Tough Row To Ho

Can the city's seediest street ever be cleaned up, much less gentrified?

Her mother named her Sabrina, but The Troll is what she's called on the street, and the label is cruelly accurate. She's short and squat with thick, white thighs spattered with an archipelago of yellowing bruises (fading souvenirs of previous beatings). She tries to smooth down her skirt to cover the marks, but as she talks and wiggles, the garment gradually rides back up. Her hair is short and bushy and dyed a brassy orange, her complexion spotted with acne.

The Troll is 18, she says, and was turned out in Denver by a pimp she met online two years ago. She usually brings in about $500 a night, she claims, but Phoenix has been rough on her. All this jail time is seriously affecting her income, although right now she's worried more about the man who beat her last night than about another arrest. She breaks into tears as she confides to her neighbor on the floor that she's worried about where her "boyfriend" will sleep tonight without her money.

She screws up her face as she describes the circumstances of her arrest, maintaining she was only waiting for a cab to take her to the bus station and back home to Denver. "I can't believe I got arrested for trying to go to Colorado!" she wails.

A woman is arrested for soliciting sex on Van Buren.
A woman is arrested for soliciting sex on Van Buren.
Prostitutes are arrested and then processed in a mobile command post off East Van Buren's beaten track.
Prostitutes are arrested and then processed in a mobile command post off East Van Buren's beaten track.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

As more whores are brought in, the blonde next to The Troll quits crying and acquires an attitude. "I've been drinking at a bar for the last four hours," she says, insisting that the only reason she got in the car with the man who busted her was because she had hoped he would take her somewhere to pee.

"What? A person can't straighten up and go to a bar now, can they? Fuck these police; they're fucking pigs! They don't try to help your shit, they just say, Stop ho-ing.'"

A TV crew is here filming a cable documentary, and the blonde shouts her frustration straight into the camera as the interviewer nervously grips her microphone.

"Just because a bitch carries a condom, then, oh, she's a ho. Do you know how many times I've been raped? If they have a condom, at least they use 'em."

The blonde, encouraged by her nascent television career, tries to cheer up The Troll, who is weeping next to her.

"All these square-ass bitches [she's apparently referring to women who will watch the documentary out there in TV land], they wouldn't last one day on the street, and they're out there smirking at us thinking we're dirty."

She adds angrily: "We're the ones who figured out we can make money from our pussies!"

The camera shuts off, and the crew thanks her for her comments. "Wait," she asks them. "Do I get paid for this?"

Next to her, The Troll is having a life-changing moment, a revelation Casillas says many in his custody feign. She remembers being a good girl once and swears she's ready to become one again. Enough with selling herself on the street and worrying about police and shoe-wielding pimps. She vows to Casillas and his squad that she will return to Colorado, go back to school and become a beautician. If only they could just forget about this arrest.

"I just want my life to be straightened up," The Troll sobs, wiping her nose with the back of her one uncuffed hand.

The blonde looks her up and down and states, "You a ho! It ain't never gonna be straightened up. Once a ho, always a ho. Get used to it."

Which sums up what is at the core of Casillas' frustration, what causes his otherwise sunny disposition to go dark now and again. No matter how many hookers he arrests, sometimes the same ones come back. And when they don't, others show up.

"It's nice making arrests, but it gets to be the same year after year," he says wearily. "You start thinking something must be wrong."

Part of what's wrong lies with the judicial system, he says. Members of the oldest profession are arrested on misdemeanor offenses that not even the courts take seriously.

A prostitute will be jailed for a night, then bailed out by her pimp the next day, often for a few hundred dollars. "That's nothing to them," Casillas says. "They can make that in one or two tricks."

By the time the court date for the first offense rolls around, he says, "we have arrested the same girl five, six, even eight times."

Often, judges will offer the girls a deal, rolling all the misdemeanor cases into one. If the prostitute agrees to plead guilty, she may be allowed to trade jail time for a 36-hour prostitution diversion program called Dignity House. Although some go through the program and leave the street, many skip class, skip town, and begin the process again in another city.

Likewise, hookers who are forced out of other cities come to Phoenix. It's the street's reputation that brings them to Van Buren.

So half a century later, the irony is that Van Buren's destination resorts of the '50s and early '60s still draw conventioneers and tourists. It's just that, nowadays, they only stay for an hour or so.

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