Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.
—”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
screenplay by William Goldman
Thirty summers ago, I met some of the whores of Winnemucca, women I carry around with me to this day. Their faces crystallize, freeze frame-style, in my memory: Sophie with the bleached blond hair, but only at the roots, wearing fuschia nails of a color not found in nature. Karen, the “real” redhead, or so she claimed, though her two co-workers hooted at her description. Marla, the brunette, guaranteed that, in exchange for a cheeseburger, she would reveal her trade secret, which she promised would “make any man want you forever.”
“I’m gonna have it patented someday,” Marla told me, biting into a double deluxe with cheddar and onions, “if you can do that with sex.”
I was 22, green as grass, as my city editor kept telling me, and working for my first newspaper, which shall remain nameless. Matt hollered at me every morning at 7 as I walked into the newsroom.
“Haag!” he’d yell, his shaggy ’70s ’do falling in his eyes. “You better have a good story for me today. Those three yesterday sucked!”
Or, alternately, “Haag! I can’t believe we hired you! Who taught you anything about being a reporter?”
Once, he actually ripped up a story I’d just pulled from my typewriter (manual, no less), after pronouncing my lead “pure tripe.”
He had me, to say the least, shaking in my clichéd boots. Any kind of defensive response was out of the question. I had no defenses and was a good year away from anything resembling professional self-esteem.
Years later, after I’d left that paper, I learned that Matt was a raging alcoholic. He was also right about me. A non-swimmer in the newspaper world, I had jumped into the deep end of what appeared to me a big-time pool, despite my credentials as editor of my college paper and an intern at a wire service. In my heart, I was a feature writer (“feeee-tures!” Matt would exclaim, derision in every syllable), and I was pretty hopeless at scaring up anything close to “real” news. I wanted to write profiles, not investigative pieces or coverage of boring meetings and trials. I wanted to unearth the history of the region and show people why it mattered. I wanted to write about the raw, wild land that was my beat (pretty much all of the state of Nevada), and its problems with water and development and cattle and people. Most of the all, the people.
So I had decided, facing the end of my three-month probation, that I’d better do something to wow my boss. I’d read in the Reno paper that a brothel was due to close near Winnemucca, Nev., more than halfway across the state. Gee, I thought, what if I could interview some of the women who would be losing their jobs? Wouldn’t that be a good story?
I had visions of re-creating one of my favorite essays, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” by Larry L. King, later a good play and even later a bad movie. A native Texan, King had traveled back to his home state in the mid-’70s in search of a tasty Playboy magazine story, but he arrived in the tiny town of LaGrange to find the infamous Chicken Ranch shuttered and all the employees long gone. I hoped to actually meet some actual brothel workers/whores/ladies of the evening. What they were actually called these days I didn’t know.
So I suggested the concept to Matt, who snorted. “You know how far it is to Winnemucca?” he said.
“How far?” I asked.
“Halfway across Nevada,” he said. “Take you most of a day just to get there. I can’t spare you for that long.”
“What if I do it on a weekend?” I didn’t work weekends. I drove down the mountain to be with my boyfriend on weekends.
“Don’t expect any comp time,” he growled at me.
I took that for a yes.
I called the boyfriend, who lived 120 miles away in the old apartment we once shared. “I’m gonna go interview hookers in Winnemucca,” I said. “It’s a great story.”
He, also a journalism major and former managing editor of our college paper, agreed. “When will you go?”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I have to go on a weekend. Matt won’t give me time on a workday.”
“Shithead,” said the boyfriend with feeling.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “But if I can do this good story and impress him, maybe I’ll get through my probation.” Matt had made no secret of the fact that he was strongly considering letting me go when I came up for review.
“So I won’t be home this weekend,” I said. “Can you live without me?”
“Of course not,” he said loyally. “But go. It sounds like a good story.”
So on a hot August Saturday I took off for Winnemucca in my 1976 Honda Civic across the great (read: boiling) state of Nevada, carrying extra water, extra Wheat Thins, extra batteries for the tape recorder, extra pens and extra notebooks. Desert stretched for probably 250 miles ahead, plenty of time to daydream questions and imagine the people I would find as the odometer tripped past oceans of sand and islands of cactus. I had called ahead and spoken to the manager (“Not a madam,” she had corrected me) about doing a story.
