It's a couple of minutes after midnight as Chef Nell preps his grill just outside the Pink Slip. No matter if patrons are coming to the long-running Brooklyn, Illinois, club for a lap dance or a nightcap, the sidewalk chef — real name, Yarnell Sampson — is ready to provide them with nourishment or a good word, either one with a side of potato salad.
Nell has occupied the slim patch of grass and asphalt outside the Pink Slip for two years. The spot where he parks his ten-foot, three-chamber smoker puts him in front of a narrow, crowded parking lot and within sight of the front door of the "world-famous" adult entertainment spot, as well as its neighbor, Bottoms Up.
The pair of clubs have a symbiotic relationship; it's not uncommon for patrons to walk the few dozen yards from one room to the next, along the cracked-asphalt alleyway between their parking lots. If they were to walk from Bottoms Up to the Pink Slip, they'd pass the stand presided over by a friendly grillman named Ghost, who serves up his own BBQ menu just about 50 yards to the east of Nell. That's ground owned by Ed "the Parking King" Johnson, whose heavily attended lots ring the clubs.
Before reaching the Pink Slip, though, they'd probably hear Nell, who keeps up a nightlong incantation on a small, handheld microphone/bullhorn. "Baah-are-be-cuuue," his sing-song goes. "Hot and ready."
That's the basic call, but he varies the message all night, shouting out to individuals and groups as they make their way from the outer lots to the club's fortified front door. His voice blends with the unmistakable aroma of ganja hanging in the warm, strange, mid-autumn air.
"Looking good, pretty lady, we got jerk chicken, turkey legs. Hot and ready."
"Hey, fam, we got chicken-on-a-stick, pork steaks. That's the only swine we do."
"Cuzzo? You need a Polish?" He alternates it with a more emphatic version: "Cuzzo, you need a Polish!"
If this tiny village (daytime population: 700 souls) is the epicenter of the region's after-hours' vice, Chef Nell's voice is part of its soundtrack, a siren call for those hungry for their fourth meal or just desperate to sober up before making the drive home to St. Louis.
Sometimes his shout-outs get an immediate response, his small menu of $5 and $8 items passed off to customers by Nell or by his spotters, who run to nearby cars to take or deliver orders. Other times he has to work a customer for an extra beat or two. He can sense when he's got a live one; on these, customers bend back from their trips to cars, sometimes negotiating prices as they go. Over the course of a shift, even a "dead-ass slow one" like this Friday, there seem to be a hundred idiosyncratic moments, one for every exchange of cash for food.
An example: Around 4:30 a.m. Saturday, a pair of cousins cross the street, moving about as steady as rubber ducks in a bathtub. Nell sees them suffering and offers jerk chicken and Polishes at "hood rate, two for five." They finally agree. When the order's up, Big Cousin shouts at Slim Cousin to eat, though the smaller man is barely standing and looks at the food in his hand like it's landed there by magic. Big Cousin's a touch rocked himself, knows it.
Big Cousin drops his Polish foil pack onto the table, rubs his knuckles into the plastic and prays a fast one. "Lord, help us get home on this night."
"I know that's right," Nell says, and off the cousins go, cutting through the weedy trees and potholes towards a pay lot to the west. The chef figures that in cases like this, the pair might spend a few minutes eating in the car, drinking the bottles of water that he hands out all night for free. If he's a capitalist, he's an altruist, too, and he frequently talks about the family vibe that this lot culture has created, how his role is to keep people fed, happy, hydrated, coming back to the zone safely on another night.
He's talking about the cousins, sure, but as he talks, Big Cousin's already taking off for home, peeling a slick, late-model sedan out onto Fourth Street, running the first stop sign at Jefferson on his way back to the city.
Says Nell, "Guess the Polish didn't work that time."
- NICK SCHNELLE
- A customer waits while Chef Nell and an assistant administer condiments.
Brooklyn's Barbecue Man leads a life that would tax the hardest worker you know.
Chef Nell works for a construction company during the week, a day job that runs from 8:30 a.m. 'til 5 p.m. or so. A lot of his job involves the rehab of houses and apartments into affordable residences. He's big on the idea that he's helping people in need; he dreams of his own company, someday, but for now he's good with the job he's got.
Two years ago, he took on a side job as the grillman of the Pink Slip — an enterprise that he says was started more than ten years ago by someone he calls Big Lisa, who was succeeded by a guy named Quan. After Quan died, Nell took over. Each of the three grill bosses did his or her own thing, with the basics always the same: a short menu, a grill planted in place 24/7/365 and a chef who works the wee hours of the morning, serving an audience that's directly tied to the clubs across the street.
