When you're in the gymnasium during "Career Day" take a closer look. Things are different these days. The same folding tables and chairs with earnest recruiters from the Fire Department and Police Department are still there, but now there is the surprisingly well-attended "Sanitation Services" booth as well, with laid off financial advisers looking for security in an insecure world. There is the quietly staid "Illegal Immigration: the Silent Work Force" table, with pamphlets written in Russian, Spanish and Urdu, extolling the virtues of the dish-washing arts, migrant farming and the excitement of being a taxi driver in the great American cities ("Be adventurous! Tempt fate with every fare!"), but these days as many legal citizens are standing in the line stealing their jobs. Times are tough, and the immigrant dreamers upon which our nation was founded are forced to cross the border and go back home.
Local nursing programs and military recruiters are conveniently set up next to each other now, one presumably supporting the other in a symbiotic way ("Join the Military; tend your fellow soldiers in the field. If you make it back in one piece, there's a career for you in the Medical Establishment"). The military is doing well under the present circumstances; young people with few other prospects are finding that all the dreams of adventure might make sense for them after all. What's more surprising is that the so-called "government contractors" are recruiting openly now; mercenary armies are the new forward-thinking companies, and all sectors have their eye on their business models as they grow grow grow!
The table hosting Big Insurance is poorly attended these days as the bitterness over the health care debate has painted it in a somewhat unflattering light. Similarly, the Business School table and Banking booth has seen a significant drop in student interest; no-one wants to be identified with bringing down the latest recession upon the greatest economies on earth. But until the cash-grab begins in earnest again, the Business Schools are patient. They know, as do the lawyers, that they only have to bide their time before an entirely new crop of land-grabbers and speculators rises up to take the place of the old. They are prepared to wait it out; they have brought snacks and a Wii to wile away the hours.
The Food Franchiser's of America table has also taken a hit since people began to read their receipts and menus, now listing the caloric intake of their enormo-meals. People are beginning to wonder if all those rumors about their high blood pressure and diabetes and childhood obesity are correct: it just might be true, they're thinking.
Journalism is not truly represented at the fair anymore. News outlets can hardly afford to pay the journo's they've already got; a booth at Career Day is impossible. So they've quietly removed themselves from being a participant, and instead send their one reporter down to cover "Career Day" as a fill-in news replacement instead. They hope this will kill two birds with one stone: a five o'clock human interest story, and if lucky, some poor schmuck will walk up and ask the journalist some questions which the journo has been prepared for ahead of time with a series of talking points and handy fliers.
Scattered amongst the tables are the remnants of the education system. A rickety card table piled high with poorly edited fliers recommends a future as a High School English Teacher; unable to afford the costs of 4-color printing, or even, for that matter, the paper on which they are printed, the local school district has resorted to using left-over letter-forms to spell out the glories of teaching kids in schools with no heat or textbooks: "If you can improvise with the most meager supplies, this is your future."
Big Pharma companies are having a rough time of it as their drug patents keep expiring, and they can't keep their prices as inflated as they'd like since generics charge far less; plus the government keeps trying to meddle in their schemes with that accursed health care reform.
But the Illegal Pharma industry is a growth industry. Whether R & D, manufacture, distribution or debt collection, this is clearly a growing field. Profits are up. And if you reside in a Mexican/American border town, there are plenty of recruiters looking for fresh young faces in unprecedented bilateral cooperation between North and South. Be careful to read the fine print, however; there are a number of steep demands buried in the cartel contracts, and the consequences of missing those clauses might cost you the highest of prices. Take out a stiff life insurance policy if you choose to follow up with them. But the benefits just might outweigh the risks if you're adventurous and have the drive to become king-pin material.
The Professional Sports booth, with their scantily clad shillers, is full of glitz and glam, but if you look closer the blush is off the rose; empty syringes of steroids are scattered about and many of the athletes look likely to kill somebody, veins popping and blood coursing. They would make great heavies and strong men for Illegal Pharma. Too bad they're in different business sectors, but I'm looking toward the future in my crystal ball and I see "merger" written all over it. This may be several years down the road yet, but the possibilities are tantalizing.
There's another entrant, tucked away around the corner. If you follow the line of Career Booths to the end, where the late applicants and thrift store re-training programs are parked, keep going. Look down past the locker room, next to the gymnasium office. Stop. Look over there, to the right, no, you've gone too far. Back, back. There. The gymnasium equipment room, with all the volley ball nets, portable goal posts, the racks of balls and gym mats stacked to the ceiling. There's a light glowing through a crack in the door. It's blinking cheerfully.
