Something Good #14: Requiem for a Strip Club
I had never stepped into Bar EXXXotica, but I was always happy it was there. Situated on a pretty normal block on Avenue du Parc, alongside a bank, a couple of restaurants, a driving school and a café, it was just the neighbourhood strip club. The neon lights hadn’t shone in living memory, the delicately obscured photo-illustrations of dancers in the window seemed like just part of the scenery, there was never any “trouble” outside. I’m not the only one who was a little sad to see a For Sale sign go up early in the year.
The building quickly sold. That was it; another relic of the old, weird Mile-End come and gone. But last week, my friend the (excellent) writer Kathryn Jezer-Morton made an astonishing discovery in the alleyway behind the bar: a box of Bar EXXXotica paperwork dating back to the late ‘90s. Time sheets and IOUs. Notes scrawled on old du Maurier cigarette packs. A treasure trove of characters, stories, and unsolvable mysteries.
I ran down the next morning to take some pictures of this little archaeological site, and the next day Kathryn and I met for a socially-distanced hang in a nearby park to pore through the materials. We spread out the papers on a concrete ping pong table and got to work.
Mark: It’s kind of funny to be sifting through the detritus of a strip club in a playground.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton: I know, so true. I was like, where shall we meet? We can’t hang out at our own houses, and so here we are. It’s also funny because I found this box in the lane that my kids play in. I just happened to be walking by, and I was like, “What’s that?” They could have just as easily found it. Not that they would particularly find it interesting.
So here are, I guess, the time cards, but they don’t really have hours on them, just earnings.
M: They don’t say at what time they got in and out, but they otherwise look like classic time cards.
K: They have earnings, but it’s kind of hard to tell what they represent.
M: They’re big numbers.
K: Claire’s time sheets always have a bunch of IOUs stapled to the back of them, and there were even some loose ones that I found. So Claire—Claire had a debt that she was repaying really, really assiduously to George, like every day. Sometimes more than once a day for, I’m going to say, over the course of six months and maybe for longer. The cards I found range from 1996 to 2006—that was the most recent year in the box in the lane. But Claire, man, look at this—16 grand.
M: 16 grand? Holy moly. So how would you describe this place to someone who didn’t know what it was?
K: Bar EXXXotica was the only strip club that I was aware of in the neighbourhood. It was Mile-End’s strip club. I don’t know how old it was, only that it predated my life, because I grew up in Mile-End in the ‘80s and it was always there. It used to have a kind of cool vintage naked lady sign on the side of the building, that I remember super clearly. Because obviously, you're a kid, and it's like, “Oh my gosh, a sign with a naked lady!”
For me, it represented, in my little child geography, the limit of where I could go. I thought of it as where the seediness happened.
M: I've always thought that Mile-End kinda had at least one of everything. And this was my example of that—there’s one strip club, one movie theatre, one used bookstore. I loved that because even though Mile-End is a very talked-about neighbourhood and it sort of symbolizes something these days, it’s still pretty small. Like, I don’t know, five by seven blocks or something.
So it was like a small-town strip club. There never seemed to be any trouble outside of it, it just sort of seemed to co-habit with the rest of the neighbourhood pretty peacefully.
K: I've been thinking a lot about how it feels that it closed. It’s a funny feeling. I should preface this that I’ve never been inside, but I have a lot of friends who are a little older from the neighbourhood, who used to go there after a night out. If they had been partying downtown or wherever, it’d be their last stop before going home. If it was a really late night and they were feeling crazy.
I don't want to name names, but I have a few friends that were like, “Oh man, we used to go there.” And according to them it was pretty rough.
M: It wasn’t a downtown club like Super Sexe. A place where tourists go.
K: Exactly. It was not a touristy place. It was totally a local strip club. Tourists will go to Wanda’s or Chez Paree or Super Sexe, but they wouldn’t come up here for that.
I had friends who used to finish off a night there, and for them it was kind of a beloved old place. I also think it was probably a pretty rough place and not a place to be romanticized.
But at the same time, I’ve been thinking about gentrification and how we decry the state of things, like how the neighbourhood’s changing. I think it’s reasonable to ask—do we really need precarious sex work? Is that what we want, for people to be exploited to make us feel like it’s a cool neighbourhood? I don't make any assumptions about what the conditions were like for the workers at Bar EXXXotica—maybe it was fine.
Like, I get it, but it’s not about that for me. It’s that I really think that it’s so important that for a neighbourhood to be a good place to live, that there be a lot of different kinds of people co-existing in close proximity. You know what I mean?
M: Yeah, I totally agree.
K: Whatever they’re doing, I think it’s good for a lot of different kinds of them to be doing it! If that means a strip club, like, so be it man.
So here are these IOUs that Claire wrote to George.
M: Do you think Claire wrote these, or George wrote them?
K: Oh, I think Claire did. I should say they're paid—they're not IOUs. The IOUs themselves are on the backs of the time sheets, but these are records of payment. I think they’re Claire’s because the handwriting looks like lady handwriting to me, although I know that's probably sort of old-timey thinking on my part.
M: Yeah. Like when I first saw the smiley face, my thought was like, Oh, George is like being gracious and drawing those on them, but…
K: My feeling, because of the frequency and the size of the payments, was that this is a drug thing. That she was borrowing money for coke or whatever it was, throughout the night.
And she pays him back as she can in these really small sums. Like, $25 to $40. He gives her bumps of coke here and there. But they're these really small sums. January to March, 2004 is the range of these ones, but then I found some other ones in the pile, which maybe I didn't grab, that were from another time.
