Here's a Christmas memory from 10 years ago as I delve into the archives for a more distant vanishing.
Personal journal entry from December 19, 1997: Last night was our office Christmas party. I had three gin & tonics. Then I went over to Billy's Topless to look at the girls. A crazy girl who called herself Heidi did her thing in a sexy Santa outfit--red with white fur-trim skirt, panties, bra, and camisole--and blue glitter eyelashes. She was very 1950s camp, blowing kisses and shooting us with her fingers, going "Pow! Pow!" and blowing on her finger like it was the smoking end of a gun. She licked her nipples and stuck dollar bills to them, then shimmied until the dollars fell off, fluttering to the stage. I couldn't tell if she meant to be campy or was just out of her mind.
That was the last year Billy's was topless. Thanks to Giuliani’s “Quality of Life” campaign, Billy's Topless, like the majority of New York's great neighborhood strip joints, was forced to require bikini tops and driven out of business. Located on The Corner, at 6th and 24th, it is now a bagel shop.
These changes drastically reduced the quality of life for lots of honest working girls. They moved from areas like Chelsea and Tribeca to dangerous neighborhoods in the Bronx where work could still be found. Or, if they made the cut, they moved to Manhattan's "upscale" strip joints, where they would have to hustle drinks and lap dances, and where plastic surgery is required.
Billy's wasn't like that. For over two decades, Billy's was a neighborhood bar. They served a free sterno-heated buffet (that no one ever touched). The customers and the dancers knew each other, chatted together, and no one got hustled. There was no cover charge. I went in once with a cheap guy who refused to buy a drink--the only requirement for the privilege of sitting in Billy's. The bouncer bought the guy a beer and said, "Just sit with it in front of you."
Girls from the Coney Island Sideshow danced at Billy's, tattoos and all. The stars of the new burlesque paid the rent and tried out new routines at Billy's. Each girl was unique, some beautiful, some boring, while others looked like something straight out of Diane Arbus.
But like everything else in New York, stripping was plowed under by the monoculture, the machine that, in the name of sanitation, dictates: Everything must be the same. Now just about the only girls you can see taking off their tops are robots, breast-enhanced, each one a clone of the other. And for that privilege it's going to cost you more than the price of a beer.
all photos of Billy's are screenshots from the movie Rounders