The stolen merchandise was in the kitchen; the guns were on the couch. The whores were in one room and Danny was in another, cutting up thousands of dollars worth of cocaine.
Danny had rifles. He had Uzis. He had semi automatics. He had a fucking rocket launcher in there at one point. He was a pimp, and then some. In the '90s, he was so deep into so much organized crime shit that even if it weren't for Summer's clairvoyant tremors, she'd have known death had targeted the love of her life like a fucking laser pointer, and was humping toward a bull's eye.
You're a pimp, you've got a No. 1 girl. For Danny, that was Summer. They were doing business out of the whorehouse they operated on W. 110th and Lorain, slinging women and drugs and artillery and tricycles. No joke. When a man and his pigtailed daughter would show up to look at a bike, Danny would stash the drugs and tell the whores to wait outside the kitchen, Anne Frank style.
The money was out of control.
They lived a few blocks over, on Fortune Ave. Danny was Asian, and got a bang out of the idea that his street evoked the eternally optimistic tidings of fortune cookies. He and Summer enjoyed an open sexual relationship — she had a sugar daddy in Solon unburdening himself of more than $100,000 per annum for her services — and took a prolonged tour of Every. Last. Drug. Known. To. Man. Summer's big thing was crack.
That's how she met Danny, out at the Royal Inn on the east side. One bleary night — and the memories from this point are pretty much all-the-way obscured by chemical cobwebs — Summer's friend asked if she wanted to do a threesome.
"He'll give us dope," the friend promised.
Summer loved dope, but wasn't convinced about the threesome until she saw Danny. He strutted in wearing sunglasses, body tapered and cut like a quarry, an Asian in the mold of 2Pac. The motherfucker was gorgeous. He lifted his shades, brow furrowed as he looked at Summer.
"What are you doing with these people?" He demanded, the implication being she didn't belong.
Summer's response was the only one there was: "Drugs."
Though she was married at the time, Summer and Danny became involved. Intimately and professionally. She'd wed her husband at 16, already with an idea that he was a last resort. He was in prison when Summer met Danny, and after he got out, they kept him at bay with regular drug deliveries.
They started an escort service. It had a catchy name. It was well regarded in the circles that pay regard to escort services. It advertised in the illustrious back 40 of this publication.
Danny was ambitious. He was college educated, whip smart. On Cleveland's west side, he put the Organized in Organized Crime, centralizing his various operations and enlisting friends as under bosses and muscle. Though he distributed drugs, he didn't, as a rule, take them himself. While his cohorts got high, he read. Summer called him a poet, a man who in private moments was known to speak in metaphor. He had a rap album in the works.
But in September, 1997, he went missing. On the last day he was seen, he rented a U-Haul and spent most of the afternoon and evening moving equipment into the new stereo and electronics shop he was opening with a business partner on Lorain. The night before, he was with Summer, plotting a brighter future for themselves under the red heat lamp of a Days' Inn bathroom. Summer will remember that final night — the passion, the heat, the hope — for the rest of her life.
Seven years after Danny disappeared, his skull was found in Westlake. With a bullet in it.***
This isn't a true-crime story about Danny's death, though the homicide remains unsolved for reasons Summer suspects are related to his race and his profession. "The innocent victim isn't always so innocent," a Westlake detective told Scene years ago, "but what crime did [Danny] commit that would be equal to what happened to him?"
None, presumably. And Summer wanted that known. She called Scene, in fact, at first just to talk about Danny and his murder. How she felt the police had given up. How she felt she had been improperly portrayed in the lone account of Danny's death in Scene back in 2006. But ultimately, she wanted to tell her story. She wanted people to know that she had a story, that all drug addicts and prostitutes do, and that we shouldn't forget that, even as we try to treat them as victims.
