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The Heartland Never Lies

The Sex Trade in Northwest Wisconsin

In a small town with a withering economy, rebellion is choosing college over your job at the X-rated drive-in.

Colby Bird, Framed Poster, 2009. Courtesy the artist and CRG Gallery.

I should have gone to college but worried I’d feel like a rube there, so I stayed in Spooner, Wis., and justified my waitress job as sympathy for the proletariat—a phrase I’d picked up from the newly arrived post-hippies. In far-off cities, young people were already dressing for punk or disco, but I spent Saturday nights visiting communes. I wore peasant dresses I sewed myself, knee-high moccasins, head scarves I bought at the dime store, and I stood next to pot-bellied stoves with people 10 years older than me who’d graduated from Vassar or Sarah Lawrence or Yale. They listened to Bob Dylan and talked about the barter system, how it bypassed capitalist exploitation. One night a woman with feather earrings led me to the kitchen and read me a Marge Piercy poem, “The Implications of One Plus One.” Then she said, “Jealousy is an emotion I choose not to feel.” Her eyes lingered on me. Her husband’s eyes lingered on me. One of them wanted to sleep with me, I knew, but I figured I had at least the summer to decide who exactly and if I believed in free love, which seemed philosophically akin to the barter system.

Weekdays, I woke in my schoolgirl bedroom, put on a black polyester uniform with white diamond shapes on the bust and hips designed to amplify female contours, walked past clapboard houses, then down two blocks of Main Street to the Topper Café. In the morning, I served eggs and bacon; for lunch, burgers, hot beef, fried liver. Every day the loudest of the grizzled old men who sat at the counter asked if I’d bend over the cooler one more time. Or stick my finger in his coffee to make it sweet. The other men chortled. Then he’d say, “You should move to Las Vegas. No use sitting on that money-maker.”

I worried that my job, with its self-display, the striding across the café in my sex-robot waitress suit, signified new status as available goods. I didn’t have “hang-ups,” as we said then. I’d wrangled naked with a few high school boyfriends, even had a fling with a motorcycle guy who’d since moved to Colorado. But my dad was president of the nascent, five-member Chamber of Commerce; I had a full-time job and went to church. These facts made me off-limits to elderly perverts, I felt. I’d say, “Aren’t you friends with my dad?” The grizzled coffee drinker looked away: “Depends.” He’d stop the dirty old man shtick for an hour until, bleary-eyed, he’d start again. So summer passed, a flash in the pan.

One August day, Shelley and Bubbles came for the new special, creamed cod. They ran the Palace Theater, downtown, and the Palmote Drive-In, next to the Lutheran church. Shelley and Bubbles were locally famous for being the only Jewish people anyone knew, ex-carnies too. They’d spent years on the circuit: a magician and his assistant. But Bubbles, who wore her hair piled high, her eyeliner like painted bird’s wings, had developed MS and needed a wheelchair, so they’d looked for new work. Years after that day when I served them creamed cod and refreshed their colas, Shelley and Bubbles would also be famous for being murder victims—stabbed to death at the Palace, the killer never found. People speculated it was their son, who grew up to cook meth.

I assumed every town had prostitutes and strippers.

But their son was still a child in 1977. And back then the Palace showed G-rated movies at 7 p.m. and X-rated movies at 9 p.m. I’d lived in Spooner my whole life. I assumed this was a normal theater schedule. “Not so,” Shelley explained, buttering his dinner roll. “PG, which stands for “parental guidance,” has just replaced M, which used to stand for ‘mature audiences only.’ R for ‘restricted’ is a possibility too.” But movies like these flopped at the Palace, Shelley added. G and X movies covered his core markets.

Families ran the local businesses: the dime store, the drugstore, a clothing store; two bait and tackle shops; three gas stations; 26 bars; motels consisting of one-room comfy cabins, each with a cot, toilet, and sink. The economy of Spooner, a freight train stopover town and fishing destination, relied on men. I grew up knowing that whores had lived at the Depot Hotel until it burned to the ground when I was in middle school—one whore had fallen asleep while making a grilled cheese sandwich on a steam iron. A few still lived across the street from the Topper Café, above the strip joint with windows facing the street. Strippers danced on a stage, so passers-by saw naked legs. I assumed every town had prostitutes and strippers. People needed money, I knew. These women didn’t have diverse skills. They were part of the food chain—lower down. One of the post-hippies I’d been talking to on Saturdays, a man with a spade-shaped beard and sad eyes—his wife had just moved into his brother’s bedroom because she was pregnant by the brother—pointed out that most towns don’t keep whores and strippers on Main Street. He’d had a stutter when he was young: “Spooner is less un, un, uh…not hypocritical.”

