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All in a Night's Work

[whitespace] Peachy's Puffs

Club hopping with Peachy's Puffs

By Michelle Goldberg
Photographs by Thendara Kida

On a Saturday evening, the Peachy's Puffs' dressing room is girlie heaven. Under fluorescent lights, six or seven cigarette girls in various states of undress apply body glitter and beauty marks and choose outfits from the rows of tiny skirts, fitted shirts and hoop dresses that hang in the front of the room. "Does anyone have any eyelash glue?" shouts a woman in a crotch-length minidress covered with stars.

The women put on fishnet tights, high heels, chokers, pins, earrings and big bright rings over gloved fingers. Soon they will fan out all over the city carrying trays full of cigarettes, cigars (for the frat boys), candy, plastic roses, gum-ball-machine rings and trippy light toys (for the ravers), going to up to 20 bars and clubs in a night during which they'll see as much of San Francisco as some people do in a year.

Just over a month ago, Esther Kocis, a gorgeous honey-blonde from Holland, saw a girl pull a gun on another girl at the EndUp. Tiffany, a dark-haired death-metal fan, once saw a man jump to his death from a SOMA rooftop at the end of her shift. "In this job, you see people at their best and their worst," she says. Most nights, though, Peachy's Puffs girls only have to deal with common unpleasantness: stingy yuppies, puking tourists, creepy guys who offer them twice what they usually make in a night (often only about $50) just to sit at their table and have a drink.

Despite these banal hazards, many of the Peachy's Puffs hate the women who ask them, "Why do you do this?" "They think they're so pretty in their Coco Chanel," sneers Andrea Posey, an actress and aerobic instructor from L.A. with a tiny fish tattooed on one earlobe. Adds Tara O'Flaherty, "I like being out and not sitting at some desk. And we don't have to pay cover prices, which is rad." Still, not everyone can hack it--plenty of potential Puffs freak out and split on their first nights.

Around 9:30, the girls pile into the vans that will chauffeur them around the city for the rest of the night. I follow Esther, who's 22, friendly and soft-spoken. She's sharing the van with Tara, a brashly pretty 24-year-old who looks like a '50s pinup and whose aunt was one of the first Peachy's Puffs in San Francisco. "This is almost like a Cops ride along!" shouts Casey Brownfield when we pick her up from her gig at the Cornershop concert. "I'll tell you, being a Puff is dangerous," she drolls in mock cop-speak. "Sometimes you deal with assholes. You've got to do what you've got to do."

Peachy's Puffs Esther's first stop is the Mars Bar, a small room full of upscale preppies. A man approaches her right away, whispering, "Don't tell anyone I paid $5 for a pack of Marlboro Lights," as he hands her his money. Esther works the room quickly. Twenty minutes after we've arrived, she's grossed $42, but her commission will only be a fraction of that.

Next is Asia SF, a comically trendy four-month-old restaurant where all of the waitresses are gorgeous Asian drag queens. Some of the walls are chartreuse, others are inlaid with screens that change colors every few minutes like the neon tubes in a jukebox, going from red to yellow to purple. There's a club downstairs, but it's not nearly as fabulous as the restaurant. Only two or three middle-aged businesspeople are dancing, seemingly thrilled to have scored a baby-sitter, and the music is a disco remix of LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live."

Our next stop isn't much better. It's '80s night at the Covered Wagon, and gaggles of sorority girls with gravity-defying bangs are boogieing to "Don't You Want Me," "White Lines" and "Like a Virgin." There's a bachelorette party in progress, and a woman prances around with a veil as if she expects others to envy her impending matrimony. Esther approaches a table with her wares, and a girl huffs, "I don't eat candy," as horrified as if she'd been offered crack.

Soon the evening picks up. The van, whose driver has been blasting heavy metal all night long, takes us to Lush at the CoCo Club, a lounge hosted by cabaret impresario Andrew Ableson. Alas, it's early, and the crowd is still sparse, so Esther makes her rounds quickly before jumping into the waiting van for the busiest stretch of the night, the Ninth Street corridor. We pop into El Bobo, but there's not much action so we head to Pablo's Sugar Shack at VSF, where an overwhelmingly straight male crowd swoons over Esther. Sometimes, she says, she'll get tips from men who don't buy anything. "They'll say, 'I looked at your legs, and I feel like I need to pay you.' "

At the Paradise Lounge and the Transmission Theater, Ian Brennan is hosting Unscrubbed, a party for his Monday-night Brainwash music series. There are bands on several stages, their order chosen at random by the spin of a wheel of fortune. On the first floor of the Paradise, a nasal-voiced young man drones, "What do you do when your guru has very itchy feet." Beside him, a boy draws trippy pictures on an overhead projector. Here Esther makes her biggest sale of the night: five $10 cigars.

Fittingly, the night ends at the EndUp, an oasis of goodwill, good music and unhindered smoking on the breezy back patio. But this Saturday, even the EndUp is closing at 2am, and Esther's gross has only been $232, of which she'll get a fourth or a fifth (each item has different commissions). Then again, there have been no guns, no vomit, no vomit, no guns, no offers of sex for cash, no dark side to the shiny overworld of San Francisco's most accessible nightlife.

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From the July 27-Aug. 9, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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