San Francisco Diaries: A day in the life of a Nob Hill Theater employee
You’ve seen the “Touch Our Junk” marquee on Bush street probably a thousand times. Our storyteller, Jesse James, brings us deep into the back room of the famed adult theater where he unwittingly became an employee after a brief interview.
“You’ll come in tomorrow, you’ll work a shift, you’ll be be paid in cash, $60. That’s cash, paid in cash. Two days later you give us a call and let us know if you would like to keep working here.”
Seems simple enough. What could go wrong? It’s really around this point that 600 million bright and glowing red flags shooting in the sky above me before exploding into clouds of smaller, brighter red flags to instruct me to politely decline and return to the mires of Craigslist that brought me here in the first place. Instead, I smile and say I’ll see you tomorrow.
Later that day, I’m laying in bed with a $10 bottle of corner store champagne and thinking about the job I’ve just accepted. I’m 26; I’m living in San Francisco; I’m mostly unemployed; I’m violently single, and I am the Nob Hill Theater’s newest employee. I will be paid in cash.
I’m convinced that this will be the next step in a sexy and fun coming-of-age story that I’ve been writing for myself on the fly since moving to this city half a decade earlier. This is what I need. What could go wrong?
This story is a part of our new series, San Francisco Diaries. We are expanding our lens to gather stories about our fair city, and we welcome your stories about the people and experiences that make our city what it is today.
Whether it’s a story about growing up here or finding your calling, we want to know. Jesse’s story reminded me of my first job in San Francisco: interning at Asian Week in Chinatown where the newspaper layout was still being printed out on large sheets of paper and posted on the wall daily. What was your first job in San Francisco, and how has it shaped you?
Email us to pitch a story. As always, please enjoy, share, subscribe, and rate the podcast!
Nob Hill Theater – One Night In Heaven
“How do you feel about body fluids?”
It’s 2007 and I’m sitting on a folding chair in the cluttered basement office of the only male strip club in San Francisco, and a man twice my age is casually if distractedly asking me about my relationship with seminal fluid.
I need a job at the moment.
“My own or someone else’s?” I attempt a joke and he doesn’t notice, or more likely he does not care about the circumstances that have conspired to deliver me here to his modestly appointed strip club basement.
“It’s mostly going to be someone else’s,” my interviewer responds to me without looking up from the desk in front of him. “You’ll come tomorrow. You’ll work a shift. You’ll be paid in cash. $60. Cash. Two days later you will give us a call and let us know if you’d like to keep working shifts here.” Seems simple enough. What could go wrong?
It’s really around this point that six hundred million brilliant and glowing red flags shoot into the sky above me before exploding into clouds of smaller, brighter red flags; a cacophony of noise and flashing lights instructing me to politely decline and return to the mires of craigslist that brought me here in the first place.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say.
Later that evening, I’m laying in bed with a ten dollar bottle of corner store champagne and thinking about the job I’ve just accepted. I am 26. I am living in San Francisco. I am mostly unemployed. I am violently single. I am the Nob Hill Theater’s newest employee. I will be paid in cash. I’m convinced that this will be the next step in the sexy and fun coming of age story that I’ve been writing for myself on the fly since I arrived in the City half a decade earlier. This. Is. What. I. Need. What could go wrong?
I arrive for my first shift and meet Jack, a senior employee who will be training me. The job is pretty simple. Mostly I will be manning the desk of the street facing pornography store at the front of the theater. Hourly, I will need to go down into the basement “Arcade” (really, a maze of privacy cubicles where men can feed dollar bills into a pay to watch pornography machine mounted on their cubicle wall or just have sex with each other), and encourage any loiterers to “Pick a booth, guys. Pick a booth.” I am told that at the end of the night I will need to clean this Arcade, which does not exactly square with the sexy narrative I’ve developed around my new employment.
The more interactive elements of the job involve manning the spotlight when a dancer performs on stage. I am to announce the dancer over a microphone and include the intro, “Remember, at the Nob Hill Theatre our dancers work for tips and tips alone. So as we say at the theater, the bigger the bill, the bigger the thrill.” I’ve never been paid to encourage someone else’s prostitution before. It’s gross and I kind of like it.
When the performer finishes their routine, I’m to score them and submit their results to a file. Did the dancer appear in costume? One point. Did the dancer strip completely. One point. Did the dancer maintain an erection throughout the performance? One point. Did the dancer masturbate to completion on stage? One point. I am told that there is a monthly prize, though I’m never told what that prize is.
My last duty involves breaking large bills into smaller bills.
“Let’s practice.” Jack is looking at me.
“Practice making change?”
“Yes. We have a way of doing it here. You need to do it our way. A lot of people get it wrong. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.” Jack counts out ten one dollar bills, lines them up neatly next to each other in a row. “Don’t stack them. They need to see each bill. You try.”
