Sunday, January 20, 2008

The SC debate, episode 2: Cruising for prostitutes in an evangelical town

Gee it's cold here in Myrtle Beach. "The radio said it might snow," said the clerk at my hotel. Snow? I came all the way to the Sunny South for snow? Not! But then I went up to my hotel room and wrote a story on American politics and economics and that made me happy. Having something to write about makes me happy. And do you know what else makes me happy? Being well-fed and warm!

My hotel room was cold and the only available food was a vending machine full of unhealthy stuff on the 11th floor but I took a hot bath, bought some Fritos and was happy again for a while. Until I started to get really hungry again.

"Is there any place around here that I can walk to and buy a sandwich," I asked the hotel clerk. She looked at me like I was nuts. "Walk somewhere? This is strip-mall country, lady. Get over it. It's 9:30 at night and it's cold and it's raining. Either pay for a taxi or order out." Or words to that effect. And then she handed me a menu for Domino's Pizza. No thanks.

So I decided to walk around in the rain and check out my options. And the hotel clerk was right. There was nothing. I have been told that Myrtle Beach during the spring and summer is a jamming place full of people and action but during the off-season, it's dead. And it was dark and cold outside. You couldn't see the ocean and I was getting all rained on and soaked.

So in the cold, in the night, with my wool scarf pulled over my head, I crossed the street back to the hotel. But then suddenly a new-model gray car pulled up beside me, driven by a middle-aged man who rolled down his window and asked, "Do you want a ride?" I nodded my head and, without thinking, jumped into the car.

And as soon as I had done that -- what was I THINKING! -- it dawned on me that in the rain, in the dark, this man had taken me for a prostitute! Crossing the road at night, with my scarf over my head, he hadn't been able to tell that he was dealing with the 65-year-old grandmother of a one-month-old child. The guy had taken me for a streetwalker. But he was a Southern gentleman and, like Rhett Butler, masked his disappointment well -- that I was obviously no Scarlett, er, lady.

"Hi. I'm Jane. I just got into town to cover the Democratic presidential primary debate and I'm looking for something to eat. Know any restaurants around here?" And then Rhett Butler took me on a two-hour tour of the streets of Myrtle Beach. Did you know that in January, Taco Bell and Subway close at 10 pm but Dennys and KFC stay open until midnight? Word.

"You know," stated Rhett, "there are lots of prostitutes in Myrtle Beach." Nope. I didn't know that. I had assumed that, judging from all the church buildings I'd seen so far, that this was a clean, evangelical town. But that sentence was a great conversation-opener. "Some men drive all up and down Ocean Blvd. looking for them." But not you?

"No, not me. When I get restless and can't sleep at night, I just drive around."

"So. Who are you going to vote for in the primary?"

"No one. I'm an independent." That surprised me.

"And what do you like about Myrtle Beach?" The whores?

"The golf courses. I'm a golfer. There are 100 golf courses in Myrtle Beach. Even if you golfed twice a week, it would still take you six months to play all of them. My handicap used to be 11 but then my back went out. I've been playing golf since I was a kid." Then we passed another bunch of churches and he got back to talking about his other favorite sport.

"A lot of the prostitutes around here are on drugs. They work to pay for their drug habits. They'll earn $40 for a trick and spend 30 of it on drugs."

How much of what Rhett told me do you really want to know? He read me the full menu of prices and services but I'll try to clean it up a little bit. After all, this is an evangelical town.

"A BJ is $40. Done right in the car while driving around." Isn't that a bit of a traffic hazard? "If you want the full service, it's $120. For two minutes. During the high season, a girl can clear $1,300 a night." Two minutes? Two minutes?

"And then there's the escort services. They come right to your hotel. But they cost a lot more." Naturally. If you want quality work, you gotta pay more.

"The police are trying to clean up the town so sometimes the girls work on the side streets." We drove up and down a lot of side streets, presumably still looking for a McDonalds.

"I befriended this one girl named Mandy. Her father had raped her when she was 14 and she'd been working the streets for the last ten years. I've been helping her clean up." That's nice. But actually Rhett was a really nice man. And kind of sexy. Hell, I don't think this guy needed to have to pay for sex. So he must be doing it for the excitement. Or for the social work aspect.

Rhett drove me up and down the coastal highway. "This is what is called the Grand Strand and it runs along the beach for 60 miles." Then he drove me through a huge complex of condos, malls and shops. "This area is called New Town. It's under construction." But it was dark and empty out there and I nervously re-directed Rhett back to our search for food. We drove back up and down Kings Highway for a while. There were a LOT of pancake houses. But they were all closed.

"Some of the girls work for guys who protect them," said Rhett. You mean pimps? "But they're all nice girls. They hate what they do. But they need the money. You gotta feel sorry for them." Yeah and just how sorry do you feel? I myself feel sorry for the prostitutes for having to be out in the freaking rain in the middle of the freaking cold night in mini-skirts. That's gotta hurt.

"Oh they don't wear mini-skirts in the middle of winter. They bundle up." Then how the freak do you tell they are whores?

"The way they look, the look in their eyes." Had I also had "The Look" in my eyes as well? Or could he even tell from behind my glasses and wrinkles? Probably not.

So we drove around Myrtle Beach for another ten or 15 miles, found a KFC, got some dark meat, biscuits, synthetic mashed potatoes and corn on the cob and then drove back to my hotel. I thanked Rhetta lot -- no, not THAT much -- and went back to my hotel room, secure in the knowledge that the Southern gentlemen of South Carolina were being well-serviced and taken care of and could continue their fight for Christian morality in politics with more vim and vigor, thanks to an occasional refreshing night out.

But we never did see any prostitutes.