I first heard of her in my first year of university. I can’t remember when, though I am certain it was one of those nights when in the midst of cigarette smoke, screeching guitars and cheap beer, an older student decided to pass down her legend.
Some say she has a missing a leg, others argue it’s an arm and a couple of teeth. And a few brave ones claim she has a vibrator built into the missing limb and in the middle of her dance routine she detaches it to extend her reach into the crowd.
The one-legged stripper has many names and ages, but everyone’s friend has met her.
Now, even the place where her myth was born has become legend itself. The North Star Sports Bar, Fredericton’s only strip club, was bought by the city for half-a-million dollars this summer. But before the infamous club shut its doors, I was able to learn a little more of the foggy tale surrounding Fredericton’s most famous stripper.
It was one of those cold, winter nights in my third year that I heard of her again. Long after dark, my roommates came home, raving about their night and singing in drunken stupor. With the sound of techno music and roughly treated kitchen supplies ringing in my ears, I got up to hear the tale of a man who had received a lap dance from the infamous lady.
“She is retired now but he said she was some three hundred pounds heavy and snorting cocaine,” they said.
While I mused on my roommate’s naiveté, I felt intrigued by the story. The problem with urban legends, however, is once you start asking, nobody remembers the original tale – or teller.
There was only one way to find out.
It was an early night in March when I headed across the St. John River, which divides Fredericton into north and south. In the back of the car, Ania and Alanah chattered about their expectations.
Despite the curiosity revolving around my quest, they were the only ones to accompany me on my trip to the city’s strip club, the North Star.
“Oh, I think there’ll be a lot of fancy, wooden furniture,” one says.
“Probably red carpet and such,” the other giggles.
The North side carries a bad reputation of drug abuse and theft, of dark streets and even darker figures waiting to steal your innocence. Once you cross the river, however, the main street greets you with nice, clean kept houses.
My only living memory of a strip club is three years old. My dad and I were on a bike trip across Europe, driving into Romania from the northeastern tip of Bulgaria.
After a long day on deserted, pot-holed roads, passing only a few cattle driven carts and gas stations, we ended up in a small town a couple of hundred miles from Romania’s capital, Bucharest.
While the town was as barren as the countryside – old, washed out buildings and even older people lurking behind closed windows – its center held a single hotel. In front of the tower like building, stood a couple of garden chairs and tables scattered on yellow grass. A grim waiter hustled about the few, male guests.
I remember my dad coming out of the door, two sets of keys dangling from his hand, and mentioning that “something was just weird about the place.”
Working our way up the winding staircase to our rooms, I caught a glance through a glass door at what must have been a former dining hall. Red, cigarette stained carpet lined the floors, with more red leather couches, round tables and a couple of poles running down from the ceiling. A small bar rested in one corner and a dance floor in another.
We returned to the garden later to eat. A few young mothers with strollers passed by the fence, shooting disapproving looks at my father and I.
By the time we headed to bed, a couple of girls had already taken seats on a bench beside the entrance, nattering and puffing on smokes. Long legs in boots stretched out of skirts, catching the last glimpse of evening light on their pale skin and heavy powdered faces.
When we arrived at the North Star, night had settled.
We passed a small gas station, when Ania pointed to the building that looks like an old warehouse, a couple of beer signs lit the way to the entrance.
Deep pot-holes filled with dark, brown water on what looks like a rundown supermarket parking lot lead to a small entrance on the side of the building.
A single man with a thin mustache and a thick black jacket stood by the door, looking slightly amused at the sight of three students walking up to him. We all shared the same look on our faces; the one where you know you’re heading into the wrong place, but still pretend to be part of the crowd.
I expected some resemblance to that Romanian room, just more glamorous — dark red and fancy dressed girls. But the North Star looked nothing like I imagined.
A small bar covered in green neon lights resided by the door, looking unto a tall, dark room filled with wooden furniture and a pool table. One wall was lined with slot machines and pictures that read, “I just wish my mouth had a backspace key.”
Across the slot machines, in the far corner of the room, was the dance floor. The walls were covered in mirrors. One pole ran down from the ceiling, another along the side of the wall.
A group of army guys looked up as we made our way to the seats up front. On the table beside us, a skinny woman with tattoos on her arm chattered with an overweight, shy-looking man.