The job requires working weekends from midnight until 6 a.m., just after closing time at the Pink Slip. But there's also a Tuesday night shift, since the Pink Slip hosts a "$2 Tuesday" promotion that draws enough audience to make Nell's street-food operation a want and a need. He doesn't get a lot of sleep, and he's honest about that: "It's what it is. When you have the work, you take it, for real."
Nell veers between fairly talkative and interestingly quiet. Even dressed in his work coveralls and a sock hat, the 40-year-old gives off the sense that he was a solid athlete in younger days, which is true, having played basketball as a young man with up to nine former NBA players, in both organized and playground settings. He's got an everyman look, and those coveralls reflect the fact that he's often going from one gig to another; if he's lucky, there's a short nap somewhere in between.
- NICK SCHNELLE
- The chef works three nights a week: the Pink Slip's Tuesdays are popular enough to require his services.
The shift begins even before it begins. Back home in Granite City, he preps the meat, his jerk chicken marinating for eight hours, and then packs up his Chevy Impala, taking up every bit of space with buns, condiments and flesh. He gets his products from Cionko's Market in Granite City. "I buy half a cow and they cut it up for me, the sirloin tips, the burgers, the custom brats. I'm a regular, so they keep the meat there for me and I pick it up when I need it."
The car also serves as a sound system for the three-man grill crew: Zo, who may speak all of 100 words on his shift, sticks close to the grill for security, while Davian, Nell's nephew, is in constant motion as a food runner and packs a lot of personality into a slender frame. Nell keeps the music bumping until after 3 a.m. or so, with an upbeat, hip-hop soundtrack that reflects the music played inside.
There's no doubt Nell's the boss, no matter who is working with him on a given day. His goal, he says, is to hire young people from the immediate community, but also ex-convicts, folks working their way back into the economy. With short instructions, he offers cooking tips or sends a runner to solicit a car that's lingering on the periphery. He chats with cops, as their rounds take them by the stand every fifteen minutes or so, and with customers, lot workers and his own small staff, sometimes seeming to know everybody in sight, at ease with all kinds of humans.
Even though the location of his business may seem unlikely, it makes a lot of sense. This is classic street food, simply presented at the people's price point. It's the kind of spot that you could imagine exciting the senses of an Anthony Bourdain, with a degree of authenticity (and effort) that's hard to comprehend without spending a few hours here. It all looks deceptively simple. But, as Nell says, "you gotta always think about the seasonings, you gotta think about the smoke, you gotta think about the flavor."
If there's an end game, Nell suggests it may come in the form of Munchies Truck, which he describes as a truck that would be outfitted with cooking gear and driven to communities in need of, well, munchies. If this sounds suspiciously like a food truck, you'd be right. A restaurant, too? Maybe, Nell says, down the road. As the night turns to morning, different ideas come up, get explored, get pinned as more customers pop into or out of the Pink Slip.
When that happens, conversation with a reporter ("that's my white guy, right there!") becomes secondary to the job at hand. "Baah-are-be-cuuue! Hot and ready!"
- NICK SCHNELLE
- Polish or rib tips, hot dogs or jerk chicken, Chef Nell has the hookup.
We pause to discuss that line — "my white guy." Earlier in the night, Davian is blunt, saying, "You don't see a lot of you, standing here and writing things down." It's a fair point, reinforced by Nell, who notes the presence of a reporter and photographer to some Brooklyn cops who've dropped by: "You might see some white guys walking around. They're cool."
If St. Louis' racial dynamics are frequently complicated, in some moments they can seem remarkably simple. In Brooklyn, the strip clubs have become primarily African American concerns, including their ownership. The Pink Slip's audience is 95 percent black (and, interestingly/unofficially, roughly 40 percent female, if eyes are to be believed this Saturday morning). Bottoms Up, its neighbor, has a similar demographic feel; Brooklyn's overall strip club culture skews African American — or in modern marketing terms, "urban."
It wasn't always this way. Brooklyn's scene used to be not only livelier, but also more racially diverse. P.T.'s Brooklyn, also known as P.T.'s Classic, rebranded as Black Magic just one year ago, only to later close its doors. Its primarily white sister club, Roxy's, is still hanging in there, though at reduced hours, with a multi-hued clientele and worker base. Meanwhile, the S&L Rub, an erstwhile massage house, is now an empty lot, the same fate that befell Brooklyn Books after a fire. The 'round-the-clock Mustang Sally's, up the road a piece, became a clearance house for, of all things, outdated hotel furniture; it's now empty, the same status as the nearby club last known as C-Ro's. Many a dollar has been made — and lost — along this short, winding, weedy stretch of highway.
The Pink Slip survives. Built in 1975, it made its turn to adult programming in 1993. Bottoms Up was built in the 2000s, while the newest concern, a metal shack known as Pleasure Palace, features a large theater and DVD shop as well as a bar. In between and around all are more-or-less vacant parking lots, giving the place a scattered and inconsisent feel.
