Baring

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Kate McNamara / Alligator Staff

The women of Café Risque offer companionship in a world longing for human connection

By Peyton Whittington

The first time I pulled up to Café Risqué, I was nervous. Not about seeing the dancers or the clients or the club itself, but about the prospect of getting to know this place and telling its story.

I sat in the parking lot in my 2011 Toyota Camry, surrounded by pickup trucks and 18-wheelers. I stared at the club’s façade, plastered with sun-bleached posters of the Café’s favorite it-girls in lacy thongs and bustiers.

I stepped out of the comfort of my car and headed inside, past signs around the doorway that warned drunk, high, rowdy and underage customers: Turn back now.

“Gentlemen,” one sign read, “Please consider this! For the amount of our cover charge try to approach a Beautiful Lady on the Street or in K-Mart etc… and ask her to get totally naked and dance for you for hours, She might slap you and probably call the police. We Think Our Cover Charge is a Bargain! Come on in!”

Sounds logical. Besides, I was not drunk, high, rowdy or underage. So, I entered.

I was greeted immediately by a familiar scent in an unfamiliar place: public school carpet that has soaked up sweat, grease and the aroma of activity for years.

“You here to work or eat, darlin’?” the woman behind the ticket booth asked with a quizzical look on her face.

“Oh, um, to eat,” I mumbled. I presented my ID and paid the $5 cover. She buzzed me in.

I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I saw when the door swung open. If the lights were on, it might have looked like a Denny’s—except for the two catwalk stages to the left and right.

On one side was a mirror that stretched across the entire wall. On the other were poles, lined up like prison bars. Beyond the poles was a counter with diner-style swivel stools bolted to the ground.

Commanding the poles were women who wore nothing but weapon-grade heels and maybe a garter for collecting dollar bills.

On every table was a menu with a picture of a naked woman lying down with her back arched at an impressive angle. Printed along the curves of her body were the Café’s offerings: French toast, biscuits and gravy, cheeseburgers and patty melts.

I put in my order for a short stack of pancakes and hash browns and took note of my surroundings. The hum of the local TV news report. The blinking, hot pink neon sign in the archway of the Café’s adult toy room. The chalkboard paint advertising the day’s ribeye special, accompanied by a drawing of a pole dancing pickle that said, “Dill with the cold…HOT private dance.”

I waved at a dancer who I thought was looking my way.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just looking at my a** in the mirror behind you.”

The eye contact I made with the dancers was the kind I make in a grocery store after almost bumping into someone else’s cart. But why was I embarrassed? It was their job, after all, to be looked at.

It was painfully obvious that I was the only young woman there who was not on the stage. My fellow customers were geriatric white men who flicked me nervous side-eyes.

One of my nervous responses is to gulp down water or coffee or whatever drink is on hand, so I soon had to use the restroom. I opened the ladies’ room door to find a few dancers applying lip gloss, fixing their hair and chatting. The space doubled as the dressing room.

I hopscotched around their purses and makeup bags, past the lockers and toward the stalls, which had no doors. Of course. What’s the point of privacy in a strip club? I sat there, breathing in the haze of Bath & Body Works perfume and hairspray and staring at the glitter-dusted tile. Some of the dancers chatted as they primped.

“He just, like, sat there,” one woman said about a lap dance she just gave. “He just stared at me.”

“That’s better than the guys who say weird stuff, I guess,” another chimed in.

A plethora of pamphlets, newspaper articles, charts, photos and fliers blanketed the walls of the dressing room. Among them were the prices for each type of dance based on the amount of time, charts detailing what parts of their bodies the dancers are allowed to touch onstage and numbered lists with titles like, “The Top 10 Ways to Become a Successful Exotic Dancer.”

Yellowed newspaper clippings told stories about the Café over the years. Photo booth filmstrips of dancers making silly faces lined the cork boards, along with the manager’s schedules handwritten in Sharpie. A cartoonishly voluptuous blonde woman asked, “Do You Want Sum Poosie?” in a pamphlet tucked into the corner of a mirror.

