The Baby Showers
The 1980s stripping and investment scene in San Francisco
Debi Sundahl, the founder of On Our Backs, threw the first baby shower I ever attended, in 1983. She also invited me to the last one I’d attend, when I myself got pregnant in 1990.
I can’t believe our lesbian guerrilla operation was bracketed by babies, but maybe many women’s adventures are like that.
I hadn’t attended feminine rituals like baby showers before. I was twenty-three and I’d never been to a wedding. My mom didn’t go for that sort of thing— I only observed the sit-com versions. I had no idea what to expect.
Debi’s shower in the Haight Ashbury had all the requisite parlor games, pastel wrapping paper, and little plastic baby shoes as party favors. Plus a houseful of strippers, most of them just coming off their shift. They all worked at a peepshow called “The Lusty Lady,” in North Beach.
My timing in ’83 couldn’t have been better. I’d been re-reading the admiring letter about my poetry for weeks, the one that Debi’s work-wife Myrna Elana had sent me. They did girl/girl sex shows together, a seven-hour shift, and they’d been planning their magazine for months. Myrna said On Our Backs was going to publish its first issue “any minute.”
So many minutes and months had passed by. What was the hold-up?
I didn’t have a phone number for either of them, just Myrna’s letter with an address in the Haight. I walked there from the 33 MUNI bus with a hand-written letter that I planned to slip under their door. Their address was 23 Beulah St., Beulah and Waller. —A pink two-story with a basement window that saw a lot of action. People would walk up to that window, fill a short transaction, and walk away, like a pie shop, only with baggies and cash.
I ignored the basement queue and walked up the front stairs to the second-floor flat, and stuck my letter in the mail slot. I wanted to knock; I stood there rubbing my cold nose, but I couldn’t. Sometimes I’m ready for anything but this time I wasn’t.
I wrote to Myrna in my letter, “I can do most anything involved in putting a magazine out.” It’s odd to think that at that time, 1983, I really could, because publishing technology hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg. I could ink a press or set the type, write the headlines, edit the stories, whatever you wanted.
My phone rang that night. It was Debi. Of course I couldn’t see her over the phone, but in my memories, I imagine her sitting at the kitchen butcher block, chain-smoking, her long nails tapping on the wood, blond curls bobbing and weaving as she punctuated every question with her Marlboro. She was friendly but business-like, like a charismatic Avon Lady setting up a full encampment in your living room.
“Have you ever sold advertising?” she said.
That was the last thing I expected to hear. Advertising? I’d sold communism to Teamsters and high school students… wasn’t that practically the same thing?
I wanted to say “yes” to anything she asked. “Sure, is that where you’re at right now?”
“That’s it; we have a certain number of pre-orders but we need advertisers to meet the printer deposit before Gay Day,” she explained.
The idea was to distribute OOB’s first issue when a million people descended into the San Francisco Civic Center for the June Gay Day bash. We’d make so much money in one afternoon, Debi said, that we could pay the printer the balance in cash and leave them a tip.
Six hours to make $10K. Do-able!
I thought about all the sex toy and book distributors I worked with at Good Vibratrions. Out of sheer gratitude, I’m sure they’d want to take out the equivalent of a high school yearbook ad. “Lesbians are lined up to purchase your goods and services!” I’d tell them. That made me laugh. But that’s exactly what Debi said was the key.
I didn’t really know where lesbians were “lined up” except maybe for a drink at the local dyke pub.
“Lesbians have never been treated with respect as consumers; no one’s ever come to our community with anything sexual we want,” Debi lectured. I heard her take a big breath and exhale through her nose.
When I went out with my girl friends, we’d walk through the Castro and see all the gay men’s business, a vertical column of fag capitalism. I temp’ed at a Castro Street bookshop— and more than half the books we sold were titles that have seldom, if ever, been seen in a straight bookstore. Every real estate transaction, every ice cream cup, every t-shirt, was in queer vernacular, man to man.
Five miles away in the Mission, you could walk down a littered dirty street to a feminist bookstore— a sweet academic haven— and they were as impoverished as church-mice.
“This is my business plan; we can talk more about it later,” Debi said, tappity-tap-tap. “We’re going to have a baby shower for Goldie this afternoon— why don’t you come over?”
