Exhausting An Interest In Strippers

Four nights with the strippers of Reno.

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Jesse Luthi. Instagram: medicinecabinetdreams

Exhaustion is a key word here. Something you probably didn’t know: your average stripper works (as a stripper) about seven times a month. If you find that confusing, monetarily, why not work more to make more money? Exhaustion has everything to do with it. Exhaustion is more than being tired, there’s an amygdalatic component, emotional.

Four nights is a lot of nights in a row to go to strip clubs. I’ll apologize in advance, it all gets a little bit jumbled. But I think I wanted to feel it. The monotony, the paradigms and similarities. The actual work of sex work. I wanted to think I could’ve been a stripper, could live in their heads, since it occurred to me that we shared some kinds of sensibilities.

It was on one of my initial explorations of going to strip clubs by myself where I began to notice it. I had read that Richard Feynman used to go to strip clubs, which was a rationalization that I needed. I wanted (do want) to be more like Richard Feynman and admittedly this seemed like a pretty good way to do that. Though I could really save myself a lot of money if, I too, was only inclined to drink 7-UP.

It was on one of these initial excursions, sitting, watching, drinking my beer, subtly amusing myself watching the interplay of human sexual dynamics. Going alone, those first times, my interest tended towards watching the men. Who were these gullible patrons? Are we, the male of the species, really this silly?

At first, one presumes that the strip club is an imbalanced entity. Like when CS Lewis (using one of his notorious, compelling, dichotomies) described it as a gross perversion of appetite. Comparing men watching partially naked women, to men drooling over a cheeseburger propped on stage.

When it dawns on you that the stakes are not nearly so high (interest not correlated with personal moral decline), you begin to enjoy smaller things. Your self-consciousness disappears, and you begin to see the dancers as real people, and their jobs as kind of legitimately hard.

I like talking to strippers, I like listening to them. I like bringing up the exhaustion thing, and consistently being validated. My fourth night in, when I have lost almost all desire to continue my ‘research’, with some effort I begin again my schpeel. Interest in their occupation as work and how I don’t think I could’ve been a stripper because I wouldn’t have the energy for it.

The young ex-ballerina I’m talking to says, “Yeah it’s exhausting. It’s honestly easier spending ten hours a day pounding stakes into the ground.”

I ask what she was doing that for. An upstart weed farm. Of course. She is already the third girl I’ve talked to who have experimented in this arena. The first was very talented, convinced me that getting a lap dance was living in the moment, spiritual. Later, told me that the next day she was driving out to trim cannabis buds, just as recreation. To chill out, clear her head.

By this fourth night, I do totally believe the ex-ballerina that being a stripper is exhausting, in fact it’s my thesis. However, I am still a little skeptical that it’s more exhausting than pounding stakes into the ground for ten hours a day. Manual labor is tiring too, I say, especially when you’re doing it day after day. She admits, it was just that one day. What happened? I ask. She doesn’t respond …

Perhaps that evening, putting the final bang on the final stake, she wipes sweat from her brow and looks into the dusk-lit field of baby cannabis crop, now seeing that boyfriend farmer completely different. His dreadlocks no longer looking cute. He comes up to hug her and it’s all rotten. His dreadlocks stink. They smell like out of control truth. Veganism. Horseradish and fava bean farts. That night, as they lay down on his hemp stuffed mattress, he begins to spoon her, a single dreadlock falls over her mouth and she gags.

The ex-ballerina asks me if I want a dance in the back, which jolts me back to reality. My budget.

My budget and being reminded I’m a customer. But this is ok, I’m willing to pay for expedited intimacy. I knew it would cost something to get good pieces of information, and anyway, every stripper has already payed just to be there. To have the privilege to dance (certainly an enviable hiring policy for an owner). Usually paying about 90 bucks a night depending on the club … or so they say. They do not hesitate to tell you they’ve paid to be there. I get it, I wouldn’t either.

So I set out each night with a budget, and three out of four times blow a good chunk of it on the first girl that spends time talking to me. This usually doesn’t work out badly, mind you. Usually the first girl who talks to me is pretty interesting and good at talking. Yet each new time I go, I tell myself to play it more slowly, dish out the cash in smaller increments, wait for the less aggressive ones, get more of a variety of stories. But I’m a sucker for competency. Competent interest, which takes work and a special kind of energy.

