It is estimated that 2 to 3 percent of working women are working as prostitutes. One of them tells Charles Gandee her story
WRITTEN BY CHARLES GANDEE
She rode out of the Midwest in a baby blue Lincoln Continental driven by a dapper young man she met through a Mexican girlfriend who happened to have sold him drugs. He was just passing through on his way to New York City, a place she'd always wanted to live. He said he'd take her with him if she would be, to employ the jive parlance of the day, "one of his 'ho's. " The idea was neither particularly appealing nor particularly unappealing. She had had intercourse once: "not a memorable experience." So she agreed. And off they went on the 1,438-mile, one-way road trip with Earth, Wind & Fire cranked up loud on the shiny new car's eight-track cassette tape player, with her sitting in the back seat snuggling a very large stuffed panda.
Selling sex: “For $300 an hour, they’re expecting a date,” she says. “They’re not expecting a whore to walk in taking her dress off.”
It was 1976, she was 16 years old, and the going rate for a blowjob in New York City was $20. Intercourse was $5 more. Her daily quota was $200, which would have been $300 had she been a blonde, which she later became for a while. She was required to give all of her $200 to her dapper young man, who, in return, provided coffee shop food, flashy clothing, and a room at the Tudor Hotel on East Forty-second Street. He also showed her the way to his (and her) two-block strip of Lexington Avenue, explained how to ask hungry-eyed men for ''a date,'' and provided the apartment on West Forty-Fourth Street ''the 'ho' palace," as they dubbed it where she and the others brought the men to small rooms with round beds and mirrors on the ceiling. She was one of five, and the rules required that every fifth night she be his, so she was.
Because she considered hot pants ''tacky,'' and because she possessed a defiant streak, she wore blue jeans and, sometimes, a straw hat when she worked. Because she was 16, she got away with it. She still remembers her first john, a hairy Italian man somewhere, she estimated at the time, in the neighborhood of 50. Although the smell and the taste of his unwashed and uncircumcised penis repulsed her, she gave him the agreed-upon blowjob. It was her first. He gave her the agreed-upon $20, plus another $20 she credits to her early business acumen. ''What did you think afterward'?'' I asked. ''I thought, 'There's no going back now,'' she recalled. And indeed, in 17 years she has not.
It would have had to have been much worse than it was and it was as bad as a dislocated jaw from too many blowjobs suggests for her to return to the white-bread wheat belt where she was born in 1959, the almond-eyed daughter of a Korean War veteran who returned home with a one-year-old son and an Asian wife who somehow never quite managed to master English. Her father drove a truck and drank. Yes, he was violent. Yes, he beat his Asian wife. For cutting his almond-eyed daughter's hair. For a dinner he didn't like. For anything at all.
They lived in a series of rented houses, then apartments, then trailers, moving every three months or so, usually in the night. She remembers there being a freezer in one of the living rooms. She remembers her mother' s obsessive cleaning. Her father grew moody, temperamental, peculiar. She recalls him filling the house, in an inexplicable fit of religious fervor, with cheap crucifixes and black velvet paintings of Jesus, which, one day after he left for work, her mother took down, piled in the front yard, and burned.
When she was six, her parents divorced. She and her brother stayed with their mother. She recalls developing a relationship with the next-door neighbor, an older man who sexually molested her when she would go over to play with his granddaughter, who visited regularly, whom he also molested. There were frequent sleepover parties. The three would share a bed. Her memory of their activity is graphically clear. How did she feel about it? ''I thought it was kind of fun. I went every day. But later on I started to freak out, and then I blocked it out of my mind." She never told her mother. Or anyone else.
After about a year, her father came to visit one Saturday and found her covered with welts from a beating she'd received for crossing a street she wasn't allowed to cross. ''My brother snitched." Her mother had used a wire, so her father took her to court. She told the judge she hated her mother, which was true. ''She wouldn't talk to me. We didn't communicate. She ignored me. It's almost as if she hated me.'' Her mother did, however, manage to convey to her seven-year-old daughter that if she went to live with her father, she would never see her again. Her mother kept her promise. "I heard she became a waitress, " she says, but she doesn't know for sure.
