Saturday, December 12, 2009

Another Thief (post from four weeks ago)

We limit our clients to taking four items of clothing per visit, and we're not too particular as to whether the women sorting through through the donations are actually clients or whether they are simply impoverished women from the neighborhood. They don't come regularly unless they have the YANA background anyway, and some people might need the encouragement of clothes and coffee first before they're ready to acknowledge prostitution. There's good reason to let impoverished women take the things they need -- or, at least, I think so. Some of the time.

The "regulars," the "real" YANA clients, can get pretty worked up over outsiders coming in and taking their stuff. The other day, so did I. A woman I didn't know came on a quiet day and began moving about the room with the kind of wordless determination that my dogs (sorry) will get when they're after food left out on the coffee table. The few YANA women present rose in alarm as they saw her obvious attempts to take far, far more than the allotted amounts. Either so desperate or so socially oblivious that she didn't notice that the only other three people present were intent on every move, the woman careened from one part of the room to another, pulling huge amounts of clothing out of the cabinets, trying to stuff it in her bag, and angrily taking it back out again when reminded of the four item limit.

Finally, when she was literally backed into a corner, trying to shove multiple pairs of shoes on top of a small wardrobe's worth of clothing, the woman melted down to a brief, but dramatic, temper tantrum. "This place is a trip!" she screamed when I blocked her from taking her stash. "This is a trip!" Shoes went across the room. She threw a shirt back at me. "Call the police," one woman said. Both the other clients were standing right at my shoulders. There was no violence. It only occurred to me later that there probably would have been if I'd been alone with her and hadn't let her take what she wanted. After the woman stormed out, the other clients had quite a bit to say about her.

One of the clients who'd been there, Jennifer, knew the woman from the neighborhood. Predictably enough, Jennifer's stories centered on drug use, violence, and theft astounding even for Jennifer's street. According to Jennifer, this woman had been put out of an abandominium. "Put out of an abandiminium!" Jennifer crowed. In other words, she was so low, so incapable of even faking basic, civilized behavior that she was forcibly ejected from an abandoned building by the other squatters. Jennifer is a good story teller. The women laughed. I laughed. I probably should have done something very different.

Friday, December 11, 2009


For those of you who recall the "Whatever Happened to the Little Girl?" post, the client who saved the little girl -- while prostituting her own daughters -- still comes to YANA once in a while. I'll call her Annie, but I think of her as Typhoid Mary, after the woman who went from town to town nursing the sick and unknowingly infecting them with her disease. Our own Annie is, well, she's a pleasure to be around. I always enjoy her company. She is interested in the little world around her. She has energy. She tells her stories passionately, and she genuinely cares about the people she tries to help. She also has immense system of denial that allows her to move through the world completely ignorant of the harm she inflicts and the many illnesses, physical and psychological, she carries within.

Annie lives in one of these bizarre arrangements that exist in our part of Baltimore. It sounds like sort of rooming house, sort of a charity, mostly just one guy's weird idea of something he'd like to do. Annie's son pays $350 per month for her to share a room in a house full of recovering female addicts. There's the usual set of mind bogglingly elaborate restrictions, swiftly enforced with punishments for the disobedient. A pair of squabbling, fifty year old roommates may each find themselves standing in the corner when the manager on shift gets irritated enough with them. And after listening to Annie recount the actual squabbles, it's sometimes hard to find all that much fault with the manager. Anyway, while most of Annie's energy has gone towards protecting her stuff from her thieving roommate, she is sometimes very moved by the suffering of the other women. She tries to help them. Her latest cause is a woman with AIDS.

The AIDS victim has been thrown out of the house because she has AIDS, but has slipped back in and is hiding in the basement. Annie seems to be leading the small band of women bringing her food and helping to hide her. Recently, they've discovered that the landlord's wife knows the woman is in the basement and is yet another secret sympathizer. All the women know that they will eventually be caught and disciplined.

Meanwhile, the landlord is requiring everyone to submit proof that they are HIV free, and an argument appears to be raging throughout the house as to how the disease is transmitted. Annie seems to be telling the truth when she says that she has been going to the library for information on the subject. She doesn't seem to have her landlord convinced yet that the virus isn't airborne. Annie herself is wondering how to show proof that she is virus-free. She knows she is, but she doesn't want to open up all her medical records to this man. I'm a civil rights lawyer, and I'm making her no offers whatsoever to intervene. I'm not sure whether meeting the requirements of civil litigation would be too much for these women or whether meeting the realities of this house and its occupants would be too much for any court, but I just don't see a good outcome in juxtaposing the two.

