I start making money at midnight.
My first reservation is for the Power Forward of the New York Knicks, his minimum spend is $1500, meaning I’ll make an automatic $300 tip. He’ll tip extra because that’s what famous men do in the presence of pretty girls, which I am. I’m a Bottle Girl– a VIP waitress at a New York City night club.
12:17: My second table arrives, stockbrokers eager to be in the same room as professional athletes. An $1100 spend, $220 for me. Another hundred in cash, which I shove into my boot. A tip for the cocaine I bring them.
12:33: The third reservation, the newest draft pick for the Giants. A wide receiver, I think. He’s young, barely 21 years old. He looks smaller in person. He orders the worst brands of liquor, hasn’t acquired a taste. But he buys a lot: $2500 in total. $500 for me.
1:27: My final table, a group of my friends– women and men. I give them a deal, it’s the fun part of the job. $500 for two bottles of cognac, $100 tip.
3:47: The manager leaves me alone in the office where I’m organizing my receipts while he ushers out drunk guests. I grab a USB drive from my boot– the other foot, not the one with cash in it. I shove it into a computer which is connected to the security cameras, download the video footage for the night, and copy it onto the drive before putting it back inside my shoe. $9000 for the drive, it’s the only reason I come to work anymore. The tips I make are pocket change, cash I’ll spend that week.
I work at The Side Door, the most elite and exclusive nightclub in Midtown Manhattan. I have a college degree, but the entry level jobs I qualified for when I was 22 couldn’t cover the cost of living in New York City. All I want is to be independent, support myself. I don’t want to be anybody’s burden. I don’t want to feel like I did growing up– the child of a young, unprepared single mom. In my first three years working bottle service I paid off the small amount of student loans I borrowed to cover what my financial aid package didn’t. Now, at 27, I don’t need anyone. Mostly because of this past year. All because of security tapes.
New York is known for its nightlife. It’s “the city that never sleeps” because people spend their after-dark hours snorting cocaine until sunup. It’s how the wildly intelligent, overly ambitious city dwellers blow off steam (pun intended). And while the Meatpacking District may boast outrageous and Instagram-worthy venues known worldwide, there’s truly nothing like The Side Door. And that’s because it doesn’t exist, except to those who know of it.
You can try to google it, or pull it up on social media, even zoom in on the address on whatever map app you use, but you won’t find it. The Side Door is a word-of-mouth only hotspot. Customers need the nightly password to get in, it wouldn’t matter if you were the most famous rapper alive or were carrying a briefcase full of bills. No password, no entry.
So, what does this type of exclusivity foster? Fucking debauchery. The Side Door is where famous men bring their side chicks– once known as mistresses. Where married men come for a boy’s night out, only to leave with girls. Where drugs are out in the open and the liquor never stops flowing. It’s hell on earth. Or heaven, depending on how you look at it.
For the five us that work there, it doesn’t feel like work at all. There are two bartenders, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Drunk– as I call them; a barback named Tristan; and a manager named Nicky. I’m in love with Nicky, in the most platonic way possible. So is everyone else that comes to the Door. He radiates positive energy from behind a thick, shampoo-ad-caliber beard and likes to get really fucked up. It’s impossible not to fall for him: his vibes are contagious and everyone tries to match his level of fun.
And then there’s me. One table-side bartender for 8 VIP tables– half of which are given to promoters who fill them with the most famous girls on Instagram– arranged in a circle around a dance floor. The club is just crowded enough. They let in just enough non-VIPs to ensure there’s envy in the air and status for big spenders, while still allowing room to grind without being bumped. As it turns out, I was the key to The Side Door. I make the money. No one sells bottles like me. I’m not going to act like it’s a hard job. It’s a game, really. It’s easy to figure out if you can figure out men. And men are easy. Not relationships, I’m shit at those. But men, in the most primal sense, are pretty basic. No one is actually selling bottles here (don’t get me wrong, that is the literal transaction), but when the price of liquor is marked up 1000%, what we’re really selling is a dream. A night away from real life. VIP status. And I play the dream girl. I give my clients what they want. And men want to be worshipped, like their jokes are hilarious and their wallets are as big as their cocks, but by a woman they have to chase. A living paradox. And in this world of escapism, they don’t want to party with the stunning model who is preoccupied with posing (sleep with, sure), they want the fun-loving chick who will go shot for shot with them and dance in a shower of champagne no matter what it does to her hair. I’m her. And yet, I’m unattainable, flitting from table to table to entertain all of my customers and never spending the night with any. I’m not who you want to marry, or bring home to mom, or even Netflix and chill with. I am who makes you blow all your money and say ‘it was worth it’ the next day. I’m the chick you’d call to curate a bachelor party. Which would be a great side hustle, if I weren’t already making a small fortune selling security tapes.
