Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pimp Story

General Background

For a little over a year I have worked at a hotel just three freeway exits to the west of downtown. I started as a normal clerk, then became front desk supervisor when two of my bosses left or were fired, and for the past six months I have been the Assistant General Manager, basically in charge of making things run, seeing that shifts are worked, and coming up with new systems and procedures as we doubled then tripled our business, and dealing with other challenges.

One of those challenges is prostitution, which is an endemic plague upon the hotel industry that if unchecked brings nearly every imaginable evil with it — drugs, thugs, disrespectful and delinquent customers, etc. The bottom line is that you can be a hotel for business people and families and fight any and all encroachment by prostitutes, or you can be a safe haven for illegal activities with very little ability to control your own property. People can tell what kind of place you are just by walking in the door, and letting things slide can bring you down into the crapper very quickly, which it had done under the prior management team, which had been fired when the police busted a long-standing meth lab run out of one of the rooms.

Me vs. Prostitution

When I first started working at the place there were still a nontrivial number of prostitutes who drifted in and out of place. One even sent her customers through the hotel's phone system, so I would end up transferring johns through all night some nights. Others were prone to thievery, conspicuous drug use, and often just generally behaving in a trashy manner in front of other guests. Another was assaulted by a john and came fleeing down the hall, falling down a flight of stairs to the front desk wearing nothing but her drawers. These are the sort of people who make your life harder and who necessitate calling the police too often, which makes the police angry and vindictive.

When I was promoted I made the elimination of prostitution in the hotel one of my priorities. I made sure we were keeping better track of the ID numbers of suspected prostitutes — the police can't do a thing unless you have a driver's license number. I started marking people we knew for sure to be involved with prostitution so that we wouldn't rent to them in the future. I started making the most out of cooperation with law enforcement, and we even set up stings at the hotel. Especially as the busy season got into full swing we were able to drive prostitution out and pretty well keep it out for some time. The message was getting out in the relevant community that the Super 8 was not a great place to be — and yes, pimps and prostitutes do have a community through which information is transmitted.

Prostitutes are Nomadic

Eternal vigilance is required, however, because prostitutes are nomadic to some degree. I recall one night the nastiest of all the prostitutes in residence remarking that she'd never been to Florida, and that she'd decided to go. And that's when it occurred to me that if you are a prostitute, you can pretty much do that. You and your pimp just pick up, buy bus tickets and head off. You are going to be staying in hotels anyway. You don't have bank accounts. You don't need to be in any particular place to do your job.

In fact, moving around makes sense. Best not to wear out your welcome, and becoming recognizable can be a liability. But if you move around you minimize that risk. The more established "providers" — as they call themselves — move around within a metro area. One particularly wizened woman revealed that she had an extensive roster of all the hotels in the metro area, complete with locations, phone numbers, rates, and presumably info on her current status at each one. The less established ones without a built-up clientele can simply drift around the country. Out of state driver's licenses will even make them seem like more legitimate guests at first.

Plus, if your circuit is long enough, you can probably get back into old hotels that have banned you. The turnover rate at hotels is amazingly high. As far as I can tell, the replacement rate for management has been less than two years at our hotel, and at the front desk someone quits or is fired every month on average even though there are only 3 or 4 full time positions there. I have to imagine this effect is greater at economy hotels like ours. And those are the sort of hotels a normal prostitute can afford to live in.

The net effect of this is that any change in your hotel's reputation will be transitory as the local population changes through migration. The old ones returning to the area will not have gotten the update. I remember feeling such great pride when that same nasty prostitute returned and remarked in disgust "this place is really different now." She left the next day and we haven't seen her again. Unfortunately she seems to have parted ways with her pimp prior to this, because he does reenter the story.

Holding the Line

As summer ended and the busy season slowed, the fight began again. Prostitutes don't always plan ahead that well, so it is easy to keep them out when they walk in at 9pm and you can honestly say that there's no room at the inn. As soon as you are not full every night, it gets harder to keep them out. Even though it's pretty obvious that once the temperature outside drops below zero, any woman who walks in with bare calves and breasts mostly exposed is a professional, without solid proof you are still in peril of breaking every discrimination law on the book if you try to refuse service to suspected prostitutes.

So you do what you can to get them out as soon as you can by any facially neutral method you can. And you try to keep law enforcement happy and cooperative. For the past few months we've had to settle for keeping the number of prostitutes down to only one or two at a time and limiting their lengths of stay.

The Immediate Background

(A.K.A Merry Fuckin' Christmas)

The holidays are the suckiest time to schedule a place that needs to be staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. All your part time people are gone, all the managers are burned out and feel like they should finally be done with 70+ hour weeks, and all your regular people want the same days off. Even when you do manage to schedule someone for a shift, they feel incredibly entitled and are likely to call in sick or demand to go early. The upshot of this is that both my boss and I got stuck working more than one shift each day all through christmas.

But on top of this, on christmas eve, my car was broken into in the hotel parking lot. The perp smashed my driver's side front window out completely and then reached into the glove compartment, only to find nothing. Then he opens the door by reaching through the window to unlock the car, which causes the car alarm to go off. My theory is that he saw my iPod cassette adapter and iPod car charger and assumed that I had simply hidden the iPod in the car. Talk about last minute shopping.

