A Madam’s Life
By L.D. Kirshenbaum
(Seattle) Mama Maya’s girls haven’t worked in days. Jaimie won’t answer her phone. Gail hasn’t managed to show up at the hotel. And Stella called last night from the hospital with another nasal collapse from shooting and snorting cocaine.
Customers love petite, blonde Amanda, but she’s back with her boyfriend and a stable job at an upscale department store in the suburbs. They also love little Danielle, who is in her 40s, but her latest excuse, a locked steering column, made Maya finally give up making appointments for her.
Meanwhile, potential customers keep sending messages and calling to schedule sessions. It’s up to Mama Maya, who once held the unofficial title of Seattle’s Number Two Madam, to manage the clientele.
Like any entrepreneur, she turns to her laptop. She logs on to commercial sex sites to keep up with business; to find new customers she’s also been checking some from Southern California and Las Vegas.
She poses as the girls themselves and sends coy replies as excuses until they’re ready to work again. “I hope to be back in town next week and I look forward to meeting you,” she taps out.
Reaching for another Camel menthol, she pads out to the patio of her friend’s (and sometime client’s) nouvelle ranch house, set among hilly cul-de-sacs in suburban Seattle, near the Microsoft corporate campus. “I’m such an honest person. I hate telling all these lies,” she exhales.
But that goes with the job: it keeps the customers happy, earns flexibility for the girls, and keeps future dollars flowing. It’s noon, it’s quiet out, and her friend is still sleeping enthusiastically.
Maya shushes his dog and sorts the recycling. She’s in her early 50s, slightly short and square-shaped, with big eyes, a pierced eyebrow, a pointed pixie chin and a reddish pageboy.
She won’t start eating for another few hours; she’s a former bulimic and wants to lose some weight. It’s one way to make up for snacks of Skippy peanut butter and caramel-flavored rice cakes in front of the evening TV.
The housework and on-line sex-market chatter don’t distract Maya from worrying about her dwindling bank account. She had considered herself retired, and hadn’t wanted to work again as a madam or in the “industry” at all: “I get sick of the bullshit, the drama, the excuses.”
There’s no pension or retirement plan in the sex industry, and no time for a career change. “I can’t wait two weeks for a paycheck—I have no choice.”
There’s no bordello, no red velvet wallpaper, no scantily-clad ladies misting themselves with perfume behind a beaded curtain. Customers no longer need to turn to madams if they don’t want to pick someone up off the street—they can use the internet. Mama Maya has to compete digitally, and her competitive edge depends in part on the relationships she can develop on-line and into real life with the girls and the men.
While a convicted pimp currently serving time in Washington State calls madams “female pimps,” and law enforcement is focused more on street-walking, juvenile exploitation and money-laundering, madams now are usually a souped-up combination of web-savvy receptionist-schedulers and cellular mother-therapists.
During a separate conversation at a coffee shop in Bellevue, just east of Seattle, Amanda vigorously vouches for her: “I wouldn’t work for anybody but Maya.” She tells how Maya meets customers herself first to keep her girls safe.
“She’ll take the heat, she protects us, she makes sure these are quality people who aren’t going to hurt us. She even has my credit card information.”
Maya doesn’t consider engaging in paid sex herself. “If I was young and hot, I probably would, in a New York minute,” she says. But jumping back into “adult entertainment” is harder than it used to be; the internet is her lifeline but it’s also choking off her supply.
“Craigslist is riskier, but it’s killing the business,” she frets. “All these girls are advertising for $120 an hour.” Her girls usually charge $350; Maya’s cut is a flat $75 commission.
So she’s come up with a different idea: selling not her body, but her story. Maybe she isn’t the Mayflower Madam, but she’s got great tales and vast amounts of spicy, unusual knowledge. Speaking for this article might help turn her story into a book, now that recent political sex scandals have increased the public’s curiosity. It’s another scheme, along with her website, www.lippss.com, to pay the bills.
In the meantime, she’s right back to the hustle, where she knows she can come up with the cash—now—for her daughter’s cell phone bill and her son’s over-limit credit cards. It’s not the men in her life these days who get her money, it’s her three grown kids.
But without available girls to book for appointments, there’s no commission. Zero funds come in. “Desperate times don’t afford me the luxury of smart choices and mainstream jobs,” she sighs. And desperate times, as they say, beget desperate choices.
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“The only thing I ever wanted was to be a mother,” Maya reminisces. “I just wanted a family with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence.” She has some warm memories from when she was very young, of riding her tricycle over to grandma’s house in a small town in upstate New York near the Finger Lakes.