To the east, however, is a town, a place where people live and surely sleep for at least part of the night, despite the traffic, the music, the general sense of activity. The feel is summed up by Red, who works at the Pink Slip as a DJ, host and security man. Popping out of the club to greet Nell, he says, "I was born and raised right here in Brooklyn. It's a small village, a small town, a loving community. That's how we do it here."
In fact, there are nine houses of worship in Brooklyn, several of which are within sight of the Slip's front door. (The club, which normally opens at noon, stays closed 'til 3 p.m. on Sundays. "Guess you gotta balance the holy with the sin," Nell notes.)
The themes of community are stressed by a pair of longtime adult-industry observers and participants, who freely chat with a reporter by Nell's stand as long as they won't be quoted by name. Striking an interesting tone of civic pride, one boasts that the clubs "are feeding a lot of people." He says, "The Pink Slip itself is a community stalwart. The number of people it employs, the money it puts back in the community ... tonight, it has between 25 and 30 dancers alone."
There are jobs, of course, and then there are jobs-jobs, and while we don't get into the specifics of, say, offering dental insurance for the independent contractor dancers, our onlooker is quick to pitch a variety of places where the cash-fueled operation helps out. He sees the money flowing to the "hair care industry, the clothing industry, the daycare industry, the hotel industry. You might say that these clubs are the economic engines of the area."
Explains Nell, "We keep the money moving in a circle. It's like family here." His part of the circle involves food. He adds, "If you don't have money, we'll still get you something to eat."
At one point, he spots someone who appears to be an employee of the Pink Slip. "Hey, Mike Mike! You straight? I see you got the sad face, come over here."
Mike Mike ambles over, and Nell hands him a foil pack from the grill, no need for payment. It's a scene that repeats itself, in different forms, all the way through close.
After 5:20 a.m., with rain beginning to fall, Nell all but abandons the grill to Zo. He's walking dancers to cars as he offers them foil-wrapped burgers, handing all-beef sausages through police car windows, generally dispensing of the last of the night's stock without cash exchanged.
With everything distributed, he pops the hood on the first lid and finds exactly nine more pieces of meat. The treasure comes with a heartfelt "ah, shit." The process begins again, more protein-in-foil handed out until a reporter winds up with the very last burger.
He says, "Somebody smiling, when they eat my food, is the single greatest thing in the world to me."
- NICK SCHNELLE
- Patrons chow down on their late-night eats.
Inside the Pink Slip, the night has crested by 5:20 a.m.; that much you can tell right away. Or, at least, right after you're actually, really, truly inside. First comes a cover charge, waived for a reporter by a sharp-looking security chief with a bowler, shined shoes and walking stick. There's a pass through a full-sized metal detector, then a quick, personal pat-down for good measure. A quick Google search shows the reason for this caution, with newspapers reporting occasional gunfights taking place outside and, more rarely, inside. It's not a regular thing, but it happens, and if you believe the Evening Whirl, Brooklyn seems like the best place in St. Louis to catch lead in the buttocks.
In theory, there's a party happening here, even deep into the 5 o'clock hour. The music's loud, but the dancers have abandoned the multiple stages criss-crossing the room. Those left are hanging out with the few remaining customers, most of whom are either making a play for continued fun off premises or are tucked away in the club's nooks and crannies.
A dancer approaches, realizes that her pitch for a personal dance isn't going anywhere; no money means no conversation which means nothing personal. Nearby, a gent's stock-still in a chair; he's upright, but sleeping, despite the rumble of bass everywhere. The bathroom attendant is still on duty, dispensing mints and toiletries for an expected $1 tip.
It's an odd scene with no dancers on stage, despite the club boasting between two and three dozen performers on weekend nights. It's maybe the thing that catches your eye the most, save the adult cinema playing on the overhead TV monitors. In some respects, it's all strangely unerotic by this hour.
But the dancers aren't necessarily the show, at least not totally. With the city of East St. Louis' downtown nightlife, legendary for just shy of forever, slowly dwindling over the past decade, after-hours drinkers from St. Clair County use the Pink Slip and Bottoms Up as an after-hours club, the $10 cover accepted as the simple cost of partying here. And partying in Brooklyn is a hobby with history.
In 2004, a writer named Scott Eden wrote a lengthy piece about the four communities in southwestern Illinois offering adult entertainment: Sauget, Washington Park, Centreville and Brooklyn. That the piece, "Fantasies Made Fresh," ran in a Montreal-based lit magazine named Maisoneauve is odd enough. Written by a non-local, it's also a sprawling bit of Hunter Thompson-style travel/economics journalism, sprinkled with major doses of local color. And while some of the facts have changed since 2004, the piece's general dissection of the Brooklyn club scene remains spot-on.