It started roughly a year and a half ago. On accident. A series of unfortunate events. Or fortunate, depending on how you look at it. I was in the office before a shift, having gotten there early. I was taking Snapchat selfies while the Tweedles set up the bar, Tristan got my tables ready, and Nicky stood in the locker room doing bumps, which left me alone when the phone rang. Startled, I looked around the room as if someone was there to answer.
“You’ve reached The Side Door, are you calling to pick your poison?” It just popped into my head. I thought it was funny, contemplated writing it down.
“Um, hi, um,” there was a brief pause. “I’m wondering if I could get a copy of a receipt from last night. My husband was there. We um, we need it for. . .” she paused it again. “We need it for tax purposes?”
Okay, so clearly it wasn’t for tax purposes.
“I’m not the manager,” I said. “But I could track him down for you. He can pull up that receipt.”
“Oh well, um.” I was getting a little tired of the stuttering and meek demeanor. It wasn’t my style. It reminded me of my mother, the way she sounded when the various boyfriends she paraded through our lives shouted at her. I made it a point to spend as little time on the phone with my mother as possible. “You’re a girl, maybe you could do me a favor. You know. . . woman to woman.”
Oh no, not “woman to woman.” Woman to woman was my weakness. Despite spending my work life in a literal bachelor’s paradise, I fought to be by-the-book when it came to relationships and what could be classified as ‘girl code.’ Sure, I helped rack up credit card bills and create a party ambiance that could rival Las Vegas or Ibiza. But I blamed the liquor and drugs for the choices men made after I fed it to them. I blamed men for the choices men made while inebriated.
“What favor?” I asked. She had me hooked. If she didn’t want the receipt, what did she want?
“So, like I said, my husband was in there last night,” her voice was different, the stutter was gone. “You might have recognized him. He plays for the Chicago Bulls.”
“He was at my table.”
“And did he have any lady friends with him?”
I didn’t say anything. The club ran on anonymity. My independence existed because of the club’s anonymity. And yet, she’d said ‘woman to woman.’
“See, I’m done with his shit” she continued, brisk and assertive.
I jerked the phone away from my ear. Stared at the receiver for a split second. This was no shy, heartbroken chick. This was the voice I’d wished my mother found on all those childhood nights I lay with my head underneath a pillow, pretending I couldn’t hear the screaming coming from the other room.
“I want to divorce him,” she went on. “But I signed this prenup. I’d get nothing. But there’s a fidelity clause. God knows how his lawyer let that slip in there. Couldn’t have been on purpose. Everyone knew he slept around. Everyone but me, I guess. Well, back then at least.”
She wanted her independence, too. I understood.
“He was with a lady friend.” I blurted out.
To counteract my homelife, I’d filled my teen years with rom coms and held onto my virginity. The men I’d seen my mother bring home disgusted me. The boys at my high school couldn’t interest me (plus, college was my ticket out and earning that ticket was all that mattered). But the leading lads in all my favorite films, they had my heart. In college, miles away from the turmoil that occupied my mind, I thought I could finally have my romance. I thought I could be different from my mother. I fell in love with someone on the football team. Fell in love before we’d even fallen into bed together. I thought that because I liked him and he liked me, that was it. He would make me his girlfriend, and we’d be together forever. But I learned quickly that I wasn’t the only one he had his eye on. And the other women were more hip than I, happy to just have a piece of him – especially since he was NFL bound – when I wanted the whole thing, the happily ever after.
I wish he had been all that I needed to learn my lesson. But there were more, more deceipt and more heartbreaks. Nearly half a decade more. I’d never seen a woman stand up for herself. I had to figure out how all on my own. But before I’d sorted it out and figured out men and learned how to play the dream girl and eventually stopped hoping for romance all together, I’d found myself in the same cycle of emotional abuse I’d witnessed for most of my life. So (as it turned out) if I could help anyone else break that cycle, I absolutely fucking would.
I heard her sigh.
“Could I, um, record you saying that?” she asked, some of the docility returning to her voice. I hated hearing it.
I pushed the desk with my free arm, spinning the swivel chair 360 degrees, wrapping myself in the phone cord and bumping the computer mouse in the process. I heard the chime of the monitor coming alive. I could see the four quadrants of the club floor. Tristan stacked empty glasses on my tables.
“You know,” I said. “I can do you one better. I have it on video.”
There was a silence. I waited. It dawned on me that she might be crying.
