PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
April 25, 2010

STRANGER: Amy Messere
LOCATION: Caffe Dolce Vita, 59 De Pasquale Square, Providence, Rhode Island
THEME: Brunch with a strip club waitress/photographer

“When you’ve seen women catching dollars in their assholes, it really makes you think twice when you’re handed cash,” said strip club waitress Amy Messere.

For the past two years she’s been working at a club in Providence where, to be eloquent about it, gentlemen callers go to pay money to see ladies tastefully disrobe. Amy, 22, doesn’t strip but does get to see the highs and the lows of life in a strip club. That appears to be tantalizing for her, as she’s an aspiring photographer which she said makes her a “natural voyeur.”

Amy and I met on a rainy Sunday morning in Providence with plans to go to a pizza place for brunch. Alas our original choice of venue was closed. Curse you, Rhode Island!

To vaguely appropriate the lyrics of an old song, we wandered around and finally found someplace that was open. Our choice was Caffe Dolce Vita, a luridly pink building nestled in a paved square in the city’s Federal Hill neighborhood. I have to be honest (not least cause I’m just like George Washington and cannot tell a lie) that on first glance the entire square wasn’t that inspiring. It looked like the tacky Italy section of the Epcot Center’s World Showcase, all gaudy images, blaring Italian music and ornate but cheap-looking fountains and fixtures.

Also, I’m not exactly just like George Washington because he was American and I’m British, and still mildly seething over that whole 1776 debacle.

Regardless, I am perfectly pleasant to Americans and was happy to learn within seconds that Amy is affable, softly spoken and with a dry humor that makes her entertaining company. So on we went inside the pink-walled restaurant for our brunch interview.

Appearances are apparently deceiving. Inside, Caffe Dolce Vita is a warmly lit, inviting place with tables spread far apart enough for diners to feel comfortable. There’s music playing at an ambient level that complements the place rather than dominating over the conversation.

It turned out that Amy and I were both slightly hungover, and so we ordered a $25 pitcher of mimosas to get us started. Hair of the dog and all that.

As I took my first sip from what was effectively a bucket of orange juice and cheap champagne, Amy told me about growing up in her hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island. “Cranston’s a good town to grow up in but now it seems to get trashier and trashier every time I go there,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t even go there cause it depresses me.”

Amy dropped out of high school at 16 and got her General Educational Development (GED), an equivalent to a high school diploma. “Basically it’s what prisoners get when they’re in jail,” she said with a chuckle, just one of many jokes Amy would add after telling me something about herself.

After her GED she went to community college and studied film photography, and quickly cemented her love for taking pictures. Hmm. Can one cement their love? Perhaps! Either way, Amy loved her course and said photography is her overarching passion.

Film photography is “an exhausting process” and “very self-involved” because it’s someone on their lonesome working in a dark room processing and printing their own pictures. She described it as an “amazing” artistic outlet but one that is also expensive. Still, the experience outweighs the costs, she said. “The reason I fell in love with film was going through the whole process myself.”

Amy’s favorite form of photography is travel, nature and wildlife. And she’s very big on in-the-moment, non-posed pictures. In fact, she took all of the pictures for this article and as you can see she tried to break the mold of my rather hum-drum photo-taking skills.

“A lot of my photos are either very artistic and creative or they’re just mundane and documentational,” she said. Natural shots such as photojournalism — rather than formal poses – are “very honest. When you take a photo of someone you see their insecurities, you see nervousness. It’s not really an honest shot. I love photojournalism because it captures the moment,” she said.

One project Amy recently undertook is a two-year personal project taking a self portrait every day. She finished it last year. It started as an exercise to use her $1,200 camera every day, because “if I’m not using it every day I feel like it’s a waste.”

At first Amy said she was uncomfortable in front of the camera. “I’m a photographer, I prefer to be behind the lens. But this project really helped me get over that and became this self-discovery journey. I just took pictures of anything to document my day and use my camera.”

“It’s been so interesting and fun, and such a journey.” It also gives her the chance to see changes in her own appearance, including her loss of 30 pounds in weight. At this point she proudly flexed her biceps and boasted about her “little guns. I call them my nine millimeters.”

As for why she loves nature and wildlife shots, “I’m a sentimental person. That’s why I became a photographer. There’s honesty in nature and wildlife. There is no pretense. And it’s just such a dedicated process to wait for that perfect shot. You can’t really complain going to the beach and wait for a beautiful sunset, take pictures and possibly get paid for it.”

“I would love to be a National Geographic photographer. That’s aiming high for me,” she said.

I was wondering when and where the strip club job fit in with her clear dedication and love for photography, but before I could move the questioning in that direction our cheerful waitress arrived with our brunch. Amy chose the $9.95 eggs Benedict.

According to Caffe Dolce Vita’s website, the dish is two toasted English muffin halves, each topped with a slice of ham, a poached egg with a dollop of Hollandaise sauce — though Amy opted for sausage instead of ham. She said the dish was “divine.”

Still feeling a bit dicey from the late night before, I went for a safe option with the French toast.

There were three slices of what the restaurant calls its “thick sweet bread griddled golden brown.” The toast was sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with maple cinnamon butter. Naturally, I added lashings of syrup on top, because I apparently need a brick-sized amount of sugar a day to survive. I tried to offset the sugary treat with some healthy slices of strawberry and banana.

