The job of maintaining the appearance of propriety falls to the sex police. Every 10 minutes or so, a behemoth guard dressed in a militaristic black uniform muscles his way into the Danger Zone for a close look. The large flashlight he carries could double as a nightstick. "Hey, you two back there. Cut that out! I mean it now." Management has a vested interest in making sure that the fun, if not altogether good and clean, doesn't stray too far below the belt.
Although prostitution has always been at the periphery of taxi dancing, law enforcement is difficult because almost all the prostitution occurs after hours, at other locations. Girls are not allowed to leave the club with a customer during work hours.
"Our arrests are minimal compared to what's going on out there," says Detective John W. Grogan of the Los Angeles Police administrative vice division, which patrols the clubs. "Less than one a week. We just don't have the resources to deal with it in depth." In fact, Grogan can't think of a single case where a club's management was prosecuted for prostitution. And, Grogan says, club managers don't necessarily discourage prostitution because it's good for business.
What do taxi dance clubs have to offer that brothels don't? In a taxi dance hall, money is more an instrument of ingratiation than negotiation. The key perhaps is the thin veneer of romance, however artificial. On the other hand, sometimes it's more basic than that.
"(Certain guys) are nasty, they never tip and they start grabbing right away," says Marilyn, 30, who figures her three years as a taxi dancer make her the senior member at the Flamingo. "Once they start grabbing, we ask for the tip."
Marilyn, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1986, says taxi dancing has its advantages--mainly that she can come and go as she pleases. She takes trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco. During the day, she works at swap meets. With the two incomes, she has managed to buy a condominium. For her, it's a living.
The secret, Marilyn says, is to "dance not too tight, not too loose. If you dance too tight, they lose interest. If somebody asks for a date or to go to bed, I say, 'Maybe later, but first I have to know you better.' That keeps them coming back."
So, deprived of the usual benefits of natural selection, the men narrow their circles, craftily (or so they think) instilling in the girls a burgeoning sense of obligation with tips.
Meanwhile, the dancer, having convinced her suitor that there just might be a special place in her heart for a gentleman of sufficient means and proper sensitivities, finds herself walking the razor's edge, working to keep expectations high while deferring delivery.
"You get to know the girls pretty well," says Jones, the electronics salesman. He himself dances rarely, if ever. "I'm real nice to the girls. If you treat 'em real nice, then they're nice to you. Most of these guys are jerks. They treat 'em like hookers."
Not everyone comports himself in such a chivalrous fashion. For instance, there is the hulking, chain-laden Winnebago of a man who has dragged his friend to the clubs for the third time this week. Asked about the proprieties of tipping taxi dancers, the hulk's eyes sweep the floor disdainfully, seeming to see a room filled with women who don't live up to his qualifications. "A couple of bucks, man--if I'm feeling generous!" he boasts. "Hey, if she don't satisfy your needs, don't tip her!"
His friend, meanwhile, has been sizing up the room like a property tax evaluator. "The ones with the bodies are over there, man. Look at that one!" He eyes a long-legged blonde in a tight, nearly see-through skirt.
"Then there's the ones who aren't so hot," the friend goes on, "like those two over there." He points to two women distractedly munching microwave popcorn on a bench away from the flock. "I don't see how they make any money. They sit over there all night, and nobody asks them to dance. It makes you kind of feel sorry for them."
Outside, the homeless have parked their shopping carts and settled in for the night, leaving only the junkies to browbeat passers-by for spare change and cigarettes. Somewhere out there, The Foot Doctor is playing piggly wiggly with another perfect pedicure. Although the girls all said the parking lots would be full of action once closing time rolled around at 2 a.m., it is early yet and the cars are all empty.
And from the Flamingo to the Paradise, from the Starlight to Danceland, the dingy signs of the taxi dance clubs still beckon to the lonely men and desperate women like false hearths in the ash-colored buildings of downtown Los Angeles.