I was on break from college. I attended a private university in Denver- several schools had offered me a partial scholarship to study art (useful, right?), but the city of Denver seemed to me far more appealing than Philadelphia or Raleigh. The small liberal arts school operated on a trimester system, which meant that we got a very long break between the fall and winter trimesters- about 6 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I always enjoyed traveling home to visit my family during this vacation, and this particular year I was hoping to return to school with some money saved up. My third day home, after the novelty of boredom had worn off, I retreated to my room with my laptop and a cup of coffee to search for a short-term job.
Sifting through everything from catering assistant to delivery driver, I found an ad requesting someone to answer phones and do administrative work in an office. I was intrigued- office work sounded considerably fancier and more lucrative than slicing pizzas or wiping tables for 6 weeks. The instructions I received were to come in for an interview the next day, a Saturday. I thought this was unusual, but the next morning I got up and put on my best clothes, a pinstriped gray blazer and black slacks, and drove over to the location specified.
The office wasn’t far from my house- maybe 10 or 12 minutes driving. It was a nondescript, tan building that I must have passed a hundred times before, but never noticed. Finding the glass doors locked, I called the number for the business and a man answered, saying he would be right out. I was surprised when he came into view. Based on the lackluster appearance of the building, I had somehow expected my interviewer to appear equally drab- but this guy was easily over 6 feet tall and probably 250 pounds. His white teeth gleamed, a sharp contrast against his dark skin as he smiled and shook my hand. He was wearing jeans with carefully embellished pockets, and an untucked polo shirt. Recovering my manners after a moment of shock, I smiled and introduced myself, following him down a nondescript hallway to the office suite.
Halfway down the hall, he stopped abruptly to open a door marked with a nondescript name plate I can’t recall. We entered a cramped room, jammed full with 2 tall cubicles set up facing away from one another. The large potted plant next to the door, the only form of decoration, seemed like an afterthought next to the cubicles and undecorated walls. Stepping past the cubicles, he opened another door, and when I stepped inside his office my mouth fell open in shock.
The walls, the desk, a small side table against the back wall- every square inch seemed to be covered in framed photographs of girls. I couldn’t help but stare around the room, trying to process what I was seeing. Most of the pictures were of women, posing erotically for the camera. Was it porn? No, it couldn’t be- most of them weren’t quite naked, and there was no sex happening in any of the images. Many of the girls had posed for their pictures in obscenely skimpy bikinis that were somehow more risque than if they had been naked. Unable to shake my surprise and confusion, I felt vaguely out of place in my conservative, professional clothes.
I tried to collect myself, dazed by shock as I sat in a guest chair in front of his desk. The man took a seat. If he was aware of my shock and confusion, he didn’t show it as he calmly and congenially addressed me. I don’t think he ever told me his name- if he did, it certainly wasn’t his real name. He explained that the position would pay $8.50 per hour, and that there would be no official paperwork. I would be paid in cash once a week. Wait, I thought, surely this man does not think I’m going to do anything as indecent as these women? And especially not for $8.50 an hour? I mustered up the words to form a question.
“Uh, can I ask what exactly the position entails? I’m not sure I understand.” I asked tentatively.
“Here, let me show you,” he said, standing to usher me back out to the front room with the two cubicles. At this point, my shock had been replaced with insatiable curiosity. What the hell had I stumbled into? I had already decided that if this man asked me to pose or do anything indecent myself, I would absolutely refuse. But for being such a large man, he was somehow very nonthreatening, and I was dying to know exactly what this operation was. It turned out to be even more absurd and obscene than I could have possibly imagined.
The man walked around one of the cubicles to the desk. It was appointed with a desktop computer and multi-line phone, like a real office. But then he pulled out a porn magazine, asking if I had ever looked closely at one before. I shook my head. He flipped to the second-to-last page, which was covered in a grid of about 25 photographs of women, with names and phone numbers listed underneath each.
“These are my ads. We have ads for about ten, fifteen different girls, all with different phone numbers. We make it look like their cell phone numbers, but they all route here” he said, motioning to the phone on the desk. “The guys call in because they want to talk to the girl. Your job is to figure out which girl they think they’re calling. You pretend to be her, and you give them directions.”
“Directions where?” I asked, struggling to understand. Giving directions didn’t sound much like phone sex, either, so I still had no idea what his business was. The man didn’t answer right away, instead pressing the power button on the computer. Once it booted up, he opened a web browser and clicked a shortcut to a site that seemed to be a live camera feed of the inside of an apartment. The screen was broken into two sections showing different rooms- a kitchen with the early morning light streaming through the glass doors, and a living room with a view of the front door and a staircase. Suddenly, a woman entered the frame. She was wearing lingerie that showed off her tan skin, and her long dark hair flowed down her back. Another girl, blonde, followed behind her.
“These are my girls,” the man explained, “Once you figure out which girl the guy is calling for, you need to look and make sure that we have someone working who looks a little bit like her. I usually have two, maybe 3 girls working at once.
“When a call comes in, you figure out who they should be matched with, then you call the girls and let them know someone is on their way. Tell the guy how much money to bring and give him directions to the Walgreens around the corner. Have him call to let you know when he arrives there. Then, give him directions to the place. If he doesn’t show up within 5 minutes, then we know some funny business is up. But they almost always show up.”
