Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown

Nothing is more emblematic of the American dream than chaotic mining and drilling towns such as Williston, North Dakota, and the people who flock to them in search of fortune. And no one knows better how these communities work — and don’t — than the traveling topless dancer.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard


1.

It’s a Sunday evening, early last December, and the Walmart is out of bread. Ten feet of shelves sit empty between the tortillas and the crackers, holding not so much as a single loaf of store-brand white. There’s still some cereal, but mainly off-brands. This is the only Walmart that I’ve seen with empty shelves outside of hurricane season on the Gulf Coast. It’s also the only one in the country that had to ban RV parking in its parking lot — so many people were living there, regular shoppers couldn’t find a place to park.

Four years ago, my traveling stripper/escort friend Tara made a guy pay for her services in gift cards from this store. The only accessible ATM in town was broken, and it was a Sunday, so they had to wait until noon for the store to open because of the local blue laws. It’s to her credit, or all her fault, depending on my mood, that I have to shop here at all, because this is the best option for buying groceries on a Sunday night in this flat, charmless, remote town.

There are gentlemen’s clubs and there are strip clubs, and the differences can be huge. A gentlemen’s club has a DJ, VIP rooms, bathroom attendants, and a dress code for the customers and the dancers. A strip club might have a jukebox and stackable chairs, and share a bathroom with the Mexican restaurant next door. I’ve made plenty of money in gentlemen’s clubs, but strip clubs have always been more fun. Whispers is a strip club. The first time I walked in and saw the carpet — a black light-reactive repeating neon mud-flap girl pattern that looks as if it should be upholstering the back of a shaggin’ wagon — I knew I’d found the right place, even if the stage was just a corner of linoleum-tiled floor bounded by low countertops. You could just tell that this was the kind of club where dancers might occasionally wear flip-flops or cowboy boots on stage and where an ankle monitor or extra pounds wouldn’t keep a friendly dancer off the schedule.

It’s not the charm that brings dancers to Whispers, though. We’re in Williston, North Dakota, because oil companies are here working to extract the abundant natural resources of the region, and to do so, they require many men to work for them. Female company is far less abundant than the petroleum resources of the Bakken Formation. It is mobile, though, so here we come, the next sign of a boomtown after the oil and the men.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

2.

The psychological principle of intermittent rewards explains the addictive appeal of gambling and Twitter. You might get a treat and you might not, and you never know, so you keep trying to see what happens next. It is the most American behavioral phenomenon.

Mineral extraction economies activate this neural mechanism: wildcatting, prospecting for gold — gambles that may pay off. Today it’s no longer the individual who makes these scores, of course, it’s corporations, but the work and opportunity draws those with nothing to lose but the trying. California in 1849, Colorado in 1859, Montana in 1883, Texas and Oklahoma in 1912, Alaska in 1970, North Dakota in 2008 — every time there’s a mining boom, it plays out thusly: Someone finds a valuable resource. People hear about it and flock to the area. These people are mainly men. The newly populated area is lawless and lacks the civilizing influence of family life. Among the first women to show up are prostitutes. For a while, everyone makes money and has fun. Or some people do, some gambles pay off. Then the resource dries up or its price drops, and the gamble isn’t profitable anymore, and the town eventually dries up or turns into a tourist attraction — or San Francisco, if it’s lucky. Because our brains are wired to want to continue taking that chance, everyone keeps gambling, no one thinks the boom will bust. It will. It always will.

Williston is booming right now. I’ve worked there since 2007, and oil has changed the town both completely and not at all. Whispers’ transition from typically tiny, haphazard small-town strip club into one trying to balance down home and big city is not working out too well, and it’s an example of the boom–bust cycle writ small. Capitalism’s inherent gamble plays out on a small stage with a chrome pole while lessons in second chances and knowing when to cut your losses are there to take to heart or ignore. It’s more America than anywhere I’ve been. Some oil workers think improvements in drilling and fracking technology will sustain the economy for decades, but that’s not my area of expertise. What I do know about is what it’s like to revisit a place you hate again and again over the span of six years, watch it change, and realize you’re watching history repeating and that you’re just another camp follower along the frontier, profiting from mineral extraction booms, chasing opportunity and running from stagnation.

