The following is excerpted from (Low)life: A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, by Charles Farrell and published by Hamilcar Publications. It’s out today; purchase it here or at your local bookstore.
He had bailed me out after I’d hired a building contractor to renovate my house. Jim Johnson was a fraud and a thief. The Superstar had seen right through him, forced him to return my deposit, and leave the job without incident.
Now I owed the Superstar whatever he wanted. He wanted four things. All of them were bad.
“If I do the house, you’re gonna have to give me carte blanche. I choose what to put in. I’m gonna try to save you money.”
“Blanche” had come out sounding like the woman’s name, but I got the message.
“Fine. You’re saving my life here. Whatever you want.”
“Two. You’ve gotta give me a week in Vegas. I want to hit the shows. And I want to do Karaoke at all the lounges. I read where at the Dunes you can get a videotape of your performance. I can tell people that I played Vegas.”
“And if there’s a piano there, you gotta play for me.”
The Dunes was my de facto home away from home in Vegas. It was the casino I liked best, and where I had found a poker game I could quietly beat consistently. It was an out-of-style little place where I could be left alone. It was going to make me sad to have to think about it as the place where the Superstar made Karaoke videos.
I put on my game face. “Keep your fingers crossed about the piano.”
“Three. We gotta go to The Golden Palomino. It’s supposed to be the classiest strip club in Vegas. I don’t want to go to a shithole. This place features fifty hot chicks.”
“I played in a lot of strip clubs. I’m not big on them, but we can go. Absolutely.”
“And finally. And I want to go to a whorehouse. It’s the one state where they’re legal.”
“Not in Vegas. But it’s easy to find beautiful hookers on The Strip.”
“I don’t want a hooker on the strip. I want you to take me to a real whorehouse.”
“Please trust me on this; you’re going to hate it. They’re the most depressing places in the world.”
I knew there’d be no talking him out of it. There’d be no talking him out of any of his wishes. I was going to have to do things I couldn’t stand, all the while faking enthusiasm. It would be like taking an overactive child to the carnival, putting him on every ride, then having to listen to him giddily shriek, “Look at me, look at me” all day.
Getting to Crystal, Nevada, from Las Vegas by car is virtually the same as getting to Area 51 from Las Vegas by car. Area 51 in Groom Lake is about twenty-four miles further up north—at 3:00 a.m. about a fifteen-minute drive. There will be no one else on the highway I-15 N. You will feel only the deepest, most desolate sense of remoteness. You are nowhere, heading into a vast nowhere.
If you were sane, you’d ask yourself, “What on earth am I doing here?”
It was definitely what I was asking myself as I sat in the passenger seat of our rental car with the Superstar behind the wheel. He was convinced that if we got to the legal brothel in Crystal in the dead of night the prices would be a lot lower than during “peak hours.”
At one point I had tried to warn him about what he might find at the Crystal Love Ranch, but I had given it up. No matter how bad it was, he’d have to see it for himself. And now here we were, flying down the empty highway at a hundred miles per hour, seeing only tumbleweed, jackrabbits, and the carcasses of animals who’d had the bad luck to attempt crossing the highway at one of the rare times a car happened to be on it.
“I wonder if it’s gonna be like one of those old Western whorehouses with a fancy bar and a piano player in the background and dancing?”
“It’ll be a trailer. And they’ll be guys with guns standing guard. Let’s roll down the windows.”
The desert gets cool at night, and the scent of sage, primrose, eucalyptus, and cactus is powerful and invigorating. The stars are vast and clear. Mostly they were distinct and individuated, but there were also milky washes of stardust covering sections of the sky. Every few minutes a shooting star would plummet from the outer reaches of the universe.
Even with this, the dominant effect was ominous. Although not given to conspiracy theories, belief in alien encounters, or mysterious disappearances, heading toward Area 51 didn’t fill me with a sense of wonder. It was a place where nothing good could happen, and where any interaction that did take place was bound not to be one you’d wish for.
We drove and drove through the desolate moonscape, not talking much, the Superstar occasionally going through Oh Boy-isms, projecting the kinds of delights he was sure would await him once we’d reached our destination.
Eventually we turned left onto a small, dark highway that we nearly missed, drove a few miles, turned right onto a pitted dirt road that we also nearly missed, and saw a few dim lights in the near distance.
The lights belonged to a compound of sorts: several trailers set behind hefty circles of razor wire that looked like deadly Slinky toys, and rampways leading to and connecting each building. Large dogs began to howl on hearing our approach. It was not a hospitable place. If anything, it seemed to send the message that no one wanted you here.
The front trailer, optimistically labeled “Bar,” had a hand-written sign that read “ENTER HERE FIRST.”
The Superstar and I followed the instructions and found ourselves facing two men at a bar—one behind it, the other seated at it. The bartender was a big man with an enormous handlebar mustache. The man on the customer side was nearly a giant.
We’d interrupted their conversation, and they didn’t seem happy to see us. They didn’t look like men who’d be happy to see anybody, including each other.
Still, the bartender’s voice was neutral, businesslike.
“You here to see the girls?”
“My friend is here to see the girls,” I answered. “It’s a long ride from here to Vegas, so I’ll drive him back.”
“Two drink minimum for both of you, then your friend can see the girls. You got to buy two drinks too. Ten dollars each.” He waited a second. “That’s ten dollars for each drink.”
“I’m going to be drinking orange juice.”
“Doesn’t matter. Ten dollars a drink. I don’t have orange juice. Soda or water.”
The Superstar asked, “Can we at least see the girls before we decide?”