What I'm left with is Annie, sympathizing with anyone who has such a disease, trying to help her, comfortable in her own good health, entirely forgetting the day a few years ago when she wept and told me her own HIV test had come back positive. Frankly, I wish some of her psychological shortcomings were as manageable as the virus.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Note on Tina and Liz

They're cousins. I'd had no idea, but I probably should have guessed there was some family relationship. They have the same small builds, light brown hair, and regular, even features. They have the same intense love/hate relationship with their sisters, with whom they both live and by whom they both claim to be abused on a regular basis. One day they come in distraught, telling us that they have no clothes, no medicine, no place to live because their sister put them out on the street after collecting the rent money. The next day they are borrowing a cell phone to check in with their sisters and say they love them. They have much of the same illness and the same sweetness.

Tina and Liz are two of our sickest clients, the ones we watch striding the brink of death, strangely undaunted, grasping at small victories and slender attachments. They are both still ready to throw their little, semi-invalid bodies into the mix, Liz still prostituting, Tina still up for a street fight. (Liz has occasional flashes of self awareness, though. She once told the room that cars slow down for her, get a good look, and then speed off. "They're thinking, oh no, grandma's out tricking!" Liz told us. Then she roared with laughter. Tina, on the other hand, narrates a fight with another woman at the homeless shelter with no sense at all that there's anything futile and strange in a brawl between two sickly women exhausted by their own diseases. "We had to stop," she tells me. I assume she meant someone broke up the fight. "No," she says. "We couldn't breath.")

They were probably both once beauties. They are needy, and mannerly, and small. They are mentally ill. They make me think of two little old men -- leathery old cowboys, maybe -- who never retired. They keep riding the bucking bull, getting thrown until their bones are crushed almost to dust, imagining that the few sad blocks of South West Baltimore are the glorious, wide, open plains. Never guessing a world could exist beyond their horizon.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


There's a movie out now about our women, though the word "prostitute" is never used. It tells the story of a girl named Precious whose father rapes her from the time she is three until she is sixteen. I call her prostituted, and thus, one of "ours," because her mother knows about the rape and allows it. She lets her husband have sex with their child in exchange for his remaining in the marriage. And then, unsurprisingly, she hates her daughter for being "loved more" than she is.

Turned into a sexual object by the most dominant person in the home, while the rest of the family both benefits from her abuse and despises her for it, Precious acted out on the big screen what we at YANA see in the faces and lives of our clients everyday. But for me, the most telling part of the movie is not what happens to Precious, but what she dreams could happen. Imagine a girl whose parents rape her, beat her, call her an animal and tell her she's too stupid to learn anything. You might imagine that going inside her mind would be like entering a sort of macabre fun house of twisted images, revenge fantasies, black despair. Instead, Precious holds on to the same hopes almost all of us have. She wants to be pretty. She wants to be loved. She wants to be a good mother. She wants a happy family. She wants to achieve.

I watched Precious fantasize her life on screen, and I thought of the YANA women every step of the way. I thought of the women who gathered around Liz and Tina, praising them when they dressed up in donated clothes and how all them understood the importance of that moment of beauty. I thought of the shy smiles on the women's faces when they tell me they have a new boyfriend -- a great guy, someone who doesn't use. I thought of a woman who blinked back tears when her friend told the rest of us that she was a caring mother. I thought of the day I took Janet to the hospital to see her baby once more before the social worker took him away. Most of the time, Janet watched while I held her little boy, and afterward she told the staff all about how I talked to him and rocked him in my arms. Janet's own family began raping her when she was three. They tried to keep her away from the funeral when her father died. Janet called me her mother, and I think she longed for her child to be held by a loving grandmother, in exactly the same way that Precious did. Precious took pride in her steadily improving test scores. Sheri was overwhelmed with pride when she got a diploma from the "Phenomenal Woman" course offered by the health department through YANA.

Precious is a hit movie. It's obviously gunning for some academy awards. I left the theater thinking that maybe people do want to know about "our women." Maybe they can believe how brutal their lives are. Maybe they want to know how prosaic, how deeply held, how enduring their dreams are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dear H.

