It was meant to be a quiet night in church. I hadn't planned on it leading to the basement of a condemned hotel at two the next morning.

The church in question was Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium, a bar propping up a corner plot on Atlanta's Edgewood Avenue. "You're gonna miss the church organ karaoke, that's tomorrow night," said Ben, a regular behind the mic, "and the ping pong tournament was last night, but you've got the tarot card reader setting up soon."


Quirky didn't come close. Quirky would have glanced through the door and whimpered like a kicked dog. Hanging high above the bar, portraits of the three kings watched over their flock, those kings been Elvis, Martin Luther King and Jesus. Wooden crosses adorned the lampshades. Po the Teletubby clambered up an altar while a plaster cast of Nipper the dog looked on. In the far corner, an ornate 19th century confessional booth from Eastern Europe doubled as a photo booth and the walls both upstairs and down were cluttered with gold-framed paintings of Christ; Christ wearing eyeliner, Christ frowning upon bestiality, Christ eating pie. Christ almighty.

Just a few minute's walk from Downtown Atlanta, Sister Louisa's was a welcome yet surprising find. Welcome, because Downtown is an empty corporate shell after hours, where any sense of history, any shred of the city's railroad heritage has long since been razed and replaced by yawning highways and spiritless slabs of office blocks and hotels. Surprising, because Sister Louisa's is barely a block from the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jnr, and practically next door to Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr King preached his ministry of nonviolence. "The church wasn't really sure how to take it," explained Ben, "but they figured it was better people had a place to meet than leave an empty husk of building."
Sister Louisa's had been Ben's recommendation, and he had another for me: "Were you planning on checking out the Clermont Lounge? It's where strippers go to die."
He explained that the Clermont was a dive in Atlanta's Poncey-Highland neighbourhood, the city's oldest strip club and legendary among locals for its more mature dancers, including Blondie, who'd worked its stage for 35 years and made her money crushing empty beer cans between her boobs. "I don't know who said it," said Ben, "but the Clermont is the best place in the world to get drunk and the worst place in the world to be sober."
You can't be told about somewhere that's the best in the world and not pay a visit, I reasoned. So when the cab pulled up outside, I wasn't expecting the six-story red-brick building to be abandoned. There was no noise, no neon, not a single sleazy drunk or washed-up stripper in sight. The Clermont was a century-old motel that had been condemned and shut down two years earlier for every health violation the city's officials could pin on it. I was in the wrong place.
"Drop you here or take you to the door," asked the driver, recognising a Clermont virgin. He pulled round the corner and off the street, down into a sunken gravel car park behind the hotel, where a stain of smokers with brawling beards swaggered near a shabby door that led into the building's basement: the Clermont Lounge. Inside the air was rotten with cigarette smoke, it was dark and loud and dirty as hell, every bit a lounge that a portable toilet at a music festival is a throne. The Clermont ticked all the dive bar boxes: a low ceiling, painted black; dim red lighting of indeterminate source; duct tape repairs to every fixture and fitting. I took a stool at the horseshoe bar and ordered a Blue Ribbon from the middle-aged barmaid, her arms a riddle of tattoos, a lit cigarette hanging from her thinned lips.
"Tight crowd tonight, ain't worth my time." The drawl was next to me, in my ear, a 50-something woman wearing a bad blonde wig and black underwear too tight for her portly figure. "I've been up three or four times, made next to nothing, few bucks maybe. No tips, no lapdances." I mumbled in agreement, unsure where to look.
On the stage to my right, a young and giggly brunette in ribbons of pink lingerie shrieked a tune from Phantom of the Opera - it was karaoke night in the Clermont Lounge. The crowd of locals and college kids hooted and applauded, after which the girl mounted the middle of the horseshoe bar and with no particular love for rhythm, removed her bra and set fire to her nipples. Male and female patrons alike brayed the bartop and waved dollar bills for her to collect. I wasn't sure what I was paying for so I smiled politely and scrutinised the small print of my beer can. Across the horseshoe I spotted the woman in the blonde wig. She was topless and signing a crushed beer can for the couple sat next to her. Hello, Blondie. Then another dancer was stood above me on the bar, a much older woman this time, one who looked for all the world like my mum, but dressed in leopardskin panties and gyrating her thick hips in my direction, looking me in the eye while unclasping her bra. Please Mum, don't. Oh you did. Oh god.
There was another hour still to go before closing and the locals showed no sign of letting up, but I'd seen enough. Far too much, in fact. My quiet evening in church had gone straight to hell.


"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.