So, About That Time I Worked Driving Hookers Around L.A.

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Joe Syracuse, director of 'Amateur Night', starring Jason Biggs and Ashley Tisdale, on the sketchy job that inspired his new movie.

The day I learned my wife and I were having a daughter was just like any other day in Los Angeles. I was stuck in rush-hour traffic in our Subaru Legacy wagon with three hookers in the back seat. Stormy Nikita (because of her stormy personality), Bibi The Rain Woman (because of her special skill), and Pebbles (because of cartoons). None of those names seemed exactly right for the girl I just learned was on the way. Like so many screenwriters in Hollywood, I had a day job that wasn’t writing screenplays. Unlike those other screenwriters, I wasn’t a waiter, a CrossFit trainer, or a manny. I was a driver — of the non-Uber variety. For nearly a year, I was gainfully employed shuttling “ladies of the night” (and morning, lunch time, and the “magic hour” of 3:00 to 4:00 p.m.) to their gigs around the city. This was not the job I’d envisioned for myself while getting a BA in European History a few years before, nor was it the job I planned to have once I became a husband and a father. But here I was just the same, stuck on Santa Monica Boulevard listening to Bibi chastise Pebbles for chewing breath mints, “Last time you went down on me, my pussy was numb for a week.” If that line were in a movie, you might laugh. But if it’s coming from the spot where your new daughter will soon be strapped into her car seat, you realize a ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mug might not be in your future. You also realize “you” might not be in “your future” because your wife and daughter are going to leave you for a man who is likely not tasked with washing used dildos in the kitchen sink after a rough Saturday night.

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Lisa and I met in college and shared a dream — to work in film and start a family. I wanted to work in film. She wanted to start a family. Could two people be more in sync? I didn’t think so, which is why I got down on bended knee and begged her to be my partner, in writing. She accepted and soon we were taking the Metro North into Manhattan to work as unpaid interns for the (then) two existing indie film production companies. Replenishing craft service tables and replacing headset batteries and steadying ladders on freezing street corners was glorious. And gritty. And rewarding. Until it wasn’t. We very quickly learned that, unless we were graduates from SUNY Purchase (Film), the people in charge of not paying us were wholly uninterested in hearing about our movie ideas.

So when we moved to L.A., we made a pact: we would only work for a movie company when they were paying us to write. We had saved enough money doing odd jobs to last two months — easily enough time to crank out a million-dollar spec. To speed things along, we followed that golden adage: “Write what you know.” Having lived the previous three years in a neighborhood littered with “massage parlors” open 24/7, we fantasized about what went on behind those curtained glass doors. Bingo! Our first script would be about a bevy of badass, foul-mouthed, massage-parlor-working hookers (plot, TBD)! Then, reality hit. We actually didn’t know much at all about that world. But, determined to succeed, we set out to learn.

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Lisa cold-called massage parlors offering to work as a laundress. I hired a street hooker who turned out to be a guy. When we finally found a female and offered to pay her for “just talking,” she thought we were cops. Nothing worked until I answered an ad in the back of the L.A. X-Press for DRIVERS WANTED. An interview at a booth at KFC with a pimply dude who had seven cell phones and a "RUCK FULES" T-shirt ensued. After a single question: “That your sweet ride?” he said, pointing to my 1996 Subaru Legacy wagon, I was hired. No sooner, I was en route to Reseda to pick up “Nikki.” The time: 3:00 p.m. magic hour (which I’d come to learn was the safest time to sneak home and not get caught by your working spouse). I called Lisa from the car, and we imagined Nikki wearing leather thigh-highs and a megawatt grin like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. But in real life, there’s nothing “Julia Roberts” about a pro. Nikki was 28 but looked 43. She had enormous double D fake breasts with stretch marks, stringy bleach blonde hair, a Kiss tattoo, a paunch to her stomach, cellulite highs, and a scathing glare that even caked-on eyeliner couldn’t hide. Without a doubt she was the sexiest, hottest, most intoxicating woman I had ever seen.

The feeling was not mutual. At 5’ 9”, 160, I did not have the typical build of a “driver.” My job, it turned out, was to be a provider of a ride — and protection. I was supposed to be the "muscle," and although I had a few, they were the long, lean, slow-twitch types that make you good at running half marathons, not benching 400 pounds and putting dudes in headlocks. Nikki would make due as long as I knew karate. I didn’t. Carried a gun? Never shot one. Had mace? I had citrus mist air freshener.

On that first night, almost no words were exchanged. I walked her to the door of several “Johns.” I squinted at them as if I were in a Sergio Leone film. I waited in the car in the driveway and speculated with Lisa about what was going on in there. When Nikki emerged, I drove her to the next stop. After six clients, I brought her back to her condo in the valley and she handed me a fat wad of bills. To my shocked expression she humdrum-ly replied, “It’s standard. Twenty percent of the take, and if you’re still into it, you can make a lot more on weekends when we do parties.”

When I got home, Lisa was wide awake, dying to find out all the juicy details. What I gave her instead was enough money to pay our car bill, our food bill, and our credit card bill — from one night of “work.” She made me promise right then and there to never quit driving hookers. Ten months later, our “research” had turned into our primary source of income. I was driving two or three times a week, taking the women not just to clients, but also to the grocery store, the post office, and to the county jail for conjugal visits with their boyfriends while I sat patiently in the car outside.