At one point, Eden writes of the East Side's specific appeal: "For years, since at least Prohibition, the east side has been the site of a roisterous nightlife. Brooklyn, always the focus of the action, was once known as 'Little Las Vegas.' Gambling and whoredom, in that order, were then the chief attractions. Only in the late nineteen-seventies did striptease, a natural new input, gain a foothold. Connoisseurs of the region's more recent entertainments say that the Illinois strip-club scene reached its raucous, lurid apex in the late nineteen-eighties, before riverboat gambling siphoned off the clientele. Nonetheless, a level of permissiveness endures, and it can only be ascribed to the status the clubs enjoy within the municipal hegemony."
But the idea of "heading to the East Side" has gone through many societal shifts, and "hall pass" and "boy's night out" mentalities aren't as accepted today as in the past. In a time of fallen-and-falling media/political icons, in an age of a deep questioning over gender roles and behaviors, the idea of a binge at strip clubs seems dated — something belonging in the deep past of, say, 2014.
And the bookstores, selling way more VHS tapes than books back in the day, were supplanted over the decades by on-demand adult programming (the lone shop that remains in Brooklyn is the exception proving the rule). It doesn't help that, thanks to the pervasive surveillance of cameras and cellphones, even the private, back rooms of Brooklyn now have an uncertain claim to anonymity.
The Rust Belt economy surely factors into Brooklyn's general vitality, too. An example is Fantasyland. Dead for more than a decade, its weather-beaten sign still hangs along Route 3, while the building itself is long since imploded, a giant dust pile in the nightlife zone's center, mature weed trees springing out of the combo-club/theater's rubble. Metaphor is where you look for it.
Outside a light rain has just begun again, more of a mist, really; even ten minutes inside the club is enough time that you feel you're re-entering the real world with a single step onto the sidewalk.
By this hour, there is less than a half-hour of commerce left, and more people are departing than arriving in Brooklyn, cars slowly (and quickly) leaving the lots. For most intents and purposes, it's the end of what's known as Friday night in Brooklyn, and what's looking a whole lot like Saturday morning for the rest of the world.
At 5:30 a.m., everything feels a little heavy and exhausting. But damn, if Nell ain't still out there hawking those Polish to many a Cuzzo.
- NICK SCHNELLE
- This is true street food, and the chef takes pride in his work.
It wasn't really a good night in Brooklyn, though Johnson, "the Parking King," announces that he did OK. You "can never put down a night that helps pay the bills," he says.
Mind you, he says this from the back seat of his golf cart, which is customized with wind sheets and the classic vanity plate "WEEKENZ"; from this ride, he oversees a small force of lot attendants.
At one point, relatively early in the evening, one of them engages in a strange, mostly wrestling altercation with a muscle-shirted patron about 200 feet from the grill. Whatever this dust-up is, whatever it's about, goes right past Nell. He's seen a few of these moments. He knows better than to get excited. "It is what it is. Things can happen out here. We're all trying to keep the same approach. We all wanna go home safe. All of us."
When Nell does finally go home, it's a bit after six, the rain finally falling steadily. So the next night gets a bit later start; he doesn't fire up the coals until closer to 1:30 a.m. or so. Hey, it's still early in the rush, and at some point, a man has to nap.
Nell is somehow able to juggle it: working a day job, working an overnight job, living a life outside of this immediate block. It doesn't seem like a recipe for a long-term lifestyle. But Nell's good with it, with all of it. The cooking, the feeding, the employing, the industry: "For real, if you gotta work, you gotta work."
And when Nell's not cooking, he's talking, he's directing traffic, he's pointing out the oddities of the place with hints of humor. He indicates a building just a few dozen feet away, a shabby, white-framed building with a broken window that, of all things, is the Brooklyn Police substation. You can stand there all damned night and not realize that this is the building's purpose, but, suddenly, when you realize that purpose, you see the dozen cameras. "Those are how they solve the crimes that do get committed," he says.
It's a detail that's right out there in the open, but hidden to an outsider's eyes — a reminder that there are pockets of a life all around us that we simply don't see, hear or experience. Like, there's probably a corner of your brain that realizes a stripper is getting a ride home from her cousin at 5:45 a.m., handed a free turkey leg by a construction worker who happens to specialize in overnight grill mastery, but you usually don't pay much attention to that corner of your brain.
Every night, Nell oversees this scene, barking "we got the fresh hot baah-are-be-cuuue" on his battery-powered microphone. He's out here feeding people, his simple sandwiches the chaser for nights filled with liquor and libido. He's the philosopher, decked out in a plaster-spackled jumpsuit. He's the guy who proves that we're all unique, some more unique than others, and some cut from a thicker, tougher cloth.
"It's not the life for everybody," he says.
Not for the first time this evening, he's right.