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The Geography of Hustling

Photos by Alix Lambert

Time-traveling west on Melrose Avenue, I’m nearly oblivious to the Los Angeles chemical sunset swallowing the cityscape. From the back seat of a 1980s Volvo station wagon, I take in the foot traffic on the sidewalk as we round the corner from Van Ness Avenue onto the boulevard of love. Santa Monica Boulevard. The meandering. The disenfranchised. The gender-challenged in high heels with bruised ankles and manufactured hair. Teen boys with absentee fathers seeking surrogate “uncles” play cat-and-mouse with Hollywood vice cops. African-American parolees with practiced gestures designed to draw the eye to superior “package” presentation, promising a really big, black bang for the buck as a discerning flesh patron in a BMW 7 Series slows his roll to inspect the trade.

Directly across the street, a manic, dirty-blond 16-year-old crystal-meth orphan outfitted in urban-guerrilla chic attempts to light at a bus bench in hopes of attracting a suitor, but the chaos at work in his nearly skeletal frame won’t permit a moment’s repose. He scampers down the block at a frantic pace, disappearing into the night as the last vestige of the golden hour dissipates.

Taz, my old friend and running partner, and I are on a sort of archaeological expedition, taking a comprehensive citywide tour of my now distant past.

“Everybody loves hookers,” Taz jokes from the front seat. I laugh, but it isn’t funny. These people are not in good shape. I can’t imagine most of the young’uns will see 30. I’m not quite sure how I made it. Back in the day, I did my own tour of duty on this very same bleak street.

My initial exposure to prostitution came at the tender age of 10. My friends and I would hang around the playground after school until a young trollop named Tracey would happen by and take us home to her garage. There, we would poke and sniff around at her thing for a nominal fee of 50 cents per person, per session. I was a prepubescent john.

I turned my first trick in my hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at 13 when a 30-year-old pedophile paid $20 to watch me masturbate. I was a Midwestern teenager who instinctively understood the commodity value of my youthful sexuality. I knew right away that it was just the job for me.

Like most other kids doing time on the street, my fate was sealed early. When I was 7 or 8 years old, a perverted, sexagenarian relative of mine started molesting a young cousin and me. It went on for years and was one of a litany of sexual injuries I sustained during childhood in an atmosphere as toxic as the air over Hollywood. My bell was rung early on, and no one seemed to notice. My trust had been shattered in a world seemingly filled with the silence and complicity of co-conspirators.

A few years down the road and more than a few times around the block, I began honing my street-sex skills to a fine edge in New York City and Los Angeles. As a full-blown teen hooker, my appeal was my fresh-faced, heartland, boy-meat aesthetic. Young, dumb and full of barbiturates. For a brief time this was an accurate outward rendering of my internal condition. But under the tutelage of three highly skilled Puerto Rican hooker-brothers from the Bronx — Kiko, Coco and Benny (13, 15 and 17, respectively) — I created a caricature of myself to use as a marketing ploy. My new friends were masterful at their craft and shared hard-learned, practical skills with great generosity.

The mark of a good busboy is the absence of noise and an awareness of his presence around the table. When a level of mastery is achieved, you don’t even know the table has been cleared. You only experience the clean table. It’s Zen. The mark of a good hustler is the absence of sex while getting the cash. The perfect trick is the one where you walk out with the money and don’t engage in sex. As opposed to prostitution proper, hustling’s ultimate goal is to profit financially, not to trade sex for money. It’s a hustle, a con and also a somewhat Zen practice that few understand, let alone master. A savvy hustler will ultimately have to serve it up from time to time, but even the best three-card monte dealer goes home broke some days.

I was a quick study with a natural ability. I had all the moves and was good to go, prolific right out of the gate. Though prostitution was my primary career, it wasn’t my only option. At 18, I was creative, ambitious and focused in other areas as well. I signed a major-label record deal fronting a band and worked as an actor on a network TV series and in films. I was also laying the groundwork for still another full-time job as an IV drug addict. The childhood injury was massive, and I was stuffing it full of anything I could get my hands on. I was very, very busy.

