It’s Five P.M. on Easter Sunday and I’m sitting in the backyard of an East Hollywood bungalow with my boyfriend and his bros.
We’ve run out of beer. No one feels like pizza. Somebody bought a bunch of lottery scratchers but no one won anything. At a loss, we decide to go to Jumbo’s Clown Room.
I’ve heard stories about Jumbo’s – P, my boyfriend, often pays his assistants with a stack of singles and a trip to the Clown Room. He’s an artist, so this kind of behavior is acceptable.
I do a bit of research on my smartphone on the car ride over. Jumbo’s Clown Room opened in 1970 as “the best place to goof off” in Hollywood and has since evolved into a kind of punk rock bikini bar where the public can watch tattooed girls pole dance in their skivvies.
I also learn that there’s no DJ and the dancers pick their own songs from the jukebox. I learn that California law prohibits fully-nude strip clubs from serving booze if they’re going to have fully nude dancers, so I won’t be seeing any nips tonight.
This is going to be my first time at a strip club. I’m anticipating a blur of emaciated women draped over furniture, gyrating with the last of their failing, drug-addled strength. Is there going to be a pimp in a green suit backhanding girls if they ask for water? Am I going to get herpes?
It’s me and a bunch of bros, and I’m nervous. Exotic dancing, voyeurism, feather boas – it’s all new to me. I’m a sheltered kid from the suburbs, where “sexy” was a subterranean, non-linguistic zone I knew only as the twinge in my stomach I got when Justin Timberlake came on the radio. The popular kids at my high school hung out at Young Life.
We park. The bar is sandwiched between a pet store and a Thai restaurant. The brick outside is painted black. There are no windows.
Inside, the bouncer asks if this is our first time. “Yes,” I say, barely audible. My hand fumbles for my ID. I’m wearing the same sundress I wore to Easter brunch.
“You know what to do,” he nods to P and his dudes. “No cameras allowed. Be sure to tip the ladies.”
The room is tiny and the clown game is strong. There are paintings of clowns on the wall and little clown statuettes on a shelf above the bar.
We take our group to a booth on the far side of the room. It’s surprisingly well-lit, so I’m able to take a good look around. It’s surprising. Jumbo’s is exceptionally clean. The girls are pretty. I don’t even see any shriveled junkies tweaking in corner.
Despite the reassuring visibility, it’s pretty awkward to have the lights on. Things that happen under full lighting are usually quotidian: work, school, waiting in line at the bank. Not stripping. What’s most uncomfortable is that the dancers can see us seeing them.
The lights stay on for three dances before someone turns them down.
There are four different women dancing in rotation: an athletic girl with black roots sprouting from her blonde hair; a woman wearing leather lingerie and a top hat; a boho-chic lady in fringy scarves; and one woman who mostly stands around looking bored until, as if propelled by a law of physics, her body slams against the pole and flies upward until it is perfectly perpendicular to the pole. Her face remains placid.
The stage is rimmed with low brass guardrails and lined with mirrors on all sides. There’s a mirror on the ceiling. When Leather Lingerie dances, she makes eye contact with herself and smiles.
The bar is surprisingly crowded. There’s a group of thirty-something couples in cardigans who aren’t aren’t really watching the dancers, just socializing with each other like it’s a Greek life reunion. There’s a few older men crouched over drinks at the bar and one hungry-eyed woman who stands against the stage wearing bunny ears. The dancers reward her with attention; they open their legs, smile, joke.
It’s customary to tip every dance. My boyfriend sets down a stack of singles between us and we take turns peeling them off in the manner one eats popcorn at the movies.
We’re sitting just far enough away from the stage that we can’t just throw the dollars over the guardrail. Each time it’s my turn to deposit, I spend the entire two-yard walk terrified that my skirt is tucked into my underwear. I feel very large. I try to approach when the dancer is on the other side of the stage so she won’t see me. If she looks over, I duck my head. The few times I accidentally make eye contact I give a stupid wuddup nod and grin in a way that is probably just creepy.
The dancers target R, one of A’s friends and also the only single male sitting close to the stage. Gypsy pulls a feather from her orange boa and blows it towards his face. It falls out of her hand and drops on the stage.
P heads to the bar, and comes back with some news.
“Ron Jeremy is coming.”
“What? Are you serious?” R asks.
“I guess so. The bartender told me.”
“Holy shit. That’s hilarious. Ron Jeremy.”
“Who?” I ask.
Ron Jeremy shows up about ten minutes later. I crane my head to get a better look P has described as “an American porn legend,” but I don’t see him. Is it that muscled guy at the bar? The dude with the dragon tats?
And then I spot him.
Ron Jeremy is…not what I expected. I had anticipated big tan muscles and a crew cut. But instead, Ron is a short, squat old man with a mullet.
Gypsy and Leather come out of the dressing room to say hi to him. Too Cool is looking bored onstage. The Athlete is back at the bar having a drink and a guy who looks like he comes here every Sunday is giving her a backrub.
Everyone at our table has stopped watching the stage and is now watching Ron Jeremy. He chats with the dancers in front of the vending machine and casually pats Leather’s butt. He walks near our table when he leaves to use the restroom, but that’s as close as we get.
Too Cool finishes her dance. R asks Gypsy for a lap dance, but she declines.
There doesn’t seem to be much else to do. The bar is filling up, and we’ve run otu of singles. P throws back another whiskey and we leave.
I have to be honest, I was a tiny bit disappointed. Going to Jumbo’s didn’t feel different than going to any other theme bar. Sports bar, comedy bar, dance bar: you come, you drink, you stare.
I’ve since learned that Jumbos is an outlier in the strip club community. In fact, most people don’t consider it a strip club at all, but a place where trained dancers can show off their moves and everyone can enjoy a bit of Fleetwood Mac. Perhaps these other strip clubs are the ones of my fantasies – places where the walls are infested with gonorrhea, where teenage girls are used as coke tables, where one might casually get shot and die.
Maybe next Easter.