I once worked as a stripper. One of the many confessions which deem my past sordid enough to receive the barrage of emails from readers who tell me I’m going straight to hell. Well, at least I have guaranteed VIP access somewhere! And although I had initially wanted to write a piece on my experiences as a stripper, I decided to take a few steps back and write about the equally sordid odd jobs I did before my debut as Rosa the Latina Firecracker on a Pole. I don’t mean odd like waitress, sales clerk or even janitor. I mean jobs truly, truly odd like naked housecleaner (hence taking my clothes off for money was already on my resume when I applied for the stripper position), a masseuse specialized in the art of Indian Massage (don’t ask me what that is, I made it up because it paid my bills) and a nude art model (clearly my resume was stretching into a CV with such vast experience in nudity). But then I thought, I should probably take a minute to explain why a spoilt, rich daddy’s girl needed to work such odd jobs in the first place or any jobs for that matter. The simple answer would be because it was the summer of 2001 in the city of Philadelphia. One of the best summers of my life and my favorite cities in the world. But more specifically it was just one night that ignited it all. A night in May when I found myself homeless, penniless and clueless on the streets of Philly. Trying my best to not write as long-windedly as I talk, I’m going to write about just that particular night for now. But down, down boys, there will be plenty of opportunities to write about Padash’s work history in sleaze. Let me first lay the foundation of how it all fell into place. Shall we proceed?
Sophomore year. It had ended just as perfectly as it had started. Life was great and I couldn’t have been happier. Great friends like Julie and Jenny, a great social life and boy did I look my best. Most of all, I was doing everything I had always dreamt of. Examples:
A) Club hopping: I now had a fake ID thanks to a cousin in Pakistan. Ghetto pieces of paper stapled together with the year 1977 printed next to random Urdu but what bouncer knows what a Pakistani driver’s license is supposed to look like. With protein shakes substituting brains, they dumbly stared at it for five minutes, turned it around a few times and then pulled away the velvet rope to beckon me in. They probably spent the next few minutes wondering if Pakistan was that small town near Texas.
B) Bed-Hopping: I was a beast on a journey of sexual exploration. I don’t really know how or why but I had begun to slowly loose weight in my A-levels. By the time I started college, I was loosing the freshman 15 rather than gaining it. Like a snake, I was shedding layer after layer of skin every week. Encouraged by people who noticed my body, I immediately enrolled in every fitness class on campus. Dance, yoga, spinning…you name it, I was there to sweat. Pretty soon, I was voted the top 5 hottest girls on campus by 5 of the 6 fraternities. The 6th frat voted me as the eighth hottest but then again the expertise of those judges was always questionable. Let’s just say that frat was rumored to be more interested in each other than girls. You know the kind: secretly think about jocks to perform for a cheerleader in bed. Anyway, those of you who have faithfully read my earlier columns know that I didn’t grow up with a lot of self esteem. I would never call myself ugly but I sure was 180 degrees away from sexy. Now all of a sudden, I was desired, chased and fantasized about. The feeling sure was addictive and I realized why friends like Aliya craved such attention. Walking into a room and being soaked in lustful stares. Noticing heads turn from the corner of your eye. Abrupt silence my compliments, curious whispers my praise. Sigh!
My plans for the summer were going to be just as perfect. It was all planned out. I was going to take a pottery class at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia and stay with my friend Donna and her boyfriend in his apartment on South Street. We would party and get drunk every night with underground drummers, guitarists and vocalists. Dad’s permission? Sure, I had to pull a few strings and dig deep into my bag of tricks but I had managed to accomplish challenges way more impossible than this. The fee for the class wasn’t the issue for my Baba but leaving his girl alone in Philly was a whole different story altogether. So first, I made sure to enroll in the class before he found out that my Khala who lived in Philly (hereby referred to as Khala 1) had already planned to leave for Pakistan a week after the class started. Once Baba found out, I acted just as surprised but made sure to share a feasible alternative (crafted long ago) before he even suggested a refund from Moore.
‘I can stay with my Muslim friend Aisha and her Muslim mother in their Muslim apartment in Philly!’
In truth, I knew no one called Aisha but the part of Aisha and her Muslim mother was played diligently by Donna and her older sister on the phone. It was quite easy really, the sister was instructed to begin every other sentence with the word “Akhee” and end with “Mash-a-Allah” and by the end of the phone call Baba was convinced that I was in safe hands.
