Non-Fiction

What You Don't See

By: Jon Knox

Casually, but impeccably dressed, Gina pulls her new BMW into the parking lot of Houston’s most respected preschool, and emerges with her three-year-old daughter, Mandy. After goodbye hugs, kisses and a brief chat with other moms, Gina is off to her $150,000 a year job looking every bit a woman of wealth and privilege.

Thirty minutes later at the club, Gina’s presence on stage demands your attention. With the assistance of her mandatory 6-inch heels, she now stands 6-feet tall. Her blond hair and barely covered body easily transform many of the men in the club into her personal ATMs. Gina has now become “Jade”, quite a transformation from the “girl next door” that just dropped Mandy off.

Life has not always been comfortable for Gina. Somewhere deep inside are secrets – dark secrets never told. Just over a year ago, her hopes and dreams were shattered on the ground – a year before that, things were worse, much worse. Society asks our 17-year-old kids to make life decisions they are not prepared to make – who to hang out with, what career to pursue and where to go to college. Gina spent much of her young adult life suffering the consequences of those decisions.

Growing up in Houston’s suburbs with working parents and a younger brother, Gina’s grades were good and she excelled in sports through middle school. Her brother had a few minor run-ins with the law, but nothing too serious.

Then she met Brad.

Gina’s grades suffered during her senior year when she began going to raves and taking ecstasy. Alcohol and pot were always there, but ecstasy got bumped up to cocaine, meth-amphetamine, hallucinogenics, pain pills and it didn’t stop there. By graduation, she was a regular meth user and had been arrested for marijuana possession. Community college hopes of becoming a nurse barely lasted one semester. “It was too hard”, Gina said, “I’d stay up all night on cocaine studying for the test and then I was too tired to take it.”

As soon as Brad’s first prison sentence ended, the young couple moved in together and Gina decided to marry. “I thought I could change him; I thought he was just bad because of how he was brought up. I did not believe there were really bad people out there. Now I know.” Gina’s best trait is being nice; it may also be her worst.

With Brad’s influence, Gina’s drug addiction escalated as she racked up multiple stints in jail and added a couple of felony charges for drug possession. Her family all but disowned her. “I had so many days of waking up with no clue what I had done the last week. Everything I earned as a waitress became Brad’s drug money”. Alcohol, DWIs and nights in jail for drug possession became their life. “I was just along for the ride”, she recalls.

Then it got worse – Brad turned his violence on Gina when he was high on meth. “I didn’t know where I was going to live”, Gina says, “I knew I was going to die or spend my life in prison.” Gina, along with a reluctant Brad, finally decided to take a shot at cleaning their lives up.

Rehab didn’t work out. “I’d been up for two months on meth and they tell you to wake up at six in the morning for classes when all I needed was to recover and sleep.” So when things were down and no one was there to help, she decided to do it by herself. She slept for a month at her parent’s house and got clean. Gina proudly remembers her “sobriety date” now, four years later.

The newly-weds moved into a trailer home outside of Houston that Gina described it as “bad juju and beyond trailer trash”. Hurricane force winds ravaged several trailers in her section and fire came within a few feet from burning their home. The couple had been clean about a year when Gina found out she was pregnant.

Like the rest of her life, her pregnancy was a well-intentioned disaster. Ultimately she gave birth to a premature low birth weight girl by C-section. After the birth, Brad slid back into being his true self, which left Gina home alone, recovering from surgery and trying to care for a newborn. “No one was really there to help.” Brad was soon back on meth and called to brag about his new teen girlfriend. Her mom helped out a few days, but told Gina she needed to find a babysitter. Remembering those dark days, Gina says, “Even though Mandy was just a newborn, I couldn’t let myself look unhappy or cry – I didn’t want to bring all this sadness into her life. I had to be there for her.”

Out of necessity, Gina went back to waitressing. Just hours into her first day back on the job, the babysitter called and insisted she had to come back home when Mandy would not stop crying. Gina’s long relationship with the restaurant saved her by giving her time off for childcare. She quickly learned that although her waitressing used to support a meth habit; it could not pay for rent, childcare and babysitting – especially with an abusive husband who still showed up to steal money.

With multiple arrests and two felony charges, Gina’s prospects for getting a regular job, renting an apartment or taking out a car loan were just about zero. Society doesn’t roll out the welcome mat for a person with a criminal record, even when charges are dismissed. A felony arrest, even without a conviction, equals five or more years with no real job, no car loan and rejected apartment applications.

Once again Gina found herself in a familiar situation: desperate and alone, with no outside support. “I remembered the good money I made when I was 18 as a stripper at a club, making about five times what I could get as a waitress. But back then, I spent it all on drugs and partying”. So Gina decided to use the only tools in her arsenal to make it as a single mom with no help – she became a stripper. A tough choice for a three-month post-C-section mother still breastfeeding, but she made it work, once again all by herself. As time went on, she got her figure back and got into Houston’s top-paying clubs.

