and thus started "company." The place was sparsely populated, but I noticed that, to our right, two businessmen were earnestly enjoying the company of two young ladies sprawled in their laps.

Her name was Tracy, though it may have been Traci, and it was a very slow night. And she, holding a regular job as a bartender at another titty bar "down closer to Clear Lake," wasn't a full-time professional dancer. That, anyway, was her explanation for (1) approaching such an obviously cash-shy table, and (2) talking with us and answering our questions for a good half-hour before asking if I wanted a table dance. The general rule, as practiced by the second lady to sit down at our table, was to provide "company" for three or four minutes, ask for a table dance, and leave if the answer was no. Tracy was bored, though, and liked to talk, so from her I found out that between 30 and 40 dancers work at the club, that they pay $20 a night to dance, or $35 if they can't pay until the end of the night, and that a good night brings a dancer like Tracy $400. In the unlikely event that a dancer still can't pay at the end of the night, the fee is double the next night. Dancers provide their own G-strings, which run in the neighborhood of forty bucks, and make their money from tips on the main stage and especially the $20 table dances.

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