A little about Donna’s boyfriend now. His name was Bo, a member of an underground band and sported just as many tattoos as piercings. A fact, which Donna’s catholic stepmother disapproved of. Still, the two had carried on a long-distance relationship ever since they had met and hooked up at a dive bar where his band had performed and Donna had immediately slid into the role of groupie and then girlfriend. She was now going to make up for the long-distance part of their relationship by spending three months living with him. She and I had known each other only a few days when she asked me to join her for a summer of debauchery and there was no way I could decline. It sounded like too much fun; live rent-free and be surrounded by cute boys in tight girl-jeans and dyed hair. Where do I sign up? To top it all off, I even had an offer from another friend to stop over in Paris for a week on my way home to Pakistan. She was a friend from A-levels who was going to be there at exactly the same time to study French history at the Sorbonne. She had painted a very enticing picture and I had immediately begun to fanaticize about eating crepes under the Arc de Triomphe, shopping at designer stores in Champs Elysees and hopefully meet a dashing Frenchman who would make love to me by the Seine. Enchante Monsieur!
I arrived in Philly exactly a week after finals. From 30th Street Station I headed straight to Khala 1’s house in Bucks County. I was only to spend a week there but it was going to be the longest week of my life. You see, Khala 1 and her family live a very different life from mine. They run a local Dunkin Donuts with another partner and often forego unaffordable luxuries that I view as basic necessities. Their two young daughters obediently gave up their room to my highness and while my Khala and her husband spent most of their day at the shop, I spent my days lazing around. I would crawl out of bed somewhere around noon; just in time for a leisurely shower, hop on the Septa train to attend my one-hour class at Moore and then meet up with Donna and Bo in Center City. Later, I would reluctantly bid them farewell as they headed off to a bar and arrive back to Khala 1’s house at a ‘decent’ time but always with a different shopping bag in my hand. I would barely eat the food in front and retire to my room with snobbery because I truly couldn’t wait for the week to end so I could move in with Donna and Bo and party without restrictions. Baba had given me a thousand bucks for the summer, which was more than enough considering I had no rent to pay and the class was already paid for. The grand would merely be used as spending cash for clothes, a few meals, cigarettes, drinks (though men usually bought us those) and club covers. For the week in Paris, he had arranged a friend to give me another 500 the minute I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport. So yes dear readers you have probably realized in an instant what took me an entire summer to discover. Here, I thought I was living life on my own terms but truly I was just another brat living a wild life fully funded by a father. I had no idea about the price of independence but I was about to find out very soon.
On my last day at my Khala’s, I had accompanied her along to the mall so she could buy gifts for family members back home. Watching her count her dollars and cents seemed petty and annoying at first but then I realized, I had no idea what it was like to not live the cushioned life I was so used to. When we came across a booth which was giving out a measly 5 bucks for a 30-minute survey, my Khala jumped at the opportunity. I could not fathom why anyone would wait in line almost an hour for a 30-minute survey. All for a measly five bucks. But Khala was adamant on getting her money. Just the same way she always remained stubborn on taking the bus home rather than a cab. On the way home, I noticed her content smile and probed further.
“You won’t understand” she explained “All the money we make at the store goes straight to rent, groceries and other stuff. These opportunities are for my savings.”
“So how much have you managed to save?” I asked sarcastically. 5 bucks to me wasn’t anything worth saving when a Big Mac meal cost more than that.
“I don’t know, its not in a bank. Any time I get some extra cash not made at the store I put in an envelope and don’t count it for a year. It’s always a nice surprise at the end of the year.”
The conversation left me baffled. I now despised myself because it finally dawned on me how despicable I may have seemed to not only her but her kids as well. How I had thumbed my nose down at things, which were all they could afford. When we got home, I saw my Khala lift the mattress of her bed and squeeze the five bucks into a white envelope. True to her word, she made no effort to count the bills inside. I, on the other hand was dying to know.
The next afternoon, I snuck into her room and counted her savings: 1500 dollars. When the guilt ate at me in class that day, I made my spur-of-the-moment decisions which usually get me into a heap of trouble down the road. I have always reacted spontaneously instead of responding rationally, but that’s just the way I was raised. Raised to believe that my actions had little consequences because there were always others to clean up messes that I left behind. After class, I headed straight to the bank and cashed out a thousand bucks. With only a hundred dollars left in my account, I thought I would still be ok. Besides, I would just find a job and work like everyone else. How difficult could that be, right? When I got home, I stealthily snuck the cash into my Khala’s envelope and never told her about it to this day. But that night I sat back and watched her hum as she packed excitedly for a trip home. A trip they took every three years as a family. The same trip I took twice a year.