“She works with me at the Lusty; she’s eight months pregnant; she’s such a sweetheart.”
Goldie from New Orleans was a doll, what a perfect face— brown skin, brass-colored sausage curls, tummy out to HERE. She sat on a velvet couch of glory in Debi, Myrna, and Nan’s’s flat. Nan was Debi’s actual girlfriend, not her stage partner. The house was beautiful in the back, off the street. A sunlit Victorian with ferns hung in the eaves, the smell of pies and chili in the kitchen— no sign of the drug man downstairs.
Debi, the tallest, was surrounded by other dancers. It was like being in the locker room of the Girls’ Varsity team. Their bodies were incredible— all different shapes but so strong, so . . . sure of themselves. Tight clothes, high heels, muscles. Any of these women could pin me with one hand and do a French manicure with the other.
The question on my lips was, “How can you be pregnant and strip on stage?” And just as obvious to me was that I couldn't ask anything so clueless without blowing my cool. Goldie kept rueing the day of her maternity leave, her disappointment at leaving the Lusty’s daily schedule: “The money’s soo good, you know, too good!”
Had I ever seen a pregnant woman naked, talking to me? I didn’t think so. Most of the customers at Lusty Lady had probably not had that opportunity, either.
One of the other dancers— who’d come in with a waist-length red wig but had taken it off to get comfortable in her crew-cut— had a whole rap worked out on the value of alternative sex education at the Lusty. She was a college girl from the San Francisco Art Institute. “They oughta send the whole UCSF Medical Faculty down here to talk to Goldie,” Vanessa said, pointing up the hill from Debi’s house to the university campus. “She has schooled these men— they are better Papa’s for it, better men for it. —Poorer, but better!” She winked at me, her lashes covered in glitter.
Debi motioned to me to start serving cake. She seemed so experienced at everything. “My son’s having his tenth birthday this week, too,” she said, licking frosting off her fingertip.
Ten? She had a ten-year-old? Where?
“He’s with his father now; it’s his turn!” she said. “I did the single-mom-thing from the time Kenny was born, but when I met Nan, I had to turn it around. Everything we were reading, all signs said: ‘California.’ We had to come out here, we’re lesbians. I’m going to bring Kenny out here for the summer and he’s going to love it.”
She sounded so normal. I imagined Kenny’s father was like some Minnesota version of Alan Alda . . . doing his share while Debi got her turn to follow a dream. But my thoughts wavered. I knew it was backward, but I thought women only gave up their children because they went mad, flew out the window, lay sick at death’s door.
One of the girls turned up the stereo, Vanity Six’s “Nasty Girls.” Vanessa drew her arm across her body like Gypsy Rose Lee and stepped in front of Goldie’s throne. She began to dance for our momma-to-be, her belly trembling, executing a perfect back bend. The other dancers screamed and ululated. A dance-off for Goldie! How was she ever going to choose who was the best?
I cheered— but cleared plates. I’ve never moved like those dancers in my life.
“Fannie, I love you!” Goldie shouted over the music, blowing kisses in Debi’s direction.
“Who’s Fannie?” I asked.
“That’s my stage name,” Debi told me. “Fannie Fatale. This is so great you’re here.”
Fannie’s “business plan” was one-part subscription pre-sales, one-part advertising, and a Hefty bag of dollars that she and Myrna were making on their backs and in their high heels, strutting stages with gold chains around their waists.
The dancers’ physical prowess was one thing— but the shocking thing about any stripper gathering, I discovered, was that you have never seen women talk so fast and so explicitly about money in all your life. They make the Wall Street trading floor look like a bunch of pansies.
Debi was older than most of the others; twenty-seven. She was all about: The Plan. “You can only buy so many pants,” she explained to me. “You’ll make more money dancing than you could ever spend on shoes and earrings. Your body is only good in this business for a few years. You have to think like you’re in the NFL. You gotta buy a house, buy investment property, buy stocks— or be like her—” she pointed at a platinum blonde—”go to med school. Get straight A’s.”
“But if you fuck up and give it all to your lover—” her eyes shifted back and forth, like there were a few culprits in the room— “you might as well not have bothered!”
“What about her?” I said, pointing at a gorgeous girl at the lasagna table, who was visibly tipsy. She’d had something more than pasta.
