“Have you ever been to a brothel?” she asked.
It was August 2004 and “she” was the girlfriend of one of the bikers. They were staying in the motel room next to mine at the Cadillac Inn in Lovelock, Nevada and were on their way back from the Sturgis bike rally. We were trading stories when she began excitedly telling me about the Brothel Poker Run that takes place throughout Nevada every February.
By this time I had been driving and living in my van for weeks so I stopped into Lovelock to relax, shower and look over some of the photographs I had recently taken. The late summer sun in the desert is brutal, able to push past every form of shade. Even though the air conditioner was on full blast, my room was stagnant and sweltering from having been cooked all day. To get some air I went outside and sat in front of my room to drink beer, smoke cigarettes and watch the traffic go by.
The bikers were out front of their rooms as well, a few doors down from mine. At first it was just two of them, like a couple of off-color raccoons, their faces a patchwork of sunburn and bright-white, bare-skinned eye sockets, acquired by riding through the desert all day with sunglasses on.
We sat there silently drinking our beers in the late afternoon light until eventually, with the intention of asking to do their portrait; I bummed a light and offered them a beer in return. One thing lead to another, their friends joined us and a few days later I left them with a massive hangover. I don’t know at exactly what point it was that she asked the question, but like a moment of clarity, it’s one of the few lucid memories I have from our weekend together.
I had heard the Nevada brothels existed, but going to one hadn’t ever really crossed my mind. I was never a big fan of strip clubs; they felt desperate and depressing to me. The ones I had been to were rooms full of drunken men, yelling at the sight of a nipple, desperately throwing money at women who had no intention of sleeping with them. And prostitution? Well, I had always thought of it in terms of what one used to see on the seamier streets in NY or roaming the casinos in Vegas. The legal, sanctioned, and regulated sale of sex never showed up on my mental radar.
As I was leaving town I found myself thinking about brothels, wondering what I was going to find there. I had all these preconceived ideas: double-wide trailers in the middle of a barren, dusty desert, women with no pasts and men running from theirs, whisky soaked owners trying to hustle a buck off of someone else’s misfortune. Drifters, grifters, runaways—I saw all these people in my imaginary brothel. The insides were all dark and dirty, the air was heavy with smoke, alcohol flowed and drugs were a badly kept secret. It would be gritty and American and I imagined myself making formal 4×5 photographs of all of this.
But, really, what the fuck did I know? I had never even been to a brothel before. My fantasy was filled with scenes and characters more suited to a Nick Cave song than anything that had to do with reality.
When I got back to New York a few days later, fully recovered from my Nevada hangover but still suffering from an Ohio one, I immediately began planning my trip back West and flew out a few weeks later to do some scouting.
The first brothel I ever went to was the Bunny Ranch in Carson City. I didn’t call them, had no introduction, but just showed up early one evening with some tear sheets and a vague idea of what I wanted to do. To say I was a little on edge would be a pretty big understatement.
I vividly remember sitting in my van in the parking lot outside the brothel. I sat there for quite awhile, trying to get my nerve up, breathing hard and starting to hyperventilate. I was all calm and confident talking about it back in New York, but to actually be here about to try to talk myself inside was a whole other story. I kept thinking to myself, “Why the fuck did I tell people I was going to do this! What the fuck was I thinking!” All I wanted to do was turn around, go back to my motel room and hide under the covers and pretend this had never happened. I was completely, one hundred percent, out of my comfort zone.
Reluctantly, I stepped out of the driver’s side door, walked up and pressed the red buzzer on the gate. Trying to mask my awkwardness from whoever was watching me, I took a deep breath and opened the gate, concentrating on looking as relaxed as possible walking up the stairs. I opened the frosted glass doors of the entrance, walked through and…Holy shit, there were all these women standing there in lingerie, perfectly lined up under bright lights, smiling right at me. That veneer of calm and confidence never made it through those frosted doors. I just stood there blushing, fidgeting, unable to make eye contact, holding my tear sheets and my little notebook and my binder. I was totally confused, unable even to get my rehearsed greeting out. I felt so stupid, so vulnerable and so exposed.
A voice to my right asked me to “pick a lady” so, blindly, I lifted my arm and pointed out in front of me. I had no idea who I picked; I only briefly looked up from nervously studying the floor.
