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  • Writer's pictureChester B Simpson

My first job in San Francisco

What it was like working as a barker on Broadway in the 1970s

My roommate Joey found us jobs as barkers at two strip joints across the street from each other on Broadway. They were called The Roaring 20’s and Off Broadway. We made $35 cash a night plus all the drinks we could handle from 7 pm until 2 am. We also got to hang out backstage with the stripers, smoking weed with them while they were getting dressed. As a 22-year-old guy, I felt that these were pretty great perks for a job. My roommate and I saw a lot working that job.

Our main job was to attract people off the streets, inviting them to come into the strip joints to get them to spend their money. If anyone messed with us, the waitresses, or the dancers, we were to signal the big bouncers in nice Italian suits across the street. They would come over and ask us what we needed before removing the bums and protecting the family business.

We eventually worked out our own routine, a bit of P.T. Barnum with song and dance to visually get people interested in coming in.

My routine was me calling out to people walking by, “Gross and Perverted! Obsessed and Deranged! Existed for years, but very little has changed… Come on in, everyone gets a free look!” This quote was not original, I borrowed it from my favorite Frank Zappa song at the time, I'm the Slime.

We would draw people in, then once inside the darkened club, the waitresses would direct them to a table with a bar ad advertising “$3.75 a drink, two drink minimum.” The waitress would distract you from the strip show that was going on and ask you, “What would you like to drink?”

See there was a strategy to everything they did. Guests would order something like two rum and cokes. The waitress would reply that she would be right back and would come back with the guests' two watered-down drinks, placing them on your table and telling them the cost. The guest might hand her a $20, $50, or a $100 bill to pay for the drinks and she would say, "I have to get change." She sizes up the guest and places their change with dollar bills on top of coins, sets aside a $5, $10, or a $20 bill, and holds her tray above eye level. This was so the guest could only see the bills at the edge and when they reached up to grab the bills, oftentimes, a sizable amount of money would be left on the tray unnoticed.

If they're a high roller, they'll tip the waitress, pocket the money, and continue watching the strip show. Now if they were a tightwad, they'd count the bills, realizing they have been short-changed, and call the waitress over. They would complain about being short-changed, only for her lower the tray, revealing the rest of the change, and say, ”I thought you left this as my tip?" The guest would feel so bad at this point, that they would let her keep it anyways.

It worked every time.

After a few weeks of working on the street corner of Broadway. I noticed that there were always two guys working the streets of Broadway and Kearny streets. They approached me and asked me if I wanted to make more money. Yes, I said and they said my new name would be “Kool Breeze” and that if guys came out of the strip joints and wanted more action, for me to send them their way saying “Kool Breeze” sent you. At the end of the night, I would be paid 10% of what the guys spent.

This worked out to me making $20 to $30 more a night. I was very happy with this arrangement.

A week later, one of the family members approached me and said I could make more money by selling drugs, but I wanted no part of that. They assured me that they could send people over while I was working the door that wanted Cocaine or Heroin and I wouldn’t be touching it. Cocaine was called Uptown and Heroin was called Downtown and people they sent over would ask for one or two tickets to go Uptown or Downtown. I’d pull back the curtains beside the door revealing a coffee can where the buyers would place their money and walk around the block. I’d look across the street to a guy that was sitting on the 2nd floor of the seedy hotel in the window and signal one or two fingers pointing up or down. A runner from the hotel would run over, I’d open the curtain and they would collect the cash and leave the drugs in the coffee can. A few minutes later the buyer would show up and I’d pull back the curtain, allowing them to collect their purchase and be on their way. At the end of the night, I had even more take-home pay.

One night, while working, my older sister stopped at the red traffic light on Broadway. She looked over and noticed her brother working at the strip joint. She decided to call my father, a Southern Baptist man, and let him know what I was up to.

My parents didn’t support my art career at this time, and I had told them that I was working as a doorman for a nightclub. I simply left out the fact that the nightclub was a strip joint. I received a call from my dad, asking me about my new job, and I had to tell the truth about what I was doing. He asked why I would work a job like that, and whether I really wanted to be a photographer. Photography was my dream and I needed the money so he said, he’d send me $200 a month to live on if I'd quit that job.

The very next day I quit my job as a barker.

A few weeks later, I was getting ready to have some friends over for Sunday dinner. I heard a knock on my door and was told that someone wanted to see me. I went to the door only to see a strange-looking guy standing in our doorway. He asked if I was Chester and if he could talk to me in the hallway. I stepped into the hallway and he closed my door. He proceeded to punch me twice real hard in the stomach knocking me to the floor. Grabbing my hand, he put a sharp knife to my little finger and said, “I’m just a guy doing a job and they sent me over to cut off a tip of your little finger, but you look like a smart guy and I think that you’ll keep your mouth shut about what goes on at Broadway. If you don’t and I have to return, I'll take your little finger next time! Do You Understand?” I agreed to keep my mouth shut.

I kept my mouth shut until I wrote this story.

Check out photographs by the artist: Rock-n-roll Photography

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