Frank Vega: It’s What’s on the Outside That Counts

By Rajpreet Heir

In the outskirts of Boystown, a neighborhood known as Chicago’s premier gay district, is a male dance lounge called the Lucky Horseshoe. Within walking distance of the lounge are a sushi restaurant, costume store, nightclub, and large rainbow flags. Inside the near totally dark doorway of the Lucky Horseshoe is an illuminated picture of a shirtless man. The icy cold twenty-four-year-old bar smells of latex and expired cleaning products. The nineties techno is so loud that its pulses can be felt on hard surfaces. The music seems too ambitious, mostly underlining the low energy of Monday night’s customers. Eight of them sit in small groups around the huge wooden horseshoe-shaped bar. On the back wall, a large TV is turned to the evening news, and it streaks the mirrors and customers’ bottles with neon.

In the center of the bar, Frank Vega dances on an elevated six-by-six rainbow-colored platform. Wearing nothing but combat boots and a black G-string with gold studs down the front, Frank, 5’8” and fifty-six years old, lowers to do the splits. Frank’s muscular form, olive-toned skin (save for Speedo tan lines), lack of wrinkles, and flexibility make him seem as if he’s in his mid-thirties. Frank has been stripping for twenty-eight years.

Sliding his legs underneath himself until he’s kneeling, he tilts his torso back, and allowing just his fingertips to graze the platform, he rhythmically humps the air. As if answering his humps, an African American stripper wearing a knit SpongeBob hat and white G-string leaps on top of the bar, also dancing.

“Is that SpongeBob?” Frank yells, stepping with the music.

“But without the square pants,” the stripper yells back. As Frank pivots, hips leading the way, he throws his head back, laughing. His laugh, which comes from low in his stomach, is loud enough to be heard over the stools scraping tile in the back bar and the murmured customer conversation. It’s a laugh that endures no obstacles of release from his chest, and even more, it asserts his comfort and knowledge that he is the star of the bar. The laugh, which fills all four corners of the room, boldly imposes his personality, and erases all other dancers, thoughts, and sounds.

Right after Frank finishes his fifteen-minute set and exits the platform, his forehead glowing with perspiration, a thicker white male with a life-size tattoo of a rosary on his chest replaces him, dancing to another techno hit from the predetermined playlist. SpongeBob hops down from the bar and sips at his mixed drink through two straws. Across the room, a giggling dancer towels another dancer as they race into the locker room. The manager doesn’t seem to mind that they’ve left the floor, but he would mind on a Friday or Saturday night, when the lounge typically has over fifty customers. On the weekends, customers stand three deep at the bar and nearly overflow onto the dancing platform.

Frank, dollar bills jammed in his crack and stuck under his waistband, moves around a few new customers and strolls toward the bar. His head is shaved except for a black patch of hair at the center of his hairline, making him look, in his own words, like a Kewpie doll. Frank is thick-legged and burly-chested, and his beard stubble and rich skin color give his face a seasoned look. His voluptuous mouth is full of bright white teeth. Altogether, his features and alert hazel eyes have the zingy look of someone who is on the verge of telling a funny story. With his hand on his hip, Frank unconsciously rubs a sculpted butt cheek—a gesture that seems slightly crude until one realizes humans probably do this all the time, just usually when they are wearing pants.

Two padded faux-leather barstools away from Frank and in the corner, is a middle-aged, stiff-jointed man with a Marines hat pulled low over his face. The man’s torso is turned toward Frank rather than the dancer at the center of the room.

In reference to the upbeat seventies song that is playing, Frank, showing his teeth, says, “A guy made a joke earlier that I was dancing when that song came out. I said, ‘No I was in monastery school studying to be a priest then.’” He speaks in an amused way, and without confusion or insecurity.

Frank, born and raised in Chicago, comes from a religious family. His parents, of Mexican and Spanish descent, have never been accepting of his career. They send him crazy Easter and Christmas cards saying “God vomits out the lukewarm” and “You’re going to Hell … Happy Christmas.” When Frank divorced his wife after seven years of marriage, his mother made sure he remembered that divorce is against the Catholic Church. “She’ll condemn you to Hell with a big smile on her face,” Frank explains, keeping his humorous tone. But briefly, he lowers his head, and then raises it before a nearby customer has even finished taking a swig of beer.

The man in the Marines hat leans forward and offers to buy Frank a drink and Frank accepts, but not in an overtly friendly way, rather in cordial agreement. Being straight, Frank keeps his distance from customers and even has hiding spots in the lounge. He’s always aware of space so he can counter the movements of people nearing him.