Having won his daughter in court, her father headed out in his truck on the long-distance road, handing the little girl over to her paternal grandmother and her second husband, who lived in a big Victorian house. She regarded them as rich: ''I got regular meals. My grandmother made all my clothes." Although her step-grandfather enjoyed fondling her chest and buttocks, which she did not enjoy, what bothered her more was the racist contempt he and her grandmother voiced for their estranged Asian daughter-in-law. Not that she felt protective of her mother. Rather, being half-Asian herself, she took their contempt to heart. It hurt her feelings.
A few days each month, her father would return home from the road to reclaim his daughter. There would be shopping sprees, there would be celebratory dinners. Then he would leave again. And back she would go to the big Victorian house. Among her memories of that time are the organized camping sprees for senior citizens that her grandparents enjoyed. And the discipline: 'They were pretty strict, but I liked it. My father always let me run wild. I guess you want the thing you don't have.'
When she was nine, alcoholism, emphysema and diabetes put an end to her father's truck driving, and he came home to stay. She became the little lady of the house, assuming many of her mother's former responsibilities, including standing in as the object of her father's physical abuse. When he became really angry he would hit her and scream: ''You look just like your mother." Then he took to calling her "whore.'' Although she recalls being ridiculed at school for her mixed blood, she found acceptance and friends, first among the local Native American population, later among the local Mexican population. But her father discouraged friends. " He was extremely possessive. He would get drunk and scare them off.'' Because they were on welfare, a social worker dropped in from time to time 'to make sure we were still poor.'
At age 11, she became her father's nurse, giving him his insulin injections, an experience that inured her to needles when later she began to shoot up cocaine and speed. Her father grew ever more strange, taking to cross-dressing, for example, and filling the house with "go-go dancers, transvestites, bikers, and drug addicts.'' She started taking drugs. Smoking marijuana, which her father allowed, dropping mescaline, which her father joined her in. Somewhat inevitably, she tried LSD: ''I freaked out and told my father I was Sugar Bear from the Sugar Pops. I thought I was a cartoon.” She was allowed to stay out as late as she wanted, providing she had an excuse. Almost anything would do. Often he would stay out all night himself, leaving her alone to drink with her friends, which she "loved."
By 12 she'd had enough of her father and his by-now daily beatings. She fantasized about killing him with a kitchen knife that she practiced holding wearing Playtex gloves so there wouldn't be any fingerprints. Instead, she packed up her favorite patched jeans and the kimono her maternal grandparents had sent her and ran away to live with a girlfriend, the daughter of a barmaid, whom she remembers as promiscuous. Her father searched for her. But he only got as close as the barmaid, who thought he was crazy. ''You can stay here as long as you want,'' offered the barmaid. But she didn't want to stay long. All the strange men in and out of the house bothered her: ''It wasn't for me. I didn't want to live like that.'' So she went to live with a young Mexican-American couple with several children. She was the baby-sitter who simply stayed on one night after work.
She was discovered by the police when she was caught shoplifting a present for a 17-year-old boy she liked. The first thing she said when apprehended with the purloined pants was," I'm a run-away.'' As if that would somehow get her off the hook. She was taken to jail because the juvenile detention center was closed; the previous year a young girl had died there in a fire. She stayed two months, awaiting " placement. "
Her father's downward spiral continued. He slit his wrists, which got him carted off to the state mental hospital, where he stayed for two years and where he met his second wife, who would later leave him for a woman. Then a ward of the state herself, she began the slow, determined journey through foster homes, halfway houses, and reform schools. She ran away whenever she could. ''I was miserable. I thought my life was awful. I cried every night, but I don't think I let anybody see me. I wasn't that kind of crier.'' By the time she was 15, the state had exhausted its resources. She applied for legal emancipation. The court let her have her way. It was two months before her sixteenth birthday.
And then along came the baby blue Lincoln Continental.