I was quietly processing the information. So this was a prostitution-type situation? It didn’t look anything like what I would have thought, much more organized than scenes in the movies. I found it oddly fascinating- who knew that pimps could be so strategic?
“When the guy shows up, you will be able to see him in the doorway here,” he said as he motioned to the camera feed of the living room, “The girl will tell them to put the money down on that table in front of the hidden camera, so you can see them pay. Once they go upstairs, you start the clock. If they don’t come back down within an hour, call and let me know.”
I was dumbfounded. What should I do? Really, I knew that I should just leave and go get a normal job making sandwiches or operating a cash register, but those jobs wouldn’t pay any more, and this one seemed infinitely more entertaining.
“Okay,” I said tentatively, waiting for further instruction.
“Okay,” he replied, “you start today.”
And so it began. I quickly realized that my normal “Good afternoon, thank you for calling” technique wouldn’t work for answering these sort of calls- after all, these guys thought they were calling some slutty girl’s cell phone. So I quickly adopted a sort of breathy, psuedo-pornograhic tone of voice when I answered. It seemed to work well, and soon I felt more confident picking up the phone pretending to be Kimmie / Lola / Da’niqua.
Once I had mastered the voice, I had to learn to deal with the strange and varied situations that cropped up on a daily basis. First of all, figuring out which girl to be was not as simple as it sounded. Luckily, once I said “hello?” in my best Marilyn Monroe impression, the guys usually followed up with something to the effect of “Uh, hi, is this Tiffany?” Once I familiarized myself with the fourteen different girls on the ad page, I was able to quickly adapt, even if the guy tried testing me. And some did test me, suspiciously and eagerly asking for my measurements to see if it matched whatever image he had in his head.
I did get a few creepers, of course. Some guys wouldn’t say anything, just breathing heavily in the background while they presumably jacked off to the mere concept of a female human on the other end of the phone. There was one guy, Jose, who would call every. single. one. of the fourteen fake girls- stringing the conversation along in the same broken English each time. It didn’t take long for me to lose my patience with this, as he thought he was calling all different girls, but it was me every time. I tried my best to vary the pitch and tone of my voice to create the illusion of different people, but he eventually caught on that he was talking to the same person- “Mmmm, hello there. Wait… did I just talk to you? No, you’re the same girl!”- and hung up in a huff.
Overall, it was an incredibly easy job. Other than the busy hours full of lonely callers on Friday and Saturday evenings, the phone didn’t ring all that often. And since the pimp rarely stopped by, I was completely unsupervised. I spent most of my time there creating elaborate doodles with professional markers on cold press paper, texting my friends back in Denver, and napping.
Often, I would entertain myself admiring the antics and mannerisms of the girls in the apartment. They were constantly prancing around, flipping their long hair, and sipping mysterious beverages. After weeks of watching them on a daily basis, I developed a voyeuristic curiosity, and sometimes considered asking them how they came to choose this as a profession. I was always too shy about the strangeness of it all, though, and would keep my phone conversations with them brief.”Hi, just letting you know, a guy who calls himself Scott is coming over. He wants Tammi. Yeah, the blonde. Ok, I’ll call you after he gets to Walgreens. Thanks. Bye.”
On the busy days, things could be surprisingly stressful. One such moment came when a john called in requesting Lily, a gorgeous, slim Asian woman with dark flowing hair in her picture. I gave him the usual directions and told him to call me when he got to the Walgreens parking lot. Unfortunately, upon consulting the webcam, a wave of panic hit me. We had only two girls working that day – a busty blonde, and a petite black girl. Neither of them remotely passable as Asian. I called the pimp and urgently informed him of the problem. He told me to stall him as long as possible so he could call in another girl who had the day off.
It turns out, stalling a horny guy in a drugstore parking lot is not that easy. When he called me back to say he was ready, I pulled every card I could think of, saying that I was “getting ready for him”. A fake bubble bath and three imaginary changes of lingerie later, the pimp called me back saying that he couldn’t get anyone else to come in, but to give the john the green-light anyway. I let the girls know, and I watched them rock-paper-scissors for the awkward conversation. The blonde ended up answering the door when he arrived, and I could tell by the confused look on his face that it wasn’t going well. They argued for a moment as he tried to peer suspiciously around her. When there was no sign of anyone who looked remotely like Lily, he walked away shaking his head. I sighed. All that skillful lying about bubble baths and lingerie for nothing. Oh well.
By the time six weeks had passed, my curiosity had long been satisfied. I knew I would never do another job like this again, a realization which came as a bittersweet relief. I had peeked into a strange underworld I would never have imagined- and who would even believe me if I told them? I felt lucky to be able to leave that strange occupation and return to my normal existence of classes and keggers in Denver. Soon after returned to school, my brief stint as a pimp’s assistant became a hazy memory- a strange joke meant for an absurd comedy flick. But it was real. I wondered occasionally if the operation was still up and running.
It is only in recent years, as an adult, the moral ambiguity of my actions has come into sharp relief. I feel some guilt for my privilege of treating it as an entertaining experiment, and I wonder with some sadness if the girls ever got out, or if they even had the option to leave. I had never known their real names, much less if they were happy. But I always got the impression that they were satisfied with their lives. They had always seemed content, lounging around half-naked in the sunny apartment, counting their cash in neat stacks and laughing at jokes I couldn’t hear. I hope they were.