Whittier resident: ‘We’re supposed to be in bikinis basically breaking all social distance rules’

Haley Paige

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity. Reporting for this project is by Zac Farber, Nate Gotlieb and Andrew Hazzard.

Haley Paige, Whittier resident

I’ve lived in Minneapolis for five years. 

I’m a sex worker, I’m a stripper, and I’m in a weird situation where I hang out with the 1% while I’m at work, so I get to talk to people who do not share the same political values as me and who are not socialists. Based on my interactions with a class that I would have no access to without my job, it makes me dig my feet in more that we need things to change. 

I believe in things like the Green New Deal and think there should be big tax reformation in our entire country. The idea that making more money has any reflection on your character is complete bullshit. Rich people are not any better or worse than poor people — they just happen to come from a situation that was more stable. Sex work is one of the few jobs that if you’re really lucky and work hard and spend money on investing in your appearance and trying to meet physical beauty standards, then you can elevate your class, which isn’t an option in pretty much any other job. 

I also DJ weddings and do artwork. I went to MCAD. I do a lot of odd jobs and I’m kind of in the same position as a lot of people my age who are freelancers trying to make it in this market. We look at the world we live in and go, “I need government health care to survive. I need government to be able to cover the bills for things like education.” 

I’m only a sex worker because I would never be able to pay my bills without it. I would never have been able to go to some place as expensive as MCAD without that. We demonize poor people even though they’re the people who are the backbone of the country. I have a lot of student loans and am still in debt for it, but at the same time I was going to school with kids who didn’t have a job until their senior year of college, whose parents were paying for everything. 

No one likes to think they’re privileged, but it’s hard not to see it when you meet people who have less than you. Growing up I thought I was a lot more privileged than I actually was because Waterloo, Iowa, was a place that was kind of ravaged by deindustrialization in the ‘80s due to Reagan’s policies and union busting, and a lot of jobs that specifically held up the working class have completely vanished. There is no big railroad industry there for people to rely on anymore.

Everyone hopes to get a job at John Deere because that gives you access to different benefits and stability, but those jobs are slowly disappearing and being replaced by fast food jobs, working at a convenience store, being a stripper — things that people deem as lesser. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a town is kind of forgotten: It leads to excessively high crime and unemployment rates and the town becomes a dangerous, toxic place for working class and minority people to live.

I had an “I’ve got to get out of this town” thing, and I came here to go to MCAD. I was originally really into painting and portraits and had never worked with oil paint before, which was definitely a learning curve. I didn’t feel like I was making thoughtful work with my painting and it wasn’t conceptual whatsoever, so I took a leap of faith in taking film classes. 

I dropped out my senior year of MCAD because I couldn’t justify spending more money. If the school wasn’t so expensive, I would have graduated and it would have been fantastic.

Most of my post-school work has been in the gallery scene with performance and installation — a lot of stuff I do is experimental video-based projects. I’ve made professional artwork about being a sex worker. When the pandemic hit, I was getting ready for my first big show at the Weisman through a feminist strip club, but we found out that wouldn’t be happening anymore.

The pandemic has been a f—-ing nightmare. Aside from the fear of homelessness at the beginning — we were like, “Are we going to get evicted because we don’t have jobs?” — I have a disability, I have ADHD, so I rely on an exterior structure in my life. That’s impossible when everything shuts down. Plus, I had to go two months without my medication because my doctor’s office canceled my appointments at the beginning of quarantine.

Working in the wedding industry and strip clubs, we got totally shut down immediately as things started to get really bad here. The government is mishandling it to the point where I really don’t feel safe going back to work. My bosses [at Downtown Cabaret] can do some of what they can do but at the end of the day, we’re strippers so we’re supposed to be in bikinis basically breaking all social distance rules. And there’s nothing we can really do about it, except for hope that our customers will respect those boundaries. 

I haven’t gone back to work yet, but I’ll be going back this week. I have some regulars messaging me and I’m like, “Hey, I kind of need money.” They got rid of the aid that was really, really helpful. The unemployment benefits I got through my DJ job were the entire reason I was able to not work. I was only approved for $77 a week, and the $600 figure was added on top of that. Now that the $600 ran out, I can’t get benefits.

It’s frustrating because there are many businesses handing out masks to people but because it’s been so politicized — and because the Trump administration thought the virus would hurt Democratic voters — people don’t wear them. I think Americans focus too much on the individual and not enough on making sure everyone’s needs are met. 


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

A project documenting the stories of coronavirus in Minneapolis. 

Doctors and nurses

Senior home staff and residents

Community leaders

Business owners and workers

 You can read all of the stories here.