Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Strip Club Next Door

I've been reading a lot of random nonfiction lately, because that is what I do. I try not to let my book habits fall into any sort of predictable pattern. If I read science fiction last, I'll follow it up with some Raymond Chandler. If I just finished reading some Raymond Chandler, then I'll crack open a book on 18th century Hungarian cabinet-making.

You never know what might be useful knowledge, or at least way more interesting than you might have expected at the beginning. For example, I just finished a great biography of Harry Blackstone Sr. Laugh out loud funny in parts. Throws a spotlight on a little-known facet of early 20th century history. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy.

People tend to limit themselves unnecessarily with their reading. I know aspiring fantasy writers who have never read a book outside their genre their entire lives. Don't be that guy. The wider you read, the more arrows in your quiver. So to speak.

The biggest downside of reading nonfiction is that it makes me want to write nonfiction.

Everybody's got a book they want to write that they know, deep down inside, is probably outside their skill or comfort level. One of my professors back in college had a student who took up stripping for his class, just to have something to write about. When he spoke about her, he'd get a somewhat wistful look in his eye. I had the impression he had a few similar stories he wished he'd had the same guts to pursue. Either that or she was really hot and he wanted to see her naked. Either/or.

In my case, the book I wish I could write is also about a strip club.

I'm fairly sure I've mentioned this before, but I come from the middle of nowhere: smack-dab dead center in the middle of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Even in the 21st century, it's pretty much howling wasteland. They put maximum security prisons there because, on the odd chance an inmate escapes, there's nowhere much for them to go. Every once in a while, a serial baby-puncher will escape. Invariably they find them two weeks later half-frozen, covered in mosquito bites, starving, cowering in a swamp somewhere near Baraga.

There's a lot of wilderness up there, way more than it looks like on any map. It's the sort of place where towns are small and infrequent enough that nobody thinks twice about driving forty-five minutes either way to get groceries.

I grew up in this tiny little town called McFarland. It's barely a spot on the map, small enough that on Google Maps, you have to zoom in a ways to even see it.

It started its life back in the 19th century as a piss-stop for one of the railroads. There was a place to grab food, maybe a loading spot for the lumbermen, and that was it. Eventually it got big enough to warrant a small town hall, maybe a bar, a grocery store/gas station, a one-room schoolhouse (part-time and only up to the sixth grade), a post office and that's about it. Even at its biggest, it was a blink-and-miss-it kind of affair.

For much of its existence, it was one of those towns you defined more by the number of people living in a certain radius around a given landmark than something with set boundaries. When I lived there, there were maybe fifty people living in a thousand foot radius of the bar.

Ah yes, the bar.

McFarland has the only strip club in the Upper Peninsula. At least that I'm aware of.

It's called Big Bon's. They have a website, believe it or not.

And this is where the book I wish I could write begins.

The history of Big Bon's, like most small-town businesses, is largely undocumented. Compound this fact with the matter that it's the local den of iniquity and considered to be an eyesore and you could understand why most of the locals don't really talk about it, nor does it get written about much in the local newspapers. You are unlikely to find a segment on the local news and they don't run commercials.

If I were to write said book, I'd have to track down survivors to piece together the history. While the place is still in business under new owners, Big Bon passed away a few years back and the customers with the best stories, no doubt, aren't getting any younger.

Near as I can tell, it was founded back in the seventies or early eighties by Bonnie K. "Big Bon" Storti herself, a larger than life character who would seem more at ease in an Elmore Leonard novel than in any sort of realistic universe.

It's the kind of place where you have to stop every once in a while when talking about it to outsiders and say "I swear I'm not making any of this up."

The business started out as an actual bar with a liquor license. They also had a kitchen in back, which gave it the odd distinction of being the only place locally one could acquire pizza if you had the need and you were too snowed in to make it to Gwinn.

Every once in a while, one of the locals would send a kid or two over to pick one up. They'd have to wait outside, though. Eventually one of the dancers would bring the pizza out to them.

Bon's biggest trade is hunters. She'd open when hunting season opened, close when hunting season closed. She wintered down south, somewhere in Florida, and was in the habit of pranking people with death notices. I think she died roughly twice a year for fifteen years until she actually did die back in 2011 at the age of 62. I think it was a few days before everybody made up their minds she was actually dead.

Eventually they lost the liquor license and officially became a tea house. I swear I'm not making this up.

They'd bus in strippers from down state every year and there were constant allegations of prostitution. According to one of the neighbors, they pulled out six or seven beds from the tiny upstairs room while the new owners were remodeling. Whether or not that's factual, I can't tell you for sure.

From the outside, the place looks like a ramshackle hunting cabin. Up until about ten years ago, it was unpainted. It looked liked the sort of place Jed Clampett would be at home in. For most of the year, whether they were open or not, they'd advertise jello wrestling competitions with the sort of tacky internally-lit freestanding sign you often see in front of smaller churches. Sometimes they'd branch out, wrestle in different substances, like oil or pudding, but jello was the most popular.

Ten years ago, Bon had the place painted a color which can only be described as "bright fucking pink" to stick a thumb in the locals' eyes. I have a feeling her opinions about the local town gossips would have been worth listening to.

This is a place you could probably write several books about. When I travel, it seems no matter how far I go, eventually I meet someone who has seen or heard of Big Bon's. If I went to Nepal, climbed Mount Everest, I'd probably find a grizzled old British explorer who would say "Big Bon's? Is she still letting people sign her boobs? I did a rum shot off her breasts one evening back in '84."

When giving out directions to my parents' house, it's the landmark we tell them to watch out for: "Drive north until you see the big pink titty bar. Then turn."

I think the place has stories like North Dakota has rocks. But could I write it? I doubt it. I'm not that social and my interviewing skills are roughly on par with my singing ability.

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