Andrew Burton / Getty, Shannon Stapleton / REUTERS, Susan Elizabeth Shepard

3.

In the summer of 2006, Good Time Charlies, the sole strip club in the busy salmon fishing town of Soldotna, Alaska, was the diviest, most remote club I’d ever seen. As it turned out, it would just be the club where someone would first tell me about the diviest and most remote club I’d ever see.

Soldotna never would have been on my radar if an online friend hadn’t told me about it. Since 2002, I’d been blogging about stripping, first on my work site where I kept in touch with customers, then as part personal record, part way to communicate with other dancers online. Stripper forums also put me in touch with dancers from all over the country to exchange information about our local clubs: where you had to get a license, whether it was topless or nude, if customers could touch you or not, how much you could charge for a lap dance. The posts requesting information about different cities were a lot like those that oil-field job seekers post on city-data.com with subjects like, “do you have to be a licensed driver??” and “Which Area of ND Has The Jobs?”

I became a traveling stripper somewhat late in my career, mainly because I spent a very, very long time stripping my way through college. It was just after my 18th birthday when I started dancing, and it was another year and a half before I enrolled at the University of Texas in the winter of 1996. In the summer of 2005, I took my last final and received my English B.A. In between were multiple gap years and withdrawals. I worked at the Daily Texan and interned at Texas Monthly, but was not disposed to look for a journalism job once I’d graduated. Not if, instead, I could strip-trip around the country.

“My favorite place to work right now is Williston, North Dakota,” a dancer called Lucky said. “There’s always oil and gas drilling around there, they pay you to come out, and you always make money.” There in the bathroom of Charlies, she and Tara told me about how this weird place was a secret stripper gold mine. The name of the club was Whispers, and since they only had three dancers per week, it booked pretty far in advance. I called in January 2007 and Brandy, the bartender and dancer manager, put me down for a week in May.

My husband and I had a 28-foot Airstream we’d used as a temporary Portland home and later as his office when he was on deadline. I’d take it out to North Dakota, then spend two weeks in Montana, then go to Fargo to work at the Northern for a week, then back to Williston, then back to Portland. I didn’t know it then, but once a year had passed, we would be on the verge of moving to Montana, because of North Dakota.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

4.

Every Super Bowl/Olympics/national political party convention brings stories about sex workers coming to town, be it a piece about trafficking hysteria, an increase in arrests, or how the city’s strip clubs are planning to double their staff for the event. Strippers travel to find places where the cash flow is better than at home. When there are longer-term economic shifts in play, workers who can will move to better areas. That’s why dancers traveled to New Orleans post-Katrina, when cleanup crews were in town. It’s why they go to Myrtle Beach during golf season, or Alaska in the summer, or Vegas, any time.

Western boomtowns are different from tourist attractions, though. They’re harder to get to, harder to live in, just plain harder. The intrepid boomtown prostitute finds her way there, throughout history. While my job description is somewhat different from hers (and she still exists, as a quick look at the North Dakota BackPage listings makes clear), today’s strip club serves much of the same purposes as yesterday’s brothel or saloon. There’s even gambling at Whispers, state-sanctioned lotteries and blackjack at a table in a corner of the club. It serves as distraction, social club, comfort zone.

Williston is within a day’s drive from Deadwood, South Dakota, and Butte, Montana. In their histories are examples of the best (successful business owner) and worst (enslavement, death) outcomes for traveling women. Deadwood’s boom was in gold, Butte’s in copper. Deadwood had a short boom, Butte a long one with various peaks and valleys. Both had brothels that remained open until the 1980s, when the interests of federal agencies overcame the tolerance of local police.

Despite boom–bust history being part of the landscape, there is surprisingly little reservation about the boom among the Williston workers. After all, the price of oil is always rising. But the price of oil always falls. My home state of Texas has been through this cycle more than once, and the differences in attitudes between the two places is striking. The Eagle Ford Shale play is close to as active as the Bakken, but housing construction has been slow in coming because they feel it could stop at any time. Not the people I meet in North Dakota, most of whom aren’t natives. Most of them think it’s just going to get bigger. There’s so much oil in the Bakken, and the technology now is so much better, that it will keep going for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, they say. The only dissenting voice I encountered was that of one old-timer who’d seen the initial drilling of the 1950s.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

5.