Back in the dining room, I finished off my hash browns, dropped a few dollars in the tip bucket and climbed out of the neon lights and back into my sensible four-door sedan.

Flapjacks and feminine attention

Café Risqué sits just off exit 374 in Micanopy, a tiny town on the edge of Paynes Prairie that’s known for a quaint downtown teeming with antique stores. For most people, the Café is a curiosity that will never be satisfied or the subject of an uncomfortable family conversation on the way to Disney World. Anyone who has driven through North Central Florida in the past 30 years has seen the Café’s myriad billboards, sandwiched between anti-abortion advertisements along Interstate 75. They make a simple proclamation to passing motorists: “We bare all.”

Alachua County code prohibits nudity where alcoholic beverages are sold. The Café chose nudity. Although the dry policy receives some grumbles from new customers, longtime patrons fancy it as a favorite spot for a hot meal and a bit of feminine attention. Normal here is bare breasts and corn nuggets, lap dances with ketchup on the side, dollar bills slid past soft thighs and hot coffee, and “Could you bring me a couple of them creamers, too, honey?”

The patrons form half of the Café’s recognizable cast of characters. There was the old man in a starched shirt, loafers and wire-frame glasses. The country boy with tan lines from his last fishing trip who goaded the dancers: “Come on girl, are you gonna do it to it?” And the swinging couples who came in to add a third to their day’s fun.

Customers often ask dancers for their phone numbers, when they get off work and if they can take them out for dinner. Perhaps these customers would envy me. I had the privilege of getting to know the dancers outside the club over lattes and cocktails. I got to know them not as caricatures or stereotypes, but as people simply doing a job that has been in demand since man first drew breath.

Over the course of a year of reporting, I found that the Café was hardly the den of sex that some locals make it out to be. Nor was it just a place to get a bite to eat. It was a curious blend of both down-home comfort and sexual fantasy.

A strip club that sells grilled cheese sandwiches instead of alcohol is an anomaly, to be sure. But that’s not what drew me to it. I was intrigued by the women who work there.

Regardless of what brought them here, the dancers viewed the Café as just another job. They found ways to have fun during long shifts. They flipped each other the bird from across the restaurant and broke into epic air-guitar solos as Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” blared from the jukebox.

The women here were exotic dancers, but they were also teachers, mothers, business owners, Ph.D. students and entrepreneurs. They liked to visit farmer’s markets and thrift stores. They looked forward to fishing on weekends and road-tripping with their girlfriends. They worked hard to feed their families.

I had read countless articles about the Café over the years, all written with an aura of distaste for the club and its owners. Those stories had, naturally, made the operators suspicious of reporters. Midway into my reporting, owner Asher Sullivan Jr. saw me interviewing an employee in the Café’s office space, and I was quietly asked to leave, though I was later let back in.

Although Sullivan told me his primary reason for sending me away was his dancers’ safety, I didn’t blame him for not trusting reporters. Like so many other businesses in this conservative Southern town, the Café has been passed down through generations from father to son. But unlike other businesses, the Café has not received a kind word from the community, evident in newspaper reports each time an owner in the family lineage passes away.

Since the beginning of time, sex work has been belittled and stigmatized, from the prostitutes who followed army encampments to today’s porn stars, cam girls and strippers. Sex and intimacy are universal experiences, but I’ve always thought society has been slow to accept those who commodify their sexuality like any other skill.

I wanted to learn more about this club full of women who were just a short drive away from my apartment in Gainesville.

I began with Cherry.

A club with Cherry on top

Cherry, Café Risqué’s hiring manager, runs daily operations and makes sure everyone’s on top of their game. Most strip clubs have a house mom who takes care of the girls when they need a tampon, a snack or a shoulder to cry on. The Café doesn’t have a house mom; it has Cherry.

Cherry is not her real name. She and the other women in this story wanted to be identified only by their stage names due to the nature of their work.

She possesses that rare kind of warmth that allows people to relax their shoulders when she enters a room. Her biggest concern is that her girls stay peppy, polished and friendly. And that they keep their shoes on.

When girls interview with Cherry, their first test is to get naked. She wants to see what they’re working with, of course, but she also wants to see how comfortable they are getting undressed.

