[The Dungeon at the Green Door]

Reluctant wives, horny accountants and leather slaves: A Green Door memoir

by Skylaire Alfvegren

"Are you in the lifestyle?" he asked.

It was dark, too dark to make out anything past the outline of a sweaty, hulking, recently waxed chest. I gingerly positioned my pint of Jim Beam behind a six pack of O'Douls under the bar and looked up at "The Accountant." An accountant naked but for the threadbare white towel slung around his hips. The first time I met "The Accountant" while slinging Cokes in the back bar of the Green Door, the house lights were so low you could've skinned a cat and no one would've noticed. But it's always like that: The place is dark because people are more apt to get naked when the lights are out. I conversed with "The Accountant" for a half-hour before my eyes adjusted and I realized he'd been masturbating the whole time.

Three months earlier, "lifestyle" was a word I associated with marketing companies, a repulsive buzzword found in sentences alongside "'tweener" "extreme" and "vertical branding."

But from January to March, I ran the café attached to the Green Door, the self-proclaimed "best kept secret" in Las Vegas. For me, the term "lifestyle" took on a whole new meaning. (Employees were told to refer to it as a "lifestyle" club rather than a swinger's club, "lifestyle" being a discreet and apparently more sophisticated way of saying you swing.)

Even though they traffic in sex, the Green Door is still a company with management. "We want customers to remember the experience, remember the employees, write home about it," management said. I took the suggestion to create a "character": Mine was a glitter-glam high-school revolutionary, Candy, as directed by Ken Russell.

At 28, I still get carded for cigarettes. An L.A. prostitute had once stalked me for a month, claiming I could make $1,500 a day working for her Persian pimp. My Oxford-educated, Buddhist best friend had a penchant for hookers. I'm forever in search of truth and beauty, in the gutter, a la Baudelaire, whose birthday I share. I'd like to become my generation's P. J. O'Rourke, but I can't afford a beer, let alone college.

The trannies loitering in the Commercial Center parking lot always liked my outfits, but my high ideals and lowbrow sensibility was lost on most Green Door patrons. I connected with the guys brought unwillingly by their friends, an ex-junkie-pimp, an old man whose friend used to deliver ice to Area 51.

I wondered what they were teaching in high school as I was relieved by a recent graduate who showed up in hooker heels for her job interview -- and had no problem donning a safety-pinned towel to be glad-handled by patrons of the top floor sauna.

My first visit to The Green Door back in December came by way of a gag holiday gift. I ended up having a long conversation about South American travel with a seemingly gay airline steward, flitting from themed room to lounge, realizing satyriasists need conversation, too.

Americans are kings of the secondhand experience. Hard-wired for sex and violence, our country is run by Puritans and porn profiteers, our kinky sex comes on DVD and our blood sports are animated. But in Vegas, paid sex can be had with a whistle and for $5 you can shoot a live machine gun. Who in this age and in this town would seek out a public place to have sex with strangers?

Owned and operated by a journeyman plumber, the Green Door is one of many so-called adult social clubs in the Vegas Valley, most of which are crowded together on a grimy strip mall in the Commercial Center off Sahara Avenue, sharing a sidewalk with the Gay and Lesbian center, a pool hall, a handful of ethnic restaurants and the city's best tranny bar.

It's the most popular club of its kind in Las Vegas. Once owned by Las Vegas sex king Terry Gordon, The Green Door is no longer a "clip joint," where girls are hired to lure patrons in with the promise of nookie, only to disappear after the rube had paid his admission.

Joseph Cavaretta has owned The Green Door since 1998, running a relatively tight and, by all accounts, legal establishment. The dozen or so permits Cavaretta pays for to keep the place open are posted at the club's entrance, alongside signs prohibiting alcohol and prostitution. Patrons are sometimes searched if they're suspected of smuggling in booze or illicit substances.

The Green Door has its competition: the Red Rooster, a private residence off Tropicana Avenue that hosts barely-private parties, and features weekend orgies which draw hundreds of people. Guests get access by "renting" a locker at the adjacent storage facility, and can bring their own liquor. Plush, an upscale floating Lifestyle party -- or "glittering hedonistic pleasure dome," as the married couple who hosts it likes to refer to it -- ran a night at the House of Blues before taking up a Saturday night residence at Sapphire's Gentleman's Club.

The cafe I ran, affectionately nicknamed Starfucks, doesn't do the Green Door justice. The feng shui just ain't happening. Very little speaks of the den of iniquity that lies beyond the hallway.

