It was 1977, Apple debuted its first computer, Star Wars ruled the world, and my dad started a new secret job. Dad previously was a California Highway Patrolman, just like Erik Estrada in CHiPs. He retired in 1974 after an auto accident and got into the exotic car business, refurbishing and selling cars at several lots around Los Angeles.
I was six years old the first time Dad took me to his work. On the weekends, my younger sister, Kristen, and I played hide–and–seek in the car lots, giggling away in between vintage Model–T Fords, Rolls Royces and Porsches. Customers told Dad how adorable we were as we climbed in and out of the cars.
Mom liked it when Dad took us to work. It got us out of her hair, and we returned home sapped of energy and ready for bed. When I turned nine, however, I noticed Dad stopped talking to me about work. He had a new job, and no longer shared his wild car stories with me. I thought I had done something wrong.
Mom wouldn’t let me wait up for him, but Dad always came into my bedroom and kissed me goodnight when he got home. My parents shot each other looks at the dinner table, as I shifted in my seat. I wondered what they were keeping from me; why they were upset with me.
My parents started whispering in the kitchen. While we watched Bugs Bunny in the den, my sister and I tried eavesdropping on their conversation.
“I don’t like you coming home every night at three in the morning smelling of booze and smoke.”
“I can’t help it, the club was packed tonight and I got stuck working the floor.”
“Can’t you air your clothes outside of the house?”
One Saturday night, the babysitter cancelled for the next day. Mom’s face was strained when she hung up the phone. The inevitable happened: she had to work all day, and the neighbors were out of town. After exchanging tense glances and whispers, Dad walked into the den, grabbed my knee, and announced he was taking us with him to work the next day.
There was nothing more fun than a day with Dad — hello Fruit Loops and Disney, goodbye Corn Flakes and Mr. Rogers! I couldn’t sleep a wink that night.
Amy Grant gospel music played in the kitchen as Mom made us breakfast that next morning, stoically hacking bananas for our cereal. Dad walked into the kitchen wearing a maroon leather jacket and matching ankle boots over grey polyester slacks and a white dress shirt — think Gene Hackman in The French Connection. He grabbed Mom in a bear hug and gave her a Cheshire Cat grin. She squirmed away to place the cereal bowl in front of me.
“Will you let us dance?” I asked. We only knew two things about his new job: they played disco music and served burgers.
He looked down sheepishly while mom stood there, frozen. “I really don’t like the idea of this,” she said.
Distracted and running late, she needed us out of the way. She donned her white kitty-print nurse’s uniform and brushed her Dorothy Hamill bob instead of readying us with a backpack full of sandwiches and coloring books.
She grabbed me gently by the shoulders, leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Stethoscope and nametag in place, she yelled to us, “Somebody clean out Coco’s litter box,” as she slammed the front door, leaving without a kiss goodbye.
We drove down the 405 freeway for about an hour and got off in Inglewood. Kristen and I were both born there, but now it wasn’t that great of a neighborhood. I made sure my door was locked. We drove down Imperial Highway — it was empty on a Sunday morning. Dad pulled our orange van into a gated parking lot. As the door slid open, I could see airplanes flying overhead and a neon sign. We climbed out of the van and I squinted in the sun to get a closer look at the sign. It had the silhouette of a woman riding atop a plane and the name “Jet Strip.” My sister and I exchanged looks of excitement: maybe he worked at the airport! He parked the van and adjusted his handgun resting in its ankle-strap holster. I decided to leave my Holly Hobbie doll behind.
“Here we are.” We walked to the back of the building. He turned off the alarm, unbolted the door and let us in.
It was like walking into a matinee movie. The place was pitch black. It took my eyes awhile to adjust. I smelled Windex and stale smoke.
Dad held our hands and escorted us in until we could see. He tossed his keys on the bar and turned on the stage lights to reveal a rotating disco ball. Soon the Bee Gee’s Night Fever played over the stereo system.
Kristen and I ran to the stage and climbed up with Dad’s help. We danced on brightly-lit colored floor panels surrounded by mirrors, and laughed as we pointed to where the disco ball reflected on our swaying bell–bottoms. We played hopscotch with the colored panels, and our hands squeaked as we swung around the shiny brass pole in the middle of the stage: it was little girl heaven.
Bright blinding sun filled the room as pretty women filtered in one after the other, smiling, laughing and giving us puzzled looks as we carried on. Somehow I thought I could blend in as an adult at the club, I mean I was eight years old after all. That was only two years before double-digit years. But when the dancers arrived, I felt embarrassed. I froze in place, and fumbled off the stage like a little girl.
“Oh girls?” Dad yelled across the club. Kristen and I ran over to the bar and met a tall, thin woman, with perfect blond hair straight out of Alice in Wonderland. She told us her name was Kelly, as she played with our pigtails and asked, “What would you ladies like to drink?”
Unsure of what to order, I asked for milk.
“I’m fresh out of milk. How about two Shirley Temples?” she suggested, and came back with two drinks for us, decorated with umbrellas and maraschino cherries. “What’s in it?” Kristen asked. I had already slammed down half of mine and asked for another cherry. Dad had his signature tonic water in hand. He was always trying to get me to like it, so I pretended I did.