“But the club,” I continued. “It’s discrete. If word got out. . .”
“Name your price,” she cut me off.
What was fair? With the divorce, if assets were divided evenly, she’d have millions. And what if I got fired? My rent was nearly $2K a month. How much security did I need in case I couldn’t get another job? And what was legal? How much money could one person give another without it raising suspicion?
“What about five thousand?” she asked when my silence had lingered long enough.
“Nine,” I said. I knew ten would set off a notice at the bank. “Nine and you can’t tell anyone where you got the video.”
“Okay, nine,” she said. “I’m Rachel, by the way. And I’ll only show the video if I have to.”
I knew what she meant. The threat might just be enough. We exchanged numbers. Exchanged texts. Exchanged a USB for a check by mail. And I waited.
For weeks I waited. I’d wake up and search Google News for her husband’s name, anticipating the headlines: ‘Video Scandal Helps NBA Wife Take Half.’ But it never came.
Eventually, on a particularly stalkerish morning, I saw her divorce filing. It cited ‘irreconcilable differences.’ I understood. She had the reins. The divorce would go her way. They’d be tactful on social media. They’d look mature to anyone on the outside. Only I would ever know what went on behind the curtain. And really, I’d only know the half of it. But I had nine thousand dollars in my savings account. A savings account that was previously empty.
One night, the Bulls were in town to play the Knicks again. The password was sent out and reservations were made. I sat in the office. Nicky was typing away at the computer viciously. I pretended to scroll Instagram while staring at Rachel’s text thread.
Bulls coming in tonight. If you have any friends who need proof… I wrote.
I spent the whole night feeling sick to my stomach. She never texted me back.
But at 4:04 am, just as I was nearly done with my cash out and looking forward to a post-shift drink, I got a message from an unknown number.
Rachel referred me. Check is in the mail. I want the tape. And an address.
I didn’t need to ask who it was. I’d been serving her husband all night.
From there, word spread as quickly as shots went down. Every night there was a different unknown number on my phone. Every couple days, another check in my mailbox.
I hired a lawyer, set up a mostly-legal business. A video production LLC. The problem was, I was selling something that wasn’t mine. But according to the IRS, I was a legitimate CEO. I paid my taxes, but I had a plethora of ‘business expenses’ and a creative CPA, so they didn’t add up to much.
I felt good about it. The legitimacy- I was a person who had her own lawyer- and the money. But I kept replaying Rachel’s initial ask in my head, ‘woman to woman.’ That resonated for me. That’s what made me feel best.
I worked three nights a week, every week. I sold one video tape per night. I never put the videos on my personal computer for fear of tracing, which meant I never made copies. It was first come first serve. Often, I had text messages and checks mailed to me before I even had reservations.
I bought CDs. Stocks that paid 16% dividends. Set myself up to live off the interest if I ever had to.
My first Chanel purse was pink. I’d always hoped that would be the case, that I could spend $5K on something impractical. One Monday, I flew my girlfriends down to Miami. Bought dinner at Nobu, a table at E11Even. Handed them each a stack. They looked at me like I was insane. I told them my clients were tipping extra these days, especially when I brought them cocaine. A task which I’d actually handed off to Tristan. He needed the cash more than me. They threw my one-dollar bills at strippers.
One day, seven months after the second tape sold, I was trying on Tom Ford heels at Bergdorf Goodman and enjoying an afternoon alone. I felt a hand on my shoulder. My heart fell through my stomach. I was caught. I could see my own fear reflected in the expression of the stylist kneeling before me holding my foot in her hand, my shock fanning across her face. Was it a bitter husband? A husband’s lawyer? The police?
“Do those come in black?” a woman asked from behind me, taking her hand off my shoulder.
I started to breathe again. I turned around. I didn’t recognize her. She wasn’t even one of the wives. Just a Park Avenue princess pushing 60.
“Be thankful for your youthful feet, dear,” she said as the stylist waved over a coworker to help find her size.
It was time to admit that I was afraid. The connection between buying bottles at The Side Door and getting served with divorce papers had to be obvious by now. Didn’t it? Although, the club visits weren’t always followed by divorce. Sometimes I didn’t know what the wives did with the tapes, what arsenal they created. But, divorce or not, the timing would still align. I was still in the middle of their closed-door drama. What would happen to me if I was found out? Could I be sued? Arrested? Or would someone take a riskier, more violent route?
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,” my lawyer said whenever I asked. I appreciated his ‘if.’ But felt more like a ‘when’ to me.
