In memory of those who did not make it out alive.
I stood on the street, dressed in a skimpy black camisole, a mini skirt barely covering my lace-clad legs. I tottered on six-inch stiletto’s that made my calves ache just thinking about them. Their thin soles couldn’t keep my feet from feeling the harshness of the cold hard concrete. Even worse, I wasn’t sure they’d be much help if I had to run. I could barely stand.
The night was crystal clear. Above me, a yellow slit of moon sliced through night’s dark blanket strewn with stars sparkling like diamonds scattered on black velvet. It was a night to wax poetic, but I was cold and frightened. I was a forty something would-be hooker standing in the night. I wanted to go home.
When a city police Staff Sergeant who had assisted me in my research into teenage prostitution suggested I stand on the street, it sounded like a good idea. I didn’t know any better.
“You need to know what it’s like to go eye ball to eye ball with a John,” he said. “It’s the only way you’ll understand what these girls endure.”
My ego immediately went on alert as I blurted out the first thing that came to mind when faced with the prospect of putting my body up for sale on the dark side of the street.
“What if nobody stops?” I asked. Mine was not the prime age for a street worker. I didn’t need a nameless john to tell me I was undesirable goods, past my ‘best before’ date.
Don,* one of the two detectives who had been shepherding me around over the course of my research quickly responded, “Don’t worry. They’ll stop for anything.”
How reassuring. I felt better already.
And so, there I was, several nights later, dressed to kill, or at least to be bought, standing on a street corner, waiting for a man. On either side of me, scantily clad girls stood in pools of incandescent streetlight. They held their smiles in place and watched the trolling cars like Barbie dolls lined up in a dollhouse, waiting for Ken to ride in and sweep them away. Further down the road, Don and his partner Jeff watched over me from within the darkness of their unmarked police cars. I prayed I wouldn’t need their help. If I did, I prayed they’d hear me calling before it was too late.
The girls knew why I was there and welcomed my presence as if I was a sorority sister visiting from out of town. During the previous months I had spent countless hours talking with them, drinking coffee, as they learned to trust me.
“I’m not here to judge you,” I told them. “I’m here to understand.”
There was one girl, ‘Tiffany’ whose response jarred me. “Why would anyone want to understand,” she said. “Doesn’t make sense.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant ‘trying to understand’ or being a ‘ho’.
“Both,” she replied. “You can’t understand because you’ve never been here. You don’t know what it’s like to do this every night and to know there’s never going to be anything else for you to do. Doin’ this,” and she swept her arm to encompass her well-endowed attributes stuffed into a tight chemise, “doesn’t make sense ‘cause you know you’re gonna’ die and nobody cares.”
Tiffany wanted to go to hairdressing school. She wanted to ‘get out’, but was lost in the abyss that opens up the moment you sell your body that very first time, and get sucked into the pain of being a ‘ho’. She was too frightened; too overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life to believe she could crawl out to the other side of the street. She didn’t believe anyone would be there when she got there. She’d turned her first trick at 14. At 18, she was a seasoned pro. All the choices in her young life had led her to this place of no other option but to ‘keep doin’ what I’m doin’, because, as one 17 year-old girl said, “It’s all I’m good for."
It was a refrain I had heard often from these children in women’s bodies doing work no mother’s child should have to do.
It was a terrible life, but for most of them, it was the only life they knew.
That night, I did go eyeball to eyeball with a john, with many of them in fact. And, it hurt.
I stood on the street as the cars circled. Around and around the block. Slowly. Methodically inspecting the flesh exposed in the night. I didn’t want to display my wares. I stood, my ice-cold hands clutching my borrowed fur coat tightly around my neck, hiding my scantily clad body from preying eyes. I avoided making eye contact with the johns driving by. I avoided doing anything that might make them stop.
But it didn’t matter. A small dark blue hatchback slid to a stop at the curb in front of me. A tall, lanky blonde man sat in the driver’s seat. He leaned over to look at me through the passenger window and motioned me over. I tottered on my stilettos towards the door. He rolled down the window. I smiled nervously. Leaned into the open window and said, “Hi.”
“Nice night,” he replied.
I glanced nervously around. My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember any of the lines the detectives or the girls had told me to use. Except one. My ‘get out of trouble’ line that Don and Jeff had told me to use if I felt at risk. Who were they kidding? Just standing there put me at risk.
I looked the man in his piercing blue eyes. “There are too many cops out tonight,” I said, my right arm vaguely gesturing to the cars driving along the street. “I’ll meet you down the alley around the corner.”
The man didn’t question my comment. He nodded. Agreed to meet me and started to pull away as I stepped back from the curb. My mind was racing. I felt stupid. Embarrassed. Frustrated. I’d forgotten everything I’d been taught about what to say and do. And now, I’d blown my first real chance to talk to a john.
Knowing I would have to get into Ron’s car while the john waited aimlessly for me to appear, I waited for him to drive away before beating my retreat.
He stopped. Honked his horn. Leaned over and opened the passenger door.