Clearly, commerce was not the impetus for me to work the streets, as I was banking more than $100,000 a year. Yet I was still turning tricks on a regular basis, engaged in something called a re-enactment compulsion, trying to get a handle on an old wound from the reverse side. The level of commitment I had to the “lifestyle” was commensurate with the level of sexual damage I had sustained as a kid, but I was lifetimes away from that realization.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, famed Loveline radio host and author of Cracked: Running Rescue Missions for the Disconnected and Brokenhearted (HarperCollins), breaks it down in psycholog- ical terms:

“Prostitutes are trauma survivors. They’re looking for solutions to overpowering, painful emotions. Initially, the solution works. It is fun and it does work; they do want to do it. These are people who have disorders of self-regulation. They can’t regulate their emotions. They get stuck in these modes of intense pain and discomfort. These autonomous, primitive regulatory mechanisms are basically arrests that occurred when they were traumatized in childhood. It’s a primitive mechanism that we share with lower animals. If you have been ingrained to utilize this very primitive system, it becomes the way you relate in all your personal strategies. It’s learned helplessness. It’s hyperinhibition, and they are very good at that. That’s how they can shut down when they’re having sex with a john. They just dissociate. That dissociative mechanism has a very negative influence on emotional growth.”

As a young hustler, I prided myself on my versatility and the fact that there wasn’t a lot I wouldn’t do. Drug-numbed and fueled by the kind of pathological bravado Dr. Drew describes, prostitution was working for me, and I suppose I was having fun. I would get into a car with a guy I had never seen before and have sex with him for money. The entire transaction took place without me experiencing a single emotion. I would simply shut it off. It was as if I was sealed in cellophane. You could see me, but I couldn’t feel you.

I was unaware of the kind of damage that the behavior was racking up in my psyche and the enormous undertaking it would require to address it, and I didn’t care: I was on a roll. I throttled a leather-masked, octogenarian art dealer in a bathhouse in Hollywood in a way that he may not have completely recovered from (earnings? $250). I sodomized another young hustler on the altar of a church in Midtown Manhattan for the voyeuristic, masturbatory enjoyment of a boy-loving priest ($150 each). I pissed on an investment banker at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan on Christmas Eve ($150). I impaled a prominent plastic surgeon with a giant dildo at a black-tie, Velvet Mafia dinner party on Fire Island in plain view of 25 tuxedoed, A-list fags ($250).

At first I turned tricks on the streets johns were known to frequent, but as any good hooker will tell you, you can turn a trick anywhere if you have a mind to.

Aligned with the laws of supply and demand, niche markets catering to varied tastes become part of the geography of prostitution.

A few highlights from the shortlist of heavily trafficked, largely denied L.A. ho-strolls: Olvera Street at Sunset Boulevard features strung-out, south-of-the-border boys who sleep in the bushes and sell it for next to nothing. The clientele includes the monetarily challenged and those with a boner for dirt. Alvarado Street between Sunset and the 101 freeway is a “strawberry patch”; the pickers are primarily homebound commuter “johns” in a time crunch. Prices are low, low, low, and these “hoochies” are selling out to the bare sugar walls. Hollywood Boulevard at Alexandria Avenue, right across from the infamous Jumbo’s Clown Room strip club, is a very specific Armenian scene.

Santa Monica Boulevard between Highland and La Brea is populated by multicultural “him-she hookers” serving it up to self-diagnosed “heterosexual” guys; but let’s face facts . . . there’s really only a couple things you can do with a “lady-boy” that you can’t do with a real girl. To quote social critic Andrew “Dice” Clay, “You either suck dick, or you do not suck dick.” Santa Monica Boulevard between Fairfax and Gower has a cross section ranging from teenage runaway guys to assorted young hooligans to Hispanic day-worker types in need of cash money. I met a one-legged, 50-year-old transsexual in a wheelchair here who claimed to make $300 a day along this stretch. Cahuenga at Wilcox is low-rent, over-the-hill, white-trash man hookers. Heterosexuals, blacks, recently released parolees dominate Santa Monica Boulevard between Van Ness and Gower. Sunset Boulevard from La Brea to Alexandria has all kinds of real-girl hookers and real live pimps dressed in semi-stereotypical pimp gear.

 

Among the benefits of being an enterprising young prostitute in a major metropolitan area is that you get access to segments of the population that would otherwise be unavailable to you. I was tied up and Polaroided by a high-profile fashion photographer ($300). I spanked a Broadway producer ($150) and served it up to an overpublished pop poet in his penthouse ($150), all before I moved into the bars and up the food chain to the likes of superstar johns Tennessee Williams ($100) and Paul Lynde ($200). Rich or famous, johns are notoriously cheap. The guy in the ’80s Toyota is always a bigger tipper than the one in the Bentley.

As we approach the intersection at Highland Avenue, no one looks as interested in social climbing as in getting a few bucks to cop and a hotel room for the night.