The air smelled of sweat, cheap perfume, cigarettes, and cotton candy.
Loud country and rock music played on old speakers. On a shelf above the pool table, a stuffed bear held a blow-up Alpine bottle. Beside him the Flintstones were painted on the wall, playing a game of stone-age pool.
The small bar was covered with pictures of former regulars, smiling men and women with nineties hairstyles.
The bartender wore a pink bandanna.
He was a thin, bald man in his early forties.
I asked him whether he wanted to talk to me about the one-legged stripper. He chuckled, and handed me a small paper with his number.
“You might want to talk to one of the girls. I’ll send one over,” he said, and pointed to my seat. “I can’t talk to you right now but give me a call tomorrow and we can set something up.”
She said her name was Melissa. She was tall and skinny. She wore a short, black, tight-knit see-through shirt that just revealed enough of her breasts and white panties to catch a man’s gaze as she walked by on high-heels.
She took me to a back room beside the dance floor. I gazed at the six small changing-room-like cubicles lined along the wall, each furnished with two old chairs facing each other and a heavy, dark curtain.
We sat down under red fluorescent light. The other strippers buzzed around us. They adjusted their clothes and make-up and chattered away in high-pitched voices, taking men for private dances in one of the rooms.
At 29 years old, Melissa was the oldest stripper at the North Star. She moved here from Calgary five years ago for family reasons. She said she always worked as a waitress but she earned less money in New Brunswick so she picked up the dancing to finance her secondary school education.
“Here it seemed like stripping was a good idea but it’s nothing like Calgary. In Calgary you go all naked, but here you have to wear stickers on your nipples and you have to keep your clothes on and they can’t touch you,” she said.
She had a slight lisp and smiled a lot. She said the new owner treats the girls well and people respect them. When I asked her about the legend of the one-legged stripper, she smiled.
“I have never met her. But good friends of mine have. She has not one leg, but she has one arm,” she said. “Well, I guess there is a legend. That’s funny.”
She pointed at an older woman in a stained shirt, dragging cleaning supplies around the room.
“She’s worked here for fourteen years and hasn’t met her. I guess we have rumors, yes. There is miscarriage girl, or Kraft Dinner girl. She looks like a noodle off the side of a pot that’s been left for a couple of days.”
Melissa liked working at the bar, though it’s not always easy with the girls.
“There’s cat fights among the girls, there’s words exchanged, and you can only represent your bar so much,” she said.
In the other room, the music died down and the crowd began to cheer. Melissa got up and shook my hand, smiling and wishing me good luck on my search, then headed back out the door.
We watched about four dances that night and spent the half hours in between looking around the room, bored from the lack of entertainment.
Only two of the dancers were acrobatic, they moved slowly up and down the pole, their thin arms holding onto their weight while they stretched out their legs. Then they let themselves fall to the ground, landing in a perfect split.
The girls who followed repeated the movements, rubbing their bodies on poles they cleaned before each dance. Each had two songs and towards the end of the first, their layers of clothes slowly came off to expose little stickers on their breasts. They never took off their underwear.
When songs were over, they grabbed their clothes and little purses and walked back into the room on the side, only to reappear a minute later to chat up the customers in the bar.
My two companions were saddened by the place, as if there was a sense of homelessness.
“I wonder where their fathers are,” Alanah said.
We left early and I wondered if the legend of the stripper is more interesting than her real story – if she exists at all. More so, I began to wonder what it’s like to be a stripper and called an old friend.
When I was 17, I went on a student exchange to small-town Indiana. Most of my days consisted of watching my host-mother’s soap operas and walking back and forth between the trailer and the local gas station.
I began dating a guy from a couple miles down the road when I met Jamie. She just started working at a strip-bar to make enough money to support her one-year-old daughter.
When I stayed at their place, one couple slept on the couch, while the other shared a room with the baby. We played cards and watched movies and gossiped about working at Pizza Hut and school.
Two years after I left, Jamie married her boyfriend Brandon. We contacted each other only sporadically, but it wasn’t until my phone call that I heard her voice again.
I called her late on a Saturday night.
The kids were playing and screaming in the background. Jamie was either distracted by the TV, mumbling to herself or telling the girls to be quiet. She sounded sad and tired and said life is tough as a stay-at-home mom. She is twenty-six years old.
