Even though it's two in the afternoon and outside the sky is a cloudless blue, inside it's night. There are no windows, and the only light comes from a single pink fluorescent bulb on the ceiling. Nobody wants to be seen at this place.
The heavy, white-haired man who works the register has a prickly five-o'clock shadow and is keeping to the shadows in the most isolated corner of the joint. The front door opens and a ray of sunlight creeps in, along with a man who has a thick brown mustache and immobile brown hair. As he sneaks into one of the enclosed booths in the back, a 60-year-old man with a Saint Louis Cardinals cap and a beer gut scampers quickly out the front door.
"Guys don't want to stand here and see each other. Guy walks in here, he doesn't want everybody to see him," says Joe, who doesn't want to see his last name in print, even though he owns this joint and two others like it in downtown Chicago.
The air-conditioning is broken and there is a pungent, acrid odor in Puss 'n Booths on North Clark Street near Hubbard. Joe, who is wearing thick glasses and a blue golf shirt that clings to his belly, is standing behind a virtually empty counter, next to a sign that advertises an "X-X-Xciting VIP booth," where for $9.95 you can feast your eyes upon your own private naked dancer.
At Puss 'n Booths, three bucks buys you admission and one buck buys you a token. You take your token to a booth in the back, close the door, and insert your token into a slot. A small screen over a window slides up as your token is registered, and you see a naked woman--in this case, a tall blond with short hair--gyrating unenthusiastically in front of your window on a makeshift stage.
Joe also owns Little Miss Muffett on Van Buren and Little Bo Peep on Halsted. They all offer basically the same type of entertainment. Before this, Joe owned eight adult-video stores in Chicago, and before that he ran a couple of X-rated theaters in Fort Lauderdale. He speaks brusquely with a Comiskey Park accent and often shifts his weight nervously. You get the impression that he doesn't particularly want to be seen here either.
Even the dancers, who make their livings stripping for men in booths who, according to Joe, "can do anything they want in there," do not really want to be seen here. They dance awkwardly, self-consciously.
"Hey, what're you doing?"
Another young woman, this one wearing a skimpy bra and underpants, looks down self-consciously at the young man with the notepad in the center cabin.
"Taking notes?" she asks incredulously, with the sound of one being violated. "Hey! Get out of here! That's sick!"
"Yo! Girls!" Joe yells out.
"It's all right. He's taking notes."
"Joe, I don't know about this."
"He's just taking notes. He's not taking any pictures, so don't worry about it."
The woman begins to remove her brassiere as Stevie Wonder sings "What did your mama tell you 'bout lyin? She said it wasn't right to tell a white lie . . ."
The only requirement to get a job dancing at Puss 'n Booths is a decent physical appearance. "Thin, young, you know, nice," enumerates Joe. "Whaddaya think guys are gonna pay for . . . they don't want a big fat girl up there. You just look at them and tell. You can tell if a person's fat." No dancing experience is required. "All girls can dance," Joe shrugs.
The only other thing you can buy at Puss 'n Booths, aside from the live show, is panties. You pay 16 bucks, one of the dancers will wear them, and then she gives them back to you. Unlike other adult-entertainment places, Puss 'n Booths does not deal in books, magazines, or so-called marital aids.
"I'm not in the business to be a bookstore. I'm running a dance place," says Joe. "Besides, if you run a bookstore, you get guys hangmg around. I dont want guys hanging around when my customers, the big spenders come in. They don't want guys looking at 'em."
He doesn't allow women in his place either. He turns them away at the door. "What would you think would happen if you let a girl in here?" Joe asks. "Girl comes in here and goes back there, first thing that's gonna happen, one guy's gonna ask her for a blowjob or something, and next thing you know, you get the police in here. There's no prostitution in this joint."
The air conditioner repairman is trying to fix the cooling system, but the place is so dark that he needs a flashlight to see the wiring. The dancers have been complaining all day about the heat. Still, each tries to keep the beat for her ten-minute shift.
"It's just like Playboy," says Joe. "It's different if you have prostitution. If you have prostitution, you're talkin' a whole different ball game. None of that shit goes on here. I'm not a pimp. If I were a pimp, I'd be out on the street making money. I don't need rents like this. I don't need heavy rents. This is a gimmick. Something every guy, normal guy, would like to see. A man is a man. He opens a Playboy, it's the same thing. It's just a step up because they're alive . . . it's the same shit.
"A guy can come in here for ten years. He walks in, he goes back there, he does what he does. He ain't cheatin' on his wife. He ain't takin' the girl to dinner. He ain't talkin' to her. He ain't askin' her to go to bed with him. A guy walks out of here. He goes home. He's a father. He takes care of his wife, and nobody knows the difference."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.