Street Life

The first time I meet Stephanie, the only part of her I see is her hand. Its knobby digits poke through the slats of the cheap blinds that cover the window of her room at the Travel Budget Inn Motel on Federal Highway in Hollywood. The hand appears for a minute, along with a shadow that I believe is Stephanie. Room 242 is, after all, registered under her name, and hers is the only voice I've heard whenever I've called. Our conversations usually go something like this:

"Hey Stephanie, how's it going?"


"I was thinking we could meet today and grab a bite to eat."

"I can't talk now. I've got company. I'll call you later."

Company translates to a john. I'll call you later means leave me alone unless you have some money. Stephanie is a prostitute, a working girl, a hooker. She's been arrested at least 15 times in Hollywood during the last three years; I've had the same conversation with her for the last two weeks. She never calls me back. I don't blame her. If I had her rap sheet, I too would be wary of strangers toting notebooks and asking questions. She won't open the door for anyone, except maybe a customer. Or her dealer.

But I've decided to storm the gates anyway, show up without calling, pound on her dingy green door until she answers.

When I arrive, tenants dawdle around the center courtyard: Two men take long pulls out of brown paper bags, another slouches his scrawny frame diagonally across an open doorway, and a woman and two other Budget dwellers gather and whisper by the side of the barrel tile­roofed building. On this cold morning, a Hollywood Police patrol officer conducts a one-man sweep in the motel's parking lot.

Let me explain about the Budget. With its perpetual clutter of industrial-gray pigeons, its barren courtyard, and its scraggly grass, it's hardly the kind of motel that attracts well-heeled tourists looking for relief from the snow and from their jobs. Instead the place houses transients, dealers, prostitutes, and the occasional seasonal blue-collar worker. It offers those with little money a place to sleep and shower. Like a lot of other motels on this strip of Federal Highway, it is the last stop between a roof over your head and sleeping on the streets.

Basically it's a shithole.

By the time the ruddy-faced woman stumbles from the side of the building, I've knocked for a while on Stephanie's door, seen the hand and its inevitable retreat. The youngish, clean-shaven cop stops the woman and asks her what she's doing.

"I was just going to my room," she answers, pissed off about getting snagged. Her T-shirt is stained with mud, and her short blond hair is matted against the right side of her head. She reeks of booze.

"I saw you buying over there," he responds. The woman begins a long and garbled explanation about owing somebody money, getting her cigarettes, not doing anything wrong, but the cop's not having any of it. He interrupts her and holds up a hand. "Listen, don't give me that. Just get out of here. Just get out of here right now."

The woman huffs a bit, then scurries off. The officer turns his attention to me and asks me why I'm here. I tell him that I'm a reporter, about the story I'm writing, about my efforts to meet Stephanie, but now she's not answering the door. He laughs.

"She's one of the hottest ones around here," he offers. For a minute I think he's referring to her appearance, but he explains that she's one of the busiest girls on Federal. "She's been arrested by everyone. I've arrested her three or four times myself." By this time the courtyard is deserted except for the front-desk clerk, who stands inside the closet-size lobby with his face pressed up against the window. The cop walks back to his patrol car.

"Nobody's going to talk to you if they see you out here with me," he says. When I complain about my struggle to pin Stephanie down, he shrugs his shoulders. "Give her a couple of bucks," he suggests. "These girls'll do anything for a little money."

After he's gone, I knock again. I press my ear up against the door to see if I can hear her inside. I call her room on my cell phone. No response. Nothing.

Like I said, I can't blame her.

In early Rome prostitutes were required to garb themselves in such a way that they could be easily identified. They could also be spotted by their shoes: sequere me (follow me) was written on their heels.  

While Hollywood hookers don't pen fetching blurbs on their shoes, working girls are nonetheless easy to spot. Typically they don't carry purses, wallets, or even keys. They tend to pace along a half-block strip with no particular purpose. At night they loiter on bus benches long after the lines have stopped running. Their hair is ratty; their clothes are unkempt. They all share the same stance: eyes glazed with boredom, but body tuned to the next possible score.