“People assume I’m gay and I don’t feel like arguing. I let them assume what they assume. I’ve always kept my life and age private,” he explains. He first started dancing when he was married, but kept it a secret from acquaintances. He’s realized that people see him as a gateway if they’re interested in hiring an escort and that they think strippers do drugs and participate in crazy sexual acts with their partners.

“I got into this for dance,” he says, abruptly changing his tone. Sassily he places his hands on his hips and looks up as if he’s sung a final note and actors in glittery costumes are doing jazz hands behind him. With his head held high and back, he reveals the rounded tip of his wide nose and big nostrils, a commanding nose.

Frank has not always worked for the Lucky Horseshoe; he first started out as a hip-hop dancer, moved on to go-go dancing, opened at the Lucky Horseshoe in 1989, left to work for a club with male and female strippers, acted at Navy Pier, worked for an agency until 2007, and then came back to the Lucky Horseshoe.

He’s never had a “man crush” on anyone he has ever worked with, thinks of himself as 100 percent straight and even finds it physically impossible to be with a man; he feels like vomiting. Some straight dancers do try to experiment, as the lounge is the ultimate forgiving ground. According to Frank, almost half of the dancers are straight right now, which is unusual, and most likely because the dance manager is into straight gym guys. Straight dancers realize they can’t make much money at co-ed clubs.

“Guys do those jobs because they can sleep with the dancers. The female dancers would say, ‘You got me all wet, when are we going to have sex? I want it now.’ And wham bam, we’d do it in the parking lot. It’s not business, it’s just pleasure.”

The bartender unconsciously licks his lips and runs a hand through his fluffy blond hair as he arrives with Frank’s Bud Light. He leans in to tell Frank something and Frank holds up a hand, and says, “Shut up!” The bartender looks pleased with himself and as if he wants to stay and talk longer, but Frank turns away. Frank has never been intimate with a man, though he admits that if there ever were a place to experiment, it would be here. However, being straight and giving the illusion of unattainability earns him tips at the Lucky Horseshoe.

“I create a beard,” he says, pretending to pull at a long imaginary beard. “Like, a gay guy can create one if he pretends he has a girlfriend so people think he’s straight. If a dancer wants popularity, they have to create a beard.”

Frank doesn’t act like he wants a tip; he doesn’t feign interests or stroke customers’ egos, and this makes him alluring. If a customer asks why Frank is talking to another customer, he’ll tell them, “He’s been giving me twenties all night.” One time, an enamored, or perhaps competitive, customer told Frank he’d pay him $500 a month not to hang out with another customer. Dancers notice after a while that Frank never gives lap dances and it’s because he knows he has to really sell them. Most customers don’t enter the bar thinking they will spend twenty dollars.

When Frank is hit on by men he tries to gross them out by saying things like: “Blood and diarrhea are a great lubricant for sex!” or “I’m always running on full!” If they ask about the black cock ring he wears around his wrist, he’ll say it has sentimental value because it was his dad’s.

“Last week a guy said ‘I want you inside of me so bad.’ I always try to reply with something noncommittal like ‘Hell yeah!’ or ‘A’ight,’” Frank says. Even though Frank considers himself an anti-social stripper, he has accumulated a fan base over the years and when longtime fans come back to the Lucky Horseshoe, they are often amazed how he hasn’t aged; his friends call him Dorian Gray.

“You’re an old relic,” a stripper wearing bandanas on his knees and around his nether regions says in passing. Frank playfully hits his shoulder before he prances away. On the bandanas, Frank says, “They look dumb. He’s from a small town in Indiana though. He really likes his job and travels to get here.”

After the rosary man finishes his fourth song and as a new dancer wearing assless briefs takes the stage, the man in the Marines hat sucks on the mouth of his empty bottle of beer. More people enter, bringing the total to around fifteen, including those in the back bar.

When the bar first opened, it mostly attracted old men. “If they didn’t look eighty, they were eighty.”

Over the years, the Lucky Horseshoe has only had one competitor, Madrigals, and they had a pole. “Poles are illogical though and nasty. If a guy shakes the bar between his ass cheeks, he gets fecal juice all over it,” Frank says in disgust.

Frank continues to discuss the clientele, specifically mentioning one of the most bizarre clients he has seen in his dancing career: the Quarter Queen. He would fill dancers’ G-strings with as many quarters as they could hold. Frank wore a stretchy jock strap and managed to fit eighty dollars in quarters.

“Frank also swings off those chandeliers,” a buck-toothed admirer cuts in, nodding his head upwards. Four large dusty chandeliers with glass beads hang across the bar’s ceiling.