Most of how a stripper makes their money is with private dances. There’s a stage, with a pole, where they dance and ‘introduce’ themselves so to speak. This stage is usually horseshoed by chairs on rollers where one can sit to get real close to the action and tip in dollars. Beyond that, more rolly chairs (usually pretty comfortable) next to tables, a bar with stools. The chairs on the floor need to roll to facilitate the frequent movements of the strippers and their customers. It’s not like a normal show where you might sit in one place for two hours. They try to encourage movement, to get you in the back. The ‘back’ meaning cushioned benches partitioned for multiple dancers and their clients. Separated from the rest of the club by some kind of curtain.

After performing or before or during a stripper will try and flirt, try to find guys to take in the back. You get it, you’ve seen movies. But what occurred to me, finally, was how much of their job was listening and picking and playing the field. Talking to the men is 90% of what they do. Not only talking and flirting but as a stripper you have to be semi-conscious of which girl was talking to which guy. You have to listen and empathize and ‘be yourself’ because if you’re not it’s phony and most guys sniff that out and it’s not sexy. It’s not relate-able; that attractive quality that comes with accessibility. And yet, along with all that, there still has to be a performative edge. You’re yourself, but a hyper-exaggerated form. Hotter than you feel, more confident than seems humanly possible. It’s not hard to understand why a lot of strippers resort to cliches. Those giant ridiculous heels. Even a lot of their ‘dance’ moves. If you find a formula that works for most everyone, do that.

My second day in Reno I went out early in the evening. I conversed pleasantly with a young psych major. Her hair cut short and jelled to a point in the middle. She wore a black … what’s the word? Conglomeration of straps? On her calves she wore long black socks. After I agree to go in the back, I sit on my piece of cushioned bench, this one beginning to rip on the seams. Little scars of white stuffing reminding me that this enterprise is very imperfect. The psyche major puts a large see-through heel on the cushion beside my thigh. She tells me to pull her stocking down to her shoe. When she’s done grinding on my lap and somewhat comically clutching my shirt, a simulation of real passion, not executed poorly but noticeably distinct as ‘her thing’ or a taught idea; she puts the heel again up by my thigh, asks me to pull her sock back up to her knee.

A ritual? I ask. She tells me about this psychological concept, the path of least resistance. She tells me that this is everything in life. At this moment I do not want to disagree, and for her, it makes sense. In a strip club you’re not looking for resistance. Like capitalism, you want the easiest most direct way into your customer’s hearts. Not that this doesn’t involve hard work.

During these evenings, as I watch these performances at empathy, how the dancers listen, bounce from guy to guy convincing each that he is the most fascinating on the planet, I feel literary comparisons coming on. And after I adjust the front of my pants, they’re still there.

Being a stripper is kinda like being a writer. You have to listen, to everybody. You have to be empathetic and honest, but yet, at the end of the day there’s a level of performance to it. Actually, the performance can overshadow the other stuff, but too much of it, and it becomes only performance. Loses its sex appeal. Most people notice when it’s only performance. Which isn’t to say a ‘pure’ type of performance isn’t good enough for some but it’s certainly not why most people read, and it’s not why most men go to strip clubs.

One stripper told me she had a guy who’d take her into the back, have her sit next to him, and he told her knock-knock jokes. One told me a guy paid her five hundred bucks to cuddle for an hour.

By the time I’m in the back I’ve usually already got what I need. At that point they’ve probably already talked to me for half an hour, they could use the break. One stripper came back to the bar where I was sitting, full of pep, she had just danced for an hour for one guy (generally 15 minutes would be considered a pretty long dance, a hundred bucks worth) she said, “Dancing always gives me so much energy.”

Actually that’s probably the strange but funny truth to the difficulty of being a stripper. The talking is the exhausting part. I know it exhausted me. I’m not at all surprised that most strippers only work seven times a month.

There are some that work more. I met one who worked five days a week, she had three children. But she operated more as like a club manager than a stripper. She was a little bit older. She never got on stage to dance. Usually in a strip club this isn’t allowed, you have to dance if it’s your turn, you only get out of it if you’re in the back in a private dance. But she had an arrangement, and she didn’t really put on that stripper facade, performative hyper-interest. She also worked at the club that had the highest ratio of like pretty damn young girls, it was probably easier for her to get away with it.

