HE WAS 23 and as shy as they come. To hear Toni tell it, he'd fall down at the very sight of a woman. So he came to the only place he knew where the women always said "yes" when he asked them to dance: Club Flamingo. For 35 cents a minute, he could dance with the woman of his choice and not have to worry about saying something stupid or embarrassing.
"I was giving him lessons on how to talk to girls," recalls Toni, a hostess at the Flamingo. She's pleasant-looking, tall, with curly brown hair and brown eyes, somewhere in her late 20s or early 30s. "He came in here wanting to find a girlfriend. And I told him: 'Go somewhere else and find yourself a nice girl.' "
Toni glances around the dance floor this blustery night. Most of the couples dancing match up like polka dots and plaids. Old, worn-out guys with faces like unmade beds drape themselves over 19- or 20-year-old girls. In the booths and at the tables, couples cuddle in the dim light. The girls wear short, tight, low-cut dresses. They rest their heads on the men's shoulders, forcing blissful smiles. The men's faces radiate a certain amount of triumph, as if they've won their partners over with good looks, great intellect, strength of character and charisma.
"Then he decided he was in love with me," Toni continues. "He'd come in here and say, 'Toni, I can't help it. I'm in love with you.' I said, 'Look, you can't be in love with me--I'm married.' Believe me, this isn't any place to go looking for a girlfriend."
The signs outside usually advertise "hostess dancing," but history has saddled the Flamingo and other clubs like it with the less delicate phrase taxi dancing . It's an apt-enough name. When you ask a girl to dance, she rises wearily to her feet, goes to the rack, pulls out her time card and punches the clock. She hitches her purse over her shoulder as if she's afraid someone might steal it (conceivably you), and together you go to the dance floor.
In most cases, the meter runs at 35 cents a minute, or $21 an hour. During this time, you're entitled to complain that your wife doesn't love you, that your girlfriend is cheating on you or that your boss is a miserable ogre and you don't know how much longer you can take it. Or, depending on the girl and your reputation as a tipper, you may indulge in something akin to a poor man's lambada.
Taxi dance clubs were once abundant in Chicago, New York, Detroit and San Francisco during the late teens and early 1920s. Today, however, they're scarce to the point of extinction.
The grand exception is Los Angeles, where at least seven taxi dance clubs represent the fruition of a revival that began in the early '70s, fueled in part by the loosening of sexual mores and later by droves of lonely immigrant men seeking a few dollars' worth of tender, loving care.
All of the clubs are situated within a mile of the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the kind of neighborhoods that are haunted by wailing junkies and belligerent panhandlers. The clubs bear names laden with romantic possibility--Club Paradise, Las Palmas, Roseland Roof, Danceland, Club Starlight--but the reality is a world of disorienting ambiguity, governed only by the laws of supply and demand, the language of the dollar.
LOCATED IN A RUN-DOWN BUILDING on 12th Street, the Flamingo is typical of Los Angeles taxi dance clubs. Among other things, that means down-at-the-heel, a lot of seams showing. You climb the steps to the second floor, pay $3 to the man at the door, and there they are, sitting on rows of red vinyl couches, like curios gathering dust in a junk store window: Girls wagging their crossed legs, smoking cigarettes and gabbing like women in a small-town beauty parlor. Girls with crack-of-dawn eyes, high heels and cheap perfume. Girls with sad stories. Girls, 70 or 80 of them on weekend nights, hoping you will take them away from all this.
The men, many of whom roam from club to club, sit in small, uncomfortable chairs at small, tottering tables, drinking coffee, smoking and staring with varying degrees of wistfulness, salaciousness or inscrutability. As many as 150 show up on weekend nights. Beyond the girls lies the dance floor, dark except for the spangles of light refracting from the globe overhead. A cardboard sign taped to a column admonishes COUPLES ONLY.