Shopping with the Madame

Brothels are legal in most rural Nevada counties. The bordellos are fairly discrete, often tucked away on a dead end street. Even in a small town you may not notice the red light district. But I’ve run into the madame at the grocery store a few times — even sporting girls have to eat.

You might wonder how to tell an off-duty madame from any other shapely middle-aged woman. The most obvious clue is if she looks vaguely like her picture in the local yellow pages. No kidding. A few years back the full-page ads under “Brothels” were hard to miss in our phonebook. Of course, in real life, a madame’s face might look a decade older than the picture. In fact, even under generous make-up, her face might look a decade older than the rest of her body. No one ever claimed the world’s oldest profession was easy on a gal.

The next clue might be if she’s dressed to show off her well-proportioned figure in ways that seem a bit racy for a rural town. We’re not talking Las Vegas-over-the-top-glamor. Just boots with a heel a little thinner and higher than most women would wear to go grocery shopping. Or jeans a size tighter than a real cowgirl could tolerate astride a horse. And of course there’s the cleavage.

But the indicator I find the most interesting is how the experienced checkers act around the madame. This is a dead giveaway. The checkers treat a madame with an uncharacteristic formal distance. Their interaction is all business. They don’t joke around with the madame, or chit-chat, or ask her how her day’s been going. None of the usual friendly banter. This change in their manner is enough to alert the next person in line that something is up. And there’s a quality about the interaction that seems timeless, as if this is the way that the working women have been treated in small Western towns since the Gold Rush. Or at least it’s one of the ways they’ve been treated — I’m sure there’s been far worse.

The madame pays for her groceries and heads out the door as the sun sets. Almost time to go to work. I watch her walk across the parking lot, curious about what kind of car she drives. Curious about how a life lived so differently can intertwine with mine and it doesn’t seem so strange — and then it does seem very strange.

I’m relieved when the checker turns to me with a smile, starts unloading my shopping cart and asks how my day’s been. I can stop thinking about the madame and her next shift. But later that night, under a sleepless moon, I wonder if I’m cut out to be a Nevadan. My feminine soul has a tough time making peace with this economic need for sacrificial lambs.