When I arrived at Summer's apartment last month, her face and head seemed somehow kinetically supercharged. She was chawing on gum very far back in her mouth. Her hair color, in terms of wattage, was equivalent to certain industrial bulbs. Her skin was tanning-salon tan. Her eye makeup was golden, glittery and liberally applied. Her nails were immaculately (and freshly?) polished. Her body was what people think of when they hear the word buxom. All in all, she had the former heavy drug addict's neural twerk and former escort's impulse for self-preservation as to appear synthetic, a fembot on the fritz. Having endured more than one tonic-clonic seizure, which has obliterated one eye's peripheral vision, co-opted crucial memories — she couldn't remember the name of the grade school she attended — and periodically sabotaged her ability to spell, her stories were many-tributaried streams of consciousness.
But boy did she have some stories.
Her apartment, an upper level in a Lakewood duplex, was clean and fragrant. Incense was involved in a serious, multivalent way. When I walked in tentatively, bag over my shoulder, Summer asked if I wanted candy, of which there was plenty, then sat me down at a central table and started talking...***
"Smokin' coke" is what they called smoking crack back in the day if you weren't a crackhead, which Summer wasn't. She smoked crack for 20 years, living in a $250,000 loft on West 6th St., working at the Ritz-Carlton, driving brand new Cadillacs. Nobody knew. It was how you did crack, Summer said, not that you did it.
Crack wasn't her first vice though. For a long time, she was an acid freak. There was a novel from the '70s, Go Ask Alice, a diarist's account of a troubled teenage girl who gets hooked on LSD that Summer was pretty seriously into. The novel was written as an anti-drug testimonial — a climactic scene involves Alice retreating to a closet and ripping her face off — but Summer idolized her. She wanted to be her.
By 13, she was selling. Her dealer was a 40-year-old woman who got her supplies from New York City and gave Summer 500 sheets every weekend. One hundred hits per sheet. By 17, Summer was doing 6-7 hits at a time — putting acid on sugar cubes, dropping it in drinks, applying it directly to her skin, snorting into her mucus membrane, whatever — but acid tended to scare the shit out of people. She would go to biker bars and watch burly, bearded men cower in corners..
Summer hadn't been a stranger to drug dealing either. Her mother had been a big-time regional personality in the coke distribution circuit. It was her own, illegal way of lifting her children out of poverty, Summer said. They lived in Slavic Village — never went to church, despite the Catholic grade schools — and took regular trips to South Florida, "to go to Disneyworld," so her mom could pick up shipments. They had a home in Jamaica, which Summer mentioned as almost an afterthought.
And it's not like Summer's relationship with her parents was the glamorized sort where criminal bosses pass on their trades and statuses a la funeral directorships. Summer's father was a hardcore Aryan Nation disciple who indoctrinated Summer in an exclusive, personal way. He would beat his children if they so much as talked to anyone of a different race. Summer's mother and sister, who later used her drug problems as a petri dish to cultivate their own virulent strain of Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, verbally abused her for most of her life.
Part of what made Danny so special, when Summer met him, was the way he immediately identified her beauty, and told her so. Her special knowledge of how women are physically and verbally beaten down gave Summer insight about how to treat her team of escorts later.
Which is to say: Fairly and with respect. Which is to say:
All Summer's girls made $100 an hour. Summer made $80 as the madame and liaison. The girls needed the phone line, the exposure, the advocacy, the premium rates, all of which made working at an escort service considerably more desirable than walking the street as an "independent." Walking the streets meant dirt-cheap fares, definitely sex, and the risk of physical abuse or worse. Anthony Sowell, Michael Madison and Ariel Castro are three grim reminders of the dangers lurking on the streets of Cleveland, and for many women, the threat of violence — even extreme violence — isn't enough of a deterrent. A lot of times, it's for drugs, Summer said. But sometimes, it's for more practical daily necessities. Husbands will drive their wives down to Lorain to turn a few tricks for diapers and groceries.
