The Big Time by Diane Simmons

newspaper folder on a table

It was a freezing January day in North Idaho and I was getting nowhere.

First, they all waved me off.

When I kept hanging around, they said: You know what you should do? You should look up Dolores Arnold.

They all said it. The drug store clerk, the cop in the cop car, the waitress in the coffee shop.

The hard-as-rock miners who lined the bar at the Smokehouse Saloon.

Look up Dolores Arnold.

And then they all turned away in exactly the same manner.

This was the Seventies and, reportorially speaking, Idaho was mine. For six months now, I had been driving all over the state, sleeping in my 1959 VW van, reporting stories for a muckraking Boise weekly called The Intermountain Observer. I even got paid. I didn’t make as much as I had waitressing at the Boise Airport Holiday Inn, but that seemed fair. The Observer ran on a shoestring. Anyway: Why should you get paid a lot for doing something you loved?

I loved being a reporter. The Seventies was the era of New Journalism — Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson — and I was sure I could report and write with the best of them. The Observer offered me the chance to show what I could do. I was on my way to the big time.

It was actually at the Holiday Inn, though, that I got my first break. Working the floor, I saw three very duded-up guys come in: extravagant cowboy hats, snakeskin boots, mink neckties.  They booked a banquet room for twenty, requesting the cheapest meal. They asked that the room be supplied with easels; also they would need to hold the room — doors closed — for two hours after the plates were cleared. Staff were not to come in.

Something about this seemed familiar. Then I remembered reading a story in Newsweek about a pyramid sales scheme called Dare to Be Great. The scammers would hit a town — wearing fancy Western duds, mink neckties, driving rented Cadillacs — then fan out to lure locals with a free dinner. After the meal, they would close the doors and put on a presentation, showing how rich you could become as a D.T.B.G. “distributor.” Being a distributor allowed you to sellother people distributorships. They in turn could sign up others. Eventually, everybody’s rich.

The beauty part: All you had to do to become a distributor was to write out a check to D.T.B.G. Right there in the banquet room. In fact, it was kind of hard to get out of the room if you didn’t write a check.

I was sure these guys were D.T.B.G.

Idaho, then as now, was one of the most conservative places in the country. So it was surprising that a paper like the Observer even existed. Somehow, the editor and publisher, Sam Day — son of a diplomat, product of fancy East Coast schools, dyed-in-the-wool rebel — had found his way to Boise where he enjoyed scandalizing almost everybody.

The cashier at the Holiday Innlet me use the phone, and — keeping an eye on the D.T.B.G. guys — I called up the Observer to see if they would consider a story. Sam came on the line. He said sure, give it a try.

Still in my red and white Holiday Inn uniform, I asked one of the men, Leroy, if I could accompany him as he tried to locate people for the free dinner. I said I was a reporter. He said sure and agreed to let me ride with him in his two-tone blue Cadillac. He took me along as he trolled in coffee shops, bars, beauty parlors, barber shops.

I doubt if Leroy thought I was much of a reporter. But he introduced me as Press, my presence proving to potential takers that D.T.B.G was getting more famous by the day.

Say Mister, don’t you want to get in on the ground floor?

When enough willing diners had been recruited, ushered into the Holiday Inn, and given their stringy chicken and peas, I was allowed to stand in back as the D.T.B.G. guys set up charts that proved how easy it would be to attain sudden and amazing wealth.

Leroy and the others jumped and spun at the front of the room. They hopped onto chairs to lead the room in chants about getting rich quick. Soon everyone was standing on their chairs, hollering and having fun.

And — as the guys were not going to let anyone forget — only one thing was standing between you and wealth. The check. You had to write out the check. To D.T.B.G. Now.

Get the check, get the check, we all chanted as Leroy and his men — working hard, sweat rolling down into the mink — went after the last holdouts.

Standing on a chair in back, I had to wonder: Should they really have let a reporter — even a novice reporter — in here? Pyramid sales schemes, of course, being illegal. Should they have let me bring the Observer’s photographer, who got a great shot of Leroy in mid-jump, the coattails of his white cowboy suit flying?

But Press — I guess they were thinking — had to be good. It impressed the folks. And it meant you were hitting the big time.

Who could turn that down?

A few days later, my story and Leroy’s picture took up the whole front page of the Observer. The Idaho Attorney General shut down Dare to Be Great. Leroy and the others, wanted for fraud, hurriedly left the state.