A while back someone named "H" left a very thoughtful comment on the blog, and I haven't had time until now to respond. I 'm doing so now in a post because I thought that what H had to say was important enough for a longer discussion.

H. took me to task a bit for a reference I made in the "Whatever Happened to the Little Girl" post. I said that 12 seems to be the average age for entry into prostitution. H. asked how I know what the average age is and seemed genuinely interested in any statistics I could give him (I'm assuming H is male). The truth is that even "seems to be" is stronger language than I should have used. I had mentioned in an earlier post that people who work with prostituted women often cite research claiming that 11 to 13 is the average age at which people enter prostitution, but that I didn't know how the studies were performed. I can tell you that at YANA, the counselors have worked with many hundreds of women in Baltimore and have found that almost all of them have been subjected to very severe sexual abuse at a very early age. I've been to symposiums about working with prostituted women and have heard the directors of other agencies say the same thing. As I may have quoted in another post, one woman announced "Incest is the boot camp of prostitution." The rest of the room nodded. A police sergeant, Byron Fasset from Dallas, Texas, has formed a unit specializing in working with underage prostitutes. He's kept statistics on more than a thousand girls and found a near universal pattern of abuse suffered by both the girls and their mothers. I see the faces and hear the words of the women at YANA. Even to a layperson like me, so many of them seem frozen at some very early stage of development, and it's easy, very easy to imagine that a part of them just stopped growing on the day they first learned what horrible things that the grownups would do to them.

But none of that is proof of the average age at which women or girls enter prostitution. For one thing, I seriously doubt that anyone has done the kind of exhaustive study necessary to know the average anything for prostitution. There are precious few provider agencies in this country, and they aren't in the business of keeping statistics or probing the women for information they might not want to give. Academics are starting to take an interest in prostitution, but how many of them do you think are out doing lengthy evaluations of thousands of women all across the country? We had a woman do her Ph.D. research at YANA. She spoke to ten of our clients for a little under an hour each. My understanding is that her committee not only accepted this day and a half of research as being good enough for a doctorate, but they also praised her for her great street creds.

And even if we did know the real averages for childhood sexual abuse, how would we know whether the children were actually prostituted? Remember that prostitution can have a very broad definition. If, for example, mom is turning her five year old over to her drug dealer or landlord once in a while in exchange for a little credit, then that five year old has been prostituted. If mom is letting dad have a go at their three year old in exchange for a little peace in the home, then that three year old has been prostituted. If dad is turning a blind eye to what his buddies or maybe his own father does to his eight year old in exchange for their approval, then that eight year old has been prostituted. I know that happens, but how would I or anyone ever know how often it happens? Usually, the child will only know that the landlord, or the dad, or the strange men in the neighborhood hurt her. She won't know who benefited from it.

And much of the time, she doesn't want to know. Within the safety of YANA, most of our clients will talk openly about being raped as children, but they do not think of themselves as having been prostituted as children. Prostitution was their own decision, and it most certainly had nothing to do with their mothers. Recently Sid spoke about the 5 year old in North Carolina who was prostituted by her mother. The child was found dead. Our women were appalled. "Anyone under the age of 18 who is prostituted is a victim of human trafficking," Sid explained. "Have you ever heard of anyone under the age of 18 who was prostituted?"

"People from the Philippines!" one woman said. "I've heard about that!" Nobody else seemed to have ever heard of such a thing anywhere, and the subject swiftly died in an embarrassed silence. So, to answer H., no I don't know the average age at which a woman or girl enters prostitution. And I don't think anyone does, even for one country. If you're thinking about walking-the-street prostitution, then your estimate of somewhere between 16 and 24 sounds as good as any other to me. As for your "defensiveness" about people who try to "demonize" prostitution with claims of child sexual abuse, well, human behavior is complicated, and all we have are anecdotes. If your girl friend is the basis for your "defensiveness" around the idea that being raped repeatedly as a child leads women to prostitution later, it's always possible that she really is that co-ed paying for college tuition that we hear about so much on the t.v. shows. Maybe she went into prostitution for any variety of her own reasons. But if she's been prostituting, and she's promoting defensiveness around the idea that anything her parents did was the cause. . . well, like I said, she might be the exception to all our anecdotes. Then again, H., she might not be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Thief

We had some unhappy women at YANA the other day. Jessie was visibly wilting. She whispered that she needed to talk to me and Heather privately, then sat staring sadly out the window. Sherie was there too -- which was good news because Health Care for the Homeless had managed to procure a small grant for her to get some special services, and time was running out for her to collect it. Sheri had to wait a while to see our nurse practitioner, Marti, and then she came back out scowling dramatically and muttering grimly about people not understanding that she had appointments. Marti called me in to talk, and Sheri and I both knew who the subject of the conversation would be.

