Vagabond Tales: Welcome To Portland, Strip Club Capital USA

As I squeeze the last bits of orange garnish into my pint of Blue Moon, a man to my left is having his nostrils plugged by a gyrating set of female genitals.

Releasing him from the flesh cave, the attractive blonde stripper – to the immense enjoyment of the sophomoric and semi-erect set of friends he’s brought with him – suddenly doubles around and stiffly slaps a hand across his clean shaven face. This is my fourth strip club of the night, and even I didn’t see that coming. It’s all part of her shtick, however, and from the look of things the two are no more than 10 minutes from a trip to a private room.

No, this isn’t some testosterone fueled frat party, it’s just another night out in Portland, Oregon, strip club capital USA.

Despite the fact that this northwestern city is lauded for its microbrews, coffee and eco-friendly public transport, believe it or not, Portland is also home to more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America. Not Las Vegas. Not Detroit. Portland.

So just like the brilliant minds that put together Strip City, the documentary featured above, I, too, came to Portland on a mission to try and find out what it is that keeps the city so excessively nude.

“Well, the girls are definitely hotter than in Bangkok.” The woman making the observation is my wife, an oddly willing participant in the evening.

We’ve entered into Stars Cabaret in the suburb of Beaverton, and through info gleaned from local friends, the place is meant to be slightly more upscale. From the way a customer is strategically inserting a $10 bill, however, I question the level of class.

With dancers operating on four stages, to the far right of my table a dancer is removing her red thong with a tool called another man’s teeth. No expert on yoga or anatomy, it appears as if she’s tearing something potentially used in childbirth.

Like many other PDX establishments, Stars offers a fairly wide variety of food to accompany the cocktails and nipples, a service I haven’t encountered in the seedy strip joints of my past. Amongst the specials being advertised is free prime rib on Wednesday’s (a $20 value, apparently), and I question the morality of luring customers to a strip club by offering free chunks of meat. The promo seems to be a common one around town, however, so I figure it must be alright.

As the DJ switches into an up-tempo house beat, I ponder my own personal theories on why this Northwest city has such an affinity for poles and panties. Is it the weather? Are the 10 months of gray drizzle an excuse for erotic indoor fantasies? Perhaps it’s an extension of Portland’s well-known arts scene, an avenue for exercising freedom of expression and the beauty of the human form? Or, maybe it’s as simple as Portland is just full of a lot of really kinky people hopped up on microbrews and ready to get weird.

The answer I get from a woman named Diane who is working the entrance paints a far more logical picture:

“I think it’s simply because of the laws.”

Disappointed by its blandness, I’m amazed it’s a reasoning I hadn’t thought to explore.

“Yeah, Portland just has some really lenient laws when it comes to the ability to serve liquor and stay open late. Plus, the girls can be fully nude.”

Intrigued by the legal leniency, I decided to delve deeper into the issue and discovered that, yes, Portland does in fact have remarkably casual laws. I could give you the legal jargon that I discovered (which pertains to Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon constitution), or, I could simply allow you to ponder over the blunt quotation I found on the Portland Bar Fly site:

According to Mr. Bar Fly, “our laws kick ass in that strippers can show their beaver while you drink whiskey and eat steak. You’ll never, ever be alone”. Yeah. Pretty much sums it up.

I thanked Diane at Stars for their hospitality, and I decided to take the question downtown to where the Portland stripping scene all started: Mary’s.

Originally a piano bar owned by Mary Durst, new owner Roy Keller decided in 1965 to spice his shows up by having topless girls rile up the crowd between piano sets. When it became apparent that customers were far more interested in girls than the piano, Mary’s Club changed tacks to become Portland’s first official strip club, swapping to fully nude shows once the law allowed it in 1985.

Closer to a historical landmark than a glitzy new club, I enter the dimly lit room to find a buxom blonde requesting money for the jukebox in three different languages.
That’s right. A jukebox. I told you this place was old school.

I order a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a plate of fish tacos (which were phenomenal), and sit back to watch the show. Adorning the walls are the famous hand-painted murals that Roy used to attract customers prior to realizing a set of bare breasts would do the trick. Unlike Stars, where the cocktail waitresses prance about in neon excuses for clothing, the staff at Mary’s is conservatively dressed.

I speak with our waitress, a daughter of the family-owned and operated establishment, and she agrees on the theory that the laws simply allow a lot of, shall we say, flexibility in their ability to give people what they want.

A man in the front row tells the dancer she’s sexy and slides her a $20 bill. Ultimately, it seems they’re both getting what they want. More than just seduction, at the end of the night, this is still just business as usual. A standard case of supply and demand, for every man (or woman) out there who’s in need of some immediate nudity, there is a woman (or man) who is need of some hard earned cash.

According to “Rocket” of the “Rocket Report” column that appears in Exotic Magazine (yes, Portland has its own erotic magazine that features ads, maps, and directions to 52 different clubs), “in Portland, strippers can achieve a level of public status that rivals rock stardom. If you play your cards right, it can also equal big money.”

One of the cocktail girls at Stars tells me that the girls at Casa Diablo across town are making some real good money right now. She says it’s one of the current hotspots, and it’s got a reputation as being one of the “dirtiest” clubs in town. I find this to be ironic seeing as it’s also an all vegan establishment, which according to their site, is the first of its kind in the entire world.

I look up their ad in Exotic magazine and notice that they promise, amongst other things, live “girl on girl” shows.

Vegan food and lesbian fantasies, you ask? In a town with dozens of strip clubs I suppose it’s a constant battle to stand out from the crowd, a malleable science from which I am sure the patrons of Portland greatly benefit.

Unable to make it all the way across town to Casa Diablo, I instead walk down East Burnside to a club called Union Jack’s. Recommended by a friend with an intimate history of Portland strip clubs, he claims that the last time he visited “the place totally fired me up.”

I pay my $5 cover to the doorman and head inside, my expectations running high. Within 30 seconds I can tell the place is completely lawless, and it does, in fact, totally fire me up.

A dancer fresh off of her turn on the stage casually walks to the bar and orders a drink with the rest of the crowd, her completely naked body a stark contrast to the clothed pack of gentlemen conversing with her. As I head to the bathroom I’m bumped by a door I didn’t even notice was there. Again, a completely naked woman scurries out from a backroom, apparently in the middle of something and needing some assistance.

While some of the other clubs I’d visited had a semblance of professional separation between dancer and patron, this scene is little more than a souped-up frat party gone awry. You have the feeling that at any moment you might get lucky, an atmosphere, which I’m sure contributes to the place being packed.

And then, as I watch a man nearly suffocate while fully ensconced in a young girl’s breasts, everything suddenly begins to clear: the lenient laws may seem to be the reason for the explosion of fully nude clubs in Portland, but they are simply a catalyst for greater human tendencies.

To sell your body is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession (though by no means are strippers prostitutes), and for thousands of years humans have paid money to tickle their most primal urges. For those who are doing the disrobing, many times it’s more than simply the money, as many strippers I know have told me there’s also a sense of beauty, confidence, and empowerment that goes along with the job.

On both sides of the stage, these are all emotions in a human’s life that need addressing, and the laws simply allow the greater root cause to express itself in its overtly lustful form.

So here’s to you Portland, Oregon, for managing to keep an entire city sexually sated and passionately intrigued; when it comes to celebrating the beauty of the flesh, your frosty pint of microbrew decidedly runneth over.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

[Photo Credits: Kyle Ellison]