3- The My Way Lounge
Although I’m certain Peggy danced in a number of strip clubs during her decade-long career as a go-go dancer, I saw her only in a handful of places, taking note of her first in the My Way Lounge in Passaic when I first heard her laugh.
Because my one-time best friend Hank routinely dragged me to such places during the 1970s and early 1980s, I might have actually encountered Peggy prior to 1986 without knowing it.
No doubt when younger and slimmer, Peggy had danced in more high profile clubs such as Stilettos in Carlstadt and Satin Dolls in Lodi, but by Labor Day, 1986 she was already in the twilight of her career, aging out of a scene meant for younger girls, and because she was so addicted to cocaine and alcohol, Peggy could not afford to quit dancing entirely – so ended up in the circuit of second rate dives where nearly any near naked body doing nearly anything that resembled a seductive dance on stage could make a reasonable living.
But was dangerously close to the point where she would have to make a choice: quit or slip into prostitution. The fact that she hadn’t yet slipped over the edge was a tribute to her powerful will, and her belief that she deserved better than to become any one man’s sex slave.
I became aware of Peggy long before she became aware of me.
The My Way had become a regular hangout, more of a neighborhood gin joint that a strip club.
While Mr. B’s was only a half a block from my house, it felt so raunchy, I went there only when foul weather and a disabled car forced me to seek a place within walking distance.
Walking to the My Way was a risky business since it required a ten block trek through a neighborhood populated with street gangs and drug dealers, safe enough during day light hours, but after dark a death sentence for anyone who looked like me.
Hank, who had dragged me to nearly every strip club from Union City to Elizabeth was particularly fond of the My Way. So when I moved to Passaic, I settled into the routine of going there once or twice a month, sometimes more.
I went to the My Way to escape the doldrums of my existence – my cold water flat near Eighth Street so stark I felt like I lived in Eastern Europe – and because the rest of my family had abandoned him, I sometimes was forced to care for a quite mad uncle who I had housed in the apartment next door.
Sometimes, I went to the My Way to lick my wounds after some failed romance, drowning my sorrow in alcohol and near naked flesh, too ignorant to realize that for a price I could have done something more than look, making my frustrated fantasies real.
Over time, I made several friends at the club circuit, among whom was Mary, the plainer of two barmaids at the My Way, one of those “what if” relationships that hovered on the edge of something romantic, but never took the plunge.
At some point, the My Way was a legitimate club. I had vague memories of visiting the place in the early 1970s when it featured bands. Indeed, in the late 1970s – before the so-called renovation, the stage still stood at the rear of the long room, with men’s and women’s rooms to either side of it, and a vast tiled dance floor between it and the large oval bar near the front door. When it first became a strip club, the women danced on that stage and men sat at café tables in front of it.
The renovation took place around 1980 – which did very little except to get rid of the stage in the rear and install one at the center of the oval bar, leaving the vast space at the rear of the room – which was partly filled by installing of a pool table.
The café tables found new locations around the outside of the oval bar with cigarette machine, juke box, a primitive pong video game and several poker games situated to either side of the front door.
The idea of the change, I suppose, was to give patrons a better view of the girls, something more intimate than the old stage, and to keep us drinking.
I didn’t start writing at the bar until after I went back to college in 1979 and began to take notes there, making word sketches of the people I saw that I would flesh out to full blown characters when I got back home.
Most of the time, nobody noticed – too busy staring at the strippers to notice how furiously I scribbled in my note book.
Unless men came to the bar together they mostly didn’t speak to other men or pay much attention to anyone but dancers and barmaids.
I watched the dancers, too, but they were largely a blur, one dancer looking pretty much the same as another – that is until Peggy came along.
Her honking laugh alone told the whole bar she was something different.
She had a defiant, opinionated attitude hard to ignore, especially when it came to the New York Giants – and her relentless demand that we around the bar needed to love the team as much as she did, something that was, of course, utterly impossible. No one could love the Giants as much as Peggy did.
Since Sunday night was one of Peggy’s regular nights for dancing, she often came in hoarse from yelling. She claimed she attended all the Giants home games at the stadium in East Rutherford – and hoped to procure tickets to the Super Bowl if and when the Giants managed to get there.
As it turned out, the Giants got there, but she didn’t, forcing her to attend the ticker tape parade held in the Meadowlands instead of New York City, because the mayor of New York flatly refused to pay for a team that played their games in New Jersey – even if the team retained New York as part of its title.
Well before this, Peggy had already made it clear that she wanted the team to change its name from New York to New Jersey, and this issue initiated contact between us when I – in something of an alcoholic haze at the bar – got jolted back to reality when she shoved a piece of paper in front of me.
“Sign this,” she demanded.
“What is it?” I asked, squinting at the paper in the dim light.
Others had signed it but I could not make out what the print said.
“It’s a petition to make the Giants change their name.”
“To New Jersey, stupid.”
“I sort of like the name Giants.”
“Not that part. I don’t want to change that,” she said snorting at me in frustration. “I want them to change the New York part to New Jersey – after all, they play their home games here.”
Peggy was going to ever patron in the bar to bolster her cause, glaring each man into submission.
I had heard her rhetoric before, if not this particular aspect.
When she could still talk after a game, she ranted on about the Giants and how good they were, and how they were destined for greatness.
When they were at home, she screamed at them throughout the whole game to encourage them. When they were away, she screamed at the television, convinced they would feel her spirit in that foreign land, and with her bullhorn of a voice, it was just possible.
“Well?” she asked.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“What’s to think about?” She growled, and then leaned over the bar, her sharp fingernails gripping my side as if she intended to climb over, her eyes looking straight into mine with a look so full of fury that something melted in me. “Unless, of course,” she said, “You don’t like the Giants.”
Her Polish features were unmistakable this close up. Many of the girls who danced here came out of local Polish immigrant stock. Passaic and Garfield were flush with girls like her, all of them aching to find some easy route out of poverty.
Peggy, however, did not look like a typical go-go dancer since on nights after a big game – especially after a Giants victory, she wore a Giants football jersey over her outfit even when she was supposedly dancing, removing it only when patron complaints raised the ire of the owner who yelled for Peggy to “strip.”
She wore it as she glared over the petition at me.
I lifted my beer bottle with deliberate slowness, sipped it, put the bottle down, then shrugged.
“I like the Giants well enough,” I said. “It’s the quarter back that stinks.”
I couldn’t have gotten a more savage reaction than if I had slapped her. Both of her painted eyebrows rose as her glare turned vicious.
“What the fuck did you just say?” she asked.
“I said Phil Simms sucks.”
If her face had showed the remotest sign of humor prior to this, it drained from it along with the color. She looked pale even under the glow of the dime red bar lamp.
“You’ve got a lot of fucking nerve coming in here and saying that,” she said, when she finally got her breath back. “Where the hell do you come from anyway?”
“I live in the neighborhood if that’s what you mean.”
“And you hate the Giants?”
“I never said that.”
“Hating Phil Simms means the same thing,” she snapped. “What are you, a Jets fan or something?”
“I told you. I like the Giants.”
“Like hell you do. Give that back,” she said and grabbed back her piece of paper. “I don’t want you to sign my petition.”
She stormed away, shoving the sheet under the nose of the next man.
“If you tell me you hate Phil Simms, too, I’ll murder you!” she warned him.
The man hurriedly scribbled his name and Peggy moved on, then stepped her drive when the owner yelled for her to stop with the fucking Giants shit and dance.
But once she climbed back upon the state, she glared at me, less enraged now than puzzled, as if I had just landed in the middle of her world from another planet, for the life of her, she could not figure what I was all about.