“Those things are ready to fall,” Frank replies and then turns his broad back on him and the young man moves on.

Frank leaves his beer and walks around the corner to the locker room. The dusty floor in the locker room resembles a warehouse floor and since a ceiling is absent, large pipes are visible. Against one wall is a set of wooden lockers that a bartender made himself. The lockers are necessary because any money lying out, even in a backpack, can be stolen. Frank knows someone that set $200 down on top of the lockers once and after he returned from helping someone move boxes, the money was gone. “You never know what people need money for,” he says, his voice trailing off. Aside from his friendship with Robby, a stripper around his own age, Frank rarely gets personal with other dancers; his relationships with them are surface level and based on joking around.

Passing the lockers, Frank steps into a small bathroom, and then he points out the pile of baby powder in front of the toilet. Frank steps on the baby powder before going out to dance to ensure he won’t slip on the stage. Even in combat boots, the stage can be slippery if it’s smeared with sweat or if someone spills a drink on it. Pretending to take little steps, his junk jiggling with the movement, he says, “I leave white footprints everywhere.”

Further into the locker room are a few stripper policy sheets taped to a wall. One is unofficially known as the Frank Vega Rule. One night, Frank made out with a woman and she kept buying him drinks. The owner didn’t yell, but instead printed a sign that says: “This is a gay bar, no making out with women.” Under Frank’s rule is another policy known as the Nathan Rule: “You can’t finger-bang a girl, but finger-banging a guy is okay.” There used to be a rule that dancers had to remove their clothing within forty-five seconds, making the men into go-go dancers. The manager’s fear was that if people came in the door and saw someone dancing with their clothes on, they would leave.

Next to the policy wall are large shelves with boxes of supplies, and another room with a few benches and a muscular stripper flipping through a magazine. His feet are in running shoes. “Have you explained shelf life?” he asks.

“The manager sent out a message about stripper shelf life and now the dancers say I’ve used mine up,” Frank explains and laughs, seemingly unaffected. He claims he’s doing better now with fans than he ever has. The dancers have to reaudition quarterly and at his most recent audition, the audience gave Frank, and only Frank, a standing ovation. The manager told him to get off the stage and he didn’t even have to dance. And despite having used up his shelf life, Frank says he is in great shape physically.

“I know twenty-year olds with knee pain. They jump off stage, but I don’t, I glide off,” he says, winging his arms out and dramatically gliding a few feet to the left. Recently, he saw a young dancer fall on his back after attempting a handstand.

“I was like, “Are you okay? You almost just died!” Frank says, widening his eyes and inflecting his voice. “The dancer had so much pride and pretended he was fine,” Frank says, laughing, and in an instant, he turns stern—his mouth set and eyes unblinking. “Handstands aren’t sexy anyways. It’s not dancing.”

After leaving the locker room, a dancer approaches Frank and tells him he has to have a shot with the manager since it’s the manager’s birthday. Seeing Frank’s hesitation, the dancer tells him, “At least it’s cinnamon. It’ll clean out your sinuses.”

When Frank returns and goes back to stand at the bar, he says he’s worried about being hungover on his day off. On his days off, Frank doesn’t like to drink or go clubbing because he’s usually partied out and, since he dances erotically for hours each week, he’s forgotten how to dance normally.

Instead, Frank divides his time by working out, acting class, open mics, and going to the movies. Sometimes he goes and watches three at a time. Frank got hooked to the film industry when he was nineteen and walking home from work. He saw a crew shooting Michael Mann’s Thief and conned his way into being an extra. Working for hours in the cold and the rain did not bother Frank, and when filming concluded at 2 AM, everyone received steak dinners off a truck, leading Frank to decide he had found his passion. He quit his catering job and went to a nearby college to study Drama, but dropped out after his first year when he realized the difficult path of actors.

“I don’t regret it. Drama school majors don’t usually end up acting anyway and I didn’t like how they are all about preparing you for rejection,” he says.

Frank’s only child, a twenty-six-year-old son from his past marriage, does not share the same interests, and instead is studying to become a physical therapist. Frank never wanted children, but five years into their marriage, his ex-wife kept bothering him about a baby so he “did her a favor” and let her get pregnant. A few years after his son was born, they divorced and his in-laws, who never liked Frank, decided that if Frank got involved, their monetary support for Frank’s son would end.

The son will say, “Now you want to know about me” if Frank tries to talk to him, so instead they talk about random stuff like Taco Bell for an hour. Frank used to get phone calls and a card for Father’s Day, but it’s all stopped.

