hat first night, I lay in bed listening to the doorbell ring continuously, announcing the arrival of male visitors. I had been given a vacant room down Hallway B, what was called the night girls' hallway. My neighbors all worked the shift from eleven P.M. to eleven A.M. Because of the brothel's narrow hallways, no wider than four feet, and thin walls, prostitutes' rooms were typically clustered by shifts so that off-duty women could sleep undisturbed. I could hear a woman's moans through the rice-paper wall at the head of my bed. For a moment, I was alarmed: Was someone hurt? Then I reminded myself where I was, and tried to figure out whether these were sounds of genuine pleasure. I couldn't tell. Every few minutes, her customer emitted a rough grunt and occasionally they both laughed. I couldn't help but think that the sounds the man was making were deeply unarousing; I tried to imagine being forced to act pleasured by some man I didn't know making guttural animal sounds, and I couldn't. At least I felt relatively safe, though I did have fleeting fears of awakening in the middle of the night to find a drunken man groping at my nightgown. (Although I'd locked my door, I was sure the push-button lock was easy to pick.) I closed my eyes tight and let the thoughts pass. I had nowhere else to go.
The next day, I began interviewing women, with the help of Irene, Mustang #2's manager. Irene had been at Mustang for two years. Unlike most brothel managers, she hadn't been a prostitute. She had come to Mustang as a "square," as prostitutes called those outside the sex industry. She took a job as a cashier four months after her husband's death. Three months later, she was promoted to manager. She was a short, squat woman in her late fifties. Her matronly physique contrasted with a crass tongue and gruff cigarette-scarred voice. She had seen her share of hard times, she told me, and believed it was just happenstance that she herself hadn't become a working girl. An unwed teen mother in the 1950s, she had married a man she never loved to escape her mother's house. During the 1960s, she worked at a racetrack in Philadelphia; there she had her first exposure to prostitutes and started a love affair with a married Philadelphia Tribune sportswriter. Eventually she married him and they lived happily together for twenty-two years, until his untimely death at the age of sixty-five.
Her lack of experience in the sex industry had made her timid, even fearful, during her first months as cashier, Irene confided. Rather than mingle with the girls or customers, she kept to herself and stayed inside her cashier's cage. But the loneliness of a recent widowhood drove her to seek connections with the prostitutes, many of whom seemed as solitary and abandoned as she felt. Quickly, Irene became Mustang #2's den mom, attending to the women's needs and judiciously doling out hugs and discipline.
Irene made it perfectly clear at the outset that she was the prostitutes' advocate. She wanted the women to clearly understand the purpose of my study before they agreed to participate. To give the women some privacy, she allowed me to use her office for interviews. With her support, and the $40 cash I promised each woman upon the study's completion, most of the prostitutes at #2 agreed to participate.
My first subject was Star, a young black woman dressed in a turquoise spandex bodysuit. She had long, straightened hair and ebony skin that was smooth save for one small raised scar over her left breast, from a cigarette burn many years earlier. As she walked into the office, she immediately made her reservations known. "I can't waste no time back here. I have to earn some money." I proceeded tentatively, glancing her way anxiously whenever the doorbell rang to announce a customer. In spite of herself, however, Star seemed to enjoy the interview and actually looked surprised when we finished nearly forty-five minutes later. A look of consternation crossed her face as I explained the next phase of the study.
"You want me to save the rubbers?" she asked, incredulous.
When I tried to explain that I needed to examine the condoms for breaks, her eyes glazed over and she cut me off. "Just so long as I get my forty bucks at the end."
I interviewed five more women that first day. Though very different in appearance, all were surprisingly attractive, I found myself thinking, from a buxom Native American with silky-smooth black hair to her waist and bloodred fingernails, to a bleached blonde with serpent tattoos spiraling up her calves. I guess I had expected to find only tough, hard-looking women. Many of Mustang's women could have been mistaken for beauticians or department-store cosmetic saleswomen. There were even a few women whose endowments and overt sexuality suggested a centerfold, the American sexual gold standard: Ashley for instance, a statuesque working girl in her early twenties who wore a sheer black peignoir trimmed with lush marabou over a rhinestone-studded black bikini and matching black marabou slippers.
