Boom times for brothels

WINNEMUCCA -- The lady of the night, wearing a smile, a sweater that stopped at her waist, nylons and spike heels, sashayed across the street.

Her swinging moon, not the moon breaking through cloud cover, has the attention of four men arriving at this city's brothel district just north of downtown.

What may soon happen on this evening, men paying for sex in a legal brothel, makes Debbie Barrus proud of Nevada.

"Nevadans deal in reality," she says as she sits at the bar of the Pussy Cat Ranch, one of five legal brothels and a strip club she co-owns on Riverside Street, an area known as "The Line."

"Prostitution is always going to be with us. It's better to make it safe for customers and the girls."

The 41-year-old Barrus follows politics closely. "I obviously don't want anyone to become president who would try to shut this kind of business down," she says.

Scheduled surgery is making Barrus miss the caucuses, but one candidate makes her edgy.

Hillary Clinton "has no conscience," she says. "She'll do whatever it takes to further her own agenda."

Barrus hopes Barack Obama gets the Democratic nomination. "He seems like a classy guy, and I appreciate his talk about positive change in the economy."

The mother of eight children said her personal life shows positive change is possible. A divorce, coupled with the dropping of her Mormon faith, has given her a new appreciation of capitalism.

"Until a few months ago, I knew very little about business," she says. "I find it ironic that I would go from practically living in a convent to this kind of business. But like my partner said, there's money to be made in it and that's what America is about."

The world's oldest profession isn't the only business making money in Winnemucca, the Humboldt County seat. The city of 7,500 is growing as gold is found in nearby mines. With agriculture and ranching also flourishing, the area remains home to working cowboys who appreciate that Johnny Cash made the town the opening setting for his cover of "I've Been Everywhere."

A need for new apartments is being filled by 57-year-old Hilmi Mohammad, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Arriving in Los Angeles with only $241, he became a successful clothing retailer, moving to Winnemucca nearly 20 years ago. This is his first big commercial real estate venture.

Standing on a hillside where his 42 apartment units are under construction, Mohammad talks of his love for his adopted country.

"As long as you don't put your brain in the refrigerator, there is so much opportunity here," he says.

Unfortunately, the war in Iraq is souring him on the political process, Mohammad says. He refuses to participate in the caucuses because neither Republicans nor Democrats are ending the war that he fears will expand in the region.

"The Republicans and Democrats are like geese who go to the lake and then it freezes. Their wings flap and they go, 'Quack, quack, quack,' but they're not getting anywhere."