Where the Boys Are

Lee is 28 years old, lives at home with his parents and will let you jerk him off for $25

Lee stares out at Washington Boulevard through the late-evening drizzle. No one's driving by, except for the 97 bus, which rolls over a plastic soda bottle with a sudden pop! It sounds like a gunshot but Lee doesn't flinch. He's familiar with what real gunshots sound like.

It's only a few blocks away from the bustle of the Fox Theatre, but tonight the Stroll's dead. If the johns were trolling past in their Mercedes, in their SUVs and Crown Vics, more guys would be hustling hand jobs and head and Lee likely would have scored by this hour, thanks to his young soft face and sweet-thug appeal. But tonight it's only him and one other guy out here, pacing the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center.

Like Lee and all the other prostitutes on this street, Mike's a black male. But he's got the haggard looks and the jittery moves of a crackhead. Lee's not homeless, not a crack addict. He's 28 and lives at home with his parents, which helps explain why he wants to use an alias for this story. They would kill him if they knew he did this.

Jordin Isip
Jordin Isip

A black SUV approaches. Lee and Mike wave but the guy rolls on.

"Is that a Lexus?" Lee asks.

"Nah," Mike says. "It's a Range Rover or something."

The rain comes down harder.

Lee finds a dry doorway, lights a cigarette and misses his chance at a new-looking green pickup. Mike flags down the driver and strikes up a conversation through the rolled-down window. Less than a minute later, he's inside.

"I know that guy," Lee says sourly, watching the car pull away. "He ain't gonna get nothin' from that guy. He tried once with me. It was like, five dollars."

He hikes his New York Yankees jersey up over his head to ward off the rain and crosses the street. Minutes later his perseverance pays off, in the form of a Chevy Blazer. The driver, fiftyish, looks well off, but Lee won't ask him any personal questions as they drive around. Instead the transaction is negotiated, then quickly administered.

"He was drivin' with one hand and jerkin' me with the other," Lee recounts. "He jerked me off for $25. Done deal, you hear me? Done deal! It didn't take nothin' but about five minutes."

Cash in his pocket, he heads back to Mom and Dad's.

Over the Harbor Light Center's sparsely appointed entryway, a device that looks like a ceiling fan in a science-fiction movie spins, emitting purple-blue ultraviolet light. The contraption, called a Silent Air Mover (SAM), represents the latest weapon in the war on tuberculosis. The center has about ten of these $1,500 bug lights, which purport to zap all bacteria in their path.

"TB is an airborne thing, and this is a critical area," explains Tim Best, a Salvation Army captain and a Harbor Light administrator. "Those in the homeless population are more susceptible to TB. They don't get tested, so they don't know they have it, and so when it goes active it doesn't take much for you sleeping next to me on a mat for me to breathe it in." On any given night, Best adds, up to 49 homeless men sleep here on three-inch-thick pads.

Though the St. Louis Health Department boasts that the Harbor Light is the first place in the U.S. to use the technology, some say it's a Band-Aid approach, similar to the way the city fights prostitution. Rather than work to prevent the problem before it starts, the effort simply seeks to slow its spread.

A pudgy and genial ex-cocaine addict who was once homeless himself, Best understands the plight of the men who come in here. The Harbor Light facility at Washington Boulevard and Garrison Avenue operates drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, job-training programs and a veterans' re-integration program, and it's equipped with beds for men who are too sick to sleep on a mat. Though the facility was built to house 150 per night, it sometimes serves as many as 300. Some stay for one night, some stay for the better part of a year.

The nature of the relationship between the Harbor Light and the men who walk the Stroll is a complicated one. Because they are required to be indoors and accounted for by 9 p.m., those who bunk at the facility can't participate in the nighttime street scene, which usually heats up around midnight.

But Lee says male prostitution and the shelter go together like condoms and lube.

"It's an easy target for homosexuals," he explains. "They go by a men's shelter. They know that most times a man in a shelter, he is down and out. So he's an easy prey." He motions with his hands as if giving out cash. "'I'll give you this, I'll give you that.'"

"Gerald" used to walk the Stroll. Now he stays at Harbor Light. The unemployed 33-year-old's life story is full of ups and downs. He comes from a well-to-do family in the county. Openly gay, he took up prostitution and his family disowned him. In 2000 he began hanging around the Stroll, hooking and developing a crack habit.

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