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One night I was waiting for “Coco” in the driveway of a Tuscan-style estate, inside a gated community in Bel Air. It was 4 a.m. Her “finish” time was 3:30 a.m., which made her a half hour late, which never happened. I tried her cell multiple times but it went straight to voicemail, so I called (and woke up) Lisa, who immediately freaked out. She was sure Coco was being raped, or worse, and I had to protect this girl who was, as Lisa put it, “someone’s daughter.” Believe it or not, I still didn’t have a legit weapon, so armed only with a can of citrus air freshener I snuck around to the back door. My heart pounded through my pink Izod shirt as I reached for the handle, halfway expecting some kind of booby trap or blaring alarm. It was neither. The door was unlocked. I followed muffled voices up the spiral staircase, where I heroically burst into the bedroom to save Coco, not from rape, but from making five hundred dollars. Turned out her client struggled for hours to get an erection (hence the unanswered cell) and having finally achieved his manhood but mere seconds from consummation I fucked it up.

Not long after my botched rescue attempt with Coco, I picked up another woman who called herself Sin Dee. After a handful of nights driving her to and from various “appointments,” she asked if I’d want to start working for her exclusively at Hot, Wet, and Wild — a business she started that specialized in bachelor parties. In her mind I was the perfect employee: I had a clean, dependable vehicle, I didn’t drive while drunk or on drugs, and, most importantly, I didn’t hit on any of the girls. Oddly flattered, I said yes. That’s when things really got surreal. Sinn Dee was a raven-haired dominatrix who wore black latex and only performed to Pantera. She managed a stable of girls, each with different personas: a blonde cheerleader, a Japanese school girl, a hair metal groupie, a booty shakin’ hip hop chick. Part of my job description, I quickly learned, was being the emcee, explaining “the rules” on a feedback-y Mister Microphone to living rooms full of debauched guys: “No fingers in any holes. No cheese doodles in any holes. No superhero action figures in any holes. No picking up the girls and dropping them…” This was the actual script. The quintet of ladies I worked for had an incredible equalizing power: they could get any guy, regardless of race, religion or education to plunk down $500 to see them eat licorice rope out of each other’s vaginas. In equal measure I found myself wondering, "What in the hell is wrong with the male gender?" and "This is totally hot."

The night I argued with a member of The Mongols biker gang, who accused Sinn Dee of cleaning out his chain wallet, was the night I realized I was fully invested in the “protection” part of the job. Mongol explained to me that he and the 37 other bikers enjoying the show in their private clubhouse had taken an oath to kill anyone who wronged a member of their gang. I promised I’d get his money back ASAP. What I didn’t expect was that a) Sinn Dee did in fact (gleefully) rob him and b) she never gives money back to anyone, no matter how ill-gotten. I told her this guy pretty much just issued me a death threat, to which she replied, casually, “I’ll handle it.” She then proceeded to smother his face between her double Dees (hence the moniker) and, voila, problem solved.

My method of being the “muscle” became less about intimidation and more about intuition. I developed a sixth sense for dicey situations. At bachelor parties, it got so I could predict when the primal group dynamic was going to turn from merely crazy to potentially criminal. One of my responsibilities was to assess a party before the women went inside. I shook hands with the bros, scanned table tops for drugs, and made sure the lock on the dressing/bedroom worked. I had done this maybe fifty times, always giving the thumbs up, until one night in East L.A. The moment I entered, I picked up a vibe that went way beyond male bravado. It was angry. Add to that cocaine on the coffee table, weed in the air, knives dangling from belts, and it was enough for me to go out to the car and suggest to the women we should skip the party altogether. After two seconds’ consideration, they shrugged a collective, “we’re gonna chance it.” Personally, I had no desire to chance it, but if they were going in, I couldn’t let them go alone. That’s when it hit me — these women weren’t in it just for the money. They craved the rush. The power. They wanted to tempt fate and live to tell.

We didn’t even get through the first song at that party before a dude tried to violate Sinn Dee with a universal remote control (the big kind). We had to lock ourselves in the bedroom, jump out the window, and high tail it back to the Subaru. After that night, I took stock of my situation. It had been nearly ten months since I began driving, the last five of which Lisa and I were pregnant. I knew my tenure with Hot, Wet, and Wild was nearing an end, especially when the very next week the women told me they booked that same party — and were psyched to go back. I sent my much-tougher brother in my stead.

The stop light finally went green. As I signaled onto the entrance of the 101 (hello, HOV lane) I turned to the crew in the back seat. “Lisa just texted. We found out we’re having a girl.” The trio cooed their congrats between shots of Cuervo. I told them that in a few months, my daughter would be strapped into a car seat right where they were sitting.

They joked they would leave a few of their toys, the pink ones, for her to play with. I tried to laugh, but felt a little queasy: “I don’t have a career. I don’t have a house. I couldn’t be more ill-equipped for fatherhood.” Pebbles begged to differ. “Whatta you think you been doin’ the past year? A ride and protection. That’s pretty much all it takes. You’ll do just fine.”

Joe Syracuse and his wife, Lisa Addario, turned his driving experiences into a fish-out-of-water comedy called Amateur Night, starring Jason Biggs and Ashley Tisdale — to be released in theaters on August 5 and on video-on-demand August 12.  

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