The girl I'm watching now on the corner of Fillmore Street and Federal has none of these characteristics. At 7 in the evening, she struts around with a small wallet and keys in her hand. Her jeans shorts look deliberately frayed, and her curly black hair is styled in a loose ponytail. She's wearing a wristwatch, and her toenails are painted. To anyone who knows what to look for, she's obviously a cop.

In the span of five minutes, a cab, a black El Camino, and a Lincoln Town Car pull up to the curb to check out the undercover officer. She chats with each driver from her post on the curb. All three pull away, but the cab circles back and calls something out to her. She signals to him to go around the block once more. Then she walks over to me and asks me how I'm doing, if I'm waiting for someone. I tell her I'm meeting a friend. Who I'm really meeting is Lt. Richy Allen of Hollywood P.D.'s Crime Suppression Unit. Allen has invited me along to observe tonight's reverse sting, in which she is the bait.

But I don't tell her that. Allen is running late, and I want to watch her do her job. We comment on the cold snap, and she drifts back to the corner. While I'm waiting, a woman exits a corner bar and asks me if I want a real story.

"My brother was hooked on crack. What he went through..." she shakes her head and touches my arm in earnest. "He had me working the streets for money. His own sister, a prostitute," she tells me. When I ask her for her name and number, she takes a step away from me, laughs as if embarrassed. All she'll give me is her first name. Veronika. "With a K," she adds, and disappears back into the bar.

Allen, age 40, arrives dressed in plain clothes and praising the meat loaf dinner he just had at the Entrada Motel. After we exchange hellos, we talk about Hollywood's stab at cleaning up Federal Highway. The city's police department began its prostitution stings about a year and a half ago, and the department conducts them once, sometimes twice a month. "If we did it every night, we'd be fried," says Allen. We stand beside a spire-tipped fence and watch as the undercover officer attracts car after car.

Hollywood police report arrests for prostitution dropped from 798 in 1999 to 315 in 2000. Allen credits the drop in arrests to the heavy enforcement of stings in 1999. "There's less prostitutes, less johns. It's not that we don't still have it, we certainly do, but it's declined since 1999," Allen explains. Last year 83 percent of those arrested were white, 16 percent were black. Only 30 percent of those busted were women. The remaining 70 were men, all of whom were looking for some action.

In years past, Hollywood police concentrated more on arresting hookers, with cops posing as johns soliciting sex. "We said, "Wait a second. This is a two-party crime. The guys are just as much at fault,'" Allen recalls. In 1999 his unit shifted its emphasis to reverse stings. "These girls are drug addicts, but these guys, they should know better," Allen declares. Those men who don't wind up with an arrest record, hundreds of dollars in fines, and an impounded vehicle.

Florida statutes allow police to seize cars used to solicit prostitutes or drugs. Car owners can retrieve their vehicles from the police after paying a $500 fine and towing and court costs. Tampa, St. Petersburg, and West Palm Beach have ordinances similar to Hollywood's.

"What we do is very labor intensive for us," Allen relates. "Pulling officers off the road, administrative costs. We use these fees to offset those costs."

We cross the street and climb into Allen's SUV, the back of which brims with more than $3000 worth of surveillance equipment purchased with proceeds from drug sales, money the police have confiscated from law breakers. Female officers are wired with body microphones, and a special radio allows Allen to listen to each conversation with a prospective john. Everything is audio- and videotaped from an undercover vehicle parked nearby.  

Despite the state-of-the-art technology, the sting can be difficult. Allen fiddles with the frequency on his radio. We're parked across the street from his undercover officer, but her voice is garbled and the reception is full of static.

"It's not like Mission: Impossible where they have bugs that work great," says Allen. "You'll be 30 feet away, and all you hear is cccccrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkkk." He flips another switch and the conversation comes in more clearly. "That's better."