“Yeah,” she said, quite friendly. I pictured a frowzy, bosomy redhead in a leopard print tank top on the line. “C’mon out. We’ve had lotsa TV people out here. All men, a’ course. Yeah, I can find some girls to talk to ya. Where ya from again?”
I told her. “Never heard of that paper,” she said. “Lotsa TV boys, though.”
As I drove, I sang my favorite song from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (I owned the Broadway album with its high-kickin’ cartoon girls on it), the “Aggie Song”. The chorus, enthusiastically sung by the Texas Aggie football players on their way to the best little whorehouse goes like this:
Twenty-nine miles until we get to heaven
Twenty-nine miles until our plans are made
Twenty-nine miles until we get to the Chicken Ranch
Where sissy guys and Aggie boys get laid!
The women of the Chicken Ranch are typically portrayed in the play by bouncy, big-breasted, equally enthusiastic young ladies, happy to see this band of fellas pull up in a big bus. Much singing and dancing commences, this being a musical. It made me smile to think about it. Then I came to.
Don’t expect singing and dancing, I said to myself sternly. These are real, uh… ladies of pleasure. It occurred to me that I had no idea what real prostitutes looked like, the only ones I’d seen flickering in the dark on oversized cinema screens.
I don’t remember how long the drive took; I just remember lots of miles of flat desert and intense heat that the Honda’s A.C. couldn’t quite beat. I hit more than one tumbling tumbleweed and they bounced across the road like jackrabbits, and I stopped for gas once and to potty at least twice, humming the song most of the way. Every so often, I’d think of another question to ask and jot it down with my right hand on the notebook on the passenger seat, driving the long, straight highway with my left hand.
I felt like a real journalist on a mission, one with a good story ahead. For the first time in my short professional career, I thought to myself, “I can do this. I can really do this.”
After all these years, I couldn’t tell you exactly where the brothel was. In my memory, it gradually came to light like a mirage shimmering in the desert heat. When I stopped the car, it looked like a run-down motel alongside the road, nothing special, no red light. One story, white wood sides, pink trim, small air conditioners in windows along the side. No “painted women” lounged in lingerie at windows or outside. I don’t remember a sign at all or, for that matter, its name.
It shattered my illusions from the first glance. The place didn’t look very sexy to me. I touched the worn metal knob on the shabby blue door and went in. A small motel lobby with a small counter and a water cooler in the corner greeted me. A woman behind the chipped Formica-topped counter stood as I walked in. “Can I help you?”
She was a brunette, 30ish, dressed casually in jeans and a white blouse with a vest that buttoned down the front. Sequined butterflies appeared to flit about on the vest. I introduced myself and asked for the manager.
“Oh, that’s me,” she said, and she smiled some more, as though I might be a paying customer. “You’re the reporter from Tahoe.”
She came out from behind the counter and sat on a tall stool and gestured for me to sit in the only chair in the room, a faded green faux-leather recliner. “What can I tell ya?” she asked.
My eyebrows shot halfway up my forehead. I expected a little more small talk first, not to just plunge in, but this was a woman who got down to business fast. I hurriedly got out my tape recorder and notebook, asked her if it was OK to record her. “Sure, honey,” she said, “but I don’t think I’m worth that much tape.”
I don’t remember the questions I asked, probably something about how long the brothel had operated (at least 50 years; some people said more), why it was closing (something vague about business not being very good). I learned that she was not the owner (“they live out of town,” she said), that she was not from the area, none of the girls were, that, yes, they’d all be out of work in a few weeks because the nearest brothel wasn’t hiring at the moment.
We must have chatted for a good twenty minutes when a woman’s voice called to the manager from a lime green curtain behind the counter. “ ’Scuse me,” the manager said. “I’ll be right back.”
While she was gone, I madly scribbled notes about the place—how quiet it was… were there any customers at the moment? Would I get to see a “john”? I took notes on the interior, though it was mostly unremarkable—no Playboy magazines on the counter, no fringed lampshades and red lights or anything. I realized that this was not where anything important took place, that the action must be behind the curtain. I had to get back there. I had to think of a way to talk her into letting me…
She stepped through the curtain and held it open. “Wanna see the rest of the place?” she asked.
