She was standing in the doorway of the café and waved us in excitedly as soon as we entered the alley. We were shocked and scurried on in before she could change her mind—we had thought that my being a girl would make it harder for us to enter any of the cafes. When we arrived we were the only people there other than the three women working. It was a fairly large room covered with mirrors on almost all of the walls. The remaining walls were painted black with silver blobs sponge painted sporadically which were complimented by the by reflection of the disco ball twirling above. If it were not for the reflections bouncing off of all of the mirrors the room would have been pitch black. She led us to two barstools and we sat down. The three of us stared at each other awkwardly for about a second, it was glaringly obvious to everyone involved that we were not the average customers, so I just came out and said it, “Qué es esto?”. She giggled. “Es un café con piernas.” She started explaining to us that we could order coffee, juice, soda, or beer. We asked how much a beer was ($4) and ordered two.
She came back with the drinks, placed her body right between Fito and me, and started rubbing our shoulders and chatting with us. She was very perky. “Están pololeando?”, she asked. “No, somos amigos.” “Pinchando?” we all laughed a little, “no, amigos no más.” Though we already knew more or less how the café con piernas worked, we began asking her questions—both because we were interested and so that we could make it clear right of the bat that we were not going to take advantage of the complimentary lap dance that comes with the drinks. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to make ourselves out to be innocent students who were simply wandering around El Centro and happened to stumble into the café, as though we had no idea what was going on. It was hard to ignore though that she was our age, especially given how easily the conversation was flowing. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and looked like any other 20 year old, but her innocent face contrasted the brightly colored bra she was wearing to push up her breasts and the miniskirt which would ride up as soon as a group of men walked in.
She was certainly better than us at keeping the conversation going and began explaining the room to us, pointing out the different places where the workers dance with the customers, and at some point she alluded to the back which was mostly blocked off by a wall. I asked her what happens back there and she said that sometimes they take the men there for a little extra. I asked her if she could give me a tour and she hesitated a little, “Me invitas a un juguito?”, she asked tilting her head toward the female bartender who seemed to be in charge. Understanding that buying her a juice also meant buying her time, I agreed.
She headed toward the back, again waving me in excitedly. She lead me to a corner on the other side of the shieling wall and put her hands up on it and starting dancing. “Aquí podemos bailar con los hombres donde nadie nos puede ver,” she explained as she moved her body to the music as though she were pressed up against an imaginary man. Later she pointed out the same spot to Fito and me in one of the mirrors and showed us that you could actually see what was going on from the main room. She giggled and turned toward the bar to pour her a glass of water. From that point on she constantly had the glass of water in her hand, a symbol of the juguito that we had bought for her, though she never actually drank any juice. She opened the door and flipped on a light switch, showing me the inside of a closet where she said they keep the beverages. The bottles were all pushed into one corner and the majority of the floor space was open. I asked her if they brought the men into the closet too, and she nodded her head giggling and also pointed to the bathroom.
Then she pointed to a spiraling staircase which lead to a loft above the room and told me that was where the women keep their things. I asked if we could go up and she turned to her supervisor who agreed. As I climbed the staircase with her amused, bubbling, giggles following me I could not help but feel like we were little girls excitedly exploring some dark abandoned house or something. I glanced over the balcony when we got to the top and all of the other women seemed equally as amused by my presence. Then she pushed back a curtain and switched on a light, illuminating a wall of lockers. She showed me hers, which was covered with pictures of her three year old son. She also showed me a tiny table with three chairs, explaining that the women gather to eat lunch there every day. Though above the main room, the space was in no way blocked off from the reality of the café con piernas— juxtaposing the women’s social and home lives with their work.
We went back downstairs and back to the bar where Fito was waiting. We began asking her a bunch of questions, which she was unembarrassed and seemingly happy to answer—though after a few minutes she again asked us if we would buy her another jugito. Her family had immigrated to Santiago from Peru, but she had been in the country for long enough that had picked up the distinct Chilean accent. She had dropped out of school at 17 when her son was born, and has been working in different cafes for about 8 months to provide for him, “todo por mi hijo.”
I asked her if she lived with her family, and she said not anymore because they had begun to suspect that she had been working in the industry and not as an actress as she had been telling them. That was the only topic that she seemed unwilling to talk about. She explained that she worked in the café between 10am and 9pm every day; though the hours are more flexible given that all of the women are mothers and sometimes have to stay home with their children. We asked how much she makes during an average shift and she estimated between $16 and $20. For 11 hours of work. She also mentioned that she has to pay the woman who watches her son $10 after every shift.
Fito went to the bathroom and she began asking me questions. She wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in Chile, more specifically what I was doing at the café con piernas. I explained that I wanted to observe what it was like for an assignment that I was working on. She wanted to know more about it and I uncomfortably explained to her that I wanted to observe the role of the cafés in relation to the rest of the city or something. I still wasn’t really sure what I was doing there. She giggled again and told me that it was a good place to get inspired.
Shortly after Fito came back two men walked through the door. She ran to the front to meet them and lead them to a table, just as bubbly as when we had come in. One of the other women took their order and she took the opportunity to come back over and tell us to pay attention to what was about to happen. We were awkward about watching, thinking that our stares would turn the men off to the experience, but the girls’ excellent social skills came into play again and the men were markedly unfazed by our presence.
She and one of the other women each began dancing with the men who were seated in the barstools, rubbing the hands all over their hips, breasts, inner thighs, up their skirts. At one point she bent over and touched the ground with her butt in the air moving to the beat of the music. On the way back up she looked over at Fito and me and laughed. When the song was over the men handed the girls some money and thanked them on their way out. All in all they probably spent no more than 10 minutes inside of the café.
She turned the music down a little and came back over to where we were sitting. “Viste?” she said smiling. We were surprised, to say the least, at what $4 had just bought the men. We chatted for a few more minutes before realizing that it was 9pm, which is when the café closes. We started packing up our things and thanking her for everything. “Es ocho mil por todo,” she said a little uncomfortably, understandably so given that we were about to walk right out the door. We had almost forgotten that we were not just sitting in an average café catching up with an old friend.