It took two and a half days — and about the same number of panic attacks about towing a trailer through multiple mountain passes — to make it from Portland to Williston. Friends had told me it was impossible to get a hotel room in Williston, not because they were booked solid, but because recently they’d had problems with some of the traveling strippers. One in particular had let tricks linger in the hallway while they waited for their appointments, resulting in complaints from the other guests. Thereafter, the policy of the nicer motels (and they were all motels, nothing better than 2.5 stars was open yet) was to decline reservations to anyone showing up with acrylic tips and highlights. No problem for me with my shiny and comfortable travel trailer. And not once did a thought of fearing for my own safety cross my mind. The kinds of trailer parks we’d stayed in were the ones of vacationers and retirees, ones with pleasant landscaping and clean pools. Surely I’d be safe in this little town — and I was.

Williston didn’t look like much. Small. Quiet. Walmart and Applebee’s were the major landmarks. The main drag led directly to the Amtrak depot, and therefore to Whispers, the very first business train travelers saw after leaving the station. Whispers didn’t look like much either, but Brandy, a youthful redhead, welcomed me warmly and took me into the dressing room for my orientation. She made a little index card, like she had for all of the dancers, with my booking dates, contact info, and a Yes/No in one corner. I found out what that signified when she asked, “Do you date?”

“I’m married,” I told her.

She looked at me and said, “No, I mean, do you trick?”

“Oh! No, no, that’s not my thing at all.”

“I don’t care if you do,” she said. “I just want to know.” It was an open secret that some of the traveling dancers were working after hours.

As a new dancer, I’d hear, “Do you date?” all week. The cards also listed the ethnicity of the dancers. The club aimed to maintain a ratio of two white dancers and one black dancer a week.

Here is how the club worked in 2007: three dancers a week. Sometimes one would be late getting to town, so there’d be two of you. Or maybe the lone local ringer would fill in, or maybe Brandy would pick up the shift. But mostly, three dancers, alternating 20-minute stage sets from 5 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., giving lap dances when we weren’t onstage. There was no DJ, just a CD player behind the bar that each dancer would pop a disc into and press play. This also meant there were no restrictions on what kind of music you could dance to, a policy that was exploited in full. The club would be its busiest on Mondays — when everyone in town came in to see who was on the dancer roster that week— and Saturdays. It was closed Sundays.

We were told to cover our nipples, because the local law required they be “sealed” — but just the nipples, not the areola, and dancers would dot on a tiny bit of skin-colored nail polish or fabric paint right at the tip to be considered in compliance. When we took customers back to the tiny closet that served as a lap dance area, they were told to stick their hands through leather loops at the sides of the same kind of stacking chair that was by the stage.

It was late spring, so the sun stayed up till almost 10 p.m., which meant people went to the bars later and later. This meant hours of sitting around in a quiet club and then two and a half busy hours when it was packed. It was impossible not to make money even though we were only keeping $15 from each $20 dance and there were no expensive hourly champagne rooms to sell. This is a typical arrangement for a small club, but strip clubs all have their own pricing structure and house cuts. In some, only table dances are available. In others, customers can buy dancers out by the hour for hundreds of dollars. What the dancer keeps varies from 100% to 40% of what the customer pays. At Whispers, dance cuts and tipouts usually amounted to 25% of my gross. Aside from the $5 per lap dance, we were told to tip the bartender, waitress, and bouncer $10 each. While at most clubs there is usually a suggested minimum, meaning that you’re expected to kick back more on good nights, when I tried to tip more than that on my first night, I was told not to do so. That was the only time I’ve ever been told not to tip staff extra.

That week flew by. I couldn’t believe how little time I had; just enough to sleep, shower, eat, and go to work, then return to the trailer at night and crash before doing it again. At home, I’d work four shifts of five to six hours each; here I was doing six days in a row of nine-hour shifts. I was too exhausted to think about much. That Sunday, I decided to rest in town and do laundry before leaving. There wasn’t anything to do, but I was happy with what I made and happier to turn around toward Montana.

