Lee stares out at Washington Boulevard through the late-evening drizzle. No one's driving by, except for the 97 bus, which rolls over a plastic soda bottle with a sudden pop! It sounds like a gunshot but Lee doesn't flinch. He's familiar with what real gunshots sound like.
It's only a few blocks away from the bustle of the Fox Theatre, but tonight the Stroll's dead. If the johns were trolling past in their Mercedes, in their SUVs and Crown Vics, more guys would be hustling hand jobs and head and Lee likely would have scored by this hour, thanks to his young soft face and sweet-thug appeal. But tonight it's only him and one other guy out here, pacing the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center.
Like Lee and all the other prostitutes on this street, Mike's a black male. But he's got the haggard looks and the jittery moves of a crackhead. Lee's not homeless, not a crack addict. He's 28 and lives at home with his parents, which helps explain why he wants to use an alias for this story. They would kill him if they knew he did this.
A black SUV approaches. Lee and Mike wave but the guy rolls on.
"Is that a Lexus?" Lee asks.
"Nah," Mike says. "It's a Range Rover or something."
The rain comes down harder.
Lee finds a dry doorway, lights a cigarette and misses his chance at a new-looking green pickup. Mike flags down the driver and strikes up a conversation through the rolled-down window. Less than a minute later, he's inside.
"I know that guy," Lee says sourly, watching the car pull away. "He ain't gonna get nothin' from that guy. He tried once with me. It was like, five dollars."
He hikes his New York Yankees jersey up over his head to ward off the rain and crosses the street. Minutes later his perseverance pays off, in the form of a Chevy Blazer. The driver, fiftyish, looks well off, but Lee won't ask him any personal questions as they drive around. Instead the transaction is negotiated, then quickly administered.
"He was drivin' with one hand and jerkin' me with the other," Lee recounts. "He jerked me off for $25. Done deal, you hear me? Done deal! It didn't take nothin' but about five minutes."
Cash in his pocket, he heads back to Mom and Dad's.
Over the Harbor Light Center's sparsely appointed entryway, a device that looks like a ceiling fan in a science-fiction movie spins, emitting purple-blue ultraviolet light. The contraption, called a Silent Air Mover (SAM), represents the latest weapon in the war on tuberculosis. The center has about ten of these $1,500 bug lights, which purport to zap all bacteria in their path.
"TB is an airborne thing, and this is a critical area," explains Tim Best, a Salvation Army captain and a Harbor Light administrator. "Those in the homeless population are more susceptible to TB. They don't get tested, so they don't know they have it, and so when it goes active it doesn't take much for you sleeping next to me on a mat for me to breathe it in." On any given night, Best adds, up to 49 homeless men sleep here on three-inch-thick pads.
Though the St. Louis Health Department boasts that the Harbor Light is the first place in the U.S. to use the technology, some say it's a Band-Aid approach, similar to the way the city fights prostitution. Rather than work to prevent the problem before it starts, the effort simply seeks to slow its spread.
A pudgy and genial ex-cocaine addict who was once homeless himself, Best understands the plight of the men who come in here. The Harbor Light facility at Washington Boulevard and Garrison Avenue operates drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, job-training programs and a veterans' re-integration program, and it's equipped with beds for men who are too sick to sleep on a mat. Though the facility was built to house 150 per night, it sometimes serves as many as 300. Some stay for one night, some stay for the better part of a year.
The nature of the relationship between the Harbor Light and the men who walk the Stroll is a complicated one. Because they are required to be indoors and accounted for by 9 p.m., those who bunk at the facility can't participate in the nighttime street scene, which usually heats up around midnight.
But Lee says male prostitution and the shelter go together like condoms and lube.
"It's an easy target for homosexuals," he explains. "They go by a men's shelter. They know that most times a man in a shelter, he is down and out. So he's an easy prey." He motions with his hands as if giving out cash. "'I'll give you this, I'll give you that.'"