At that club I met a 20 year old who told me she wore a different wig everyday, which led to a minor lesson on the application of wigs. There was a 19 year old amazon who choked me. The thought that ran through my brain while rendered speechless: ‘You know, I can see why people are into this.’ One of the girls actually made me feel a little preposterous. She had to have been 18, with her hair in pigtails, and the look she had when she danced onstage was that of someone quite lost and confused. I was not brave enough to ask her if this was a game, I don’t think I wanted to know the answer.

I hadn’t really thought about it before my week in Reno, but most strippers tend to be pretty young. Maybe this is hyper accentuated in Reno but I don’t think so. It makes sense that they’re young. Younger bodies as being generally agreed upon as better to look at, but it’s more than that. Most of them really don’t seem to mind talking to the weird older guy. A line that occurred to me more than one time, ‘When I was a young girl, I loved everybody.’ They can appreciate the lust as if it were at a distance. If it’s directed at them, it’s not really about them, personally. They have a bit of a psychological advantage.

I came to think of strippers as athletes. I know I know I just compared them to writers, but that was about me, my justifications. The athlete thing is actually a lot more believable.

For one, they start young and most have very limited careers. Most don’t want more. They’re capitalizing on a talent (beauty, or exhibitionism or energy). They’ve known for some time that they’ve got it, this talent or disposition. Now they are adults and mean to make some money off it.

If I could disabuse you of some other notion, if you had been weirded out by strip clubs or their idea; most strippers feel good about being good strippers.

They’re not being taken advantage of by like some patriarchal system of demanded gender roles. Most take, what seemed to me, some kind of legitimate pride in being good at what they do. And it’s not sexual. Obviously it’s not asexual but a good percentage of young women are not that into sex. Not as an act, in and of itself.

To come back to my athlete analogy, the sexual aspect was obviously there, is there, for strippers. But it’s kinda like how an athlete might think about fans of the particular team that they are playing on. It matters, technically, that fans exist. But on a personal level, they’re just trying to be good at what they do and make their money. They might switch teams next year, they can’t really be that personally involved.

There’s a quote from 30 Rock. Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character, is listing off her personal desires for a man. At one point she says, “I want a guy who thinks strip clubs are gross.” I’m sorry to disappoint you ladies, but no guy thinks strip clubs are gross. I mean, they’re not gross. They’re primarily populated by ladies. They usually smell pretty good. They’re cleaner than your average bar. I think because they have a reputation for being dirty often each club has routines of cleanliness. The dancers sanitizing and wiping the poles. Not that it really matters, undoubtedly there’s more germs on your cellphone than on a stripper pole, but it’s the look of the thing. Symbolic cleanliness and proper business.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys who aren’t interested in strip clubs, but it’s not cause they’re gross. It’s cause they aren’t interested in them. To me, it’s kinda like baseball. I’m not interested. On a certain level I get the appeal, but given the choice, I’d rather talk to a stripper than watch a baseball game. And this isn’t true of every guy. Strip clubs do and can make men very uncomfortable (arousal and then what to do with that. It can be, unsettling). But primarily it’s a difference of interest. Though, perhaps, different from baseball in the fact that you can exhaust it.

This athlete theory though, I believe, maintains some validity. My first night in Reno, after walking in, a little blonde with a big smile came over and sat on my lap. She was really good at talking. Giving honestly, probing, me the first guy she had seen all night who wasn’t at the place primarily to watch football (she was the game they were supposed to be watching).

Many hours later, as I wondered why I was still there, as I simply handed girls twenties to sit and talk with me for a while, I saw her walk out from a dance in the back. When you’ve felt some kind of connection with a dancer, it takes a little getting used to, sometimes your body will still engage irrational pangs of jealousy (jealousy being the mistress of competition, athletics). Even though she was walking towards me, she ignored my gaze, and others, as if none of us were there. She had this wonderful stoic look, like a batter who has just hit a single into right field and is standing at first base. Another day at the office. The best have this kind of distance. As you look, you know, deep in your gut, that it can’t be taught, and it’s sorta strange and magical, not incomprehensible … but unique, in a way that tickles the imagination with possibility. Could I have been a stripper? I know one thing for certain, I was a crap baseball player.