Through 2007 and 2008, I worked a total of five bookings in Williston. Each one felt like a triumph of spirit. The tough schedule, isolation, travel time, and mood of the town and club wore me down to the point where by the Wednesday of each booking, I fantasized about leaving early. The exhaustion exacerbated everything, and at times I’d snap at crude customers. Some were merely irritating, like the guys who would show up straight from work in dirty clothes and want lap dances. Some were ignorant, like the ones who would leave the rack when a black dancer came up to the stage. Some were horrifying, like the guy who told me his theory that all women secretly wanted to practice bestiality. I’d leave richer at the end of the week, but I always felt like I’d earned every dollar.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

6.

The American worker has never been so efficient in terms of output over hours worked. At the same time, real wages and benefits have plummeted. Prospects are shitty for college graduates and non-graduates alike. Layoffs and cutbacks in previously solid industries protect the profits of an ever-smaller class at the expense of those who produce value. In stripper terms, here’s what that looks like: Lap dances in many places still start at $20, the same price they were in 1990. Customers expect ever-higher levels of contact and performance skill, meaning strippers work harder to earn the $20 or the dollar stage tip that is worth a lot less than it used to be. At the same time, clubs charge dancers higher stage fees and tipouts, especially as customer counts and tabs drop and dancers become a primary source of income for the clubs. There are no layoffs when your workers pay you, so instead of cutbacks, clubs hire more and more dancers, resulting in more competition for a smaller customer pool. Do more with less!

The one big advantage you have if you’re a stripper, though, is the ability to travel to greener pastures. If you would like to have a job in another town, as long as you look good enough for the club’s standards, you’re hired. So those who can, move. When the level of bullshit is too high or the earnings too low, they the hit the road. Same as the men who wind up traveling to work in the oil fields. If you can make $30,000 more a year driving heavy equipment in North Dakota instead of in Louisiana, and you need that money, you go. Is this the logical progression of a service economy? It looks like migrant labor.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

7.

February 2008, my fourth Whispers trip, was my most lucrative yet. (No wonder dancers canceled in the winter — roads would get closed coming in and trains would get delayed. But there was an upside: If the weather got too bad for the drills to be running, the guys would have nothing to do but come spend money in the club.) By then, the boom was just beginning to kick in, and housing was becoming an issue. I stayed in the basement of the club’s blackjack dealer — it was much too cold for the trailer, so I flew, and hotels were booked solid.

Much of what I made that week came not from oil field workers but from a Saskatchewan recreational hockey league playing a tournament in town. The guys could not have been more Canadian or more hockey. One was missing a front tooth and would roll up dollar bills and stick them in there when the girls would come around to take titty tips. That Thursday, one of them asked me if I would be willing to come dance in their locker room for a half hour for $300 the next morning before their final game — and, look, if you like Slap Shot or minor league hockey, how are you going to say no to that?

By the time Saturday rolled around, I was exhausted and looking forward to going home, taking a long bath, and sleeping in my own bed. But Brandy asked me if I wanted to stay on the next week, because another dancer had canceled. With the sunk costs of the plane ticket and travel time, and the knowledge that even with a worst-case scenario I’d make much more than I would at home, I reluctantly agreed to stay. Whispers was closed on Sundays, so I had a day off between my two 54-hour work weeks. All I did, aside from enjoy dinner at the nicest place in town, the El Rancho Motel’s steakhouse, was catch up on the internet and watch the Oscars.

Diablo Cody was up for Best Original Screenplay for Juno, so I watched with particular interest; we’d exchanged a few emails in the early days of stripper blogging. When she won, I thought, Wow, this might be a game changer. It’s really awesome to see an out former stripper winning an award for writing. My next thought was — oh, let’s be honest, I thought it simultaneously — There’s Diablo Cody winning an Oscar, and here I am in Williston, 31 years old and shaking my ass for guys with dollar bills in their mouths. What the fuck am I doing with my life?

Bozeman, Montana, roughly marks where the plains turn into the mountains. It precisely marks the geographic spot where I return to myself on drives back from North Dakota. It’s seven hours from Williston, and that’s as much driving as I want to do in a day after a week of nine-hour shifts. So I would stop there and go through this routine after every trip to North Dakota: Check into a hotel or a sweet little vacation rental. Take two hours to put a mud mask on my face and my ass (those long hours of lap dancing on Carhartts are MURDER on it), scrub myself in a hot bath until my skin is red (Williston is the dustiest place I’ve ever been, and you feel like the dirt will be with you forever), wash my hair, moisturize, and go to one of the nice restaurants that live off of Big Sky vacationers and seasonal residents. They’ll have real glassware, attractive waitstaff, and good food. It makes me feel like I’m back in civilization, and I smile all through dinner thinking about how I’m here and not in Williston. Bozeman feels like the best place I could possibly be on those nights, and I think I might have taken my last couple of work trips in part to enjoy its good company.

