Fearing that Billy’s Topless, the gemütlich strip joint on 24th Street and Sixth Avenue, was about to go out of business as a result of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign to make New York a kinder, friendlier place for Southern primary voters, I rushed down there on a recent Monday evening to see how their talented dancers and loyal patrons were holding up. I became acquainted with Billy’s a few years back when I went undercover for Cosmopolitan magazine and took the “Landmark Forum,” an updated version of Werner Erhard’s group self-awareness therapy, est. During the two-weekend course, I met a young woman who told me she worked at Billy’s. Indeed, by the end of our training, she felt so comfortable with our whole group that in the final session, as our counselors blocked the exits and tried to coerce us to sign up for more courses, she grabbed the microphone and announced she had something to share. Then she whipped off her top to reveal two of the loveliest breasts ever to grace the self-help movement. The Forum dissolved into anarchy as instructors and students alike jockeyed for a better look.
While my friend never wanted me to visit Billy’s when she was dancing there, she’d understandably piqued my interest. I was apprehensive on my first visit, half-expecting to get beaten up for wearing a Shetland sweater, or to get swept up in some police dragnet and see my picture on the cover of the Daily News the next morning. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Billy’s was filled with guys in Shetland sweaters, and ponytails, and business suits. Further flying in the face of convention, many of the girls’ boobs are 100 percent natural-as opposed to places like Scores, where the strippers have a higher saline content than Long Island Sound.
“Billy’s Topless is like a pub, it’s Cheers with tits,” observed Jessie, a redheaded dancer I met on my latest visit, who was none too happy with Hizzoner. As a matter of fact, Jessie argued that if the girls are forced to wear bikinis, which Billy’s management thinks is the worst-case scenario should the Mayor’s crackdown on X-rated businesses hold up in the courts, they’ll have to go a lot further than winking at patrons while massaging their breasts, as they do now, to support their life styles.
“It’s not as sexy, it doesn’t do anything for the figure,” Jessie groused, referring to beachwear. “To get a dollar out of some guy, you’ll have to be sleazier. I don’t want to be sleazy.”
A waitress asked Jessie if she wanted a drink-at my expense, of course-but, as if to make her point, the stripper shooed her away. “This is not a sleazy place,” she insisted, not that she needed to convince me. “There are two large motherfuckers at either end,” she meant of the stage where, at that moment, three ingenues in various states of undress were coaxing paper currency from the beer-sipping connoisseurs who sat at the counter that rimmed the stage. “If you pass that line over there”-I couldn’t see the line she was talking about, but I took her word for it-”if you touch me, if I really complain about it, the two doors open outward with your face.”
I don’t know how we got there, but in the next breath Jessie was criticizing Andrew Giuliani’s behavior at his dad’s first inaugural. Perhaps she thought she was hitting the Mayor where it hurt.
Jessie portrayed Mr. Giuliani’s quality-of-life initiatives as a blatant attempt to deprive working people of their livelihood while pandering to his political base. “A lot of the housewives who aren’t getting fucked are mad because women are making money off this,” Jessie claimed, offering the sort of pungent analysis one rarely hears from George Will on This Week With Sam and Cokie .
A guy in a business suit at the bar named George seemed to confirm Jessie’s worst fears. I asked him whether Billy’s would lose its sense of enchantment were the girls required to cover up. “You’ve got to ask intelligent questions,” he chided me. “Of course it would.”
George said he visits a couple of times a week and spends between $12 and $18 an hour feeding money to the dancers. George also won’t be volunteering for the Mayor’s next campaign. “This place is no hassle,” he explained. “The girls don’t hit you up for drinks. After a tough day, there’s no screaming in your ear, ‘Can I help you?’ Giuliani is throwing out the baby with the bath water. So he’s objecting to tits? If he wants to come out of the closet, he should come out.”
Indeed, the only thing George could find wrong with Billy’s was the night manager, who had tossed him out on several occasions. But even those weren’t for typical topless bar infractions such as groping the dancers, shooting drugs, driving one’s Harley through the front window or breaking a beer bottle over somebody’s head. On one occasion, George said he was thrown out for laughing. The manager, a gentleman of apparently tender ego, thought George was laughing at him, even though George says he wasn’t. Another time, he stood up for a fellow patron’s civil rights. According to George, the management had let in a homeless man but ejected him after he’d paid for his drink. “I said, ‘That guy begged for that money,’” George remembered. “‘If you’re going to serve him, then let him sit and enjoy his drink like any other customer.’”
I sidled up to a bohemian-looking guy named Marco at the other end of the bar. He was actually sitting with his back to the action, sketching in a little notebook. “I’m an art director,” he explained. “I’m sketching a set for a wedding outside, on a bluff north of Los Angeles.”
“Whose?” I asked.
“Mine,” he answered.
Marco said his fiancée doesn’t mind that he hangs out at Billy’s. “It’s not, like, really sleazy,” he asserted, echoing the comments of others.
Jessie stopped by on her way out the door. She didn’t believe I was a writer. I suggested she look at an article about Billy’s that I’d written for Penthouse , which the management had ceremoniously framed and hung on the wall at the end of the bar, right below a newspaper clip documenting Kelsey Grammer’s 1994 visit to Billy’s. Jessie still didn’t believe me. She said that a few nights earlier another customer had said the same thing. “He told me he wrote it-’Yeah, I wrote the Penthouse article.’”
“Giuliani sucks,” the bouncer standing by the door volunteered, joining the conversation. “I didn’t vote for him.”
“Who did you vote for?” I asked.
“I didn’t vote.”
A long-legged dancer named Charlie, fresh off the stage, had a solution to the crisis. She thought Billy’s ought to be designated a landmark, sort of like Mount Vernon. “Major motion pictures have used us as a set,” she noted. “In a way, I consider us to be historical. I think that New York, and Billy’s in particular, has cultural values you can’t find other places. Covering us up would make us just like Jersey.”
As soon as Charlie walked away, the man sitting next to me gave me a nudge. “I want to marry that woman you were talking to,” he explained. “She’s got a beauty that reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe in the Stieglitz plates. There’s something about the face. It’s not that sculptural look of chiseled severity that we use as a criteria for beauty. There’s that dynamic flow of intelligence and emotion.”
He paused for a second. “And her tits are great.”