Erika Trejos, taxi-dancer at La Jungla Bar in Jackson Heights | Maroosha Muzaffar

The Longest Night: A Peek Into A Taxi-Bar Dancer’s Life

Maroosha Muzaffar talks to a taxi-dancer, who works at one of the many taxi-bars in Jackson Heights, Queens, where lonely immigrant men pay for a dance and a shot at love.

By Maroosha Muzaffar
March 25, 2013 | , , ,

Erika Trejos, 21, grew up in Pereira, Colombia, near the Otún River. Her mother died when she was just eight years-old. Trejos was a love child.

“My father was never married to my mother,” she says in a heavy Colombian accent on a recent afternoon at a bar on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. “They were never officially married. He already had a wife.” After her mother’s death she lived with her aunt in the Risaralda municipality of Colombia. “My aunt took care of me when mother died.”

When Trejos turned fourteen, she came to the New York City.

“I came by myself,” she says while taking a swig from her beer bottle. “My father was already here.”

Her father had come to New York in the 1970s and worked as a construction worker in the city. She went to a local school and continued her studies in the hope of getting a good job one day. Seven years after landing in New York City, Trejos now works at one of the taxi clubs also known as bailaderos in Jackson Heights as a “dancer-for-hire” or a taxi-dancer. In these clubs, immigrant men, mostly from Mexico and other Southern American nations, get drunk, forget their difficult and lonely lives and hire a woman for a dance for just $2. Trejos works in one such bar, La Jungla.

I like it. I get a lot of attention. I get a lot of money.

Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Queens mostly inhabited by South Asians and Latin Americans. There are many taxi-clubs-come-bars lining Roosevelt Avenue starting at 74th Street and Broadway. Most of the women who work in these clubs as taxi-dancers are from the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Colombia. Usually the men who frequent the clubs are lonely undocumented immigrants who don’t have much money and can only afford the company of a woman for $2 a dance.

La Jungla Bar on Roosevelt Ave. is one of the many taxi-bars in Jackson Heights | Maroosha Muzaffar

La Jungla Bar on Roosevelt Ave. is one of the many taxi-bars in Jackson Heights | Maroosha Muzaffar

“I dance with men. I know how to salsa since I was a child. I used to dance in my school as well. They give me $2 and I dance with them for one song. One song lasts usually a few minutes,” Trejos says while she sits in backyard of La Jungla Bar. “Men ask me where I am from. They ask my name. Nationality. Like that. Then they buy me a beer. Then they want to dance.”

When asked if she likes it, she says, smiling, “I like it. I get a lot of attention. I get a lot of money.”

In these taxi-clubs, when a man buys a woman beer, it costs $10; half the money goes to the girl and half goes to the bar.

Trejos had different plans. She didn’t want to work in a taxi-bar.

“I did go to school. Two years. I studied to become a medical assistant. I studied at ASA from 2010 to 2012. [ASA is a college in Midtown Manhattan.] I finished it in January, but I couldn’t find a job. You have to work for free for six months, and then they pay you. I didn’t want to work for free because who is going to pay for my rent, my phone, my bills,” she says as the music from inside the bar floats out through the open door.

Her father left New York in 2008 and went back to Colombia. Trejos is now alone in the city—no family or relatives. She has a boyfriend, though, whom she describes as “weird.”

“I live alone in a room. I pay my own rent. I live in Sunnyside, Queens. It is a one room. I live with other Colombian ladies in the apartment. One is forty-eight years-old and another is ninety-seven.”

Trejos has worked at La Jungla Bar for only three months. She used to work at another bar on Northern Boulevard. But, the animosity between she and the other dancers lead her to quit.

“They had a lot of girls there. And they were jealous of me because I had many customers. The girls there are from Republica Dominica. They used to make a lot of problems with me,” she says. “They fight and tell me nasty things. So I left that job. I was there for two months.”

A taxi-dancer dances with a customer for the customary $2 a dance. | Chris Arnade (FlickR)

A taxi-dancer dances with a customer for the customary $2 a dance | Chris Arnade (FlickR)

This is Trejos’s third job in New York. She worked as a waitress in an Italian restaurant where she used to pick up the phone and take orders. Then, she was fired, so she went to work at a taxi-bar on Northern Boulevard.

What happens if a man misbehaves on the dance floor?

“If anybody starts touching me, I am like just go away,” Trejos says with a wave of her hand. “If somebody is rude and starts touching me, I go and talk to the manager. Sometimes men get rude.”

