The first time I ever heard about the Nob Hill Adult Theatre was in July 2006. I was 24. It had been a month since I’d accepted a meager payout to leave my first post-college San Francisco job as a customer service phone rep for Headsets.com, which I’d done since moving to town one year prior. The money had been enough to cover my July rent, but August was starting to look dicey. I applied for jobs every single day, but the callbacks were rare and fruitless.
One overcast summer afternoon, as I was scanning customer service jobs on Craigslist while listening to Nelly Furtado’s Loose and chatting with my friend Charissa, who was working a dead-end receptionist job downtown, I came across the following:
START NOW!! Retail Sales-Gay Clientele: >>NIGHT SHIFT!!! (nob hill)
6pm – 2:30am. $10/hour to start with raise and free medical insurance after 90 days.
The world-famous Nob Hill Adult Theatre has been a male strip club and porn arcade for almost 40 years! Ideal candidate will be friendly and outgoing with people. Must be comfortable with gay porn, nudity and a sexual atmosphere. Cash handling and light janitorial.
APPLY IN PERSON with resume for priority consideration at the Theatre: 729 Bush Street @ Powell.
I’d barely finished reading these words to Charissa before she interjected, in a low and urgent voice:
“Dude. They’re talking about jizzmopping.”
I laughed incredulously, as one does when the notion of professional jizzmopping is introduced for the first time. Clearly things were not yet THAT dire for me, right? No! No? No. Wrapping myself in the relative comfort and protection of my white lower-middle-class upbringing, I continued browsing. But as days slipped by with nothing to show for them except all-consuming anxiety and an alarming MRSA near my mouth from spending too much time in the 24 Hour Fitness showers, I saw the listing posted again. And then again. This third time was the charm, as my illusory notions of being better-than finally dropped away and I fired off an email expressing my interest.
Within days, I was summoned to the Nob (as I came to call it) for an interview with the manager. I’d never been there before walking into its lobby one sunny weekday. Immediately, I was engulfed on all sides by shelves of gay porn DVDs, lube, anal douche, dildos, and butt plugs. Putting on blinders, I lumbered confidently to a long high desk under several imposing framed posters of gay porn stars, informing a sad-faced man in a blue Nob Hill Adult Theatre uniform that I was there to meet the manager.
An unexpectedly wholesome-looking straight yuppie suddenly bounded over and introduced himself as the manager. This fucking city. After some pleasantries, we began going over my resume and relevant experience, such as it was. But then, his moment-of-truth haymaker. Dropping his smile and cocking an eyebrow, he looked me straight in the eye and asked:
“So this job involves mopping up other men’s cum. Are you okay with that?”
Having fully anticipated this facet of the role, I responded without hesitating.
“Oh yeah, that’s fine.”
The manager recoiled and furrowed his brow. “Wow. You didn’t even flinch.”
Oops! Had I erred? Was he looking for a different reaction? Did I seem too eager? I suddenly felt the distinct sense of shame known only to those of us who’ve been made to feel like wanton cum-sluts by the managers of all-nude gay male porn palaces. Did I need to reassure him that the cum wasn’t my motivating interest in the role?
I stammered that I’d read between the lines of the “light janitorial” reference in the job posting. (Really, had it not been for Charissa, I’d have never put this together and would likely have given him the bewildered spit-take he’d hoped for.) Evidently this was the question that sent most applicants running for barista jobs, but since I’d displayed a sufficient degree of depravity, I was offered a trainee role.
Despite my overwhelming mental focus on the jizzmopping, it wound up being only one sliver of the unsavory pie of Nob jobs I had to perform. Also on the list:
- Operating the retail storefront, which entailed selling tickets to the theatre, the aforementioned gay sex paraphernalia, and the contents of a refrigerator stocked with soda, water, Red Bull, and poppers.
- Counting out dozens of singles to customers to tip the dancers.
- Running the lights, music, and announcements for each dancer. (“Our dancers dance for tips and tips alone, so remember: here at the Nob Hill Theatre, the bigger the bill, the bigger the thrill!”)
- Serve as a mother-hen stripper wrangler, corralling the unruly mishmash of starving art students, seasoned sex workers, drug-addled hustlers, and garden-variety exhibitionists who comprised the dancer lineup. We had a staff log to leave each other notes when dancers were acting out. (“Brady showed up late and looked coked out of his mind,” etc.)
- Provide towels and keys to the venue’s private rooms when a dancer and customer decided to take their relationship a bit further/more expensive.
- Monitoring each dancer’s performance for a weekly cash incentive prize. The Nob didn’t pay its dancers, but also didn’t skim off their tips. The cash prize was created to incentivize the dancers to show up on time and put on a good show in lieu of a paycheck. Each performance was scored on a 1-10 scale. In order to achieve a Perfect 10, each dancer had to start at their scheduled time; spend at least 15 of their 30 minutes dancing onstage rather than lap-dancing in the crowd; get fully nude; achieve an erection; jack off to completion onstage; and perform a prompt epilogue in the shower peepshow booth across the hall from the stage. Very few dancers ever achieved a Perfect 10, but whoever had the highest cumulative score each week would win a few hundred bucks.
- Patrol the porn video arcade in the basement, periodically chasing the loitering, leaning cruisers from the hallway into the booths and instructing them to “feed the machine” (put money in the slots to watch porn), and also checking to see if any “light janitorial” was needed.
Which brings me to (drumroll please) the jizzmopping. This was required in two different scenarios: when a dancer would cum onstage, and when the floors in the video arcade booths would get a little too…slick. (If you’re wondering what kind of animal would just cum on the floor somewhere and walk away, the Nob was essentially inviting its patrons to do exactly that, and provided nothing in the way of a suggested repository or even paper towels to encourage customer clean-up.)
