The Troc. In my memory, advertisements for the Philadelphia burlesque house suddenly surface in a riot of breasts, navels, and G-strings, amid the long, smooth legs of striptease queens, whose tinseled beauty is no more.
There it is, all the glitter, glamour, and innocence of American burlesque just before and during World War II. The heyday of stars like Gypsy Rose Lee, Ann Corio, Margie Hart, and Sally Rand, who filled the empty hours of so many lonely men. The curvaceous brunette at the center of the layout is Miryum, the Arabian princess from Hoboken, whose Wedding Night made her a star at fourteen.
I was a fan of Princess Miryum’s when I was only thirteen myself, and I whiled away the hours between Saturday matinees with daydreams of the Troc’s tasseled and sequined striptease artists and with fantasies of being watched. Not as a rival to Mabelle the Mammary Wonder, who could rotate her enormous breasts in opposite directions at the same time, but as a complementary feature. I dreamed of going onstage as a matchstick figure, breasts rising from my flat chest in a memorable demonstration that they were not nonexistent, as commonly supposed, but a voluptuous fact, like those hard bits of Japanese paper that blossom when placed in water, the amber depths of the Troc being their proper aquatic medium. I am willing to admit to this dream only now, long afterward.
The men who went to the Troc were dreamers, too, and ever in quest of innocence. They really believed in Princess Miryum, the child-bride from Hoboken, as she bumped and ground her way from virginity to nonvirginity.
I took my place among them at the age of thirteen, recording streaks of light and lust from every side like a wildly sensitive film that had sprung open in the sun. You see the light-spots more than thirty years later, a loss of melanin scattered over my forearms and across my shoulders in a faint spray of dots exactly like the pattern of light cast by the sequins on Margie Hart’s G-string.
I felt her luster enter into me (though her whole form was in miniature from my seat in the peanut gallery) and was afraid. I examined my thin, adolescent body in the mirror when I got home. Nothing showed. Not then. Some kinds of marks take years to manifest themselves. The years have passed, through wars and fire and love. I am a survivor, with reflections from Margie Hart’s G-string on my arms and her mane of red hair in the locket of my mind. Odd that I’ve carried that instead of a souvenir of a man, considering all the boyfriends I’ve had. Boyfriends are never miniature and far away. They lie beside you or on top of you or under you like giants. You see only a part of a lover at a time: his shoulder, his forearm, his abdomen. It is enough. There is nothing a woman likes more than to give her whole self to a mere part of a man.
I went to the Troc Burlesque every Saturday afternoon. I still have a vivid memory of the seedy neighborhood that the old music hall was in, its shabby, dust-coated facade and the garish neon lights that spelled out its name on the marquee. I still recall the glossy photographs of the half-naked striptease artists that were displayed all over the lobby. The apparent age of most of the girls, suggested by their anachronistic hairstyles, gave the foyer a historical dimension rather like that of a museum. And, as in many museums, there was a sign: CAMERAS FORBIDDEN.
I didn’t mind. The pictures I wanted of the burlesque were not of tassels rotating on sturdy nipples, or fringed G-strings aquiver, or rhinestone-bejeweled mounts of Venus. I was interested rather in what could be visualized only by a gigantic act of the imagination, like in a dream.
All the men who went to the Troc were dreaming too — of one kind of fuck or another. Yet I never felt out of place in that lush haven for would-be lovers and perennial masturbators, though I was the only girl among them. It was deliciously cool and dark. Private. The auditorium was a relic of the past. Its ceiling, a cavernous dome, was supported by ornate, gilded pillars emblazoned with figures of satyrs pursuing buxom, lightly clad nymphs. Male musicians in the orchestra pit filled the hall with spirited renditions of popular tunes. They all wore black tuxedos, like guests at a formal party. Their expressionless faces reflected yellow, green, red, and indigo in the rotating lights that marked the climax of a strip. They played with unwavering intensity, looking up from their music stands only for their cues. Pied Pipers leading us through the tunnel of love with the detachment of Buddhist monks.
Strippers came in every shape, personality, and vintage, but there was one quality common to all and that was respectability. No matter how wild her gyrations by the end of her routine, she had to come onstage as a lady (a hat and elbow-length gloves were de rigueur). The customers hadn’t paid the price of admission to watch a lewd woman. They wanted to see a wholesome, all-American girl or titled foreigner, a well-dressed secretary or schoolteacher, a debutante or society matron come onstage and do what she would never do in real life: share her body with the boys. Not just her body but her dreams. The climax of a burlesque star’s act was that moment when her own erotic fantasy fused with that of her audience. It was disciplined, beautiful, and, like all illusory joy, a little sad.
