Katharine Valentino, 12/4/2017
Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.
Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money.
After a visit to the local free clinic, I was admitted to a hospital for removal of a lymph node. Two days out of surgery, I had to go to work and get paid that very day or remove myself and my son from my apartment. The sheriff was at my door.
How to get paid daily? Stand on a street corner in a short skirt and no underwear or become a go-go dancer? I chose the latter.
So I got the glitter and makeup part of dancing, anyway. The costumes were gold lame bikinis. The job—at a nightclub just outside a military training base—was not demanding once the stitches were removed. I was encouraged to learn the latest dances so the customers could copy my moves, and it was fun watching them try.
After some months of working five days a week, however, it seemed no longer possible to get off a stage at 2:00 a.m., pick up my son from the babysitter’s, drive home, fall into bed at 3:30 and get up at 7:00 in time to keep the kid from unlocking the apartment door and carousing around the neighborhood in his underwear. After the police brought him back to me a second time and told me it had better not happen again, I moved us back to my parents’ house. There ensued what seemed like a hundred interviews for office work. My skills at typing and taking shorthand hadn’t improved much, but interviews didn’t usually get that far: “Oh, you have a baby. I’m sorry. We don’t hire women with children.“
The costumes were brief. Now, we wore pasties. Yes, that’s right, pasties. Before every shift, we pasted them onto our nipples with rubber cement, and after every shift we unglued ourselves from them.
Soon, even that little glitter was gone and the makeup had become irrelevant. After all, who looked at our faces? By then, all of us so-called dancers were “topless.” Then, as soon as laws changed to allow it, we were “bottomless.” We had become nothing more than tits and ass.
We were all working for agents who had us on a circuit of clubs within a 100-mile radius. We worked a different club each day and sometimes a different one each shift. In that cheap-gas and aren’t-freeways-wonderful era, we often drove three hours a day.
When I would get to a club, I might not know what to put on, or take off, since if the club were in a city there were city laws that applied and otherwise one of three different county laws might apply. All relevant laws changed almost weekly for a while, often at 5:00 p.m., the better to catch us doing something we shouldn’t. The agents had watchers in all the courthouses who reported each day on what laws had or had not been passed that day.
So I’d get to work, put on both top and bottom, go on stage and then get a call:
“Keep it on.”
Then I’d run back on stage, remove only my top and smile nicely at the two cops chatting up the waitress and waiting to pounce on a bottomless dancer.
Wearing both top and bottom was awful: No tips and oh, by the way, when you’re on your 15-minute break we want you to give the waitress a break. Topless was somewhat better: Some tips and you still gotta carry the beer. However, if somebody touches you and you don’t like it (I didn’t), you can tell Billy over there and he’ll take care of it for you.
Bottomless was strange at first. I remember my mother’s apt opinion of it: “I do not see how a woman makes money displaying that which every single woman in the world has. It seems a common thing.”
But bottomless was best because it required no interaction at all with customers. As a matter of fact, at one club I was escorted by armed security guards when I went on stage and when I retreated to the dressing room. My security guys prevented anyone from even getting close to me. No more having to detour around grabasses. No more “Hey, I love you wanna mess aroun’?” I loved my security guys.
When I began as a go-go dancer, and later when I went topless, there was just one child to provide for. That I could do easily working five shifts a week even after we got our own apartment. Somewhat later, there was a husband who was trying to start a business, the business bills, his almost immediate illness and his two children. Providing for three more people and funding a business required bottomless-type tips and 10 shifts a week, five at lunch and five at night.
It must be mentioned that certain girls could work less than I did and make more. Certain girls went into the men’s bathrooms with customers and emerged five minutes later $5 richer. Certain girls made it known they would go home with the customer who tipped them well. At every shift where there was a certain girl, the rest of us made less money. So, 10 shifts a week it was.
For 10 years, I danced and then went home, cooked, cleaned and helped with homework, and then I danced. And that was that.
The husband died. The business did, too. One child joined the military. Another went to stay with a friend’s family. The third went with his Grandma for a while. It was time to quit dancing and go back to college.
I got a grant that paid for most of my college expenses, and I soon was awarded several small scholarships that paid for all remaining school fees and even books. So school was free. However, I did have to eat and lay my head down somewhere, and that required a job.
For a while, I carried drinks at a local nightclub, charging for Tanqueray as ordered but substituting bar gin by the time taste buds were no longer operable. My ear drums were taking a toll again, though, so I got a job as a lunch bartender at a new restaurant.
“Set ‘em out.” Behind the bar, line up 60 or 70 tall glasses each with ice, a lemon wedge, a lime wedge, a celery stick, tomato juice, Tabasco and some mix that came in powder form. Line up 30 or 40 short glasses each with ice, vermouth and a skewered olive. “Count ‘em out.” When the doors open at noon, slam a requisite number of talls and shorts on somebody’s tray and turn the gin bottle upside down over them. “Keep movin’, movin’, movin’” and by 12:20 the restaurant is full of what sounds like an entire herd of doggies “rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.” By 12:30, the manager jumps the bar to help wash glasses, “Hyaa! Into those rotating bristles, “hyaa!” into that rinse. Final rounds at 12:40. “Don’t try to understand ‘em. Just rope, throw and brand ‘em.” At 12:50, “Move 'em on, head 'em up, head 'em up, move 'em out!“ Done by 1:00. “Rawhide!”
Well, that was entertaining. But after a semester of immersion into chemically infused wash and rinse water that could made you dizzy if you took a deep breath while washing bar glasses, my hands were turning into rawhide. Plus, the pay was poor. The cocktail waitresses got the tips. I didn’t want to carry drinks anymore, so for the remainder of the school year, I went on dinner shift as a food waitress.
We were expected to “sell” food: first a drink or two; then an appetizer; then a meal with wine, finally desert and coffee, perhaps with an aperitif. We were incredibly busy. I learned to carry four steak and baked potato plates at once, or eight cups of coffee. There was so much food. I thought that going home with indigestion would be enough to keep customers away after the first time they were encouraged to overeat, but no. They came back, a little heavier each time. I was appalled. They loved it.
Like this? Read the previous pieces:
Thanks to Jan Priddy, also an Oregon writer, and a quite accomplished one.