“Nope. You’ve got to have your drinks here before moving on to the main house.”
I said, “You don’t mind if I just let my friend here drink my two drinks, do you?”
The bartender looked vaguely irritated. “You can do that if you want to. But I wouldn’t advise it. Be too bad if he went into the main house, then couldn’t do what he came to do.”
“Good point. Water for me, and whatever my friend is having.”
There was a jar on the bar labeled “tips accepted.” I wondered whether it would be useful to tip the bartender, but the twenty-dollar tab for two glasses of lukewarm water overruled my good judgment.
The Superstar and I repaired to the furthest part of the room, and the two men resumed their conversation. I got the sense that they were now speaking for our benefit.
“They were arrogant assholes,” said the bartender. “You were right to do what you did.”
The near-giant answered, “Fucking A-rabs think they own everything. They don’t know who they’re dealin’ with. They don’t understand, once they’re out here, they’re all alone.”
“This isn’t the USA anymore either. This is our own country. Our place, our rules.”
“There ain’t nothing here but you, me, the desert, and the dogs.”
They laughed. The Superstar whispered to me, “Are we gonna get out of here alive?”
I said to the bartender, “You do understand that we’re Americans, right?”
He laughed again, and I knew we were OK. We moved over to the bar.
“It’s just that these assholes own everything,” he explained. “And in Vegas everyone kisses their ass. Then they come out here and they think it’s going to be the same way. But it’s not. Who do you think pays to put the sheriff in office here in Crystal?”
The near-giant spoke up. “And don’t nobody know they’re out here. So, if they get out of line, there’s lots of places to leave ‘em. Lots of open space in the desert.”
“We had a few of these A-rabs come here four, five weeks ago. They got rough with a couple of the girls. Maybe that goes back where they come from in Saudi Arabia or Iran or wherever, but not with me and Mike.” He nodded toward the other guy.
“Those were dudes who never made it back to Vegas. Fuck ‘em.”
“You boys ready to go to the main house?”
The Superstar looked less than ready. The talk had unsettled him. Me too. I put a ten in the tip jar.
“How do we find it?”
“Just follow the rampway up to the next building over. Got a light over the door. I’ll buzz you through the gate and call to let them know you’re coming. Thanks for the tip.”
We made our way up the ramp to the door with the light over it. A woman opened it as we reached the tiny porch.
“Come on in, boys.”
She was in her late forties or early fifties, good looking, friendly in an unforced way, and clearly an alum who’d come up the ranks of the working women to her current position.
“You’re here to party?”
“My friend is here to party. I’m here to provide moral support.”
“Moral support. That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember it. You sure you don’t want to party too? We’ve got some mighty cute gals.”
“Thanks, but no.”
“Your loss. Maybe you’ll change your mind when we bring ‘em out.”
The woman stepped through a door, and a moment later returned with five young women, each wearing a bikini bottom and see-through negligee. They were all attractive and varied in appearance enough to accommodate a range of customers’ tastes.
I was sure the Superstar wouldn’t choose the black woman, although she was the best looking of the five. One of the women looked like she might be from Venezuela, and I didn’t think she’d be picked either. Of the three remaining women, the one I worried most about him choosing was a perky-looking blonde cheerleader type. He’d miss seeing it, but she was clearly a hardened pro—someone who had calculated the price of literally every gesture the john would make in her attempt to force him through his bankroll before anything remotely intimate took place.
The Superstar spent a minute meeting each woman then without hesitation made the worst possible choice. Off he and the cheerleader went.
The other women said goodbye and I sat on the couch to wait for The Superstar.
I didn’t have to wait long. Ten minutes after he’d entered the inner sanctum, he was back, grim-faced.
“Let’s get out of here.”
He strode from the trailer, head down, fists clenched, moving quickly. The dogs began their howling. The Superstar paid them no mind. Down one ramp, onto the next, and out to the parking lot he powerwalked, me trying vainly to keep up with him.
When we reached the car, he tossed the keys to me.
“I’m too angry to drive,” he said.
I got behind the wheel and started the car. The Superstar was already hunkered down in the passenger seat, his feet tapping impatiently.
As we passed through the entryway, he said, “Three hundred dollars. And my skin never touched her skin.”
I hit the accelerator, and we were on our way.
“One hundred dollars for her to put on a latex glove to wash my dick. And she barely touched it.”
I was moving us as fast as I could down the small highway that’d get us back onto I-15 South.
“It was the worst experience of my life, Charles. She didn’t even look at me. I was just another guy on the conveyor belt. I was so freaked out that I couldn’t get hard. She offered to give me a hand job to get me ready. Another hundred dollars. I gave her the hundred, but I was still having trouble. She told me that I could feel her tits while she was getting me hard if I paid another hundred. I gave her the money, then she said I’d have to keep a handkerchief in my hand while I felt her up. It’d cost another hundred to feel her bare tits. I lost my hard-on again when she said that. I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be able to perform—he pronounced it “pa-fahm”—so I decided that enough was enough.”
A few moments passed.
“Did your ten-dollar drinks have any booze in them?”
“And your skin never touched her skin.”
“My skin never touched her skin.”
We both started to laugh. I hit the turn onto I-15 South, and we headed back to Las Vegas as the sun began to rise over the desert.
I wrote (Low)life because someone paid me to. It’s a memoir that I took seriously. It focuses primarily on the years I spent in boxing, jazz, and involved in gangsterism. I wrote (Low)life to the best of my ability, and everything I wrote about in it actually happened. Not everything that actually happened is in it, though. I told you as much as I could. It’s the life I chose, but not one I’d recommend to others.