In February 2009, the year after Diablo Cody won her Oscar, Marisa Tomei was up for one for her role as a stripper in The Wrestler. I was in my Bozeman hotel room looking at Twitter and thought, I should have a Twitter account to comment on this stuff. I wonder if @StripperTweets is taken? It wasn’t. That new online identity lead to nearly all of the writing I do now, from Tits and Sass, the sex workers’ site I helped found, to this piece. It was also semi-anonymous for the better part of three years; I wouldn’t say where I worked or name the clubs, allowing me to vent freely.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

8.

Do boomtowns look like they’re booming? Do they look like rapidly growing cities with a flowering of new restaurants and retail hard on the heels of gentrifying entrepreneurs and industry? A surge in residential building leading to a proliferation of condos and subdivisions? Think of Portland, Oregon, which I’ve seen continue to grow over the last 10 years. It’s full of crafty creatives but also has Nike, Intel, Wieden+Kennedy, OHSU, even, still, some old-fashioned port and mill business. It booms and busts. It’s still pretty. Austin. Phoenix. Raleigh–Durham. When you think of their economic growth cycles, the boom part includes construction and new businesses. Changes in the skyline and storefronts.

But that’s what happens in an urban area, where people are already concentrated to a certain extent. Mineral extraction boomtowns are often small cities without diverse existing amenities and industries. It was big news that a doughnut shop had opened in downtown Williston this February, and this boom has been going on for five years. Not to say that the people there wouldn’t like more places to eat, it’s just that a single-industry boom means that all the resources tend to gravitate toward its single purpose. Think combat base instead of urban renewal. Williston looks like it is in crisis response mode.

In a way, it is. The city is $46 million in debt, and its credit rating has been lowered because they haven’t increased their income to keep up, hoping that the state will funnel oil tax revenue to them to help. Yet their sales taxes easily outpace those of any other city in the state. Locals complain about the rise in property taxes that accompany their increased value. Its infrastructure is expected to absorb all the people moving there or passing through, and it isn’t. The highways have been expanded for all of the oil company traffic, and a lot of new hotels have been built, but the schools are stressed and the police force stretched thin. Housing is in such short supply that Halliburton built a row of prefab housing for its employees close to the main drag. There are billboards for man camps — essentially barracks for the men who travel in to work, complete with cafeterias — on the highways coming into town. Businesses that have wanted to open in Williston or increase their staffing, like the Walmart, often can’t, because everyone who wants a job has one, or there’s nowhere to live for anyone who would move there. If they did move there to work, it sure wouldn’t be for an hourly retail gig.

Oil is rarely in pretty places. It is under the ground in the kinds of charmless places no one would visit if there wasn’t some valuable natural resource to extract. And yet at some point, westward-bound pioneers came through here and thought, Yeah. Flat. Cold. Dry. Dusty. This is the place to settle. It’s more likely, maybe, that they thought, No one will bother me here. Or even, maybe, I deserve this. You can see how no one would give a fuck about letting Halliburton, Nabors, Exxon, and Chevron tear up acres of prairie. Not once did I ever hear a Williston resident or worker mention anything about the dangers of fracking, which is not to say that there haven’t been concerns. With great understatement, a Reuters article about the groundbreaking for a refinery said, “The state has one of the lowest population densities in the United States and has little of the political, environmental or community opposition that’s helped scuttle all other refinery projects since Jimmy Carter was president.”

That low population density also means few diversions are available. Workers who travel there complain about the lack of places to shop or to eat. The last time I was there, I asked a lot of the guys I danced for what they thought Williston needed most, and every last one of them said “a mall.” Not a music venue or a good restaurant or a nice hotel — a mall. Maybe they come from smaller towns or ‘burbs where the mall is the social hub, or they find the lack of one emphasizes just how remote and relatively undeveloped Williston is. Or maybe they were just tired of the strip club being the easiest place to divest themselves of extra cash.

