A Lincoln Continental stops beside a live oak tree on Galveston's 14th Street. A pimp stands by and then leans into the window, cuts a deal, and a redheaded prostitute gets in the car.
"What are you doing pimping in front of my house?" shouts Bob, a 52-year-old sculptor, standing on his front porch. He steps inside and calls the police.
In the last six months, Bob has made more than 30 complaints to the Galveston Police Department about crack whores in his neighborhood. When Bob bought his turn-of-the-century bungalow two years ago, prostitutes worked a few blocks away. Now, he says, they're in his front yard. As he sits in his porch swing smoking cigarettes, women climb his front steps and proposition him.
"I'm despairing about the situation," Bob says. "It's out of control."
He gets into his Yellow Cab and drives along the seawall. A skinny brunette in a short red dress tries to flag him down. She doesn't want a taxi ride, he says.
He drives past the Diamond Shamrock on the corner of 33rd Street. Hookers are standing around the three blue pay phones outside the gas station Stop N Go. The women proposition men by the gasoline pumps and turn tricks in the alley, says manager Reza Noor.
Most of the men the hookers hit on have stopped at the convenience store to buy a cup of coffee on their way to work.
It's 5 a.m. Time for a little morning pick-me-up.
In the last two months, complaints about prostitutes working the early-morning, before-breakfast, way-to-work crowd have almost tripled, says Sergeant Phillip Fleming of the Galveston Police Department vice and narcotics squad. Typically, the prostitution rush hour is after clubs close, between 2 and 4 a.m. But now women are working the white-collar rush hour.
In the last six weeks, Fleming conducted three stings from 6:45 a.m. to 10 a.m. "Right away we started grabbing girls," he says. Eleven women were arrested.
"Maybe they forgot to set their clocks back," says Mo Ibrahim, Galveston County first assistant district attorney. "They're confused. Usually they're creeping out at night. I don't know why there's a sudden influx of prostitution during the morning."
Every day local business owners complain that when they're trying to open their businesses, prostitutes are working in the parking lot. When The Spot's baker arrives at 5:30 a.m., prostitutes are waiting, says Dennis Byrd, owner of the seawall hamburger joint. There are so many complaint calls, officers don't even bother to write them down, Fleming says. They would clutter an entire computer.
Fleming has several theories as to why daybreak sex deals are on the rise. One is that some people simply like to have sex in the morning. Another is that for some guys, driving to work is the only time they're alone. If a married man works until 5 p.m., then has to pick up the kids from soccer practice 15 minutes later, he most likely won't want to have the kids with him when he's hiring a hooker. Whereas in the morning, a guy can tell his wife or girlfriend he's going to hit the gym.
Detective Robert Owens says the officers working in the morning are too busy following up on reports from the night shift to hunt predawn prostitutes. Younger cops work in the evenings, Owens says, and they have more time and energy. "In the morning, everybody's trying to go to breakfast and there's just not a lot of proactive work being done between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.," Owens says. "They know that." Prostitutes know all of the officers working the neighborhood. Heck, Fleming went to school with one woman. Streetwalkers learn the police officers' shifts and schedules; they know who works where and when. "They'll vary their work schedules, getting out on the streets when they know we're not," Fleming says. "They don't expect us to be out early in the morning."
Galveston's red-light district is on the seawall east of 35th Street. As the hotels along the beach get progressively cheaper, so do the prostitutes. Many live in $20-a-day hole-in-the-wall motels. They're never on the Strand where officers patrol, or around the San Luis Hotel or the Hotel Galvez, where off-duty GPD officers work as security guards.
Fleming talks about prostitutes like a Discovery Channel big game hunter. When he conducts a sting, he tries to hit a different area at a different time of day. If police prey on the same spot too often, the herd of hookers will move. If officers have too many evening stings, the streetwalkers will work mornings. "It's all a cat-and-mouse game," he says.
Galveston whores don't wear Hollywood fishnets, feather boas and fuck-me heels. They wear shorts and flip-flops. "These aren't your $2,000-a-night prostitutes," Ibrahim says. The average rate is about $10. One former hooker says she's seen girls turn tricks for a Dr Pepper and a bag of chips.
"If you've ever been to Los Angeles, you'll see them in flocks on the streets," Ibrahim says. "It's like window-shopping. You'll have a selection to choose from."
Whereas in Galveston, it can be difficult to differentiate prostitutes from tourists. Many women walk along the beach wearing a bikini top and shorts. But if a man pulls over and honks, most normal women won't try to jump in his car, Fleming says. "Say, 'Hey, baby, get in, let's go for a ride,' " Fleming says. "If she gets in, she's got to be a prostitute."
Fleming says he wouldn't recognize a high-class lobby-of-the-Ritz hooker. But he knows how to spot a crack whore. A crack whore, he says, typically doesn't change her clothes or shower for a week. She stays awake for three to five days at a time. She's usually a sick, skinny woman with a dazed, dead look in her eyes. Unlike power walkers with new white sneakers, a crack whore walks as if she doesn't have any particular place to go. "There's some very, very nasty girls," he says.
