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. Authorities and social service agencies estimate that as many as one in four male prostitutes is already carrying the virus.
"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.' " 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.
"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.
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.
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. "There is no doubt about it."