It's almost midnight and Melody is walking down Sepulveda Boulevard in the east San Fernando Valley. She's about 30, from Detroit, hair slicked back, checkerboard miniskirt, earrings the size of silver dollars dangling on her black leather jacket.
"You sure you're not a cop?" she asks, her cigarette ash falling on her black purse.
Melody is a prostitute, and she has good reason to worry about getting arrested. Last year, the Valley had the dubious distinction of being home to the four Los Angeles Police Department divisions that reported the highest numbers of sex-related crimes. That has brought the patrol cars and vice investigators out in force.
And although many familiar with the scene say the Valley's prostitution problem used to be worse, concern is growing that the hookers are making a comeback, particularly during daytime hours.
"From sunset to sunrise they know to stay out of sight, but during the day we are starting to see them again," said Philip "Flip" Smith, a Sepulveda tire store owner who is chairman of Mid Valley Business Watch. The merchants group recently met with vice officers to push for a crackdown on prostitution. "We're trying to nip it in the bud."
When prostitution in Los Angeles comes to mind, people think Hollywood. If talk-show hosts tell a joke about streetwalkers here, chances are Sunset Boulevard will be mentioned, not the Valley.
Prostitutes have worked the busy corners and cheap motels of Sepulveda Boulevard for years. But the days when the sidewalks were crawling day and night with scantily dressed women appear gone. One can still find a hooker on Sepulveda, but it takes a little effort.
On a Friday night, a construction worker stands in front of the Pink Cloud Motel in North Hills, looking up and down the street. He's frustrated that there are no prostitutes in sight on this stretch of Sepulveda.
"Man, I heard you couldn't miss around here, but what's up tonight, ain't nothing happening," said the worker, Jose Marcos, 24, a Huntington Park resident staying in the Valley for work. "When I get a little wasted, I don't care, I just want one of them. What I like about it is you don't have to ask or answer any questions."
But this night, Marcos will be alone in his dimly lit $33-a-night motel room. Alone on a hard bed with one porno channel and an array of offensive odors. If Marcos had stayed out a bit longer, he would have found what he was looking for. He would have spotted Melody, who so far had managed to avoid arrest.
The manager of the Pink Cloud said that prostitution at the motel was a problem several years ago, but has since ended.
"We don't let them rent a room here," said Robert Li. Like the other motels on the Sepulveda strip, the Pink Cloud has posted a sign stating that prostitutes and their customers are not allowed.
"We don't want that kind of business," Li said. "If we see the same woman with different men, I tell the man he can't get a room here."
In 2000, the five divisions that make up the LAPD's Valley Bureau logged 1,665 reports of sex crimes, which include prostitution, soliciting for prostitution and other sex offenses, excluding rape. The bureau with the next-highest number of those offenses, Central, had 1,029. The busiest Valley divisions for sex offenses were Van Nuys (367) and Devonshire (346), both of which cover the Sepulveda strip.
In terms of actual prostitution arrests, not just crime reports, the West Bureau, which includes Hollywood, had the most in the city last year. West Bureau reported 1,059 prostitution arrests, compared with 604 in the Valley Bureau. An LAPD analyst explained that often a crime is reported but no arrest is made.
Citywide, prostitution arrests dropped to 3,407 last year from 4,460 in 1999.
Prostitution in the Valley took hold before the San Diego Freeway was built, when Sepulveda was the main drag toward Bakersfield and Fresno. Motels dotted the boulevard, catering to truck drivers and traveling salesmen. Hookers moved in. After the freeway was completed, the motels lost business and deteriorated. But the prostitutes remained.
Despite today's high number of crimes, police and city officials say they have made progress in trying to clean up the Valley. In 1996, the Valley Bureau recorded 1,903 sex offenses.
Aides to the two City Council members whose districts include Sepulveda's motel row and surrounding areas said the prostitution problem has eased over the last three years.
"We haven't had a lot of complaints lately," said Candace Campbell, who represents Councilman Joel Wachs on the Public Safety Committee.
An increased police presence has made the difference, according to authorities. On a recent weekend night, five black-and-white cruisers rolled through the intersection of Sepulveda and Nordhoff Street within three minutes.
"It's not like the old days," Deputy Police Chief Ronald Bergman said. "Part of it is us doing a better job of keeping track of offenders and of concentrating our forces in trouble spots."
The police and city officials also credit Sepulveda corridor business owners for working hard to get the hookers off the streets.
But it doesn't take many prostitutes to leave scars on a neighborhood.
On a Thursday night, two fourth-grade girls are standing inside the barred fence that separates the Newport Apartments courtyard from the sidewalk. The apartments are surrounded by six motels.
The girls know about the "working ladies."
"It's kind of scary and sad but not that scary and sad," said one 9-year-old girl. "We see just a little bunch [of prostitutes] in the day."
A couple of days later, shortly before 8 a.m., a prostitute is standing near a public phone in front of a liquor store on Sepulveda north of Roscoe Boulevard. She has persuaded a man to change the oil in her battered, rust-covered Chevrolet Chevette in the parking lot.
"Hi, are you a cop?" Lynn Dickey asked.
Dickey, wearing white nylons, black pumps, short shorts and a waist-length jacket, is nervous that she'll stand out in the morning traffic. A polar bear on Sepulveda would stand out less. She said she would tell her story but only in the security of a stranger's car.
Dickey is 34, with thick blond hair, big brown eyes and upper teeth almost completely ground away--the result, she said, of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Shortly after graduating from Redondo Union High School, she sang in a talent show. After the show, she said, she was offered money to have sex with another woman.
"I was 19 and I got paid $100 and I liked it," said Dickey, her eyes darting around.
"I feel pretty OK about myself, but I wish I didn't have to worry about my caps," she said. "Maybe one day I'll get my teeth fixed."