These days, not even sex sells

Powers is a Times staff writer.

The women at Donna's Ranch are crowded around the kitchen table on a warm summer night, dining on stir fry, tugging at thigh-high dresses, griping about depleted bank accounts. At this northeastern Nevada bordello, which marks a gravel road's end, they woo grizzled truckers and weary travelers for a single reason: money.

Lately, the women don't go home with much.

Amy, 58, once bought a $32,000 Toyota Tacoma in cash; now her $1,200 mortgage saps her dwindling pay. Some weeks, she could make more flipping burgers than flirting under a made-up name. Marisol's daughters think she works at a resort; she struggles to keep up the ruse. It now takes months, not weeks, to bring $5,000 back to Southern California.

"Marisol," one of her regulars tells her, "it costs me in gas what it takes for me to spend a half-hour with you."

Tonight, she tries lingering at the dimly lighted bar that's decorated with red Christmas lights and smells of hot dogs and beans. Wearing a shimmering strapless top, Marisol sips cheap champagne and tries to seduce travelers, some with thick guts and most with thin wallets. After 20 minutes, she gives up.

Signs of the economic free fall have cropped up in many of Nevada's 25 or so legal brothels. The Mustang Ranch, for example, has a steady stream of customers, but the number of women vying for work has soared. Even a 74-year-old applied. This summer, the Shady Lady gave $50 gas cards to those who spent $300. The Moonlite Bunny Ranch offered extras to customers paying with their economic stimulus checks.

Here, 180 miles west of Salt Lake City, near the junction of Interstate 80 and Highway 93, Donna's Ranch has seen its business plummet nearly 20%. More than three-quarters of its customers are long-haul truckers, and high fuel and food prices have drained them of "play money," owner Geoff Arnold says. That cuts into pay for his 10-member staff and the "working girls."

Marisol, 49, retreats to the kitchen, a homey nook with lemon-yellow walls and a plate of scones that another woman whipped up. Amy is staring at the Lazy Susan, snuffing out a Misty cigarette. "There are two guys," Marisol says, her voice thick with frustration. "They want to relax and drink a beer and think about it."

She plops into a chair, pushes open blue curtains and scans a parking lot, bathed in yellow and pink by the neon advertising DONNA'S. Her face puckers. It's empty.

--

The brothel's woes start with the barflies, who are hoarding what little money they've saved. Tonight, two of them slouch in their stools and bemoan the economic slump, their voices rising to near shouts.

"The government's got to do something," says Dean Hargis, a tattooed trucker who calls Springfield, Mo., home. "Everybody who eats or drinks anything, they're going to hurt. It affects what I eat, it affects what motel I stay in, it affects what dog food I buy."

David Zett, a long-hauler from Loretta, Wis., gulps a Miller Genuine Draft and bashes oil companies: "They've got you over a barrel and can do whatever they want to you, and they don't even kiss you when they're done."

"Just like this place," Hargis says.

"No," Zett says. "They kiss you."

The bartender, Gayle Salinas, shakes her head. She's pinching pennies too. She used to take home $50 in tips at the end of most shifts. Now she might pocket $12. Her pay is linked to how much the prostitutes make -- and customers aren't choosing their most expensive offerings.

The women negotiate the price of "parties" and their duration, which the bartender tracks using kitchen timers. Ten to 15 minutes costs at least $100. Customers once regularly paid thousands of dollars for extras listed on a hot-pink "menu" -- but these days, for example, few men desire the hot tub or mirrored fantasy room.

Earlier that night, Marisol had guided Rob Siddoway, a gangly, pony-tailed trucker from Tooele, Utah, into the fantasy room. This was his first brothel trip in a year; he used to stop by every few months. "See how comfortable you can get?" Marisol coos. She points to a red-blanketed, circular bed and a pillow stitched with the word LOVE.

"You can see yourself in the mirror," she says. He looks instead at her: olive skin, substantial curves, dark, tired eyes. He passes on buying an expensive party. Marisol isn't surprised. She had played a fortune-telling card game that afternoon; it showed the future would bring little cash.

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About a dozen years ago, Arnold plunked down more than $1 million for Donna's Ranch. He's a certified public accountant in Boise, Idaho, and had combed the books of several brothels; buying one seemed business-savvy. He owns another in Battle Mountain, Nev.

