This floor was entirely asleep; others were roaming, and the last of us wouldn’t be back from work until nearly dawn; the Pimp (hereinafter referred to as [Name Withheld]) was snoring to the south, and the dear three-hundred-pound, peach-complected Commander (navy, retired), who owned the whore house, was snuggled with his boyfriend to the north. To be fair, we did not call it a whore house, even though escorts lived and worked here. It was simply the House. It was like Disney’s Haunted Mansion: thick drapes, creaking halls, many, many stairs, plus “discretion,” exaggerated in a Dickensian way to mean something more like “occult secrecy.”
I had been there a week. Apparently, [Name Withheld] wished to retire and the House needed a madam. I dubbed myself Madam Mike, but the name didn’t stick. All the escorts had fake names. Escort Rich would not call me Madam Mike. He would not go on the museum outing I’d arranged, either. “It’s bad for the business,” he said. “One of them will be the queen; the others will wanna be princesses.” I lived on the third floor. It was implied that I’d get a salary as well as a small commission on every completed call; that is, if I could get the client to agree on the price and the escort, facilitate the meet up (either at the House or at the client’s hotel), and collect the House’s share (generally 50 percent) from the client, then I’d have succeeded. I found the salary part hard to believe, especially because the number was either $1,000 or $1,500 a month, but I wasn’t in it for the money.
The details of my job ranged from the eye-rollingly menial (changing sheets in the downstairs rooms between calls) to the much more interesting (answering the phone and matching the client with the escort). Most clients were direct and boring. Maybe a little shy, seldom rich, they were sometimes middle class, sometimes below. One client wanted a rebate — complained that the escort just wasn’t very good at it and said that he’d had to make a choice that month between making a car payment and using our service. (He didn’t get the rebate, but afterward [Name Withheld] yelled at the escort for not being dominant enough in the bedroom and letting the client down.) If the client was shy, it was usually because his fetish involved either feet or water sports.
I wasn’t particularly good at working the phones. I sent an African-American transsexual, Regina, over to see an African-American client. Bad move. Regina called me in a huff. “I’m sure [Name Withheld] told you that I prefer not to see African-American men.”
“I understand, and will respect that, of course. Would you mind telling me why?”
“That is my preference, and that is how I choose to work.” Her tone was insistent. I’d encountered this kind of attitude before, when I was the personal assistant to an actress in New York. Reality isn’t good enough. Why didn’t I fix it before she stepped on it? I get it. And I agree.
In-calls were less frequent; that was more for the regulars, the old guard, or people referred by the old guard. People who were likely to sit on the porch for an hour or so afterward and chat with everyone. But the real money came in changing a one-hour visit to an overnight visit. Some boys were better at this than others. One, named Jeremy, was pure magic: He would always try to meet the client at a restaurant first and memorize the locations of ATMs on the way. Over dinner, he’d find a way to express to the client how much he would rather stay all night than just an hour. Because the connection was strong, unusually strong. He would love to stay overnight . . . but [Name Withheld] had firm rules about that. If the client could give him $1,500 instead of just $250 . . . then [Name Withheld] would let him stay. While the client hemmed and hawed, Jeremy would tell him where all the nearby ATMs were. A few years after the time I am describing, during Passover, Jeremy would lose his shit and draw a big X on all the doors in the House and have to be hospitalized.
Fifteen hundred dollars was a baseline for us, for overnights. Some people went higher. Janet charged $3,500 for an overnight.
It was my first time in our nation’s capital.
I asked the Commander, “Could I do it? You know, it?” He sighed. He asked me to stand up, take my shirt off, turn around a couple times. “To be honest, I wouldn’t wanna send you out there before you spent a couple weeks in the gym. Now, that’s not to offend you or to say that on the civilian level you’re unattractive. But this business is all about repeat clients.”
