When no answer is immediately forthcoming, the boyish-looking young man who calls himself Cliff decides to prove the point with cold hard cash. After a brief struggle to get his hand into the pocket of his tight, fashionably distressed jeans, he finally extracts a thick wad of ten- and twenty-dollar bills representing that night's labor--about $150 for two hours' "work."
Flashing an engaging smile worthy of a Disneyland tour guide, he says, "If you don't burn people or get in over your head, this can be a very profitable business." And for the time being, at least, he's living proof.
A FULL MOON HANGS above the intersection of Second Street and Portland, casting eerie shadows over the nocturnal netherworld that is the heart of the Valley's homosexual cruising district. Probably because of their proximity to two gay bars, the palm-studded streets of this inner-city residential neighborhood offer a convenient meeting place for young men selling sex, and older men in the market for same. Says one former lamppost Lothario, "When you see guys driving through the hustler strip, they're out there looking for men--they don't want tuna."
Although you won't find the "Fruit Loop" (as it's known in some circles) listed in any Chamber of Commerce literature, the hustler zone is one of the city's worst-kept secrets: For more than a decade, a national guidebook for gays has euphemistically heralded the area as a good place to pick up "hitchhikers."
This night, cars slowly prowl the neighborhood, their drivers intently eyeballing the young male merchandise. Languidly lounging against street signs, palm trees, fire hydrants and any other backdrops that lend themselves to provocative posturing, about ten of the back-street brigade are on hand to return their gazes with come-hither looks. It's a street corner named desire and, for as long as many observers can remember, its denizens have always depended on the kind of strangers willing to drop $20 or more for some easy action in a poorly lighted parking lot.
By all accounts, those strangers are exclusively male. Asked whether he's ever seen (much less serviced) any female customers, a 21-year-old hustler named Steve laughs sardonically. "You kiddin'? A woman can go all sorts of places and pick up a guy. She doesn't need to come down here. Besides, it's too dangerous." He should know. A self-described heterosexual "burn artist," the unemployed cement finisher claims that he simply robs anyone unlucky enough to invite him into his car.
"I'm in a desperate mode," says Steve, who moved his family to Phoenix from San Diego more than a year ago in anticipation of a job that never materialized. The sole support of a wife and two children currently holed up in a Van Buren motel room, he says, "I play it off until I get that cash in my hands and then I jump out of the car. I've jumped out 45 miles away from here and hitchhiked back. If I see some totally junked-out homo with a big old rope of gold on his neck and I'm hungry and broke, I'm gonna snag that gold. I'm straight--I'm not going to touch these punks. I've got my wife and I can't bring nothin' home to her."
Although his ethics leave a lot to be desired, Steve's loot-'em-and-leave-'em technique at least sidesteps one of the biggest perils of this risky business.
"There's a lot of denial and rationalization going on out there," says Mari Murrin, case manager for the Arizona AIDS Project. So much, in fact, that since January, the organization has operated an outreach program in the area, using an unnamed bar as a distribution point for condoms, educational literature and frank talk about AIDS prevention. Although Murrin claims that the Valley's hustler community has been receptive to the program, she admits that her work is often frustrating. "They're thinking, `It's not going to happen to me.' Or, being junkies, some of them are so sick that they just don't care." "We laugh at people who are trying to blame AIDS on the gays," reports 23-year-old "John," a part-time bag boy who supplements his meager income by servicing the parade of "fat, balding little trolls" who he says solicit his services. "Their wives won't give 'em what they want, so they go find a little boy who will," he explains. "You know, some cute young guy who'll give 'em a quick blow job and make 'em feel like a man. Basically, you make them feel wanted, like they're worth something."
A hustler for the past five years, John began working what he calls "the wrinkle patrol" right around the same time that AIDS first started making headlines. "It was like `AIDS KILLS QUEERS!'" sneers John. "Well, as we now know, it was never a gay disease to begin with."