He hands me a stack of ones and as I lay them out he counts out loud. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.” He’s my cheerleader. I look at him for approval and consider the two years at San Francisco State that I attended and wonder if any of my credits are still good. “Again.” Jack isn’t kidding around. A man approaches the counter and asks to break a twenty dollar bill. I take his money and immediately proceed to stack his ones into a neat pile as I count them out. Jack is furious with me. This is harder than it looks.
As the hours tick by, Jack and I fall into a little routine. We take turns going down to the basement (“Pick a booth guys. Pick a booth.”), holding the spotlight, and I’ve mostly gotten a handle on lining up one dollar bills. At 9:30 my landlord walks through the door.
He makes a beeline for the stairs leading to the basement sex Arcade.
I move with an involuntary speed that scares me. In the battle of flight or fight, there is a clear winner and before I know it I’m crouched on the floor behind the counter. I am hiding. Jack doesn’t move.
“I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever” I hiss from below the counter.
“What?”, Jack is standing over me and scratching his front tooth with his fingernail.
“I’ll do every intro for all the dancers, I’ll hold the spotlight, I’ll do the full clean up at the end up the night, I’ll do literally every good god damn thing that could be done in this theater short of selling my ass on stage once THAT man who just walked in leaves THAT basement he just walked into.” I don’t know why I’m hiding exactly but I do know that I have rent control and absolutely no idea what confronting your 59 year old landlord in the basement-cum-sex dungeon arcade of an all male San Francisco strip club does to a rental agreement in 2007.
“Sure. Whatever. There’s another performer up in three minutes.” I flee to the safety and darkness of the spotlight booth. I collect myself, fire up the spot, and get on the mic.
“Alright guys. Let’s welcome our next dancer to the stage. And remember, at the Nob Hill Theater our dancers work for tips and tips alone. So as we say at the theater, the bigger the bill, the bigger the thrill.” The dancer steps on stage. I know him too.
He’s a friend of a friend and for the last six months I have lusted after him in various clubs and bars in the Castro and around town. I dance next to him when I can, make awkward conversation. I bought him a drink three weeks ago and he thanked me, “This isn’t a date all of a sudden, is it?” he’d said, winking at me and smiling his crooked smile. I remember blushing and screaming “NO” before skulling my vodka soda and excusing myself to the bathroom.
I am a smooth operator. In this moment I am struggling to be a smooth spotlight operator. I hold the light on him as he gyrates to 80s music and slowly begins to remove his baseball uniform. One point. I’ve envisioned this moment more times in the last several months than I can recall, this display. His disrobing. Though, in my feverish imaginings, his performance was decidedly more for my benefit, and not for that of a sparsely attended audience of strip club enthusiasts. His shirt comes off and I notice a tattoo on each collarbone. The words “Beauty” and “Beast” mirror each other. I didn’t know he had tattoos.
His pants follow, then his jock. He is fully erect. One point. I’m thankful when he climbs off the stage and moves into the audience to provide lap dances for the men who hold up their bills. I don’t have to hold the spotlight on him while he’s in the audience. Instead I stare at the empty stage; hot, white and empty. Three songs have finished by the time he makes his way back into my light for the finale. As he masturbates, I suddenly think of the last few moments from the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Wonka is perched next to Charlie Bucket as they zip around in the sky and prompts, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.” “What happened?” the young Charlie says. “He lived happily ever after,” Wonka replies. Well, not always, Mr. Wonka. Sometimes the object of your affection, the man you really didn’t know much about in the first place, the man you’ve been pining after and fantasizing about ends up masurbating on stage in front of you and 12 other men and it’s awkward. Shortly, he climaxes on stage and there is a smattering of applause. One point.
Turning off the spot, I poke my head out and look around. Jack sees me. “That guy in the basement left. Wasn’t down there long. Guess he didn’t find what he was looking for.”
The remainder of my shift is uneventful and I’m beginning to accept that this might not be the career trajectory for me and that it’s entirely possible that I’m not as fun as I think I am. At 2am I’m locking up with Jack and he takes three twenty dollar bills out of the cash box. “One. Two. Three” he lines them up next to each other. “You coming back?” I shake my head.
“No, probably not.”
“Is it the body fluids?”
It’s not the fluids.
“A lot of people think this place is fun,” he’s gestures towards the theater and the City behind it and lights a cigarette, “think they’re going to go wild. Come from all over. Don’t know why they’re here but they come and they work it and some like and and some don’t. But it’s hard to leave, you know. Even when it’s not a good fit. I’ve been here five years. I’ve seen a lot of you guys. Usually it’s the fluids.”
I walk home.
Photo by @ckaiserca