She looked Kewpie-doll cute the first time I saw her sitting atop a bar stool two feet away, cafe au lait complexion, big doe eyes, tight blue jean cutouts, shapely frame, oversized chunk gold earrings and a Batman cap tilted dangerously to the side. With practiced nonchalance, she slurped a Tanqueray and orange juice through a long, pink straw, her wide eyes surveying the club just over the lip of the glass.
Confidant, aloof, carefree, she did a saucy streetwalker stroll around the club on three-inch heels, stopping to chat with friends before returning to her perch. We talked.
Her name was Giorgio . . . Giorgio Washington, originally from Detroit, originally named Latita. The heavyset lady with the big blond wig sitting at the club's second bar, she said, was her mom. A blues singer. The professional Michael Jackson look-alike on the dance floor was her brother.
And she, well, she was a female exotic dancer--actually a retired female exotic dancer as of July, she said. Ten years in the business. She didn't look a day over 24.
I was at the club to surprise my friend and favorite drummer, Ndugu Chancler, who was scheduled to receive a music award. She was there to promote a retirement party for her and Chocolate, another dancer. She handed me a flyer and suggested that I come. I gave her my card and said I'd try. I didn't make it.
Six weeks later, I strolled through the doors, at Giorgio's request, of a little club called the Music Staff, a dimly lit hole in the wall with a bar, a pool table, video games and a 12-foot-by-12-foot elevated stage for female exotic dancers.
Circumstances had forced her out of retirement.
I don't like strip joints as a rule. Just a lot of unneeded frustration, to me. But Giorgio sounded desperate when she called to invite me down. She and her two daughters, Toya, 12, and Giovanni, 5, were being evicted from their one-bedroom apartment in Hawthorne. She needed the money and she needed to be around somebody who didn't want anything in exchange. So I went.
As I took a seat at the bar, I caught a glimpse of Giorgio making the rounds. She was dressed in a tight, short white dress with tastefully suggestive see-through in just the right places. The jewelry and heels were impeccably matched. She looked elegant, more like she was dressed for a cocktail party than this place, where the decor was a combination of alcohol promotional items.
She didn't look like a woman whose marriage had ended a few years ago in divorce because her husband came to love the dope pipe more than he did her, or whose high school sweetheart, a member of the Rolling 60s who had been rolling in drugs, was murdered with a friend in the back of a van.
And she didn't look like a frightened, confused woman who in two days would be homeless.
But she wasn't supposed to. That's not what the guys gathered around the dance floor clutching fistfuls of dollar bills wanted to see. So she gave them what they came for, and after the show calmly knelt to the floor to scoop up the little piles of money--lunch money, grocery money, bus fare.
We talked between numbers. She couldn't move in with her mom, the apartment was too small. Same for her aunt and one of her brothers. Maybe her brother in Hollywood, but that was too far from the kids' schools.
There was a new guy she was dating. She liked him a lot, but it was too soon for that. There was this older guy who had been after her for some time. He sold real estate. He said he had an unfinished house that he wasn't using. No stove, no refrigerator, no floor covering.
She could go there. He said it would just be platonic, though Giorgio knew that wasn't his intention. She didn't want to move there, but she probably would. It was raining headaches outside and Giorgio and her kids needed shelter from the storm.
We had another drink. I gave her $100. We called it a loan, but we both knew it wasn't. It would be good for two nights in the Cockatoo Inn while she sorted things out.
A month later, the phone rang. It was Giorgio. She had just gotten back from the Bay Area. The man and the house weren't working. She was moving to San Francisco. Toya's father, in prison on a drug charge, would be getting out in February. They could all live together in a house he still owned in San Francisco.
I offered to take her to Union Station. At 1:40 a.m., a bus pulled in front of the station. It would take her and the girls as far as Bakersfield, where she would transfer to the train, a train she hoped would take her to somewhere better than this.