Of course there aren't any auto glass places open on christmas eve or christmas day, and because I have to pull a surprise extra shift the next night/morning, I can't take care of the window on the 26th either. But I can't go home while I have no driver's side window — it's freezing outside and snowing throughout these days, and I live half an hour away from work by freeway (an hour away if I avoid freeways). So I arrive at work on the 24th and don't get to leave until the 27th, even though I only have one set of clothes. On the 24th and 25th I eat at the only place that's open — the SuperAmerica gas station.

Now, how do I know exactly how the perp tried to break into my car? We have brand spanking new cameras watching the parking lot. Only my boss knows how to operate it (sort of) because there are no instructions, but he was able to find it all and show it all happening. But we can't see the guy's face or read the license plate on the car he's driving. But my boss promises me that the police somehow have the ability to access the tapes and magnify it. He assures me he will make sure this happens and soon. But by Friday the 29th my insurance company calls me complaining that nothing has happened on this front. Later I check my voice mail and get a message from the detective assigned to my case saying that the Super 8 claims there is no tape. The effectiveness of this surveillance is pretty questionable if the resolution can't tell us anything and if no one is ever going to bother trying to look at it anyway.

None of that is directly related to what happens next, but it provides the needed background for my state of mind going forward.

Craigslist in Public

There is a young woman staying at the hotel during all this, who is not initially very suspicious, but around the 22nd or 23rd, if I recall correctly, she is sitting at the public computer in the lobby and looking at Craig's list, for those who are not aware, is how the bulk of prostitution is conducted these days. The girls post explicit pictures of themselves on ads in the Erotic Services category along with a gatekeeper's phone number. I assume some sort of screening must take place and then callers are then passed onto the prostitute's personal phone. The better off ones seem to do mainly out-calls, while the others will take in-calls (more time efficient). For in calls they direct the johns to the hotel and then meet them at the back door. No room numbers given out, because traffic in and out is a legitimate reason to involve law enforcement.

So this woman is on craigslist and being too blatant about it. The screen clearly shows naked pictures of her being attached to pages, and she isn't making much of an effort to hide this from other guests. Plus she's taking calls in public whose nature is pretty obvious — $150 a half hour apparently. I take a guess at who she is and find in the profile that most of her nights are paid for by a man whose name I recognize as belonging to the pimp of that nasty prostitute from earlier in the story. Later I get confirmation from my head housekeeper that she is who I think she is.

Clearly she needs to go, so I call up the local police department. Unfortunately it is past 4:00pm by this time, so the best the department can do is get me the detectives' voice mail. I leave the woman's real name, her pimp's name, her room number, her provider alias, and the url of one of her ads on the voice mail. I even take the room next to hers out of order so that if the police decide they want to, they can bring their equipment into the room and do a sting where they record sound and video through the wall shared by the two rooms (yes, they can do this).

As you can guess, however, nothing gets accomplished. Then my boss needlessly removes my room block and puts a greyhound driver in the room even though there are plenty of other free rooms. Meanwhile over christmas she is becoming even more blatant about her activities, not even trying to hide the ever more explicit sites she's accessing. I see that she's even being mocked online: "won't your pimp let you have a day off for the holidays?"

I should note that usually there is a sort of social contract usually at work: the prostitute attempts to be discreet and the desk staff pretends they don't know what she does for a living when dealing with her. This woman is breaking the social contract. This is uncomfortable, of course, because she is making sure that I know who she is. And if anyone reveals who she is to the authorities, I am unquestionably on this list of suspects.

Does anyone besides me take this seriously?

In addition to contacting the police myself, during this I have been leaving more and more detailed and urgent messages to my boss. But so far nothing is getting done. When I come back to work on the 28th, I address the matter directly to my boss. Not to worry, he says, he kicked her out himself this morning. Only it eventuates that he hasn't actually kicked her out like you'd kick out any other guest, he just told her to pack up her stuff and leave, which of course she hasn't done. I am determined that I won't let her extend her stay, but by the end of my shift no one shows to extend her stay. I tell the night auditor not to extend her — if anyone tries, tell them they have to do it in the morning, which is when my boss works.

When I show up the next day, however, I find that my boss has chickened out and extended her stay himself. Her pimp came down and he was intimidated enough by this simple act that he decided to give up on kicking her out. He doesn't want his expensive car or himself to be damaged in retaliation, he explains. Why not let the cops do it, he rationalizes.

At this point I am starting to get freaked out. What does it take just to get this woman out of here? I call up the police again and ask them to do anything they can to just kick this prostitute out. They send a squad car with a very annoyed officer. She asks for all the information I have, but it turns out that someone has thrown away the form that has the prostitute's ID number on it, and even with her full name and all the rest of the info from her driver's license, the police are just too inconvenienced to do anything without that number. Beyond this, my computer, which has all of the prostitute's ads loaded on it, shots of her face included, chooses this moment to crash. Now I have no evidence at all, because all of her current ads are now just pictures of her nether regions.