"Gerald" used to walk the Stroll. Now he stays at Harbor Light. The unemployed 33-year-old's life story is full of ups and downs. He comes from a well-to-do family in the county. Openly gay, he took up prostitution and his family disowned him. In 2000 he began hanging around the Stroll, hooking and developing a crack habit.
A few months ago he came to the Harbor Light for the rehab program, and now he's trying to find a job. Today he picked up applications from Wendy's, Rally's and McDonald's. But now, shortly before lights-out, he's in the mood to reminisce about his best client.
"He would pick me up further down Washington, in a Mercedes I think, around 1 or 2 a.m.," Gerald recounts. "He was a banker at Bank of America or US Bank. I'd see him every week or every two weeks, he'd drop in randomly. We'd go to a hotel on Grand and he would bring food -- Chinese food, Popeye's or Lee's chicken.
"We'd sit down, eat and then get into the grind. He gave me $200 to get down and dirty -- not intercourse but oral sex. We'd stay until we finished, four hours or five hours.
"They're not getting the satisfaction from their womens," Gerald speculates about the men who visit the Stroll. "How they wanna, when they wanna.
"Or else they're not ready to admit they're gay."
To see him in a white T-shirt that contrasts with his bloodshot eyes, it's difficult to imagine Gerald in high heels and a dress, his fingernails and toenails painted red. But this is the way he'd dress for the Stroll. His crack addiction, he says, was a motivator to work, and the drug, in turn, helped him maintain the energy to stay out all night long. Now, between detox and job-hunting, he hasn't been walking the Stroll.
But he plans to go back.
"This is me, this is my life," he says. "I had some good experiences at it, dressing up as drag queens."
In 1980, plainclothes St. Louis police officer Gregory Erson was killed while working a prostitution detail. In those days the Stroll was located on Washington Avenue at the eastern edge of the Central West End, and it featured women. Erson's death prompted a major police crackdown. A decade later, in 1992, comedian and activist Dick Gregory led a march along the Stroll with the goal of reclaiming the neighborhood from its seedier elements. "The people must get the courage to know they can do something about the prostitutes and dope dealers," he told the Post-Dispatch. "With courage comes the power."
A year later 34 female prostitutes and 34 johns were arrested during a two-week crackdown on the "South-Side Stroll," located in the area framed by South Grand Boulevard, Jefferson Avenue, Meramec Street and Gravois Avenue.
St. Louis has had a Stroll for as long as anyone can remember, and female prostitutes continue to ply the above areas. But nowadays "the Stroll" refers to the region roughly bordered by Washington Boulevard and Locust Street on the north and south and Jefferson and Compton avenues on the east and west.
Carter Hendricks owns a business in the neighborhood, but he's concerned that there might be break-ins if his shop were to be identified in print. He's been here since the late 1980s, Hendricks says, and first noticed the male prostitution trade about ten years ago.
"The clientele has changed," he says. "The clientele in the mid- to late '90s was much more heavily married white businessmen from the county. You know, driving Oldsmobiles."
But now more of the men doing the trolling are black. Hendricks speculates that many are on the "down low" -- black men who consider themselves straight but have sex with other men on the sly. Whatever the case, Hendricks says the Stroll is busier than ever: "It's a marketplace, and sometimes the marketplace gets really organized. It's been more of a problem again in the last few months."
Because the neighborhood is dominated by light industry, for a long time the night moves didn't prompt much public outcry, according to Robert Berger, chairman of the Locust Business District. But loft renovations have begun to draw a residential contingent.
"About six years ago we had thirteen families within our district," Berger says. "Now I wouldn't be surprised if we had close to a hundred. Over the past year and a half, two years, you're seeing more and more individuals parking their cars and walking to their place of residency. At our meetings there'll be people coming up and complaining about auto break-ins, or break-ins in their place of business, or being accosted on the street, or a woman's purse being stolen within that area."
One disgruntled resident is 38-year-old advertising writer Wade Paschall, who moved into a restored loft near the Stroll three years ago. He's now trying to mobilize his neighbors to get the area cleaned up.
