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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Club offers the bare necessities

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — By the wee hours of the morning, if you looked past the rotting mounds of garbage on the sidewalk and the fact that most of the clientele was carrying a firearm, the city — right or wrong — looked a bit familiar again.

For a while Monday night, it was just another evening at a Bourbon Street strip joint, a little exhilarating and a little depressing at the same time.

On stage was Britni Carrubba, who fled Katrina with nothing but the clothes on her back. For three weeks she had waded through hell, shuffling from shelter to shelter, sleeping in her car. She was separated from her family. Her home was destroyed. By Monday night, though, she had figured that if she didn't get back to work, the storm had won.

So she found a ride into New Orleans and walked through a door beneath a neon depiction of crossed legs and high heels. At a club called Deja Vu, Carrubba became the first exotic dancer to return to New Orleans.

She spent her evening giving private dances in the Champagne Lounge and swinging from a silver, floor-to-ceiling pole.

When the club opened its doors, dozens of men started streaming in: New Orleans police officers, National Guard soldiers in their camouflage uniforms, engineering contractors who had spent the day working on the city's levee system. One of the contractors was wearing a T-shirt that read: "Last Clean Shirt."

Upstairs, club owner Jason Mohney and general manager Jon Olmstead met with Carrubba, 23, whose stage name is Alex.

"Go do your thing," Mohney told her. "Shake your booty."

She ran downstairs toward the stage, wearing knee socks, a nose ring and not much else.

"It's a good day," Mohney said, his arms folded on his chest.

"It's a grand day," Olmstead said.

About 40 dancers typically rotate between two stages at Deja Vu. They had evacuated the city after Katrina, finding gigs at sister clubs in Michigan, New York and California.

Olmstead and Mohney also left New Orleans when the levees broke, but returned to the city as quickly as they could.

They surveyed the building — on the edge of the now largely deserted French Quarter — and found that the roof was destroyed but that the lower two floors were in good shape. They borrowed a carpet shampooer from a hotel and chilled beers with ice donated by the National Guard.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency checked air ducts for mold, giving the all-clear Sunday.

Olmstead and Mohney located four "girls," as they are known in the business, who said they could either drive into the city or get a ride.

"Britni, Leah, Baylee and ... I can't remember the other one's name," Olmstead said.

"They're here to be a part of the reconstruction," Mohney said.

He calculated that the club had lost $350,000 in revenue since Katrina struck more than three weeks ago.

"I don't think you ever make back what you lose," Mohney said. "You just try to lose less."

Toward that end, he made sure the automated teller machine was working again so customers could get their money and make change. The men lining the stage soon had piles of $1 bills, which they tucked into the strings of the dancers' thongs.

"I know what America is going to think," said Tom Wendling, 34, a New York law-enforcement officer who is assisting the reconstruction effort. He has spent his days rescuing puppies and talking stragglers out of their homes in the 9th Ward. But he was at Deja Vu with two friends Monday night.

"America is going to think that this is predictable, that this is the naughty stuff that always goes on here," he said. "But anybody who has been down here knows that this is a needed diversion."

One man who, like most of the customers, declined to provide his name paid $50 for a private dance with Carrubba. She led him upstairs to a room that contains a series of booths lined with thick, leaded glass that no one can see through.

"Don't touch me. I'm married," he told her. "I just want you to take your clothes off and stand there. I haven't seen a woman in three weeks."

"People need some enjoyment," Carrubba said later. "I think all the looting and everything would have been stopped if people had things like this to do the whole time. This, right here, is doing a lot of good for a lot of people."

Then it was time to go back to work. "Rock You Like a Hurricane," the anthem by the Scorpions, was blasting through the club. Carrubba ran toward the stage.

"We're going to be all right," she called over her shoulder. "Let me know if you want a dance."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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