And I had a job as an investigative reporter.

Sam found plenty of stories to send me on and I was getting good. I even won Idaho’s top investigative reporting award.

But now, up in Wallace, I was stymied.

I was here because a recent fire had created the worst hard-rock mine disaster since 1917. While eighty-three men were rescued, ninety-one died underground of smoke inhalation or carbon dioxide poisoning. Now, the mine was re-opening and Sam wanted a story. How was Wallace coping with such a loss? How were people feeling about their sons and husbands heading back into the mine? How did the miners themselves feel, having lost so many of their comrades? Were families desperate? Was there rage? Were there plans to strike? Sabotage?

As I knew, Sam wanted me, his star — indeed his only — reporter to squeeze something freshly tragic out of this situation, something that Idaho’s more staid newspapers couldn’t find or wouldn’t tell.

He believed I could do it.

But even though I was young and wildly ambitious — surely the Observer would be my steppingstone to a big-time publication I found that I really didn’t want to call up bereaved families and ask how they were feeling so I could get a scoop.

In fact, once I got to Wallace, I couldn’t quite do it. I was stalling. Since I couldn’t work myself up to locating families to visit, I asked people I buttonholed in cafes and bars and even out on the street. How were people in town feeling?

But nobody had much to say except: Look up Dolores Arnold.

Well, OK then. It appeared that Dolores Arnold, whoever she was, was all I had going for me. I went to the pay phone at the back of the Smokehouse Saloon and found her in the phone book. I called the number. A young woman answered. She said just a minute.

When Dolores came on, she sounded to be a woman in her fifties. She didn’t say much. She waited to hear what it was about.

It was loud in the Smokehouse and I yelled into the receiver, one finger in my ear.

I told her I was a newspaper reporter. I told her I had come up from the Intermountain Observer in Boise. I told her my assignment. I told her people had said she knew a lot about people in town.

Relatively new to the game as I was, I had already made a number of cold calls, trying to get people to talk to me. I had learned to my surprise that most people were secretly flattered to be sought out. Even if it was in their best interest to keep their mouths shut, they very often said OK to an interview.

But not everybody would talk. Some were polite but not interested. Some were immediately hostile.

Dolores, I couldn’t quite peg; she seemed all three at once.

Too, she stayed quiet, didn’t yak and cackle as women in this part of the West often do. Trained, I guess, to show that they are friendly and pretty much harmless.

Me, I’d been away at college. But I had been a farm girl, growing up just over the border in Oregon. I knew how women were supposed to talk.

Dolores though took it slow. She wasn’t trying to show that she was friendly or harmless. She’s not from around here, I told myself.

I finished my pitch. She made me say everything over again, costing me another dime.

She wanted to know, again, what paper I worked for, a media-savvy question I usually didn’t get. I told her again: The Intermountain Observer.

She paused.

I waited.

You’re in town? she asked.

I said I was. I was in the Smokehouse Saloon right now.

All right, she said after a moment. You may interview me. Come to my house.

I thanked her. I resisted the urge to yak and cackle in a friendly manner. For one thing, I didn’t have another dime.

What time, I asked.

Nine, she said.

Great. I’ll be there tomorrow morning.

Nine tonight.

She gave me the address. Second floor.

Tell them at the door I said you could come.

I was beginning to guess Dolores’s line of work. Back at the Smokehouse, less innocent than when I hit town, I found a couple of guys willing to tell me about her. Not that they knew her, of course. But what people said, she’d gotten her start over in Bremerton where they had the big shipyard. During the war, the yard repaired battle ships, then sent them back to the Pacific. Lots of sailors in and out.

After the war, I was told, she came to Wallace and worked her way up to owning her own houses. By now, she had three. She was a good businesswoman. Everybody said so. She was in with all the bigwigs in town. She was generous, too, donating to all the good causes.

Supposedly she was a real beauty, one of them added. Looked like a movie star. That’s what you heard. He, of course, had never seen her.

Is she local?

No. Grew up over around Bremerton. Farm girl, they say.

At 9 p.m., I climbed unremarkable stairs to the second floor where a sign said Luxette Rooms. I rang the bell and an expressionless young woman — not Dolores, I was sure — opened the door and showed me through a beaded curtain to a carpeted parlor with cushy armchairs.

I worried. Would she really come? Surely, she had no business talking to a reporter.