Marti was just plain fed up. Sheri came to get prescriptions refilled and wouldn't submit to any examinations. Marti had already refilled more than she thought she should and wouldn't do it anymore until Sheri came in for some blood work and the rest. Sheri had even turned down the grant, claiming that she didn't have time to come in over the next couple days. Marti is like everyone else I've met at Health Care for the Homeless, absolutely dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor, patient, good humored, a consistently positive person to have around. I expect that the experience of being ticked off with one of our women was distressing for her. Although I needed no convincing whatsoever, she explained at some length that it had been necessary to cut Sheri off, that Sheri was harming herself, that even more than most of our other clients, Sheri was the source of her own problems. I agreed, also at some length.

Meanwhile, Heather was left with the furious Sheri whose humor had not been improved by the knowledge that Marti was in the next room telling on her. Endlessly patient Heather "reflected back" to Sheri her emotions, calming her considerably. I've seen Heather in action with the other women (and with me when I've had her trapped in the car on the way to YANA and decided to get a little free counseling). She is very, very good at sending out the sympathetic rays. By the time I returned, Sheri was admitting that part of her "condition" was a tendency to overreact and snap at people. She was also making somewhat vague promises to go down to Health Care for the Homeless for a check up. She also looked exhausted, and after, foolishly and against the rules, giving her a little bus money, I hustled her out of there to go home to rest.

I wanted to get to Jessie and have that talk about what was making her so terribly sad. When I turned to her though, she told me, smiling, that she had already talked to Heather about it. Jessie had been grieving because she'd seen Sheri stealing four deodorants. I'm not kidding when I use a word like "grief." As I've mentioned a time or two before, our clients are fragile people. They come to YANA to be in a safe place, removed from all the ugliness of their lives. I think that when they see people getting away with "addict" behavior here, they feel hopeless. It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that they see it as the bad winning over the good.

"Well," I said. "Addict behavior. We had one client who almost made it out the door with a t.v." This gets a laugh. Heather has obviously done a good job calming Jessie as well. We talk a bit about people being at different stages, and Jessie nods. She says that some people come to YANA for the wrong reasons. I say that some people get less out of YANA than others do. They get coffee and donated clothes, but not a start on a better life. Jessie doesn't seem to be angry any more, but she certainly had been. She would have called Sheri out on her behavior if they'd been at the rehab., but Jessie had figured out that angry accusations and heated discussions weren't the thing at YANA. Her self imposed restraint hadn't been easy. Respect for YANA had made angry, and it had kept from getting any satisfaction from her anger.

Oh well. Sheri had been close to my son, Daniel. He laughed when I told him about it. How does a healthy person, happily off at school, get mad at someone like little Sheri? How does a comfortably middle class person take the theft of four deodorants seriously? When I told Sid, she made the obvious assumption that Sheri wasn't getting any blood work done because she was selling the pills instead of taking them. Sid wants to help Sheri "go away somewhere." When I told my husband, he said he felt like crying. How could anyone be so bad off that she needs to steal four deodorants?

What's my reaction? I guess I'd like to see her off in some rehab. too. I'm not the one to talk to her about it, though. Sheri's poverty doesn't make me particularly sad. As far as I'm concerned, the circumstances of her life are just that -- circumstances. Something needs to happen, though. Sheri has been coming to YANA longer than I have, and she hasn't made friends there. Not any. She hasn't gotten clean. She hasn't gotten counseling. She sits alone with the three deep slash marks on each arm from a suicide attempt, barely coherent, stealing on a fairly regular basis and persistantly wheedling me for small hand outs. And, as far as I can tell, she longs for. . . everything, community, love, expression, recognition. The same things almost everybody else wants. I have no idea whether she'll even start to try to get them.

