Atlanta is a city obessessed with what lies below its surface. From the currently defunct but to-be-resurrected Atlanta Underground shopping and dining arcade to the revered Oakland Cemetery, beneath the bumpy sod of which slumber Atlanta’s famed citizens without regard to the all-too-lively goings on above them, the city’s streets reverberate from the happenings below ground.
And then there are the ladies who dance at the fabled Clermont Lounge.
We first visited the city nearly 25 years ago. At the time, it was a community I believed should be solely dedicated to Scarlett O’Hara — because wasn’t it she and Ashley Wilkes and that lumber mill who helped rebuild Atlanta after the Confederate Army and Sherman burned it to the ground in 1864? Wait, you may say: that was only a story. Gone With the Wind isn’t real, Emily.
It was real enough for Margaret Mitchell, whose gravestone we visited at Oakland, who once said she used to think Gone With the Wind was her book, but her thinking had changed — it was Atlanta’s book, Atlanta’s story.
That first time I visited Atlanta, I searched in vain to find Margaret Mitchell’s and Scarlett’s Atlanta. On my recent visit, I believe I uncovered it.
The first visit, we were in the city for a medical conference. That meant Dr. K went off to meetings and I played the good wife and tagged around museums to amuse myself during the day. At night, we would reconvene for dinner.
On that visit 25 years ago, the hotel concierge directed us to a southern barbecue joint in Underground Atlanta, a shopping and entertainment district built in 1969 in Five Points. I enthusiastically endorsed the concierge’s suggestion. Five Points was a name sounding remotely familiar, culled from the book that had become my bible for all things Georgia.
As with many shopping centers constructed in that era, Underground Atlanta had become decrepit, often the scene of drug deals, hold ups at gunpoint, and seedy dining establishments with stringy meat disguised as food thanks to copious applications of mustardy BBQ sauce. Murders were not uncommon. There was one reported on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the morning after our uneasy barbecue excursion.
But a city can change in 25 years. And Atlanta has transformed, in many ways for the better. Warehouses and industrial buildings have been repurposed, filled with foodie hotspots and unique boutiques. It has become a vibrant city, welcoming a multicultural population with easily accessible ethnicity.
But the people of Atlanta continue to hang on to the past in unfathomable ways.
We stayed at the Hotel Clermont by a fluke. It happened to be the hotel nearest our kids’ apartment. Newly renovated to the tune of $30 million and only reopened since last July, the TripAdvisor reviews were flattering, underscoring the hotel’s hipster vibe.
The hotel website played up its quirkinesses. In understated hues of Flamingo Pink and Vespa Peppermint Green, with a typewriter font and pen-and-ink drawings depicting good times in pajamas, the message was playful, inviting, and reminiscent of one of my favorite movies, Victor, Victoria. What could the harm be? And it was only a ten minute walk to the kids. In a town of 5 million, that’s worth a second look.
There were hints in the reviews about noise from the lounge. Having stayed in many hotels over the years, I know you’re playing Russian Roulette with the chance that you’ll be placed in a room for six nights next to an elevator that rattles, no matter how swanky the hotel and the island. Elevators are machines. They’re not perfect.
Except, the bedside tables on either side of the bed provided earplugs and a card offering soothing white noise machines, available at the Front Desk.
That’s right. Those bright orange earplugs you roll between your fingers and then massage into your ears before taking off on a flight. The ones people wear when operating loud machines in case there might be damage to your hearing.
At first, I considered it a minor price to pay for the beautifully decorated, bandbox fresh Art Deco hotel room. With a cosy corner of windows outfitted with a chaise lounge, it was the perfect spot to while away the hours reading — or to contemplate the world after a busy holiday season.
Until I learned that the Lounge — the famous Clermont Lounge filled with ladies dancing beneath Atlanta’s streets — opened at one in the afternoon, continuing operations until three in the morning. The dancers took Sundays off. The music began subtly around three o’clock or so, just when you were considering that a rainy afternoon nap sounded lovely before changing to head to dinner. The crescendo continued to increase, reaching full throttle around 11 pm, with the booming (and accompanying grinding and grating) coming to a halt at 3 am, on the dot.
You have to understand that the Clermont Lounge is an Atlanta icon, if not a gem.
In operation since 1965, the Clermont Lounge is Atlanta’s first and longest operating strip club. The dancers, typically of Baby Boomer era birth, have bodies representative of real women, heavy on the fleshy attributes. The current star, since 1978, is Blondie, a dancer famous for her ability to crush empty Budweiser and PBR cans between her prodigious breasts. Before that was Tiny Lou, who is commemorated in the name of the Hotel Clermont’s newest nod to French cuisine. The hotel itself has been open in numerous iterations since 1924, when it was christened the Clermont Motor Hotel. When Fulton County health inspectors finally closed the hotel on December 31, 2009 — dirty linen and bed bugs were only the beginning of the list — a one-bedroom apartment rented for $185 a week.
These days, the going rate for a room at the gentrified hotel is, on average, $269 a night. I’m not good at math, but it seems like gentrification has its benefits for the gentrifiers.
The dancers below the streets, beneath the Hotel Clermont, are not going anywhere. As with the dead lying quietly in Oakland Cemetery beneath church-like mausoleums, they are revered, if not for their lifestyle, then for their history.
It doesn’t matter much to the Front Desk that after two nights at the hotel I dreaded going to sleep. On the last night of our six night stay, we finally begged them to switch us to a quieter room.
But my sleep deprivation isn’t the story.
The strippers at the Clermont Lounge have a right to earn a living. In many cases, it’s the only way these women can support their families. I have a friend in Denver who lives next door to a houseful of women strippers. They are women with children, they go to teacher conferences, they scramble for a healthy dinner to feed their offspring. For many, it isn’t a profession of choice, but it is a profession that pays the grocery bill.
And Atlanta gets that. It is a city that exists above and below the ground. It is a city with a cemetery boasting monuments of near church-like stature, a cemetery where you can be married on its grounds, standing on the coffins of your ancestors.
It is also a city reflective of the needs of all its peoples.
Margaret Mitchell understood that. In addition to writing about the conflict between North and South, she wrote about the tension between two women — Scarlett O’Hara, and her nemesis, Belle Watling — the whorehouse Madam who equally loved Rhett Butler, and likely bore him a son. The Clermont Lounge didn’t exist when Mitchell penned her classic book. But even so, there is a thread of the story that continues, epitomized by the women of Atlanta today who live most of their lives under ground.