But I’d presented myself fair and square, and she’d invited me. I was prepared to wait until they threw me out. For one thing, it was warmer here than in the VW.

In a few minutes, however, Dolores, swept in. She was about fifty, swishing with flame-colored chiffon, and she was indeed a beauty. Slim but busty. Beautiful lips. Thick dark red hair, long in back, pulled off a high forehead in an elegant puff. Exceedingly direct and intelligent dark blue eyes, sculpted black eyebrows.

Yes, I could see her as a movie star.

I told her again that I was a reporter and I had come to Wallace to find out how people were feeling six months after the mine disaster. People in town had told me I should look her up. They said she knew more about Wallace than anybody.

She did not acknowledge this flattery.

Could she tell me what the general mood might be?

Dolores looked me over, my jeans, boots, and parka, my-not-too-recently-washed, boy-short hair.

I drove up, I apologized. I just got here today. This was my only lie. I had in fact spent the previous night in my VW.

She seemed to consider.

Then I saw her make up her mind. She took a breath. Ignoring my question about the mine disaster, she launched into an in-depth description of her work. Prostitution, she declared, was the most wonderful of all professions and prostitutes acquire a more truthful and extensive knowledge of life than most people can imagine.

Former prostitutes made wonderful wives, she told me. Especially her own girls — as she called them — hired in large part for their looks.

She raised one of her perfect eyebrows slightly. Probably to indicate that I was not good looking enough for such a great career.

Like some people I’d interviewed, Dolores was very interested in being quoted accurately.

For their looks, she repeated, making sure I got it down correctly.

Hers was a class establishment, she went on. Her girls were not allowed to solicit in town or to go out on their own. Sometimes they went in small groups to lunch.

For her part, Dolores always carried herself as a lady. Yes, she understood that she was considered an asset to the community. People knew she was always ready to donate to worthy causes.

I murmured that I had been told this. She gave me a haughty stare and continued.

Frequently, she told me, she had the opportunity to entertain the city’s most prominent businessmen. Typically, at one of her events, there would be more than a hundred guests.

It is, she said, a great honor to host them.

I made an effort to get back to my assignment.

Did the men she — she knew — talk about the fire, the loss of family, colleagues, so on. Had the disaster had an emotional impact on the town?

The “gentlemen” talk about everything, Dolores said. Nobody knows more about how they are feeling than we do.

What do they say about the fire?

Dolores said this was something she could not discuss. The relationship between the gentlemen and the house is similar to that of a lawyer and client. Completely confidential.

Dolores waited watchfully as I wrote down “completely confidential.”

Of course, she said, as if I had asked, the house does take a share of a girl’s earnings. Why not? Room and board are supplied.

Women’s lib? Dolores asked rhetorically.  (It was a newish topic in the early Seventies. I hadn’t thought to bring it up.) The idea that prostitution was the ultimate exploitation of women? Laughable. How was it exploitation to get paid for doing what other women do for free?

Her lovely upper lip curled just a little and I thought perhaps I was glimpsing the young woman who, thirty years earlier, had made a decision to put her beauty to work for her in the World War II shipyards.

Later, back at the Smokehouse and working on my notes, I met a young woman named Marcia; she was waiting for the Greyhound to arrive so that she could take her monthly vacation.

Marcia worked at another of the houses in town. She had previously worked for Dolores but quit.  Dolores, she said, took too much of a cut, supposedly because she had a better-quality clientele.

They aren’t one bit better, Marcia scoffed.

Was it all as great as Dolores said?

But Marcia didn’t have many views on the profession, one way or the other. She was all about the economics. She had two kids and had been unable to make enough as a typist for Blue Bell Potato Chip because she could never get faster than fifty words a minute. This paid more. Now she could support her kids who lived in another town.

Was it, like, OK work to do?

You get used to it, she said. It isn’t as hard as you think.

The worst part? Having to stay in the house all the time, except when you got your week off every month.

How did the men feel about the mine disaster?

Bad, Marcia said. How are they supposed to feel?

Prostitution is a misdemeanor in Wallace, the mayor told me in a phone call. He sounded weary at having to explain once again why there were five brothels in his town. The houses pay a weekly fine. The women are carefully monitored with background and health checks. There are a lot of single men in a mining town. We’ll never wipe it out. So, we strictly regulate. Those who don’t meet our standards go down to you folks in Boise.

