Naked Ambition

Peddling smut is this young man's version of the American Dream

But it's sex that moves copies off the stacks at the 18-and-over bookstores and pipe shops and nightclubs where it's distributed, and this isn't a particularly good time to be joining the sex game in Houston. The recently enacted SOB ordinance has been bad for sexually oriented businesses, according to sexually oriented businesses. The standard line is that Houston is losing dancers, not to mention convention business, to Dallas and Atlanta, even Austin, as word spreads about Houston's new three-foot rule and dancer licensing provisions. The economy, according to Marquez, suffers right down to your mom-and-pop hair parlors and nail salons. "Those girls are high maintenance. They are. And there are a lot of dancers in this town. Or there were."

Aside from the general state of the smut economy, there's the threat of entrenched competition. Among the monthlies, Scandalous Quest has a substantial edge in terms of experience (president/editor John Gray ran the similarly themed Night Moves in Houston for four years before changing the name last year and expanding into Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Southern California), size (144 pages to Jack Cash's 30) and circulation (currently 30,000 in Houston).

Marquez claims that Gray has been "talking shit" in the community about Marquez's professionalism -- scaring off potential Jack Cash advertisers -- and he resents the alleged slight. "We're not fly-by-night," he says. "We're just underfunded."

Asked about Jack Cash, Gray's first response is: "Why are you doing a story about them? We've been in business five years and never missed a deadline."

And in reality, Gray's mini-empire of Scandalous Quests is about to become more unassailable still, when an impending merger with the Florida-based Vivid magazine chain becomes final. "We'll be in 12 cities by this time next week," said Gray, last week.

Jack Cash, meanwhile, subsists on Marquez's shoestring and a prayer for investors. Early attempts to contact Marquez for this story were thwarted by the fact that both Jack Cash's office and Mike Marquez's home phones had been disconnected. Efforts to wrangle an interview by dropping in at the skanky West Alabama offices yielded locked doors one day and vacated premises the next.

Marquez's home phone is back on, but the office remains closed since editor and co-founder Claytor has splintered off to produce a toll Jack Cash web site with hard-core stills and promotional movie scenes. He says the site should be up "next week, or the week after that." That leaves Marquez to helm the concept's print flagship, and Marquez intends to steer it into deeper financial waters, aiming toward a national, franchisable focus on adult films, and away from reliance on local service providers and SOBs.

He needs an investor to do it, someone prepared to "take it to the next level," and in the meantime he's got a few video reviews in, a cover girl, and a centerfold lined up. The rest, he's sure, will come.

"I will find the money and the next issue will be out. I've worked too damn hard at this to let it go. I have complete faith in myself, and I'm completely driven. I have the drive and the ambition to put it where it needs to be."

Marquez sweeps the fanned magazines into a pile on the table at La Jaliscience, pulling out of his bag two old copies of a non-porn weekly, one each for the top and bottom of the smut stack. He's brought them so that a reporter can walk out of the restaurant with research booty disguised, and so, presumably, with head held high. And a reporter has to wonder if Marquez is really so dedicated a smut peddler at all -- or more a guy peddling his own dream of getting off his ass and not working as a bartender the rest of his life.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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