It was midnight, and the driver of the late-model blue Mercedes had spent a few minutes cruising Santa Monica Boulevard before pulling up near one of several young male prostitutes beckoning from the curbside.
The youth leaned into the car, his face just inches away from that of the middle-aged driver. A moment later, he scurried around to the passenger side, hopped in, and the sedan slid off into the night.
The scenario would be repeated many other times that night along a stretch of the boulevard that runs from the eastern fringes of West Hollywood well into Hollywood, and on other nights and days as well.
It is happening so often these days, in fact, that residents and merchants are up in arms, and police are sending vice reinforcements to the area to combat what they say is a rising incidence of male prostitution.
For years, it was the female prostitution trade flourishing along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards that disrupted the business community and residential neighborhoods, and heavily taxed law enforcement efforts.
But now, Hollywood vice officers say, male prostitution has become a far worse blight. Even more worrisome, they say, are the public health implications, because male prostitutes are far more likely to be infected with the AIDS virus, and because some unsafe homosexual sex practices are far more likely than heterosexual encounters to transmit the virus.
Authorities and social service agencies estimate that as many as one in four male prostitutes are already carrying the AIDS virus. And they say a sizable percentage of the male prostitutes add to the AIDS risk by being drug abusers, sometimes injecting drugs with shared needles.
"I think they are signing some death warrants," said Lt. Peter Durham, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood vice unit. "It scares the hell out of me, and it scares the hell out of my men."
Many of Durham's men fear arresting male prostitutes, who they say bite, scratch and spit at them. "One officer was bitten, and the guy said, 'I've got AIDS and I hope you die,' " Durham said. He said the deputy had to undergo monthly tests for the AIDS virus.
Durham stressed that prosecution of male prostitutes "is not a gay issue" and that most prostitutes he has encountered say they are not homosexual.
Many of the prostitutes are young runaways, looking for quick food and drug money and a way off the harsh streets of Hollywood, even if just for the night or a few hours.
"I quit last year," said Dave, 18, "because I got tired of having middle-aged men looking at me like I was a piece of garbage, and having to sleep with them just for a place to stay."
Dave, who said he worked the streets through most of his teens, has seen the number of male prostitutes rise and fall with the seasons, sporadic police enforcement efforts and other factors. One constant, he said, was that the male prostitutes show few, if any, signs of practicing safe sex.
"These are kids who are self-destructive. They are committing a slow suicide out there," said Ann Donahue, executive director of Covenant House California, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth.
"It seems amazing to me that in the era of AIDS there are johns willing to pick up these kids knowing what a high risk they are," Donahue said. "And yet they still do. It doesn't seem to have abated in any way."
In fact, added Jack Allen, who coordinates the street outreach program for the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center, many customers are willing to pay a prostitute more for engaging in unsafe sex practices, such as forgoing a condom.
Allen spends a few hours a day talking to the prostitutes, trying to direct them to shelters, job training programs and medical centers and giving them free condoms and bleach for their needles.
"It is really frightening when you think about it, the rate of the disease spreading in this particular population," he said.
A recently passed state law requires that anyone convicted of prostitution be tested for the AIDS virus. They must be notified if they test positive, and any further arrests for prostitution are prosecuted as felonies, said Durham, the LAPD vice unit chief.
Nonetheless, police keep arresting the prostitutes, and they keep returning to the streets, often within hours. "It is a society problem, and I don't see a police solution," Durham said.
That has not stopped police from trying. On a recent sweep, LAPD officers arrested more than 60 prostitutes, the vast majority of them men. And more enforcement efforts are in the works, Durham said.
"(Prostitution) is up currently on Santa Monica (Boulevard), and I don't have a real good reason for it," Durham said last week. "There is no doubt about it."
According to LAPD statistics, the Hollywood area has had more prostitution arrests, male and female, than any other part of the city this year.