Lilian and the other Ladies

In one sense Lilian seems to be doing better -- she is more talkative and more vibrant than she once was. I suspect that this is the result of some change in medication. Either she's sober now after taking some street drug that numbed her, or she's on some different combination of medicines prescribed for her. Maybe she's taking fewer meds, or maybe she's on a good antidepressant (we had a client the other day who announced, "I'm feeling good! That antidepressant is working!"). I don't get the impression that she's coming to YANA wound up on crack or the like, but, then, drugs affect people in different ways, and I'm no expert. At any rate, she is increasingly charming and fun to be around, while just as oblivious as she ever was to the larger issues in her life.

This week she showed us the two or three large bruises on her arm and complained about having 18 vials of blood taken from her. She said it was because the doctors believed she'd had a mild stroke the week before. "They think that's why I'm leaning to the right and drooling," she told the room. And then "Look at those bruises!". But before anyone could express any sympathy, for her, she triumphantly delivered the punch line, "But guess what?! They took so much blood they gave me a $10.00 Walmart Gift Card. That's a Christmas present right there!" Lilian burst into gleeful laughter over having been given a present by her doctor and seemed finished with the conversation.

I asked her to look directly at me for a second and confirmed that one side of her mouth was sagging. I fell completely into Lilian mode in telling her this. "Not much!" I assured her. "I never would have noticed if you hadn't told me about it!" She had a follow up appointment with her doc. -- I didn't feel required to say anything more than that. Besides, I don't feel capable of battering down that weirdly powerful invisible shield she's managed to erect between herself and the horrors that seem to lie in wait.

As Lilian was leaving later, she stopped to tell the other ladies the latest bit of gossip. "You know that 14 year old boy that got raped and then the guy cut his throat?" Everyone but me seemed to know quite a bit about it. One woman wasn't sure whether the killer had been caught and the rest quickly told her that he'd been caught the next day at a 7-11. "Well, his grandmother is in my house," Lilian said. "She was holding up well until the funeral yesterday. Then she fell apart." Lilian delivered this news kindly, the way one woman will tell the others about the well being of someone else from the church or the neighborhood. Grandmothers in rehab, people whose children get killed, women like our women so often know one another. It was community news for them. And the reaction was a community reaction. Even after Lilian was out the door, the clients were still reassuring me and each other of the tortures that would befall the child killer in prison.

"They're going to do to him worse than what he did to that child," a woman said.
The rest nodded like they were in church, hearing hearing the God's honest truth.
"That's right. That's right," the women affirmed.
"That's what we always did!" Jessie said.
"You don't know how fast news travels in prison," one woman told me. "They're going to know before anyone. They're going to be waiting for him."
This prompted another round of "that's rights."

Then one of the women made the mistake of telling us what she personally would do to the man if the 14 year old had been her son. I didn't think anything of that. Most parents I've known would be talking about dismemberment if they imagined their children raped and murdered. Unfortunately, Jessie took the opportunity to point out that while she used to think the same way, she had been "working on her spiritual side." One's spiritual side is very, very important to our women, especially once they get into rehab. Embarrassed, the speaker began a rapid fire explanation of just how important her own spiritual side was to her and how much she was learning in her bible class.

"For example, did you know that when you're asleep you're dead?" She smiled proudly delivering this bit of knowledge to people who obviously had no idea. "That's right! Your pores open up, and your immune system doesn't work, and everything goes in and out of you. You're dead! King James is the truth!" There wasn't a woman in the room foolish enough to touch any of that, and in a minute or two we were all restored to the usual low hum of conversation. Sad stories. Small victories. A nearly endless supply of improvised strategies so everyone could get by.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

YANA Today

YANA was slow today. Liz came in after two weeks on a psych ward, still wearing a hospital i.d. on her wrist. She was sad about having gotten drunk immediately after having been detoxed. And her sister has kicked her out yet again, so that she has no clothes, no medicine, no food, no place to sleep. Our visiting professors tried talking to her about available resources, but Liz has good medical care when she wants it, and she had no interest in going to a shelter. She got some warm clothing, and Diane fixed her a cup of soup and a cup of coffee. I asked her about the abandaminium Officer Leather Glove had set up for her. Officer Leather Glove, as she calls him, has been a friend to Liz for years, showing special kindness to one of the more frequently abused citizens on his police beat. Months ago, he put some sort of notice (a sign? crime tape? I wasn't sure) around an abandoned house and told people that only Liz was allowed in there. I think Liz values his caring about her more than she does the house, but at any rate she smiled happily at the mention of Officer Leather Glove, and told us that she was staying in the abandominium he gave her.

