This week, Republicans descended on Cleveland, and so did tons of strippers. I am one of them. It’s well known that Republicans make it rain, and girls like me make the quadrennial pilgrimage to the Republican National Convention anticipating a big haul. As the city’s police shored up jail cells and fenced in containment zones, and the local judges put all hands on deck for 10-hour shifts, the strip clubs, too, extended their operating hours and liquor service, to ready themselves for the RNC. This week, I’ll be bringing you news from the poles—Cleveland’s last refuge from actual news—and meeting members of the porn-fearing party who stuff taxpayer dollars into g-strings while the world burns down. (Read part two here.)
Friday, July 15
For the time being, the club is dead. The Convention hasn’t actually started. Girls are checking their phones and lazily swinging the pole for a few 20-somethings who wandered in after a bar crawl. They don’t tip. The staff is nervously reassuring themselves that the club will fill up next week.
A seasoned employee worries about traffic congestion because of the “hate people” whom he defines as “the KKK and the Black Panthers.” Staffers make abundant coded references to “the police and the people who hate the police.”
Later, I’m mulling around the smoking section with the regulars. A helicopter flies overhead, and one regular remarks that the white supremacists are already in town. He’s heard that the Black Panthers are at a local chain motel. Downtown is “caged off”; apparently they’ve blocked the roads to contain possible violence. One customer tells me, “You’d be fine, you’re white. White girls don’t get shot.” The helicopter passes, and we turn back to making hand-job jokes.
A dancer gives me a piece of fashion advice as I’m peeling off nipple tape in the dressing room at four in the morning. “You might want to wear something more flashy and shorter,” she says. “But simple. I’m going to wear something plain, not that much makeup, like a girl-next-door look. Because, you know, they’re Republicans.”
The state of Ohio defines “nudity” as exposure of pubic area, buttocks, and any part of the female areola. A 2008 law mandates that businesses serving alcohol may not do so in the presence of people in a “state of nudity,” so everybody has to wear pasties. This only leaves me with more questions. What if an areola is more like a gradient? Where do buttocks end? Sometimes life is more nuanced than the law.
What I think the dancer was talking about is giving the appearance of having gotten lost on our way home and wandered into the strip club, which, I guess, is how one sells sexuality to a demographic that stands behind a platform that calls porn a “public health crisis.” I am meant to exude accidental, innocent sexuality. Like a fuckable child.
Saturday, July 16
On a run for a conservative-slutty outfit, the Uber driver and I politely attempt to suss out each other’s political leanings with benign questions like “So what do you do?” and “Are you excited?” We avoid talk radio. A truck drives by with large video sidings broadcasting the message: “Tell the Senate: #DoYourJob.”
Everybody in the city walks on eggshells to avoid revealing our political leanings, but even the Republican Party itself is divided. Statements in the party platform such as, “Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions” don’t exactly square with the lifestyle of a thrice-married billionaire who’s appeared on the cover of Playboy and struggles with Biblical references.
So on the outfit issue, I’m torn. Do I go for Nancy Reagan’s film actress poise in a floor-length stripper gown? Or should I be shooting for a non-speaking luxury product in see-through lace vibe, a la Melania? Or naughty Christian schoolgirl—would a Tony Perkins-type go for that? I land on something red, white, blue and inoffensively nonpartisan: A stock slut that all of America can agree on.
Every time I turn a corner into a bathroom, I hear a mixture of murmurs about the military “copters” constantly overhead, worries about “all that stuff in France”, and reassurances that it would never happen in Cleveland.
A handful of customers begin to trickle in. The average Trump supporter who comes to the club appears to be a middle aged, non-threatening, slightly disheveled man who could be a cartoonist or a stay-at-home programmer, or even an intro film professor. He supported Ross Perot in ‘92, and wants another independent businessman who won’t blow the budget (as in Cleveland, where Democrats spent $50 million on the park in Public Square). He likes Trump’s plan to reduce the number of tax brackets. He sees veterans, who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, wasting away on the streets while Obama’s spending all this money to let in people in who have no business being here in the first place. His main concern is national security, and he would vote for Trump because he’s “better than the alternative,” and somebody needs to “shake things up” because “look at where Obama has gotten us.” When asked about the homophobic party platform, he responds that “that’s annoying, that stuff was just slipped in there.”
So far, by my back of the hand calculation, the typical Trump supporter buys an average of 0.5 lap dances.
Sunday, July 17
Downtown, Anderson Cooper strides purposefully through a listless crowd of press scrum, and traffic is horrible thanks to road closures. The city’s still relatively empty, though, aside from handfuls of people selling Trump merchandise, many of whom claim no political affiliation, and intend to do the same thing in Philly next week. There are Hillary and Trump cereal boxes for sale, with “Trump Flakes” (“Really, really, really rich in nutrients”) written on the boxes, and “Clinton Crunch” (“Healthy for America!”) available, plus a Trump air freshener mysteriously branded “Away.”