The cabby is back, and while Allen and I have missed his proposition, the rest of the patrol hasn't. Once they get the signal from their undercover officer -- a predetermined word or sentence -- nearly a dozen cops materialize in about two seconds. Allen tells me they've been close by all along, but to me, they appear like urban magic. The cops aren't there. And then they are.

"Pleeaaaaseee, sir. Pleeeeeaaaassse," the cab driver pleads as he's searched for firearms or drugs by a plainclothes man. "I'm just joking," he wails. "I was joking." The cops go about their business unfazed. Everyone arrested gets hauled over for processing to the makeshift command post at Hollywood's Police Benevolent Association Hall. Allen says the booking process is tedious, with at least half a dozen forms to fill out, not including affidavits or searches for outstanding warrants. Usually a sting begins in the late afternoon and rolls on until about 11:30 p.m., with an average of 20 or so arrested. At 8:15 this evening, the count is up to 11.

After the cabby is out of earshot, Allen laughs. "I love getting these guys. I know the owner of the company." He flavors his voice with an unidentifiable accent in imitation of the cabby's boss. ""Goddammit! I tell these guys not to talk to the girls.'" By the time we cross the street and return to his car, everyone is gone again -- except the lone girl standing on the corner.

From Allen's vehicle we hear a man nickel-and-dime the female officer for a blowjob. "Just so you know, straight up: I don't do anal sex," she warns; she asks the john if he'll use a condom, and he agrees. We hear a different man ask her if she's selling. Another asks her if she's a cop. "Are you a cop?" she retorts. "'Cause the cops are out tonight; I just saw a bunch of them."

Here's a myth-breaker: Law enforcement officers are not bound to reveal their identities. "Of course not," Allen guffaws. "How could we get anything done?"

A young black guy sporting dreadlocks is busted. He sits cross-legged on the street and watches as one officer searches his knapsack while another loads his yellow mountain bike into the trunk of a squad car. Contents of the knapsack: An almost-empty bottle of Absolut, deodorant, cigarettes, a small plastic sandwich bag of weed, and a green Plexiglas bong.

Another john stands beside his blue Chevy truck with his hands up in the air. He's wearing Bermuda shorts and a gingham shirt. He's well-spoken, but his eyes are wide. "I'm terrified," he tells Allen, who informs him of the vehicle-impoundment ordinance and the two-hour booking process that awaits him. "Whatever," says the guy. "I just want to get through this as fast as possible, get my car, and be on my way."

The squad decides to take a break and grab some dinner. Allen offers to drive me up and down Federal Highway, between Pembroke Road and Sheridan Street, pointing out the road's more troubled areas. There is no brothel per se in Hollywood, but there are several motels along Federal Highway that police have branded as vice havens. The Royal Inn is known for its ongoing criminal activity; the Venezia, the Blue Sands Motel, and the Travel Budget Inn have all been raided during the last three years. Some, like the Blue Sands, were shut down under racketeering-influenced corrupt organizations (RICO) statutes after incurring multiple felony charges. Since its purchase by new owners, the Blue Sands is now a legit motel and is no longer targeted by Hollywood police.

During our tour Allen tells me that most of Hollywood's prostitutes live in the highway's motels, with about three quarters of them conducting business from their home base and a smaller percentage working in johns' cars. We also comment on the huge yellow moon hovering over the rooftops and Allen's career change 20 years ago from special education teacher to police officer. I plead with him to help me track down Stephanie.

"There she is, right there!" he says, as if on cue.

She's walking north on Federal, just shy of Lee Street. And she's moving fast. Allen flashes his high beams at her, then points toward the side street. When we pull up, she looks nervous, but she's smiling. She's a little thing, about five-foot-four and maybe 100 pounds. She's wearing jeans shorts, a white T-shirt, and slouch socks with sneakers. Her clothes are clean. From behind she looks like a teenager.  

