A couple of months ago, I did a reading at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, which drew more than forty people. That was a huge crowd for me, so after my sister dropped me off at my hotel, I decided I had to celebrate by eating dessert at a place called Voodoo Donuts, which I’d read several articles about and had probably seen on the Food Network. Voodoo Donuts is famous for, among other things, crullers shaped like blunts, which sell for a dime on the frequent occasions that the police arrest a member of the Portland Trailblazers. I wrote the address on a sticky note and set my stomach for gorge.
Portland’s downtown has reached that delightful midpoint of gentrification where it’s safe to walk around without fear of anything worse than getting panhandled, but it’s also still kind of weird and interesting. Those kinds of blocks are growing short in America, and have now been essentially reduced to much of Philadelphia, downtown Los Angeles and Portland. I try to walk them whenever I get the chance, collecting memories of eclectic street scenery like outsider art.
Voodoo Donuts proved elusive. I couldn’t find the address I’d written down. There I went past Mary’s, Portland’s most famous strip club, kind of a low-rent Coyote Ugly but without the pretense. I was a man alone and unsupervised on a business trip. People like me attach themselves to such places like tapeworms to intestine. But no. I wanted donuts, so I turned left.
A few blocks later, I approached some cops who were on horseback. They would almost certainly know where to find the donuts.
“Voodoo Donuts?” said the lady cop. “I’ve heard of them, but I don’t know where the shop is.”
“How is that possible?” I said.
The cop gave me a nasty look.
“I think they’re that way,” she said, and pointed.
They weren’t. I got to the highway. No donuts. By then, I’d been walking for a half hour. I found a dark patch of grass, relieved myself, and walked back from whence I’d come.
Now I was horny.
Portland has more strip clubs than convenience stores. In some cities, visiting a hoochie joint is a palm-sweater or an Interstate detour. In Portland, it’s easier than buying a stick of gum. But I still had my red-state habits. My thoughts felt illicit and dirty.
I found myself in front of a rock club that, like every business in Portland, had a strip joint upstairs. Something called the Eagles Of Death Metal, which I later learned is a great band that I really should have seen, was playing. Next to me were three women who looked like they could be Suicide Girls. Maybe they were Suicide Girls!
“The Eagles Of Death Metal!” I said. “That sounds like a fun band!”
“They’re awesome,” said one of them.
“I can’t decide whether or not I want to go inside,” I said.
“Whether or not you want to go inside where?” one of them said, and then they were done with me.
At that point, I abandoned all mental pretense. I needed a lap dance. And yes, for those of you who care, my wife knows about this story.
I asked at a convenience store and at a club that looked too expensive for me. The guy at the
convenience store gave me a map of local strip joints. The woman working the door at the expensive club said, “If I had to choose one strip club downtown, it would be Magic Gardens.”
So to Magic Gardens I went.
Magic Gardens wasn’t magic, nor was it garden-like, unless your idea of a garden is a crappy neighborhood bar with a beer-soaked carpet, a ripped pool table and a toxic kitchen. A naked woman danced on a stage in
the middle. I bought a three-dollar Heineken in a can. She left the stage. Another woman took her place. I watched as the first woman took a guy over to a corner and began to whip her legs over his head and talk to him like she enjoyed his company. Mmmm. She was tasty.
When they were done, I said to the guy, “so is that how it works here?”
He looked at me like I was a disease.
“That’s how it works everywhere,” he said.
I took a seat front and center, which hardly mattered because I was the only guy seated near the stage at all. I watched as my preferred woman churned stiffly to a Jacques Brel song. In Portland, most strippers get to choose their own music. There’s none of this “Dude Looks Like a Lady”- while-straddling-a-greased-pole crap. She slid down the rail in front of me and thrust her naked ass in my face. I tossed a fiver her way and raised my eyebrows suggestively.
“I like your music,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said.
After the song, I went up to her.
“Um,” I said. “How much for um?”
“You want a table dance?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s twenty dollars a song.”
“I can afford that.”
Her name was April. She took me into a secluded corner and sat me in a black-vinyl topped chair.
“There’s no table,” April said.
“That’s fine,” I said.
April began to wiggle around me, very naked.
“So what do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Really?” she said. “Like Chuck Palanhiuk?”
“I was just asking because I know a lot of people who’ve fucked him.”
“Oh,” I said.
April stopped dancing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I ran a marathon last weekend, and my legs are really tired.”
“No problem,” I said.
She then sat down in a chair across from me, so I was paying twenty bucks to have a conversation with a naked woman. I thought: I’d have the same conversation if I met her at a party. We probably know a lot of the same kinds of people. April was a painter; she worked in her garage when she wasn’t stripping.
“Really?” I said. “My wife is a painter.”
“That’s cool,” she said.
“So what’s the art scene like here?” I asked.
I had copies of my books in my shoulder bag. Maybe, I thought, I could personalize them and give them to April as a tip. But I didn’t, because I needed them for the following night’s reading in Seattle.
“Wow,” she said. “I’ll have to read them.”
The song ended.
“Do you want another song?” she said.
I thought about this.
“You don’t have to say yes,” she said. “I’m not a hustler.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “No.”
I handed her the twenty, plus a little extra.
“Send yourself to grad school,” I said.
As I left Magic Gardens, I felt whatever the opposite of an erotic charge must feel like. It was going to take a lot of effort if I wanted to jerk off before going to sleep. I smelled dough, and then I saw the sign.
“Boy, am I glad to see you!” I said to the donut clerk.
“Whatever,” he said.
I ate a blunt, and something else with Oreos and marshmallows on it, and then a chocolate long john to wash them down. It took everything I had not to say “Ahm nam nam nam nam! Cookie!” while I was eating them. At last, I’d found release.