But in first grade, her parents, who were both from alcoholic households, divorced. Maya’s untalkative and unavailable father continued drinking himself into rages. His remarkable talent as a softball pitcher earned him a series of minor, sham jobs at banks and companies that coveted him for their teams. Her mother, a new divorcee, landed in a social caste reserved for whores, and got up before dawn to work as a key-punch operator at American Can and then as a secretary at an old-age home.
At age eight, Maya recounts, she began witnessing an alcohol-tinged tangle of short, violent remarriages and mismatched pregnancies. She made her mother proud by cooking dinner, keeping house, and watching over her four-year-old brother.
For fun, she tossed bags of garbage from the top of her apartment building into the dumpsters below. By the time she was 11, she impressed the local teenagers by smoking Old Golds and drinking beer on the roof with them.
One Christmas was nice, with a new bike courtesy of one of her mother’s serial husbands. Another marriage moved them out to a trailer and then to a two-room cabin so rustic that all their water had to be collected from a stream down the hill. To avoid smelling like a wood-burning stove, Maya carefully hung her clothes out to air before she went to school.
“We were poor,” she says simply. “This was 1969, and we barely had electricity.” She stayed pretty and popular—and guarded. Nobody knew about the outhouse, or the laundry hanging from the rafters. Nobody knew they were building a bigger cabin by constructing new outer walls around the old ones they were still living in.
She kissed a boy at a seventh grade party, which led to disastrous school rumors that she was pregnant. That’s when she learned how babies are really made. Maya first had sex later, when she was 13, as a way to keep her 18-year-old boyfriend.
“It was zero pleasure,” she says, “I thought I was in love, I thought I was going to marry him.” The relationship didn’t last, and she married someone else when she was 19. By then she had graduated from high school and was working in a baseball bat factory. They divorced before their first anniversary; her ex-husband retired recently as a janitor at their former high school.
Following an invitation from a “random” girlfriend, Maya moved to San Diego. She found a bank job and then, in a downtown bar, the father of her first daughter; the family and the white picket fence hadn’t yet turned up.
Some of the relationships were more successful than others; a few men were unfaithful or violent or both. After buying her new husband a used sports car and watching him drive away with another woman, she followed them and punctured all four tires with a knife.
Months before he finally disappeared to Las Vegas for a career in high-stakes drug dealing, he wanted to become a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman. The only obstacle to the stability and happiness the job would bring: the $100 necessary to purchase the required sales kit. Maya rashly promised him she would have the $100 by 5:00 that afternoon. She was 23.
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Mama Maya’s personal cell phone is mainly for her kids. She has another Seattle-based phone for girls who are working. They sit on the tidy kitchen counter next to her Vegas phone. One starts to ring.
Peering through her glasses at the caller ID, Maya sighs, “It’s Ding-Ding”—her private name for Gail, whom she describes as a beautiful, disorganized loser. Gail is flat broke with two grown kids and a broken-down Mercedes. She wants Maya to check out new photos of herself she has just posted on a California sex site.
“Oh, honey, you should have let me see these pictures before you did anything,” Maya exclaims. “You’ve got some bad shadows here on your inner thighs that should have been Photoshopped.”
She soon snaps the phone shut, fed up. Photos won’t be any help if Gail keeps saying she’s still a few hours away from being ready for dates—today will be scrubbed. Plus, Gail’s description of herself in the ad as “lonely” is a definite turn-off.
“What man wants to spend time with a pathetic, lonely loser?” Maya asks. “Men love to hear you’re a survivor, not a loser.” And yes, she says, most of them do want to find out all about you. “They love to get you to cross that line, to get you to fall in love with them.”
Maya thinks Amanda’s sob story was one of the best. “She would tell the guys that she was from Alaska, that both her parents died, and so she came down here to stay with her grandmother, but then her grandmother needed to go into a nursing home. And that’s why she was doing this, to get the money for the grandmother’s nursing home. Guys love that. You get more tips.”
Amanda probably would have earned fewer tips and gotten less customer interest than if she had told the truth: that she was from rural Kitsap County, Washington, and was just plain poor. That she lent her ever-jobless father money for a new pick-up truck and was never repaid; that her mother was a martyr, struggling to keep the family afloat; and that several tours in the Iraq War had left her brother “pretty messed up” and her boyfriend chronically unemployed.
One of Maya’s phones chirps: her oldest daughter, in Las Vegas, is texting the news that the rent has been paid on her apartment there. That’s a relief. Maya pores over the sex sites and notices a beautiful young woman on Craigslist. “I would love to recruit her, but I’m sure she’s got a pimp. You can see bruises on her.”
Maya says she’s more mother than madam: “That’s why I’m Mama Maya. I would give the shirt off my back for these girls.”