Did he want me to get in? That was not on my agenda. Don and Jeff had been adamant. Under no circumstances was I to get into the john’s car. No matter what, I was to stand my ground on the curb.
I walked towards the open door.
“Just so I know I’m not wasting my time, can I see what you’ve got beneath your coat?” he asked.
I almost laughed. I wanted to cry.
I was still gripping my collar tightly. Surprised, not sure what to do, I opened my coat and displayed my wares.
The man smiled. “See you around the corner,” he said as he pulled the door closed and drove off.
I stood there, momentarily stunned. Should I have said, ‘Thank you’?
Quickly, I walked back down the street to Don’s car. He was laughing at me when I got in. Even though I wasn’t wired, he had a pretty clear idea of the situation.
“I was wondering if you were ever going to open your coat,” he said as I climbed into the passenger’s seat and slammed the door shut.
“I forgot everything,” I wailed. “All I could remember was my getaway line.”
Don laughed. “Don’t worry about it. The guy will wait. Figure you’re not turning up, or got another offer and he’ll move on.”
Sure enough, within a few minutes, the dark blue car drove slowly around the block. Once. Twice. Three times. And then he disappeared.
After ten minutes, Don gave the all clear for me to ‘get back out there’.
Reluctantly, I left the safe confines of his car and moved back to my corner.
I felt like a piece of meat. The cars rolled slowly by. The men inspecting the girls. The girls luring them to stop. Beside me, girls got in and out of cars with the regularity of a Swiss watch. They’d be gone twenty minutes; the car would return, they’d step out, reclaim their place in the night and do it all over again.
A car rolled up. A baby-seat in the back. The driver motioned me over. I bent down into the open window, remembering to let go of my grip upon my coat.
“You looking for some fun?” I asked in my most alluring voice.
The man smiled nervously.
I looked pointedly at the baby seat. Stepped back from the open window. Straightened up and said, “No thanks. I’ve changed my mind.”
He drove off in search of another girl.
And then, the dark blue hatchback reappeared. The driver looked at me as he drove past. He pulled around the corner. Stopped the car. Got out and walked towards me.
I felt trapped. Cornered. No one had prepared me for a john getting out of his car.
He walked towards me, his hands held open, palms up. “I don’t get it. You didn’t turn up.”
I wanted to run. To reply, “You don’t get it? Ha! I don’t get it. You’re a young, good-looking man. You wear a wedding ring and you’re down here? What is it you don’t get?” But I didn’t dare.
Instead. I improvised. I stood my ground and replied, as confidently as I could. “I changed my mind.”
“Why? Am I too young?”
Pimps don’t like their girls to take on younger guys. They seldom pay up and are more likely to rough up the girls.
“Yeah. That’s it.”
His hands flew up into the air. “I’m twenty-six.”
“Well, my man says you’re too young.”
That stopped him.
He turned around without a word and walked back to his car. No john will mess with a pimp. It just isn’t worth it.
It was a very long night. Eventually, cold, disheartened, tired; I walked back to Ron’s car and told him I’d had enough. I couldn’t take any more.
We stopped for coffee at a Tim Horton’s and Don and Jeff asked me my impressions. I started to cry.
“It was hell,” I said. “Nothing could prepare me for this.”
That night, I didn’t have to perform any sexual acts. I didn’t have to step off the security of the concrete to get into a stranger’s car. I didn’t have to indulge in sexually charged conversation to rev up a john’s libido as he turned down a darkened alley and shut off the headlights so that the real business could begin. My night didn’t include grimy money exchanging hands, headlights slicing the night as the car started up and two strangers drove silently back to where it all began so that it could continue on with the next one and the next one and the next one.
It was still hell.
But, when my night ended, it was over for me. I was lucky. I could go home.
For the girls left standing in the dark, there is no end to the night. They are hooked. Some on drugs that quiet the pain of knowing too many men called john who call them ‘ho’. Others are simply hooked on the pain of believing, they are powerless. There is no hope for change. This is all they deserve.
I left the street that night, sadder, colder and a lot humbler. I turned my back on the darkness, got into my car and drove home, tears streaming down my face. I opened my front door, stepped across the threshold and quietly walked into my daughters’ bedrooms. They were safe in their beds. I watched them in their sleep and imagined their dreams filled with fairytale castles and happily ever afters. I imagined their futures, bright with the promise of their lives today and an unshakable belief in the sunrise tomorrow.
In the night, the moon has turned full circle. Its golden orb waxed then waned. My daughters sleep, protected from the chill of the night. Somewhere out there in the dark of the city, a child stands. She waits. Her Prince Charming arrives. Not on a white stallion but driving a blue four-door sedan, baby seat in the back. His license plate reads, "BEST DAD." She leans over, exposes her breasts. His hands grip the steering wheel. He feels a tightening in his groin. They agree on a price. She opens the car door. Momentarily she stops and stares up at the moon. There are no fairytale endings on the street, only survival. She gets into the car and they drive away.
*All names are fictitious