“You aren't Going to Tell My Mom, are You?"
This following story is included in my second book, Strippers, Guns, and the Holocaust Museum: My Time as a Chicago Public School Music Teacher and How I Survived. Still mining those moments that made my years in Chicago distinct. It’s funny how entire sections of one’s life get boiled down to one simple anecdote but this one seems to intersect the experience of being both a jazz trumpet player and a junior high music teacher better than most.
She approached slowly, seductively. She walked on her stilettos with the practiced balance of someone who knew exactly why she was wearing them. Her hair was puffed up like a mane and she wore a flimsy, lavender see-thru top and a matching purple thong. I recognized her before she recognized me but as she got closer, her eyes went from the weary but determined look of a sexual object to a confused and frightened child.
As we have figured out by now, I was that young rule-breaking teacher we all had at one time or another. I didn't have a desk — I felt it imposed a barrier of authority that wasn't conducive to learning. I had pillows and blankets instead of chairs or desks for the students. I was twenty-four years old.
Nora was an overly developed thirteen-year-old girl. From about twenty feet, she looked like a full-grown woman, and this caused her some trouble in eighth grade. She dated high school seniors and, I think, a college freshman in the five months or so that I knew her. She was restless and bored in school but loved my class. We listened to music and talked about it and I tried to teach them that their opinions were just as valid as mine.
She dropped out of the eighth grade in February. No one was really that surprised. Her mother lamented to me that she was afraid her daughter would end up "no good."
A year or so later, I was hired by a twenty-four-piece jazz orchestra. We played weddings and street fests and bar mitzvahs. It was a great group of people. I was the cool teacher by day, and the drunk, high jazz guy by night. A double life. A year later, we were still playing and drinking and having a ball, so when the drummer announced he wanted to go to The Admiral on his birthday, we all were game.
Now, the Admiral Theater is a full nudity establishment, which means that the City of Chicago will not grant it a liquor license. If you get to see both the jiggly parts and the scary parts, you don't get booze. So, you watch fully naked women gyrate on the stage in all their glory holding a $9 tumbler of Diet Coke. A strip club sober is less exciting as one drunk because, while trying to have a good time watching women embrace the objectification you have to openly acknowledge the misogynistic creep you now represent. You are aware of your surroundings.
And then I saw her. Standing casually next to a guy in a T-shirt, looking around for a customer to lap dance for ten dollars in the room. It was Nora. “Holy shit!” I thought. “What is she... fifteen? Did she see me? How do I get outta here?” The multitudes of conflicting emotional responses were almost intoxicating but made for an even more devastatingly sober assessment of my situation. I was a teacher. Of children. And one of those children was standing, nearly nude, approximately thirty feet away. If only I could just duck out of the place before she saw me, I might be able to just pretend it wasn't her. If I could get the hell out of the joint, I might be able to shake off this oily, sleazy feeling I was enveloped by.
“Hall, found one!”
Dan, one of the trumpet section, mistook my momentary panic for interest and immediately started calling her over to give me a lap dance.
And Nora approached slowly and the moment of her recognition was marked.
Not knowing what else to do, I gestured for her to follow me to an outlying corner of the room. I asked her what she was doing, stripping when I knew she was only fifteen. “You're not gonna tell them, are you? I'll get fired!“
What were the rules for this situation? What were the guidelines on how to behave? And as I struggled with these thoughts, I saw her scared face.
“Are you okay? You're not turning tricks, are you?”
She was insulted by the question and explained that, no, she was not a prostitute. She stripped here on weeknights because it paid extremely well and it was fun. She wasn't going to strip forever, and was saving money so she could move to Florida where her father lived. I looked hard into her eyes and decided that she wasn't lying and that she was doing fine in the circumstances she was in. Who was I to judge, after all?
I told her to be careful — that the kind of man she'd meet in a strip bar was probably not the best option for something both long-term or healthy (and, yes, I was aware of the irony of me being in a strip bar doling out this particular advice). I felt more like her teacher again and asked her if she was getting her GED (she planned on it), if she was thinking of college (“Why?”) and that she really needed to stop stripping — being underage could get her and whole lot of other people in deep shit.
She started shifting a bit, as if she were in a hurry to pee or something.
“What is it?”
“Uhm... are you gonna pay for the time?”
“Oh! Uh, sure.” And I handed over a twenty-dollar bill.
I probably could have stayed and continued to party with the band. The conversation, while not a complete blanket on the odd, awkward moment of having three completely unique and separate identities smashing into each, did put me at ease.
At ease until she asked,
“Mr. Hall? You aren't gonna tell my mom, are you?”
I haven't been to a strip club since.