In other news, we've had a nice illustration of how much working with the poor does to expand one's overall sense of charity, compassion, and general, dare I say it. . . saintliness. YANA, exasperated by minor, but ongoing, variations in the use it permits other groups to make of its space, has banned any use at all of its space by any other group. The decision had been discussed with Hezekiah House management in advance and heartily approved. Approved, but apparently not followed when one of the nuns needed the space. Then, as Sid and I carried on an immensely important discussion of my personal life in the general office area, Brother Joe pointed out, with the kind of accuracy that can only be described as barbaric, that we were doing exactly the same thing we had banned other groups from doing. After we retreated to Sid's office, we realized that Lilian had been ringing the front door bell in the rain for something like ten minutes. The manager of one of the banned groups had been downstairs the whole time, but, knowing that she was a YANA client, had declined to let her in. As the rain soaked woman and I went upstairs, I told her that he was angry at us because he couldn't use the YANA area. "Well good!" Lilian answered. And then, triumphantly, "It's our space!". She forgot the inconvenience and personal insult, cheered, enormously, it appeared, by a bit of gossip about having put something over on one of the other charities. What the hell, she was happy the whole afternoon. There seems to be plenty of room for pettiness in saving our little part of the world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Lilian is one of our clients from the next door recovery house who began coming to YANA last year when we moved to Hezekiah House. She's little, white, close to my age, quiet, and well groomed. Much of the time she looks like the kind of middle class woman you expect to find teaching a children's Sunday school class -- a picture of mild, if rather vague, contentment. On days when she's not doing so well, she looks a little mousy and pink -- a Sunday school teacher who's spent a too-long morning with children who kept running around the room and throwing things out the window.

If there's ever anything troubling about her, it's her lack of anger or obvious distress. There was the time she got raped about six months back. She was upset then, even a bit trembly, but she accepted comfort from the group as easily as a child lets herself be picked up and held. It wasn't long before she returned to her usual placid state. It was a state that didn't change much when she told us that she had once been kidnapped by a pimp, though she did warn us, seriously, about the dangers of prostituting. Today, Lilian was also fairly matter of fact about her recent hospitalizations. HIV has driven her t-cell count down to 239, which means she is almost AIDS-defined. She was so sick that the hospital was calling her relatives for permission to put her on life support, but what distress she managed was reserved for the prospect of being intubated, and the oxygen mask that "scared the bejeebers" out of her. She was equally unconcerned about the larger picture some time ago when she mentioned that her daughter had stage 4 cancer.

Months later, I did see her get a little teary and extra pink, grieving openly over what she said had been the worst thing to happen to her that year. Her dog had died. I told Heather on the way home that day that I'd come out of my coffin and strangle any family member of mine who got more upset about the dog dying than my being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Lilian sat in a group once when a professor asked why women prostitute and what people should know about prostituted women. Lilian answered the "why" question like almost all our women do. She said she prostituted for drugs. She also said that she had been kidnapped at least once by a pimp, and she nodded in agreement when the other clients said that they wanted people to talk to them, as long as they didn't talk down to them. As far as I can tell, none of Lilian's opinions vary from the norm. And like most of our clients, Lilian's entry into prostitution seemed to have more behind it than drugs. She mentioned in passing today that she got into prostitution because some girls talked her into it when she was a teenager. She didn't begin on the street; she put an ad in the personal section of a tabloid magazine for "young girls to take advantage of old men" as she put it. Her mother paid for the ad. She was eventually arrested for some sort of money scam she had going with the girls because one of the "old men" they targeted was a police officer. I couldn't tell whether he was undercover or a john that got pissed off and knew how to use the system to revenge himself on the underage girl he'd been sleeping with. Somehow that arrest and a subsequent arrest for joy riding in a stolen car resulted in a four and a half year prison sentence.

