"Wow, you all sure look good," said a visitor as he walked through the door of the Paradise Club, a modeling and escort service in the 14th Street red-light district. Three women dressed in translucent leisure wear were seated on a sofa, debating the merits of purple lipstick ove red.
"Have you been here before?" asked the manager as she zipped up her jeans and crisscrossed belt straps around her hips. The visitor said no, and was offered a tour of the four-bedroom establishment.
"Well, its $30 for the room for a half an hour and everything else is discussed in private. You can pick the girl of your choice."
The girls stopped their chatter and began to pose, arching their backs, pursing their lips.
"They are beautiful," said the visitor. "Thanks," said the manager. "Who wants to talk to ugly girls? I'll even throw in a complimentary movie," she added.
Paradise was a cruddy little place, with cracked mirrors and holes in the walls. An employe from the Virginia Linen Service had not yet unloaded the days wash, and the air smelled of disinfectant.
But there was more to it than met the eye.This was a really popular joint. Men in business suits crept in off the noonday street, sort of nodded with familiarity and disappeared into a room. Nerdy-looking college kids came by, with backpacks and credit cards. Construction workers from down the street, postal workers from across the street, all looking for Paradise.
Although law enforcement officials and real estate associations had declared X-rated life along the strip all but dead, there was a bustling business here.
"We do not engage in prostitution -- we are therapists," the manager said, attempting to dispel allegations by law enforcement officials that many such establishments were merely fronts for prostitution and narcotics activities. "More than 90 percent of the men who come in here are just lonely and all they do is talk."
The visitor noticed that three of the four bedrooms were occupied, but he could not hear a word. Not even the complimentary movie had dialogue. Those guys must have been the other 10 percent, the visitor suggested.
"The women do not have to talk," the manager explained. "If she has an idea about the man's problem or some special insight as to how to solve it, she may talk. If not, she may not."
Last week, the owner of the Casino Royal, a cornerstone of the combat zone, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and agreed to give up the Royal building, on the Northwest corner of 14th and H streets NW, which houses the Paradise. But Paradise owners now have a lease from the new owners, and say they expect to be in business for at least two more years. From the view of the employes, the Paradise seemed harmless enough. In fact, the manager argued, if places like the Paradise close, then "working women" will be forced into the streets.
"Here we have rules and regulations," the manager said. "A girl must know how to dress. She must have a good personality and if she's not that attractive, she must have a great personality."
The visitor stepped inside a vacant room for a better look. The manager smiled, but since the man didn't have $30, he had to leave.
"We would not be here if there wasn't a market for our services," the manager said. "Nobody pays any attention to the fact that there are a lot of men out there with problems and nobody to talk to about them."
But there were no freebies, the manager was polite to explain, because this was a business -- a group of single mothers who couldn't make it as secretaries trying to put their kids through school.
"It's like any other job," said the manager. "The girls work 9-to-5, and I can tell you from experience that your average secretary works her butt off for less."
The other women nodded in agreement, and continued scouting customers.
"We sell the privacy of a room, and there is nothing illegal or immoral about that," the manager said. "Everybody who comes in here has their own idea of what paradise is. We just give them the space to work it out."
For those considering rushing downtown, the Paradise does not guarantee that you will find paradise. A sign over the manager's desk reads, "All sales are final and there are no refunds."