When I got back, Sam was OK that I didn’t stick to my assignment. In fact, he was crazy about my story. It was just the kind of outlandish muckraking he loved.

Five houses of prostitution operating openly in supposedly conservative Idaho?

A madam bragging about what a fabulous career prostitution was, and even hinting that some of the state’s most handsome matrons may have been groomed in one of her establishments?

Her wonderful entertainments of North Idaho’s most prominent men?

And her implied scorn for women who had sex for free?

This would get a rise.

Indeed, when my story ran, it was a sensation. Among other things, news reports came in of red-faced, super-conservative legislators waving copies of the Observer on the floor of the state capitol a few blocks away. Of course, these right wingers hated the Observer as the closest thing to Das Kapital Boise had ever seen. But here was a moral issue that ambitious legislators could not fail to capitalize on. Here was a way to get press.

It was a big deal. For a while, I was kind of famous in Boise.

But not everybody was happy. Particularly Dolores, who called me, nearly hysterical with rage.

I was surprised.

True, it was not uncommon to get furious calls when people have been too forthright in what they’ve said and are now in hot water. But Dolores had seemed to know exactly what she was doing. Indeed, she had run the whole interview. And I had been very careful to quote her exactly. As she had to know if she’d seen the piece.

But she wasn’t claiming that I got anything wrong.

Eventually, I managed to grasp that Dolores believed she had been misled as to who I was. She thought I was from the National Observer. At the time this was a daily newspaper published by Dow Jones and sold in every airport and classy hotel in the country, right alongside the Wall Street Journal. The National Observer advertised itself as “quality” non-financial journalism, and I knew that they published big name writers like Hunter S. Thompson.

That’s who Dolores thought she was talking to.

She would certainly not have given an interview to some smalltime rag in Boise! To some little nobody like me!

Her passion came as a surprise.

But eventually I thought I understood: Dolores had believed that she and her wonderful profession were finally getting the recognition they deserved. What a woman! What a career! You could read about her while you waited for your plane in L.A. or sipped a cocktail in a skyscraper hotel in New York.

A component of her fury, it seemed, was grief. For all of her achievement over a thirty-year career, she had not, in fact, rated an interview with the National Observer. All she could rate was me.

Probably she was furious too because she should have known better. Did I look like I was funded by Dow Jones?

But she had wanted it. She had wanted it too much.

I tried to defend myself. I had identified myself clearly.

She didn’t care. She didn’t care about me.She hung up.

I didn’t blame her, really. I thought I knew something of how she felt. Both of us were good at what we did. For Idaho. But what did it mean, really? What were the chances either of us would ever get to the big time?

A few months later Dolores did get into the New York Times when some stringer picked up this story: All five of Wallace’s brothels had been closed (temporarily, as everyone understood) by politicians. The stringer got Dolores on the phone for an exceedingly tame quote: “It’s terrible to have to turn away customers who are used to coming here.”

She could have been lamenting the hiatus of a dry-cleaning establishment.

The New York Times did not of course credit me or the Intermountain Observer for bringing to the state’s attention that brothels were operating freely in Wallace.

Why would they?

The Intermountain Observer was just some smalltime rag and I was a little nobody.

Meet the Contributor
Diane Simmons

Originally from the high desert country of eastern Oregon, Diane Simmons earned a BA in history from the University of Oregon. She also holds an MA in creative writing from City College of New York, and a Ph.D in English literature from the City University of New York. Recent essays include: “Principles! You’re Making a Killing On Them!” Nowhere Magazine (Nominated for a Pushcart), and “Nobody Goes to the Gulag Anymore,” Missouri Review. (Excerpted on LitHub.) Her nonfiction book, The Courtship of Eva Eldridge, was published by the University of Iowa Press. For other books and essays see: dianesimmonswrite.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Jon S/Flickr Creative Commons

  6 comments for “The Big Time by Diane Simmons

  1. Great story. I grew up in Northern Idaho and the houses of ill repute of Wallace were known and discussed frequently at my high school. Some of my friends made the occasional “field trip” to Wallace to avail themselves of the services available there without one life ever being ruined. All were disgusted when the politicians finally put an end to things.
    On a side note, Sam Day once interviewed me for a story in the Intermountain Observor.

  2. What a great story (and loved the opening story re the pyramid scheme cowboys!)! I was hooked on every sentence, love your writing style! Also the hidden (or not so hidden?) messages about the hypocrisy of the community at the time.

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