LARRY (not his real name; he's married) believes the owners of bars on The Block are more of a threat to their own establishments than all the moralists in the world. "Twenty bucks to buy a showgirl a drink? What a [deleted] joke! Five bucks for a can of Miller for me? It's stupid!" says Larry.
Prices of some of the more exotic services available in East Baltimore Street bars have gone up, too. Back in the good old days (circa 1988), a customer could buy a showgirl a small bottle of champagne for $40 or $50, which gave him the right to join her in a private booth or back room, where the two of them would . . .
. . . Well, let's just say the customer would enjoy the showgirl's companionship in a very complex way, if he was willing to tip $30 or $40 over the money spent on champagne. And all this fine companionship could be charged to a major credit card, under a name like "Professional Business Services Inc.," so a suspicious wife (or corporate auditor) couldn't figure out what the money really bought.
Today, sources tell me, the going price for a bottle of Block champagne, including companionship, is between $80 and $120, and the companion may demand a $100 or $150 tip for services beyond a smile and a bit of conversation. Even the most liberal wife (or corporate auditor) is going to question this level of expenditure.
Just to sit and watch girls dance, Block customers pay $4 to $6 for their own drinks, and they're expected to buy drinks for showgirls who join them at the bar and do nothing but talk. Bar drinks for the girls cost anywhere from $15 to $25. And, says one showgirl, "To get my pay [about $45 for a six-hour shift], I have to sell at least four drinks every shift. They ain't many customers sometimes. I can't always do it."
She feels the pressure, all the time; drinks not sold on Monday must be made up on Tuesday or she loses her job, which doesn't pay all that much more than she used to earn as a waitress. "I don't really make any money for myself unless I sell a bottle of champagne," she says, "and get a guy into the back room."
"Tom" is an attorney from Atlanta who comes to Baltimore three or four times a year on business. "The Block bars simply charge too much for what you get there these days," he says. "I bet that's the real reason the city wants to get rid of them, that they've become a rip-off."
Tom used to be a Block regular. Now, when he's in Baltimore and feeling lonely, he goes to a suburban girlie joint. "The girls are cuter," he says, "and the drinks are cheaper."
In suburban topless bars, there are no back rooms or private booths; customers simply watch the girls dance. So, Tom says, "after I've watched the dancers for awhile, I go pick up a [streetwalker] and take her back to the hotel with me. Half the girls on the street in Baltimore charge less for a [common sexual act] than it costs to buy one drink for a girl in a Block bar."
Tom didn't stop going to The Block because Mayor Schmoke told him he shouldn't hang out there. He stopped going because he, like Larry, decided Block bars weren't giving him his money's worth. "They've run their prices up so high that no one can afford them anymore," says Tom.
I've been in a few Block bars myself, over the years, and Tom's right. They no longer offer a good entertainment value. Block bouncers and bartenders are ruder than they used to be, too. And outside the bars, especially late at night, a patron is confronted with an endless string of panhandlers and dangerous-looking teen-agers with empty eyes.
If the owners of Block bars hired private security guards to patrol the area, worked to make their establishments more presentable and charged reasonable prices, one could make a good case for trying to save their businesses from the blue-noses who want to see them go away.
But Block bar owners, like other American businessmen, are too short-sighted to see beyond this month's profits. All they are doing is raising prices and complaining, instead of trying to figure out why their customers are disappearing.
When the Block bars die, their owners no doubt will claim they were killed by moralists and developers. In truth, The Block's death will be suicide, and the weapon used will be the bar owners' greed.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.