Vernon works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. sorting mail for a Washington-area post office, a job that he says is monotonously routine.
At night he livens up his life by going to the Sugar & Spice Photography Studio in Camp Springs. There he pays $50 an hour to take pictures of partially clothed or nude young women.
"I don't really have the self-esteem to ask somebody out," explains Vernon, thirtyish and, by his own account, overweight and lonely. "I don't really like singles bars, so I come here. It's a nice atmosphere."
Sugar & Spice is one of four licensed nude photography studios in Prince George's County. Its owners and employes insist that it is no more than what it purports to be. But County Council member Sue V. Mills, who represents the Camp Springs area, maintains that these studios are merely covers for prostitution. She intends to introduce legislation this fall that would ban such places as Sugar & Spice.
"My constituents came to me and complained, and I'm convinced it's a massage parlor," Mills said of the studio, citing an advertisement that appeared in the tabloid Met Forum announcing the opening of Sugar & Spice, "where everything is nice."
"You could read between the lines," added Mills.
But Tera Dodson, who owns Sugar & Spice, says that she used to work in a massage parlor in the county and that she opened her studio specifically to get women out of the massage-parlor business.
"The girls can pose classy, still make money and they don't have to abuse their bodies," said Dodson. She said that any customers who come in seeking sexual favors are escorted out.
Mills said some people may object that her proposed legislation is unconstitutional, but she will cite as precedent a county law passed in 1981--which she cosponsored--aimed at closing down massage parlors. That law prohibited massages between men and women, and generally made it difficult for such businesses to operate.
Several of the former massage parlors reopened as photography studios or health spas, county vice officers say. The photography studios may be unique in the Washington area--police in other jurisdictions say that they know of no such establishments. Arlington police said that they had such studios until recently, but shut them down because they were fronts for call-girl services.
Since opening a few weeks ago, Sugar & Spice has gained considerable attention because it is in the same town house-office complex on Old Branch Avenue as the offices for the state legislators from the 27th District. Unlike Mills, the legislators are only mildly upset.
"I'm of the bent that consenting adults can do what they please," said Democratic state Sen. Frank Komenda. "Still, there has been some public clamor that finds that kind of activity objectionable . . . . Because of the studio's proximity to our legislative office, it almost looks like we're condoning it."
Customers visit Sugar & Spice for different reasons. For Vernon, it is a place to live out his fantasy of being a Playboy magazine-type photographer. And, he says: "I live by myself and I like to have someone to talk to.
"I might talk about a problem I'm having," he explains. "If I'm lucky, I might find one who knows something about baseball. Then we can talk about the Orioles."
Vernon's favorite room displays a scene of a waterfall as the background for photographs. He likes the models he photographs to wear negligees.
"Like a lot of guys," he says, "I walk past Frederick's of Hollywood in Landover Mall and I look at the negligees on the mannequins and I say, 'Wow, I wonder what that would look like on a real woman.' "
Vernon, who, like the models, asked that his real name not be used, says that the only problem he has with Sugar & Spice is that "you find one girl you like and you get to know her, and one day she's not there, and it's like, what do you do?"
"Now, turn around, look over your shoulder and look sexy," he directed a model, Candy, during one of their photo sessions in which she posed in a black see-through corset and black-seamed stockings.
For 23-year-old Candy, who sports a blond Farrah Fawcett hairdo, Sugar & Spice is a chance to live out a fantasy of another kind.
"Look, I know I'm not a professional and this isn't the big time," she said one evening as she sat in the lobby watching "The Godfather" on television, waiting for customers. "But maybe one day the right man will walk through that door and he'll be looking for a professional model and he'll discover me. Or maybe just the right man, period, will come walking in."
"We're really a lot of psychiatrists," said Candy, who used to be a hairdresser. She said that one of her regular customers, a lawyer, asks her to pose in leather outfits and boots. He brings cards on which he has written things for her to say to him as he takes the pictures. Another regular, who Candy says is a utility company repairman "about 30, married, and extremely good-looking," likes to have his picture taken wearing the models' clothes.
There also is the customer who says that he is a retired dentist, who comes in to have one of the women take his picture while he models a red ballerina outfit.
"He's about 65," says June, 27, another model. "He likes you to tell him to do different steps. And after his session is over, he puts on his business suit and leaves."
The customers can take home their pictures of the models only if the model is willing to sign a picture release. Customers must sign an agreement prohibiting them from selling or publishing the photos without the model's permission.
The studio's waiting room is decorated like a living room, with couches, a television, stereo, potted floor plants, and copies of magazines that range from Smithsonian to Playgirl. Customers can select their models there or leaf through a photographic album that shows the women in various costumes and poses.
Customers who do not bring their own photo equipment can borrow a Polaroid camera and film. They are then shown into a private room furnished with a table, chair, stool and floor pillows.
The models say that they earn a minimum of $250 a week, depending on how many customers they have. All view their jobs as temporary, lasting only until they can find something else. One model, Daphne, said that she worked as a dancer in clubs on 14th Street in Washington until the clubs "got too rough." She said that she subsequently studied computer programming, and is looking for a job in that field.
Shae, one of two black models at Sugar & Spice, said she is saving the money she earns in order to attend the John Robert Powers Fashion and Finishing School. She said she has wanted to go to the fashion school ever since she read that Diana Ross went there.
June, who said she has three children, said she uses her income to supplement what her husband, a businessman, earns. June grew up in an Illinois suburb and came to Prince George's County because of her husband, whom she met through an entry in Sheila Woods' "Have A Friend" column in the tabloid The Globe.
Candy, who is from Suitland, said she wants to enroll in Prince George's Community College and work toward a degree in social work. She said she would like to counsel high school students who use drugs.
But she added: "I could never sit behind a desk all day."