More women came over to us at the bar; Dad was proud to show us off. We met dancers named Crystal, Amber, Destiny, and I could swear I met one named Jell-O. “Those are their stage names, not their real names,” Dad revealed. I wondered why anyone would want two names.
We grabbed our drinks and followed Dad into the games room in the back corner. It wasn’t at all like the vibrant and crowded video arcade at our local mall. This one was dark, empty and complete with cigarette machine, pool tables and video games. Dad pushed some buttons so we could play “Space Invaders” for free.
I was buzzed from all the excitement, and the chance to experience the “adult world.” But what was so adult about it? It seemed like the perfect place for kids.
The club officially opened at 11 a.m., as customers trickled in. Dad told us the women were professional dancers. They would each dance to three different songs, but we were only allowed to watch the first. This sent my mind racing — what the difference was between each dance?
Crystal was the first to dance. She wore a long, red rhinestone dress with slits up the side. She looked like a beauty pageant contestant. She slinked onto the stage and danced slowly. Men tossed dollar bills on the stage and applauded when she ended her dance.
As another song started, Dad rounded up my sister and me and herded us through a secret door. The passage led upstairs to an office with wood-paneled walls, beige shag carpeting, a gray metal desk, and a worn out burgundy, pleather couch with gold rivets. There was a TV sitting on a glass coffee table. Along the wall opposite the couch were several security monitors displaying small, fuzzy, black–and–white views of the parking lot, the bar, the door, and the stage.
A door opened onto the roof, and we joined Dad out there to watch airplanes fly overhead. When we returned inside, he slipped a bootlegged copy of Star Wars into a Beta videotape player.
Dad told us we could eat anything we wanted from the kitchen, and his cook Carl took our order for lunch. We both went straight for the hamburgers with extra ketchup and pickles.
“Don’t watch the security monitors,” Dad said sternly. “I’ll come back up to check on you in a bit.” We sat on the couch, ate our burgers, and watched the movie, drinking from glasses of Coke garnished with umbrellas.
After lunch we shoved Double Bubble gum into our mouths and read the comics on the wrappers. I ran over to the monitors and Kristen followed me. There was no audio feed, but we could feel Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” vibrating through the floor and walls as a dancer, now topless with high heels and dark hair, swung around the pole. Our jaws dropped; our eyes were glued to the stage monitor.
Carl returned and collected our dishes. “Would you young ladies like a tour of the kitchen?” Actually, I was pretty settled in at the moment, secretly watching naked women dance, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Sure,” I said. Kristen was silent but followed us back downstairs for a tour of the kitchen.
We stood mesmerized by ice cream and the raw meat hanging in the walk-in freezer. As Carl walked away, we peeked through the order window at the live stage. Kelly came on, wearing high-heeled shoes and a sheer nightgown.
She shimmied out of her nightgown to reveal bright pink sparkling underwear which, as she swung around the pole, I noticed was missing the back. How did she get her underwear to stay on?
The customers whistled, and she seemed to be having fun — dancing around, flipping her hair, legs in the air. As the song ended, Kelly grabbed her clothes and the dollar bills, and scurried off the stage.
“Isn’t she embarrassed?” Kristen whispered to me.
Dad found us in the kitchen and promptly returned us to the office, where we stayed put until he drove us back home.
On the ride home he promised we could visit the Jet Strip again, “Just don’t tell your mother you saw the dancers fully nude.”
We asked questions about the girls being naked in front of an audience.
“They make really good money, that’s why.”
“So are they real dancers like me? Do they take ballet?”
“Yeah, some do have a dance background.”
“Do you feel bad about the dancers being naked?”
“No, sweetheart. The girls make good money, so I make good money, which means I can provide more for our family. Do you understand that?”
His customers were mostly married, he said, but wanted to look at pretty girls with nice bodies. “Not all women have bodies like that.”
“Why do the men’s wives let them come here?”
“Oh, I doubt they tell their wives, honey.”
As we walked in the front door, John Denver blasted on the stereo, and Mom greeted us with dinner. Kristen and I told her all of our stories. She mostly responded with curt “mhmm’s,” but continued listening. “Mommy, don’t you want to know who we met?” We told her about Kelly serving us Shirley Temples and Carl grilling us burgers. We left out the naked dancing part because we wanted to go back.
I was afraid to tell her that I was still full from all the food I’d eaten, and tried to finish dinner. Her face was stiff, her eyes weary, but I knew she wouldn’t be mad at us if only she knew how much fun it was. “Girls, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell your friends at school about the Jet Strip,“ she said.
Kristen and I looked at each other and giggled, trying to conceal our smiles. And that’s when she knew.
After dinner, we ran to play in the backyard, where we put two picnic benches together in a T–shape. I played Barry Manilow’s “Copa Cobana” on our tape player, and Dad introduced us with our new stage names, “Holly” and “Coco,” as we walked onto our stage, dancing around.
“Look Mommy, look!” we waved to her in the kitchen window as she washed the dishes. She gave us a half–wave and said “Hi, girls.” Then she bowed her head down to the sink and returned to her work.