Most tourists walk on the sidewalk by the beach. Prostitutes stick to the business side of the street where there are plenty of parking lots, side streets and alleys. On the sea side, there isn't a place for a john to stop and pick a girl up. Plus, Fleming says, it's harder to make a U-turn on the beach side of the street.
Prostitutes turn tricks in cars parked on the beach or on side streets. "The girls are out flagging traffic and giving blow jobs and having sex in front of houses where people's kids are," Fleming says. "They'll pull over right on the side of the curb, right in front of somebody's house with kids playing out in the yard. You don't want your kid walking by some car and see a girl giving a guy a blow job."
The first time a woman is arrested for prostitution it's a class B misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to six months in county jail. The second arrest is a class A misdemeanor and the jail time is doubled. The third time a prostitute is arrested is a felony: She can be incarcerated for up to two years in prison.
All prostitution charges carry a fine ranging from $1 to $4,000. "We never fine them, period," Ibrahim says. "You're fining people that are walking the street performing lewd sexual acts for $20. What are you gonna encourage them to do if you fine them? They're not gonna go get a job."
Usually, Fleming says, prostitutes stay in the county jail for only six to ten days. The penitentiaries are full, he says. Hookers have to be released to make room for more serious criminals, he says.
Some argue that the only way to eliminate Galveston's prostitution problem is to legalize it. But even if Galveston County adopted the pay-for-it-if-you-want-to laws like some Nevada counties, Galveston crack whores would still be unemployed and working the streets, Fleming says. Most of the women he arrests are highly unattractive, and cathouses like the Bunny Ranch in Nevada employ pretty prostitutes.
Occasionally Fleming conducts reverse stings, where he has an undercover female officer pose as a whore. The reverse stings usually take place between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. During a recent reverse sting, 17 men were arrested. Men who solicit are charged with prostitution, too.
"The only reason we do the johns is just as a deterrent," he says. "So the guys know we're out there." No one complains about the men, just the women. Of course, Fleming says, the problem with the men is that when a man has sex "with some nasty, disease-infested whore," he gets a sexually transmitted disease and then gives it to his wife. If the couple has children, the kids can carry the disease too. "That happens," he says.
Fleming has arrested doctors, lawyers, firefighters and other police officers. "I've actually arrested friends of mine," he says. "Which was embarrassing."
Mary Willis sits on her front porch videotaping prostitutes walking up and down 32nd Street. She and her 23-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, want to put the footage on a Web site. During slow moments, they rewind the tape and watch the video. Sometimes they set the camcorder in the window and hook it up to the TV. "It's like watching Cops," Willis says.
She lives behind the Diamond Shamrock station in a white rental house on the corner of S Street. Her home is across the street from the Sea Horse Motel and catercorner to the Driftwood Motel -- both prostitution hotbeds. Last week Willis watched men go in and out of rooms 114 and 116 at the Driftwood. "It looked like the McDonald's drive-thru after a Friday-night football game," she says.
Willis has nicknamed every woman who works on her street, from Skelawhore to Chickenhead. Her five-year-old son, Krischan, can sit on the front steps and pick out prostitutes. When Willis walks him to the bus stop, men try to pick her up. Men driving delivery trucks, 18-wheelers, Porsches and Pontiacs circle the neighborhood searching for whores. "If they make more than one trip around the block, they're looking for something," Willis says.
When Willis sees a prostitute get into a car, she writes down the license plate number. One man asked why she jotted down his digits. She asked him why he let a prostitute get in his car. Didn't he see her? Didn't he see how filthy she was? Did he not notice the sores covering her body?
"Do these guys have a blindfold on when they pick them up?" she asks. "I could understand a $500 call girl in Houston -- they're clean."
If she sees a man in uniform driving a company car, she calls the number on the vehicle and tells his boss. The many men she's ratted out include city employees, a Schindler elevator repairman and a Galveston Community College security guard.
"These girls are working constantly," she says. "I don't think they even brush their teeth or rinse their mouth before jumping into another car."
John Gulley, a retired real estate broker, lives one street away from Willis in a two-bedroom cottage built in 1914. From his front porch, he can see the ocean.
Four years ago, the house was a crack den. "They had prostitutes working out of it," Gulley says. Living this close to the beach, prostitution is expected, he says. "It's a tourist town."
Since Gulley doesn't have a big yard, he's set up a tool shop on the porch as he renovates and rebuilds the house. Prostitutes walk by while Gulley is working on the porch. He says hello, they say hello. They always ask him how he's doing. "They're friendly," he says.
His wife, a retired corporate secretary, Mary Louise Gulley, adds, "I guess they have to be."
The neighborhood is much like Houston's Sixth Ward. There are historic homes meticulously renovated and painted bright Easter-basket colors. Next door are shacks that are rotting and falling apart. On almost every street, neighbors can identify a crack house.
Women who live in the neighborhood avoid walking alone because men try to pick them up. One neighbor says the city is cutting down oleander bushes because of "activities" occurring in them. Around the corner, a man says he can't pause at a stop sign without being propositioned. Another resident says she often sees crack whores waiting for parents on the edge of the school zone.
Almost everyone says the same thing when asked about the prostitutes: They're a part of the neighborhood -- just like the seagulls. They're always out, morning and night.