Sometimes I’d lay awake at night wondering what I’d have to do when I got caught. Losing my job wasn’t too big a deal. Money wasn’t too big a deal (In case you haven’t done the math, it’s $27K/week x 52 weeks/year. I had the potential to make $1,404,000 in my first year). But the town, New York City. The nightlife scene. I’d be eaten alive. Spit out.
I thought, perhaps, I could flee to Los Angeles. Live by the beach. Maybe find someplace quiet.
On the one-year anniversary of the second sale, with over 1.2 million dollars in the bank (account for quiet weekends around the holidays or during off seasons and subtract living expenses), I took my best friend to Eleven Madison Park and, over a bottle of Dom Perignon Rosé, told her what I’d been doing.
“Relax!” She said between sparkling sips. “Anyone with a camera phone could be doing that if they were smart enough or not afraid of looking like a celebrity gawker.”
I gulped down my first glass, unbothered by the bubbles. She was right. The Instagram girls who came to the Door were so busy posing and hoping to be chosen by somebody’s husband, they couldn’t see the opportunity past their own vanity and thirst. But it could have been anybody’s game.
“Plus,” she said, “These guys have it coming to them. In this digital age, they shouldn’t be doing anything in public that they don’t want filmed.”
“Am I setting them up, though?” I asked. “The liquor. The drugs. The tables full of girls. It looks like a ruse to get caught cheating.”
“You and every other night club in America,” she replied, her sassy hand holding the champagne glass out to the side. “You just stack your cash and when it’s over, it’s over. I mean, you can’t be a bottle girl forever, anyways.”
She sipped her champagne as if she had just dropped a microphone at the end of an epic performance. And it felt like that kind of moment. Truth was, I had two more years in me, maybe. Might as well make the most of it. Stack my cash, I thought to myself. Set up my future. This was initially about my independence, after all. That’s what matters. Stack my cash. It became more important than anything else. More important than ‘woman to woman.’
Stack my cash, I thought each night on my way to work, staring out cab windows at glittering buildings that blurred as we sped past. This was New York City– how many people had started with a dream and adjusted their morals for a pay day? That was the game.
Stack my cash, I repeated silently every time I opened my mailbox.
Six more months and another six hundred thousand plus. Even if I’d only had CDs earning 3% interest, I could still live off the earnings year after year. Not the way I’d been living– I could kiss Chanel goodbye, but better than most Americans.
It dawned on me that to the IRS, my video production company– that popped up out of nowhere and earned over a million dollars in its first year of operation– might appear to be making porn. I thought that was fantastic.
6:07am: The end of another fruitful shift, a year and half since the sale of my second tape. I’m walking down 10th avenue to my apartment in Hudson Yards after taking the crosstown bus. The morning air is my wind down, my relief from the buzz of it all. I have on a full-length shearling coat, champagne in my hair, and a USB worth nine thousand dollars in my boot. The morning work crowd is already swarming the streets. I only half pretend that I can blend in with them. I know I look like last night’s mess.
My phone rings, it’s my client, the Power Forward of the Knicks who’d just spent fifteen hundred bucks on bottles. I imagine he left something at the club, lost his ID. I answer.
“Miss me already?” I say. I’m still playing the dream girl.
“So about that security tape. . .” he begins.
I stop dead in my tracks. Some rushing worker bumps me from behind and sends me stumbling forward. When I regain my balance, I duck into the door frame of an apartment building that isn’t mine. My coat is suddenly much too hot despite the winter temperature.
“What, um, what footage?” I say. I used to practice this. Faux surprise. But I’d stopped practicing months ago when I’d finally told my secret to my best friend, and now I’m giving away more than I’m hiding.
He laughs. Laughs calmly.
“Look,” he says. He doesn’t sound angry. “Tonight was wild. We both know that. And we both know what game you got going on.”
I don’t say anything. My mental roleplay never got this far.
“I’m not even mad,” he continues.
This is it. The end of my steady cash flow. It’s a couple years earlier than I expected, but I can manage. I should turn off my Zillow notifications, probably. But I can live.
“It’s a pretty slick game you got going. I gotta admit, I even respect it. But this club. I’ve been in New York for a long time, and I’ve never seen this type of energy anywhere else. We can’t lose the club.”
I’m still holding my breath.
“How much did my wife offer you for the tape?” he asks.
“Nine thousand,” I say. I don’t even bother denying it.
“Okay,” he says. “Sell it to me. I’ll pay triple.”
My breath billows like cigar smoke in the frozen air. The sky is almost purple this time of morning. The rising sun reflects off windowed offices 30 stories up, making dozens of golden circles that seem to spin in a slow clockwise motion.
“Done,” I say.
And it isn’t the end. It isn’t the end at all. In fact, it’s just beginning.