She took me gently by my free hand and began giving me a tour of the house. We passed through the bar, went down this hallway, down that hallway, past the doctor’s office, outside, then back inside. I tried to explain to her that I was a serious photographer; I was here to do serious things. “There was no need for a tour,” I assured her. We went all around the house until finally we arrived at her room where she closed the door and laid lazily across the bed. With seeming unconcern, she began fixing buttons on her top which I swear didn’t need any fixing.
She looked up at me and smiled, “So, what else can I help you with?”
“I just want to take pictures,” I stuttered in return.
Arriving back in NY a few days later I was convinced that all had gone well and the sought after permission was a done deal and so I bought another van on EBay and readied for another trip.
But life and work got in the way and it wasn’t until early the next summer that I was able to get back out on the road. Now usually when I leave on one of these trips I meander for a few days, maybe go down south a bit, explore the switchbacks of West Virginia or the tiny towns out in Indiana. This year I bee-lined straight for Nevada arriving a few days after, tired and nervous yet excited for the possibilities. I spent the day after I arrived resting to get my bearings and trying to think about what exactly I was going to do.
I woke up early the next morning, feeling ready and prepared. Leaving Carson City I headed east on Route 50 towards Mound House and The Bunny Ranch.
This time when I arrived I was prepared when asked to “pick a lady” and asked to see a manager. The doorwoman, who acted as a gatekeeper for drunks and creepy photographers looking to take pictures, asked if there was anything that she could help with. As the women in the line-up relaxed and began slowly drifting back to the parlor and their rooms, I explained that I was the photographer who was here a few months ago and had been given permission to take some photographs whenever I came back. Looking me up and down she took the folder of images I was holding, thumbed through them quickly and handed it back. Bluntly she told me they weren’t interested in any photographs and the manager wasn’t available, but I could call back later that afternoon if I wanted to talk to somebody.
Not quite sure what had just happened (was I denied or just stalled?) I made the drive back to Carson City and attempted to regroup. Hours later I was still nervously pacing my motel room, back and forth from concrete wall to concrete wall, staring at the phone in my hand trying to organize my thoughts. I needed to figure out what exactly I wanted to say to whoever it was I was about to call and talk to.
After a series of fumbled phone introductions I was finally transferred to someone I was told could help me. The woman I eventually spoke with on the phone assured me that I must have been mistaken, that she was the only one that would have been able to give me that kind of permission and she had no idea who I was. She was sorry, but she couldn’t help me. “Thank you and good-bye.”
I stood there in a state of shock from the abruptness and finality of her response; I had figured that I would at least be allowed to come in for a meeting to talk with someone.
I remembered seeing a sign for another set of brothels on one of my drives out to the Bunny Ranch, so after dinner I set back out for Mound House hoping I’d have better luck at one of these houses. I found them hidden down a small slope of a hill, past a few auto painting and machine shops. This was Carson City’s version of a red light district. Three brothels—the Kit Kat Guest Ranch, The Bunny Ranch II, and The Sagebrush—were situated on a large cul-de-sac parking lot. Closing off its far side was a junkyard that filled the surrounding acres with stacks and stacks of abandoned cars and buses.
Walking into The Kit Kat was a much different experience. Gone were the bright lights and line-ups of the Bunny Ranch, replaced by a lone bartender watching TV in an empty and dimly lit parlor. As I took a seat at the bar one of the women appeared from a side hallway and slid in close to me. Eyeing the folder resting in front of me she asked where I was from and who I was looking to see. Taking out my Polaroids and placing them on the bar, I began explaining to her that I was here to start a project photographing the brothels, a very serious project. Without even bothering to glance at the Polaroids she turned, disappeared into the back and returned a few seconds later with another woman and the manager on duty. We only spoke for a short time before the manager deferred to the woman who had originally approached me and then vanished back down the hallway. I was much more comfortable here and this time when a tour was offered I was able to accept without having to look down at my shoes.
The woman who took me around was tall and full-figured. I remember being struck by how at ease she was talking to a total stranger with half of her breasts spilling out of her top. Walking through the house we chatted about possible locations to shoot and who would be up for it. She promised to talk with the owners later that day, but assured me it was all going to be just fine. We sat back down at the bar and one by one she called the other women over to introduce me. They were overwhelmingly excited about the photographs and we made plans for me to return later that week to get started. I was in and I could tell this was going to be amazing.
When I returned to the house a few days later they knew who I was and were ready for me. But, instead of this being a positive thing, I was met at the door by a large bartender resting his hand on a small caliber pistol holstered to his waist. He buzzed me through the front gate but met me outside, closing the front door behind him. He regretted to inform me that the owner of the brothel, while appreciating my interest, had to decline my offer. I began to protest, but he quickly raised his hand and cut me off. He was sorry, he said. There was nothing else he could do.