Reno, Nevada. The Differences Between Strip Clubs, and where I take a hit of Concentrated Marijuana which I think I will be able to handle.

There are parts of Reno that are dirty and weird in a way that I like. It’s not clear how things got to be that way, obviously there’s some level of ingrained poverty that inform the flashy and affluent bits. The bored black jack dealers with their hands behind their backs waiting for players. The maintenance personnel, the housekeepers and cooks and their offspring, growing up into the world where meth seems like a legitimate pathway to career advancement (it at least gives you the energy to work for the man). This is like all of society, but I find it rare to see a place where this stuff isn’t swept under the rug. Hasn’t been. The city hasn’t really got a handle on how to do that. Partially, this is because Reno in recent years has been flooded with migrants from California, fleeing California rent prices. Little do they know, by the time they get there, Reno ain’t much better. Not for proper housing anyway. Little pockets of poverty form around cheap hotels.

Driving into Reno is not a particularly impressive sight. It’s sprawled out like most cities these days. Its famous main downtown casino area you can cover, on foot, in about 40 minutes. Its famous sign: The Biggest Little City in the World, almost strikes one as clever on first viewing it. Then you think about it for a minute and realize it’s nonsense, stupid. But who but a town like Reno would bother with such a strange catchphrase. Suddenly it’s almost clever again, its coiner, a visionary. Yet one knows the city is not really ‘little’, or if it is one has to completely accept ‘little’ as being an arbitrary descriptor. Perhaps of a moral character, insinuating small town values and neighborliness. But that can’t be right either, because that’s not Reno … but making the implication, it’s like Vegas for people who are afraid to go to Vegas. Wow, you know it’s almost clever again. Until you look at it one more time. Like that television show Reno 911! it ping-pongs quite rapidly between clever and stupid. I suppose that’s gambling though, the thing I don’t like about gambling. Big and flashy and thought provoking, but meaningless.

On my first night I poke my head into hotels near downtown, avoiding the casinos, because I’ve already been in one, I feel like I know the kind of people I’ll find in them. And like I said, I like the weirder stuff. This eventually leads me down Virginia St. to the MidTown area. I pass a strip club, which has a hotel connected. As I walk around the side and look up at it’s windows I see blankets stuffed under cheap plastic shades. This was the place.

Its lobby pulled double function as a makeshift convenience store. As I walk in there’s a guy excitedly buying a jar each of peanut butter and jelly. As I wait to talk to the clerk, the opposite of elegance, dirty strung out hair and a conspicuously stained white t-shirt, I’m already kind of chuckling to myself. Poverty isn’t funny exactly, but it’s so un-selfconscious, when it’s paired with what is supposed to be hospitality one’s mind goes to this place of brutal realism. Apocalyptic, how we all could be. The lady behind the desk tells me the price of the room, 50 bucks a night, standard from what I’ve asked around. The city is off-peak and many of the older hotels are far from their heady youths.

I’m getting pretty tired and just ready to fork over the cash when a tall well dressed angel with a pocket square asks me if I wouldn’t like to see the room first. I admit that this had not occurred to me. The lady behind the counter has to buzz the elevator to unlock it so I can go up to look. I snort and smile, this place must really be bad if people decide to stay here and put up with that. The tall man decides he will accompany me up the elevator to the room. Already I know I should be grateful. He tells me he was the first black waiter in Reno, he looks over this place. “You don’t want to stay here,” he says “some people just don’t care about how they live.” Most are long term residents.

The hallway flickers orange like a horror movie. When we crack open the door to the room and try to turn on the light, it doesn’t work. Taking a few paces in I have to let my eyes adjust, finally seeing a lamp on the table by the bed, as I click that on, it gives out just enough light to illuminate the most hilariously depressing room I’ve ever seen. A single twin bed, an old 19' TV on top of a makeshift dresser. Nothing else. Just empty space. But as I walk around, laughing, I notice it is set up with a sink and microwave. The sink has a white calcified film and there’s a dirty rag balled up in it. I tell my savior (at least of 50 bucks) that I appreciate it. I promise to buy him lunch if he’ll tell me some stories of Old Reno. One day I did go back, but I couldn’t find him.