Turning north off Santa Monica, we’re caught in a bottleneck as rubberneckers watch vice cops pat down the crystal-meth orphan we spotted earlier at Van Ness. Somehow, he had beaten us to this busy corner.

William Menjivar knows these streets almost as well as he knows the inside of a county jail cell. He is a 27-year-old, Salvadoran-born writer and former teen junkie rent-boy who turned more than 2,000 tricks between the ages of 13 and 23 at this very intersection. Currently working as a health-care provider at a Los Angeles clinic where he specializes in STDs, Menjivar deals firsthand with the physical fallout of street prostitution in Hollywood. He’s seen the likes of our tweaker friend many times over. His experience gives him a unique perspective.

“I stopped prostituting myself because I was stopped. I went to prison for drugs. When I got out, I stopped getting high. For me, the prostitution came along with my addiction. You slam some dope. You’re all fucked up. People are just cruising around in the streets in Hollywood looking for kids to have sex with. Okay, so somebody found me. In my life at that time I thought I was getting what I wanted. Money calls and a lot of people answer. Now, I just pass them by and don’t give them a second thought. It’s kinda like garbage out in the street. It’s just there. Nobody, even though they want to, they’re not gonna get out of their car, go to the sidewalk, pick up the garbage and put it in the trash can. No, we just pass it by and bitch about it later. ‘Why is the city so fuckin’ dirty?’ Same thing with prostitution. ‘Why are there so many fuckin’ homeless junkie prostitute kids out in the street?’”

Sergeant Dino Caldera served as a Hollywood vice cop for five years before transferring to the Hollenbeck Division in East Los Angeles. Caldera is the cop who arrested Hugh Grant for the infamous $65 blowjob that was responsible for the actor’s career resurgence. Caldera acknowledges the fact that current economic conditions are responsible for an increase in street prostitution. “There’s the potential for things to get a lot worse,” he says. “Prostituting is mostly based on socioeconomic needs. This whole thing is driven by money and various needs. The question is, is it worth it to spend the money on controlling it? That’s a moral issue.”

With more hookers on the street, the competition for turf intensifies, and new locations emerge. “The locations are called ‘tracks,’” Caldera says. “They go out and work a track. It’s all very logical and predictable. When the NBA playoffs or a boxing event are in town, you see a large increase in the number of girls. They go up to Sacramento for the politicians and down to San Diego for the servicemen. They follow conventions. Hawaii and Arizona are big. Lots of businessmen.”

Caldera’s breakdown of the racial component invites more than a few questions. “There’s more white than black girls out here,” he says. “White girls make more money than the black girls. Asian girls make more money than white girls. Blond white girls get premium pay from Asian businessmen.”

If Caldera’s assessment is accurate, the statistics offered by Nathan Ong of the LAPD’s Hollywood Crime Analysis Detail indicate a racial bias with regard to the “who gets popped and who walks” issue. Of the 1,013 arrested for solicitation or engaging in an act of prostitution in the Hollywood area between July 1, 2002, and June 30, 2003, the ethnic breakdown is as follows: 402 blacks, 262 Hispanics, 257 whites, 88 “others,” one Chinese, one Filipino, one Pacific Islander and one American Indian.

Unlike Menjivar, I’ve never been to prison (except to visit), nor was I ever arrested for prostitution. Like everything else in America that involves the law, race skews how it is enforced. Being a white boy, I sometimes was the lucky, if unjustly so, beneficiary of that bias. One night on 53rd Street in Manhattan, while being schooled by Coco, my 15-year-old mentor, we were accosted by New York’s finest. I was sent packing, but Coco, a cocoa-colored Puerto Rican kid, had all four fingers of his left hand broken as a reminder of his second-class-citizen status.

As supervising attorney for the city of Hollywood’s criminal branch, Julie San Juan sees thousands of prostitution cases a year. She had 30 cases on her desk the day I met her at her Hollywood Boulevard office. San Juan offers jail, or, depending on priors or other mitigating circumstances, community service in lieu of jail time to those convicted of pandering. HIV tests and AIDS education are a part of the deal. After a decade of seeing repeat offenders, she has become familiar with the faces and wishes she had more to offer.

“There’s two solutions,” San Juan says. “Government intervention, some sort of facility where you can offer these prostitutes a place to go to re-educate, rehabilitate, to find a different path. The second is legalization. That’s not up to me. That’s up to the voters, the constituents, the legislators. There are times I believe it should be legalized, like in Europe where they have a red-light district. But when the conversation gets going, it’s hard to do it like Amsterdam or Vegas, where they have the Mustang Ranch. Where do you put this Mustang Ranch?”