But when she approaches Allen's window, she looks older than her 37 years. Her skin is stretched tight over her face, her cheeks hollow. Allen told me earlier she is a crackhead, adding that 90 percent of the girls working in the city have drug addictions. The Hollywood P.D.'s Website offers a collage of pictures chronicling one prostitute over ten years' worth of mug shots. Picture number one depicts a hard-faced blond woman. Picture number ten shows a skeletal, sexless visage: hair thinned, lips sunken, eyes unfocused. It's as if the drugs and the life have bled her dry.

Stephanie resembles that prostitute in her seventh year. She isn't yet completely cadaverous, but she's well on her way.

Allen introduces us, and I assure her that I'm not interested in getting her into any trouble. I just want to hear her story. She agrees to meet me tomorrow for lunch. Then she complains to Allen about getting thrown out of the Budget.

"Shit," he says. "Where are you going to go? The Antique?"

"I don't know. Probably. I was just walking over there."

We say our good-byes, and as she walks away, Allen pokes his head out the driver's window. "Hey, Stephanie! Stay off the rock, willya?" She keeps walking, as if she hasn't heard him.

Rene Reese has worked at the Gratitude House in West Palm Beach for three years. The nonprofit rehabilitative and support center first opened in 1968 and offers chemically dependent women a fresh start. I find Reese covering for the receptionist behind the front desk, an almost finished bowl of vegetable soup in front of her. Although she is the office manager now, she first visited Gratitude House more than 12 years ago as a client.

"My life before coming here..." she pauses for a moment. We've made our way to the front patio. The Gratitude House is just off Dixie Highway, in a neighborhood thick with rough bars and garages, but at the end of North Lakeside Court, it's quiet. Besides our voices, all we can hear are a train rumbling in the distance and the occasional tinkle of wind chimes. With her long, curly black hair and her gold hoop earrings, Reese resembles a gypsy. Her black beaded shirt and long skirt add to the effect. So do her memories of a wayward life.

Reese lights up a cigarette. While we speak she smokes one after another. "My dad was very physically abusive. Not just spanking you, but putting your head through a wall." She takes a long drag. "I was raped by my uncle when I was six. By the time most kids started school, I was already a mess."

She began abusing drugs and alcohol when she was 11, when she and her friends pitched in and bought a couple of bottles of Boone's Farm wine. Reese drank at least one of the bottles all by herself, and even though she threw up most of the night, she also got a taste of what she thought it felt like to be normal. "I felt great. I wasn't afraid. It took away my feelings; I didn't have a dad beating me up, there was no molestation. It made me feel very safe."

Shortly thereafter her family moved from Michigan to West Palm Beach, and her parents began smoking pot. The beatings ceased, and Reese got the impression that drugs might be the answer to her problems. She graduated from grass to shooting cocaine in high school.

"I did as much as I could, whenever I could. I did whatever was necessary to get it and to keep it," she remembers. She eventually wound up cruising local bars, looking for someone to give her money and a fix. In return she offered sex.

"As far as standing on Dixie, I never did that. But if you had money and you had drugs..." She trails off and contemplates the comparison between hooking on the street and what she did. "It's the same thing," she declares. "It's the same kind of trade. It's just a different location." She was 14 when she made her first such trade-off; the barter lasted for 16 years.

She married twice along the way. Her first husband beat her, and her second gave her someone with whom to share crack. She gave up her first child (from her first marriage) for adoption. The second she saw as a sign from God. "My son pushed me to quit. I thought, "God's giving me a second chance and I'm screwing up,'" she remembers.  

At age 30 she finally got clean, with the help of the Gratitude House and a local recovery program. Today, in addition to her full-time job, she volunteers for Toys for Tots, participates in an AIDS walk every year, and sponsors women in 12-step recovery. She also lectures for the Prostitution Impact Prevention Education Program (PIPE), a class sponsored by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. The class is offered as an option to johns who are repeat offenders. The alternative? Sixty days in jail.

