"No grandma wants her granddaughter working here," said Brian Michael, owner of Augie's. "My grandma doesn't want me working here."
That about sums up this topless bar, located on one of downtown Minneapolis' most notorious corners. Every weekend, 5th and Hennepin turns into a busy crossroads for the entertainment district's staggering mass of drunken clubgoers.
Augie's has existed here for 70 years, starting as a regular old cabaret. These days it's more like a raucous hip-hop club. When rappers talk about "making it rain" (throwing fistfuls of money at a stripper), this is the type of place they're talking about.
Strip clubs tend to remain discreet about their operation. Augie's drives so hard in the opposite direction that Michael is seeking to turn his club into a reality TV show. For two years he's been filming and editing demos for a show he calls "99 Problems," a phrase made famous by a Jay-Z song. Recently, he formed a partnership with producer Christine Evey, who's worked on "America's Got Talent." They are in the process of cutting what is called a "sizzle reel" and shopping it to cable TV.
Michael offered to let me and a photographer spend a night inside his club, getting a preview of sorts to the real "99 Problems."
9:45 p.m. - The Batcave
Saturdays begin slowly, like a snake coiled before a fight. Michael, athletic and blond, walks into the bar wearing a V-neck, skinny jeans and running shoes. He looks the opposite of the crowd, a white guy among a mostly black clientele.
In the club's small office, which is outfitted like a Big Brother command center, he lords over a high-tech security system. Forty-nine cameras give him eyes and ears everywhere -- in the VIP section, the alley, on the street. His multi-screen setup looks like something out of "The Dark Knight."
"My business is riddled with presumptions," he explains. "If there's bad stuff happening on the sidewalk, the perception is it's happening inside, too."
Cops speak highly of his operation. "They work well with the police," said Minneapolis police Sgt. Steve McCarty.
Augie's had 55 police calls in the past 12 months, which McCarty said is not excessive for a downtown club. Envy, the problem nightspot that recently closed under city pressure, had 133.
10:20 p.m. - God save them
Michael moves the joystick on his desk, rotating an outside camera: "We have a prayer group on the sidewalk."
Seven Bethel University students are sitting in a circle just feet from the front door, Bibles in hand. He steps outside to chat with them. A cop is already there, telling the kids to go home for their own safety.
As always, Michael is extremely direct: "I've seen someone shot here. Someone was murdered over there."
One of the students thanks Michael: "We just want everyone to know that we care about them and God does, too."
10:35 p.m. - College?
Backstage, the women walk around topless. The managers are all men, but the place feels strangely de-sexualized. The women talk about their lives outside these walls -- their other jobs, their families, college.
In the hallway, Michael talks with dancer Shayla Pittman, who calls herself Passion.
"How's school going?" he asks, knowing that she still isn't enrolled.
"I'm still working on that," the 20-year-old says.
10:55 p.m. - Bad parenting
"Is that a baby?!" Michael yells at his computer screen.
A toddler is standing under one of the cameras on Hennepin. Michael radios to his staff to get out there and find the child's parents.
"There's something going wrong with this world," he says.
11:45 p.m. - Mace your face
Michael steps outside himself, just as two men start to fight on the corner. He intervenes with his security team. One of his guys threatens to mace the primary troublemaker: "Don't make me spray you."
Right then, a police officer barges in, yelling at the man, "I'll spray you!"
The cloud of mace sends the guy hacking down the block. Three women in short skirts walk into the crossfire and start coughing, too.
12:05 a.m. - Meet Precious
We jump in Michael's white Mercedes, headed for his 31st-floor condo a few blocks away. He's a health nut and needs his protein shake.
The thirty-something tells me he'd like to get married and have kids someday. For now, he has two cats. One of them, a fluffy white Persian named Precious, greets us at the door.
"She's the prettiest thing walking," he says, mostly for her amusement.
His home is adorned with art from Thailand, where he has a stake in a TV channel. He travels there twice a year.
One bedroom is outfitted like a recording studio. He shot, edited and composed the music for his original "99 Problems" demo. He performs a composition for me, louder than his neighbors would like.
He says he grew up on food stamps in Maplewood and worked very hard to get to this point, but there's no getting around the fact that he's making money off the topless backs of these women.
"I understand that the objectification of women and the exploitation of women is a social ill," he said. "But this is not a predatory place. This is a licensed business from the state of Minnesota."
1:05 a.m. - Rough rider
Outside the club, the metal detector is slowing the line of men and women snaking down the sidewalk. Inside, songs by Rick Ross and 2 Chainz rattle the walls. A shower of dollar bills rains down on the strippers, who slink up and down the poles like gymnasts.
In the office, a 22-year-old dancer named Britney Murphy has bad news.
"I broke the pole on stage," she tells Michael. "I was being kind of rough."
He's furious: "Great, I'll just go down to the brass-pole superstore and get a new one."
1:50 a.m. - Fast cash
Ashley Robinson, who goes by Diamond, just made $200 for a five-minute dance that can't be described here.
In the back, she tells me about her 4-year-old son, who's in kindergarten. "He's really smart," the 26-year-old says.
"The truth is they're just normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstances," Michael said. "They need to parlay this into something else. When a girl gets her own place, you see a self-actualization. And that's what I want for them."
Diamond returns from another stage routine, clutching a pile of cash in her arms. She might make $1,200 tonight.
2:05 a.m. - Beasts
The cavalry -- literally, cops on horseback -- are clearing the streets outside Augie's. Michael and his team stand guard, ushering the unruly off the sidewalk. Michael shakes hands with officers, knows all of them by their first names.
He's done this for 10 years now. Fights, drinking, drama. Every weekend.
I'd watch this TV show.
- Tom Horgen
- Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen