It is named after a river in Egypt, an attempt at lending a sense of exoticism to what is otherwise considered to be a base establishment better left unmentioned in public. On the corner of a dodgy street in a working class neighborhood in Queens, the Nile Lounge is located in a discreet building with a sleek red sign bearing its glorified name.
The walls pulsate with house music as I push past the front doors leading into a room illuminated only by a garish pink light glowing from the stage. A row of mudflap silhouettes in various poses is spray painted onto the walls like a chorus line of cartoonish fembots. Tinsel hangs from the ceiling and encircles the stage forming a glittering halo, a backdrop which I imagine is comparable to that of a Midwestern beauty pageant.
Four women dance on the platform, lost in the rhythm of their rehearsed movements, their expressionless faces remaining still as they sway in a haze of cigarette smoke and dank air. Blinking neon lights cast shadows onto the crevices of their surprisingly buxom bodies. I look away in embarrassment and quickly revert my gaze in an effort not to betray any judgment.
A middle aged man walks in, his eyes darting around as he looks for something or someone he is avoiding. His gait is tentative and unsure, his awkwardness palpable from across the room. After a few seconds, he decides it’s safe to stay and takes a seat at the foot of the stage. He surveys the scene, his gaze travelling languorously from one woman to the next until finally it rests on a petite brunette. His expression softens as he settles into a deep, unwavering trance. The brunette looks down on occasion and smiles listlessly. One by one, more women enter the stage, forming a kaleidoscope of swirling beads and serpentine gyrations.
The night wears on and the music intensifies as the club fills with more dancers and even more patrons. The lights glow brighter and the air becomes heavier. The energy of the room swells as the alcohol takes over the crowd and the rules loosen. The dancers switch their routine and move onto the next phase of the night. A few of the women step off the stage and circle around the bar in varying stages of undress. They stop on occasion to lean over a patron as he inserts dollar bills between their breasts or beneath the straps of their half removed costumes. The more daring women bend over with their backs to the customers and perform another undulating dance, causing me to look away again. This on occasion prompts a customer to toss up a spray of bills into the air, “making it rain.”
After the performers are satisfied that they have garnered their earnings from each dance, they reach down on their hands and knees to scoop the bills into a pile, in a gesture which resembles washing the floor. One dancer bends down and swiftly plucks up the stray bills that have fallen beneath the platform. I can’t help but to feel a deep current of sadness as I observe this.
The women now make their rounds throughout the club, clad in a sheen of sweat and disheveled costumes. They self consciously adjust their straps as they snake through the room with forced smiles and dead eyes, in a nightmarish masquerade. A dancer approaches a potential customer next to me, leaning in anxiously and suggests a dance to which he obliges. She leads him by the hand and takes him to an upper platform where he sits down and she immediately begins her routine. Her eyes are closed the entire time, and there is a distinct reluctance in her facial expression despite the willingness of her movements. I imagine that she is wishing herself out of this room, out of this city…but who really knows what is going through her mind at that moment. His hands graze her waist, and then begin groping her back with clenched fingers. The room starts to spin as a wave of nausea comes over me. I am unable to watch the rest of the act.
I push my way to the restroom and flinch as my eyes adjust to the halogen light. I run into a stall and slam the door closed and lean over with my head between my knees. The bathroom door opens I hear the clicking of shoes on the tiled floor. Two pairs of clear platform heels stop in front of the door.
“When did you get that outfit? It’s a cute one.”
I try to place her accent. I think she’s from the Bronx.
“I had to get it yesterday. Somebody stole my whole bag of outfits. And my shoes too.”
“For real? I can’t believe that.”
“It’s my own fault. I shouldn’t have left it out. You never know…”
“Yeah but still-“
I open the stall door and the two dancers freeze in front of me. In this light, their makeup is running at the corners of their eyes and wet strands of hair are stuck to their foreheads. They look terrified. Or maybe it’s just me. I avert eye contact as I go to the nearest sink. I keep my head down as I wash my hands vigorously, consciously avoiding rushing out too quickly in an effort not to appear uneasy. I am perfectly aware of how contrived my actions must seem.
I stumble back into the room and the stench of stale sweat mingled with alcohol hits me like an assault. I grab my coat, muttering a half hearted goodbye to the birthday boy and crew, and run out of the club.
Outside, I inhale a deep, grateful breath of cold night air and I hurriedly walk around the corner.
A woman who looks like she’s on a break during her shift leans against the wall, her head tilted back as she takes a slow, long drag on her cigarette. Her heavy lidded eyes are shimmering beneath a layer of sweat and smeared mascara. We meet eyes for a second and I keep on walking.