Around the time that I made the acquaintance of The Professor, armed with my high school transcripts and a couple thousand dollars, I intended to go to Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre and see if I could be admitted into the adult program for university.
Apparently, Zanzibar opened before the Student Learning Centre did and was only a 2 minute walk away (map image posted above). I paid my loonie cover charge to a blind, coloured man holding a thin, wooden cane that was polished to a high sheen, pock marked with knots and knobbed like the bones of a spine then went inside.
I remember the contrast between light and dark, the small globes of light that lined the stage and the affectionately named “pervert’s row”. I started drinking when I was thirteen, so having a beer didn’t bother me. I just hadn’t been to many bars so felt tongue tied when the mini skirted waitress appeared out of nowhere to ask me what I wanted to drink. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the change in light and they watered with the effort. I ordered a Canadian.
The girl that came on stage seemed to be the only dancer working that early afternoon. I moved to “pervert’s row” at her insistence. At this point, this was my first trip to a strip joint. The first of many, I might add, but that’s another story. As I was the only one there and she was trying to work, she did better with encouragement. So I clapped and smiled and generally gave her positive feedback the only way a
nineteen twenty one year old idiot can (EDIT> I finished high school at 17 – plus four years is 21)
I saw the tattoo of the penny on her butt cheek and asked about it.
“That’s my name,” she said. “Penny. I did it with the leaf side up because I didn’t want the Queen’s face on my ass.”
She became my confessor that day. There were no stakes between us so I was more honest with her than I can remember being with anyone at that point. Not my parents, not my closest friends, not anyone.
One of the many thing I told her involved how I stopped caring about university in my last year of high school, after a guidance counsellor took the time to pull me aside and sit down across from me at a steel desk with a faux wood suface in cramped room to explain that no one went to school to be Stephen King. I finished with four OACs (3 english, 1 math). At the time, I think you needed 6 to be considered for univiersity. I didn’t even go to my graduation.
“No one can go to school to be Stephen King,” she said.
I can’t remember how many beers we shared at this point but I do know I paid for all of them. She sat naked across from me after I turned down a lap dance so I figured I owed her something. As per the law, she sat on a small towel on the dark, wooden chair. I think the law had something to do with she couldn’t be completely naked – she had to have one article of cloth with her. Frankly, I never looked it up.
She went on further to explain, “Stephen King didn’t even go to school to be Stephen King.”
He went to school so he could write.
“Do you need to go to school so you can write?” She asked.
I honestly had no idea.
“Then why not save your money and just write and see where it takes you?”
Wasn’t I supposed to go to university? That’s what people did.
“Doesn’t mean you have to. If you don’t know where to go, keep doing what you are doing, and eventually where you need to be will catch up with you.”
Never made my way to the office that day and not sure what I did after that. The next few years – hell, almost a decade – is mostly a blur.
Seven or eight years ago, my family and I found a photographer selling his pictures outside of St. Lawrence Market when I stopped cold in my tracks. He had taken a photo of Zanzibar at night, all zeon and blurred, kind of like how you would see it after a couple of drinks. I asked him about it and he took it with a remote camera with a long exposure while he walked in and out of the club. In the photo I liked, you could see him walking out, a grey smudgy blurr, as if looking both ways before crossing the street.
I bought the photo and Mell got it framed and it hangs in the entranceway of our house. I don’t keep secrets from my kids, so I told them this story about the stripper and how this photo kind of represents the diploma I never accepted and the degree I didn’t pursue. It kind of embarasses Elena – she’s a bit of a prude, God bless her – but I want her and her brother to know what I did in my past and maybe, together, we can both come to understand it.