It was midnight, and the driver of the late-model blue Mercedes had spent a few minutes cruising Santa Monica Boulevard before pulling up near one of several young male prostitutes beckoning from the curbside.
The youth leaned into the car, his face just inches away from that of the middle-aged driver. A moment later, he scurried around to the passenger side, hopped in, and the sedan slid off into the night.
The scenario would be repeated many other times that night along a stretch of the boulevard that runs from the eastern fringes of West Hollywood well into Hollywood, and on other nights and days as well.
It is happening so often these days, in fact, that residents and merchants are up in arms, and police are sending vice reinforcements to the area to combat what they say is a rising incidence of male prostitution.
For years, it was the female prostitution trade flourishing along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards that disrupted the business community and residential neighborhoods, and heavily taxed law enforcement efforts.
But now, Hollywood vice officers say, male prostitution has become a far worse blight. Even more worrisome, they say, are the public health implications, because male prostitutes are far more likely to be infected with the AIDS virus, and because some unsafe homosexual sex practices are far more likely than heterosexual encounters to transmit the virus.
Authorities and social service agencies estimate that as many as one in four male prostitutes are already carrying the AIDS virus. And they say a sizable percentage of the male prostitutes add to the AIDS risk by being drug abusers, sometimes injecting drugs with shared needles.
"I think they are signing some death warrants," said Lt. Peter Durham, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood vice unit. "It scares the hell out of me, and it scares the hell out of my men."
Many of Durham's men fear arresting male prostitutes, who they say bite, scratch and spit at them. "One officer was bitten, and the guy said, 'I've got AIDS and I hope you die,' " Durham said. He said the deputy had to undergo monthly tests for the AIDS virus.
Durham stressed that prosecution of male prostitutes "is not a gay issue" and that most prostitutes he has encountered say they are not homosexual.
Many of the prostitutes are young runaways, looking for quick food and drug money and a way off the harsh streets of Hollywood, even if just for the night or a few hours.
"I quit last year," said Dave, 18, "because I got tired of having middle-aged men looking at me like I was a piece of garbage, and having to sleep with them just for a place to stay."
Dave, who said he worked the streets through most of his teens, has seen the number of male prostitutes rise and fall with the seasons, sporadic police enforcement efforts and other factors. One constant, he said, was that the male prostitutes show few, if any, signs of practicing safe sex.
"These are kids who are self-destructive. They are committing a slow suicide out there," said Ann Donahue, executive director of Covenant House California, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth.
"It seems amazing to me that in the era of AIDS there are johns willing to pick up these kids knowing what a high risk they are," Donahue said. "And yet they still do. It doesn't seem to have abated in any way."
In fact, added Jack Allen, who coordinates the street outreach program for the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center, many customers are willing to pay a prostitute more for engaging in unsafe sex practices, such as forgoing a condom.
Allen spends a few hours a day talking to the prostitutes, trying to direct them to shelters, job training programs and medical centers and giving them free condoms and bleach for their needles.
"It is really frightening when you think about it, the rate of the disease spreading in this particular population," he said.
A recently passed state law requires that anyone convicted of prostitution be tested for the AIDS virus. They must be notified if they test positive, and any further arrests for prostitution are prosecuted as felonies, said Durham, the LAPD vice unit chief.
Nonetheless, police keep arresting the prostitutes, and they keep returning to the streets, often within hours. "It is a society problem, and I don't see a police solution," Durham said.
That has not stopped police from trying. On a recent sweep, LAPD officers arrested more than 60 prostitutes, the vast majority of them men. And more enforcement efforts are in the works, Durham said.
"(Prostitution) is up currently on Santa Monica (Boulevard), and I don't have a real good reason for it," Durham said last week. "There is no doubt about it."
According to LAPD statistics, the Hollywood area has had more prostitution arrests, male and female, than any other part of the city this year.
Sgt. John Fletcher, in the LAPD's citywide vice enforcement office, said the four worst city areas for prostitution are Hollywood, MacArthur Park, the Newton Division south of downtown and the Figueroa Street corridor.
In Hollywood, police made 117 prostitution-related arrests in March, the most recent month for which figures are available. The total was 443 for the first three months of the year. (They do not break down prostitution arrests by sex.) Last year they made 431 prostitution-related arrests through March, and 1,975 arrests the entire year.
In preparation for what he expects to be a very busy summer, Durham said he is diverting many of his vice officers down to Santa Monica Boulevard, even though the hot weather also is bringing out more female prostitutes. With the gamut of other vice-related offenses occurring around the clock in Hollywood, his enforcement teams will be stretched very thin, Durham said.
One explanation for the increase in activity in Hollywood is that many of the male prostitutes have moved eastward as a result of a crackdown in West Hollywood earlier this year. An all-night hamburger stand there that was a haven for drug dealing and prostitution was shut down as a nuisance. And the city of West Hollywood evicted a free-meal program from Plummer Park and banned sleeping in the park.
