Boomtown
July 26, 2013 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown. Susan Shepard details her time stripping in Williston, North Dakota (previously).
posted by zabuni (57 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a great read.

Whispers’ transition from typically tiny, haphazard small-town strip club into one trying to balance down home and big city is not working out too well, and it’s an example of the boom–bust cycle writ small. Capitalism’s inherent gamble plays out on a small stage with a chrome pole while lessons in second chances and knowing when to cut your losses are there to take to heart or ignore. It’s more America than anywhere I’ve been.

posted by chavenet at 8:00 AM on July 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nothing I've read yet about the boom in ND makes me think "There's a place I'd like to live!" These accounts have certainly cured me of any lingering romantic notions I've had about things like the Gold Rush.

Fascinating to read about, though.
posted by rtha at 8:09 AM on July 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Great piece.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:27 AM on July 26, 2013


This is terrific journalism—from the reporting, to the prose, to the photos (most are hers).
...I enrolled at the University of Texas in the winter of 1996. In the summer of 2005, I took my last final and received my English B.A. In between were multiple gap years and withdrawals. I worked at the Daily Texan and interned at Texas Monthly...
And there you go.
posted by cribcage at 8:33 AM on July 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The sign with the crossed off increasing bonus for who does the most lap dances a week, going from $50, $100 $200 is really an example of the whole "pictures worth a thousand words" adage.

(And not just because, given the record, it works out to less than a dollar a dance.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:33 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Very well written.

As you drive across ND on I-94 especially at night, it at times looks like you are traveling into Mordor with the great off gassing fires by the side of the interstate. The oil boom is going to leave the state an even hollower shell then it was before when it's dried up.

The Teddy Roosevelt National park on the west side is a thing of marvel though. I wonder what Teddy would think about modern ND?
posted by edgeways at 8:35 AM on July 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


it at times looks like you are traveling into Mordor with the great off gassing fires by the side of the interstate.

I think the same thing when I see places that have been strip mined for coal. Painful.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:37 AM on July 26, 2013


Awesome, great read.
posted by mrbill at 8:38 AM on July 26, 2013


Related: Bakken Business: The price of North Dakota's fracking boom
posted by notyou at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whoa, this is some good writing.

( a male stripper would be, I imagine the pale)
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 AM on July 26, 2013


Hey Buzzfeed? More of this. Less of "20 Dogs That Look Like Disney Princesses" and the like.
posted by cvp at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2013 [14 favorites]


What? No, there is room in the internets world for both.
posted by elizardbits at 9:14 AM on July 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Boom towns are never places you want to live. Prices are astonishing, conditions are rough, leisure is non-existent, save for places to get off or pissed or both. Boom towns are places you have to live in to make money. the people I know who work these sorts of towns, for oil and gas or for mining, talk about shift work, 6 weeks in, 2 out. These land-locked oil rigs are temporary and unsentimental places.
posted by bonehead at 9:19 AM on July 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Excellent article.

Also: Always end on a cat.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2013


Lovely read, quite poetic. BuzzFeed infuriates me for how it combines excellent original journalism like this with so much linkbait repurposed content. But I do love the good stuff when they publish it.

Planet Money had a good podcast about Williston. What I remember is longer than this 13 minutes though, maybe This American Life or someone else?
posted by Nelson at 9:25 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


cvp: "Hey Buzzfeed? More of this. Less of "20 Dogs That Look Like Disney Princesses" and the like.

elizardbits: "What? No, there is room in the internets world for both."

And one probably pays for the other in some way.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:29 AM on July 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Excerpt from the Buzzfeed publisher contract:

CONTENT REQUIRED IN ALL ARTICLES
The Publisher requires that all articles published on Buzzfeed.com ("the Website") must contain at at least one (1) animated GIF and one (1) candid photo of a cat.

posted by rh at 9:29 AM on July 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


(Not that an article about strippers is necessarily lacking in clickworthiness on the surface.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:29 AM on July 26, 2013


Quite well-written. I thought this observation was particularly astute:

So those who can, move. When the level of bullshit is too high or the earnings too low, they the hit the road. Same as the men who wind up traveling to work in the oil fields. If you can make $30,000 more a year driving heavy equipment in North Dakota instead of in Louisiana, and you need that money, you go. Is this the logical progression of a service economy? It looks like migrant labor.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:37 AM on July 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


a male stripper would be, I imagine the pale

Logical endpoint being an autobiography: Beyond the Pale: My Life as a Male Stripper.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:45 AM on July 26, 2013


Thanks for this. It's always good to read well written first person accounts of something completely different.
posted by adamvasco at 9:46 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Benny Andajetz, I ran across Does High Home-Ownership Impair the Labor Market? Blanchflower and Oswald (PDF):
... Our results are relevant to, and may be worrying for, a range of policymakers and researchers. We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a US state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state. ...
Mobility means ability to travel where the jobs are. Interestingly, digging deeper in that, it's not that the homeowners are disproportionately under-employed.