Avoiding the police became an issue for me as I grew recognizable on my regular corners. I eventually moved my business indoors and developed a stealthier scam. It was probably felonious but a lot safer. It involved pretending to fall in love with lonely, aging homos and subsequently extorting thousands of dollars by manipulating them with lies about overdue rent and ailing grandmothers before they caught on to the painful truth. I ran this act for a few years, until the ravages of heroin addiction stole my glow, at which point I resorted to robbing low-rent johns in post-coital comas in their homes. It was despicable, but I was in no position to care.

Eventually, the drugs rendered me virtually unemployable as a hooker, or anything else for that matter. I was strung out, had depleted my resources and destroyed all legitimate opportunities for earning. I had no usable job skills that would produce an income commensurate to my needs. I turned whatever tricks I could, and what initially wasn’t exclusively about money had become about money exclusively. Like a lot of kids on the street, I was now in the business of what George Lozano, executive director of Covenant House, a Catholic Church–funded teen shelter on Western Avenue calls “survival sex.”

 

Just a stone’s throw from Covenant House, on Sunset and Western, a variation on the Santa Monica Boulevard scene is already in full effect. The real-girl hookers are out in full force. You could set your watch by it. Some of them look barely legal and are engaged in some fairly blatant survival tactics, flashing their boobs at passing motorists who beep their horns in thanks.

This is the kind of turf that Tina (not her real name), a giggly 15-year-old Filipina girl with pretty, dark eyes and a hard story, would have been working a few years back. The child of a drug-addicted father who was later deported to the Philippines, Tina essentially raised herself. She never had the opportunity to develop the skills to defend herself against sexual predators in the home, and there was never anyone there to protect her. When Tina was just 9, a friend of her father’s molested her at a family party, then gave her some cash and told her that she could get paid for having sex. By 11, Tina was on the street turning tricks. A rather abrupt intrusion into her “tween” consciousness occurred when Tina asked a school friend if she was a prostitute as well. Her friend responded by asking the age-appropriate question, “What’s a prostitute?”

After being arrested by a sympathetic vice cop at 13, Tina found herself in the care of a shelter in Van Nuys called Children of the Night, founded and operated by former radical feminist and Ph.D. Lois Lee. The privately funded shelter cares for girls and sometimes boys who are former prostitutes. Children of the Night is the best of the very few legitimate sanctuaries for these kids.

“I think about my life before I got here a lot,” Tina confides. “I used to cry about it when I’d think about it, but now, I don’t know . . . the tears just disappeared from my eyes. When I got here I was 14. Now I’m 15. I think that it made me stronger. I saw things that most kids did not. And if I didn’t see it . . . I’d just think that life was just perfect . . . peachy cream. Now I know the inside of the game and the outside of the game, and I know what it feels like for other kids. I never got taught to tell somebody if somebody touches me. I just got taught drugs, sex, money. Money and sex go together. Drugs go with it too, to not let you have any feelings. That’s all I learned.”

With the active support of benefactors like actress, writer and former child porn star Traci Lords, Tina and the other kids at the Children of the Night shelter are anomalies in the world of teenage prostitutes, preparing for college in a nurturing, structured environment with their sights set on high-functioning lives.

Like Tina, Traci Lords is clearly someone who fell through the cracks as an underage porn star. When she was 10, she was raped by a 16-year-old. Her mother’s hippie boyfriend molested her when she was 11. As a rebellious Southern California teenage transplant from Ohio, Lords was an easy mark for unscrupulous porn producers. At 15, she appeared in several sleazy porn magazines and shortly after starred in a number of triple-X films. Lords was eventually arrested as a result of the Reagan administration’s task force on child pornography.

FBI agents dragged Lords from her apartment in the middle of the night. Following the arrest, she was hounded by agents who camped at her doorstep for months and bombarded her with subpoenas to testify as an expert witness in virtually every child-pornography case across the United States. She became a tabloid sensation. Agents even showed up to serve her when she was working on the set of the John Waters film Cry Baby in Baltimore.

Lords ultimately got some work as a legitimate actress in mainstream film and television and has recently published her memoir, Underneath It All. She makes no distinction between porn and prostitution, referring to her notorious XXX films as “prostitution movies.”

“The fact that if you are 15 years old, or 12, or 13 or whatever, below the age of 18, and you commit a crime, you steal a car ... they will put you in juvie hall and rehabilitate you because you are committing a crime against society,” says Lords. “But if you’re being abused or molested at home and you become a hooker, you are committing a crime against yourself and you’re a whore and you are disposable and nobody rehabilitates you. For some reason, it is felt that if you’re committing a crime against yourself, it is not society’s problem.”