The booth scenario was by far the more common one, typically brought to my attention by either sitting there glistening in plain sight while I was patrolling, or by an incensed customer complaining that all the other booths were occupied. A full mop-and-bucket situation was needed to render those booths inhabitable again; we had a particular kind of cleaning solution for this job, given the notoriously tricky texture of the substance in question.
But not so for the stage cum! For these impressive feats, we had a dedicated spray-bottle and rag waiting just under the cash register. I can only remember having to do this once, which tells you how often the dancers hit their Perfect 10 (I do not blame them for this, we were admittedly asking a lot). It was an unusually crowded evening, and I was working the desk while a colleague operated the makeshift AV booth. As I stared vacantly at one of the several TVs continually broadcasting gay fetish porn in the storefront, I heard my colleague matter-of-factly inform me that a spot-cleaning was needed on the stage.
Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the spray-bottle and rag and began my somber march through the double-door theatre entrance, past the wall of signed 8×10 portraits of gay porn stars, along the back of the performance space, and down the aisle between the rows of seated masturbators. A pack of unusually upbeat customers seated on either side of the catwalk regarded my approach with wolfish smiles, perhaps thinking that I was about to give them a surprise clerk-into-stripper reveal. (I never danced there, although I did plan an imaginary stripping playlist which essentially consisted of Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” on a loop.) Their fantasies were dashed when their eyes dropped to my waist and noticed the cleaning supplies in my hands.
“Ohhh,” one man said, suddenly taking an emotional interest in my dignity. “Oh, no.” Several other patrons lent their voices to this sudden chorus of consequence.
“Oh it’s fine, it’s just part of the job!” I trilled, attempting to balance a breezily reassuring tone with a eye-rolling lack of enthusiasm to avoid the cum-shaming I’d experienced from the manager during my interview. And as I bent over and began dutifully spritzing the tiny white puddle, I suddenly felt a new sensation: hands forcing themselves down my jeans and leaving slips of crinkled paper behind. Taken aback, I looked over my shoulder and saw men smiling compassionately in my direction as they approached me with dollar bills. So this is how rock stars feel! It would be the closest I’d ever come to stripping, so I wagged my butt appreciatively and welcomed their donations, many of which also came with copped feels. (Another part of the job—if you worked there, you were on the menu.)
Any number of moments in a given shift might constitute a “crazy story” under normal circumstances, but as with anything else, the eccentricities of working at the Nob were things you gradually got used to and eventually stopped noticing. It was like living inside of a gay porn, with cruising and sex and nudity happening all around you all the time, except my role in all of it felt like the boom-mic operator. (I did, and always will, relate to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character from Boogie Nights.)
The craziest story I’ve told countless times over the years was one for which I wasn’t even present: an older gentleman requested a private with a dancer called London, so-named for his proclivity to helicopter his penis to Fergie’s “London Bridge.” Once they were behind closed doors, London asked the gentleman what he liked. “I like nipples,” the man said. And then he died. Right there. With those words—his last—hanging in the stale air.
London, who was known for dramatics, had to convince the night manager that he wasn’t exaggerating. The paramedics were called, but it was too late. I heard that his family called within the next few days, asking for details about his passing. He’d left behind a wife, kids, and grandkids, none of whom had any idea why he would be in such an establishment. Live openly in your truth, guys. No one should die doing what they love in shame or secrecy.
I worked at the Nob for five months, from August through December of 2006. Shortly after starting, I was offered a job in the customer service department at The Sharper Image’s corporate headquarters, where I primarily handled handwritten customer correspondence from insane old cranks. Not wanting to leave the Nob in a lurch and knowing fully well that it was clearly the funner of the two, I worked both jobs for several months, pulling double shifts several days a week in which I’d go from 9-5 at TSI to 6-2 at the Nob. Amazingly, it was during this period that things began to come together for the first time since moving to San Francisco, and the foundation was set for the life I have today.
That October, I made my first tentative steps toward reconciling with the Christianity that had defined but also deformed my life during college. While researching gay-affirming churches in San Francisco, I discovered that the lavishly appointed Grace Cathedral was just a block up the hill from the Nob; I started attending the Sunday evening service, which began just moments after my weekend day shifts at the Nob would conclude. After frantically cycling through several romantic prospects who sometimes visited me at the theatre, I met Scott, the man who would become my husband, that Halloween; luckily for me, he was tickled by my vocational double-life.
And finally, the development that forever altered my career path and permanently ended my tenure at the Nob: I applied internally for a job as a copywriter at The Sharper Image, and I got it. It was happening: I was officially going to be working in my field of study. (Sorta. An English degree is a vague thing.) Naturally I wanted to give the responsibility of crafting copy for massage chairs, $500 iPod-dock toothbrushes, and Trump Steaks my full and complete attention, so I hung up my professional jizzmopping rag for the last time shortly before Christmas and went legit in January 2007.
As I type this, the Nob is mere hours away from closing their doors forever after a truly remarkable 50 years of business. I’ve gone back and visited many times in the 12 years since I worked there and admit that I took its existence for granted. This was a mistake. San Francisco is losing not only its sole male strip club, but a magnificently seedy and historic sanctuary for gay male sexuality that has existed for the entirety of public gay American life as we’ve known it.
It first opened its doors the year before the Stonewall riots, and kept them open through the intoxicating gay liberation movement of the ‘70s, the AIDS decimation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the mainstreaming of gay culture in the ‘00s, and nationwide legalization of gay marriage in 2015. I’m honored to have played a small role in its storied, sticky history. Whenever I hear a Donna Summer song or smell industrial-strength cleaning products, I’ll think back fondly on the five months that I mopped jizz from its hallowed floors.