At this point the officer is displaying nothing but contempt for me. Clearly this is my problem, not hers, and I am just making her life harder. Extremely flustered at this point, I just explain that I am getting jumpy, that I've contacted the police before and I've tried to get my boss to handle it, and I just want to be assured that something will be done. Big mistake: the officer's immediate response is to try to save face for the department; clearly the problem is on my end, not hers, and I best remember that.

After two more officers arrive and confer, they decide that they'll kick her out. They can't arrest her, of course, just kick her out for being a prostitute. And of course they lead her out directly past the front desk so she can see exactly who must have ratted her out.

All of this has left me feeling flustered and self-conscious. My boss calls to find out how it all went and I make clear my displeasure. Things did not go well, I am potentially on the line here, and in the future we damn well better figure out a better system for dealing with this.

The Call

So while I am still feeling jumpy on the inside but exuding a painfully forced cheerfulness on the outside, I get a call from a male voice I vaguely recognize. The call was cryptic, slang-filled and full of circumlocution, but the key phrases were "you be snitchin'" "watch yourself" and "whenever you leaving [work]." I believe it to have been meant as a threat on my life.

I call my boss and leave the simple voicemail message, "I have received a threat against my life. I will not be in tomorrow." I lock all the doors and retreat into the back office, where I watch the desk from the security cameras. I'm already contemplating having to stay the night to avoid going outside, and chalking my car up as a lost cause, since the prostitute knows which car is mine. I hope to myself that this is the Saturday when we have an off-duty police officer earning overtime pay for sitting in our lobby in a few minutes, and I hope its the one I like.

My boss calls back in a bit, but he hasn't heard my voicemail. He's dismissive of the threat (why would he tell you beforehand if he were going to do it?) but says he'll come in. The hour passes and our overtime cop doesn't show so I call up my friend Dustin, who I had talked about hanging out with after work. I ask him for a ride away from the hotel, but have to stipulate that he come in 15 minutes, not now. I don't want him to have to park, just pull up and go, so I have to make sure my boss is there to cover the desk.

Dustin of course asks what's up, and his response is probably the best part of this story. As he explains it, "if I'd had a bat I would have brought it, but I didn't." What he did bring is a bike lock (for bashing) a steak knife (for cutting) and the honer from his knife set.

In the meantime the overtime cop shows up late (not the one I like) and is also fairly dismissive of the whole thing. He's also not very reassuring, and the first thing he does is to say "pull yourself together, I am going to go to the men's room." Now I understand the call of nature, but he could at least have said something reassuring before immediately leaving. My calm, serene and cheery professional facade is now threatening to shatter on every guest who walks in. As soon as Dustin comes I take off; I do not reassure my boss that I am still going to do all of my shifts. I get very drunk very quickly on Dustin's bottle of Jim Beam.

Dropping my job like a bad habit

I need not waste time with details here. My job sucks, I don't get paid enough, and I have been planning to quit sometime in the immediate future. Even if the threat was just an attempt to scare me, it worked. And my job isn't worth having to be scared every time a pimp gets mad at me. After some advice from my parents, I decide that I am quitting immediately. I am not coming in to do shifts. The hotel is incredibly screwed. Too bad.

My grandfather, who was a prosecutor for many many years, adds that it is possible that there is a cop on the take who tips pimps off. In retrospect I think this was part of my fear. I had reported this woman enough times that if there was a possibility she might find out, I would have been in danger. You don't want to be alone in a hotel and then have to run up towels to the room of a guest who might want revenge on you — there are no cameras on the rooms.

Now that everything has happened, though, I feel an odd sense of relief. I am finally out of that crappy job and I have an irrefutable reason for leaving. It's a new year and a chance for a new beginning. I'll finally have some days off to finish up my law school applications and send them out. I've learned a lot from my job, but now I can look forward to moving on.


In response to the series of events leading to my threat by a pimp, I have received an outpouring of support from my friends and family, especially for my decision to quit. The only way I can describe my reaction is to say that I feel very privileged. It's funny. I went to a liberal arts college where "privilege" was a staple of discourse, and yet the phrase never resonated with me at the time. Now I truly do feel privileged in a visceral, almost unexplainable way.

With only a few exceptions, all of my friends and family took the idea of the death threat seriously, assuming it to be a genuine danger, and without exception they were all very supportive of me quitting my job, whereas the police and my fellow hotel workers did not appear to take the threat seriously, and no one there was terribly understanding of my decision to quit.

It occurs to me, though, that people in these two groups probably don't view the likelihood of the pimp retaliating all that differently. After all, my boss seemed genuinely concerned about his own safety and possessions until the threat fell squarely on me. Rather, I think people like me take that sort of a threat seriously because we are able to — we can afford it. But for my boss, and some of our employees and the cops, this is their best option in life, so they just have to live with all the attendant unpleasantness of dealing with lowlifes — petty theft and threats of violence included.

But my friends and family and I know we have other options besides dealing with that crap, so in the end we don't. Other people don't have that choice; or they don't have people surrounding them to tell them they do. That I have people around me with the sort of opportunities that give them no question about whether to put up with a pimp's threats makes me feel very privileged.

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