So, yeah: Either you commit to a community, throw your lot in with that community, and hope for the next few decades that you chose right, or you move, and keep moving. In the middle is unemployment.
posted by straw at 9:48 AM on July 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, that was excellent, award-worthy; I hope it's submitted to whatever the internet version of press club is. I felt like cutting and pasting so many of her observations (really, it was chockablock with quotables), but I settled on this one:

Oil is rarely in pretty places. It is under the ground in the kinds of charmless places no one would visit if there wasn’t some valuable natural resource to extract. And yet at some point, westward-bound pioneers came through here and thought, Yeah. Flat. Cold. Dry. Dusty. This is the place to settle. It’s more likely, maybe, that they thought, No one will bother me here. Or even, maybe, I deserve this.

Sublime. It reminds me of Annie Proulx... probably That Old Ace in the Hole, specifically. I would like to read more of whatever Susan Elizabeth Shepard would like to write, wherever she'd like to write it, and hope to get the opportunity.
posted by taz at 9:51 AM on July 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


cvp: "Hey Buzzfeed? More of this. Less of "20 Dogs That Look Like Disney Princesses" and the like.

elizardbits: "What? No, there is room in the internets world for both."

And one probably pays for the other in some way.


Yes, in much the same way that football pays for that fancy creative writing program.

At any rate, as to Williston, I was in the home of Phil Jackson last summer on business and it is a site to behold. The main drag has gone from a tiny two lane village street to a six lane industrial superhighway in a matter of a couple of years. The double and triple trailered oil trucks are lined up at all hours bumper-to-bumper. Grinding out to some well or "man camp" in god knows where on the prairie. We waited an hour for a seat in a filthy, terrible Mexican restaurant as if we were at some swanky place. My hotel room cost me, I kid you not, $485 a night in a normal middle-of-the-road chain hotel and it was litterally the last room in town, had I been late the hotel was going to give my reservation to one of the many many walk-ins. I did not make it to Whispers unfortunately.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Always nice to come across a fellow Daily Texan veteran. We get around.
posted by ambient2 at 10:34 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


As I have noted before on the Blue, I live 40 minutes from Williston. Yeah, it's hell. I feel sorry for natives of that town because their lives have been even more rudely altered than those of us in the small towns. On of the problems with Williston is that for decades, the city fathers have always had a myopic view. Everything, no matter how terrible it really is, is golden. In the 80s boom, which crashed so sudden you couldn't even find a U-Haul within 100 miles, they were still saying Williston was a paradise. The city fathers blew their chance to build a mall. The local chamber had a PR flack who was born there who insisted on calling it "The Golden City". Even now, the local media are pretty slack about reporting the downside of the boom, preferring to rah-rah everything. It's gotten so the stores in the small towns around here won't even stock the Williston Herald.

I suspect that the author of that piece didn't talk to many locals simply because she said she didn't talk to many who weren't pro-boom. Jeez, just open your ears at any cafe or gas station the locals congregate at and you'll get an earful. A lot of it is born with stoic Scandinavian or Germanic spirit: "Well, we gotta put up with it I guess." But even those of us with oil royalties are disgusted with what this boom has done to the land.

Another point. The author really should have driven east to Minot on her days off, like the rest of us do. Or even better, gone to Bismarck. There's malls, restaurants, coffee shops, all the niceties of civilization. Both cities even have brewpubs for crying out loud. I'll be drawing a pint at the Laughing Sun in downtown Bismarck this weekend. And edgeways, don't be telling people about Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That's a secret we like to keep to ourselves.
posted by Ber at 10:40 AM on July 26, 2013 [12 favorites]


And yet at some point, westward-bound pioneers came through here and thought, Yeah. Flat. Cold. Dry. Dusty. This is the place to settle. It’s more likely, maybe, that they thought, No one will bother me here. Or even, maybe, I deserve this.
Sublime, maybe, but most of those people sought the Dakotas, drawn by previous booms (land booms):
During North Dakota’s two booms, the Great Dakota Boom (1871-late 1880s) and the Second Boom (1898-1915), the Homestead Act (1862) played the important role as a way for settlers to obtain land. About 25 percent of the land was acquired this way. Under the terms of the Homestead Act, a person could get 160 acres of free land by living on and improving the land for five years. After two years, the owner could buy the land for $1.25 an acre. During the Great Dakota Boom three other means of gaining land existed. Under the Timber Culture Act (1873), a homesteader could claim an additional 160 acres if he or she raised a crop and planted ten acres of trees. The Pre-emption Act (1841) allowed a person to buy 160 acres of unsettled government land outright for $1.25 an acre. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which received about 25 percent of North Dakota’s land mass, also sold land for between $3 and $5 per acre. About 17 million acres were acquired using the Homestead Act and the other options.
posted by notyou at 10:58 AM on July 26, 2013


