November 19, 2004

Conjoined Triplets

Ben Thomas writes…


Auckland luminaries such as David Tua have lent their support to a campaign for free public transport.

I can’t speak ill of David Tua - unless we are revisiting his title bout with Lennox Lewis in 2000, in which case I would say he doesn’t move his head enough. But what I do feel comfortable saying is that I have never seen him riding the bus with me. Trudging around Ponsonby and Newton I have, however, often seen a large four wheel drive with the number plate “TUAMAN” and an iconic depiction of David covering the side panel. Perhaps he drives it to the bus stop.

As regular bus riders, David Tua and I know that bus fares don’t dissuade anybody from getting on a bus. A Free Bus has girded its way around the CBD since 2002. The only people who use it are students who take it to their Victoria Street bus stops (they then pay), and from their bus stops to the University. The only other popular destination is the casino.

I can believe that Grant Morgan, Socialist Workers’ Party crank and Resident Action Movement activist, who is behind this initiative doesn’t have bus fare, but this seems a pretty extreme way to fix the problem.


A minimalist launch

I am walking past one of the innumerable minimalist private galleries on Karangahape Road. Like them all, it usually seems cavernous, empty. Dwarfed by a snowy surround of white walls, a tiny painting sits like a pinprick in the centre of the eastern wall. I can’t even discern what it may depict.

On the southern wall, although the visual equivalent of white noise makes it hard to determine the interior angles of the yawning space or distance of any form, a rectangular canvas sits, slightly raised, giving the impression of being suspended in a void. Staring at it makes its edges throb in and out. Size is impossible to judge. Otherwise, the room is bare.

Tonight is the occasion of a minimalist soiree. Dressed in tails (man) and black evening dresses glittering with jewellery (women), three revelers are sipping wine from flutes and enjoying animated discussion about art in the bay window. In the opposite far corner, within shouting distance even if the likelihood of an echo is uncertain, two others laugh as they drink and eat canapés. The rest of the gallery is empty. There is no music.



There’s minimalism of another sort at Café 223, on Auckland’s Symonds Street, where Thursday is “Beer and Titties Night”.

Café 223 is an anonymous bar/café on a slight round in the footpath, opposite Khyber Pass Road. It’s rare to see more than a couple of regulars in the small space inside its ranchslider door – 223 is a generic “Sky and Tui” style sports bar which struggles to attract blokes over its more down to earth neighbour, the Edinburgh Castle, and young urbanites over the painfully hip Odeon Lounge down the road.

Tonight, there is barely room to stand. About forty men are crowded around the salient feature, a red felt pool table set off to the side of the bar, abutting the staircase which, in one of 223’s previous failed incarnations as a punk venue, led to the band area. The crowd is almost exclusively from the construction sites opposite, on the corner of Khyber Pass Road, which seems to spew forth new apartments every day. Some are still wearing their safety vests; there are a couple of hard hats on tables. The younger ones, under thirty, are heavily tattooed; two wear full moko. Playing pool is a twenty-something guy, and a slim, large chested brunette wearing a one piece latex nurse’s uniform unzipped to the waist.

DogBitingMen scoops the Herald on a regular basis. But a clipping pinned to the office partitions which separate the bar area from the “casino” – three pokie machines – shows that we have been outpointed by the Truth on this one. It has already profiled and interviewed “Chantelle”, and printed its piece along with photos of her wearing a Hawaiian lei and holding cocktail mixes. It’s a tie in with the interview, the part where she says “One day I’d love to work in a bar on the beach, like that movie Cocktail”. I also learn that patrons are surprised to walk in off the street to see her dispensing drinks without a top.

I can understand their shock. In the time I am there, she doesn’t come close to serving anyone a drink, seemingly more interested in playing pool and soliciting tips from customers. It’s tough getting a drink from the barman, because he seems more interested in watching Chantelle.

As a de facto strip club, Café 223 technically comes under the definition of “commercial sex premises” in the Auckland City Council’s district plan. It is well outside the area bounded by Fort and Customs Streets, and its blackboard’s crude chalk drawing (body in green, hair in yellow) of a topless woman probably constitutes ground level advertising within the meaning of the bylaws.

Observations, gleaned from original research: The number one topic of conversation at strip clubs proper is the dancers themselves. When young guys, and older guys, go to clubs and believe they are chatting up the dancers, they will discuss that dancer’s career. (Interviews conducted between 1999, 2001. Subject sample: patrons, friends, employees, former employees. Possible biases in study: early interviews conducted drunk, in strip clubs). They will ask how long she has been working at the bar, and they will ask what the other customers are like. They will hope that she says “they are weird and creepy and shallow and nothing like you.” Another favourite question is, what do you do other than dancing? Young male students, in particular, are disappointed if dancing turns out to be her full-time job. As if that’s demeaning, somehow. As if now they have nothing in common.

Very few patrons have a strip club experience – they have a meta-experience. They are longing for an out of body experience, not for themselves, but for the dancer. They discuss the dynamics of straddling strangers for money in an abstract way, with the woman sitting exposed on their respective lap. Always, do you enjoy this line of work? Never, are you enjoying this right now?

Right now, Chantelle is waving a cup in my face and saying “the more money you put in the pot, the better it will be at 8 o’clock.” This is the scheduled denouement – when, the top having long been discarded, the rest comes off. I shake my head. I live in a cashless society, I tell her. My ex-flatmate moves to put a twenty in the pot, which she grabs from his hand. She climbs on the pool table, gets down on all fours and places the rolled up note in a place where it would not normally go. I’m not sure what point she is trying to make, but it strengthens my resolve to pay by EFTPOS and never handle change in the future.

I’m thinking about this. Back as a student journalist, it was easy to detach and look at everything as a potential story. See? I wasn’t like those other guys. It was research. This is research. I have a duty to readers to report faithfully what is happening. What is the audience like here. Mainly older Europeans, younger Maori, a scattering of Samoans Where are her tattoos placed. A dragon over her left mammary. Must have hurt. Tribal design on her foot. Something else on the calf. I don’t care about this. There is no soundtrack, just a big screen showing Juice TV. Dei Hamo’s video, We Gon Ride.

Chantelle is naked now. She’s leading a middle-aged guy with soft curls falling out from a central bald spot to the centre of the crowd, who are whooping and applauding. Her wide, leather belt is around his neck. After a series of complicated gymnastics, she ends up on his back, and is taking to him with the belt, wielded as a strap.

He is rearing up and down – less like a bronco, or a stallion, than like an old car belching smoke and about to stall. He is becoming flushed with the effort. The cracking sound of the belt through the air as Chantelle strikes again and again is more satisfying than the dull thud against his cushioned backside. His mates are laughing. I am laughing, trying to remain a journalist. Am I laughing with them, or at them? Are they laughing at their workmate, now bobbing as if trying to free part of his body that is stuck somewhere, already sunburnt face beet-red now, panting – or with him? And Chantelle. She’s laughing, too. Part of the service? With? At? This isn’t erotic. This is stupid. But watch me laugh.

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