“It’s up to him if we will become closer,” Frank says, rubbing his large elbow. Even this most banal of gestures attracts the worshipful gaze of a paste-complexioned patron on the other side of the bar. “It doesn’t bother me. I can see everyone’s view.”

“My butt is so sore,” mutters a dancer in yellow briefs who is kneeling on a nearby barstool and swiveling side to side. Though he appears to be talking to himself, Frank shifts his attention to him. This dancer is new and has already switched his name three times in the past few weeks. “Tristan, Miguel, nice to meet you … again,” Frank laughs, snap-happy once more. “Once he was Tucker—what a weird name.” Frank never uses stage names because he forgets what he picked. Another part of being new is learning to avoid customers who won’t tip.

“A new dancer will come up to me and say that a guy only tipped him a dollar and he shoved a finger up his ass. I’ll say you’re lucky it wasn’t two dollars and he didn’t shove two fingers up your ass,” Frank says through more belly laughs. New guys also try cock rings, which tie off erections and stop blood flow, and “generally push things to the front.”

“You can do it at work, but then the next guy might have the same thing too,” Frank says, pushing around the coaster in front of him. Frank knows one guy that can’t have sex with his boyfriend now without one. Dancers are known to take Viagra before their shift. “Maybe if you’re making $500 a night that makes sense, but most end up spending more on the Viagra,” Frank explains.

A man and woman enter the bar and then turn around and leave, the woman with her hands on her hips. Female customers are often Frank’s least favorite. Once a woman came in with her three gay guy friends and seemed to be peeved by the environment.

“She takes out a dollar, slams it down, and yells for me, ‘put a shirt on!’” Frank, forever under a roving spotlight says, imitating her movements, slamming his own hand down, cock ring sliding on his wrist. “She did this two more times and then I tore the dollars into confetti and sprinkled it over her.”

Women aren’t good customers typically because they tend to get a mob mentality, they don’t tip, they turn off other customers, and they want to be the show. However, Frank sometimes gets women to lie on the bar and he goes in between their legs and kisses their necks. People scream, the woman likes it, and Frank enjoys himself too. That’s how Frank met his current girlfriend. She came in with gay friends and one of the friends said he knew Frank was straight because he hadn’t looked at him the whole night. “My girlfriend visits me at work sometimes,” he says and then pauses. “She doesn’t love that I dance with other women, but she understands they come in.” He thinks people stereotype him as a player because of his looks. In his opinion, he’s shy around women and an evolved male because of his past romantic failures.

Suddenly, Frank begins describing the funniest thing he’s seen at the lounge recently: a guy with the deflated brown skin of his ball hanging out, “like shit.” Frank says, “There’s no such thing as a wardrobe malfunction here. He knew it was out—it was purposeful.” Later the stripper asked Frank if he looked good and Frank told him it looked like shit was dangling from his crack.

Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” starts and the dancer with the SpongeBob hat says to a customer, “He was bad at cheating.” The bartender moves around behind the bar, lazily passing customers and removing empty bottles. Frank turns when the manager taps him on the shoulder. The two look at a clipboard under the glow of the manager’s phone and Frank says, “You’re right, I did forget to dance!” However, Frank doesn’t seem ruffled, nor does the manager. Management doesn’t seem to be spandex-tight with rule enforcement.

“Some guys could dance all fucking night,” Frank states. In fact, as the stripper on stage drops to do a one-armed push-up, two other dancers start moving with the music several feet away. Another in red Adidas underwear climbs up on the bar.

Looking at his watch, Frank massages his elbow again and starts to move to the back bar to dance his set. The platform in the back bar is made up of eighteen green, red, and yellow squares. Surrounding the platform are a bunch of clear plastic chairs and small tables, and they change color every few seconds due to the disco light.

Once in one of those chairs, Frank says he saw a short stripper with dreads doing an intimate handstand as part of a lap dance for an eighty-year-old man. The dancer had “Billy” tattooed on one ass cheek, and Frank joked he got the first half of the tattoo removed because it said “Hill.”

As a Rihanna song starts, Frank steps onto the stage and begins marching with the music, both hands bent at the wrist. A young man in a T-shirt sits in the far back corner. An elderly man emerges and goes straight to Frank to shove a few bills under his waistband. Frank tilts his head and mouths, “Thank you.” Frank’s smile is saturated in appreciation, as if the man had offered to fix his car, clean his gutters, or cater his Christmas party for free.