A zealot with a mic is screaming outside the MSNBC booth about how “sex is temporary” because when you’re ninety, all you’ll need is a God-fearing woman; the destructive nature of the Internet and media; the cultural damages of seventies love; that porn stars are swine.
I consider heading back to the club, but it is the Lord’s Day.
Monday, July 18
The fears about the presence of “hate people” keeping customers away are vindicated. The club is dead. I’m later told that even locals are afraid to come down here because of the constantly-circling SWAT teams and herds of mounted police. Half a dozen new girls, who’d all “happened to move to Cleveland this week” from major US cities hunch over their phones, smoke, drink, and hunch again, bored out of their skulls.
A handsome, muscular pimp with tasteful accents of diamond-encrusted jewelry summons me and buys me a glass of wine. Later, over flirting and life stories, he says he runs an escort service and one of his girls makes $25,000 meeting some guy two weekends in a month. He drops in a story about another girl he once tried to “rescue,” one of the Eastern European aspiring models being shuttled in vans between strip clubs and small houses where their traffickers imprison them. Have I heard about that kind of thing? Yes, I have heard about them. He says his business isn’t like that. He has “infrastructure around it.” He makes a proposal about working with “like-minded business people.” He’s clearly not interested in a lap dance, so the conversation ends when I see a couple dudes in suits walk in. I say I have to make my money now.
Meanwhile, a beautiful Slovenian immigrant model—who landed a lifetime non-speaking role as sentient proof of Donald Trump’s virility—reintroduces herself to the world on national TV. We’re watching it in the club. Melania’s face is obscured by the ass-twerking onstage, and her voice drowned out by the maddening din of club music on repeat, but it looks like she’s getting a fabulous reception. Minutes later, we learn that the speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama, resulting in a kerfuffle over how much input she’d had in the speechwriting process, if any. Melania could be us, I think: beautiful, compliant, shepherded up to the mic to cutely recite feeder lines, on the occasion that it’s optically favorable to be seen and not heard. Like a child.
A girl debates leaving the club to sell freelance pussy, since business is slow. One dude wants to do bareback, so that would be $300 right there.
“Hillary is a bitch,” says a young man with a Southern accent, downing energy drinks at the bar, while absently gazing at a row of baseball games on overhead TVs. He claims to be working with the RNC in some capacity, but he says he’d “rather not go into that.” He says he enjoys the South because he wants to live in a place that he feels a connection to and knows well, unlike a big city where people have hair gel and flip you off.
The ratio of girls to men is a depressing 3-1. The DJ reminds everyone over the PA that lap dances are very available.
I ask the young man from the South to elaborate on his position on Hillary.
She’s scheming, she’s fraudulent, she changes her positions to whatever people want to hear, and she and her husband think they’re royalty, he says. I point out that all of those attributes could apply to her opponent. Really, it’s a free speech issue, he says, and explains how “political correctness” is a threat to his First Amendment right to make racist generalizations without being called a racist. If he boards a plane with a person “in robes praying to Mecca,” he says, then he should have a right to worry about that. He adds, “the Democrats need to take notice, because they’re scaring off people like me who would normally be on the left.”
He just keeps talking. I say nothing. “I’m really enjoying our conversation,” he says.
Tuesday, July 19
The pole is empty.
When the dancer finally totters up in heels late for her set, two men wearing lanyards rise, soldier-like, to the sound of Sia, and emotionlessly perform a dollar-bill salute. It’s late. Hours earlier, Donald J. Trump had officially clinched the Republican party nomination for President of the United States. The crowd has changed since Friday; the atmosphere is heavy with somber expressions on the faces of out-of-towners with amphibiously smooth skin and expensive suits, which stand out amongst the usual rawhide-faced trolls.
A generically handsome medical lobbyist miserably nurses his beer long after his pack has left. “It’s the worst convention I’ve ever seen,” he sighs. Attendance is low and most of his friends didn’t show up. He’ll be flying out tomorrow.
A guy who says he’s a secret service officer soberly watches one girl humping off-rhythm in no particular direction. He can’t drink because he’s on call, though he claims to have just finished detail for Ted Cruz—who certainly doesn’t have a Secret Service detail any more, if he ever did.*
I gravitate to a Polish journalist lounging with a beer who’s hoping to spot delegates in the club for a little bit of color commentary for his work. He seems disappointed.
I take home the lowest sum I have ever earned for removing my clothes.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to more clearly reflect the fact that the man claiming to be a Secret Service agent was not telling the truth.
Illustration: Jim Cooke for Gawker. Ivana Wall is not the author’s real name. She is blogging about the RNC while working as a dancer at a Cleveland strip club this week.