In an oil boomtown, the signs of economic activity are greater traffic, temporary housing, shelves out of bread. The population is transitory; even though some will choose to stay, the majority of those working in the oil fields won’t choose to ever call that place home. You wind up with something closer to a military base or the world’s saddest campground. The money that comes from the natural resources mostly leaves town. The investments required to extract it are focused on actual mechanics and equipment and support for that, not the human labor required. Looking from a distance, without the context of the driving economic engine, it’s a place with parking lots full of trailers, a struggling municipal infrastructure, and people far from home — who hope to get to somewhere better — looking for work. The thriving boomtown looks less like prosperity and more like The Grapes of Wrath.

Gregory Bull / AP, Shannon Stapleton / REUTERS, Susan Elizabeth Shepard

9.

The recession really started to crush dancers’ income in 2008. Friends based everywhere from Oregon to Florida complained of dead clubs and plummeting income and were talking about road trips, but even good seasonal spots were drying up. Somehow I’d wound up in a place that had taken longer to slide into recession, a beautiful, lucrative club in Missoula. A week’s booking there in May 2008 on the way back from Williston turned into an entire summer. When fall came, instead of taking the Airstream back to Portland, we rented an apartment and stayed in Missoula for two and a half years. I sang the praises of Montana and North Dakota to friends who came to visit and work. Montana was the fun place where money could be hit-or-miss, and Williston was the shithole where the money was all but guaranteed. While strippers around the country headed to Vegas, my friends from Vegas went to Williston. Other gas and oil towns in Wyoming and Colorado drew traveling dancers too, but Williston was by far the most consistent.

Even though it didn’t feel unsafe, Williston’s smallness felt creepy and intrusive the very first time I went. I had to go to the only laundromat that was open on a Sunday, and a customer came up and approached me. He was utterly harmless, but I was shocked that he talked to me instead of politely ignoring me as would be the case just about anywhere else. It’s another aspect of the collision of city stripper and small-town stripper. When you are a visiting woman who’s there to entertain, why shouldn’t you always be entertaining? Going into town, eating in a restaurant while people stare at you — or you and your friends — gives you some appreciation for what it must have been like for women of the red-light districts when they went into town at designated times, in groups, to run their errands. You are a public display.

Cautionary stories had spread amongst traveling strippers long before national outlets from The New York Times to The Awl were talking about the dangers of being a woman in Williston. Two of my Montana coworkers, Teddy and Casey, said they had to time their grocery shopping carefully. They stopped going to the 24-hour Economart after work because guys would follow them around the store when they’d shop late at night. Another carried a gun in her purse. Other dancers told stories of being followed to their hotels after work. Customers at clubs in other towns, hundreds of miles away, would warn of the dangers of Williston.

In the summer of 2010, I had lunch with Brandy and we talked about how crazy it was getting out there. One of the girls I was working with that week, the last time she was in town, left on a date with a guy. She got into his truck one night after work. But instead of going to the Hotel Vegas, he tore off north on 85 with her wondering what the fuck was going to happen. Once they passed the RV park and he wouldn’t slow down, she decided to break for it, opened the door, and rolled out onto the highway with her phone in her hand. She was at work the next day. She was fine, she said. I don’t think anything ever happened to the guy.

Whispers has a dancer house now, purchased by one of the club owners in late 2011. It’s marginally safer than the hotels. Customers who are locals or regulars act like they’re so smart when they let you know they’ve figured out where you’re staying or which car is yours. It’s hard to tell if they know how malevolent it feels. “Oh, you must be in the blue Dodge. I noticed the out-of-state plates.” “You’re in the dancer house, huh?” “Are you at the Vegas?” They might mean, “Are you a hooker?” or, “I can find you,” or, possibly, “I’m just making small talk.” That last one always seems the least likely.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

10.

Williston has two strip clubs now. There are probably 20 to 40 strippers working in town every night now instead of three. It took a long time for things to quickly change. First, Whispers started booking four dancers. Then a second club, Heartbreakers, opened right next door, and they didn’t even cap the number of dancers that could work. Not only that, they didn’t pay the dancers — and instead charged them a whopping $120 flat stage fee. Whispers upped their game by going to six dancers at some point in 2011. The last time I got a paycheck from them was in February 2012, and then the owner told me they weren’t going to pay dancers at all anymore.