Aren't all the strippers doing online porn yet?
posted by jeffburdges at 11:17 AM on July 26, 2013


Hey Buzzfeed? More of this. Less of "20 Dogs That Look Like Disney Princesses" and the like.

One hand washes the other. 20 different awesome ways that will blow your mind.
posted by srboisvert at 11:19 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


So those who can, move. When the level of bullshit is too high or the earnings too low, they the hit the road.

The story of humanity.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:35 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


So those who can, move. When the level of bullshit is too high or the earnings too low, they the hit the road.

Something like that is said of Western expats in the Middle East: They come with two buckets, one for bullshit and one for money, and they leave when one is full.
posted by ambient2 at 11:44 AM on July 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Hey Buzzfeed? More of this. Less of "20 Dogs That Look Like Disney Princesses" and the like.

Maybe. But absolutely do read that "13 Creepiest Things a Child Has Ever Said to a Parent" piece. A couple of them are pretty thought-provoking.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:53 AM on July 26, 2013


Somehow I’d wound up in a place that had taken longer to slide into recession, a beautiful, lucrative club in Missoula.
posted by destro at 11:57 AM on July 26, 2013


Maybe. But absolutely do read that "13 Creepiest Things a Child Has Ever Said to a Parent" piece. A couple of them are pretty thought-provoking.

Indeed. Apparently, black children don't say creepy things very often.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:15 PM on July 26, 2013


Good read. Such a desolate place and made worse by the boom.
posted by arcticseal at 12:41 PM on July 26, 2013


What an odd career. I wish she'd spent more time explaining why she's chosen to be a travelling stripper. I mean, yeah, obviously the money's good, but it can't just be the money ... can it?
posted by evil otto at 1:21 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


And edgeways, don't be telling people about Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That's a secret we like to keep to ourselves.

Oops sorry, I'll (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) keep it under my hat. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
posted by edgeways at 1:39 PM on July 26, 2013


Oops sorry, I'll (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) keep it under my hat. Theodore Roosevelt National Park"

Just speak softly and carry a big stick.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:55 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


was that meant to be a stripper joke? because if so... nicely timed.
posted by edgeways at 2:41 PM on July 26, 2013


Another excellent resource for insight into the human stories behind the North Dakota oil boom is Black Gold Boom, an independent radio production that receives some help from Prairie Public Radio.

My folks are still out in southwest North Dakota, stuck there at this point out of inertia and being too young to qualify for medicare. Over the past five years they've gone from trying to find me jobs closer to home to asking about property values in farm towns less than an hour from the Twin Cities.

@ Ber - As long as they don't tell them about Marmarth. I've said too much!
posted by nathan_teske at 2:54 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


nathan_teske, we were there just a few weeks ago and nothing to see (or eat) there folks. Just keep on driving to Baker.
posted by Ber at 3:00 PM on July 26, 2013


I mean, yeah, obviously the money's good, but it can't just be the money ... can it?

What the fuck do you mean by this?
posted by Aizkolari at 3:25 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


What the fuck do you mean by this?

Because it sounds like an absolutely horrific life. Sure, the money's good, but there are jobs I would never take regardless of how well they paid. So it makes me curious whether she actually likes the work, simply doesn't mind the work, or has some kind of terrible addiction or debt and has no other way to make that kind of money.
posted by evil otto at 3:44 PM on July 26, 2013


or has some kind of terrible addiction or debt and has no other way to make that kind of money.

It sounds like she and her husband own a home in Portland. They have an RV big enough to comfortably(ish) live in for a time. They were surprised by how much they liked Billings (was it Billings? I read the article long ago this morning), so they just up and decided to rent a place there for a couple of years.

Her work sounds hard. It sounds pretty exhausting (at least, for the schedules she was working in ND). But a lot of people work jobs like that for way worse money, and don't have the relative luxury of being able to pick up and go someplace else for work whenever they want. What I got from her piece here is that she basically likes the work okay, and it gives her the financial and psychological room to do other stuff. We should all be so lucky.
posted by rtha at 3:49 PM on July 26, 2013 [3 favorites]



I mean, yeah, obviously the money's good, but it can't just be the money ... can it?


