By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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By Kyle Swenson
For 15 years, David Silverburg couldn't shake loose his secret identity. Eventually, it just took over.
"I was so fuckin' normal," he says after stubbing out a cigarette in a crowded ashtray, clearly relieved not to be hawking home insurance, as he did for nearly two decades. With a business degree from an upstate New York community college and a calm, dedicated demeanor, Silverburg did well enough to buy a nice Boca Raton townhouse where he, his wife, and their three sons could live in comfort. But somehow, it wasn't enough. Through a friend, he got connected to Xcitement magazine, the glossy sex mag that pops up once a month in neat stacks in the foyers of South Florida's numerous adult video stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs. He started selling ads for them and, like a good ad salesman, spending more and more time at his clients' establishments. Soon, he found himself getting more personally involved, becoming photographer for the near-nude young women who appeared in the ads he negotiated. From there, it was a small lateral hop into the big-money business of pimping.
Now, his profession is a source of pride for him, because it allows him unfettered access to one of his obsessions and brings him a nice living. He's living his dream.
"I got hooked," says Silverburg (not his real name), eyes unblinking through his wire-rims, with an expression betraying neither shame, surprise, nor anything more than a simple statement of fact. "I never in a million years thought I'd be doing this." His graying hair is neatly waved, his watch nice but not too nice (a couple of steps below a Rolex). In acid-washed jeans and a polo shirt, he could be your dentist or your dad's golf buddy. Stepping tentatively into the rapids of the world's oldest profession, Silverburg became manager at three Palm Beach County massage parlors, or, as they're widely known, "whack shacks."
The small storefronts contain two or three small rooms equipped with love seats and beds, where women (prohibited by law from advertising massages, since most aren't licensed) instead promise "hot tub sessions" or "one-on-one modeling." Men coming in sign "agreements" pledging no sexual activity, then go in the back. "And whatever transpires there is their business," Silverburg shrugs.
With his eye for maximizing profits, though, the trim, tailored 60-year-old at last jumped full-bore into South Florida's lucrative escort business. Silverburg started encouraging the women working at the parlor to subcontract their services to men after hours, and he provided them with what he calls "nonstop clientele." It turned out to be a perfect symbiosis. "Plenty of girls do their own thing," he notes, "but they feel more comfortable having -- well, I call myself an entertainment manager rather than a pimp. To be a pimp is to be someone who takes all the money from the girls, demeaning her, beating her, threatening and cheating her -- I've never been that way. I just want to make them money, get a piece of the action, and be more of a manager. I'm not a pimp. I'm a nice Jewish guy from Brooklyn."
Euphemisms aside, Silverburg quickly grew fond of the steady income the whack shacks delivered, especially as his operation grew to include a half-dozen scattered throughout the county's industrial and commercial corridors. But to play the game correctly, he actually scaled back his appearance to deflect attention. As an insurance salesman, he owned a Mitsubishi 3000 and a Corvette. Nowadays, he tools around in a 1998 Voyager; "no pimpmobile," he concedes. Since he is essentially a small-time player, he considers the downgrade a smart move. In his line of business, conspicuous consumption does not pay, he explains. "You're just looking for trouble."
Silverburg's unlikely mutation isn't out of place in an industry that now depends on customers more familiar with high-speed servers and Flash animation than full-length furs and leather-interiored Cadillacs. Bit by bit, South Florida's prostitution underworld has edged away from the shadows of the side streets off Young Circle into a cyberspace sanctuary, an on-line community offering new levels of privacy and anonymity. No wonder business degrees, web-building skills, and the ability to blend in are critical to the success of today's escort agency owner.
In a sense, the rise of the Internet's role in the national $8-billion-a-year sex trade has freed many women from the oppressive system of old. It acts as an insulating blanket protecting them from the dangers of the street while allowing them smart new methods to screen potential clients for safety. It has liberated whores from their pimps, who, more often than not, have morphed into dot-com entrepreneurs. It's the same old game, rejiggered for the laptop age.
Silverburg knocks back another small glass of Tia Maria in the dark corner behind a velvet rope in the Boynton Beach strip club where he's co-manager. Never, he says, has he made less than $100,000 a year as an "entertainment manager."
In 1999, Silverburg picked out "the four hottest women" he had working at his whack shacks. "Only the good-looking girls," he explains. "I couldn't send anybody who wasn't good-looking. No dogs." He began setting them up on dates, or, as he calls them, "deals." Most of the women were older, slightly down on their luck, and unwilling to go it alone in the market, which requires a certain amount of business smarts. "They have to be responsible," he says, "and as a rule, they're not."