So starting in 2012, instead of getting paid $250–500 a week, depending on the booking, we paid Whispers $120 a night. Instead of keeping $15 from each dance, dancers kept the whole $20. The club was remodeled to add a new stage and more room for private dances. “Champagne rooms” were built from wooden particle board, furnished with pleather ottomans and space heaters, so we could finally upsell customers to a $500/hour (minus 20% to the club). The same dressing room that held six dancers packed in 12 to 22 women a night. The pool tables are gone. There’s a DJ.

Seeing Whispers model itself on gentlemen’s clubs was like watching a dog walk on its hind legs. They brought in a manager from Atlanta who came into the dressing room to give pep talks at the beginning of the week and enthuse about the changes, including the soon-to-be-installed “Vegas-style light show.” Also, the customers, who apparently had CNN, assumed we were making thousands of dollars a night, and seemed to get cheaper as the club tried to become more upscale.

In 2011, North Dakota and Williston exploded in the news. There was a PBS series on the boomtown, New York Times articles, a Men’s Journal feature. Especially amusing to all the dancers who had worked out there was CNN’s piece that claimed strippers in Williston were making $3,000 a night based on one dancer’s testimony. I asked a lot of women I’d worked with if they’d ever seen a time when Whispers dancers were banking three Gs a night. Their answers ranged from “Fuck no” to “The only way someone could get close to that would be to include after-hours work.” I also asked them what their personal best nights ever were and got answers ranging from $600 to $1,600. And that’s best, not average. The ones who mentioned their average earnings put them between $300 and $800 nightly.

The appeal of Williston is, or was, its consistency, the fact that a slow night would equal $400 instead of the potential $0 or even negative outlay possible elsewhere. Add to that its relative ease and low contact levels and you have a place where the work itself is a little easier and more remunerative than in a lot of places. Once that CNN report aired, more and more dancers wanted to work in the two tiny clubs. Younger, cuter dancers from further and further away would book into Williston. Some of the old regular dancers found their bookings fewer and farther between. I noticed fewer black dancers, sometimes none. Some of the dancers who moonlit as escorts gave up dancing altogether, advertising online instead of getting clients in the club.

That’s appropriate for the changing customer demographic; they’re younger and more likely to use smartphones. There’s an excellent Facebook page maintained by a couple of younger transplants called the Bakken Fail of the Day, featuring truck wrecks, equipment failures, and stories about rig workers telling off their bosses. Most entertaining to me is reading the many comments about what jerks Texans are and what whiners Texas guys are about the cold. I won’t defend my native state, because a lot of them are complete nightmares as customers. They tend to want to tell you how they do it back in Houston, something I imagine is no less annoying in the oil fields than it is in the lap dance room. I do wonder what the rig equivalent is of trying to explain to a stripper why blow jobs in the champagne room are a good idea. Probably something about how OSHA isn’t looking, would be my guess.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

11.

Here are times I have had panic attacks about going to Williston:

• December 2007, in the truck on the highway. I called and canceled.
• February 2009, driving on iced-over roads toward the town. I made it in.
• July 2010, after the truck broke down in Bozeman, and I fantasized about just staying there. But I went.
• April 2011, when I’d flown back to Billings after going to New York to see LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden. I finished the booking.
• May 2012, nearly a full week before, while working in another city away from home. I canceled.
• Before returning in December 2012, I talked to my therapist about the coping strategies I’d use while there. And packed extra emergency Klonopin.

Traveling intensifies everything about stripping. Good nights feel twice as good, bad ones make you cry and question everything. When things are going well, the crappy motel has character and its quirks are tolerable. When they aren’t, every irritant is a reminder that you’ve forsaken the comforts of home to seek your fortune. I imagine oil field workers experience the same thing, although their salaries are guaranteed more than those of strippers. But they sleep in group housing, are far from home, and have taken a chance too. When it pays off, with fat paychecks to deposit or stacks of cash to take home, it feels like you’re living the American dream. Not everyone would just up and head for this remote place. Those who do, and who profit from it, congratulate themselves on their intrepid nature and fortitude. I never met a boring stripper in Williston. Some were awesome and some were train wrecks, but never were they dull. I keep in touch with a surprising number of them, and I think this is because once you’ve worked there, it’s like you went to boot camp together.