The next week was as much fun as I had imagined it to be. I slept on a couch in Bo’s apartment and even found a job as a server at an Indian restaurant where I worked five hours in the evenings for tips. Donna worked at a jewelry store while Bo continued his side-profession as a barista at a graffiti laden café to tide him over till his fantasy record deal came through. After ceramics, I would head straight to my restaurant job where I served greasy curry alongside a very nervous South Indian girl under the supervision of three very horny and desperate men with guts in their third trimester. I’m not going to lie, the job wasn’t as easy as I thought but I was determined. After work, I would meet up with Donna and we would walk over to Bo’s coffee shop to hang out and drink free caffeine on the house. Once he closed the shop, we would head off to bar hop on South Street. We would smoke and drink at every dive bar where aspiring - inked and pierced – musicians bought me drinks and then kissed me. I was on my punk rock kick those days, so all my men that summer were the full-body tattoo sort. Yum! Tips made at the restaurant usually took care of the 3am breakfasts and then somewhere before sunrise; we would retire back to the apartment where I would try to ignore the sound of Donna and her boyfriend making love all night in a very sadomasochistic way.
Perfect right? Sure. But, all good things come to an end and true to the idiom this perfect arrangement came crashing down just after a week. First, I quit my job on a whim. The three perverts always yelled at the other waitress and her inability to speak English so one day, I lost my temper, rushed to her defense and informed them that they only had our tits to thank for their lunch rush. I even tossed my apron at them and walked out with gusto because I had already made enough to last me for the rest of the month and a half. So I thought! Then, the next afternoon on my way to class I was confronted by an old Italian lady whose tone meant business. She informed me that Bo hadn’t paid rent in months and if she didn’t get a check by the end of the week his stuff would be on the street. If the threat of eviction wasn’t bad enough she added urgency to her demands with “And don’t think I don’t know about the pot ya all are growing up in that apartment. All I need to do is make one phone call to the police and have all your asses dropping soap in the lockup.” Ladies and Gentleman, problems in our perfect little world had officially begun. As much as I didn’t want to be chucked out on the street, I didn’t want to end up being deported for drug-dealing charges either. Immediately after class, I shared this interesting twist in our perfect summer plans with Donna. Just as shocked as I was, she headed straight home to confront Bo while I headed off to a date with a biker. When I arrived back to the apartment I was greeted by the noise of smashed vases, tossed furniture and hurled curses. I hadn’t expected Donna to react this way over some unpaid rent but when I walked in I realized that rent was no longer the issue. Apparently Donna had walked in to loan her beloved the rent money only to find him in bed with another woman. She assumed it was some skank but when her yelling and screaming was answered by a punch in the face by the woman it was also subsequently disclosed that shaved-head skank was the mother of Bo’s four year old son back in town to reconcile with her baby daddy. An hour later, Donna and I were sitting on our suitcases outside the apartment building. It was around ten at night and we had nowhere to go. We were now officially homeless. At least for the night.