Open the door.
Man, there are a lot of people here! This is the liveliest presentation you've seen yet! Much better than the completely depressing Music Industry booth. This has all the action. There are girls here mostly, but not exclusively--and the boys tend toward outcasts, or iconoclasts. The girls seem to have stumbled here from all walks: ones who were clearly looking for a way to escape their mandatory involvement in the career fair, who slipped behind the door thinking there was no-one here, maybe they could scribble their latest musings in a journal, wait out the career fair, but were surprised to find this party-like atmosphere.
The lights behind the door are revealed for gels and a mirror ball, sprinkling speckled fairy light on the visitors. There's the hostess of the booth, named Bunny or Deborah or Darlene, an older name which lends the recruiter a brassy cachet which appropriately matches her capped shiny teeth and large blonde hair. She's talking to girls about flexible hours and big pay-outs for work in a fun atmosphere as an "exotic dance technician." All the things that you want to do anyway, right? Mingle with men, sometimes celebrities! Get paid for having fun fun fun!
Some of the students wonder if this is a little too good to be true and depart before Bunny can get through her spiel; others have figured out that Bunny is too good to be true but they stay anyway because they're not sure how they're going to pay for college; those loans are stacking up, and since Dad lost his job help isn't forthcoming anymore. Other girls just think it seems so cheerful in here; their lives have been all struggle up to now, so this seems like a pretty good alternative to the poverty and grief of their childhood.
For these girls it's not a question of whether they want to but when they can start. These are the easiest to recruit. Scores of girls with little to lose line up to sign on the dotted line. Bunny is doing a box-office business.
The ones who are pragmatists about dancing for dollars, who see it as a means to an end--they read the contract closely and comb over the fine print, and choose to run the risks of working next to the Illegal Pharma Industries so that they can get their law degrees and medical licenses without owing 200k at the end. It's a high-risk job, but one with obvious rewards if one can keep her mind on her business and treat it as any other job. It's keeping her nose clean that will be the greatest challenge.
The dreamers are another case. Bunny has a harder time recruiting them, but in the end they provide the most value and are her biggest assets once she's got them. These inevitably are girls who, by dint of their over-active imaginations, picture themselves in the limelight, on the big stage. Singing and dancing their way into the hearts of her audience, featured in the pages of National Enquirer having affairs with male celebrities and being the envy of all her high school enemies. Creative and hopelessly optimistic, the dreamers know that they shouldn't entertain this as an option, that it might not lead to their "discovery," but there's something naive there: she might be the one dreamer who it works out for.
Bunny is savvy about this girl. She knows that like water against a stone she can usually wear her down. It's her own hopeless dreaming which gets her in the door in the first place; the twinkling lights are similar to the shiny sparkles that make dogs insensate to anything else. The lights bring her in, and Bunny, rather than moving in with a dancing offer, suggests to her a job as a waitress, which of course is nothing like the dancing which is below her station, which she would never do because she has self-respect. The dreamer takes the job because, well, she has no skills to do anything except acting, singing and dancing, and she hasn't gotten any roles since high school drama, and at least she would have tips. Maybe, if she works long enough, she'll have enough money to move to LA and get her nose done, which is all that stands between her and a long career in movies, or in front of an audience of screaming fans.
She might consider her job waiting tables in a "Gentlemen's Club" as research: that first role she lands might be because she has insight about what it's really like, a sense of gritty realism, embracing The Method just like Brando. She has seen plenty of starlets make their big splash in roles about "exotic dancers;" her personal experience will be her secret weapon.
Or maybe she's getting a close-up look at the darker edges of society for creative fodder, embracing the louche so she can pen meaningful words that speak on behalf of the disenfranchised, or about those who disenfranchise. It is an exercise in feminism if you get down to it; she's striking a blow against the Male Patriarchal System by working from within.
So she takes the job waiting tables. And she just can't resist tapping her feet, swaying in time when the dancers are on stage. After all, she has spent years, almost a lifetime, studying dance or music. Bunny applauds her sense of style and her remarkable rhythm, her grace and, let's face it: she looks sexy. The dreamer, the waitress, has her ego stroked. She's still having a tough time making rent because the men who come to the club don't give tips to the waitress, they pay their money to the dancers. So all those watery cocktails she delivers on all those sparsely attended afternoon shifts when the construction workers come in on their break, and get afternoon lap dances from the older lifers who, let's face it, can't compete with her fully clothed while in the nubile blush of early adulthood; she still can't get any tips from these guys.
