Friday, March 15, 2013

WORKING GIRLS: The Cost of Doing Business in The Oldest Profession--by Marc Cameron

My bride’s eyes peer over a page from my manuscript—on fire, as they are wont to be when she wants to burn a hole in me.
“I’m left to wonder here,” she says, her head wagging, “how you know so much about prostitutes…” 

The truth is, over the years I have dealt with a fair number of hookers on a professional basis—my profession, not theirs. I thought I’d step away from tracking for a bit and talk about working girls. For these purposes, I’ll steer clear of the word ‘whore’. It just sounds too mean. I make liberal use of it in my fiction though because, well, that is the real world.
At least one of these poor souls figures into nearly every book I write, Western or Thriller—misguided things with hearts of gold, redheaded saloon madams who take up with marshals, evil wenches, aging consumptives, downtrodden whelps, tattooed Yakuza girls (in my present manuscript)—and informants.

My very first bona fide snitch was a girl we arrested working the local truck stop.  I was relatively new on the PD, still with my field-training officer on midnight shift. Since I was a rookie, I fingerprinted every arrest while my FTO stood around and tried to pick up the cute dispatchers. I mean no disrespect to womanhood here, but there is a reason the poor things that work truck stops are called lot lizards. This was 1984 and no one thought to wear latex gloves but I’d wager I went through ten gallons of Phisohex.
Early on, during my save-the-world period
Fingerprinting a person is a somewhat intimate affair. You stand hip to hip and basically hold hands for a few minutes.  I tend to make small talk to ease the bad guy’s tension. When I was a twenty-two year old rookie and printing hookers, I talked to ease my own. That first one, I’ll call her Sammie, chatted about how she was maybe going to school one day, the Pontiac Firebird she wished she could afford, and how a guy from Abilene beat the snot out of her the night before. She could have been cute if she hadn't been so haggard and world-weary from drugs and whatever other demons weighed her down. It occurred to me while I held her skinned knuckles and rolled her bruised fingers in ink, that this was one of the few moments in her recent life that she felt safe. I went home after my shift ended early that morning, scrubbed my hands until they were raw, kissed the baby and held my sweet young bride for a long time….

A few months after I was cut loose from my training officer and by myself, I heard Sammie's voice on the CB radio, working the Petro truck lot near I-20. It took me a while but I finally spotted the rear end of her cutoff jeans hustling down the ladder of a sleeper cab on the back row. I had nothing to charge her with, but we talked awhile and she gave me information on a trucker who had a trash sack full of weed—as much to get me off her back as for any reward. She had an awful, tuberculin-sounding cough and kept spitting into a rag she held wadded in her fist. I remember wondering about the men who hired her that night, something I based a character on later.

Ours was a lucrative relationship. I gave her money and she gave me what I wanted: information on crime—and inspiration for my writing.

Working girls taught me a great deal about human nature. I wrote a scene just yesterday where my protagonist has to gain physical control of a hooker before her client, who he wants to interrogate, comes to the room. The thing about prostitutes is that the experienced ones aren’t easily intimidated.   They’ve been smacked more than once—and by men who know how to smack.  
Mounted Patrol with Max the wonder horse 

             In many ways, they remind me of mules. Apologies to horse lovers—I am fond of them myself, but years of horse shoeing and horse training have shown me that you can generally buffalo a horse. Goad it a bit with your thumb, cluck a little and say: “Move over” to coax it to step aside. Stick your thumb in a mule's ribs and it will, more often than not, look at you as if to say, “Nice thumb you got there, but I’m happy where I’m at. And by the way, I weigh 900 pounds so you, sir, must provide a reason if you want this ass to move.”

And so it is with prostitutes.