Now 33, she lives on the top floor of an Upper East Side brownstone with high ceilings, traditional moldings, and a pretty terrace enveloped by trees. The walls are white, there are rice-paper shades over the windows, and above the mantel is a framed print of Goya's Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, a favorite from the Metropolitan Museum. It's a peaceful room, a woman's room - feminine but not frilly - quiet and serene and well ordered. The polished wood floor is softened by a white wool carpet, and in the middle there's a down-soft chaise longue with pillows and an ivory blanket. At night she pulls down a Murphy bed, which she sleeps in alone. A long desk supports a small Sony television connected to a VCR with two Wim Wenders tapes on top: The Anxiety of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick and The State of Things. Nearby, there's Cindy Crawford's workout tape, which so far has failed to eliminate the extra 15 pounds that make her self-conscious. One tall bookshelf shows a special preference for Balzac (seven volumes) and Duras (10 volumes). At the moment, she's making her way through the latter's Yann Andrea Steiner, in French because a translation isn't yet available. There's also an especially well-worn copy of Proust's Remembrances of Things Past (Volume 1) and Viking's Portable Nietzsche, along with a smattering of lighter fare - Edie; Slim; Hello Darling, Are You Working? On the bottom shelf is The Ocean of Theosophy by W.Q. Judge, which begins a section devoted to offerings from the Yogi Publication Society. "I'm spiritual," she says. "But I'm not religious.'' The bathroom is painted Yves Klein blue with a small Bonnard print of a female nude above the toilet. The toothbrush holder is empty, as is the soap holder. She keeps such things tucked away in the medicine cabinet. There's a small kitchen, - but mainly she eats out or orders in.
When people ask, and in New York people ask, she says she sells real estate. Or art. Or clothes. And for very brief periods of time, she has. But such jobs don't work for her. "It isn't so much the money, it's the freedom, " she says. That and the fact that she finds conventional jobs boring. The ''straight" world, as she calls it, is not her milieu. So she keeps her contacts there to a bare minimum, resisting meeting anyone new, avoiding social situations where there's a chance she'll be asked, ''And what do you do?" by someone to whom she'll feel compelled to lie. Which makes her feel bad about herself. She limits her circle of friends to a small group of gay men, from whom, she says, she gets a lot of acceptance.” Not unlike the Native Americans and the Mexicans of her childhood, she speculates, they are a subculture sensitive to outsiders, to prejudice. Up until last year she was also close to two women, but one died of AIDS, and the other moved away. She has no friends ''in the business" because ''whatever level you work up to there's something self-destructive about it, isn't there? Depressing.'' Twice a week she spends time caring for a man with AIDS as a volunteer at New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis.
As a friend, her worst fault is that she insists on trying to always pay for movie tickets, for dinner, for everything. She also rarely shows up without a present a copy of Kundera's latest book, a vintage Godard film on videotape, a bag of oranges from Balducci's. She's warm and compassionate, funny and smart, attentive and dependable. At times she seems depressed and withdrawn, but neither more nor less often (or severely) than any other 33-year-old working woman in New York City. If she bemoans her fate, she bemoans her fate to herself. To see her on the street in the afternoon, dressed in leggings, Susan Bennis Warren Edwards flats, a long black nylon trench coat, and wire-rim sunglasses, you might speculate that she's married, with two children at Dalton, and that somewhere in her apartment there's a diploma from Bennington or Sarah Lawrence. Or she could be taking the afternoon off from work to see her therapist, to pick up tickets for a play at the Public Theater, to do a little shopping downtown at Dean & DeLuca. With her jet black hair and almond eyes, she 's noticeable but not conspicuous. Hers is a subtle allure discreet. Over sushi in the Village, over tea at Bendel's, her manners are impeccable. Miss Porter's girls don't do it better.
When she speaks about her past, she does so without affect or emotion. She recounts events, ticks off her horrific litany, with the cool, candid dispassion of someone talking about someone else, someone else she doesn't actually know all that well. In minutes she can reel off the facts of her life in New York. Of how she worked her way through six pimps in as many months. Of how she got herself off the street and into a $60-an-hour escort agency, where they only took half her money. Of how she rented her own room at the Martha Washington Hotel, which she liked because men weren't allowed upstairs. Of how she later traded up to what was then the Barbizon Hotel for Women and, finally, to her own apartment, which she considers "a mess.” The one thing that comes through is stoic determination. She's a good soldier.
From time to time, over the years, she has returned to her childhood home in the Midwest to visit the Mexican-American couple who let her stay on after baby-sitting that night. She called her brother once, and they made a date to meet. But then he called back to say he would meet her only if she would join him at a Jesus rally. She passed. Someone told her that her father had become a hairdresser, then gone blind from diabetes.