There’s something sad about profiting from the activities of an industry dedicated to sucking out natural resources that, once used, make the planet less hospitable to life as we know it. When I heard some customers talk about the possibility of oil exploration in my beloved, beautiful western Montana, my stomach dropped. But on a personal level, it felt like I was providing a needed service. Understand, I’m well aware that most guys are just there for titties and beer and to have their zippers polished by my butt. Sometimes, though, I’d rub a guy’s shoulders during a dance and he’d ask me to just keep doing that for five songs. Tense bodies slackened in response to my touch, hard faces softened when confronted with smiles, groups laughed and sang along to cheesy rock at the rack.

At times the customers were bafflingly delightful. The farmer who pulled a Leica out of his overalls and asked if he could take my picture. The shy, funny drilling contractor who would bring us surf and turf from the nearby steakhouse on slow nights. The tattoo artist who said the town was so small you could walk across it. The photographer on assignment to shoot one of the first boomtown articles written about the area. The local fortysomething lesbian smiling like a 21-year-old. The kid who was tickled that I recognized his Daniel Johnston T-shirt. These people would make my day.

Rows of trailers used as housing for oil workers in Williston, North Dakota. Ben Garvin / Reuters

12.

Williston residents complain that an unsavory element has been drawn to town, pointing to spikes in violent crime, sexual assault, and drug-related (often meth) arrests. In March, a man was murdered in the street in front of the two strip clubs. A brawl in Heartbreakers spilled into the street. It was possibly spurred along by one of the Heartbreakers bouncers. A man was shot and killed. The police didn’t arrive for 30 minutes because the on-duty officers were tied up at another (non-lethal) shooting on the other side of town. The phrase “the Wild West” is frequently uttered; to many it feels lawless. The shooter didn’t escape; he was arrested in a field in Billings, Montana, some 300 miles southwest of Williston, within the week.

The oil leaves North Dakota and so does the money. It’s funny to think about what a minuscule, tiny, insignificant fraction I’ve made out there, even though it amounted to a respectable year’s worth over a total of 16 work weeks. So little of the wealth that is being generated is going to stay there. The corporations making the real money in the Bakken aren’t based in North Dakota. Their executives are in no hurry to relocate there either. They can leave and still have jobs, though, unlike the oil field workers.

In May, the two strip clubs in Williston were forced to close as penalty for liquor law violations. Whispers was closed for a week, and Heartbreakers for a month. Around the same time, the sheriff came by to warn managers that they needed to make sure dancers weren’t making contact with customers. Unconfirmed gossip was that Whispers hadn’t racked up nearly as many violations as Heartbreakers, but the city felt they would be accused of favoritism if both weren’t cited. They are enforcing strict no-touching rules now. Perhaps the cycle has sped up or maybe this is a temporary glitch, but I’ve never seen so much attention paid to the clubs.

A few weeks ago I got a text from the manager: “Hi from whispers just wanted everyone to know we are short on girls and nightly house fee has been lowered to 60 dollars !!!” A club has to really be taking a hit to cut its house fee in half. Most of my friends are done with Williston now. They say the money has plummeted due to a drop in business from the crackdowns and the clubs’ tendencies to let as many dancers work as possible. The dancers still showing up are the latecomers, and some truly believe they will make thousands a night, only to be seriously disappointed when that’s not the case.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard

13.

Sometimes when I was driving on an especially flat, nowhere stretch of highway, I thought about the scene in Angels in America where the angel exclaims, “You must stop moving!” Mobility giveth and mobility taketh away, and while I was grateful to have the freedom to come to the boomtown, I was even more thankful to have the freedom to leave.

The last time I was there this past February, they were doing some renovations at Whispers, tearing up the carpet and replacing it with new, identical carpet. Piles of the old stuff were outside the club’s back door, and when I left the club the night before, it looked like an appropriately filthy yet eye-catching keepsake. So I drove down Main Street and tore off a doormat-sized rectangle of smoke-soaked carpet, rolled it into a trash bag, and put it in the trunk of my car. I drove the long way around town so I wouldn’t pass the Walmart traffic on my way out.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard
















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