I gathered my equipment and followed, ready for a dimly lit room, perhaps with the infamous red lights. But I walked into a hallway that led into a bright kitchen where three women sat, fully clothed, around a ’60s yellow Formica table supported by battered chrome legs. One of the women was smoking. The manager introduced us: “This is Sophie, Karen and Marla. Have a seat.”
I offered my hand to the women nearest me and, as a group, they nodded, silent. I withdrew the hand, pulled out my notebook and tape recorder, thinking they all look about my age. They watched me intently, but no one offered anything to start. Nervous, I opened with a dumb question: “So how do you feel about this place closing?”
I got pretty dumb answers, too. I tried asking about how each of them had gotten into the business, but no one said much. The manager had left me alone with three “working girls” with zipped lips, as my mother would say. I realized I had no idea what their proper job titles were. I recall that they said they didn’t have any other prospects for work, but they were looking. They said they had regular physicals and blood tests, required by the state. One said she liked the work; the other two said nothing. I took stabs at a good two dozen questions I’d come up with, but nothing I asked drew anything close to a revealing answer.
Ready to thank them for their time and leave, I closed my notebook and turned off the recorder. My eyes fell on Sophie smoking at the far end of the table, her fuschia nails tapping an erratic staccato on the Formica, her eyes narrowed as though squinting into the sun. Finally, she focused on me. I looked back into her eyes.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“22,” I said.
She nodded and tapped a bit more. “This your first job?”
“No,” I said. “Well, yeah—my first job after college.”
The three of them nodded. Sophie stopped tapping and puffed a bit more. “You like it?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. If I’d have been honest, I would’ve said no. But I’d wanted to be a journalist since I was 11. I did love the work; I just didn’t love the paper I was working for.
“It’s not all I thought it would be,” I said.
Sophie crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. “Honey, that’s the way every job is.”
For some reason, that broke the ice. The others nodded and began to tell me about their work. The fact that it brought them good money for not much effort. How they felt more like actresses performing roles men fantasized about. That what they really wanted was to be at home with their husbands or boyfriends or children. I had never thought hookers might have children. Stunned, I listened without taking down a word.
“What do I call you?” I asked. “Your profession, I mean?”
Marla looked me straight in the eyes. “Whores,” she said.
“That’s not disrespectful?” I asked.
“Not to me, it isn’t,” she said. “I hate ‘hooker’ or ‘streetwalker.’ I don’t walk the streets. I work in a brothel. Some people call us ‘working girls,’ but I don’t like that either. And I’m not a ‘call girl’ now, though I was for a while.”
She looked at me for another half minute. “You hungry?” she asked. She looked at the other two women. “You girls hungry?”
“Yeah,” they chorused, showing some enthusiasm for the first time since I’d walked in.
“You want to go to the diner down the street?” she asked me, standing up from the table.
“Sure,” I said, surprised and a bit flattered. I hadn’t thought they wanted to talk to me.
Marla called to the manager that we were leaving. I heard no response, but we walked back out through the office, through the parking lot and waited to cross the street, these three whores and me.
And that’s when I got the real story.
Karen asked, as we walked squinting at the sun in our eyes, four abreast down a gravel shoulder, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You live with him?” she asked.
“Not anymore,” I said, explaining that I’d had to move away to take my job. “Some weekends we see each other.”
“How long’ve you been apart?”
“About three months,” I said.
“Oh, honey,” Karen said, as Sophie shook her head back and forth in a “too bad” gesture, “he’s gone.”
“I see him on weekends,” I said.
“If he’s a young, red-blooded man, honey, he’s already found someone else,” Marla said flatly.
No, I thought to myself, she’s wrong. She doesn’t know my young, red-blooded man.
On that note, we walked into the diner, four young women probably all thinking about men, and took a booth at the back that seemed like their regular table. They each ordered coffee, I ordered a Coke, and they told me everything I wanted to know. “But no notes or taping,” Marla said, and I obeyed, though my fingers itched for a pen.
They told me how they’d gotten into the business—all had had sex at young ages, two of them had been sexually molested or raped as children, none of them thought they were very smart or could do much more than “fuck for a living.” Marla’s eyes lit up when she talked about her 6-year-old son. They told me that “all men fantasize about fucking whores,” but not every man fulfills that fantasy.
“Some just won’t pay for it, honey, but they pay for it in the end,” Karen said.
They teased each other and obviously were friends, but said they probably wouldn’t keep in touch after the brothel closed because “we’ll all go our separate ways.”