But that day in the café, Bubbles smiled and said I was the best waitress she ever met. Flattery, yet another currency. Nobody gets you to do something for nothing. But I hadn’t figured that out yet. “You’ve found your true calling,” she said. “Why not moonlight selling concessions for us at the Palmote?” Weeknights, I tended to watch TV with my parents, their marriage on life support, uncomfortable silence in the flickering half-light of Charlie’s Angels or Three’s Company. Or maybe my dad didn’t come home, went to one of the bars, and my mother confided gloomily that she’d done her part, cooking, raising children, balancing the family books, and having sex. “Much ado about nothing, that,” she said. For what? “It pays minimum wage,” Bubbles added. Winter was coming on, I reasoned. Deep drifts. Slippery roads. It would be harder to get to the communes to visit the post-hippies. I decided instantly I was saving to buy a car to move to a city and be in the proletariat there. I said yes. I’d start at the Palmote that night, a Monday.

The Palmote ran horror movies. I knew this because on weekend nights in high school, if the thermometer stayed above zero and snow wasn’t expected, someone drove through the gate with a keg in the back of a pickup. We wore parkas and mittens as we milled and drank, the beleaguered babysitters and hitchhikers on the movie screen irrelevant. I didn’t think to ask Shelley and Bubbles if they played horror movies on weeknights.

After work that evening, I changed out of my uniform into jeans, a peasant blouse, and my puka shell necklace, and I drove my mother’s car to the Palmote where Shelley introduced me to Bubbles’ nephew. “Bubbles wants Vinny to meet a nice local girl,” Shelley said. I’d never seen anyone who looked like Vinny except in West Side Story, which I’d watched on TV’s “Wednesday Night at the Movies.” Vinny rolled cigarettes into his sleeve, passé. He had tattoos, also passé. Or not yet reinvented. Only sailors and Hell’s Angels had tattoos then. Shelley showed me how to use the pizza oven, the popcorn popper, the till. He left to start the movie reel. Vinny stood so close I smelled his Hai Karate. He’d moved to Spooner because his parole officer made him live with family, he said. He took a pint of sloe gin out of his pocket, and a condom packet fell on the floor. Years would pass before people would worry about AIDS. Women took the pill. I thought the condom was Alka-Seltzer until I picked it up and handed it back to him. What next? Moans, sighs, and gasps.

I still don’t understand why I got caught off guard, since the movie screen that dwarfed and outshone the Lutheran church steeple could have been seen by anyone driving the highway at night.

On the screen, a man traveling in a foreign country got separated from his wife and found himself in a tent of happy, naked women, wall-to-wall breasts. He fingered one set of nipples, then another, another. What did I feel? Arousal mixed with shame. It turns out I’m a bit of a prude. Or I like real sex in private, not its simulacrum on a screen. The so-called sexual revolution might have made me able to talk theoretically about various carnal experiments with college-educated commune-dwellers. But freedom suddenly seemed like economic freedom, the right to say to anyone: No way. Hands off. Shut up. The man on the screen plied multifarious nipples and said: “Just like elevator buttons.” I reached for the popcorn basket and burned myself. The moaning stopped, and I looked at the movie screen where what I now understand is called a daisy chain had assembled itself. Shelley interrupted the soundtrack: “Don’t forget snacks! Come get pizza from Pizza Deb.”

I quit, walking out the door.

I drove home. Either Shelley had just started running X-rated movies at the Palmote, I thought, or I’d never before been so far on a school night. I should have known. I still don’t understand why I got caught off guard, since the movie screen that dwarfed and outshone the Lutheran church steeple, that rectangle of writhing arms and legs looking like a mass of worms, could have been seen by anyone driving the highway at night.

Months later, having secured a used Pontiac, a Pell grant, a job in a city, I started college where I met people my age. They’d grown up in suburbs of Milwaukee. Or in Appleton, Green Bay, Sheboygan, Oshkosh. Or on picturesque dairy farms far south of Spooner. It took awhile to compile an up-to-date wardrobe and a new record collection. I’d played The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan for a friend, who said: “Nasal. Who is it, Sonny Bono?”

I gained enough perspective to see that I’d unconsciously confused sex with work. I now understood that writing, not waitressing, was my calling, but I needed money, and I didn’t have diverse skills. But I had aspirations. So I wrote and revised, read, studied, served coffee, burgers, fried eggs. I reconsidered all the menial, meaningless ways to earn a wage, also Shelley, Bubbles, and Vinny too— who, like the old man at the Topper Café, was part of what I got paid to endure. I also realized that people pay a steep price for free love.

After I left Spooner, the post-hippie with sad eyes wrote to me, saying his wife had moved out of his brother’s bedroom into another housemate’s, and she was pregnant again, but even she didn’t know by whom. The prostitutes and strippers on Main Street, the actors in the X-rated movies, even the people holding cameras or dubbing sound, had aspirations, I realized. Aspirations don’t make you special. I never again got onto an elevator and punched buttons without thinking of nipples—underemployed writers bored out of their minds wrote that line, I decided, going up. My sympathy for the proletariat turned real as I vowed to find a better way, knowing my heart or back would break if I didn’t.

Debra Monroe is the author of two collections of stories, two novels, and, most recently, the memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal. Her books have been listed as “Required” or “Recommended” reading in Vanity Fair, Salon, O: the Oprah Magazine, Elle, Southern Living, and People. The memoir was named one of “Best Ten Books of 2010” by the Barnes & Noble Review and several regional newspapers. She currently lives in Austin, Texas. More by Debra Monroe