She estimates that she has two or three years left in what she calls "the business.” After which, she could continue - "maybe till I'm 40"--but the money and the bookings would fall off. At present, the money and the bookings are good: $300 per hour. She works through an escort agency run by a madam who wears Chloe suits and takes half of every $300. She could cultivate her own clientele and skip the agency altogether, but she doesn't like things to become too regular, too familiar. Emotional attachments are an occupational hazard she would prefer to avoid. She could also become a madam, but she won't: “I don't want the responsibility--plus I would feel creepy taking half of another girl's money."
The men range in age from 30 to 50. The older ones make her sad, as do the ones who save up the money to see her. "Basically, I see married men whose lives revolve around business. A lot of them don't have sex with their wives.” Collectively, she says, they're a civilized lot--they wear boxer shorts made from Sea Island cotton, they stay in good hotels, they offer compliments on the black Dior suit she only wears for work. "For $300 an hour they're expecting a date, really. They're not expecting a whore to walk in taking her dress off."
She chalks up her success in the business, her longevity, not to any special sexual skill but to her talent for talking and listening, something she developed along the way, as soon as she decided that spending four hours with one man was easier "on body and soul" than spending four hours with four different men. "I don't like one-hour gigs," she says, which is why she doesn't like to work during the day when the men are in a hurry. She prefers the night, when the men are looking to be lulled along, looking for a little romance. She gets them to talk about themselves, something, she says, they otherwise almost never do. The downside to these longer evening encounters is that cocaine and alcohol seem to be necessary components. "If I didn't work I probably wouldn't drink or do drugs,” she speculates. But she does work, and her clients want her to "party" with them. She makes it sound as if it's a purely business decision, although given her long history of substance abuse, it's probably not.
The tab for these multihour sessions can run between $1,000 and $2,000, "depending on the hours and how much sex is involved." Occasionally she'll get a weekend booking: “I went to Disney World with one client. He took his children there, and he wanted to take me." Experience has taught her that if she doesn't get the money before, it's difficult to get it after. So it's “up front, no exceptions.” The other rule to which there are no exceptions is the safer-sex rule. For the last seven years she has used prophylactics for intercourse, and two years ago she began using prophylactics for oral sex. She has been tested for the HIV virus three times, and each time she has tested negative. "I'm incredibly lucky," she rightly says. She has been less lucky with getting pregnant. She has had six abortions. She doesn't allow cunnilingus--'”I tell them it causes yeast infections”--nor does she allow anal intercourse, which is frequently requested "for an extra $500.” Nor does she allow her clients to put their fingers inside of her. “I would rather they touch me as little as possible. Most of the time, it's very basic. “Often the men are satisfied with being masturbated. Or with watching her masturbate, which she doesn't mind, which is the only way she achieves orgasm. She estimates that 80 percent of her clients enjoy some kind of anal stimulation during sex, “either a finger or a small dildo,” and that 90 percent have to be told to be gentle with her breasts. Oral sex is still the most popular act she is asked to perform, although also very popular is having her talk about having sex with another woman. Now and then she is asked to make these lesbian fantasies a reality, which she does, and which the first two or three times she enjoyed.
Over the years she has learned not to confuse business with pleasure. Nor has she ever cultivated the fantasy of marrying one of her well-heeled men and leaving the business. "They're too boring, I couldn't do it." On those rare occasions where a client has crossed over to become a lover, the results have been disastrous. Most particularly, she recalls a crash-and-burn relationship that caused her to "bottom out” on drugs, an experience that sent her reeling into Alcoholics Anonymous, where she stayed for five years. Although she left the program three years ago, her stint with sobriety had its rewards: the eighth-grade dropout picked up her high school equivalency diploma, signed on for French classes, and began to read in earnest. "In my business there's a lot of waiting around time.” She also entered therapy with a psychologist, a woman, whom she continues to see. With some success: her long bout with bulimia is now down to one episode per week.
In terms of her personal life, her love life, “I don't have one," she says. “It's just impossible. It's too confusing.” She estimates that over the last five years she has had extra professional sex five times. Marriage and children are alien concepts. And in terms of her professional life? "Like many people who stay in a job 17 years, well, you get sick of it. It's time to move, on. It's just, to move on where?”