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Every night, wet or dry, the sex bazaar around the 11th Street “track” in Northwest is the same: Two dozen different prostitutes work corners, alleys, and shadows while five times as many johns in cars circle, sharklike, looking for an opening between the cops and the traffic to grab a date and head down some dark street for a quick hookup. The johns drive the wannabe urban pioneers of Logan Circle batshit with their elliptical shopping trips through this alfresco flesh market. The Orange Hat Patrol in the neighborhood—its would-be protectors—jot down tag numbers, but they are essentially powerless to halt this supply—and—demand visitation that arrives in their neighborhood once the sun sets.
I am the guy they hate. I’m John, and I’m just one of many nameless hard-ons in the metro area who habitually cruise D.C.’s red—light district in an effort to get my rocks off.
But I’m not like most other johns. For one thing, I switch the license plates on my vehicle before leaving home, replacing my real tags with a stolen pair to thwart the neighborhood vigilantes. And for another, although I grew up in a suburb, for most of the time I have been whoring, I lived in an English basement just off the U Street corridor. I could walk to the Track—and sometimes have done so—but prefer to use my battered SUV when I go out hunting. I’m staying in the suburbs temporarily, but I will be back in town to stay soon enough.
My fellow desperadoes are, for the most part, pussies. A typical john will lock his wallet in the glove box and stash his money in a sock well before arriving at the market. Once in the traffic pattern, he obeys all motorist laws religiously: uses turn signals, yields to pedestrians, comes to complete stops at stop signs. He’ll refrain from doing anything illegal—except solicit sex, of course—in order to avoid being pulled over by a cop. It’s not so much an arrest or a fine or community service or john-rehabilitation class that he fears, but rather the embarrassment he’ll surely face both at home and at work if he gets busted.
I, on the other hand, have no wife, no kids, no job. I know little shame and don’t embarrass easily. I inherited a healthy trust fund at 21, burned through the bulk of it in the last 12 years. My father is one of the people this city lavishes attention on, and my brother is one of the people charged with keeping a lid on it. I come from a good family, but I do things, things that viewed through the prism of conventionality seem scummy and evil. And they are. But at a time when most people are consumed by consumption, by amassing enough power and wealth to live a life beyond consequence, I’ve made my own shortcut.
When I roll onto the track these days and nights, I stare at everyone and everything, grin at the cops, pull U-turns wherever I wish, behave as if blessed with impunity, as if sporting Gyges’ ring on my middle finger. Lock eyes with me for more than a moment and I’ll spit in your face. Get in my way, and I very well may run your ass over.
Yet there’s no satisfaction in it. My nom de plume may be John, but I can’t get it up. Not anymore, anyway. That’s what really separates me from my fellow pricks. Fourteen months ago, I came down with ED—erectile dysfunction. After almost two decades of whoring in the District, across the country, and around the globe, my sex drive finally crashed. Before that, Libido was my best friend, and he used to show me all over the place, lead me fanatically to the great meccas of erotica: Amsterdam, Patpong Road, Manila, Mustang Ranch—and Logan Circle.
But now that having sex is beside the point, I’m still trying to get laid, still obsessing about it, still swimming upstream.
It’s a Thursday evening in August. I’m sitting in my Blazer, alone, parked down the block from an Ginza, an Asian massage parlor located in the middle of the Track, between O and P Streets. The same cop has eyeballed me twice while I was cruising the area in just the last 10 minutes, and the heat, combined with the drought—both meteorological and personal—has been twisting my head into knots all summer.
I’m looking for “Strawberry”—a woman whose street name was drawn from the natural color of her light—red hair. A junkie in her late 30s, she’s worked the Track on and off for almost a decade yet has somehow managed to retain her fair skin and a wisp of what made men desire her in the first place. She was the last person with whom I was able to perform, so I’ve superstitiously convinced myself that, if only I can find her, she’ll end my hitless streak.
Traffic is picking up: Several corners along 11th Street are already occupied by working girls, and the john presence is steadily growing. I recognize several women, but don’t see Strawberry. None of the usual suspects have seen her in the past year, since shortly after I was last with her. Strawberry’s true love is heroin, and I figure she’s gone somewhere to get clean, or else she’s dead. But I keep looking.
A middle-aged white dude wearing glasses has just picked up Becky—a tall, hefty woman with long brown hair and a nasty crack habit—on the corner of P Street, then swung a right onto Rhode Island Avenue. He’ll park somewhere and get a cheap hummer, or else they’ll head to JD’s—a discreet joint in Northeast where $23 will get you three hours in a filthy room with clean sheets. At JD’s, a camera hangs over the side entrance to the house, and the temporary couple is buzzed through the door by a massive black dude who never fails to amuse me. He always greets me with a different pseudonym—one he arbitrarily selects.
“Mr. Mike Taylor, good to see you. Come on over here, Mike, and sign in for me,” he’ll say, leading me to the registration book. I always share in the laugh by grabbing his pen and signing a John Hancock of my own choice, usually a dead writer or rock star, though I’ve been known to use, just for kicks, my father’s exact name. Dad, a former congressman, has never set foot in a brothel—at least as far as I know—and because of that, I guess, I’d love to see his name implicated in a sting. I’m like that.