They were matter of fact about offering sex for money—not sad, not sentimental, no hearts of gold that I could see. Just women working at a job.
But what startled me was how much they wanted to know about me. “You don’t look 22, honey, you look 16,” Marla said, not the first to make that observation.
“How old are each of you?” I asked.
“You want my real age or my baseball age?” said Karen, laughing.
I’d never heard the expression before. “Your real age,” I said.
“I only give my baseball age,” Karen said, pushing aside her red bangs. “And that’s 21.” More laughter.
They wanted to know how many men I’d been with, what my parents were like, what I’d done in college, why I wanted to write for newspapers, about my dreams for the future. I answered all their questions honestly, and they answered mine.
“Doesn’t it make you feel funny to have sex with a man you don’t know?” I asked. “Are you nervous?”
“Nah,” Sophie said. “They’re all alike in the end. They all want the same thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Sophie looked surprised. “They all want to fuck and come.”
“No,” Karen disagreed. “Lots of ’em only want blowjobs.”
“Or hand jobs while they feel you up,” added Marla.
“That way they don’t feel like they’ve fucked around on their wives,” Karen said.
It was like listening to Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn in a ‘40s movie, the dialogue was so fast. I couldn’t have taken it all down if I had a pen.
“Are you safer working here than on the streets?” I wanted to know.
That was the good thing about a brothel, they said—no pimps, no getting beaten up by johns, regular money, regular check-ups, condoms required, no drugs allowed.
“The streets are much, much worse,” Marla sighed. And they all fell silent, I supposed, remembering those days.
And that’s when Marla made her offer—a cheeseburger for a sexual secret. We ordered the burger, and I offered to buy food for the other two, but they laughed and said, no, they were fine with their coffee. “Honey, I’ll bet we make way more money than you do,” someone said, and I admitted she was probably right.
And, so, while she downed her burger, Marla ’fessed up.
“I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but I like you. And you’re gonna need some help finding a new guy. So here’s what you do. You know when a man’s inside you? As he’s going in and out, on the out stroke, you tighten the muscle—that’s your kegel—a bit, squeeze him. They love that. They go nuts for that. They’ll think you’re the best lover they’ve ever had.”
Kegel? A new word for me. The other two nodded. Karen made a suggestion about delivering oral sex that had to do with flicking the tongue at auspicious moments. Sophie offered up specific tips on hand jobs. “You get real good at that, and some men won’t even want to fuck,” she said. “I’m not kidding.”
I sat there, stunned, again wishing I could take notes or record them. I said so.
“You’ll remember this part,” Marla promised, wiping her hands on a napkin. “God, that’s a good burger. Better than sex,” she said, and they all burst into laughter.
I laughed, too.
“So how was it?” the boyfriend asked on the phone.
“It was great,” I said. “I met these three women, and we had the most terrific conversation. Problem was, it wasn’t on the record.”
“What?” he said, his voice rising. “You let them go off the record?” Big journalistic no-no.
“They would hardly say anything when I was taking notes. When I stopped, they told me everything,” I said.
“Well, use it anyway,” he said.
“I can’t do that,” I said. Another journalistic no-no. If you say you won’t use it, you don’t. “I promised. Besides, most of it’s not printable.”
That stopped him. “What? Not printable? They talked dirty to you?”
“Something like that,” I said. “They gave me tips.”
“Suggestions for better sex.”
That shut him up for a moment. “When’re you coming home?” he asked.
More than two months later, after I’d written what turned out to be a fairly ho-hum story (the best stuff was off the record) and barely passed my probation, I went to work for another newspaper closer to home. There I became the features editor, writing the kind of stories I’d hoped for, long pieces with photos on just about any subject I chose. Much to my surprise, the boyfriend broke up with me. Turned out he had been seeing someone else while I was out of town. He eventually married her.
And I wanted to call Marla or Karen or Sophie and say, “How did you know? What is it about men? Aren’t there any faithful ones?”
But they were long gone from Winnemucca, off to heaven knows where. I thought about them often, hoping they’d found better futures, better jobs, better men, safe places for their children.
And I knew the answer to my question. In their world, there were no faithful men, only men who wanted a quickie and a good time in the sack, willing to pay for an expert blowjob and walk out the door, never looking back.
(originally written August 11, 2000)