As a traveling stripper, I have worked with naked women my entire adult life. Most recently at the only topless club in Palm Springs, 118 miles east of where I live in Los Angeles. Unlike other service jobs I’ve had, like cleaning houses, waiting tables, or being a receptionist at a law firm, the destiny of strippers is much more physically and emotionally taxing. Like athletes, I depend on my body for income. For energy, I munch on peanut butter-flavored protein bars and guzzle too many Red Bulls—snacks without any lingering odor or crumbs. I nibble raw almonds, and chew gum until my jaw aches. Then I have social intercourse all night with horny strangers. After my nine-hour shift, I hang up my scuffed Lucite heels; slam my pink locker shut and speed to IHOP to meet my coworkers for a warm, nurturing meal where I can be anonymous. My favorite meal is breakfast.
IHOP Palm Springs is as generic as it is corny. Its ’60s-style floor texture, skinny tentacle lights, and blue-and-orange walls are throwbacks from The Jetsons. The tabletops have the same striped plastic wood paneling as the kitchenette in my dad’s first trailer, an olive green monstrosity from the same era.
At 3 a.m., three coworkers and I slide into a massive brown and blue booth that seats six. A sign hangs against an orange polka-dot wall that reads: International House of Pancakes, 1958. Hipsters are not allowed here. Rich guys would never be seen here. Marc Maron doesn’t have an egg dish named after him. The 3 a.m. shift at IHOP Palm Springs off Cathedral Canyon Drive is unofficially reserved for night laborers and gay men sobering up with a short stack and burnt coffee. I’ve come to talk shop, unwind, and commiserate over crispy bacon and an omelet smothered in cheap cheddar. No creepy customers have ever followed us here. They’re playing slots at Spotlight 29, watching porn at the JW Marriott or nibbling a precious kale salad in the coffee shop diner at the Ace Hotel.
IHOP Palm Springs is bright, jovial, and packed. I’ve come here to land, to be nowhere and somewhere at the same time—like an anonymous drifter passing through the Coachella Valley for comfort food and small talk until I hit the 10 freeway and finally go the fuck home.
Because of the extended hours of operation (24 hours a day, 7 days a week), IHOP employs servers of every age, from college kids to grandmas wearing red company work shirts with name tags and tasteful black slacks. The graveyard manager has a half-sleeve and neck tattoo. Our server is a fifty-something Latina carrying a pad of paper for her orders. She asks if we need cream for our coffee. We don’t. She’s neither overly familiar nor neglectful. She will forget us the second we leave and, as service workers ourselves, we will tip her generously.We know how it is to work awfully long hours with a sore neck and bad knees. As night laborers, we are unified.
Because I am a long-time rabid fan of breakfast all day and eggs in particular, I look forward to my chicken fajita omelet, which arrives swimming in salsa with a scoop of sour cream on top. It comes with a side of bacon, toast, or a short stack. The girls and I decide to share an additional side of pancakes. I drink coffee from the self-serve copper thermos on the table and listen to my friend talk about a customer we call “Wolf Man” who gives girls quartz stones and talks about his spirit animals and his dreams about aliens. My other friend grumbles about Bob, who was shitfaced and rude again and left his ATM card at the bar—second time that week.
My omelet arrives and I realize how important it is to meet other women outside of work, our thighs bruised from the pole, our hands grubby from dirty bills. It’s important to laugh and sip coffee with them in a way that’s raw and sincere. It’s not going to cost me a fortune in therapy or require me to travel to Peru to barf with a fake shaman seeking crystal visions. It’s important to be a pedestrian again in Converse sneakers and a faded hoodie—a person with a perspective and opinions, a cat and an office stuffed with literary journals. It’s important to eat with other women and nurture ourselves in a culture that demands we always nurture others. I scrape the patina of lip-gloss off and eat my spicy eggs. IHOP at 3 a.m. is our safety layover in between real and surreal—our hideout, 5 miles from the club and over a hundred from home and right now, it’s the best place in the world.