I see the same cop pass me a third time and have to fight the urge to wave hello to him, to entice him into harassing me. The worst he’ll do, as long as I’m still alone, is tell me to leave the neighborhood. I don’t have a lot to lose as it is, anyway.
I swing over toward Thomas Circle and spot Cindy at 13th and P. Cindy’s an interesting case: A white woman with long platinum hair, her panacea is booze, and thus she works a corner just steps from a liquor store. Whereas most of the white girls around the Track, including Strawberry, wear jeans and T-shirts, maybe a long skirt on occasion, Cindy dons more traditional street garb—pumps, hose, slutty dress—like the pros in the night market on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue.
Cindy’s been around the Track since the late ’80s and has chosen a niche at the high end of the low-rent market. She’s much more paranoid than most women working the Track. If she catches even a whiff of anger, or of something that doesn’t smell right, she’s out the door at the first stop light. I’ve had her bolt on me several times. And she has her reasons for living life on the defensive. These are women who live on the edge of everything, and should they tumble over—or get pushed—not a lot of concerned questions will linger in their wake. Cindy, like the rest of her cohorts, is pretty much on her own when it comes to getting in and out of a trick without getting killed or hurt.
That’s one thing about me: I may be a scumbag, but I don’t assault women. If a woman is messin’ with me, riflin’ through my pockets, jerkin’ me around, I get her out of my truck ASAP, but that’s it. No payback. I’ve had women hold my keys and wallet for ransom, pull dinky little pocket knives on me, scream for help when none is needed, do all sorts of crazy shit. Some prostitutes, in response to having their bodies and souls exploited, will exploit in return. They will hold a john’s orgasm hostage looking for an extra few bucks or perhaps steal whatever he’s got while he’s getting busy enjoying his moment of truth. Somebody always ends up a loser. There has to be one in this low-stakes, high-risk netherworld where the need and desperation of all parties come together and, frequently, come into conflict.
In spite of my current position in the pathological food chain as a victimizer, I had my own tour as a victim. Like a lot of johns, I an point to some ugly sexual history as a child—but, of course, that explains everything and excuses nothing. There are other ways of dealing with sexual predation than committing it yourself.
I don’t get played, but I stay on my side of the line when it comes to outright violence. Women have never, for whatever reason, been able to spark my rage—only men can do that.
“Hey Cindy,” I shout through my passenger window while rolling to a stop beside her, “you seen Strawberry anywhere?”
“Nah,” she says, remaining where she stands. “I ain’t seen her in ages. Why you always lookin’ for her?”
“I think I left somethin’ with her, and I gotta get it back,” I laugh at my private little irony. She doesn’t see what’s so funny.
“Get lost, man,” she mutters, shifting her gaze down the block.
About eight years ago, Cindy and I actually had sex, with a condom, on a tiny cot in a back room of the mom-and-pop variety store on 11th between O and P Streets, but Cindy doesn’t remember the occasion because of all the booze she’s sucked down between then and now. Either that, or hundreds—perhaps thousands?—of similarly magical moments have clouded her memory. Because she can’t remember that I was once a bona fide trick, she’s been convinced for several years that I’m either a cop or a psycho—or both.
I blow her a kiss, pull away, and then, with tunes off and windows down, spend the next hour—as well as a quarter-tank of gas—driving the john’s traffic pattern. Even though I’ve blown most of the dough that was given to me, I could probably get it together to seek my bliss in a more cushy manner that has less chaos attached, but it’s the chaos that really gets me off. I like the frisson of risk and near disappointment that hangs with me as I cruise my route. It comforts me.
I zigzag aimlessly through the grid between 11th and 13th Streets from Logan Circle to the north and Massachusetts Avenue to the south, checking out everything in sight: the young Latino voyeurs who gather on corners to watch the flesh parade, the handful of decked-out black pros who have migrated north across Massachusetts to hustle the john bottleneck that trickles up 12th Street nightly, the carloads of abusive youths, the flashing lights, the cops collaring loners from behind. I cruise west on O Street and then do some laps around New Bethany Baptist Church, checking out a few of the women who trick for crack money along 10th Street.
I know one woman, Ginny, who works this block, but I don’t see her out tonight. Ginny is straight-up, old-school, and very gentle. She doesn’t belong—she wouldn’t so much as steal my lighter—but always returns. She likes to park over on 5th Street, score some rock—”bomb pop,” she calls it—near Rhode Island Avenue, and get high in my truck. We first hooked up a few years ago, prior to when my dick landed itself on injured reserve. Now we just hang out every couple of months and smoke a few bags before parting ways.
I think about crossing Massachusetts to the south side—maybe take a lap around the more ritzy, if you can call it that, of the two sex markets—but decide to blow it off. I feel much more at home in the low-rent district. The pros south of Massachusetts inflate their looks and overestimate their talents. They’ll have you paying a hundred bucks for a hand job if you’re not careful. It’s purely business with them. When giving head, the pros south of Massachusetts insist on using a condom, whereas the addicts around the Track will go flesh to flesh, as long as you’re shelling out for drugs. Both sets of women are hooked. One tier chases cash, and the other chases that first buzz that will never come back.