Frank turns to start dancing again and soon after the next song starts, another older man walks up to the platform. Frank looks the man up and down: the scuffed tennis shoes, his wrinkled khakis, his polo, his tousled hair; his warm worshipful breaths. Frank seems to recognize him, and he sinks slowly, butterflying his knees out, and hugs the man, gently pressing the man’s face to his downy chest. The hug seems more kind than sensual, like the sort of hug a middle school counselor gives to a student when they meet again years later, when the student can finally look people in the eye—a hug of tenderness and continued acceptance. Yet the two are definitely not equals.

A time Frank truly felt his dancing was more of an outreach was when he was paid to dance at an “old people’s home where people were older than old and had $200 in singles.” Some old men came forward and told him they had been in the closet their whole lives.

The newcomer takes a seat on the same side of the room as the man in the corner. A fast pop song plays: “Tonight is your lucky night/I know you want it.” Frank dances toward the men and abruptly crumples to the ground in a display of absolutely wounded masculinity, his face in anguish, his body laid out flat, and his arms next to his sides. “Yeah Frank!” yells a hairless dancer striding past. The music seems louder than usual.

From his dramatically splayed position, he lifts his legs directly above himself and opens them gradually, bringing dawn into the room a few degrees at a time. His audience seems to be holding its breath, in case Frank or all the Lucky Horseshoe might tip into Lake Michigan; any misstep will cause friendly fire. Sensing the energy emanating from the platform, another customer draws toward the huge side window overlooking the action and peers in, clutching his beer tightly. He stares the skin off Frank.

Frank, at this point, is a hypnotic force. He’s more powerful now than when he stands at the bar. Face to face, it’s easy to admire his tan, muscles, and high-voltage mannerisms, but regular interactions do not convey his verve, his vigor on the dancing platform. Master of his form on the stage, he simultaneously radiates coolness and an American ease.

Frank slides himself up and bends forward to sit on his knees, and then he pumps his arms forward. The next song starts and Frank sweeps diagonally across the platform, cutting his hands through the air in fast arcs, and plunges through rigidly sexy steps. Marching and turning, marching and turning with animal rhythm and a relaxed expression, he seems even fuller of a person now that he’s absorbed his audiences’ wistfulness.

Later, when the room has grinded back to normal, Frank, moving with big steps, reappears flushed and seeming larger than before he danced, as if he’s knocked his enemy out with one punch. Pow. Suddenly, next to a large boxing video game machine, cider ad, and shelf containing Windy City magazine, BOI magazine, and gay pride brochures, he is very tall and very close.

He says, “I’m pretty freaky, athletically. I never took dance classes. When I dance, nothing limits me.”

A black man in his forties wearing denim shorts and a sleeveless cotton shirt hovers behind Frank until Frank turns and gives him a big hug. It’s odd to see Frank truly excited to hug another man; Frank’s eyes are even closed. This is someone who does not clutter Frank’s space.

Robby, another dancer, and a “big time gay,” and a “giant gay whore,” is Frank’s best friend. Frank loves watching Robby perform because he is cheerful, outgoing, and openly sexual. Plus, no one is as selfless about tipping as Robby; when Robby finds a customer who pays in twenties, he lets Frank know. Robby is especially good at getting twenties because he’ll ask customers, “Can I have that twenty?”

Frank says he and Robby are complete opposites, because outside of the lounge, Robby is the exact same. If the two are walking down the street, Robby will interrupt Frank to ogle and whistle at men they pass, as “He just wants to get laid.” Before working at the lounge, Frank had never had a best friend or even been close to a fellow dancer.

Frank isn’t sure he’s Robby’s best friend. The two go to a diner after work sometimes, but Robby always has to leave to escort or do a private show. Frank claims Robby appreciates his sentiment though. Every two months, Frank starts crying while drinking and confesses to Robby that he’s never met someone so honest and Robby will say, “Okay Frank, I know you mean it.”

Now Frank’s arm is around Robby and the two unlikely friends turn to study the clipboard. With Robby’s extra layers—shorts, a shirt, and sandals—and with Frank’s bare torso, muscular or not, Frank appears vulnerable. Skin suddenly is what it is: just a thin organ protecting a body. Similar to the customers Frank has had today, Frank’s gaze is somewhat tender and timid, as if he’s afraid Robby might pivot too fast and disappear. Frank doesn’t think Robby’s homosexuality even comes into play with their friendship, but in this place of in-between-ness, the stretched smile on Frank’s face almost seems pleading.

Rajpreet lives near Washington, DC, and is a third-year in George Mason University’s MFA program, where she is the sole recipient of the 2015-2016 Nonfiction Thesis Fellowship. Her work has been published by The Normal School, Aunt Lute Books, Apogee, and Indianapolis Woman Magazine.