Maya tries Gail again to see if she’s finally ready to start taking appointments. No answer. She takes out the duffel bag she used back when she had up to 10 to 12 girls working for her, back before she supposedly retired. Inside are tea light candles, room freshener, mints, mouthwash, drinking water, a spray bottle of Febreze, and plastic bags full of hotel soaps and shampoos.
“You have to make the room look like you just got there. You arrive early, grab extra sheets and towels, and hide them in the drawers,” she explains. “If they ask, you tell them you have one client in the morning, and one in the afternoon.”
The reality is different, of course: girls who know what they’re doing want to make the most of their time and the room fee by seeing, perhaps, five men consecutively, and girls will normally share the use of a room with each other.
Mama Maya’s record was with Amanda, when together Maya scheduled and Amanda entertained nine men in one day, back-to-back in one-hour time slots, at $300 a pop. Not long ago, Inez saw six men in one day and earned $2,790. The money’s fast, good, and tax-free; there’s no college degree or certification required. Plus, the job is flexible enough to let them get back to dealing with their lives.
Gail’s teenaged son calls from somewhere in Orange County, California, looking for his mother. Later, after mulling over the best price to charge for her services, Gail laments the lack of control she has over her kids: “Back when we stayed at the shelter, they always knew they had to go to school.”
Maya is exasperated; this is a woman who needs a better work ethic. She points out that Gail is still attractive enough to earn the money for her family’s needs. It’s hard not to agree.
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Maya remembers she had no real plan at all to get her husband the $100 she promised him for his Kirby vacuum cleaner job, and the 5:00 deadline was a few hours away. She was living in San Diego with him and her two-year-old daughter, and his mood and behavior were getting “progressively worse. I knew money would bring him back to me.”
She had a vague idea of being a drug runner, but didn’t know how to go about it. She brought her friend’s dogs to the park while she considered the problem. A pimp pulled up in a van, started a conversation, and offered a solution. Maya was riveted by his explanation of the trade that centered on El Cajon Boulevard.
“He said if I could fuck him, a total stranger, right then and there, that I could be a ho. So we climbed in the back of his van and did it. Sex didn’t mean anything to me anyway.”
Still, it took a couple of fretful hours of walking up and down the “stroll” to get up her nerve. “I was petrified. I just couldn’t get in a car.”
Finally, a white Mazda RX-7 pulled up, and the graying, portly man inside bargained her from $25 down to $20 for a blowjob. She remembers he was very nice, with a box of tissues in the console.
“I couldn’t believe it—this much money, this quick. I couldn’t wait to get back to the boulevard. In 1982, minimum wage was like $3.35 an hour.” Maya shakes her head: “Twenty-five years later, girls are still giving away twenty-dollar blowjobs!”
The second customer was a blur, as were all the rest. For about eight months, her daughter stayed home with her husband while Maya worked the stroll—plenty long enough for her to realize he didn’t love her.
He quickly gave up the vacuum cleaner gig because she made more money than he did. He left for good and she stopped streetwalking. Two more children, a few boyfriends, and a husband later, she wound up in the Seattle area as a Navy wife.
She gave up a relationship with a man she found who really adored her to return to chasing her white picket fence dream. A devoted mother, she went on every school field trip. Military pay was so low the family qualified for food stamps, but she was determined that her kids would have the things and the nice shoes she never had.
Maya’s eldest daughter, Dominique, now 29, is a staunch defender of her mother. “She was always the cool mom,” she says by phone from Las Vegas. “Our birthdays were like holidays—she made the world stop.”
What Dominique doesn’t volunteer is about the day she was molested by Maya’s third husband. The marriage immediately turned ghastly and ended. Maya’s guilt and disappointment are still worthy of a day-time reality TV show; bouts with alcoholism and bulimia set in.
She drove a bus in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula; her three children rode along on her route in the early morning until school started. With Dominique’s help (“My mom always said I was like the Marilyn character in ‘The Munsters’”), Maya built a house with her own hands, the way her impoverished stepfather had done back in upstate New York.
She worked in administrative jobs in western Washington, where overbearing supervisors found bureaucratic methods for punishing her “trailer park” style. Reprimands and memos floated into her file for not dressing appropriately—foregoing stockings on a hot day was a no-no. She was accused of sexual harassment and suspended for 30 days without pay for showing coworkers her vacation photos; one showed a man holding coconut halves over a woman’s breasts.
Maya gave up and emptied her desk. “I’d rather suck a dick for money than kiss somebody’s ass for $10.83 an hour,” she remembers telling herself.
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Maya is sweeping the spotless steps near the kitchen again at the suburban house when her 20-year-old son, Ian, Jr. calls from Las Vegas. “I feel like a fucking ATM machine,” she grumbles.