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest for her, and she makes the most money on these nights. She flashes her iPhone.

“I keep my money in here,” she shows me the phone cover that doubles up as her wallet.

The taxi-clubs in Jackson Heights usually close at 4 a.m. She either takes the train back to her home in Sunnyside or goes by cab.

Even though her father left New York in 2008, he keeps in touch. He often asks her to stay safe.

“He is concerned. He is fine with what I do. But he asks me often, ‘Do they respect you?’ He tells me, ‘Don’t let anybody touch you.’”

She fiddles with her phone and beer bottle as she speaks.

According to 2010 U.S. Census Data, the population of the Jackson Heights neighborhood totaled 108,152: 56.5%% were of Hispanic origin, 22% non-Hispanic Asian, 17.2% non-Hispanic white and 2% non-Hispanic black or African-American. The largest Hispanic group was South Americans, making up 53% of the total Hispanic population in Jackson Heights, then Mexicans with 17.6%, and Dominicans with 10.3%.

And does Trejos feel sad for these men?

“Yes. I feel sad for them. Because they don’t know where they are,” she laughs.

I ask her about her future plans.

“I want to go back to Colombia. Maybe after two years. I want to study Early Education for Childhood in New York.”

She wants to open a day care center in New York.

“I don’t know. Let’s see what happens. I am going to start [school] next year. I will be applying to LaGuardia Community College.”

“Do you miss home?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“Who is there in Colombia?”

“All my family.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Yes. He is here in New York.”

“Does he take care of you?”

“Hmm, no,” she laughs. “So-so.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Only three months. I have had three boyfriends in the past.”

Trejos was fifteen when she fell in love for the first time.

“It was in New York. It didn’t last though. Just one year.”

“Did he break your heart?”

“Yes.” She snickers, again, taking a swig from her beer bottle.

Trejos is not happy with what New York has had to offer her.

A brightly-attired taxi-dancer from one of the taxi bars on Roosevelt Ave. | Chris Arnade (FlickR)

A brightly-attired taxi-dancer from one of the taxi bars on Roosevelt Ave. | Chris Arnade (FlickR)

“I used to imagine that there is a lot of jobs in New York,” she says. “But when I came here, the economy is bad. My father told me that in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of jobs and money. But now I feel there are not enough jobs, and they don’t pay well.”

She has her college loans to pay back. And she is worried how she will keep up with her payments.

I ask her, “Are you happy with life?”

“Yeah, so-so.”

“Do you want to get married?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. I am waiting for a good guy.”

“That good guy hasn’t come yet?”

“No.”

“What about that boyfriend?”

“I don’t know; he is weird. He says I don’t want to get married. I don’t want kids.”

On her Facebook page, Trejos posts updates about Love and Life. One of the posts reads:

We enjoy the heat because we have felt cold. We value the light, because we know the darkness. And we understand happiness because we have known sadness.

-

On a recent Saturday night, I take my friend along to La Jungla to meet Trejos. It is 10:30 at night, and the floor is pulsating with disco lights and loud music. The song “Guallando” by a Dominican-American group called Fulanito is on full blast. Men and women gyrate to the rhythm and beats. Beer is being served and bouncers keep a watchful eye on everybody inside. A woman approaches us as we sit at a table and ask what we’d like to drink. My friend says beer.

We watch the men dance with women on the dance floor. After one song, dancers switch dance partners. They dance to the traditional hip-hop, merengue and bachata songs. There are many young girls seated next to a wall and men walk up to them and ask them to dance.

I can’t find Trejos among them. I ask the waitress if she knew where she is. She says she doesn’t know her. We walk to the backyard of the bar and find Trejos busy on her phone. She sees me, and we hug. I order a beer for her, and we talk about salsa.

When I tell her about the waitress, she makes a face and says, “She lie. She is jealous of me.”

She offers to teach me a few steps of salsa. She takes my hand and guides me to the dance floor. She teaches me a few basic steps of salsa.

“When nobody asks me to dance, I get bored,” she says after we’re done dancing.

It’s only 11:30 at night when I finally say goodbye and leave the bar. Outside, the ramble of the train drowns my thoughts. New York is partying away the night. For Trejos, the long night had just begun.

 

Maroosha Muzaffar was born and raised in India-administered Kashmir. She worked as a correspondent with The Indian Express in New Delhi before receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue higher studies in US. Currently she is with The New York Times and is studying Magazine Writing / Narrative Journalism at New York University. She can be contacted at maroosha.muzzaffar@gmail.com

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