Prostitute Anonymous: Tales of the Street from a Former Cleveland Madame 

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"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.

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