He’s bought himself designer clothing and can’t make the credit card payments. This galls her, considering he wore her down until she bought him a used Mercedes a year ago; she knows she will have to sell it soon, at a loss.
“After the molestation, my kids lost everything, including their father and their home,” she explains. “As far as I’m concerned, I can’t give them enough.” She admits she has spoiled them, and can’t seem to set things right; with no money coming in, her options are even more limited.
Suddenly, the clouds of doom part: the next phone call is from Inez, one of Maya’s all-time best workers, back from visiting her sick mother. She’s ready to work—hallelujah!— the retirement is really over.
Maya wastes no time helping her post a new ad on a Los Angeles sex site. She starts the coffeemaker while she’s still on the phone and before it’s done brewing, the first call comes in, vibrating across the Formica.
The exhorting and lamentations she delivered to her son a few minutes ago have evaporated. Now her tone is friendly, breezy, and businesslike:
“Good morning, may I help you?” She remembers the caller as a previous customer; he is itching to spend an hour with Brazilian Inez’s smooth olive skin and long hair. Reading off a web site, she gives him directions to a Southern California hotel as if she were near the freeway herself.
“Oh, aren’t you efficient! Don’t forget the diamond ring!” she coos. She hangs up and chuckles: “One first-timer told me he was too nervous to go through with it but that I was so friendly I put him at ease.”
She texts Inez when to expect the customer’s arrival and adds what kind of car he’s driving. She writes down the name and appointment into a spiral-bound notebook. Inez texts back and Maya calls the customer again:
“Inez just got there and she wants to get the room ready for you; I just need you to give her an extra five minutes.” Little white lies help massage extra men into more tightly-scheduled appointments. By the end of the day, there will be five appointments, limited only because Inez will have to pick up her niece.
Maya states the obvious: “I’m really good at multi-tasking.” Phone calls add up quickly, especially when several girls are each seeing a series of men.
The next call comes from Jessica, Maya’s younger, 23-year-old daughter, who is in a vicious struggle with Oxycontin, the hugely addictive prescription painkiller. Jessica has hocked all her jewelry and plowed through the thousands of dollars of rent money Maya gave her.
Now she’s crying on the phone, unable to reach her boyfriend who has locked her out of the apartment they’re borrowing out in a small town in the country. He’s dead asleep and Jessica had to spend last night in their car.
The boyfriend has his own troubles, having finished a prison sentence for manslaughter after killing a teenager during the course of an impromptu drag race.
“I’m scared something’s going to happen!”Jessica wails, in a post-high semi-paranoia. She has spent time in jail for writing false checks. “I just can’t go back to jail!”
Maya calls her daughter’s neighbor, claiming to have a question about picking up their dog. The innocent neighbor obliges, wakes the boyfriend, and Maya spends several minutes urging him to get a job—and help for both of them. She admits to me in an aside that it pains her to learn that Jessica tried turning a few tricks.
Another phone call interrupts the parental lecture. “Good afternoon, may I help you?” Again, from the sound of Maya’s voice, there’s no way to detect her anguish from an instant earlier.
“Hey, where are ya, pretty boy?” She tells the caller Inez’s room number, and gives him parking advice. “Thanks, baby!” She hangs up, calls Inez to let her know he’s parking his car, and mixes herself another café latte in a take-out Starbuck’s cup.
“I think I have to spend some time in Vegas,” she says. “With cell phones, I can take this job with me.” First she’ll take a day or two to help out Jessica in the country while Inez is off work, visiting her mom in the hospital.
Then she’ll spend time with her two grandchildren in Vegas: their father used Maya’s—their grandmother’s—history in the prostitution business as the basis for getting custody of them.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Tears slide down her cheeks and her voice closes up. “The motherhood thing I wanted—well, I’m accepting the blame for how everything turned out,” she weeps, wondering if she has failed despite her lifetime of effort.
Knowing she was completely different than her own, ungiving mother, though, is a tremendous comfort. When Maya hears her children say “What’s wrong with being like you?” she feels not only redeemed, but successful. But she’s shaken by any news in the business, as when the “D.C. Madam” committed suicide after facing up to 55 years in prison for promoting prostitution.
“I’m supposed to be part of the underbelly of society because I was a whore,” Maya muses later. “But I don’t feel like a criminal. I feel a lot more honest than someone who marries a person for their wallet.”
Two weeks later, Maya navigates her Ford Escort to the interstate on the way to Vegas, where, both proud and disgusted by her roles as madam and mother, she will keep chasing the dream of the family with the house and the white picket fence.
Photo of see-through stilettos from Mandy’s Hot Stilettos.
L.D. Kirshenbaum is Editor-in-Chief of NewsPlink.