Summer said that a lot of girls still work as independents in addition to their work for a specific pimp because most pimps rob prostitutes blind. They retain the entire payment (unlike the much more balanced split working at an escort service), forcing a prostitute to work only for tips. Escort services can tax their girls too, make no mistake. Summer said she'd often dock girls for their outfits — wrong nylons, shirt, makeup, etc. — but the benefits were never up for debate.
A major one: Summer's girls never had sex. As non-intuitive as that sounds, she didn't let them. They weren't a "full-service" service, in the vernacular. When a girl finished a job in 5 minutes, a clear sign of quick intercourse, she'd never work for Summer again. The ones who took a full hour, who teased the men, and talked to them, were infinitely more valuable. In Summer's second stint as a madame, long after Danny disappeared, working with a man she described as a carbon copy of Tony Soprano, she had girls (several of them students from Case) who sometimes managed to work 15 to 18 hours with a single client. These guys paid $180 an hour, and would come back begging for more.
Summer maintained that she had no idea what the hell those girls were whispering in these men's ears. But she didn't complain.***
My interactions with Summer came at something of a critical moment for prostitutes in Cleveland, in particular the way they're handled in the local courts.
Last month, Cleveland municipal judges voted to establish a special docket for human trafficking cases, a docket that, in theory, acknowledges a nationwide trend that seeks to view sex workers (among others) as victims, not perpetrators. This development is of course in direct opposition to former city councilman Eugene Miller's ardent pleas for increased punishments for prostitutes, and the city's kowtowing to councilmen who want sex workers off their wards' streets. In a 2013 modification, soliciting now carries a $450 fine and a mandatory 10-day jail sentence on a first offense.
Judge Marilyn B. Cassidy, a former nurse and attorney who for many years litigated on behalf of the elderly — "Don't mess with my old people," she advised Scene — has been spearheading the docket efforts, and she said that it's tough for politicians to support her efforts when it seems to fly in the face of residents who want safety on their treelawns.
That hasn't stopped her though. She's been mulling over something like this for a few years, ever since she attended a domestic violence continuing education program and then saw the early success of programs like the CATCH Court in Columbus (Change Action to Change Habits). Cassidy said that applications for grant funding have already been shipped off.
Right now, prostitutes come through her court after spending several days in jail, and she says that she'll generally grant them time served, put them on probation and recommend them for substance abuse assessment.
"Nine times out of 10 — actually more like 10 times out of 10 and the rest are lying — there's a substance abuse problem," says Cassidy.
But Cassidy, along with Karen Walsh at the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking, understand that substance abuse is only one problem in a vast and complex network of problems affecting victims of trafficking, another of which is that victims often don't even recognize themselves as victims.
"They might say, 'Oh this is my boyfriend,' or, 'He's the only one who ever told me I was pretty," said Walsh in a phone interview with Scene. She also stressed that traffickers' manipulation tactics have evolved roughly at the pace of technology. "They lure them in. They establish trust."
"And for so many of these people, we've kind of dismissed them as prostitutes," Walsh continued. "But the average age that young people are lured into prostitution is 12 to 14. These kids grow up and then all of a sudden they're 20 or 22 and this has been their life. The trauma keeps them from getting back into school and into a different career path. So who do we jail? It's the kids who we didn't recognize as kids early on."
That's one reason why a special docket is so important.
Under the new arrangement, Cassidy and a treatment team will put together personal plans for individual victims which could include: Shelter, trauma counseling, substance abuse treatment and other services. With the aid of the prosecutor's office and law enforcement, Cassidy hopes that this might eventually help target traffickers themselves.
"Maybe we can save a few lives," the judge says.***
Summer was watching 48 Hours in her living room a week or so later. She loves the crime shows, and said for the most part they're an accurate representation of the police officers she's encountered over the years. Two notes about police in Cleveland, though.
1) Because it's often the same prostitutes going in and out of jail, the same women corralled along Lorain Ave.'s continuous hubs, officers occasionally just ignore offenses they see. This is in many respects a courtesy.
