Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) stops into a strange red building to find it's a brothel. We go in with him, speculate about prostitution and sex scandals and such, have a beer and leave. It's an industry in Nevada - so what can we say? Click on the thumbnail at right for the map.
"I stopped for a beer in Salt Wells at a place called Maxi's. If there was more to Salt Wells than that entirely Chinese-red building, I didn't see it. An ornamental wrought-iron fence covered the front; the gate was locked. Turning to leave, I noticed an arrow pointing to a button. Push me. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I pushed, a dark face peered from a circle scraped on a window (painted red too), the gate clicked open, and I went inside where walls, ceiling, curtains, and lightbulbs were bright red. A sign:
DANCE WITH THE LADIES
THREE FOR A DOLLAR.
"Below was a sticker, GO NAVY. A saloon as peculiar as the desert. That's when I realized it wasn't a desert saloon. It was a desert cathouse. Bold and plain, directly on U.S. 50, and flagrantly red from top to bottom."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 10
Salt Wells, Nevada
LHM is not very observant in this passage. That this passage, dealing with prostitution and brothels, is the focus of this chapter shows to me that there is some kind of synchronicity in life. The issue of prostitution has been buzzing around my ears for the past couple of weeks or so.
No, it's not any personal experience. I've never had, nor sought out, any relations with prostitutes. I have a tendency to believe that prostitution is taken up by few women who do it because they like it or consider it a career goal. Rather, I believe prostitution is the refuge of women who, for one reason or another, have ended up in what truly is a dead end job, selling the last item on their life's shelf that can be sold. I may be wrong, but it seems to be a career born out of desperate life circumstances or desperate emotional turmoil. Because it is a product of desperation, people engaging in it can be exploited just as any other people in desperate situations. They often are. But that's just my personal opinion. I respect the amazing capacity that we as people have to survive, but I wish for a day when bodies are not treated as commodities but as vessels containing something precious.
The synchronicity comes first from cooking. Recently I agreed to make a spaghetti sauce that I've been preparing since the early 90s for my co-workers so that we could share it at an office lunch. The sauce is called puttanesca, and if the history that I read about it is true, it's conception was just as interesting as the sauce is tasty. I read that puttanesca was created during a time in Italy when any kind of promotion or advertising of prostitution was declared illegal. Before, a red light or lantern was put in windows to alert prospective johns where to find the brothels. Without advertising, what were the madames and prostitutes to do to lure in business? The answer was to create a aromatic, pungent, full-bodied sauce for pasta that would feed johns, for a fee of course, but also give them a guidepost to the brothel. Now, all johns had to do was follow their nose to get to a place of ill-repute. The pasta is named after putta, the Italian word for whore. Of course, if you read Wikipedia, you'll get a different story where it was invented in the mid-20th century at a restaurant. Regardless, I love making the sauce, partly because it tastes so good, and partly because it may have such an interesting story to it. Without the story, it would just be another kind of sauce. With the story, it has something extra! Even if the story isn't true - I prefer to think it is.
I also see synchronicity with this quote in one of the lead stories in Albuquerque's news. The story originally started with the discovery of a prostitution ring centered in Albuquerque and encompassing Arizona and Colorado. The organizer was a physics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who has a summer home in Santa Fe, and who was arrested while online at a Starbucks in Albuquerque. He apparently bought a website and turned it into a prostitution clearinghouse for an exclusive group of men. Potential members were recruited by word of mouth. New male members were put on probation until they had relations with a prostitute, and on the site the prostitute reported what happened and how much she was paid. Members then moved up to "verified" and "trusted" status. Prostitutes were recruited by a "Hunter's Club" made up senior members. It was a complex ring, full of security members to foil police. But eventually, the police were able to work a few of their detectives into "trusted" positions.
When the hammer fell, one of the people caught in the ring was a political science professor emeritus and former president of the University of New Mexico. It was revealed that he was one of the ring's moderators and was a member of the "Hunting Club." His office at the university was searched, and was found to contain pornography and sex toys. His case is currently starting to work its way through the legal system.
Of course, now everyone is on edge because at some point, the names of the johns who utilized this service will become public. Given that prices for a prostitute ranged between $250 and $10,0000, I'm sure that some pretty big names in town will be revealed to have been involved in this ring.
This episode tells me a few things. One is that as long as there's a market for prostitution, it will continue to happen regardless of the penalties. Men who use the service might be sexually addicted, emotionally hurting, or morally bereft, but they provide the demand. On the other hand, prostitutes, for their own reasons, provide the supply. It's a market exchange - no, excuse me, it's a black market exchange. As a society, we attempt to reduce the supply by busting the prostitutes. However, as long as the demand persists, fueled by social problems, the practice will continue.
Second, I'm a political scientist, and I never realized that we could be that interesting. This political science professor, whom I've probably run into once or twice in the political science offices at the University of New Mexico, was living a double life unknown to his colleagues, his friends, and his wife. True, it was kind of a sad double life, but still. It makes you wonder what goes on with the people you know. I realize that we only are allowed a chance to truly know a few people, and most of the time, we see the facade or the act masking the reality.
Back to Salt Wells. I went through the place on my trip across US 50 in 2010, and never even noticed a red building. I wonder if it's still there, 30 some odd years after LHM passed through? I could see myself, at one time, being naive enough to blunder in, just like LHM, thinking it was just a strange bar. Now, after years and lots of experiences and stories like the one above, I'm a bit jaded. I realize that people are capable of anything that will hurt others and hurt ourselves. Fortunately, I also believe that we are capable of doing great kindnesses to each other and that even in the midst of prostitution rings, there are those with the proverbial "hearts of gold" helping others in the best way they know how.
If you want to know more about Salt Wells
It's a small place, and I couldn't find any mention of the brothel where William Least Heat-Moon stopped. But, if you're interested in such things, here's a list of brothels in Nevada.
Next up: Fallon, Nevada