They know we won’t shoot them unless they have a weapon. They’re pretty sure we would be laughed off the planet if we pepper-sprayed or Tased a semi-compliant female.  Lay hands on one as you would a passive aggressive male arrestee and many will just dare you use more force than you should. I really hate fighting half-naked women—really, really hate it—but that’s an entire essay in and of itself. Thankfully, most don’t fight.  
They do, however make great informants. Men get chatty when they’re…with women. Considering the other things she gets paid for, accepting money in exchange for information is a pretty sweet deal.
Earlier this week I had a four-hour dinner and research meeting with a couple of detectives in the southern part of Japan. When I asked if they used informants, one piped right up and said: “Of course. I find prostitutes make the best.” My Japanese is rusty but I knew exactly what he meant. 
Not all the hookers I’ve dealt with have been drug addicts—but most are or become so later to dull the pain.  I’ve met a few of the high-end types around Dallas and NYC who appear to consider it a business and wouldn’t touch a drug.  One I know started out as an exotic dancer but told me she turned to being a call girl because she didn’t have to be around all the drugs. She was attractive, witty and looked like a college coed with the prettiest little diamond set in the center of her front tooth—but even she had this sort of detached look about her that I see in virtually every one I’ve been around. I don’t know, maybe once they figure out they're not going to get beaten up at each particular encounter, they practice thinking of other things while they work, like in that song Zip from Pal Joey.
What I do know is that working girls can make nuanced and layered characters in traditional Westerns and contemporary Thrillers if we just dig deep into what makes each individual one tick. Suppose you could say I have a soft spot for hookers. I'd never turn my back on one. Many would cut you and not think twice about it--but even those are interesting.

In HARD ROAD TO HEAVEN, one of my Mark Henry Westerns, the protagonists rescue a hooker in the mountains of Idaho who is being savagely beaten by her boss. She takes a few licks at her tormentor after the heroes are done with him, and then packs her grip before he wakes up. One of the protagonists, a softhearted Texan, gives her some money, thinking he might ‘save’ her. He’s saddened when she tells him she can’t quit yet and plans to go work another logging camp while she still has her looks. She says something like: “I’m already livin’ in and outta Hell. I’d just like to make enough money to buy a few nice things before I go there for good.”
I based her on my first informant.

Over a couple of years I paid Sammie a few hundred bucks in twenty-five dollar increments. That was, she said, her “usual rate”. It also happened to be the price of a tiny bag of Meth.
During that same period, I arrested her a half dozen times, took her to the hospital twice, did the paperwork to get Child Services to take her kid and investigated two rape cases where she was the victim—one where I found her tied up, naked in her old beater car. Each time, we talked about her getting out of the business and maybe going back to school or getting that Firebird she always wanted.
Sammie disappeared shortly after that last rape. As far as I know, no one ever heard from her again. I’d like to think she moved away, went to school and bought a Pontiac—but that’s a fantasy. Truck stop Johns can be a mighty rough crowd.
She was not really a bad girl, just a sad girl--and, though she never did know it, a muse.

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published nine novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).  His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR and STATE OF EMERGENCY (available in April 2013)— features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and kicking terrorist butt.   Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.

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  1. Terrific, informative blog. Thanks.

  2. You've led an interesting life, Marc. Some never have chance or inclination to know of the other side. Good post!

  3. Marc, what a great post. I feel sorry for hookers, too--so many of them get started as runaways with no idea of the life that's ahead of them. It's really sad, isn't it, and you've had the opportunity to get to know some of them like Sammie personally--which makes it all the sadder. You think of these young girls having the dreams that other people have--wanting a nice care, wanting to go to's a miracle if any of that ever happens for them. Thanks for another great post. Love the pictures, too!

  4. Very interesting post, Marc. I would just add that along with the drugs and alcohol that are understandably used to dull the pain, I have found that depression is very common. And that is so understandable as well.


  5. What a fascinating post today.. Having first hand information from your job, I am sure comes in handy when writing your books...
    Thanks for sharing.

    Kathleen (a western Romance fan)

  6. Very thought-provoking post, Marc. As human beings, we often tend to look at those outside what society considers the norm as deficient or defective in some elemental way. Some may be, but every one of the outsiders has a backstory, a family, hopes, and dreams that somehow got derailed. That can be a scary realization, especially when trying to deal with the immediate situation requires keeping the sad backstory at a distance. I've often wondered how anyone ever makes it out of law enforcement alive and with their soul intact. Good on you for channeling all that "stuff" into your fiction. :-)

  7. Thanks guys. When I reread it I realized it's kind of a downer. Sorry about that.

  8. Good stuff Marc. Never been a cop, but been around a lot of them in my journalistic guise. Look forward to you coming back through Chiba/Tokyo.

  9. Wow. You're such a natural storyteller, Marc. I was *riveted* to this poor woman's story! I figured as much, given the romance book I read by LaVyrle Spencer (Forgiving) long ago - same back then as today. Still, it's a choice. And *much* harder to choose to get out of such a sad lifestyle.

  10. Meg, the girls have a saying for how tough it is to leave the business. "Easy in, hard out."