She isn’t looking for anything in particular; I saw women of all shapes, sizes and colors at the Café. After 15 years managing the entertainment, Cherry said she just knows if a girl has “it.” Taking one’s clothes off is one thing, but giving an electric performance is quite another.

Girls are often hired without any previous stripping experience, so she trains them to make sure they feel confident, safe and in control before they ever set foot on stage. New hires watch a 20-minute video about the Café and fill out a 15-page independent contractor packet. This may not seem significant to outsiders, but considering that a good word from another girl is often enough for a dancer to get a gig at any other club, the Café is different.

At the Café, Cherry flits from one table to the next, a blur of whatever color she is wearing that day. Cherry’s favorite thing is to “boogie,” and the jukebox is usually blaring her favorite anthems: “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC, “Flesh for Fantasy” by Billy Idol and “Rock Me Baby” by Otis Redding.

Her thin, long dark hair is just messy enough to suggest she’s been for a ride with the top down, and she wears just a touch of eyeliner or shimmer eyeshadow. Cherry is a dream of a woman: Sassy, rarely clothed and always down for an adventure.

But if I wanted to see a woman with plump double Ds, a nonexistent waistline and skin unblemished by cellulite or stretch marks, I wouldn’t find her at the Café.

That’s not what Cherry’s customers (or fans, as she calls them) want anyway. They want her. They want a real woman to touch their knee and laugh at their jokes. They want a real woman to straddle them while they lament the lonely life of a road dog.

She told me about a guy who came in one day to buy a lap dance. They talked while she danced, and then she asked if she could get on top of him. His answer surprised her.

“Oh no,” he said. “You’ve already touched my soul, you don’t have to touch my d***.”

I wouldn’t call her motherly, but I always felt safe when I was with Cherry. One time when we met for lunch, a man catcalled me as I was walking her back to her car. She immediately took me by the arm and led me away to make it seem like I was leaving with her. The man left us alone.

She said she’s good at noticing when an eye wanders too long and if she needs to step in. Patrons of the Café come to live out a fantasy, but if that fantasy involves making a girl feel unsafe, Cherry’s there to see that customer out the door. I understood then why many of the women I met at the Café spoke about Cherry with respect and appreciation.

One of these women was Scarlett.

Scarlett: Men listen to naked women

When I met her, Scarlett was 22 and enrolled at UF. She was studying mechanical and electrical engineering but still figuring out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She’s now taking a gap semester to think it over.

She moved to Gainesville a couple years ago in pursuit of a boy. When that didn’t work out, she started school. She was working long hours as a server at Yamato Japanese Steakhouse for insignificant wages, and she needed a job with flexible hours that could pay her bills and tuition. Her sister told her she should be a stripper. Scarlett scoffed at the suggestion at first.

“You’re a good dancer,” she told Scarlett. “You’re super friendly. It’s not that different from posting half-naked nudes on Instagram like everybody else does.”

Of course, exotic dance is much different from the occasional “thirst trap” Instagram picture, but Scarlett knew what her sister meant. Scarlett is a woman who enjoys being the center of attention, and she knows it. So she walked into the Café, the only strip club in the Gainesville area. She passed Cherry’s infamous strip test.

Scarlett is not from these parts. She grew up in San Francisco, California, one of the most expensive cities to live in the U.S., and perhaps the nation’s leader of liberalism.

She went to a private school that practiced the alternative Waldorf method of teaching and had the same teacher and 20 classmates from first to eighth grade. She wasn’t allowed to watch television, play video games, listen to the radio or use a computer. Instead, she played in her grandmother’s garden during the day and staged home plays for her neighbors at night.

That was the innocent side to her granola-crunching California childhood. But she also lived next to nude beaches, and her work commute took her past people in chains crawling on all fours at the Folsom Street Leather Fair.

Scarlett was hardly a stranger to adult-themed exhibitionism. Hers was an upbringing that lent itself to self-expression and, eventually, sexual freedom. She figured she’d probably be naked in front of people someday, so she might as well get paid for it.