As I put my shirt back on, it was explained to me that there used to be more women, “born women,” in this escort service. A lot of clients will want one, I was told, and we’ll run out early. Try to “up-sell” them. I assumed this meant to a transsexual, but the Commander said you can send a boy to a client who wants a girl.
He shrugged. “Once in a while. I usually just tell ’em, ‘Hey, a blow job’s a blow job.’ ”
“Does that work?”
“It has worked.”
It was not a well-run business. In fact, only seven women remained on the books — five of whom were trans — and sixty-eight men, though it used to be almost even. How I got the job is complicated and not interesting. A creepy guy asked me whether I’d like to make $250 an hour. I said, “Wha . . . ?” Then he asked me what percent of the male population my age could do that, make that kind of money, did I think. Two percent, he said. Shouldn’t I take advantage of that? When I heard this escort service worked out of an actual house, I was intrigued, and like many things that begin with intrigue, it ended in an administrative job. I stayed because I was incredibly curious and thought at least I could work on my novel, a Western set in “the American subconscious,” a Jungian wonderland of heterodoxies. Mary Todd Lincoln was the villain; she was an evil sorceress. I don’t know how long I was there, but it’s safe to say a month. Probably longer. I usually remember it as “a summer,” but that doesn’t seem right.
In the evening of the first day, an escort named Jeffrey was fired. “You ripped out my soul,” he’d screamed before leaving. Then I went to the roof with the Commander and his boyfriend. We drank champagne and looked out over the neighborhood of — — and could clearly see the Capitol dome. It remains the only moment in my life of perfect, transcendent happiness. They asked me about my novel, but I was already very drunk and had taken some of my pills. I babbled a bit about cowboys, time travel, wizards, magic realism, who knows what else.
The next morning, a new escort arrived from New York. He wore Gucci sunglasses and was all attitude. From Venezuela. “Now,” said [Name Withheld], “in a minute, Michael will show you around and give you the rundown of how this works. Your first call is one of our easiest clients, Dan. He’ll probably just want you to strip down to your underwear and do jumping jacks.”
Leon nodded and kept nodding, a figure of attentive competence, as if he were starting a high-level position at a fashion magazine.
“We’re putting you on the roster as ‘European’ instead of ‘Hispanic.’ ”
At this, Leon stopped nodding, not because he was offended, but because he was confused. “Am I from Spain?”
“We just say European.”
Leon resumed nodding, with marginally less confidence.
I showed him to his room. We fell immediately into gossip. He asked me if I was going to do some escorting myself, and I said no. He became shy, withdrawn, and asked me if it was because I didn’t want to get involved in that kind of thing. I laughed and said I’d do it if I thought I’d be good at it. He warmed to me again, said we should go grocery shopping; he’d show me how to be confident, if I decided to hook.
In the store, he turned to me. “Enemas,” he said. “You have to use enemas. So many escorts, they don’t do nothing. It’s disgusting! However they are, however they look, they just go to work. Nothing.” He shook his head. “Also,” he said, “you must not brush your teeth before a call. You must use peroxide.” He held up the bottle to show me. “Because if you brush your teeth, you possibly will bleed, in your gums. And you could get sick if you kiss the clients. You cannot have blood in your mouth.”
Leon’s disdain for the other escorts softened over the two nonconsecutive weeks he worked at the House. One evening, an escort named Ahmed and I were talking while Leon prepared for an outcall at a hotel. He invited us to continue our conversation while he took a shower. Ahmed, who was nineteen, asked Leon, “Do you wax your ass?” Leon nodded and got into the shower, closing the curtain. Ahmed asked further, “Is that not incredibly painful?”
Leon opened the shower curtain again. “It is painful. But I have to have clients call me again and again.”
Ahmed, with no prompting, removed his shirt. “I occasionally use Nair on my back,” he said.
“Your chest?” I asked.
“I trim,” he says.
“Is Janet coming back?” (Janet was the House’s most successful escort, a male-to-female postoperative transsexual.)
I laughed. “She did four calls today. I think she’s done.” (This was almost unheard of. Most escorts were exhausted after two.)