M: I would hear rumours about this place. There was a story that there was an entrance in the back alley just for the Hasids. That, to me, makes it so much more of a Mile-End kind of place.
K: I cannot overstate the discretion vibe. Never in my life did I ever see people hanging out up front.
M: I would see dancers sometimes having a smoke.
K: Once I moved on to that block I would see dancers out back, like in their shower sandals, chilling, having a smoke for sure. But you know how outside downtown strip clubs sometimes there’ll be a group of young guys hanging out—never in my life have I seen something like that out front.
M: I mean, it's interesting. I don’t want to make any kind of value judgment whatsoever on a place like this, or any kind of sex work, because it’s not my place to do that—beyond, of course, supporting sex workers.
K: Right, right, right. We don't know. We don't know what this is. It’s individual choices.
M: But the idea that these workers could just hang out in the neighbourhood, chat with the neighbours, have a smoke, get a light off someone and it would just be, like friendly. That they weren’t quarantined to the, like, sex work part of town or ostracized in some way, but they were just part of the neighbourhood, to me that feels good. It feels like a positive thing.
K: I can't agree more. And even having moved across the lane and having my kids playing in the back—I would never not want my kids to play back there. To me it doesn’t represent a lack of safety for my children. I really don’t believe that.
The arguments against gentrification are obvious. Rents go, that sucks—there are all these very clear reasons why it sucks, but it’s like, well, tell that to the free marketplace. You obviously can’t really fight with the way things are going. But when people come into the neighbourhood and they have a heavy investment in a property, if you’ve just spent a million dollars on your fucking property, then you have a lot more of a vested interest in controlling outcomes.
Because it's a huge investment. And you're probably less comfortable with, like, unexpected shit happening.
K: Because this represents a lot for you. I don't want to make value judgements about gentrifiers, either. Like, I'm sure some of them are awesome. Whatever. I don't give a fuck.
But I have these upstairs neighbours who are right out of central casting. Like, they’re fucks.
I’ve had such a powerful disillusionment because I grew up on Jeanne-Mance, right? Then I bought a house two blocks from where I grew up and it was a big deal for me. I was like, I’m going back to the neighbourhood. I’m going to raise my kids there. It’s gonna be so fucking awesome.
And my upstairs neighbours, this couple, they’re yuppies in their 30s, they work in programming and advertising. They’re child-free by choice—cool. To me, they look like people in an artist’s rendering of a new development.
They’re incredibly tidy and are just really into control and they hate us.
They fucking hate me and they hate my kids and they hate everything we do.
They have complained about everything we’ve done. And it sucks. When I first moved in, I really didn’t want to have enemies, I wanted us to be friends. So I was like, “I’m really sorry, guys, I’m totally going to tell my kids to chill.” We had just come back from Mexico, where we were living in this very loud community. But we’re going to chill. I’ll put a mega damper on my children’s noise. And now, honestly, I have to say, like, they’re very fucking quiet. They don’t run. They don’t shout. They don’t bang.
They still fucking hate us. Then it was the smell of our food, the way we go up and down the front and back stairs, it’s too loud.
And then, okay, this is the fucking—I’m sorry I’m ranting at you, because this is not the topic of this, but it does tie in. At one point, because we co-own the building with them, I was like, maybe we should start a building joint account where we all put in a little money every month.
M: Sure, that's normal.
K: And they were like, “Yeah, that’s great. How much do you want to put in?” I was like, I don't know, maybe we could start at a hundred bucks a month. With my percentage of the building, it would end up being a total of about 400 bucks a month between us all. After a couple of years, you have some Gs, if you need to do any maintenance. It doesn’t take a lot to save up that kind of money.
And they were like… “A hundred bucks a month? Are you broke?” They straight up were like, “We're concerned that you can't afford to live here.”
K: Yeah! She went to the other neighbour, who’s my friend, who’s a super cool person. And she talked behind my back and was like, “I think those guys are too broke to own the building. I’m worried they're not gonna be able to afford to maintain it.”
And I fucking lost my mind. I was like, you have to be a fucking millionaire to live in this neighbourhood now? I have a good job! What do you want from me? This neighbourhood isn’t for people who can only afford to save 100 dollars a month for the building fund and not be ashamed of it?
I was so upset. And it really was like… what the fuck? Are we really in the minority here? Is everybody else super rich and we’re the scrubs? Like, what the F?
I suddenly become hyper-attuned to this stuff, which I never used to be. I mean, I guess it’s a privilege to not have to think about it. But anyway, so the point is, people like that, she’s always complaining about the lane and the garbage.
M: She must have hated the strip club.
K: Yeah, it just represents a liability and it potentially might not help our investment appreciate maximally. And I’m like, fuck that. Honestly, if we want our property values to rise the most we possibly can, sure, let’s transform every inch of this place. Then we’ll all be rich!
Addendum: It was later brought to our attention that dancers typically pay out a percentage to the house when a client pays for a private VIP lap dance. This could explain the mystery of the IOUs, but not why they were only in Claire’s name—among other questions.
Thanks to AJ Kinik and Michelle Marek for this week’s #nojacketsrequired submission. It’s a beaut. If you have one to show off, please email me at email@example.com directly, as big attachments tend to bounce off the Substack servers.
I just donated to Stella, a Montreal sex worker advocacy organization. They’ve been around for decades and are worth supporting, particularly now.
Last week I talked to America’s Test Kitchen about hot dogs and told a story about my uncle who passed away just before the pandemic hit and our shared connection to Montreal’s famous steamies. You can read it here.