As I frantically tried to chart out a plan for survival, Donna smoked and nursed her black eye. Our first stop was refuge at the Cheap Art Café: a filthy 24 hour diner which doubled as a rest-stop for trannys and hookers who took turns to charge their cell phones. The menus here were photocopied papers stapled together and the food was apparently as shoddy as the clientele. Still, thanks to a similar crisis earlier in the year on a botched spring break I had taken a lot of mental notes of my best friend Jenny’s dexterity in such situations. There will be more on her later but she was my best friend; a walking image of poise and class yet raised in the projects and thus one of the most streetwise women I had ever met. So that night I found myself in the dignified role of calm trouble-shooter while Donna relied on me as her savior. First things first, we needed a place to store our suitcases. We walked the few blocks past the working “girls” (term used loosely to include both biological girls and chicks with dicks) to the Greyhound station. This was pre-911 so both Donna and I were lucky enough to find lockers large enough to store our suitcases for a few quarters a night. Then, we had to find something to do. Immediately, I took Donna to a local bar where the patrons were very ‘sophisticated’ (euphemism for extremely old). We were to hang out at the bar till closing and enjoy drinks bought by Viagra-popping men who probably thought we too were for hire. As Donna spoke endlessly about how deeply hurt she was by Bo’s infidelity, I tuned her out because I had work to do. I conscientiously flirted with the geriatrics around me who flashed their smiling dentures. Luck came in the form of a skinny, gray-haired man who closely resembled the Q-tip I had waxed my ear earlier in the day with. He offered to take us to a local after-party and we agreed. An utterly dumb and risky move, I know, but it’s what we did that night after last call even though we realized we could have ended up chopped up in a garbage can. The after-party was at an old woman’s house, peculiar but lovingly referred to as “Mama” by the attendees. Drugs were plenty and the diversity of the partiers ranged from old trolls to young and busty blondes to even a few muscled and effeminate men in tank tops. Donna and I sat on a couch, trying not to appear too uncomfortable while everyone around us did lines and bumps with straws and dollar bills. By 5am, Q-tip man (now beet-red from all the cocaine) came over and whispered, “I have a room upstairs if you wanna go and hang out. Let me give you a backrub.” I smiled politely and told him I needed to freshen up first. Instead, I grabbed Donna and ran out of the back door. We laughed all the way back to 13th and Chestnut and then passed time by walking around and watching the “girls” work the streets. At one point when a man slowed his car for us, I leaned in and jokingly tried to pimp Donna out. It would be meaningful to know our going-rate in the market of whores. Donna stood in the back screaming “Padash, what the hell are you doing?”
“How much for her?” I asked as I noticed his wedding band.
“I want you.” The man replied.
“How much for her?”
“How much you want?”
“That’s not a real woman by the way.”
“I know I can tell….”
Still he was a decent man because when I declined his rate, he drove away. Once again, dear readers, I realize I was being very stupid. The things I have done in my past, I am amazed, I’m still alive.
We even tried to befriend an Asian tranny called China. She was fabulous and flawless. A pair of perfect Double D’s, which I envied, collagen lips perfect for….eating lollipops (you perverts) and a skirt which hugged her thighs and buttocks as if sewn onto her flesh. As we watched her hop in and out of cars, we admired her sass and wished to be flies on the wall when she did her ‘bidnizzz’. There was just something about her that enticed us women even; a je ne sais quoi of a sort that I wanted to compliment her on.
“You’re gorgeous honey!” I smiled at her as I smoked a cigarette sitting on the curb.
“You really are” Donna chimed in “You’re outfit, your make up its all perfect!”
“What ya all need to do is get the hell up out of my face before I cut ya all biotches…!” China snapped. I guess she wasn’t very appreciative of compliments. Needless to say, our friendship with the fiercest drag queen in Philly ended before it could even begin.
At 6am Donna and I headed back to the Cheap Art Café for breakfast. We now craved nothing but a warm bed to sleep on. Anything soft enough for us to curl into and sleep. A local cyber café where I sometimes checked my email on the weekends opened up at 8am so at 7:55, Donna and I were promptly waiting outside for the owner to let his first desperate customers in. Donna sat and watched as I navigated search engines for a local hostel. We found one just a few blocks away with no curfew, cheap bunk beds and both a nightly as well as monthly rate. We arrived the next minute and made our way gratefully to the 2-person dorm, smiling sleepily and sluggishly at backpackers heading out to sight-see the City of Brotherly Love. Once in the room, Donna and I didn’t say much to each other. We just immediately stripped down to our underwear and curled up on our $18.99-a-night beds to fall asleep.
It was way past sundown when we woke up again. To rid that icky feeling of waking up in the dark, we instantly resumed the evening’s plans. Brought back our suitcases to the room, showered, changed and headed off to a bar. Good distraction from problems at hand by surrounding ourselves with liquor and drunks. The good thing was that we didn’t have to leave the room till the next morning so at least we had a place to return to that night.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Donna at the bar. She casually flicked her cigarette, sipped her drink and shrugged that she was going to head back to her father’s house in Delaware for the summer. Although she despised her stepmother and they had always hated her boyfriend but her dreams of a fun summer had somehow perished overnight. Giving up was just that easy for her. I was disappointed, irked, many things but not surprised. You see, Donna was a perfect example of the majority of students that I went to college with. Self proclaimed hippies who wished they were born in the sixties where drugs and sex were free and limitless. They reincarnated the times by adorning tie-dye, barely bathing, rereading highlighted passages from Kerouac and Kafka, quoting Ginsberg and Burroughs, getting stoned, liquored and hoping that they too were on an endless journey of discovery like the Beats. Only when you looked closer you realized, these so-called rebels were all privileged youth of American suburbia; private-schooled and now in the confines of a fully funded liberal arts bubble where words like “deconstruct”, “gender”, “hegemony” and “sexuality” consoled them that their defiant brains were actually being intellectually stimulated against the norm. Their futures, just as predictable as their present. After graduation, they were probably going to backpack across Europe; hostelling, couch surfing, dropping acid and sleeping with strangers. After six-month of unsuccessful self-reflection funded by Daddy Dearest they would finally accept that they couldn’t after all “beat the system” or “damn the man.” Almost immediately, they would trade in their tie-dye for white coats and follow their fathers footsteps to medical school and a six figure salary. Communists and Socialists would then become republicans. The change they were to make in the world now reduced to annual checks to ‘bandwagon’ philanthropy.