Paschall believes Harbor Light isn't pulling its weight.
"It's hard to go after an organization like the Salvation Army," he says. "It's like: 'Who can hate ice cream?' On their own, all their programs are great. But when you put them all together, it's just sort of this recipe for disaster. There is a lot of overcrowding in the facility. This is not a case of, 'Hey, I don't want this in my backyard.' It's that this isn't working for the guys inside any more than it's not working for me. I don't think it's that they have any bad intentions, it's just that it's gotten beyond their control."
Tim Best says that's a common misperception.
"I would absolutely dispute that it's not working for these guys," the Salvation Army captain counters. "Anybody who feels that way ought to come down and let me take them on a tour and show them that we're a series of connected small groups. While I understand the view from outside -- that we're a big facility where everything is all melded in together -- what we really are is a mini-continuum of care. Providing care for a guy who is just coming off the street, all the way to guys who are being restored in their work ethic, who are being restored to their family. Treatment begins when a guy comes off a mat and enters into the program."
"You drive by at night and see ten guys loitering in front of the building," Paschall complains. "If they're Harbor Light guys, then why aren't they inside? And if they're not Harbor Light guys, then why doesn't the Harbor Light call the police?"
Best says he does precisely that. "However, if they're across the street, we've been told in the past that we don't have the right to call the police for people that are not on our property. Well, we call anyway, and if they are our guys they are brought inside, and if they're not our guys they're asked to move along.
"There's a view that because there are guys hanging around in the neighborhood, we're not being effective," he continues. "But a lot of those guys are not our guys. We don't like it either -- it makes it difficult for us to do our jobs as well."
Robert Berger would just as soon see the Harbor Light pack up and leave. His business-district group has met with local aldermen and Salvation Army officials a number of times over the years, hoping to persuade them to relocate, but nothing has been worked out. Harbor Light, meanwhile, has been rebuffed by city officials in its attempt to expand eastward onto an abandoned block the Salvation Army owns east of Garrison.
Best dreams of an insulated, aesthetically pleasing campus. "One of the things I'd love to be able to do is have a campus-style setting where we're blocked off, so that the neighborhoods don't get too concerned," he says. "We'd have a lot of green space, so that when you drive down the street guys aren't hanging out on the corner. They wouldn't need to be if we had a city block, or two, where we had nice decorative walls and green space, picnic areas -- places just for them to hang out while they're not doing anything."
Until then, Berger contends, something needs to be done.
"With more individuals moving into the area, the safety of these people lies in the hands of the Salvation Army. They've got to change with it. I believe they should consider moving before one of their people ends up hurting somebody. At that point in time there's going to be a ruckus."
After a few weeks off, Lee's anxious to get back to the Stroll. But before hitting the street on this summer night, he kicks back with a tallboy of Busch in a car parked in front of his parents' house.
When he left just now, his mom asked where he was going. "I just gotta handle some business, you hear me?" he told her, sounding like 50 Cent -- affable yet vaguely menacing.
Lee says he's close to his mother. She was shot a few years ago in a gang-related spree that his family fears may been intended for him. While their mother was in the hospital, his sister padlocked the house and the family scattered. With nowhere to go, Lee crashed at the Harbor Light. He hated it.
"I'd rather be on the street than staying somewhere like that," he says. "Those guys are straight trash."
He says his current situation isn't bad. He has two young daughters he sees often and hopes to get married soon to his girlfriend of a year (she's not the girls' mother). His parents continue to take care of his financial needs, which is more than most 28-year-olds could ask.
"I don't trip off money like that," he says. "I got a nice house. I live good, I eat good. They support me as far as food, clothes, everything. Unless I'm trying to get something I don't need to be getting."
What he doesn't need to be getting is drugs. Lee's got a pretty demanding weed habit and dabbles in coke and heroin. He took to the Stroll six months ago, after he got fired from a landscaping job. A friend from the south side told him about it. "He told me I could make some cheese by doing nothing, just by standing around," Lee says. "Disgracing myself for a minute, but not too disgracing."