Scarlett is aware of the irony in her story—that she is stripping here while the clubs in her hometown flaunt private champagne rooms, VIP lounges and celebrity guests. She’s the antithesis to the small-town-girl-becomes-big-city-stripper stereotype; she moved away from the “City by the Bay” to dance for truckers and retired men in Nowhere, Florida.

But despite the Café’s small-town vibe, Scarlett appreciates a culture that emphasizes the safety of its dancers. Cameras point to every inch of the club, including private dance rooms, and the manager on duty is always keeping an eye on the footage. Dancers aren’t always afforded the same care in big city clubs, Scarlett tells me. She has heard this from some of the other girls who have danced in such places.

On stage, Scarlett is all legs and flowing raven hair. She has big, honest eyes and an infectiously bubbly personality. She wears sheer bathrobes and sparkly chandelier earrings. Most of her work clothes come from fans, who will sometimes bring in pieces for the dancers to wear, but she makes everything look designer.

Her signature move is to make intense eye contact with her customers while she dances. She was too shy to do it when she first started stripping, but now she knows there’s power in it. It seems to say: “I see you. I recognize the space you occupy. My attention is yours.” For patrons who paid for a gorgeous woman to pay them some mind, Scarlett’s signature move is irresistible.

But dancing is more than eye contact and sensual moves. In fact, Scarlett says that she sells 90 percent of her dances based on conversations with patrons. Sometimes that means chatting about the weather or how she manages to walk in 6-inch heels. Other times, the conversation is more serious.

Sometimes patrons feel comfortable enough to tell Scarlett about their marital woes or other personal struggles. To them, she is a blank slate, a bellhop in fishnets ready to receive their emotional baggage.

Scarlett is a persona that she takes on to keep her distance from her fans. Scarlett is to her what Wonder Woman is to Diana Prince.

“When I’m in there, I’m my super bada** alter ego, and she can handle anything,” she told me once when we met at a vegan coffee shop in Gainesville. “When I leave, I get to put her away.”

And she puts away Scarlett for the day by showering off the smell of fried food, meditating and playing with her cat and dog. Whenever she starts letting Scarlett bleed into her life outside of the Café, her friends remind her who she really is.

But when she’s Scarlett, she can seduce any man she chooses, get him to pay handsomely for her time and even get him to change his mind about love. This she does without a Lasso of Truth or a golden crown—all she needs is her heels and some time to change her patrons forever.

One day, she told me, a man came into the Café who was so furious he looked to be on the verge of cardiac arrest. He had just found out that, in his words, his son was gay and wanted to be a woman. He and Scarlett talked for three hours in the club’s private rooms. Scarlett kept asking him simple questions until he realized he didn’t have to hate his son just because he was different.

The patron talked to his son on the phone outside the Café with the new perspective Scarlett gave him. Instead of telling his son he was going to burn in hell, he told him he was loved.

Turns out, she said, men are a lot more willing to listen to women when they’re naked.

Kate McNamara / Alligator Staff

Karter: It’s about connection

Scarlett is a long way from home, but I also met dancers who grew up not too far from this place. Like Karter.

Karter is a busy woman. She has a husband, a 4-year-old daughter, a massage therapy business and she’s working on getting a trucking business off the ground.

Still, she made time to meet me for a couple of Jack and Cokes after she got off work one day. She brightened at the prospect of disproving stereotypes of dancers.

Karter, 28, started stripping when she was 18. Her parents were divorced, and she was living with her mom. The five jobs they had between the two of them weren’t paying the bills, and Karter wasn’t about to watch her mother lose everything. Not again.

She started working at a bikini bar in Daytona, Florida and hid the cash she made each night under her mattress. She gave her earnings to her mom piece by piece so she wouldn’t think Karter was selling drugs. Or find out about her hustle.

But her mother eventually did figure it out, thanks to a 6-inch clear pair of platforms peeking out of an unzipped duffel bag in the trunk of Karter’s Volkswagen. Her mother laced the heels’ clear straps between her fingers and held them up in confusion. Karter burst into tears.

