Debby Kosobucki vividly recalls her first gig as a topless dancer.
It was 1984, and she was 28 years old. She had fled a broken marriage, packed up her three daughters and moved to Phoenix from Washington state. She chose Phoenix for her fresh start because she had read there were jobs for apartment managers. There weren't.

She sold the contents of her U-Haul trailer, found a cheap apartment and wondered how she would feed her kids. Some of her neighbors in the apartment complex were topless dancers, and they had encouraged her to go for the easy money. With no other prospects, she followed their advice.

She lied to her daughters and said she was waitressing, then walked into the Uptown Express at Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road. It was only her second time in a topless club, ever. The first time had been as an unwilling patron.

"I didn't know how to put the Band-Aids on my nipples, I didn't know what the hell I was doing." She put on some lingerie and headed out, "all by myself on that big, monstrous stage."

She tried to dance, she's a good dancer, but she was too nervous. "Tears just started pouring down my face and I was just standing there. And that's all I did, I just stood there."

Some of the men took pity; others heckled. She took home $20 and swore she'd never do it again.

"But then one day I woke up and smelled the coffee, and I was like, 'Do you want to take care of your daughters or do you want to be in the poorhouse?'"

She went back.
"This is how naive I was. I would go into a bathroom and I'd see like a spoon there. And I'd say, 'What the hell is a spoon doing in here?' I had no clue. I didn't know they were shootin' dope up.

"You'd see a dancer come out of the bathroom and from shootin' up, she's got blood running down her hand. She's got shit all over her 'cause it automatically makes you shit."

As for Kosobucki? "I never got on that stage without a pint of vodka. You can't do it sober. I wasn't going to do it sober. Because no matter what you sit back and say, that it's a job and everything, it's degrading."

Much about Kosobucki's life has been degrading. But while she consciously cast her lot in a seedy, sometimes cruel business, she always tried to make the best of it. She hoped someday to rise above the exploitation.

Kosobucki thought she'd found her big opportunity last year when she was hired to manage what was to be a first-class topless bar called Expos Cabaret. All the dues she'd paid--flaunting her anatomy, pouring drinks, teasing drunken lechers--would finally pay dividends. It was her chance to help build an establishment from the ground up. She knew how to run a bar and she knew how to lure the best dancers and keep them happy, perhaps even dignified.

The Expos Cabaret people paraded their new manager, Debby Kosobucki, before the Arizona state liquor board, which was impressed enough with her credentials and spotless record to grant a liquor license.

But while her determination and confidence had flourished, her naivet had not subsided. Her big opportunity began to unravel. It became evident that she would be manager in name only, that the man calling the shots for Expos Cabaret was a convicted felon who happened to be the son of a reputed mobster--someone who would have instantly disqualified the club for a liquor license.

Kosobucki was not about to be exploited again. She began taping phone calls and gathering evidence of the club's ruse. She turned it all over to Phoenix police. A City of Phoenix attorney presented the evidence at a rehearing in an effort to keep Expos Cabaret from getting its liquor license.

The state liquor board upheld the license, anyway, leaving Debby Kosobucki, once again, all by herself.

Debby Kosobucki wasn't getting any younger, so when her old buddy Dave Postal called last year with the chance to manage a first-class topless bar on East Van Buren Street--one owned by a woman, no less--Kosobucki ran out and bought a $300 suit. She got her jewelry cleaned. She wrote up her rsum of ten years' experience as a topless dancer, bartender, waitress, housemother and assistant manager in Phoenix bars. And she hurried over to Postal's law office for the interview.

There she met the owner of a club to be called Expos Cabaret, a 78-year-old widow named Elizabeth Brazee, and Brazee's project coordinator, Dennis Mondavano. Kosobucki asked Brazee if she'd ever been in a topless club. (She hadn't.) Brazee asked Kosobucki where she was from. (Michigan.)

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.