"I tell them that females are more than sex objects. I tell them that it's OK to ask for what they want at home. I explain to them what it's like to walk up to a car, scared, jonesing for a hit, and wondering "How can I set him up? How can I rob him?'" says Reese. "The reality is that you end up sticking your face on some sweaty unclean guy.

"It's a horrendous life to stay out there. It really is. But you can change. Help is always around the corner. If you want it, it's there."

According to Lt. Richy Allen and his superior, Maj. Kyle Berwick, Hollywood prostitutes don't want any help. In an attempt to set up a countywide facility similar to Gratitude House, Berwick last year took an informal survey of 30-plus local hookers, asking them if they would welcome such a program. He was surprised by the response. "The girls weren't all that interested," he says. "They have no pimps, and they weren't getting beat up. They're more like independent contractors."

"We're going to propose it anyway. Sometimes you have to force these girls to see what it is they're doing," adds Allen.

Stephanie has blown me off once more. I've called the Antique, the Royal Inn, and the Hill Motel, but she isn't registered at any of them. I've driven up and down Federal Highway for the last half hour, and now I've decided to park and search for her on foot. If she's on a side street, she'd be hard to spot from a moving car. I walk past the neon glare of cheap motels and gas stations, past unlit strip malls, past a dust devil of napkins and newspaper that twirls at the foot of an empty parking lot. At midnight on Sunday, the stretch of Federal between Young Circle and Sheridan Street has all the bustle of a ghost town.

Psssssssssssssssssssssss. Somebody hisses. I turn around and see a man standing beneath a streetlight about eight yards away, beckoning me over with his hand. I shake my head. He holds out what looks like a quart of malt liquor.

"Come here for a second. Commmeeeeere," he drawls. "I wanna ask you something." I stop walking and stare at him. He smiles at me. "Whatcha looking for?" he asks and takes a step toward me. He's short, with beefy arms, bad teeth, and a faded red baseball cap pushed back from his brow. Besides us, there's no one on the street. No one. I think this might be a good time to head back to my car. His psssssssssss follows me down the block.

Before Jennifer found her way to the Broward Outreach Center (BOC), she did a lot of walking. "Sometimes I walked for five or six hours straight," says the 24-year-old. "My feet were bloody, swollen." Jennifer is a pseudonym; her real name came to her with some onerous baggage. "When I was 17, my mother told me she named me after a prostitute in a soap opera. I just wanted to go through the experience. Find out what men really wanted. I felt like I was doing my job, living up to my name," she explains.

She sits at the Center's conference-room table wearing a nylon and faux-fur jacket. A plastic ring shaped like a fly adorns the index finger of her left hand; because she moves her hands when she speaks, the insect always appears to be in whirling flight. Sort of like Jennifer. A fuzzy brown halo of hair frames her young face. She says she's going to grow it long and have bigger hair than Chaka Khan. Often, when she's making a point, her dark eyes bulge.

Jennifer's father physically and verbally abused her on a regular basis. "Belt buckles, full beer cans, a lamp, anything he could get his hands on. As long as he hurt us, he felt like he was acting like a father," she recalls. She's not cringing at the memory. Her stance is tough and matter-of-fact as she recounts living with an alcoholic parent. "I would never let him touch my face," she says, jutting her chin out. "That was my issue."  

BOC case manager Don Sinclair says that childhood abuse is common among the residents at the center. "They have a history of abusive relationships. If you have a history of abuse and you're out prostituting, you're just living the life you know," Sinclair says.

But Jennifer didn't jump from her house to the streets. At age 19 she eased her way into the life by first working Miami strip clubs. She says she didn't take drugs or even drink while she was dancing, a lifelong love that began when her Michael Jackson­ impersonating uncle taught her some moves. "I avoided the champagne room. That area, huh," she grunts, "that was prostitution," she says. But eventually she relented, scoring $400 bucks from a patron at a strip club. "He ends up being my boyfriend -- the kind that had to give me money anytime we had sex."