An aspiring rapper, Lee has laid down some of his tracks but has yet to catch a break in the music business. He says his brother recently got him a job washing dishes in Clayton, which he'll start soon. But the Stroll is his most reliable source of income. "It's kinda tough out here. But I don't got nothin' better to do, nothin' that I'm good at," he says. "I knew there was money in that field. I'm down there to get in where I fit in."
Lee spins countless tales of tragedy, including the time he and a friend were walking in this north-side neighborhood one early morning in 1993 and discovered a corpse just around the corner from his house. He interrupts his narrative to spit out the open window. A decade of friends and family getting shot has left a bad taste in his mouth.
He says he recently tested negative for TB, HIV and other STDs. If a john on the Stroll wants more than the hand job he offers, he turns them down.
"I don't get down like that," he says. "I come from a moral family. I don't lose my morals. I don't need no cheese like that. I'm not gonna penetrate nothin'; they can't put their mouth on it. But you'd be surprised how many just want to jerk me.
"You have to have boundaries, because you can hop in the car with a mothafucker who's a straight-up serial killer, a Ted Bundy-typa shit," he says. "I know the dangers of all that. I got in the car with mothafuckers before and they ain't got no conversation for me. I say, 'Hey, pull this car over and let me up outta here.' You know a lot about someone when you get in the car with them by their conversation. If they ain't got nothin' to say, then there's probably something else on their mind. You gotta read signs and you'll be all right. Don't look at the dollar signs. I watch enough Court TV to know that people are sick."
His line of work, he speculates, is even more dangerous than a female prostitute's.
"With all these faggots out here, I guess it's kind of different than women prostitutes. It's more sick-ass men out here.
"This ain't for everybody," he says suddenly. "To me it's sickness. Even though I do it. You gotta be something wrong with you if you can participate in something like that. What ordinary, normal person would participate in something like that? I might not do what some other guys do down there, but at the same time I still participate in what's going on down there. That makes me no better than them. No matter how I make my money, it's still foul."
Before he leaves for the Stroll, Lee excuses himself, walks across the front yard and relieves himself on the side of his parents' house.
Will Lipe, a St. Louis police officer who works out of the Ninth District, has come to a meeting of the Locust Business Association in order to bring those present up to date on what the department is doing to combat prostitution in the neighborhood.
"Over time we have gotten buildings in the area torn down in which prostitutes would take their customers and do whatever," Lipe says. "We do occasionally have the vice squad that goes down there and picks up male prostitutes, just like they do with female prostitutes that you see on TV. Undercover, targeting the customers or targeting the prostitutes themselves."
One resident has joined the business owners at the meeting and asks what to do if she sees men hustling. "If you see them and you think they're engaged in prostitution, call 911," Lipe advises. "We'll dispatch a car that should -- at the very least -- run them out.
"Unless they actually see them engaged in prostitution, solicitation, et cetera, they can't really charge them with that," Lipe goes on. "But they can arrest them for bench warrants. I would say a large percentage of them have bench warrants."
(A few weeks later, Lee will be arrested on the Stroll for outstanding warrants -- driving without insurance or a valid license -- and spend four days in jail.)
"There is male prostitution in the area. We are aware of it," Lipe assures the group.
But the same cannot be said of some of his superiors.
Harry Hegger, division commander for the Fourth, Fifth and Ninth districts, says he hasn't heard the area around Washington and Compton referred to as "the Stroll."
Police chief Joseph Mokwa, however, is familiar with the situation.
"The department is aware that there are some prostitution issues, and we've been aware of it for some time," Mokwa says. "We're trying to collaborate with the Salvation Army, and we recently had a meeting with the circuit attorney, and the public safety director for the city and neighborhood residents. As more residential development continues in this area, there's going to be less tolerance of that kind of behavior.