What a great brunch. The French toast was indeed thick and sweet, and didn’t wither into goo with the addition of syrup. For $10.95 the serving size was incredibly generous. I couldn’t finish, but that’s not for lack of taste. Delicious food, served warm. You can’t ask for more at brunch.

While we ate our food, I kept peppering Amy with questions about her photography and future. Hopefully I didn’t spit any food in her face. If I did, she was too polite to say anything.

Amy is interested in potentially pursuing photography (alliteration!) at a four-year university course but for now “it’s time and money I don’t have now,” she said.

The need to make money to pay bills is the primary reason Amy ended up working for a Providence strip club. She’d rather keep the venue anonymous for the purposes of this article, and I’m fine with that. But she’s not ashamed of her work. Rather, she’s surprisingly engaged in it.

“As a photographer I’m a natural voyeur so I love to watch. I’m always observing at the club.” That observing can bring with it some strange sights, ranging from the aforementioned witnessing of woman having dollar bills inserted in their, well, unmentionables. “It’s a little strange there,” Amy said with a grin.

“Strip club customers aren’t really the most outstanding people

She was unemployed when she embarked upon her strip club waitress career, and joined the place on the recommendation of a friend who said it was good money. Amy is also glad that the waitresses don’t have to wear anything “skanky. You have the option of booty shorts but I feel like that’s such an invitation and not me at all. So I wear black slacks or shorts and a work t-shirt. The t-shirt is a little tight-fitting but I’m part of the itty bitty titty club so it’s not a problem for me.”

The club is Amy’s primary source of income, and with tips she can leave on a good night with $200 to $300 dollars. Bad days can end with her take-home pay being as little as $30. But by and large the money is consistent and high enough to keep her there, including tips for all manner of things — even just conversation or making change.

However, “strip club customers aren’t really the most outstanding people,” and there have been a few fair low moments at the venue, Amy said. These include the stripper who ate a cheeseburger while on stage — perhaps she ate it erotically? — and a customer who got so drunk he, well, made a mass all over the bathroom walls, floor and stalls. A brown mess.

Then there was the time Amy’s roommate was visiting the club and found a dancer crying in the bathroom. The roommate offered the stripper sympathy and told her she was beautiful, only for the sobbing siren to turn around and ask for a tip.

Worse are the 18-year-old girls who come to the club and start stripping, Amy said. “We joke that they were either hugged too little or too much as a child. It’s sad because these young girls have never had another job, and here they are getting several grand, so why would they want an office job? They end up stuck” in the lifestyle, she said.

Apparently a lot of strippers are also lesbians, which Amy said baffled her. “I can understand why women become lesbian working at a strip club, but it’s a very strange concept that lesbians are not completely revolted when they’re working.”

Sounds like a pretty negative job so far, right? Well, Amy said that the “weirdest, most magical thing” is that her coworkers are what she considers to be another family. “We’re pretty tight-knit for a business in which you have to keep certain people at arm’s length. Everyone has a different story, everyone has some kind of dysfunction. You don’t work there if you grow up in the perfect family in the perfect town. A strip club is not the place for normal people. You have to be a little bit twisted to work there,” Amy said.

Twisted or not, her coworkers are people she “would absolutely take a bullet for. They get me through the slow nights and bad nights, they celebrate on the good nights. A lot of my friends tell me they’re jealous I like my coworkers.”

Amy said this “family” helps her through any dark moments. “It’s hard to work there sometimes when you’re self-aware or have a conscience at all. At quiet times, I’ll think what did I do to get here? I can’t help sometimes but be disgusted and sad there, but that’s one of the reasons why my dysfunctional family there mean so much to me because they save me.” If a coworker spots another worker looking depressed, they’ll go over and engage them and try to cheer them up.

A more lighthearted story from the club is the drunk male duo that staggered into the club, only for one of them to disappear. The staff looked everywhere for the man, only to find him passed out on the hood of his trunk. “It was hysterical and bizarre,” Amy said.

“The service wage is astronomically low

At this point our waitress came by to drop off the check and she engaged us in conversation again. It was nice to have a chatty, friendly server and it complemented what was a straightforward but tasty and filling meal at a good Providence restaurant.

Amy said as a waitress she understands their plight and is an “extreme over-tipper” at times. If you ever find yourself at Amy’s club, be sure to tip well, because people who don’t tip are one of her biggest irritations. “It infuriates me, because the service wage is astronomically low.”

But Amy must be doing something right if she takes home more than $200 from a night of work. She has tried to find other work opportunities but the job market is tough, and she also has to debate whether to tell prospective employers about her current job. “That sucks, because at the club I have worked under very stressful, high-volume situations and it’s a notable skill to have. It’s just hard to tell someone it was in a strip club.”

While continuing to work at the club, Amy is looking to get work taking wedding photographs during the summer because “that’s where the cash is.” Even though she doesn’t enjoy portraits as much as natural photography, she’ll do it because it’s lucrative. “I’m self-employed as a photographer so my work is whatever I can find.”

Just don’t ever expect Amy to resort to stripping or anything lewd to raise money. As I paid the check and we wrapped up brunch, she packed up her camera and said, “I could make money going into porn, but I’m already knee-deep in the sex industry. You don’t want to go up to your waist, because then you’re about to drown.”

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