And I needed to leave the property—immediately…
Later that evening I was having a few consolation drinks over at Mo and Sluggo’s bar in Carson City, thinking back on the past few days’ events and my brief foray into legalized prostitution. The woman with the overflowing breasts had made an off-handed comment that the brothels over in Elko would be worth checking out. She thought they’d be much easier to get into. I sat there mulling over her advice. I was becoming quite disheartened by the whole process. I had been in town for some time now and was getting stonewalled by one person after another. It was probably the whiskey, but I resolved to make the drive and give it one more shot.
The next morning at breakfast I looked over notes from my recent attempts, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. What could be giving them pause? What was keeping me from getting inside? I needed to re-calibrate, to be more certain in what I was trying to say. I needed a new approach, so I wrote out an introduction and recited it over and over again to my eggs and grits until it came out smooth and natural. After downing a pot of coffee, I got in my van and merged onto I-80 to make the seven-hour drive east out to Elko.
It was the middle of the afternoon when I finally arrived in town and pulled into a gas station to ask for directions to the closest brothel. Barely taking his eyes off of the black and white TV behind the counter the attendant pointed out the window, indicating a few blocks in that direction.
Situated on two streets in a residential section of town, the Elko brothels are located two blocks from the casinos and the town center. There are five brothel licenses available in Elko and all of these are taken with four of the houses open and operating—Mona’s Ranch, Sue’s Fantasy Club, #1 Geisha, and Inez’s Dancing and Diddling.
The brothels were sitting there innocently in the midst of modest single-family houses, their neon signs not yet lit up. Kids were outside playing, riding their bikes and chasing each other up and down the block. Parking half way between two of the brothels I gathered my things, recited my intro one more time and walked into Mona’s Ranch.
Like the Kit Kat there was no immediate line-up here, just a bartender casually wiping down the bar and smoking a cigarette. Stopping mid-motion, she leaned forward on the bar and watched me walk down through the hallway and out into the parlor. “You wanna drink or you just wanna see the ladies?” was how she greeted me. I opened my folder and went right into my prepared speech. This time it came out smoothly and easily; it felt honest and sincere with no stumbling. Dragging heavily on her cigarette she turned her head to the side without moving her body and called out into the back, “Caarlii!!”
Coming out smiling from the back hallway wearing cut-off jean shorts, a pink halter-top, and flip-flops was Carli. She walked up to the bartender, leaned heavily on her shoulder and, while never taking her eyes off me, asked, “So, who’s this?”
Carli was then the Big Sister at Mona’s Ranch. She had no problem with me photographing in the house, but wanted to check with the owner first. He had just bought the place and she didn’t want to make any assumptions. She invited me into the kitchen while she made the phone call. Just as she was dialing he walked through the back door carrying overloaded bags stuffed with groceries for the week. As Carli began to ask him about the photographs he interrupted before she could finish, “Sure, whatever, but he’s your responsibility.” And just like that, in a very unceremonious way, I had finally gotten access.
Sitting at the kitchen table Carli offered me a cup of coffee and gave me a quick rundown of what to expect at Mona’s: the women, the schedules, when they’re busy, what to do about customers, some basic ground rules for when I was shooting. For instance, if I was working in the bar and a customer rang, I had to break everything down and hide it all in a side room.
I told her my story and what my experiences had been so far. When I had finished she smiled so sweetly at me. Slowly, Carli reached across the table, placing her hand gently on mine. Shaking her head she seemed as if she was going to start laughing out loud at any second, “Listen Honey… you gotta relax…no one’s gonna hurt you here.”
Carli walked me down the hall and took me to my room. It was a good-sized room, much bigger than what I had back in New York. A bare king-sized bed sat in the center of the room, pushed up against a mirrored wall. Two worn end tables sat on either side, loaded with more condoms and lube than I had ever seen before. After bringing in some clean sheets, she introduced me to Whispers, who I’d be sharing a conjoined bathroom with. Then, after offering their assistance for anything I needed, I was left alone to get settled. That was to be home for the next five days.
While bringing my gear in from the van a pair of Lucite shoes caught my eye, sitting neatly on a staircase of flocked wallpaper and lit from behind by rope lighting. I went back to my room and got my camera and some lights, setting them up slowly.
I took a photograph.
For more photos and stories, please visit Marc McAndrews website.