I’m about to bail from the pattern for the night when I see Sharon on a corner at 10th and O Streets. Sharon is a mess: She’s about 50, petite, a fair-skinned brunette always dressed in grubby jeans, but with a clean T-shirt to match. In daylight, I’ve seen her hands and forearms spotted with pale burn marks scalded by crack stems. I’ve noticed that her smile is minus five or six teeth. But Sharon gets lightning crack. And she knows Strawberry.
“Sharon,” I yell, pulling over, “you haven’t seen Strawberry lately, have ya?”
“Oh!” she shouts, pointing at me and raising her other hand to her head and giving it a rub. “I was thinkin’ about you!” What a coincidence.
“You’ve seen her?”
“No,” she replies, stepping to my passenger window. “But Melinda did. You know Melinda, right?”
“Yea, I know her.” Melinda’s trouble. A dirty blonde, she typically takes a john to an apartment on 9th Street where he’s ambushed by some hardass black pimp who confiscates all the white boy’s valuables before freeing him to leave with the rest of his life intact. “What’d she say?”
“Melinda saw her at the Safeway. She’s clean. Said she looks great.”
“Get in,” I say, reaching across the seat and opening the door for her. “Is she working? Has anyone seen her on the Track?” I ask, turning off my headlights.
Sharon sits beside me and reiterates that Strawberry looks great, that she’s “gained weight.” I press the issue and learn that she’s ballooned to over 160 pounds, which shocks me, at first, because Strawberry used to be slender, weighing no more than 110 just last summer. But then it dawns on me that the dope kept her slim, as it will, and after cleaning up, she’s probably returned to her normal, chubby self.
Even as Sharon shares a smile at the thought of somebody she likes getting out of the life, she, for one, is not ready.
“Come on,” she says, “let’s go get some rock.”
I find relief in smoking crack—which I’ve been doing much more than usual in the past year. The rocket ride seems to mimic yet somehow eclipse the issue of my vacationing libido—but I have little cash left to burn. And anyway, I’m too depressed to pretend I’m in the mood to party.
I tell Sharon we’ll do it another time, then thank her for the news and implore her to keep her eye out for Strawberry, to get her the message that I’m looking for her. Sharon, who went down on me a few times a couple of years ago, knows I’ve been having trouble, and she pats my right thigh before stepping out of my truck. For good luck, I think.
My truck’s interior light bulb burned out last summer, and I haven’t gotten a new one. That way, there is no flash of inside light when I pull over to make a pickup. As Sharon holds the door, looking in on me, with no glare between us, I can see a tall white dude standing on the sidewalk less than 30 feet away from my truck, a pen in one hand, a pad in the other—and doing his best to eye—fuck me.
“Sharon! Get back in the truck!” I scream, keeping my eyes on the one thing in this world I absolutely despise: a NIMBY-vigilante-do-gooding-good-for-nothing asshole who makes everyone’s business his business.
She scrambles back inside as I turn on my headlights, giving the prick all the illumination he needs. And he uses the light to document what he thinks is my real plate number. I’ve prepared for this moment by switching my tags a hundred times over the few years since the neighborhood united to stamp out the likes of me. I’ve seen his type of watchdog before, but never, not once throughout all my years of whoring around the Track, have I been accosted by any one of them. Now that it’s finally happening, I’m seeing red.
“Yo! Douchebag!” I scream, dropping into drive and spinning my wheels directly toward him. “Just ‘cuz you bought some overpriced dump in this shitty neighborhood, don’t think you can dictate community policy for everyone around here, you fuck!”
I squeal to a stop beside him, and in response, the vigilante merely smiles and walks slowly away, smug and calm as the administrator of a grade-school playground. I slam into reverse, but keep my foot on the brake when I feel Sharon grab my right arm.
“What the hell ya doin’, you stupid john?” she yells. “Calm down! It ain’t worth it! He means nothin’!”
The guy’s got me fired up, though, and I feel my adrenaline peaking, my testosterone raging—feelings similar to the ones I used to have as a teen when I first started coming down here to get laid. I want to get in this guy’s face and demand to know what prevents me from following him home tonight and writing down his address for future reference; ask this guy what prevents me from wasting him, right here, right now; ask this guy what prevents me from kicking his teeth down his throat with my steel-toe boots.
I want to enlighten this guy with a thousand different theories as to how and why society—and women, foremost—would progress and benefit as a whole from the legalization of prostitution. I want to tell this guy that, if he continues his fight to stigmatize sexual commerce in the streets, then all sorts of women and girls who have no interest in servicing human need will become targets. Tighten the noose, I want to say to this guy and his entire ilk, and see who gets hung up.
“Lament for my cock!” I scream, echoing the immortal words of Jim Morrison. As if he knows what I’m talking about. It’s an empty circle. This fake do-gooder has recorded the bogus tag number of a john who can’t get it up.
I look at Sharon, feel something in my groin snap, then drop from reverse back into drive and peel out. I tell her we’re going to get some rock, and in response, she places her left hand on the flat bridge of my baggy cargo pants. But the night is young. CP