Sunday, February 15, 2009

Novel Economic Stimulus Package

Her name was Shannon, and she was the tallest, most beautiful woman I think I had ever seen in all of my 18 or so years. It had never occurred to me that I would find myself in the lobby of Joe Conforte’s Mustang Ranch, selecting a woman from the line up the same way you chose sides for softball. Frankly, I didn’t know what would happen, but at 18, the idea of asking for and getting sex seemed miraculous. My close buddy Jim had “connections” which meant more or less that with the little piece of cardboard, printed with some numbers on it, would equal someone putting her hands all over my body. But that’s the way it worked. Jim had selected a tall red head, as I recall, and Shannon threaded her way through the maze of rooms to her tiny, windowless space. She looked at the card Jim had given me, and said, “OK, just a minute…” and left the room with the card. When she came back, we got to work…

Legalized prostitution has been a part of Nevada’s landscape for a long, long time. While there were notorious red light districts in the gold and silver rush ghost towns of old Nevada, there was perhaps no more famous purveyor of sex than Joe Conforte. The millions of dollars he made from the world famous Mustang Ranch was paid out in taxes to Storey County, where I grew up in the county seat Virginia City. He was written about widely, including a couple of notable articles in Rolling Stone, Look Magazine, and The Boston Globe.

But by the 1990s, Conforte had managed to burn a lot of bridges, and was accused of not only bribing any number of county officials, but also of underpaying his taxes by millions of dollars. He did what any self-respecting pimp would do: he got his money out of the country and moved to Brazil. You should check out his story: Google Joe Conforte and Mustang Ranch.

Prostitution poses some fundamental questions about life. It is at once the greatest betrayal of innocence and the most pragmatic business available. Most sensible people know better than trying to legislate morality, but remain uncomfortable with the issue of sex for money. It’s a hypocritical position – even for me – on one hand to condemn the idea of prostitution, while justifying the capitalistic egalitarianism of it all on the other. Oh, and possibly engaging in the commerce as well.

I even have one friend who believe that it is Johns who are being exploited. They are, reasons my friend, paying for what might under other circumstances be given for free.

Joe Conforte

In any case, since its legalization in Storey County in 1971 (my visit would have been in 1972 or so), the ‘cat houses’ as locals call them, have been limited to rural counties of the state, an not allowed from the bustling gaming metropolises of Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe. Those same (hypocritical) civic leaders felt legalized prostitution in those big casino areas would discourage families from visiting. This led to some of the biggest and best known brothels being located within a 30 mile radius of those big gaming centers.

The economic downturn has caused some of these communities to reconsider that reality, as you can see in this Neal Karlinsky portrait of brothel owner Dennis Hoff on ABC Nightline, Feb. 5, 2009. The 6:40 video even features a brief sequence shot in my home town of Virginia City.

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