The biggest perk appears to be working your ass off for a week and then having a week to spend for yourself. Beats office work by a mile.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:02 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


evil otto, think about any difficult, working-to-middle class job. Think about the folks working at the DMV, or security guards or construction workers or whatever. Would you have the same thought about them? Do you have the same thought about the men that patronize the club she worked at in Williston?

Why or why not?
posted by kavasa at 4:03 PM on July 26, 2013


Think about the folks working at the DMV, or security guards or construction workers or whatever. Would you have the same thought about them?

All I'm saying is that whatever made her choose stripping over working at the DMV is part of what makes her an interesting person, and I'd like to hear more about that. I have no problem with sex work or sex workers, and I hope I didn't give off the wrong impression.

Anyway, it's kind of a moot point, because I'm quite sure I could find the answer to this by reading her blog. Of course, in order to do that, I'd probably have to not be at work....
posted by evil otto at 4:40 PM on July 26, 2013


Just as a matter of form she's unlikely to describe herself as a sex worker. That can be an important distinction for some folks.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:47 PM on July 26, 2013


Well, on the one hand, there is white knight assumptioneering based on feels.

On the other hand, there is her referring to stripping as a sex worker trade on the community she built for sex workers.
posted by absalom at 5:17 PM on July 26, 2013


There's an amusing/depressing Facebook page called "Bakken Oilfield, Fail of the Day." No strippers, but an awful lot of large vehicles in awkward positions.
posted by davidmsc at 6:15 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I spent some time look at the photos (and reading the comments) on that page. What a world we live in.
posted by rtha at 6:48 PM on July 26, 2013


Ah, yes, another example of why women live longer than men. They are not as stupid or stubborn.
posted by scottymac at 8:39 PM on July 26, 2013


Like the author, I too drifted into the state of North Dakota because of the oil boom and left again when it got to be too much. Unlike the author, a) I didn't realize that I was there thanks to the oil boom until much later and b) I lived there full-time. Including three really fucking cold winters.

Williston seems like its own special version of hell (from the people who lived there that I talked to, oil workers and not, it appears to live down to its reputation) and North Dakota winters in general take a special kind of perseverance. When I was in California last, I ran into a guy at the AAA office who was getting maps so he could drive up to the oil patch in his truck. Nothing I said dissuaded him that North Dakota winters in a truck were a swift way to freeze to death, and overall the guy seemed a bit optimistic for such a hard town. I wish I could have pointed him to this article.

I do wonder, though, about the women she talks about in her article who 'date' on the side. North Dakota just passed some of the strictest laws on abortion in the country, not to mention that there's no abortion clinic in that area or indeed for a good five hour drive in either direction so far as I know. I wouldn't want to take that very human chance of getting pregnant and then to some extent not be able to have a choice about carrying to term or not--and I don't envy those who are taking a chance.
posted by librarylis at 9:07 PM on July 26, 2013


I, too, am curious about her motivations. I presume she just likes the work, though through her writings, it seems more complicated than that. Almost like some kind of Dishwasher Pete kind of experience seeker.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:20 PM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


That was an excellent bit of writing. The one anecdote that stuck out for me – and maybe this is just naivety or not being from America, where tipping is such a fucked-up dance in which worker exploitation masquerades as etiquette – was the following:
Aside from the $5 [dancers paid to the club] per lap dance, we were told to tip the bartender, waitress, and bouncer $10 each
You know you've got a good scam going where you can demand than the wages of some of your employees* be used to pay the wages of some of your other employees.

*Yes, I know, the dancers are not, strictly speaking, employees of the club; but given that (i) the club is where they work and (ii) the club's customers pay for their services, they're pretty much your colloquial definition of employees.
posted by Len at 5:24 AM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, on the one hand, there is white knight assumptioneering based on feels.

On the other hand, there is her referring to stripping as a sex worker trade on the community she built for sex workers.


Good point, I missed that in the article.

Doesn't change the fact that someone taking their first foray into the world of strippers and sex work should know that people who strip for a living can be sensitive about being described as sex workers.

If warning people about common cultural pitfalls makes me a white knight, then a white knight I be.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:40 AM on July 27, 2013


a male stripper would be, I imagine the pale

Logical endpoint being an autobiography: Beyond the Pale: My Life as a Male Stripper.


Beyond the .... Pole (?):My life as a Male Stripper
posted by BlueHorse at 9:22 PM on July 28, 2013


« Older That's not a plot hole. Allow me to explain....  |  "Believing they are losing the... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments