Ellen Kirschman
Source: Ellen Kirschman

I started out to be an actress. “Acting is physical,“ my first drama teacher roared as if he was on stage. “Think of Macbeth roaming the halls of his drafty castle in a reeking bearskin cape. He didn’t wander with furrowed brow in an agony of emotion. He was cold and hungry, his eyes were blurry and his back ached.”

My first acting assignment was to observe people at work. I'm an over achiever, I wanted more. I wanted to become the person I was observing. That’s what drew me to the Majestic Ballroom on Times Square. Down the stairs I went, following the neon arrows and the aging photographs of buxom women with sullen, pouty faces. The manager hired me on the spot. The supervising dance hostess handed me a floor-length strapless tube of stretch jersey with a padded bra that catapulted my bosom into a fleshy shelf. I squirmed into it, trying not to think about the health habits of its last occupant.

My training was short and to the point. “Tease the clients. Promise something while promising nothing. The longer you hold a customer’s attention, the more money he’ll spend. String the guy along until closing time, then have the bouncer throw him out on his butt. Turn in your chits at the end of the week for cash.”

The hostesses were a cast of female archetypes. An avatar of Marilyn Monroe smiled provocatively and shook her pearly blonde wig. Cleopatra assumed a regal pose while clucking disapprovingly at an aging siren with deflated breasts who stood near the door blowing obscene kisses and making juicy smacking sounds to the patrons as they descended the stairs. To one side, a forlorn and disheveled Ophelia talked to no one but herself, her endless babbling an apparent comfort to the steady stream of silent men who paid for her company.

Marissa wore a simple cocktail dress that zipped down the front so that she could run to the dressing room on breaks and nurse her baby under the watchful eye of the child’s grandmother. “Don’t sleep with anyone you don’t love, like those putas,” she whispered to me with the saintliness of a Madonna and the sad traces of firsthand experience.

Our clients were a motley bunch. Morose and somber, some were barely able to make small talk or eye contact. No one seemed to be having any fun except for the occasional drunken frat boy who fell through the door on a dare, laughing and shouting obscenities.

Mike was unlike the soggy-faced shufflers who had been stepping on my toes and breathing in my face. He was young and talkative. “I chose you,” he said, “because you look different from the other girls.” I was elated to be recognized for what I was, not what I was pretending to be. I poured out my tale: dedicated-young-actress-embarked-on-a-meaningful-but-dangerous-venture-into-the-skin-trade-for-the-love-of-theater. My confession must have pierced the armor of his anonymity. An eighth note after the music finished, he bolted across the dance floor and made for the stairs. With his hand on the door, he turned and shouted at me: “Hey you. My name’s not Mike.”

At closing time Cleopatra rode off in a Cadillac with a man who looked to be half her age. Marilyn Monroe hailed a taxi. The old siren stuck a cigarette in her nearly toothless mouth and headed for an all night bar. Ophelia skittered off into the darkness. Marissa left with her mother and baby. At the end of the week I tried to transfer my chits to her account, but I was told it was against the rules.

It took me years to connect my brief stint at the Majestic Ballroom to my career as a police psychologist. Granted, police officers and dime-a-dance hostesses are very different and I hope I’m not insulting either when I suggest they share some similarities. Both need to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically from people who want them and reject them in equal measure. The occupational personas they are forced to adopt are tools of the trade; virtual masks that simultaneously crush them and free them to do their jobs. Emotional control is vital to their ability to function in uncertain, potentially explosive circumstances. And social distance is their bulwark against the misery and despair they see every day.

The Majestic Ballroom no longer exists, probably replaced by on-line porn sites. Cleopatra, Ophelia, Marilyn Monroe, and Marissa have gone on to do other things that are, I imagine, less gratifying than the opportunities and experiences I have had. It makes me sad that they will never know how much they influenced my life and for how long.

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