2) They've got no problem verbally abusing prostitutes and drug addicts. Summer said she's been called "whore," "slut," "bitch," the works. Recently, when a man was overdosing in her living room, the cops arrived and immediately started asking, in rough language, where the drugs were. They didn't even care about the man foaming at the mouth at their feet.
(It's not like men OD in Summer's living room regularly. She's been raising her two children responsibly, taking classes, living off money from one or two big-ticket medical settlements — but tendrils of her former life have haunted her recovery).
Summer was by and large skeptical that Judge Cassidy's docket and the coordinated efforts therefrom will have any appreciable effect on prostitutes themselves around here. Though the docket would seek to rehabilitate substance abuse, diagnose and treat mental health issues, provide shelter, counseling for trauma etc., what Summer said is necessary is a prostitution recovery center specifically for prostitutes and only prostitutes.
"Call it Prostitutes Anonymous," Summer said. "That's what they're addicted to, more than the drugs. It's more addictive than any drug I've ever taken. It's the thrill, the getting in and out of cars. Drugs are easy to give up, by comparison. Drugs cost money."
Summer, who's only 39, said she spent 23 years cleaning herself up. She said no woman is going to change until she wants to herself. And some women, Summer mentioned (acknowledging that the comment might be perceived as controversial) were just born to do this, to be prostitutes. Look at them, she said: In and out of jail, not a single tooth in their head, body beaten down, face and hair an absolute mess, and they're still hooking. These are women in their fifties.
Summer told me to just look up and down Lorain Ave. She said that's always been the hot spot in town, from Ohio City all the way out to West Park. She said you can always tell the hookers by their bent necks, walking forward, looking back, with a haywire jilt in their step. Around West 54th St., Summer said, the most desperate of them will perform oral sex for $5.
Summer never worked that way. Being well positioned between a wealthy benefactor and a kingpin meant she always did all right, money wise. When she needed a fix in the worst way, she said, she would sometimes scam clients with a fake purse trick — collect payment to "go pay a driver" while leaving a cheap empty purse (purchased at Goodwill or something) in the hotel room, and then taking off with the John's money — but stopped, fearing retaliation.***
The night before Danny disappeared, after a long shower, Summer talked with him about what was next. She was going to get clean, shape up, turn herself in. She had an assault charge — or some stupid warrant, she can't remember — to her name at the time and wanted to get straight. Danny was gonna go legit too, start focusing on his business and run it the right way. They had money to last them forever. She remembers Danny dropping her off at a White Castle the next morning, and that was the last time she ever saw him.
It's still tough to talk about him, even after all these years. She hated the way she found out about his disappearance — detoxing in County — and hated the way she was handled afterward by a feckless suburban police force. She hated that evidence she brought forth seems to have been disregarded: Money stolen and items sold from Danny's house by another woman he was seeing, the fact that his skeleton was unearthed in the backyard of his business associate's father's home... She still thinks about him, about his death, and about those halcyon, criminal days, and mourns.
But she's got a life to live these days. Best she can, Summer tries to keep the past in the past. Up in her attic, Summer showed me a box full of journals, Mead notebooks alive with her ballpoint cursive. The language (from the '90s anyway) articulates a desire to become drug- and man-free. There was an equivalence between drugs and men that she kept returning to. Summer knew she had a weakness for both, she wrote, and an inability to wrest control of her life from them.
In many ways, that's what made her successful in the escort trade. She knew the impulses of her girls, knew what to watch out for, knew how to interpret and intuit their dark days. Maybe that's what makes them keep coming back.
Last week, a girl approached Summer and asked if she could work for her. Summer, for better or worse, still talks about women like she's selling them: "Triple-D boobs, all natural, stacked on top." Summer looked her up and down and knew she had men who would pay, who would want her bad. But she just shook her head.
"I don't do that anymore."
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