All exactly like me! I too now realized that as much as I harped and debated about leaving home to ‘discover the world’, ‘find myself’ and ‘live life on my own terms’; my argued independence and the above clichés were only reliant on Baba’s wealth. On my own, I couldn’t move a muscle. However, unlike Donna and my friends, I sure was going to try. I would be damned if I didn’t take this situation as a challenge and prove to myself that I could do it too. Especially when Donna casually remarked
“It’s not that bad Padash, what are you worried about? Just call your dad and he will immediately put you up in some place fancy hotel on Rittenhouse square. If that doesn’t work, just drop that stupid class, get on a plane and head back home early.”
I smirked and simply kept smoking. Neither were options for me. Option A meant confessing to my dad that I had lied and deceived him (I just wasn’t read to do that) and then Option B…well it meant the same thing. I was also invested in that trip to Paris at the end of the next month. Greed and selfishness don’t fade overnight!
When we got back to the hostel, Donna immediately met a beautiful but unkempt Dutch boy. By now, all the hostellers had gathered around the courtyard after a day of sightseeing to busy themselves with desperate attempts of flirtation with each other in broken English. For once, I wasn’t in the mood for men even though a group of boys insisted – almost with desperation – for me to join them for another beer. Yaar, I had the pick of Europe from Germany, France, Holland even an Irish lad but I still excused myself and retired to my room because I had other things on my mind.
“Come on, these boys are cute! Free beer, free weed, cute men…what else do we want? Worrying wont solve anything, might as well enjoy our last night here.” Donna tried to convince me and she did have a point.
“I really do need to clear my head and come up with a plan for next month. Room service at the Hotel Sofitel or going back to Pakistan early are not viable options for me. You have fun!” I still declined.
For the first few hours, I read in the room to distract myself. Later I walked back to the courtyard, which was now empty, to smoke a cigarette. Strangers from around the world were probably now exploring each other’s bodies on bunk beds. I, one the other hand wanted to avail this sudden renewed sense of strength and courage. Maybe I could do it. Maybe I could still spend most of summer here. Donna had needed me to save us the whole night and I had succeeded. That proved that I could be tough enough to survive here on my own without money. Besides, I had no one to blame but myself. I had made my bed and it was time to lay in it, even if it cost 20 bucks a night. So I went to the front desk, pulled out my check-card and extended my stay for the rest of the week. I was now down to a measly fifty bucks. That meant I had to find a job again to pay for my weekly accommodation. Whatever it took, I was ready.
And yes my dear readers, everything worked out in the end. I survived. Of course, finding another job at a restaurant was impossible because all the high-schools kids had snatched those up but to pay for my bed at the hostel each week, I had to think of something quick. Unless I wanted to end up homeless on the street again fighting over clients with China. And that my friends is how I became a naked housecleaner, an Indian Massage therapist and nude art model for the summer. With such truly odd jobs, I not only managed to pay for lodging but also my meals, septa tokens and club covers. In fact, I even managed to save up over a thousand that summer.
How and what, you ask? Well, I guess that can be explained in my next piece. For now, be assured, that after that night of homelessness in Philly, I stuck it through till the end. One tough biotch, aint I! Sure, I’m lucky the craigslist killer wasn’t going to med school at Upenn because, then, my next piece wouldn’t have a happy ending. I would be a robbed and left to die Indian masseuse.
The most important thing is that certain night and the summer that followed, shaped the person I am today. Strong, determined, fearless! It prepared me to know that fleeing my parent’s nest to discover the world is not the bed of roses I had imagined it to be. It came with a heavy price and that summer wasn’t the only time I paid it, but I paid it successfully each time. And that, my friends is what matters!