The gaze of every man and boy would be riveted on whichever stripper held center stage. Someone in a back row would yell, “Take it off. Take it off.” The stripper would slowly remove a long, black velvet glove from her creamy arm and then, maybe with a little whoop, toss it high in the amber haze. A sparkling brassiere would follow. Then the glittery cut-outs from her rosy nipples. How lovely her breasts looked as she bent over to toy with the fastener on her rose-studded garter belt. There were a few whistles, some cheers, and then howls of pleasure as she peeled off her sheer, black stockings, all the while rotating her pelvis more or less in time with the music. Off came her girdle of silver sequins. She tossed it on top of her spike-heeled, golden shoes to one side of the big, bare, wooden stage. When she placed her bare feet wide apart and began a series of bumps and grinds accompanied by a powerful solo on the drums, there wasn’t a man present who didn’t imagine himself possessing her. But I imagined that I was in her place, acting like her, being her.
No one paid any attention to me. Men didn’t go to the Troc to pick up girls. It was strictly a dream-serving place. Its patrons were fans of Gypsy Rose Lee, who kept the aura of being a lady even when she was as bare as a jaybird. Of redheaded, full-breasted Margie Hart, who stripped down to a Band-Aid (some were ready to swear that they saw her remove even that on occasions) while the band played “Margie”: “Margie, I’m always thinkin’ of you. Margie, I’ll tell the world I love you. Don’t forget your promise to me.” The men out front didn’t care if she was wounded. They saw only that she was shameless and beautiful and therefore to be lusted after and despised.
Every woman was supposed to stride carefree and high-minded above a similar gash, to present a decoy-self in subjugation and denial of her unmentionable but supremely sentient second mouth. I wanted to be lusted after but not despised, so I always felt ashamed, although I admired Margie Hart enough to make some experiments on my own — in private — with a Band-Aid.
All the men concentrated on the distant stripper as if that were where the action was, but I figured her bumps and grinds weren’t worth a drop in the bucket compared to the swelling in unison, the mass erections, of her all-male audience. It was a vision of group genitalia that struck me with a pang of beauty — what I feel when I think of the first green shoots of spring.
The muted departure of the horny herd at the end of the show was sparked with a furtive exchange of glances, as if they had been to an orgy rather than the decorous exercise in daydreaming that burlesque really was. A woman excites men and men excite each other, I thought with that part of my mind I should have kept free for my algebra homework.
I wanted to be a burlesque queen. I knew I was too young and too skinny. I decided to lie about my age (my face was rather mature, but it had its stellar qualities; I resembled, some people said, the movie actress Dorothy Lamour, who also had big eyes, long hair, and a vulnerable childish mouth) and ask for a job as a showgirl. I didn’t expect to be accepted. I just wanted to see what the manager would say. “Come back after you’ve put on a little weight.” “Come back in five years, little girl.” I wanted him to say, “Come back.” Words I could base my life on. A girl’s first ambition was supposed to be marriage, but I was a born exhibitionist who did not dream of matrimonial bliss but of dancing naked before the world. It was this deviation that lent me courage to go to the manager of the burlesque house where I had been a steady customer for so many months.
The way to the office was down a sun-specked, sooty alley and up a narrow wooden stair. I knocked timidly on the door. A resonant baritone voice announced that the door was open. I took a deep breath, turned the massive metal knob, and went inside, leaving the door ajar. It slammed shut behind me in a draught of air.
The room was a cubicle jammed with old, broken-down furniture. Its one window, thick with dust, opened dimly on a brick wall opposite. A small lamp with a battered shade lighted the desk, at which a sallow, little man in a dark suit sat reading a trade journal. He got up at my entrance. He looked about thirty years old and was unremarkable except for the contrast between his starkly white hands and the yellowish cast of his face. His hair was thick, black, and oily. It started only an inch above his low forehead before plunging smoothly down his oval head.
“Can I help you,” he asked, coming from behind the desk and leaning against it, as if even that much physical exertion tired him.
“Please, sir,” I began, and then, struck by the vulgarity of a large diamond on his left hand, paused, regretting the sir. “I’d like to be a showgirl,” I concluded, less sure of myself.
“Showgirls make a lot of money,” he said approvingly.
I nodded, although I had not been thinking about the money.
“Come here,” he said.
I moved forward cautiously, afraid he might touch me.
He placed his soft, white hands on his fly and opened it, providing me with my first glimpse of the opposite sex at high tide. “Touch it,” he said.
Wild with curiosity, I touched him with the tips of my fingers. I could not figure out what this had to do with being a showgirl. A few seconds later, he pushed me away impatiently, covered himself with a white handkerchief, and leaned forward with a moan. His dark eyes glazed over. A strange ammonia smell filled the room. He rearranged his clothing, zipped up his trousers, and said, “Come next Saturday, girlie. I’ll give you a bottle of perfume.” With that, he pushed a crumpled bill into my hand. My fingers closed around the money. I felt sick to my stomach. I was astonished. I was also a little pleased. No one except aunts and uncles had ever given me money before, and then only on Christmas and Easter. The mere thought of a stranger giving me money was exhilarating.