At the end of my first day, I felt relieved not to have offended anyone with my questions. Irene invited me to join her and Roxanne, the laundry maid, for dinner. I followed them into the brothel kitchen, a large open room with industrial refrigerators and a large stainless-steel restaurant stove. Cliff, the brothel cook, had prepared a buffet of warm dishes. I took some homemade fried chicken and a baked potato, and Irene chose barbecued ribs and collard greens. We carried our plates over to one of the six tables covered in plastic red-and-white-checked tablecloths scarred with cigarette burns. I was struck by how good the food was. Working girls continuously interrupted our meal to gripe to Irene about a customer who'd failed to tip them or a colleague who borrowed and mistreated an outfit. In between complaints, Irene and Roxanne groused about specific girls who copped princess attitudes and refused to clean up after themselves.
That night I fell into bed exhausted, almost too tired to hear the sounds of sex coming through my bedroom walls. I wondered how much of my exhaustion came from the shock of the new, and how much was due to the brothel's poor ventilation and ubiquitous cigarette smoke.
The next two days, I woke early and continued interviewing women. By now, everyone in the house--from working girls to cashiers and bartenders--knew I was George Flint's guest, a researcher from a university who wanted the women to save their used condoms. Occasionally, staff members would come up to me to ask what I planned to do with the condoms. I got the sense that some of them thought I had a fetish.
As the women became more accustomed to me, they grew friendlier. At first, they approached only to recount stories about collecting the condoms. One woman described how her client had wanted his used condom to be recognizable, so they had tied it up with a red ribbon. Another apologized because she hadn't yet collected all ten condoms for which I'd asked; she had only had six "dates."
When I wasn't interviewing, I tried to keep a low profile, and hid out in the kitchen or television room, listening to the doorbell ringing in the parlor. I wasn't sure whether brothel management would permit me to sit in the parlor among the women and clients. Would my presence seem disruptive? Would I distract the women from their business? What if a client approached me? Staying out seemed the best way to assure not wearing out my welcome. Still, I couldn't help being curious.
Irene must have picked up on this, for on my third night she invited me to join her at the bar and offered me a seat with good visibility of the parlor so I could watch as men came through the front door. The drill was remarkably systematized. To gain admittance, clients rang a bell on the electrically controlled outside gate. Before being buzzed inside, they were surveyed by the cashier or floor maid in the daytime, by a security guard at night. Men who appeared drunk, rowdy, or underage were denied entry.
By the time men reached the front door after walking up a sixty-foot pathway, women had arranged themselves in a lineup in the center of the parlor. Customers were greeted by the spectacle of twenty or thirty women of all shapes and sizes and in various degrees of undress, standing at attention like a row of X-rated Barbie Dolls. "Welcome to Mustang Ranch, sir," said the floor maid, who greeted men at the front door. "These are the ladies available to you. Ladies, please introduce yourselves."
One by one, the women went down the line offering their working names, aliases such as Bambi, Fancy, and Champagne. On cursory inspection, most of the women appeared pleasant, smiling cordially but reticently, in compliance with house rules. A few dared to flirt more candidly, teasing with a sly wink or flashing a coquettish glance. On closer examination, the women's eyes revealed more genuine feelings: annoyance, indifference, desperation, disdain, agitation, and occasionally intoxication.
The customers didn't seem to notice. They were simply too stunned. Some communicated their astonishment with awkward exclamations: "Holey moley! " "Wow, what a spread!" The dramatic ones staggered backward; a few even clutched their chests. One astonished man dressed in a cotton jersey and sneakers stood motionless and asked, "What do I do?"
"You choose, honey," said the floor maid. It was her responsibility to shepherd along baffled customers.
Excerpted from Brothel by Alexa Albert. Copyright © 2001 by Alexa Albert. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.