She watches the dancers; their tricks include butt-cheek clenches, belly rolls, leg-up-the pole, bra-removal while hanging upside down by a foot hooked near the ceiling. The dreamer watches with curiosity: can these ridiculous contortions be considered sexy or alluring? By the same token her competitive spirit is challenged; she is sure she could master these gymnastics.
Bunny knows the waitress isn't making much, so she offers the dreamer an option: she could be in the "Amateur Night" contest to make some extra dough. She knows the afternoon shift is no place to make any money, she's totally sympathetic with the dreamer but there just aren't any night cocktail positions open at this time, which is where the money for cocktailing is. She's sure the waitress could make up some of the shortfall during the contest--at the very least there was the extra thirty bucks they paid all the entrants. And who knows? She just might make some tips. Bunny's doing her a favor. Then back to waiting tables tomorrow.
The dreamer is in a bind--rent is due, and she hasn't paid for her head shots, so she'll do it, just once. She's terrified, but she goes to the club that night, after gathering together a costume that looks a little like some of the sleazy lace ensembles she has seen the afternoon dancers wear. She's almost frozen with fear, less from of being on stage but because the nighttime dancers, the pro's, are sleek and lovely, well-put together. Nothing like the afternoon shift dancers. They have expensive ensembles and big hair, and they look like they should be in Hollywood. What's the dreamer doing here? Does she really need the money that bad?
Too late, she's been put in the queue for the DJ to play her song, and she hasn't time to beg her case to Bunny for backing out. The first notes of her pop song, recommended by Bunny herself ("This song is practically guaranteed to get you tips, just for playing behind you!" she assures her) begin, and the dreamer steps out on the shadowy stage, lit a little more crassly than she had appreciated before.
The fairy lights from the disco ball are there, but there are burned out bulbs in the up-lights. The red glow is less sensual and flattering than it is bloody and dim, and the stage is right there on top of the audience. The dreamer starts to panic, her heart thrumming in her ears, competing with the bass-heavy song. She steps out and turns, looking up to the gels in the distance, blinding her from the audience which is sitting mere feet from her. There is no separation like on a real stage; they are right there.
But the audience claps immediately. Something about her vulnerability and fragility, her tenuous approach to the stage makes her audience sympathetic. Or maybe they just think she's hot. Maybe they like that she's an amateur, which implies a certain stupidity and freshness, which the other dancers have lost. But whatever. The applause loosens her tense leg muscles hardened from years studying drama and dance for a life on the stage, and she grabs the pole, her only prop, with flair and drama. She embraces her audience, not literally, of course. But her jazz-trained legs fly above her head--she's got this knocked.
And in a burst of approval, men (let's face it, her audience is all men) begin setting a couple of dollar bills up on the stage "on the rail." She's seen the other girls pick them up, or wait until the end, but sometimes the dancers offer a thigh or a hip for secreting the stash of bills under the band of elastic holding her slutty outfit together. Does it make you more money? She leans over and awkwardly approaches someone who looks friendly and non-judgmental. Not so young as to be a peer, not so old as to be her grandfather. Someone distinctly not in her social sphere, but still: nice.
He looks through her when she slides over to the rail in front of him, and she's actually wounded. She had taken a chance on this man because of his open-faced approachability, but he shut up like a bank-gate when she was more direct. She tries to regain her composure and slides over one seat where the next man looking at her obviously caught the embarrassing moment and gives her a dollar. A pity dollar.
Back to the safety of the pole and she marks her time through beats and the terror in her heart. All her emotions are struggling for superiority: shame fights with her desire for recognition, her competitive desire to be admired and respected, even here, even in this place barely dressed in front of strangers. Her pride is fighting with her embarrassment and surprise at her recent rejection on the rail. She is a great dancer, but with a battered ego she decides to embrace the clichéd contortions of the pole, the ridiculous acrobatics she has seen other girls perform.
She climbs up, hangs upside down, unhooks her bra gingerly; she sees from this unusual vantage point the silhouettes at the rail fold the bills into little tents and leave them there, her reward for acting like a monkey. Her bra comes off: immaculate timing honed from a decade of relentless dance training has taught her to wait until the last second so she can drop her bra only briefly and cover up as soon as the song ends.
And then scurry like a beggar to pick up the bills which are lying there for her.