I came out of the moldering building into the river-scented twilight, the ten-dollar bill in my hand burning like a small fire. I felt deliciously guilty for having taken money from a stranger; for having seen a man’s sex, a subject so taboo it was never mentioned in our home.
I had been warned not to speak to strangers, which good advice left me totally unprepared for the ammonia vapors rising from the depths of a white handkerchief as if in a magic rite to which I had been party. Had I been paid not to tell? I wouldn’t have done that in any case. And if not that, what? I was very wicked, that much was clear. The bill steaming in the dampness of my clenched fist was the proof.
The streets were crowded with pedestrians, buses, and cars. America was still on a six-day week, and everyone was hurrying home in the spring twilight, their arms laden with groceries for the special dinner most people treated their families to on payday. Many people got paid less than ten dollars a week. The black servant who worked full time in our house got only eight dollars a week, and she raised two fatherless children on that.
Most of the men and women bustling along the street, tired after a week’s work and eager for their day off, were honest folk. You could see it in the straightforward way they moved, their eyes never glancing toward the bars that lined that somewhat disreputable street. Decent people. Men in somber neckties and women in smart little hats on chastely groomed heads, the barest hint of makeup on their stern faces. They had never seen the inside of the Troc, let alone the little office at the top of the wooden stairs. Only I, I reflected dismally, had done that.
One middle-aged matron stopped before a legless man selling violets. She had on a kerchief and a cheap coat. She gave him some coins from her worn bag for a bunch of tiny, purple flowers and told him to keep the change.
“God bless you, lady,” said the old flower seller. “God bless . . .”
Who needed benediction, if not I? I thrust my shameful earnings into the legless man’s hands. He looked up, surprised. “I want ten dollars’ worth of violets,” I said urgently, eager to be rid of the hot money. He looked at me. I was acutely conscious of my new wool coat, emerald green with a brown fur collar. My mother, who was the advertising manager in a department store, got clothes at a big discount in pre-public yearly sales. I must have looked simply rich to the old man. He examined the bill, put it in a pocket of his frayed jacket, and then handed me the whole tray.
I walked along anxiously with the mass of violets. Maybe someone would think I had stolen them. Maybe the old man himself would accuse me, for he had not been friendly, just resentful that I had so much to spend. What thirteen-year-old girl in the world bought violets at ten dollars a throw?
I shoved the incriminating tray into the hands of a blind beggar and turned away before he could react. Surely he would sell the flowers, maybe not for ten dollars but for five. So I had gotten ten dollars for serving as a catalyst in an act of onanism, and I had given away fifteen dollars half an hour later. Was I as bad as my fellow pedestrians would think if they knew only half the story?
I stopped in the cold wind now rising strongly from the garbage-strewn, black river, my attention held by the Sherwin-Williams paint sign that overlooked the Delaware and far Jersey shore. It lit up into a replica of the earth, growing brighter and brighter until a line of red paint formed at its summit and then spread its stain slowly over the entire planet. A neon sign below flashed WE COVER THE WORLD. Well, at least he’d used his pocket handkerchief.
I was a nymphet during days when girls were taught to be virginal and chaste. While other girls in the New Jersey suburb where I lived turned their true natures inside out to live up to this ideal, I thrived on daydreams of scarlet women, stages, and props, courtesy of the Troc Burlesque. I did not dream of having a husband and babies but of lovers. I wanted to be Hester Prynne, Madame Bovary, and one of the music-hall artists in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, all rolled into one. I was not clever enough to see that society’s virgin requirement was bogus, a tremendous put-down and enslavement of women by men. I just felt it was something I was incapable of — not with all the G-strings and Band-Aids that danced through my head every Saturday matinee, not to mention the daily sexual reveries that lacked even the excuse of an object.
I always cared about what people thought, so I was basically a candidate for respectability. Yet I could sit right through my Christian Science Sunday school hour and think about a man I saw masturbating under his newspaper at the Troc, and always such thoughts would outweigh the lesson for the day. I felt guilty toward my teacher, a tall, dark, and handsome man on whom I had a crush until he absconded one day with the Sunday school funds. After that, it seemed to matter less that I never paid much attention in class. Even that ten dollars, my hot money — well, at least I hadn’t stolen it. What I had done was give it away, not once but twice when it turned out to be such an embarrassingly large burden of violets.
This essay, from Sarajane Archdeacon’s unpublished Arabian Memoir, appeared previously in Debonair.