Reno can get weird if you want it to. Not like the strange Fear and Loathing weird, but simply smoking some legal weed, getting lost in a city you don’t know. Trying to take a short cut through a casino. Looking at the people sitting at slot machines, not like they’re reptiles, but lost ghosts of what could have been their greater selves. And then there’s these huge hallways, gigantic cattle chutes, and you’re preposterously high and it’s been recorded, casinos make themselves timeless and confusing on purpose. You find yourself in a lower access hallway, a pipe has burst, apparently, sending a pool of water seeping up into the carpet. It’s marked by two orange cones. You stare at it, smoosh your toe into the outer edges of the carpet. The impossibility (the futility) of perfection crosses the mind. And then there’s this giant maze like parking lot, when you get outside. You want to be gracious to be free. You realize you are not.

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Jesse Luthi

But let’s get back to strippers.

On the differences between strip clubs. Clientele.

I have to think that Reno is pretty unique in having a strip club which caters to the lunch crowd. Like it’s shutting down by 6pm. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique or interesting about these men, the patrons, but the willingness to cater to that type, it speaks of something. My speculation about the patrons; blue collar family men who still want to feel like they’re living in Reno for a reason.

Location and size.

My last night in Reno had me visiting what had to be the strangest strip club I’ve ever seen. It was in the warehouse district and it was a giant place. It had two stories, the second story featuring an amethyst bar, but no one went up there. Not enough customers. The night I was there I think there were twenty of us, which made the place look and feel empty. The private dance rooms were behind embossed chain metal curtains. There were six private dance rooms (which is a lot) all down a long hallway and then, past that, another back area, where one girl said she’d take me for 130 bucks and something special. I opted instead for a pretty nice 13 year old bottle of wine ($45) from their misused wine cabinet. Obviously, at one point in time, meant to be a show piece. Two huge cabinets, backlit. One was supposed to be for champagne, five dusty bottles left undisturbed at the bottom. The bar itself had built into it one of those chilled pieces of metal, the kind that gets iced up and you’re supposed to leave your drinks on it. Which was kind of cool, except you notice that no one’s using it. One wonders, actually, what would you use it for? Maybe a neat Scotch? None of the guys look like they’ll be ordering that. Later I went to the bar to try and score a napkin to write a thought down on. They didn’t have napkins, an ice thing, but no napkins.

I can’t help but speculate that internet pornography has changed the strip club business. It’s not uncommon to go into a club that seems larger than it needs to be for the amount of patrons who are actually there. Some, like the one I’ve just been describing, really give off the impression that there was more demand, but now there isn’t.

2005, the year it says on my tasty bottle of wine, probably was a different time for strip clubs than 2018. Back in 2005 internet pornography was still a risky endeavor for the technologically unsophisticated. But I like that things have turned out this way. If you were only coming to the strip club to look at tits, you were doing it all wrong anyway. I like some negative space. It’s strange and fun to sit and imagine what these oversized clubs might have been like in their heyday.

In my head I begin to construct a narrative for the club. Imagining; one of those wealthy Arab types moves to Reno, decides he wants a really sick ass place to party at. A year later, the club’s popping and yet he’s bored of Reno. The girls aren’t hot enough, it’s never gonna be like a Las Vegas. He jets for LA to try and get in the movie business, leaving behind an artifact to pointless opulence.

Strip clubs are at their best when they know exactly what they are. Efficient and intimate. 50 seats max. The fancier ones have this feel. Unless you’re up in Anchorage, Alaska, where the male to female ratio is like 10to1. Then you can get away with a wide open, everything wooded, huge honky tonk inspired place. Shotguns and antlers on the wall, bench seating, requiring every girl to get big fake implants to keep up. That club was playing a different ball game, so to speak.

Where do strippers come from?

There is a type who know that they are pretty. Ex-pageant entrants, the right kind of lithe body structure. There is another type (who may weirdly be my favorite) who seem to have more energy than they know what to do with. You almost can’t imagine them doing anything else. Too distractable to stand behind a till or sit still in a meeting. “I get bored,” one of them told me, then insisting that I massage her neck. After a minute or two I tell her I feel tired. With long legs she bounces out of her seat and bounds up to the bar where she grabs some peppermint oil to press near my eyes.