Outside, a giant marquee proclaims the place an Internet cafe. Ever a fount of decency, I would redirect those poor souls who came to use the Internet to the Pride Factory down the block. I was always shocked when a man would plunk down $20 for the privilege of jerking off for an hour in one of the small Internet rooms, dimly-lit and stocked with Kleenex.

Behind the front door (it's not green, incidentally) you're greeted by a cigarette machine and glass display cases filled with bondage collars, outmoded porno video cassettes, and a helter-skelter assortment of penile holding devices: leather ball restraints, steel cock rings, things you'd find at the Folsom Street Fair (or San Francisco's Powerhouse, nudge, wink) -- nothing you'd associate with the DayGlo orange-tanned matrons, horny tourists and random effluvia who keep the club open.

To the left, a trio of small round tables are buttressed by two circular racks of latex bondage wear and Green Door T-shirts. A few prints of naked women and a felt dartboard adorn the tomato soup-red walls.

To the right, you'll find the "cafe," a long bar at whose head a cash register and jar of condoms beckon. It was from this cafe; bar girls are instructed to lure in would-be customers, dispensing concessions on a par with a porno theater: nachos, hot dogs, coffee and non-alcoholic beer (The Green Door strictly prohibits alcohol.)

There is a tremendous difference between working at the Green Door during the day -- the place opens at one in the afternoon -- and at night. Part of the day café worker's job is to give tours of the first floor of the facility. "Eighteen-thousand square feet of devil-may-care" or "You have to pay to see the dungeon," I'd say, depending on the individual. You had to be on guard against skinflint voyeurs looking for a "freebie" and grotesques sniffing around for a hooker. When couples came for tours, it was invariably the man's idea: Sometimes I genuinely felt for the poor wifey, sometimes I couldn't get the scum out of my soul, and sometimes I had a hard time picturing the guys who came in getting laid there, or anywhere.

The pitch was also given over the phone. Heavy breathers called in hopes of free phone sex, to which I would often quote Las Vegas vice codes. There was the occasional furtive stab at finding a prostitute. Legally, we couldn't refer to The Green Door as a "sex club." The pitch went like this, always delivered in the fashion of a 976 commercial (breathy, husky), and beginning with a provocatively toned "Are you coming alone?" A caller was likely a husband bored in his marriage or in town for a convention. "We allow open nudity and sexual activity and people are allowed to watch or join in so long as everyone consents; however, all we provide is the space and atmosphere for 'play' to happen.

In person, I claimed to be married; sometimes I was a lesbian, always delivered with a blushing tilt of the head, my version of "I just work here." Either way, I still had to give tours. Curious tourists, lonelyhearts and sex machines, all got a different spin. Voyeurs, it turns out, tend to be shy. They never came during the day -- only would-be participants.

And there was a handful of them, every day, day in and day out. I often wondered how these men -- and they were all men -- supported themselves. The enthusiasm with which they would talk the place up to whomever would wander in was astonishing, as though they were working on commission. One middle-aged brother would spend entire afternoons at the café bar, nursing a cup of coffee and asking for updates from the back, sort of like a hungry person might ask "How's the soup?" at a restaurant.

The Green Door doesn't offer senior discounts, but like clockwork, one particular white man in his 70s would show up around 3 p.m., hand in hand with one of his three wizened black strawberries. Strawberry preserves, I should say. He never looked shifty. The women always seemed tired, but they always asked how I was doing.

Once you proceed past the café and the admission booth known as "the cage," the lights get lower and lower. You have to proceed past the bank of Internet porn kiosks before making a right into the actual club. The first floor is 8,000 square feet; a "juice bar" punctuates an always-dark cavern featuring pool tables and a stripper pole dimly lit by disco strobes.

A long hallway opens up to a tiled Jacuzzi room, the "voyeur area," and something that looks like a funhouse in reverse: a dozen small rooms, side by side, painted black floor to ceiling, with black vinyl-covered mattresses, partitioned off by neon beaded curtains.

"The Orgy Room," a gaping, elevated platform festooned with pillows, has been known to hold upwards of 30 naked people at once.

The "Voyeur Area" is a lounge with couches in front of two lockable rooms with full-length windows. At night, couples would retire there, getting it on with the lights on. It was taboo to tap on the glass, and tacky to stare with one's face pressed up against the window, but people would, always single men. I often had the thought that voyeurs should be discreet, but they aren't. They're just perverts lacking social skills.

Beyond the voyeur rooms was the "Couples Only" area, a scaled-down version of the dungeon upstairs.

