“It was a topless-bottomless bar,” Meisler remembers. “There was disco music playing and girls were dancing on stage. It was fascinating. I asked if I could get a job there as a hostess, and was hired.”
During the late 1970s, Meisler led a double life. By day she worked as a CETA photographer documenting Jewish New York for the American Jewish Congress, exploring her heritage. By night, she was partying at nightclubs like Studio 54 and working at the Playmate, where she soon began making photographs, a selection of which have been published in Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre).
Meisler was required to wear a bathing suit or leotard, stockings, high heels, and makeup, and as hostess, she’d greet customers at the door, seating them by the stage, and serving them $4 “near-beers,” as the bar didn’t have a liquor license. She received a dollar tip for every drink, plus a $10 tip whenever she brought customers to the back rooms for private time with dancers and a $40 bottle of “champagne” (Martinelli’s sparkling cider).
“From time to time, customers would want to spend time with me in the back room,” Meisler says. “I would talk to them and draw them in a little sketchbook I carried. Nobody ever asked for their money back but I never had repeat customers.”
That December, Meisler and Jupiter left the Playmate and started working at Winks, another midtown go-go bar. After work, they’d go out with all the dancers to the Brasserie, an all-night coffee shop, to catch up over French onion soup.
“One of the women supported herself through medical school, another was buying a house. There was a big range of people. Some had drug problems, some had boyfriend problems, some were supporting kids and other family members. You couldn’t pigeonhole anyone.”
In July 1979, Meisler moved on to a third bar, Magic Carpet, which was painted red and featured a “Sultan’s Chambers”, a massive fish tank, and a swinger’s club upstairs.
That September, Meisler began working as a schoolteacher for the New York City Department of Education. “I hadn’t gotten my paycheck yet, so I continued working on the weekends at Magic Carpet. By November, my money came in, but it wasn’t a lot, so I kept on working in the clubs.”
“By early 1980, I stopped because I knew it was not appropriate for a schoolteacher to waitress at go-go clubs,” Meisler says.
The bars were also getting raided, and people started getting arrested by undercover police. “There were signs that said ‘don’t talk about money’, because it could be construed as prostitution – some people were getting higher tips that way,” remembers Meisler. “When Tina Turner sang ‘Private Dancer,’ I understood that.”
Discover more of Meryl Meisler’s work here.
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