"We're also looking at long-term solutions to try and make sure we don't have recidivism," Mokwa goes on. "The best solution is to modify the lifestyle of people that are engaged in prostitution, and get whatever kind of systemic problem -- whether it's alcoholism or drug problems -- that's forced them into this lifestyle. Secondarily, if that's not productive, we'd like to have the judges prohibit the people from being in the area that they've been arrested in the past. Thirdly, I guess we'd have to incarcerate people if the behavior didn't stop, and diagnose why they're in that area in the first place."
Harbor Light security manager Sam Taylor pilots a Salvation Army van around the neighborhood several times every week, telling loiterers to move on. Having patrolled the Stroll for years, Taylor thinks police should focus more on the johns.
"I'm not saying they're not doing all they can," Taylor says as he cruises the area late one night. "They've been stepping up their efforts. Maybe the officers who ride through here should spot some of these cars that come around the block five or six times, get a license plate and run 'em. Then you'll see where most of these guys are coming from" -- the implication being that johns are commuting in from the county.
"Just in the last six months to a year we kind of hit critical mass, having enough people where we felt like we can start making a difference here," says Wade Paschall. "We said to the police, 'Hey, we live down here, we work down here and we want to help you guys in any way we can.' We are just in the beginning stages of doing that, but I think you're going to start seeing a lot of cracking down."
A lot of times the way you can tell that they're here for sex work is that they may stand against the wall and may peer into cars for long periods of time. Another way to tell is if they're walking around and they're not walking around for any particular reason."
Some people have a special talent for discerning the flavors of a fine wine, others for identifying rare species of insects. Anthony Galloway can spot a male prostitute from a distance of 100 yards.
An openly gay, 23-year-old black man, Galloway works for the St. Louis Effort For AIDS, specializing in outreach to at-risk gay men of color. On this pleasantly cool Thursday night, he's making his rounds on the Stroll, handing out "Safer Sex Kits," each of which contains three condoms (two regular and one flavored), a packet of lubricant and a sheet of safe-sex tips. By the time he's done he'll have given kits to about half the two dozen or so men he encounters. Later tonight hustling will be even more bustling.
Galloway has been handing out the kits on the Stroll for five years. Somebody has to do it, he says, noting that Harbor Light doesn't distribute condoms and the St. Louis Department of Health and its Metropolitan Center for HIV/AIDS Services, located nearby on Grand Boulevard, will likely move soon. HIV and AIDS, meanwhile, are on the rise in St. Louis, which also boasts the nation's second-highest rate of gonorrhea and ranks third in chlamydia.
Galloway, who distributes condoms in "public sex environments," including clubs and places that sell pornographic materials, speculates that the down-low phenomenon, coupled with garden-variety Show-Me State homophobia, combine to draw johns to the Stroll. "Missouri is a highly conservative state. It's very homophobic, which has a lot to do with the amount of down-low men," he theorizes.
Although some Stroll denizens wordlessly refuse Galloway's kits, many recognize and return his greeting. Some know him by name. And in exchange for a few dollars, many are willing to talk about their lives.
"I love women. Sex with men I really don't like," says a middle-aged Stroll walker who identifies himself as John Smith and goes so far as to produce his Social Security card to prove it. "I don't like it, man, but sometimes you gotta make ends meet."
Smith says he's been on the Stroll for ten years, during which time he has developed a special relationship with some of his clients.
"Sometimes guys might just want a hug or something -- it's not always about sex. They come down here to get somebody they can be friends with. Some guys come out here because they want somebody to be with them that's for real, that's down to earth.
"I like to be around them just for the company," Smith goes on. "Someone to talk to, man. Some of 'em are really good listeners, and some of them will befriend you and help you out in any way they can. They might want you to cut their grass, they might want you to put up a computer stand or something."
And what of those who characterize the Stroll as a den of secret, seedy commerce?
"It's not secret -- what's so secret about it?" he responds. "Everybody's business is not everybody's business. A lot of people come down here, man. You've got guys that's got wives. You've got guys that's in church, that's preachers, you've got schoolteachers, you've got people with high status, man. They want to keep it low-key. Everybody entitled to their own privacy, right?"
Answering his own question with an affirmative nod, Smith gets back to his business.