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It's my first night as a Candy Girl. I'm decked out in a tight vintage black dress, a leopard fur coat, fishnet stockings, and red lipstick. On the outside, I'm trying to channel The Notorious Bettie Page. On the inside, there’s a tape recorder in my bra.
As a Candy Girl, my job is to carry a 15-pound tray around my neck and sell overpriced cigarettes, candy and sex toys to drunken strangers. Through some loophole in labor laws, I’ll be paid no hourly wage and get only a 10% cut of what I sell, plus tips. I got this choice job after a grueling interview process that consisted of being over 18, having a pulse, and really needing the money.
I walk into the San Francisco Candy Girl office around 8 PM and am immediately greeted by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Two women pause from chain-smoking to introduce themselves. Amy and Ruth tell me they are both “flat broke” despite the fact they both work five nights a week. They’ve applied to jobs as janitors and dishwashers, anything but this job. But no one else will hire them. Later that night, I learn Ruth and Amy are both military veterans.
“Some nights I walk out of here with only 15 dollars,” says Amy. “It’s not meant to be a regular job. But with the way things are now, this is all there is. Back in the good days, they used to actually used to CHARGE girls $200 just to get a tray. That’s how much money you made selling. Now -- well, it’s not like that.”
Ulterior journalistic intentions aside, the idea that I’ll probably be making less than 50 bucks tonight is not great news. Amy and Ruth continue to give me advice for my first night. The first thing I should know: watch out for bitches.
“There’s always going to be one person,” says Ruth, smiling to herself. “Now, that person will usually be a girl. And she will usually be blonde. And she will try to speak for the entire group. She does not speak for the entire group.”
I ask if women are usually threatened by candy girls.
“I mean, San Francisco is filled with pretty girls. Some pretty guys, too,” laughs Amy. “You think about it, they spend all this money on their dresses and makeup, and they think, Yea I’m hot. And then they get to the club and there’s 200 other girls--”
“Same fucking black dress, same black shoes–” Ruth shakes her head.
“And then we roll in, looking different, in our costume….well you know what happens,” Amy laughs.
It’s time to go. Ruth helps me fit my tray so that it sits at my belly button. It feels like I’m carrying Marlboro triplets. After standing for just a minute, I’m already exhausted.
“So how long does the average girl last?” I ask.
“About two nights,” Ruth smiles.
We’re dropped off at our first assigned bars in the Mission district. I walk into the first bar, and feel people stare at me. I start approaching patrons. I’ve been advised not to, but I can’t help but ask customers if they want something, rather than telling them.
“What can I get you, honey?” I purr.
I try to play a more overtly sexual version of myself, and while I’m not doing a terribly bad impression, it’s not moving product. People are nice, but not drunk enough to buy five-dollar candy bars. I move on to a Mexican bar down the block where I make my first sale: two roses.
At the next club, I convince a couple and a group of guys to buy three packs of cigarettes. I’m starting to hit a stride, and notice not so much a spring as a new sway in my step. Around midnight, Megan picks me up and takes me to the North Beach neighborhood, where I start to settle into a routine. I notice that immediate eye contact goes a long way, as does a light touch on the arm and smiling too much.
It turns out the rules of peddling crap are pretty much the same as the rules of flirting. You have to be confident your target is interested in what you’re offering. Waiver, and they might start to question if they were tempted in the first place. I ask one guy what I can get for him.
“How much for you?” he asks, super originally.
I’ve never been asked that before, and for some reason, that’s what shocks me. As soon as he says it, I feel like I’ve been expecting to respond to the proposition my whole life.
“You can’t afford it,” I answer coyly, appalling myself. Why didn’t I tell him I’m not for sale? I do my best to recover by waddling away in a huff with my heavy tray. I wonder when exactly in the night I started identifying as an underpaid Julia Roberts character.
“I mean, it’s not that hard to tell who you shouldn’t bother with,” Megan tells me back in the car. “If it looks like a bike messenger, stay away from it. If it looks like L.A. trash, stay away from it. If it looks like it has a coke habit, maybe you shouldn’t go up to it.”
With that in mind, I walk up to a group of guys who seem nice enough, and offer them some candy.
“She looks like Sarah.”
“No man, she’s hotter than Sarah.”
“You’re right, I guess.”
I finally realize they have no intention of buying anything.
“You guys know I can hear you, right?”
One of the guys actually apologizes, and I head next door. I approach a lonely-looking middle-aged man sitting at the bar. I ask him if he’d like some smokes, and he starts slurring in an unintelligible Irish accent.
“Me girlfrien’ lef me tonigh. I'm all aloon.”
He looks so forlorn and drunk that I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to cry. He’s a sitting barfly cliché, and I wonder if he finds deeper sorrow in this. He hands me a 20 for the pack of cigarettes. When I take too long getting change, he waves away the money as if to say nothing matters anymore. I look him in the pathetic eyes and feel compelled to say something useless.
“Things will get better,” I offer.
Feeling empathetic (was it his generous tip, or our shared humanity?) I give him half a hug. My tray forms a blockade between our bodies, but his grey stubble briefly grazes my cheek. He returns my gesture with a limp, drunken attempt at groping my ass. My fur coat is thick, and all he gets is fabric. So much for shared humanity. I make a note to myself never to touch customers again.
Our ride picks us up after 2 am. Amy gets in the backseat with me and eyes my somewhat depleted tray.
“Wow, you did well. You’re my new worst enemy,” Amy laughs in that tired way. I count a little over 100 bucks in tips, which I’m told is excellent for such a slow night. I don’t have the guts to ask Amy how much she made.
And with that, my first night as a Candy Girl was over. And apparently, I’m a natural. I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face playing an overly sexed woman selling her goods. Turns out, I’ve been in rehearsal my whole life.
Walk into a bar as a woman, and often, it feels like there’s an elephant in the room: your sex appeal. You know when someone is checking you out, but you can't quite own it. Most women in that situation don't want to seem interested, or even worse, arrogant. If you actually think someone's cute, you might wait nonchalantly for them to approach you. Glances are exchanged, but usually -- in coastal cities of a certain mindset anyway -- sexuality is still mostly subtext.
Walk into a bar selling vibrators, and well, it’s safe to say that subtext is removed. Your purpose is clear: Sell your junk.
Maybe this is what some strippers and sex workers mean when they say their work can be empowering. It’s not the work itself, but the fact that suddenly, you’ve decided to play a very different game. A game where you acknowledge that as a woman, there’s always a tray of goods you’re perceived to be selling. The metaphorical elephant in the room is gone. Or at least, you’ve wrangled it and hung it around your neck.