“That’s bullshit!” Debi’s afro, like Medusa’s, grew in size every time she tossed it over her shoulder. “I’ll tell you one thing— that girl might piss it all away on coke, but everything she spent tonight getting loaded— she spent ten times that much on some loser who’s sucking her dry.”
“You mean a guy, her pimp?” I was such a tourist.
“No, her “boyyyy-friend,” Debi said, drawing out the word like a sick lollypop. “Or her butchie. Her fucking parasite. Same difference.”
Every woman in the room seemed to have a lover. Were they the ones she was talking about? The straight dancers were Rajneesh’s. Their boyfriends weren’t here. Everyone else was gay, in couples. Some of the strippers were butches who worked in drag. They brought their femmes, other working girls. Who made more? I hadn’t figured that out yet.
I remembered Debi’s financial “seminar” many times as the years went by at On Our Backs. She was right; very few strippers took the fortune they made and protected their interests. The manager of the Lusty, Tomorrah; she sent her fiancée to law school. He insisted she stop stripping— and she was so proud he cared. Then she caught him racking up charges to whores on her credit card. He cracked her hard across the face when she confronted him. She swallowed a bottle of pills that night and we sat around her deathbed at the UCSF Emergency Room until her parents flew in from Idaho. They signed some papers and said they’d leave it to me to turn the breathing machine off.
I thought Tomorrah’s mother and father were going to kill us with a look. But we were her family, too. The lawyer “fiancé” was nowhere.
Her mother and father thought sex work killed her, we whores. But betrayal killed her and I don’t know when that story started— it wasn’t on a brass pole.
“It’s the classic tale;” Debi said. “The girls who wanna work one man, they put all their eggs in that basket. Or they want the perfect butch prince to save them. They give Mr. Wonderful all their money, they buy him a house, and then the jealous prick insists they stop working. Every time. When our girl isn’t dancing anymore, the Prince loses interest. He busts her flat, and she’s left with nothing.”
I floated around the shower that day with such cheer. I remember their names, stage and real. Debi was right about the short time many of them had left. Mary Gottschalk would die of breast cancer when she was 30. Ramona Mast ate a Fentanyl patch in her 40s and her “wife” tried to make money off her suicide. Laurie Parker, the most talented lover in all of San Francisco, hung herself when her girlfriend left her for a man. Nicole Symanksi had her kids taken away, lost her teeth, froze to death on the street. Susie Ricci disappeared back to Yosemite and she made it. We made it. Those girls each made a million dollars in few years of work and it did not always save the day.
But when it did — it did. It saved many many days. Like all of show biz, investment and savings were the turning point. Property. The next chapter.
“I don’t do that shit,” Debi said. “I don’t want a work-wife who’s into that. I walk on the stage and I say, ‘We’re going to make $1000 in the next forty minutes.’ And you turn over laps like pennies, until you hit the mark. I want a million wallets in one night; I don’t want one trick’s charity.”
Debi’s partner, Nan, worked for the City’s gas and electric company, one of the few women at the time. She had taught Physical Education at the U of M, and when I told her about the Long Beach women’s studies department, she had the best belly laugh. It was familiar. The other dancers looked at her— able-bodied, loving, articulate, loyal— and sighed. Debi had someone for the long haul.
“We used to bomb adult book shops in Minneapolis, can you believe that?” Debi raised her cigarette like an imitation of a molotov cocktail. ‘Violence against fucking women.’ The whole university women’s studies department was in on it.” She smoothed out the apron on her waist. “That’s how Nan and I fell in love, back in the old separatist days. I was organizing a “Take Back the Night” Rally in Minneapolis—”
Nan interrupted her with a flute of champagne. “No, that was before. You were volunteering at the battered women’s shelter and I was teaching street-fighting self-defense courses.”
Debi winked and took a sip. “It was love at first sight.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t already meet you at Spinster Hollow,” I said, telling them my last insemination adventures.
“We all know where we’re coming from,” Debi said. “Now we’re going to make something erotic for women, that kind of sex we want,” she said. Her green eyes twinkled at you like a wish coming true. “Our little magazine is going to blow them away.”
If you would like to read previous chapters of my autobiography, they are all here on my blog, in chronological order, at this link: Memoir. That’s where you’ll find the chapter before this one, etc.
You may also listen to my reading of my first edition memoir, here.
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