Her father, she believes, still doesn’t know, though she has her suspicions. He’s the kind of dad who fills up her tank every time she visits him. The kind who approaches heavy topics with humor, who’s more likely to bust your balls at the dinner table than have a serious talk in private.

So, when he looked her in the eyes one day and pushed a wadded-up hoodie into her hands, a Smith & Wesson .22 Magnum revolver nestled snugly between the sweater’s black folds, she knew he was serious.

He said he didn’t know what was going on with her, but he wanted her to take it. She might need some form of protection in the future.

He couldn’t have known that she had started stripping to make ends meet. She had carefully selected clubs far enough away so the clientele wouldn’t include her friends from high school, her neighbors or her family. He couldn’t have known. Could he?

Karter still doesn’t know. But she has a family of her own to take care of. In other words, she doesn’t have time to worry what people think of her anymore. Now, she wears 8-inch heels.

At the Café, she twists her slender, tattooed body around the stage’s brass poles, tendrils of gossamer blonde hair framing her face. But when she steps down from the stage, strikes up a conversation with a customer and lets them dive into her cool blue eyes, that’s when she really shines.

That’s what it’s all about for Karter, anyway. Connection. It doesn’t matter if they’re on her massage table or watching her strip, people open up to her in the same way. When she works people’s muscles, she also unlocks their muscle memory. People tell her all manner of things when they’re on her table.

It’s no different in the Café. She said a simple touch on a patron’s knee could trigger a memory from when they were 5 and scraped that knee when they fell off their bike for the first time.

She hears it all, either from the client melting into her massage table or the client lounging on the weathered booth seats of the Café. But Karter doesn’t mind. She doesn’t need an alter ego to weather the storm of patrons’ emotional turmoil. Karter and her true identity, she told me, are pretty much the same.

When she graduated from high school, she said she dabbled in working as a certified nursing assistant. For her, life as a CNA was spent rushing from one patient to the next with no real regard for bedside manner or empathy for the patient. As much as she wanted to sit with the old man in Room 117 and talk about his golden retriever, she always had another patient to get to, another round of medication to administer or another day of missed connections.

That’s why, despite the apparent contrast between her two day jobs, she gets her fix of human interaction from each in a way she never could as a nurse.

So she’ll happily listen to Café regulars talk about the exorbitant prices of chair upholstery, why Pepsi Max is better than Coke Zero or even about their wife who just passed away, if that’s what they need.

And when the time comes to ask if the customer would like a dance in a private room, they might ask if they can just sit back there and talk.

She’s fine with that, too.

Face masks and funding

The Café, like so many businesses, was forced to close its doors temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened last week after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began reopening the state.

Owner Asher Sullivan says he applied for a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to keep paying employees during the club’s month-long closure. But the SBA, a government agency that provides financial support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, excludes entities of a “prurient sexual nature” from receiving loans, and Sullivan was initially denied.

But on May 11, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that the SBA had no authority to keep the adult entertainment industry from receiving the emergency loans. The decision came after strip clubs and other venues across America filed lawsuits challenging the SBA’s position.

“Congress’s decision to expand funding to previously ineligible businesses is not an endorsement or approval of those businesses,” U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman wrote in his opinion. “Instead, it is a recognition that in the midst of this crisis, the workers at those businesses have no viable alternative options for employment in other, favored lines of work and desperately need help.”

The Café is now eligible for a loan through the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, although it hasn’t received one yet.

But even when it does, the Café, like thousands of other small businesses, will operate as a shadow of its former self. The dancers are back, but private dances are not being offered at this time. Tables are spaced 6 feet apart, and all employees are required to wear masks.

No one is sure what the future holds for the Café. The concept of social distancing is the antithesis to this place, where all that was risqué has now become risky.

Perhaps, when the virus loosens its grip and people finally feel safe enough to crawl forth from their homes to their favorite ice cream shops, group fitness classes and church worship services, they’ll also crawl back to the Café’s private rooms. Floridians will need their cocktails and haircuts, but, most of all, they will need the touch of another human being. And the promise of companionship in the form of a beautiful stranger.

The Alligator Podcast · News: Baring All - Café Risque
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