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I Wanted My Money Back

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If there's a lesson I intend to teach my 15-month-old son when he comes of age, it's that a gun is completely unnecessary when it comes to robbing a strip joint.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

What I really want to talk about is my fear of him hitting his head. I have small nightmares about his noggin caroming off something sharp or hard. Like it did recently after he bounced off a gigantic bed at a seaside hotel in California as I stood watching, my feet two unanimated slabs of flesh in magnetic shoes on a steel floor.

I just stood there because it happened so fast.

One moment he was giggling; the next he had jet-airplaned over the side of the bed and bumped his head on a nightstand. I picked him up before he had time to make a noise, to even process what had happened. The sound he made a moment later is incidental as is the fact that he was bouncing and laughing again within minutes. What matters is that he could have gotten hurt but didn't, and that although I was nearby I was unable to prevent it from happening. All that I could do was comfort him and ask that he not jump on a trampoline-death-bed unless daddy was at arm's length and for that matter jumping anywhere ever again for the rest of his life...over a puddle, a leaf... was a no-no.

After that, short of bungee-cording him to a chair, I realized that I was screwed. I realized it because when I was 18 my parents could have sedated me and padlocked me to a radiator and somehow I still would have found a way to rob that strip joint. That's because the cardinal rule of parenting, the one preached to me before my son was born, is true: that despite my best efforts, things will happen.

Kids will fall off beds. Kids will rob flesh palaces.

All one can do as a parent is find a meaningful way to teach them about the dangers of the world and the consequences of their actions (in my case a trip to a corrections facility may have struck a chord,) and then prepare them to react correctly when whatever happens happens. Because it's going to happen.

For example, by the time I was 18 I'd had a fake ID for so long that I already looked older than the picture of myself on the bogus driver's license. My parents were wise, hardworking people who spent much time and energy teaching me right from wrong, and I listened to them and respected them. And then my friend Larry and I met a guy who knew a guy, and the next thing I knew I was on line at the DMV becoming a 29-year-old professional chauffeur. I'd been taught about the world and what could happen if I was a dunderhead, which I ignored with aplomb. All that was left was the failsafe: how to react correctly when whatever happened happened.

It happened on the dusty outskirts of Phoenix at four in the morning.

It was 1986 and Larry and I were in Scottsdale for a couple of weeks flopping at his sister's condo before going off to college. Our days took on a lotus-eating aspect: rise late, pop a beer, float like manatees in a pool, more beer, more floating, eat a taco and find a strip joint. Phoenix didn't lack for topless-women outlets but by the fourth day it had become a problem for Larry, the toplessness. He wanted more. From someone he'd heard about a place that was ALL TOTALLY NUDE! and that's how he talked about it, in big flashing capital letters.

It was called the Blue Moon Café and, for the record, someone had a lot of nerve using the word café. It had chairs and tables and that's as close as it got.

The Blue Moon was in a cement block building next to an empty lot with a cactus growing through the nose of a hoodless Ford carcass. The doorman parked next to a big old-fashioned cash register was a hairy gent with (I kid you not) a metal tooth and a tattoo that said Abandoned at Berth. I assumed it was supposed to say 'birth' rather than a small sleeping compartment on a train but I was in no position to copy edit. I held up my fake ID which he regarded like a warm turd...he didn't touch or look at it, just worked a matchbook around his steel bicuspid and said it cost 20 bucks to walk inside.

Twenty bucks. To me it may as well been a grand. I'm not someone who later in life looked back at his youth and realized, "Gosh, I was poor!" No, I knew I was poor while I was poor and handing over 20 bucks without trumpet fanfare or fluttering confetti felt like a kick in the gut. But the draw of female flesh was irresistible and my radar wasn't buzzing because I hadn't developed radar yet. The signs of con and disaster were everywhere but, well...ALL TOTALLY NUDE!

Hairy ka-chinged the cash register and Larry and I pushed through a stinking curtain (can fabric be woven from cigarette smoke?) into a room that felt like the inside of a dirty fishbowl. Peering into the gloom I saw that the walls were undulating and then my eyes adjusted and I realized it was semi-nude women robotically grinding the laps of sad-looking men at cocktail tables. The more I stared, the more the women resembled my kindergarten teacher, or maybe Eleanor Roosevelt...apparently cosmetic surgery, airbrushing and youth weren't qualifying factors for employment at the Blue Moon...and then a drum-roll as a purple spotlight flicked on a raised platform which someone who was really desperate to be in show business might have called a "stage."

This was the moment Larry and I had been waiting for. We sat at a tiny table as Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" began thumping from speakers, and then she was onstage in an outfit that looked like three silky Band-Aids stuck to an enormous pink beanbag chair in a Dolly Parton fright wig. Candee, spelled with two 'E's in tattoo across her multitudinous left breast was, and remains, the fattest nearly-nude person I'd ever seen, and a moment later she was ALL TOTALLY NUDE!, the band-Aids abandoned.