"They're easy to run," says Arnold, president of the state brothel association. "If you keep the girls happy, you're done. If the girls are happy, then the guys are happy. I can't think of any other business as good as a brothel, except for a doctor's office -- they're equally profitable."

Billed as the West's oldest continuously operating bordello, Donna's Ranch greets drivers with a sign that depicts a cowboy-hatted, buxom brunet preening atop a truck bed. The red-roofed, single-story brothel is plagued with leaks; a recent earthquake cracked its beige exterior. The women's rooms are small. Most have a double bed, a television and DVD player, and tables with assorted lotions, sex toys and toiletries. There's also a handmade sign that reminds customers: Tips are appreciated.

From 2006 to 2007, the brothel's revenue climbed 7.6%, to about $1 million. This year, Arnold expects to make about $200,000 less. Closing that gap is tricky: Brothel advertising is legal, but billboards and bus ads risk upsetting neighbors. So the bordello sponsors a soccer team in Boise and a rodeo in Wells. It also bought lights for the high school football field and gave local motels pens, which boast that Donna's is "Your Biggest Bang for the Buck."

Arnold's staff clips coupons to slash the $3,300 monthly grocery bill. He brainstorms other cost-cutting measures. He owns 33 acres in Wells -- enough room, by his calculation, for five to 10 cows that could feed his workers.

"That's what we've come to," he says, chuckling at the idea. "Donna's Ranch could be a real ranch."

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In the kitchen, Amy alternately smooths her black, rhinestone-trimmed mini-dress and reddened hair that falls to her waist. She appears about a decade younger than she is, with a trim figure, high cheekbones and a tendency to giggle.

She waits for the CB radio to crackle. During even-numbered hours, the women take turns sweet-talking truckers. (They cede the odd-numbered hours to Bella's, the other brothel in this city of 1,300 people.) The tactic, which lures more than a third of Donna's customers, is more vital now that business is slumping.

Amy is perched on a chair, legs crossed, a wedge heel dangling off French-manicured toes. At last, a trucker grunts through the airwaves: "Where you girls at?" Amy leans toward a microphone and urges him to pull off at Exit 352.

"Are you the Asian girl?" he asks.

"Bingo!" she says.

Amy has worked in brothels, on and off, for eight years. She needed cash to get her own place, but also blames "a broken heart." Her grown son is the only person who's figured out her line of work, something she admits with downcast eyes.

She typically does three-week stints, but starts wanting to go home to Utah after two. She used to pocket $6,000 each time -- even after splitting money with the house and covering room and board, condoms, licenses and legally required medical tests. But what she wistfully terms the good old days -- when she could see up to 13 men a day and afford to turn down customers -- are gone.

Tonight, the bartender counts four brothel customers. Maybe, Salinas says, things will pick up. Some car buffs are in Wells for a show. "I don't know," Amy says. "They bring their wives." The other women -- who likewise use pseudonyms and hide their jobs from their children and friends -- are discouraged too.

Tori, a blond veteran with a no-nonsense manner -- she waves off questions about her age -- commutes from the Reno area with an array of wigs and sequined get-ups. In the early '90s, she was laid off from a Southern California real estate office; she eventually turned to the brothel circuit: winters in southern Nevada, summers up north. She wants to work in auto sales but makes do at Donna's.

"Some other places want you to work 24 hours," she says. "They don't want you to sleep."

Danielle, younger and more reserved than the other women, is passing time solving word puzzles. She is milky-skinned with a long brown ponytail. She ended up here after a divorce. She periodically flies to South Carolina -- ticket prices have soared -- and tries to return with at least $2,000. But most customers have been trying to bargain down their prices. Some are paying with credit cards -- an indication they don't have as much cash. (The receipts say Apache Wells Development Co., not Donna's Ranch.)

"Whatever they have," Amy says, "you have to take it."

Earlier, when she was parrying with the trucker, Amy curled up at a folding table just big enough for a radio and mike, a water bottle, a gray stuffed kitten, an ashtray and a dry erase board listing selling points:

Free beer. Free chili. Free shower. SOUVENIRS.

"I'm going to bed," the trucker tells her.

"Maybe come here and have a happy ending?" she purrs.

"Tell me what a happy ending is."

"I can't talk about it over the radio."

Silence.

Thanks, the trucker says. Not tonight.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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