There are a few cliches. I met my first who seemed to be, legitimately, stripping to pay for med school. Often the strippers are taking some kind of classes, and refer to stripping as a ‘stepping stone’. The ex-ballerina said she was a cliché. She used to run ten miles a day, and then she blew out her knee. “Didn’t you know,” she said, “all failed ballerinas become strippers.” When she said it I felt like it made sense. For both, there is a level of artistry and vanity. Exhaustion, wanting something more, dancing naked for it. The ex-ballerina tells me about this guy, he comes into the strip club she’s working at in Texas, thousands of dollars in one dollar bills brought in a duffle bag. He’s ripping em loose from their paper straps and throwing them onstage. One batch he doesn’t quite rip free, she gets hit in the face. Pow, ouch, gets a paper cut on the cheek. But it’s still a wad of money. “It was something I always wanted, going home with 3,600 dollars in a garbage bag.”

Being a stripper seems to embody one of the basic, strange, facts to being alive. There’s a level of randomness to it. There’s no guarantee that effort equals results. That guy, who brought in all that cash, he was gonna do that anyway. No matter who was on stage that night he wanted to show off, be the big man at the strip club. What if it wasn’t one of her seven days that month? She’d survive, obviously, but there’s gotta be that day it dawns on you; that you’re not as in control as you thought (anyone who indulges in output of a personal nature comes to understand this). Sometimes you get lucky with a windfall, sometimes, you’re one exhausted stripper, but you still have to convince that guy with the three foot long pony tale that showing him your tits would be your greatest pleasure.

You show up when you can, that touch of vanity helps push you through the door.

The idea of vanity and strippers illuminated something for me, because I know I’m like them. I know I’m not alone to have some vein of vanity affect what I want to do. I don’t want to just be good at pasting on linoleum, counting figures on a spreadsheet, or making sure that I don’t smoosh the wax seal when I’m installing a toilet. I want to be good at something that has something to do with me.

Vanity, in this way, is a way of being. Where you can and want to be yourself everywhere. It’s commonly mistaken to have an arrogant supposition, a superiority complex, but, ultimately, I think it’s a course of action. It’s serious if we can’t make it this way, without the self in tow. I think this is the true nature of vanity: self improvement in search of the self. To stare at your reflection in a lake all day is hardly practical. What must you actually do to be pleased with your reflection? It may or may not surprise you that there are no shortage of strippers who write poetry on identity, or wouldn’t be satisfied without some outlet of distinct self-expression.

This is also why I think that stripping is so cinematicly associated with crime. Yes they’re a cash business and all that good stuff, but criminals, like strippers, operate in a similar, vain, risk/reward paradigm. It’s also probably why artists are so much more drawn to criminality rather than law and order. There’s personality in crime. No matter the question of some of its more generic behaviors, addiction and distraction, the generic and taboo in sexual desire, there’s always a touch of personal vanity; chasing something inside yourself.

Yet, in spite of these things, I think that vanity is OK. There are many ways we figure how to build our self esteem and vanity is a minor assurance for the truth of the moment. Vanity is performance and honesty in spite of randomness. Vanity is being good at empathizing (exploring your empathy), because you know you’re going to be ok. It’s ok to feel good about being good at something that has something to do with you. I think it took strippers to help me finally realize some of these things. Before, I was worried about this flaw in my character, how serious I could be. Beautiful women intimidated me, not because of their beauty but by how I felt, how their presence made me take myself so seriously. Needing to live up to some vision of myself. But seeing the truth of one’s own vanity can let each individual be themselves, not who you want them to be. In a way, you can turn your flaws into tools.

Or at least attempt to. We all look somewhat silly in the face of our decisions. There can be late nights in Nevada. I get caught up, talking, getting too drunk. Going over budget in pursuit of vain understanding. When I walk out of the clubs I feel tumble dried. Disoriented and different. I stick my hands into my empty pockets and walk back to the hotel where I’ve stored my bag.

One of the distinct pleasures of life must be making it while you got it. If you’re comfortable with million dollar athlete salaries, go give your local stripper a twenty without shame. Appreciate, distinctly, someone else’s vanity for a change.

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A final Luthi

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Relates with supervillains. Writes literary fiction. Likes audiobooks. His novella audiobook The Town of Books is available wherever you get yours.

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