She moved in sync with the music not all, just sort of lifted her heavy shoulders and dimpled knees now and then with a far-off grin pasted on her face and fried blond bangs brushing at her eyes. Larry's critical commentary ranged all the way from "Holy shit!" to "What the fuck?!" but I couldn't stop watching her. The Blue Moon Café was a cesspool of human sexuality, the lowest rung on the titillation-ladder, and yet within this eighth ring of peel-joint hell, Candee was completely comfortable with being naked, with her huge nakedness on display. Whether she'd attained a higher level of consciousness or was stoned out of her mind mattered not to me. She emanated a calming glow. Like an enormous wood sprite, she was all goodness and light and folds of pink soft cellulite humming through the gloom.

And then, apropos of nothing, she lay down and began rolling back and forth across the stage, legs spread and arms akimbo, presenting us with a lesson in female anatomy that, considering her size and our proximity, reminded me of the movie Fantastic Voyage. I saw a look pass over Larry's face that reminded me the kid was a puker and I asked if he was ready to go. He nodded, bilious, but before we could get to our feet Hairy appeared and presented us with Ginger, planting her at our table and strongly suggesting that we "boys" buy her a drink.

Larry said we were leaving. Hairy noted unhappily that we hadn't yet enjoyed a lap dance. I said we'd be happy to buy Ginger a drink and she ordered a twenty-eight dollar glass of Dr. Pepper. Larry and I pooled our remaining money as Hairy looked on and while Ginger, a woman who resembled nothing so much as a burnt matchstick, lit a smoke and phlegm-coughed-laughed, nodding at Candee and calling her a sow.

That's when I decided to rob the dump.

Being clipped 20 bucks for the privilege of contracting secondhand lung cancer was one thing and witnessing the dreamy machinations of a large nude woman was another. Even while it was happening I chalked it up to being a sucker and was pretty OK with it. But Hairy putting the thumb on us for another twenty-eight bucks while this sour, pipe-cleaner of a woman made retard-commentary about the only person in that cinderblock underworld who still seemed to have a grip on her soul was just too much. I wanted justice. I wanted retribution.

I wanted my money back.

When the world's most expensive soft drink arrived and Hairy left, I told Larry to get the car and wait by the front door and he complied without a word, just got to his feet and wove into the darkness. After he left, the sparkling conversation between Ginger and me went something like this:

HER: What a fat-ass. Goddam but she's a pig, ain't she?

ME: So you mentioned.

HER: Fat bitch. (sip, smoke) You kids from Phoenix?

ME: I gotta go.

I mummy-walked for the exit aware I had no plan for robbing the place, pushed through the stinking curtain and saw that Hairy was not at his post and that the cash register was waiting for me, all alone. It was as big as a Wurlitzer organ, just like the old-timer I operated in my uncle's diner, and that became my plan: hit NO SALE, grab twenty bucks when the drawer opened, and run for it. The simple plans are the best plans, I thought, pushing the button, hearing the register ka-ching!, watching the drawer not open. I hit it again, the bells sang out, the register's jaw remained shut, and now I used a fist to hammer the son-of-a-bitch. It rang like a three-alarm fire and the drawer popped at the very moment Hairy pushed through the curtain uttering a gentle, surprised, "Hey."

We paused staring at each other, me hovering over the cash drawer, Hairy absorbing the scene as his hand moved for the back of his jeans where I was sure something cold and metallic waited. This was the failsafe moment I'd been trained for by my parents, where something that may happen was happening...Hairy's hand moving while I stood like a 135-pound clay pigeon ...and how was I going to react? What combination of verbal jiu-jitsu would I apply to Hairy so that he would leave me unshot, no harm, no foul?

Thinking about it, I abandoned the cash register* and ran screaming for the exit. Not pretty but certainly the correct reaction. Larry squealed into position on two wheels and I skipped into the car while it was still rolling. Hairy ran after us across the gravel parking lot but gave it up as we tattooed the boulevard with steel-belted radial. I looked back at the Blue Moon Café, at Hairy leaning on his knees trying to catch his breath, and wondered if Candee was still rolling in a pink hazy dream, if she'd continue to roll lazily all night long.

In the days that followed Larry and I contented ourselves with simple, old-fashioned toplessness. Stuffing dollars into garters, I was grateful to my parents that what they'd taught me had been true and that I'd reacted correctly to a situation which fate and my own idiocy had deemed unavoidable. I decided if I was ever a parent I'd be sure to hardwire my child with the same knowledge and instill the all-important failsafe option. And that someday I'd even use the incident at the Blue Moon Café to illustrate my point.

What happened in Jamaica, on the other hand...there's no way he's ever going to know about that.

* OK, OK. I may have taken some money. Like I said, twenty bucks was a lot of cash for a poor kid in 1986 so yeah, I took my twenty out of the till. And Larry's twenty, too. Larry was my best bud after all. And because Hairy was going to kill me and my nerves were electric, my hand may have gone a little wide and grabbed a few more twenties than just mine and Larry's. Maybe. I'm foggy on that part. If it did happen, and I'm not saying it did, but if it did, all I can say is that a poor kid put it to good use. If it happened.