“In a couple of weeks,” she said. “We are taking my very first vacation to Virginia Beach. And I’m applying at KFC again for a job. What are you up to?”
I told her I’m working on my university degree, which included stressing about papers. I told her I lived in New Brunswick now. She couldn’t pronounce it and asked if it was in the States.
Then I realized why there was so much dead air on the line.
While the blue waters of the St. John River merely divide Fredericton’s North and South sides, the division in people’s minds is much greater. The South prides itself in its businesses and restaurants, in clean kept parks and friendly atmosphere. The North side, however, as people whisper behind closed doors, holds the drug dealers and prostitutes, the poor and hopeless, the lost souls dragged down by society.
In the short time that I spent in that rundown trailer in the States, the thin social line between Jamie and me ceased to exist. For a brief moment, neither past nor future mattered.
After five years, Jamie and I found each other back on the social ladder, a clear division now drawn between our friendship.
Before the conversation died, I asked if she minded talking about her year as a stripper.
“Yeah, whatever, I don’t care,” she said. “Everyone knows me here anyways.”
She said she stayed at the bar for a year and then moved on. Most people work for the money, though she also enjoyed the socializing.
“Most places you have to try out. Depending on where you are, you most likely make it no matter what as long as you have the balls to take off your clothes. That’s how you end up with the three hundred pound strippers.”
The rules between the girls are unspoken.
You don’t take someone’s tips or talk to their customer. While she never met any strippers with missing limbs, she claims she saw a couple without their belly buttons.
“I met one girl who, when she had a baby, her stomach got so big her belly button was pushed out. The other one was born with her intestines outside her stomach. It looked like a pretzel,” she said. “And the other one, she was just weird. Her belly was just flat and she claimed they cut the cord too short at birth.”
When I hung up the phone, I questioned the legend more than ever.
I returned to the North Star a week later after a call from Geoff Pawsey, the bartender.
On a sunny day, the parking lot still lacked any appeal, though the natural light made the inside seem friendlier.
Ryan is thirty-one years old, with short red-blond hair and a friendly smile. He said he took over the business last October after the death of his father, and now shares it with his four siblings.
“I do all the dirty work with the dancers,” he laughed. “You need to have a certain personality to deal with them. In this business, there’s a lot of drama. It’s like having ten girlfriends.”
The North Star opened in 1995.
Geoff became its bartender a year later. He said the city didn’t approve of the dancers so Kenny, Ryan’s father, told them they only danced twice a month.
“He said they would have something like Chippendales and they would do that maybe once or twice a month, that’s why Fredericton had that special entertainment license,” he said. “So he just told them ‘I’ll do this over here’ and they didn’t realize he’d do it weekly on three nights. And they hated that until they realized that money can be made.”
While the bar did well, Ryan said he was still trying to clean up many past mistakes.
“The old manager was no good with the girls and they didn’t respect him. As soon as I came in, I told them, ‘Okay this is how it’s going to be.’ I was very nice, very personal, but you know, I can also be tough. And even the hardest ones are good now,” he said.
Strippers make enough money to pay off one year’s tuition in three months. Some of them are nurses, some have kids. Most of them leave after turning 30.
Geoff and Ryan agree that there were still a lot of misconceptions about the place.
“It’s a working class bar. There are construction workers, they come here from work and they still have the paint on their face. And I think that’s why they categorize the people that come in here as dirty people, but in reality they work eight hours and they don’t want to go home and get cleaned up and tell their wives they want to come here,” Ryan said.
I asked one more time whether there ever was a one-legged stripper.
Geoff and Ryan only laughed.
“The one-legged stripper? That’s an urban legend,” Ryan said. “If we did have one I would put it up on the sign just for the sake of it.”
“I’ve been here for 16 years,” he said. “This is the only strip club I know where we pay the women to dance.
So, at the start, we had one decent girl and a couple that were, well, not so great. So, the butt of the joke was how ugly and homely they must be.
How she had no teeth, or how she broke the stage, or you couldn’t get her through the door.”
As I drove home that day, I went from a place where the life of a stripper is real, to a place where it is only spoken of in legends. The dim lights of family homes shimmered in the waves of the river until swallowed by the beam of city lights on the other.
While the North Star will be torn down to make way for condos, the tales of one-legged strippers remain, existing in worlds that are so close to each other, yet rarely ever touch.
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