Leon rolled his eyes. “Janet is whore,” he said, and closed the shower curtain again.
We went to a museum. Maxx met us there. Typically, escorts don’t like to hang around each other, but it was good to see Maxx and Leon talking shop. Maxx’s motto is “Say it, they’ll pay it.” He told us how to fake an orgasm: pearl-colored shampoo slipped into the tip of your condom. You can take more calls per day that way.
There was one weeknight, I think it was about midway through my tenure there, when we were drinking on the porch. Well, I drank. It was me, a few boys, and the Commander’s eighty-year-old aunt, Opal. Janet was inside watching TV with a textbook open, studying. It was just like a big friendly house where a lot of friends lived and had guests over. On the porch, Leon was still trying to use oblique language in front of Aunt Opal, to speak in code. He gave it up. “This is surreal,” he said. “Everyone knows this is whore house. The workmen know. She know,” he nodded toward Opal, who was pretending to be deaf and rocking in her rocker. “She know everything.”
Yet no one seemed to want to shut us down. The closest we ever came to getting busted was when a dominatrix named Erin sat smoking on the porch, in full regalia, and ashed onto the neighbor’s lawn. He saw her do it and asked her not to. “Fuck you,” she said (she’s a dominatrix), and the authorities became involved. But they didn’t have much interest in getting too involved. The cops don’t want to bust prostitution, really. A vice cop once gave me a seminar, of sorts, on how not to get arrested for vice. If, say, your client is giving you some kind of problem, and you fear for your safety, and you really need the police, this is what you say: you met this guy, you liked him, you went home with him, he started the problem. The cop will know you’re lying, but he has more interest in arresting your assailant than in arresting you. Thus the vice squad is refigured as a sort of immune system, as the very force of differentiation between actual vice and, you know, the gold-hearted hooker and the charming scamp.
We had rules about what not to do:
1. Refer to the escorts as hookers, hustlers, or prostitutes.
2. Refer to transsexuals as “he.”
3. Drink to excess.
4. Encourage (or even allow, I guess) intimacy between resident escorts.
As I worked in the office, I would often hear odd, upsetting noises. “Must be Janet’s two o’clock,” I’d think. Then a deepthroated “I’m sorry, sir — auuughh!” and I would remind myself not to judge the whack jobs Janet had as clients. Ah, but does she not usually work downstairs? Perhaps that noise . . . wasn’t she . . .
And where did Rich go? Wasn’t he in the living room? Was I hearing [Name Withheld] claiming some kind of employee discount? How does one establish consent in this arena? I went to the living room and turned the pages of a magazine. I heard a thud. A series of slaps and no response.
Later, I made an oblique reference to the noises to [Name Withheld], and it was explained to me that Rich borrowed money and hadn’t paid it back yet. That’s where the S-M came in, said [Name Withheld].
“Is that — his thing, is he into that?” I asked, sipping coffee and staring at the floor and knowing that had Rich been into S-M, it would have been in his file.
[Name Withheld] shrugged. “It’s always more fun if they’re not into it.”
One day the phone rang; it was one of our most popular escorts, the street-looking, straight-acting Chris, calling to renegotiate his rate to $450 an hour, which is ridiculous.
“And you still don’t take it, you only give it?” I asked.
“This is my asshole: you can put your tongue in there, or your fingers in there, if you want to. That’s it.”
“And you still won’t kiss the client?”
“If you’re getting 450 an hour for freelancing, I encourage you to keep charging that while you’re still young enough, but what you’re asking [Name Withheld] to do is —”
“Mike — you haven’t had my mouth on you. I’m sayin’ —”
“Chris, listen —”
“Naw, Mike, you listen. I have guys tellin’ me all the time they can’t even believe how good they just got their dick sucked. Now, if you want me to get with a girl? Okay, 250 an hour, fine by me, but for guys? No offense.”