And try as they might, the cops can't get rid of them. If someone calls the cops about a prostitute, by the time an officer arrives the hooker has gotten into another car and driven away. "Only the good Lord, the Creator, can clean it all up," says Luebirdia Gee, a retired housekeeper.
The man who lives across the street from the Gulleys used to call the cops to complain about prostitutes all the time. The Gulleys have never filed a complaint. "We were concerned if we turned them in, whoever they were controlled by would retaliate," Mary Louise Gulley says.
The Gulleys don't live in Galveston full time, but they know who the regular prostitutes are. The new ones, John Gulley says, usually have a man walking with them, or riding a bike "showing them the route."
"You see them starting out and they're strutting and frisky, and then you see them go down," he says. "You see them again and again."
The couple repeats that the prostitutes don't give them any trouble. "But we don't like to have them around," Mary Louise Gulley says.
When a flowerpot was stolen from the front porch, John Gulley told the whores that if more things were stolen, he was going to get rid of the prostitutes. The women asked around and helped him locate the thief.
Robbie McBee walks her husband to work -- he's a mechanic at the Shell station. Then she buys herself a pack of menthol Newports and a Dolly Madison prepackaged cinnamon roll.
Around 7:45 a.m. she's heading home to take a shower. As she walks along the seawall, a man in a dirty white van who looks like Mel from Alice slows to her pace. "Want a cup of coffee?" he asks, through the open window.
"Coffee?" she repeats. "No."
"That's my old, old trick," she says. "He knows I don't like coffee."
She tells him she's not working anymore. He used to take her out to eat, she says. McBee is 42 years old. She has hazel eyes and long dark hair streaked with gray and a few splashes of white paint. She wears silver rings on her fingers, green glitter nail polish and bright blue eye shadow. She has about a dozen stray chin hairs and only three teeth. The rest were knocked out about a year ago. McBee says she got into a car with two guys and one put a gun to her head. She tells the story like she's Dirty Harry, claiming she told them to make her day before she jumped out of the moving car. She knocked out her teeth, cut herself up and came home covered in blood. "My son told me next time, I'll get killed," she says.
When she worked, McBee walked around wearing the same outfits she wears now. Just pants, sneakers and a loose T-shirt. "I ain't dressing up like a hoochie mama wearing junk clothes," she says.
Twenty years ago, she was a school cafeteria cook in Hitchcock. She dated her husband for three months before they got married. She has four kids. Three were raised by her sister. She says the eldest was taken from her when he was four years old. "Because I was on drugs."
Giving $5 or $10 blow jobs paid for crack. When her husband went to sleep in their room at Allen's Motel, she told him she was going to sit outside. In the morning, she came home with nearly $200. "I said, 'Look what I found, some money on the ground,' " she says. "But he knew I was lying."
Last year, she was arrested after agreeing to give an undercover cop a $10 blow job. She says her kids told her to stop working. "I've got grandbabies," she says. "I don't do it no more." McBee says she hasn't turned a trick, smoked a rock or been arrested in about a year. Fleming says that when undercover cops ask if she's working, she always says no.
McBee isn't used to sleeping nights. Sometimes she sits on the steps of the motel. She watches women head to work. "They just walk out the door and get in a truck," she says.
McBee still walks on the business side of the street, watching cars. Habit, she says. She looks like she doesn't have any place she wants to go.
This morning three men have pulled over and asked if she's working. "I say, 'No. I'm just walking home.' "
Fleming has arrested hundreds of prostitutes. All but one was addicted to crack. Most of them were born on the island or grew up nearby. Fleming says there are a few out-of-town girls, but not many.
When he arrests a hooker Fleming asks how and why she became a prostitute. It's always a variation on the same theme: Girl tries crack, girl falls in love with crack, girl wants more crack, girl spends all her money on crack, girl needs to make more money to get more crack. And prostitution is the quickest way for women to make cash, Fleming says.
One whore told Fleming that she made $50,000 a year. She spent it all on crack.
"They make the money and go smoke it up," he says. Since prostitutes and crack dealers work out of the same cheap motels, rocks are delivered like room service.
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Another former prostitute, who smoked a rock before being interviewed, says that the average hooker spends $300 to $400 a day on crack. A dime rock only gives about a 20-minute high, she says. "Then they've got to go back." And if the prostitute is crashing in someone else's house or hotel room, the crack goes more quickly. "They've got to share it. And it goes even faster," she says. "They have to go back out there and catch another trick. It's a nonstop thing."
After a prostitute's first or second conviction, the district attorney usually offers probation, including drug rehab and counseling, instead of jail time. But the women don't always take it. "You can't force it on them. But it's certainly available," Ibrahim says.
Despite prior offenses, most women don't stay locked up for much more than a week, Fleming says. And that isn't long enough to kill the craving. "When they get out, they're hitting the streets as hard as they can," he says. Almost every crack whore he's seen go through rehab immediately starts smoking and turning tricks again.
Some hookers disappear off the streets for a year or two, Fleming says. But, he adds, they always come back. Increasingly, they're coming back to the harsh glare of morning light.