Brad continued to drift back into Gina and Mandy’s lives – always claiming to be sober. He would stick around long enough to steal money or take off in Gina’s car and disappear. Physical abuse became more common. As a last attempt to salvage the relationship, Gina convinced Brad to attend a religious-based marriage counseling program. At the end of the program, Brad posted photos of the girl he was still cheating with – wearing Gina’s clothes.

That was it for Gina: it was time to give up on Brad. She took Mandy went into hiding. The women’s shelters all turned them away because Gina insisted her dog had to come along. She packed most of her possessions into storage by herself and checked into a motel with Mandy. She changed her phone and cut off all social media, keeping a low profile until Brad inevitably found his way back into prison.

* * * * * * *

Fortunately for Gina, Texas loves its high-end strip clubs. For most, topless bars conjure up images of sleazy men and desperate women. True in the 1980s, but not so these days. Today’s top-end clubs have sleek interiors with leather seats and feature upscale liquors, highly rated wines, Cuban cigars and many have chefs and menus that rival Houston’s finer restaurants.

Most strippers are not paid employees, but freelance workers that may pay a fee to work or share their tips with wait staff and bartenders. In return, the restaurant employees often refer customers to their favorite strippers. It is a lot easier for someone with a questionable background check to get a job as a freelance employee – plus 100% of their income is usually cash. Gina said, “I could get a job as a freelance stripper here, but the club would never consider hiring me as an employed waitress; they said to come back in five years.”

A walk through the employee (stripper) parking lot at her club may be surprising – the car models are Lexus, Infinity and BMW’s, and many have a child seat in the back. “There are a lot of single moms struggling to get out of a bad situation on the day shifts,” Gina says. “Some are married and have discovered a day or two stripping can generate double what four days at their normal job pays.” Others are students who need to maximize their income during their limited work hours.

Being a successful stripper does have its perks – number one is the money. Gina also appreciates “the flexibility and being able to control your work hours. When Mandy is sick and I want a day off, it’s no problem, and if I want to work an extra shift, it’s no problem. I make more than most girls because I treat it as a regular job – I’m here for seven hours at least four days a week”.

While not ashamed of her occupation, Gina answers judgmental questions about her job by saying, “I work in a bar”, which is true. Prejudice toward her profession is one of the worst things about her job. “Everyone assumes you’re all wild party animals, you sleep around, do drugs and you’re prostitutes”. She also had to entertain men she normally would not choose to be around. When she first started Gina said the worst thing was, “being treated like a piece of meat”. Gina is now an experienced smooth talker with a flawless 25-year-old body, and says, “I pick my customers – they don’t pick me”.

Gina recently experienced that prejudice toward her profession when she stayed a bit after her shift to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Most young adults realize the legal blood alcohol level is way below “feeling drunk” and at 110 pounds, Gina knew even a drink or two could buy her a night in jail – something she desperately did not need. Calling for a driver was the safe choice, and Gina has to make safe choices these days. She grabbed the child car seat and they stopped en route home to pick up Mandy. Back at the apartment, Gina was talking to her daughter about her day and tucking her into the high chair for dinner when the Houston Police and Child Protective Services arrived. Her driver called the cops on her. Had Gina had been waiting outside an office building or an airport, nothing would have happened. Stripper is a label that comes with a lot of baggage – sometimes deserved, but more often not.

* * * * * * *

When asked to name the worst day of her life, Gina hesitates. She has been beaten and choked by a meth addict. She had her shirt ripped off, got hit in the head with a pistol and was left lying in a parking lot. A drug enraged Brad held her down in a fire ant bed. She narrowly escaped a year in prison for a probation violation. Another top contender was the night Gina tried to stop her husband from driving off while drunk.

Brad’s response was to beat her repeatedly. A neighbor called 9-1-1, and both were taken in for suspected public intoxication. Brad threatened to kill Gina if she ever got him in trouble with the police so to protect her own life, she lied to the police when asked if Brad beat her up. That got her arrested for a false police report, which violated her probation. Gina spent the next two weeks in jail, missing her first Mother’s Day with Mandy. It’s easy to see why Gina has trouble picking the worst day of her life.

As for Gina’s best days – they are now, spending time with her daughter. She drives a new BMW and supports her family, thriving in a society that tries to exclude her.

Gina enjoys her life as a mother, with Brad safely behind bars. When he gets out, she will be ready. “If he threatens me or Mandy, I will shoot him in the head.” After thinking about it she adds, “Actually I will probably shoot him in his junk first, then in the head”. The stripper-mom with a heart of gold does have her limits.

Three-year-old Mandy may not know it yet, but her mom is a hero and a warrior that clawed her way out of crime, drugs, jail, poverty and an abusive relationship to create a better life. She is saving money to start her own business. “I plan to be done being a stripper when Mandy is old enough to ask what I do.” Gina wants another child but does not want to repeat the traumatic pregnancy she experienced three years ago. Her plan is to go to the Philippines or South Korea and adopt a boy, “because I want to do something nice for an underprivileged child”.

Go Gina.

*** END ***

Categories: Non-Fiction

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