We reached a dark staircase in the back of the strip club; he pushed me up one flight, then pressed me against the wall with his massive palm while his other hand rapped on a metal door. Inside sat three extras from a John Cassavettes movie – a young woman in lingerie and two middle-aged men with gaunt faces and greased black hair combed back over their heads. One of them had a calculator in his hand, the other played with a small rubber band. Both had unbuttoned shirts and silver chains in their chest hair. Both shot me bored looks as the half-naked girl continued with what she was saying.
“The best thing about me, I don’t flake out like some girls. I’m dependable.”
“I wouldn’t even know what that means, sweetheart,” said the man with the calculator.
“I’ll be here,” she continued. “I’ll show up when I say I’m gonna show up – and I’ll be ready to do my thing.”
Unimpressed, the man with the rubber band looked at the security guard, then at me. “Who’s this guy?”
The guard tightened his grip on my arm. “He’s been snooping around.”
“I’m a sociologist,” I said. “I’m doing a study of sex work in New York, and how people make money in clubs.”
The man with the calculator laughed. The man with the rubber band shook his head. “What is it with you people?” He turned to his partner. “Must be, what, the fourth guy wants to study us? This year? Look, a little advice: none of these girls want your free condoms and nobody needs an AIDS test. Why don’t you go looking for people under bridges or somewhere who really need the fucking help?”
Clearly, he was a bit shaky on the concept of sociology. “I’m not a social worker,” I said.
“You don’t want to help?” said the man with the rubber band. “Why don’t you want to help?” said the woman in lingerie. All three pairs of eyes focused on me.
“I think it’s important to just to know what people do for a living,” I said. “To really know. How much they make, how hard is it, why do they do it, who are they, things like that.”
“How hard is it?” the woman in lingerie repeated. “It’s hard, baby! I’ll fill your ear with that.”
The man with the calculator turned his palms up. “Yo, sweetheart.”
She went silent, looking away.
Excerpted from Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
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