"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.