My most memorable afternoon experience: One portly, Jersey gentleman who was among the place's biggest, most vocal proponents, informed me he was a pool cleaner. One afternoon while working the café, I watched him chat up a ditzy stripper in the parking lot. He convinced her and her piece-of-mutton boyfriend to come in. While giving a tour to a bewildered Asian couple, I waved my hand at one of the usually empty voyeur rooms, only to point out a three-way between the stripper, her boyfriend and the husky pool guy. Later on I brought in a college student on a tour to find the leggy blonde spread-eagle in the "love chair" in the couples only area. "Honey, you need some lovin'" she said, and although that might've been true, I told her I had to return to my post.

The pool guy talked to me later, incredulous. Turned out the woman was one of his customers. The menage a trois "just happened." It was the sort of thing the owner wished happened every afternoon, but mostly happened upstairs, at night.

Nighttime customers fell into one of four categories: strangely conservative older couples, random hedonists, packs of drunken frat boys looking to score, and packs of conventioneers looking to walk into an orgy.

I could just as easily apply an advertisement on a poster seen in the mental health office to swingers: "We are your friends, neighbors and family. We are major contributors to American life. We deserve dignity and respect." Swingers: They're your pool guys, your delivery boys, your corporate accountants, your computer technicians.

One Saturday night, a cop hovered in and out; not because prostitution is illegal in Clark County and he was looking to bust someone, but because he couldn't make up his mind about coming in. "So women will just walk up and have sex with me?" he asked, to which I gave the scripted single-guy response: "You could go to a strip club, and end up with a hard-on you can't do anything about. Here, at least, you have the chance of getting lucky."

Among the regulars were a few couples in their 50s. One was an impish, always topless investor and her free-wheeling husband. Only after I started working the back bar did I have a chance to talk with them. I explained my unease with having to stand around while random strangers jerked off in front of me. "You'll get used to it," the husband said, promising that before I knew it I'd become entranced by the "lifestyle," attend Red Rooster parties and befriend the close-knit family of long-time Vegas swingers. He had worked for Ralph Engelstad when the Imperial Palace was constructing its secondary towers. Drawing the layout on a cocktail napkin, he dispelled the rumor I'd heard that the place was laid out in the shape of a swastika. On the same napkin, he gave me directions to Common Ground, the only nudist colony in town.

The wife of the other couple sported a massive black bouffant and revealing leather outfits. She and her husband were sweet, seemingly treating the Green Door as a hangout with a kick. Even though they'd tip employees randomly, I avoided visualizing what they did upstairs. Upstairs, rain or shine, opened at 9 p.m.

One time I had to work the night shift, and was asked to bring some Cokes upstairs. A bearded man who I'm certain was really into D&D as a youngster and probably made his living as a computer programmer, his wife (because geeks are often heroic) and their "slave" had wheeled a suitcase full of devices past me earlier that evening.

I walked up the stairs, past the lounge, past the steam room, past the "no wear" room where nudity is mandatory ... to the dungeon. Cheesily and to its credit, there are restraining devices, candelabras and walls painted over with fake bricks.

The "slave," a dewy-eyed girl in leather pants and a black halter top, didn't mind the incessant bullwhip-tip on her butt. She was the hottest thing the place had seen in a month. (Earlier that evening a woman with the countenance of a hamster had been banged by 20 men in quick succession.)

When working the "cage," employees are told to ask for a driver's license for two reasons. Number one, prostitutes are unlikely to carry identification, and even though the place doesn't serve alcohol, minors aren't allowed, although no Traci Lords wannabes ever came in on my watch.

More importantly, we asked for ID to weed out cross-dressers. Swingers are amazingly conservative: Wife-swapping is directionally oppositional to man-on-man action, something the Green Door goes out of its way to make sure happens elsewhere. "Take a look: Does the woman asking for a wristband have an Adam's Apple?" my manager, a refugee from the tech world, would ask. (She left her job 80 pounds and one husband lighter, her skirts growing progressively shorter, her banter ever more racy.)

Why did I leave? It wasn't the mountain of cum towels needing to be laundered every afternoon. Was it the $7.50 an hour, which could be supplanted by tips made from watching men jerk off, which I didn't? Yeah. Sometimes an idea is good in theory, unbearable in reality. like the months I spent trying to become a Buddhist through osmosis, living in a Zen commune but stashing my Scotch where the monks couldn't find it.

I thought there'd be color here. I thought I'd get a greater understanding of humanity, sociology that no class could ever teach. And I did. Americans' lives are empty and hollow. Some fill the hole with shopping, or drugs, or graduate school. Patrons of the Green Door fill it, if they can, with sex.