Marlei Martinez and Naresh Vissa
The New York Giants versus Arizona Cardinals game blared on the television screen as John Tidd put out his cigarette in the ashtray next to his computer keyboard. Scattered piles of paperwork, plastic kids' meal toys and hot pink high heels littered the area around his desk. An eye patch covered his right eye because he recently suffered an eye stroke. But even that did not prevent the burly businessman from finding his Marlboro pack in his breast pocket and lighting up another cigarette.
Tidd, 56, says he had three goals in life – to have a successful career, raise a family, and travel. He says he proudly worked alongside his father in construction from the time he was 15-years-old, starting out as a waterboy and moving up the ranks to help move houses.
"I think my father was a great man," Tidd said. "He instilled a lot of values in me and that's what I'm trying to do with my workers and kids."
Tidd spent 25 years in construction, but when his father died, lost his taste for it. Today, 19 years later, he runs a different type of business, where his youngest son Peter, 29, shadows him.
Tidd co-owns Lookers Showclub, a strip club on the North Side of Syracuse.
The club’s flashing neon lights and the picture of a mysterious woman’s face on a sign set the scene for a typical night. Inside, multi-colored strobe lights dart across the smoke-filled room. The bar is located near the entrance to the club and serves a variety of nonalcoholic beverages. Both men and women can be seen chatting at the bar with their favorite Lookers strippers.
A petite brunette in black fishnets struts towards the bubble-filled pole at the center of the club. She dances as she takes off her clothes to the beat of her signature song, Baby Bash’s “Cyclone.”
Up the stairs and past the dancers’ dressing room is the office of a man who preaches women’s empowerment and good family values.
"I'm proud of the fact that I do this," Tidd said as he turned down the TV's volume. "But my Aunt and Uncle think I'm the Anti-Christ.”
Syracuse has 13 strip clubs. Tidd says although many come and go because managing a club is difficult, Lookers has been successfully operating for more than 15 years. The Syracuse New Times named Lookers “Best Adult Entertainment Club” in all of Syracuse for 2008.
Its success has not come easily though. Tidd says he and his partner, Bob O’Malley, have struggled to keep their club alive despite public outrage.
"From the day we opened up, we've been having trouble with the Common Council," Tidd said. "We've been accused of being the drudge of the community."
Local government has tried to shut down the club several times. Former Councilor Rick Guy came very close to doing that before it even opened in 1993. But Lookers has survived.
"We always get harassed more than any other business," Tidd said as he smashed his second cigarette in the ashtray. "There's always a microscope on us."
Tidd says Lookers is following all the rules. Syracuse zoning ordinances require adult entertainment centers to be located more than 1,000 feet from all family institutions such as schools, churches and playgrounds. Ordinances such as these, as well as state-mandated tax increases on strip clubs, keep Lookers in check. Tidd says the city government's treatment of strip clubs is unfair because his club actually improves security in the area.
"We do a community service here," Tidd said, gesturing towards his TV surveillance screen. "There's lots of gang violence and prostitution outside, so we help the cops by calling if we see anything get out of hand."
Unlike a majority of the bars in Syracuse that close at two in the morning, Lookers is open until four. Tidd explained that his club is non-alcoholic, so people who spend the night drinking can come to the club later and sober up instead of roaming the streets and causing trouble.
The sole officer at the nearby police community center, however, said he does not know how much Lookers actually does help with security.
"I'm the only officer that works at this police department and he [Tidd] hasn't reported any of that to me," the Northside Community Police Center officer said. He also said he was not allowed to give out his name because he would need approval from the police department.
The officer said prostitution is the most prevalent form of crime in the area around Lookers, but he could not comment on whether it has decreased. He said the owners of Lookers would frequently drop by to assist the police center with activities for the kids when the club first opened. Tidd says he has not been able to do much over the past couple of years because his partner has frequently been out of town.
In addition to security, Tidd says strip clubs stimulate the city's economy and provide people with jobs.
"We've put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the hands of our employees and we give over half of our profits back to the community in taxes, licensing fees and inspection costs," Tidd said. "We give away every fifth check we make."
Lookers has about 30 employees. Tidd asks the strippers not to reveal their real names for safety measures and prohibits pictures from being taken of anyone in the club, including himself. The club’s strippers and manager say strip clubs are where the money is.
"Times are hard," said Ivy, 28, an eight-year Lookers veteran stripper. “Honestly, the reason I do this is just because I need to and there's money here.”
However, due to the current economic situations, fears have risen within the strip club business. Tidd expects customers will not have as much money to spend on entertainment.
“Strip clubs will have to make business decisions in response to the economy,” said Dr. Craig Watters, Syracuse University Whitman School of Management Professor of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises. “Maybe they’ll shorten their hours, or they’ll have to downsize their staff. But the desire customers feel will never go away, even with the ups and downs of the economy, so that should help sustain business.”
Even with the crisis, Ivy comes to work every day to do what she says she enjoys doing best. She says she is a wife and mother of three, working five nightshifts a week to support her family and pay her way through Onondaga Community College (OCC). She says her goal is to earn an Associate's Degree and become a preschool teacher.
Despite being married seven years, her husband – a carpenter – is supportive but not happy with her current profession. The couple tells their children she is a bartender.
"I enjoy being naked," Ivy said. "I am proud of what I have."
Not all strippers are as confident.
Unlike Ivy, Autumn, 21, is new to the lighted runway and bubble-filled pole. When she first came to Lookers four years ago, she worked as a bartender and doorgirl. She says she hopes to study at OCC this winter, so she is saving money to do so.
Autumn's mother thinks she still bartends. She babysits Autumn's six-month-old baby boy while Autumn strips at night.
"Nobody knows about this except for my sister-in-law and the godmother of my baby," Autumn said as she readjusted her bra strap after performing her first ever set. "My mom begged me never to dance and I told her I wouldn't."
Syracuse University child and family studies professor Joseph Fanelli teaches a course titled Human Sexuality. He also runs a private practice in family psychotherapy. His studies have found that oftentimes, girls resort to stripping because they grew up in dysfunctional families and were financially deprived and abused during childhood.
Fanelli said what makes this form of entertainment so personable is the one-on-one interaction between the viewer and entertainer. Club regulars generally know who will be dancing on particular nights. Fanelli said they are sucked into a false sense of warmth that makes them feel like they are in an artificial relationship.
“I had a patient who had to stop going to strip clubs because his wife found out," Fanelli said. "He became very worried his favorite lap dancer would miss him.”
Tidd says he has heard many complaints that adult entertainment degrades women. He says he thinks strippers should love their jobs and walk with confidence because they get paid well, get lots of vacation time and have the entire day for leisure.
"Being a stripper is one of the most empowering positions a woman can have," Tidd said. "After working here and saving up for ten years, you can have the nicest house in Aruba and never work again. How is that degrading?"
Tidd says there is stiff competition among prospective strippers. A majority of them apply for positions “fresh out of high school.” Every Monday night at Lookers is “Amateur Night,” and 90 percent of the strippers hired come from this “farm system.”
Apart from the hot pink heels in one of the dark corners of the room, Tidd's family pictures and grandchildren's toys describe him as a family man. He says he has a wife, three sons and four grandchildren.
"I try to spend as much time with the family as possible while running a business," Tidd said.
He encourages his employees to be involved with their families as well. Every summer, Tidd and his partner host the company's family picnic at Sylvan Beach on the eastern shore of Oneida Lake.
“This is a life decision,” Tidd said. “All women have to do is take off their clothes and men will put hundred dollar bills in their garter. If I had a vote when I was being born, I’d vote to be a woman," he said without cracking a smile or blinking an eye.