"They have to find greener pastures, I guess you'd call it," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. H. Snyder at the West Hollywood sheriff's substation. Deputies, who provide police services to West Hollywood, still arrest about 20 male prostitutes a week, he said.
Snyder estimated that there are several thousand male prostitutes in Los Angeles and that many roam back and forth between West Hollywood and Hollywood. That way, when they become too familiar to police and judges in Los Angeles, they can move across the city line and start over with a new police force and new judicial system.
"You can literally stand there and watch them troop across from Hollywood into West Hollywood to work the streets," said Edward Riney, a member of the Eastend Community Action group and the West Hollywood Crime Task Force.
While Riney and dozens of other residents held a rally last Saturday night to call for increased police action, about 18 male prostitutes loitered on the opposite street corner. Some of them cursed the residents; others watched out of curiosity and indifference.
On several recent nights, patrol cars seemed to be everywhere on and around Santa Monica Boulevard. But the instant they passed, male prostitutes would emerge from the shadows, from behind bus benches or alleys, or from side streets and go back to their preferred waiting spots. Many never even bothered to hide their street-walking activity.
It is that brazenness that has irritated the merchants along the popular thoroughfare and the residents on the side streets.
"It's totally out of hand," said Maxine Weinman, owner of Maxine's Seafood Cafe in a mini-mall at Santa Monica and Highland Avenue. Weinman said a dozen or so male prostitutes work out of the parking lot and a nearby doughnut shop day and night.
"They have made it their little home. They hang out in front of it, on the side of it, in the parking lot," Weinman said. "They have hurt my business--there is no question about it. And they accost my customers, who don't want to get out of their cars."
Things have gotten so bad at that corner that the property owner hired a security guard, Mario Vasquez. Attired in a snappy black-and-white uniform, but without a gun, Vasquez on a recent afternoon was poking around the parking lot, looking for loiterers.
Speaking mostly in Spanish, Vasquez said he is afraid of male prostitutes because they fight him when he tries to force them off the property. "Sometimes my job is difficult," he said, displaying a knife wound and saying a male prostitute had slashed him. "Even in the afternoon it is terrible--a lot of people come looking for the prostitutes."
Weinman and others say that a security guard and heightened police presence in the area are useless and that even the countless arrests don't help.
"The jails are overcrowded now, so they pay their fines and they're right back out on the street," Weinman said. "I don't know who to complain to at this point."
William Hasley and residents of Curson Avenue are complaining to police.
On Curson just north of Hollywood Boulevard is a row of million-dollar homes that has become a popular spot for the prostitutes to bring customers. Hasley and 40 other residents met with Durham one night last week to express their anger and concern.
"I've been walking my dog, and they'll be going at it right there in the car, day or night," said Hasley. "I rap on the window and a businessman looks up like he's having a heart attack. . . . But (such intervention) could get dangerous. One of them could have a gun."
Durham said his officers have arrested 24 people on Curson recently, mostly males. He said he sympathized with the residents.
"I don't know about you, but if that was happening in my neighborhood I'd be mad as hell. How do explain to your kids what those two people in the car are doing to each other, whatever it is they are doing?"
For the most part, merchants and residents praise the police for their efforts. But Durham told the Curson crowd what police have been telling residents for years when they complain about prostitution: that authorities depend on organized watch groups to call them when illegal activity is spotted.
Merchants along Sunset and Hollywood boulevards even chipped in a few years ago to buy police a computer to keep track of female prostitutes so their rap sheets could be accessed immediately. Otherwise, those using aliases often escaped the harsher sentences given to repeat offenders.
Now the computer has 15,000 names in it, Durham said, adding that police efforts to clean up female prostitution were aided by the opening of a Hollywood division of Municipal Court and by pressuring motels to stop offering rooms at hourly rates.
Durham remembers being a Hollywood vice officer in 1980 and spotting 175 prostitutes one night on a stretch of boulevard between Normandie Avenue and Crescent Heights Boulevard. "I'll buy you a steak dinner," he said, "if you go down there today and see 20 whores."
The female prostitutes are still around, but are a much less visible and chronic problem. Increasingly, Durham said, they are traveling to Las Vegas when there is a big-ticket fight or other event, and even to Hawaii, taking advantage of low air fares and the booming tourist business there.
Some residents say the confrontational nature of the male prostitutes and their mobility will require more cooperation between city and county officials.
A few years back, police cleaned up a male prostitution problem on Santa Monica Boulevard with help from Weinman and other concerned merchants.
"Now there is just a total infestation of them again," Weinman said. "They've got to find some way to put these people in jail. The problem is they all know they can get away with it, and that I am helpless."