Rosa left work at 4:30 a.m., slept a little, woke up to get her child ready for school, fell back asleep, snoozed through daylight and day noise, pulled herself out of bed again, heated some beans and rice, and put on her bangle bracelets and her face.
Now it was three o’clock and the phone was ringing. “HAL-lo!” she answered, the way people from the Dominican Republic do when they take a call in this country. It was a man she knew. Rosa rolled her eyes but quickly switched her voice to the audio version of molasses.
“Hola, mi amor,” she cooed, hunkering down into the phone. “Umhmmmm, umhmmmm. You sound kind of solemn,” she continued, in Spanish. “Tired, hmmm? You’re gonna cook? Spaghetti? Well, watch it, I think you’re getting fat! I am, too! Ha ha!” She laughed from far back in her throat, the way a new girlfriend laughs, though she didn’t consider this man her boyfriend, nor even, exactly, her friend. The man talked and talked. Rosa kept pace with more umhmmmms, a few cheerful “Oh my Gods,” and several strategic, low-toned giggles. In the middle of one, she heard the front door open—her 9-year-old was home. She laid the phone down and went to the living room to kiss the little boy and plant him in front of after-school cartoons. Then she returned to her “¡Ay, Dios mío!” Before long, a half-hour had passed.
“When are you coming to the club again?” she asked. Not right away, he said; he was broke. But as soon as he could. And when he did, Rosa would be the exclusive recipient of his time, and money.
Rosa is a bailarina. For a couple of dollars per song, she dances with strangers in a bailarina bar. It’s a job held by many immigrant women in Spanish-speaking New York, filling a need created by many immigrant men. The man on the phone is typical of her clients. He’s in his twenties, doesn’t speak English, and immigrated to the United States by himself—no mother, no girlfriend, no wife. He works six days a week at a restaurant and sends his money back home to Ecuador. Most of all, he’s lonely.
“He came in to the bar not long ago, really depressed,” Rosa says. “It was his birthday but his mother forgot. All she did was ask him to send home more money.” He paid Rosa to spend the whole night at his table. The dancers charge $40 an hour for that kind of exclusive attention, and that’s where the real money is made. That night, she netted more than $200. Another time, she spent an entire twelve-hour shift with the same man, making almost $500. All in all, she brings in about $35,000 a year. “That’s more than I’d get as a waitress or a store clerk,” she says. “I’ve got nice furniture, a clean apartment. I support my son. I pay my bills.”
Rosa is 31 and petite, with eyebrows that she pencils a little too far toward her nose, giving her a vaguely stern appearance. That image is offset by her generous but tidy cleavage, which she has accented with two tattooed stars on her left breast. She’s considered pretty, but she learned early on that it’s the gift of gab more than good looks or dance skills that makes a bailarina successful. What the men are buying, by the song or by the hour, is a tiny, metered chunk of girlfriendship. Rosa mainly hears long disquisitions about “how he managed to make it into this country and how he’s suffered.” Or about his job: He’s afraid of losing it or he can’t find one or it doesn’t pay enough or he got fired. He’s worried about his immigration status. He thinks he’s got a heart condition. He’s feeling unloved, insecure.
Not all of the men are lonely immigrants. Some are Orthodox Jews, whom a bailarina bar worker described as “pinguinitos, because they stand there in their black coats and white shirts just looking around, like a scene at the South Pole.” And some of the men have significant others in New York. “They tell me their wife or girlfriend turned them down for sex because she was jealous or too tired,” she says. Rosa advises them to “Bring her flowers! Take her to a nice restaurant!” She admits that they’re spending money on her that they could be using for flowers and dinner. “But they’re making a good investment, buying my advice.” Only about one man in five, by Rosa’s estimation, tries to grope her while dancing or uses what she calls “gross, inappropriate love talk.”