 

Coming full circle to the corner of Lexington and St. Andrews Place, the working girls are of the gender-illusionist variety. Big breasts busting out of tight, low-cut dresses, wigs, heels, makeup and, oh yeah ... penises. And a line of cars around the block.

Through the tinted window of the third car in the lineup of johns, I can barely make out what looks like the collar of a Nehru jacket worn by a pasty white guy skulking behind the wheel. I’m not sure why I’m shocked when closer inspection reveals a member of the clergy poised to do a little soul saving in full dress.

At the height of my career as a serial sexual solicitor, I regularly did business with a Catholic priest in New York who took me to church, where we made sacrilege on the altar. He was a big tipper, but it was such an unsettling gig. I considered asking the padre for absolution, but it didn’t seem appropriate since I was dipping into the collection plate.

Sunset and Western feels surprisingly cozy at 2 a.m., riding shotgun with veteran Hollywood vice sergeant Emalee Baptiste, a no-nonsense cop who looks to be in her 30s and has been on the job for more than a decade. “Momma Told Me Not To Come” by Three Dog Night plays at low volume on the radio as we “set up” on two young black guys in velour Sean John running suits. Baptiste identifies them as pimps, and we watch from across the street as they herd their bitches around the Food 4-Less parking lot like border collies working sheep. A 1990s Jeep Cherokee pulls in and circles one of the girls, a full-figured, high-yellow black girl who looks to be 17 years old. She gets in for a minute, then hops out and struts back and forth on the corner. A disconnect, according to Baptiste, which means they couldn’t work out the terms of the transaction.

“We have the largest vice unit in the city, mainly because we have the largest problem in the city. We are always manned, we are always staffed, and this is what we do seven days a week — deal with the prostitution problem. Especially on weekend nights, three or four nights a week they’ll be thick as thieves. You can’t count them.”

The crime stats bear her out. The LAPD’s West Bureau accounted for more than a third of the city’s prostitution arrests in 2002, ringing up 1,221. Hollywood claimed 861 of those arrests. And though I could count them, I get her point. “It’s real simple,” Baptiste explains. “If these girls weren’t out here making money hand over fist, there wouldn’t be prostitution. There are so many diseases and everything out here; the lifespan of these girls isn’t what it used to be. They’re out here doing this because this is a lot of times what they want to do. It’s tax-free. They make their own hours, and a lot of them are making a lot more money than you or I. It’s kind of hard to say, ‘No, don’t do this. Go flip hamburgers at Burger King for five, six bucks an hour and, you know, make sure a percentage of that goes to the government.’ We see the same girls out here over and over again. We’ve arrested them up to their 60s. When I see her, I call her Grandma. She’s one of the girls that are on crack cocaine. She’s usually out here a little earlier. They just continue. It becomes a lifestyle.”

For me, getting out of the game was as subtle a transition as getting in. I didn’t see either coming. It happened slowly over a period of years, after I stopped pumping narcotics into my system.

As I started to become conscious of the sequence of events that had led me to the bottom, the old behavior sort of fell away like a dried scab. One day, I realized I hadn’t prostituted myself for years. Getting visibly older wasn’t necessarily a factor. There’s someone for everyone out on the boulevard. The journey “inside” was a backward time-travel through my entire history. It led me down city streets I hadn’t walked for years. Through volumes written by those who had been there before me and lived to tell their tales. It took me back to my original damage, and to cozy interiors with pastel couches in the offices of trained professionals from Manhattan to Encino and Van Nuys. It led me to hallucinogenic healers in remote Southern California canyons and introduced me to exotic, meditative practices. It brought me an endless procession of church-basement self-help assemblages. I was absolutely committed and ultimately, as the freight train of ancient nightmares passed through my heart, I found a sort of transcendence.

Santa Monica Boulevard dead-ends into Sunset a few blocks east of Vermont. With the ghosts of the walking wounded still fresh in the rearview mirror, I feel fortunate to have embraced a high-risk lifestyle with abandon and escaped without a single terminal physical illness. I disembark curbside in front of the low-rent storefront apartment where I pieced myself back together just west of Silver Lake Boulevard. As I watch Taz’s Volvo disappear into the traffic on Sunset, I accept that the dark cloud of my past will never completely dissipate, but I have no regrets, and I wouldn’t change a second of it. Instead, I’m grateful for every smog-laden breath I share with 4,000,000 others under the Los Angeles chemical skies, ready for whatever comes next.