“How about this — we put you at 350 an hour, take our cut down to 100, no kissing, but —”
“But you gotta tell these people, prices may vary. Like, if you’re fat and you stink.”
“What if it’s just one or the other?” I asked, hoping to resolve this.
“What if they’re fat but they don’t stink, or they kinda stink, but, you know, they’re not fat?”
A long, exasperated pause. “If I’m tryin’ to suck dick and there’s a fat man’s stomach bouncin’ on my fuckin’ head, that fat guy better have some fuckin’ money on ’im is what I’m sayin’.”
“We’ll pay for the chiropractor, if that happens.”
Pause. Then, wearily, “Okay, buddy, bye.”
We hung up. (Well, “we” might be stretching it.)
I do honor what these boys are doing; I wish there were some way to protect them better. On a good night, they get taken to the theater and to dinner, and they’re well treated. It’s not always a good night.
We had a client who had once forced a kid to strip naked and threw him out into the snow. In another incident, he beat a handcuffed escort black and blue, and I don’t remember what his third strike was, but it was loathsome. That client was dangerous; we usually sent him R., our twenty-seven-year-old S-M top. R. wore military clothes and was very combative. Nobody gave R. any shit.
I dated a hooker once. He was a nice guy, had been in a porno. (Actually, he was an asshole.) I’ve known people who’ve done it; it’s not very demanding. And people who say it sucks your soul are as wrong as those who claim, on the other end of the spectrum, that doing, say, retail is basically prostituting yourself. Oh, but it’s not — not basically, not even in any way — metaphors just don’t stretch that far.
One night, at 2:00 a.m., I woke up to the sound of the Commander, banging on the door. He held out a cordless phone. “Deal with this,” he said, and practically dropped it into my hand.
He glared at me while I talked. The guy on the other end was almost as drunk as I was and more incoherent. He wanted someone who looked like Beyoncé. I tried to help him out, but he wasn’t interested in a transsexual. I knew there was nothing I could do for him. The Commander watched me attempt to negotiate this situation. But it didn’t take long before I just hung up.
I got some kind of a mini-lecture. I don’t remember the words. I wasn’t supposed to be asleep. People were still out and about. The Commander’s hands were in the air as he turned his back on me, indicating that my conduct was so ludicrously inappropriate that he couldn’t even address it, that indeed no normal person would. He made surprisingly little noise descending the stairs, I noted, watching his vast body ferry his swollen soul.
I discovered the next day that I was fired. For alcoholism.
I was fired from a brothel for alcoholism.
It wasn’t just that I’d gone to bed too early. Apparently, I dialed people at 2:00 in the afternoon to tell them how miserable I was, but I don’t remember this. I ranted about something, offended some people, and the next day [Name Withheld] called me into his office and asked me about it. “What got into you last night?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I told him so, nodding patiently and professionally as he described the events of the evening. I’d said some things about how whatever had befallen Jeffrey, who had been missing ever since he’d been kicked out that first night, was the Commander’s fault. How Jeffrey had been right about all of them. How, given that they knew so many restaurateurs (who, like pimps, demand long hours for very low pay), it seemed Jeffrey would have been better off as a waiter or something. I’d made remarks, too, about the decor. Apparently, the Commander and Jeffrey had been close; the Commander had been hurt that I thought they were bad people.
They were right to kick me out of there: they knew something about me I didn’t know myself. Whatever they said about me, to me, they were right. I don’t remember a word of it. The Commander offered me a ride to the train station, which I didn’t take. “We are good people,” he insisted, as I shook his hand for the last time.
I always hesitate and breathe deeply before I tell any of these stories. I don’t really know what they mean. Looking back, despite all my understandable enthusiasm, I never really made it deep enough in. I thought for some reason that I grasped what was happening and what it meant, but now I see I failed to penetrate the place. I was like every journalist in Washington that way.
Excerpted from "City By City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis" edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb. Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux and n+1. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Merriam. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and editors. All rights reserved.