Published on March 2nd, 2016 | by Syd V.1
Hell’s Kitchen: SYD V. on Growing Up Loving a Working Mother
When I tell people that my mother was a stripper and a professional dominatrix, and at one point owned her own escort service, I usually get the “Wow, that’s so cool” response, or a blank stare and an “Oh shit, really?” By the time I was born, my mother, at 26, had been stripping for 11 years, but after all this time I’m still figuring out how I feel about the memories and experiences I had growing up. It is cool when I can call my mother and get help with a paper that I’m writing about sex work or kink, but it’s painful when I think back on the economic hardships we faced, the problems she still faces, and the evenings I spent wishing my mother was at home reading me a bedtime story or making me dinner instead of spending time with strangers.
Like most children of single parents, I spent much of my time with babysitters in the evenings watching soap operas. My babysitter, Meche, was an elderly woman who I suspect was surviving off the little money from all the single mothers in the building who could afford to pay for a sitter. I remember crying and running after my mother with my plastic Tina doll in tow down the hallway of our prewar building in Hell’s Kitchen in the early 1980s, begging her to stay home and put me to bed. The flickering hall light above reflected a greenish tint over my mother’s face as she tried not to cry for fear she would ruin her makeup.
By the time I got to preschool, we had moved into my grandmother’s apartment on the Upper West Side because we could no longer afford rent in Hell’s Kitchen. There in our new apartment I watched my mother getting ready for work, intently examining the way she would burn the ends of her black Revlon eyeliner, and how she would pout her lips to apply her reddish-orange lipstick. Something about the routine was comforting for me. I would sit on the toilet seat, my knees up to my chest, and move my lips with hers, feeling excited. When I told my mother I was writing this piece a few days ago, I reminded her of the fascination I had with watching her get ready. Over the phone, my mother explained to me that whenever she would get ready for work, I would cry because that meant it was time for mommy to leave.
Sometimes my mother let me play dress up with her mostly handmade costumes. I would get all dolled up in her deep blue sequined robe and slinky dresses and parade around the house in her heels like I was a famous dancer. My mom once told me she used to dance ballet and regretted stopping. I always wondered, aside from the need for quick money to support us, was dancing on a nightclub stage as close as she could get to that lost dream? Did receiving all of that attention somehow make her feel special, beautiful, or important?
I remember going to work with my mother on two occasions. The first time was when I was about four and she had arranged for Linda, another dancer who lived above the club, to watch over me. I either managed to convince Linda to bring me downstairs or I snuck down by myself so I could peek through a door by the right side of the stage to see my mother dressed in a beautiful costume and dancing provocatively. She didn’t see me and I was probably only there for a moment, but I did see plenty of men in the audience watching her. I don’t know what I thought then. I probably missed her and was curious about what she was doing so I decided to find out. I know that I always thought she looked beautiful, no matter what she was wearing.
When I told this same story to a friend in college, he began laughing and asked me if I had ever seen Striptease. When he told me about the scene when Demi Moore’s daughter sneaks upstairs to peek through golden foil and watches her mother dancing, I knew I had to watch it.
The second occasion was the first time in my life that I ever danced on stage. It was during the daytime, but she had taken me with her to put in some dancing shifts at this little club in Jersey. I don’t even think it was a bona fide club. There were windows everywhere and it was daytime so the place was brightly lit. As I was enjoying my second Shirley Temple of the day at a table near the bar and waiting for my mother, a Madonna song came on the jukebox and I ran up on stage and started dancing like a little girl might do to a song she knows. I wasn’t shy and loved attention. I danced the whole song, and by the end of it I guess the owner or a customer made a joke that I should be paid for dancing. Someone gave me a few dollars. The next day, my mother took me to the bodega near our apartment and, with my hard-earned money, I bought my first set of Crayola bathroom chalk. To this day, my mother is terrified that if I write about this someone will arrest her 25 years later for the one afternoon she let me dance like a little girl on stage to Madonna.
Excerpted from $pread: The Best of the Magazine That Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution, edited by Rachel Aimee, Eliyanna Kaiser, and Audacia Ray, published March 2015 by the Feminist Press. Copyright 2015.
Illustration reprinted from $pread is by Sadie Lune, an interdisciplinary artist, sex worker, and pleasure activist. Her work in art and sex focuses on exercising the intimacy muscle and diffusing shame. She has won awards for her short films and performances, exhibited explicit whore-positive work in venues from a former army barracks latrine to the SFMOMA, and shown her cervix internationally (in homage to the great Annie Sprinkle). Her writing is published in anthologies and magazines in the United States and Europe such as Bend Over Magazine and $pread. Sadie created “Biological Clock”, an ongoing multimedia installation and ritual performance series about queer fertility, her quest for family and relationships with time. She is co-editing WhoreLover, an anthology of writing by the romantic partners of sex workers with P. Crego. Sadie lives in Berlin with her baby.