Bunny is waiting to congratulate her. She's never heard such applause for a newcomer! she says, and hands the dreamer her thirty dollars. Go get changed, and let me know how it went up there, she says.
The dressing room is filled with beauties all ignoring her. Getting dressed in Catholic school skirts and white tops tied at the waist, plain white undies underneath; or a leather thong and thigh high boots, all the stereotypes of Playboy represented here in the locker room, in different states of undress, but not sexy: changing from a naughty nightie into jeans and a t-shirt, or pulling off sensible shoes and a blouse, bank teller's attire, to don a pair of stilettos and a cheerleader uniform.
The familiarity of the dressing room from years of dance training is in conflict with the reality of why she's here. She is not at try-outs for a Broadway musical, pressed together with other competitors for the limelight. She is here because she's broke, and needs to scrabble together enough money that she doesn't get thrown out of her place. She's not even at a call-back for dinner theater.
She counts the bills she has wadded in her hand, sweaty from the stress leaching into the fibers. She has clutched mostly one dollar bills, but there is one fiver and a ten from some kind soul. Was it also pity-pay? Or a reward for a job well done? She hasn't made rent, but for three minutes on the stage she made thirty bucks from the entrance, and 36 dollars from the rail and a couple of guys who walked up and stuck money in her hand as she stepped off the stage. She gets dressed and walks out to the room where Bunny is seated at a table in the back, records and receipts and a calculator beside her.
"You were really great up there tonight." The dreamer thanks her. "How did it feel?" Bunny asks.
"I was really nervous," the dreamer admits.
"Well, it didn't show," Bunny assures her. "If that's you on amateur night when you're scared, I can't imagine what it would be like if you weren't! Amazing." She stubs out her cigarette. "So, you still want to wait tables?"
This is it, of course. Where it was all leading. Bunny has got her in her sights now: caught between her love of performing and her need to pay rent and bills, she's stuck. The cocktail server position is a loss-leader for Bunny: it gets them in the door, and the amateur night gets them on the hook. Sometimes she loses the gamble and the dreamer finds enough of her self-confidence to walk out and leave the easy money on the rail behind. Then Bunny has to wait for a new dreamer to stumble into the job fair again.
But in this case, the dreamer is really broke. The 66 dollars she made in three minutes has added up into a substantial portion of the rent. Not quite enough to pull her into the black...
"I still have the daytime shifts for servers," Bunny says. "But nothing yet for nights. Sorry, dear."
"Could I just do a shift or two?" the dreamer asks.
"Of course, dear! And any time you want to wait tables instead, you've got a job, honey." Bunny knows this isn't true. Bunny knows that once they've taken the bait it's either into more dance shifts, or out the door. There is no "back into server positions."
Now comes the fine print. "House" (Bunny and her unseen bosses) gets rent from a nightly shift. Every night. Shifts are four hours, conversations with the customers a part of the job: the drinks they buy you (twenty bucks a whack) are a way to make more money for the house, and getting to know the customers is a way for the dreamer to strike up relationships, which fosters their interest in the ever-lucrative table dance, which generates more money for everyone. Then there is the exotic fare: shower dances (fifty bucks, house takes a cut), whipped cream fight (75 bucks, two girls, house takes a cut), nightly booths in the back that a high roller can rent with some of the dancers (house takes rent and a cut).
"But just focus on the stage for now, sweetie. One step at a time," she soothes the nervous dreamer. "No rush. You'll pick it up in no time." Bunny pauses. "You know, I know a girl you can talk to," she says. "She'll help with any questions you might have."
The dreamer becomes a dancer. The dancer becomes a drinker. The drinker becomes a drug addict, because Illegal Pharma is working in a special agreement with "the House." The drug addict either gets clean, and leaves the club eventually, or doesn't. And once she's too messed up to compete with the night shift dancers, gets moved to afternoon shifts. If there are other clubs under the watchful eye of "the House," she may get moved to a low-rent peep show, or a seedier club. If she's beyond hope, she might start hooking, which is in a different sector but has business agreements with "the House."
Or maybe Bunny needs to groom her replacement. Maybe she sees in the dreamer the potential for being a den mother like herself. Maybe after a few years, she gives the dreamer some more responsibilities and has her take over more of Bunny's role. Because Bunny knows where the dreamer has been, what the dreamer has seen because Bunny was a dreamer too. Bunny, the hard-bitten pragmatist sees the potential in the dreamer because someone groomed Bunny a long time ago.
It's time to pass the torch.