The pair eventually split; Jennifer moved to Pembroke Pines, where she tried escorting. "'Cause that was the legal way," she explains. "It's supposed to be a date, but it escalates. I was taking home $500 a day, but I didn't like dealing with the guys. They was always "buttered up,'" she says, referring to her customers' predilection for cocaine. "To take care of somebody like that, it takes you an hour." She laughs and throws back her head. "No time for small talk."

While the money was great, Jennifer abhorred the lack of control she had over whom she'd date and when. She says she got fed up and walked out on a john one day. Instead of returning to the motel where she then lived -- the California Dream Inn -- she hit the streets. "I just left. Kept on walking. Left all my stuff, shoes, jewelry, clothes. Everything.

"Men start picking me up. Every day I have a place to sleep. Men that are lonely, men that have money. I'd walk at night, on Federal Highway, A1A. I wasn't presenting myself as a prostitute. I gave them attitude," she boasts.

Yet she also claims that "having sex in a champagne room is different from the street, let me tell you." She also admits to "having done 12 guys" while trying to score some grass.

Jennifer contradicts herself. She has difficulty remembering dates. One minute she derides the escort services for their misleading employment ads. The next she talks about returning to the work after she leaves the center. Sinclair says the confusion is common. "When you have people who have been using and living on the streets for some time, it's difficult for them to sort things out," he explains.

A few weeks before she was referred to the center, Jennifer said she heard a voice while sitting on the park bench on which she'd slept the night before. "I hear, "Come on.' Then I hear, "Lucky.' I ask the guy I'm with, but he don't hear anything." Her eyes grow wide with the memory. "I don't know what that was about."

The first few nights she slept at the center, she woke up every hour. She didn't recognize where she was. She attends the required life-skills classes but doesn't find them particularly useful. "One big thing here is," she deepens her voice mockingly, ""You are powerless over your addiction.' I have toooo much power. I didn't fiend over it." When asked if she'll stay a while longer at the center, she cracks up and slaps her hands together. "That's the funniest thing I ever heard in my life," she claims. Sinclair says that more than half of the prostitution-involved residents at BOC relapse upon release.

But Jennifer also admits that the paranoia that plagued her while living on the streets is nonexistent at the center. "Before I got here, I had dreams where God was giving me signals that protection would come in yellow or green. That's the colors of this building."

In my last attempt to meet Stephanie, I find the door to her room propped against its frame, as if someone has kicked it in. I knock, and when there's no answer, I lift it up and peek inside. I see a dresser, clothes littered about, and in the corner, spinning from the ceiling, stained-glass wind chimes shaped like tiny yellow doves.

"They threw me out last night," Stephanie tells me over my shoulder. I shove the door back in place and turn around to see her. Her bangs are blow-dried straight over her creased forehead; her eyes are glassy and dart back and forth while she speaks. She tells me the door fell off its hinges and, on top of everything else, management won't fix it.  

I offer her a ride, and she declines. "I gotta work. Make money to pay for a new room."

"How much do you need?" I ask her.

"Fifty bucks," she says and finally looks straight at me. Behind us a family in a beat-up minivan pulls up. She leads me away so they won't hear our discussion.

"Can you make that this afternoon?" I ask her.

Stephanie nods. "Oh yeah. I'll go make that right now." She turns and waves at the family, then skips toward a dust-caked laborer making his way back to his own room. It's the last time I see her, and I wonder who she is apart from her arrest record and her drug habit. I wonder about the two kids Lieutenant Allen thinks she has back in Dallas, about whether she tricks to support her habit or to forget about her life. Who wouldn't need to smudge her brain to get through a few hours of that?

Too late I realize that I should have offered her money for her time. Twenty bucks from me might have taken her off the street for an hour. It might have brought her closer to a new place to live. It might have bought her another rock. Yet with all of her struggles, it's the chimes that get to me. Even in the midst of squalor, she cares about herself just enough to want something bright to look at.

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