When I asked her how she did the prison time, she said it was one day at a time. She couldn't think about the outside world. She couldn't think about the future. She thought about each day as it came. I had the feeling I'd just heard the philosophy that got her through her entire life, but then again, maybe I'd just heard a too-easy way to summarize a woman who doesn't let all her feelings show.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

(Helen) Vickie Reading at the Baltimore Book Festival

A couple years back I won the Maryland State Art Counsel's top award for short fiction. The award was for the first chapter in a novel I'm writing, but when it came time for the winners to read out loud at the book festival, I asked if I could read an essay about one of the YANA women instead. A good natured organizer gave me permission, and I sat in a tent on a noisy and rainy night, trying to tell our little group what it meant to know Helen. Click on the video if you'd like to hear something about this extraordinary woman's life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween and some updates

As you know from the last post, I went to YANA armed with (overly) elaborate plans and bags full of supplies. And. . . . .almost no one came in. The few who did were not our more high functioning clients. We tried anyway. Jennifer did a good job, introducing Poe as "a guy from my neighborhood." I talked about the uses of fear and got a little thrill from the way the most ancient of the Pammys nodded and sent me understanding looks from beneath her cascade of gray hair as I said that sometimes our emotions are so big that we can't describe them with everyday words. We need to talk about demons and monsters just so that we can explain how bad something is. Pammy, and for that matter the entire room, seemed to know exactly what I meant.

After Jennifer read Annabel Lee out loud, we tried to do the group poem. I started it off with a line about a demon "on my back." Most of the people who wrote were the volunteers, however. Other, more articulate groups at YANA have done better with this sort of thing in the past. Then, as we talked about Halloween, one of the newer clients said her husband used to dress her up as a princess and the like. She made a few more, grim faced, inarticulate references to this dressing up before I asked her how she felt about it. "Not good," the woman said. "He had a gun to my head." As Sid pointed out later, you know somebody has problems when she forgets to mention that part of the story.

The new client, Mary, held forth for most of the rest of our hour or so together. She had been a military brat herself. Her husband was a traumatized vet. who did terrible things to her and then didn't remember later. He gave her black eyes and a jaw that had to be wired back together. Her parents called to ask if she was all right. She said she was because she was afraid, then she was more afraid that God would punish her for lying. At last a general came to the house and made her husband stop. In court, her husband jumped over the table to attack her, but this time she fought him off herself. The weeping female judge told the bailiffs to stand back and let her do it. Later, her jealous sister got her put away in a psychiatric hospital for two years, but she found a way to do good there. She listened to others and tried to help them.

For Mary's sake at least, we turned out to have exactly the right group of people. They weren't talkers. They weren't judgers. They weren't interested in drawing attention to themselves. They listened in quiet support. Our Sister Mary said the right things about how well the woman had done and what a long process it is to forgive an abuser. I don't think Mary the client could have spent a better hour. She told me so many times afterwords how relieved and happy she felt about being able to talk that way. She said she couldn't usually tell people what happened to her and that we "just drew it out of" her. For myself, I was feeling a little sick from too much peanut brittle and candy, a little disappointed that we hadn't produced a collection of meaningful poems, a little foolish and annoyed with myself for caring about the poems, and more than a little depressed from the experience of listening to the drawn out ramblings of a mentally ill woman with no idea at all of how to help her. Even I couldn't help but notice, though, the relief that filled that woman by the end.

For the rest of the clients -- I don't know. There were so few of them that they got a lot of candy and Halloween socks and little toys. I'm sure they liked that. They could have left at any time, but they stayed. My guess is that actual community, rather than an art project and discussion of metaphors, probably did them good. The point of YANA, after all, is to listen and support. Maybe, in their quiet ways, all the women there felt a little more like family.


I forgot to mention that Tina came in Wednesday, dressed as her usual rag doll self. She had gone to the funeral, but stayed only briefly. She said that her cousin was so heavily made up that he didn't look like himself. The backs of his crossed hands were more or less flesh colored, but the palms were purple. After she saw that, she had to leave. Tina hadn't talked to Sister Catherine yet, and Catherine wasn't there when Tina came in. I told Sister Mary about her as well, and now there are two vigilant nuns primed to find Tina and reassure her of God's love.

I asked the youngest of the Pammys if she would mind telling the room about her HIV status. She didn't mind people knowing about the disease at all, though she was rather floored at the public speaking aspect once I announced that she had something to say. Pammy was diagnosed about seven years ago with HIV. This past February she became AIDS-defined because her t-cell count had gone below 200. She got on the "cocktail," and her t-cell count went back up to 359. Her viral load is so low that it's undetectable. There may not be a cure for HIV, but apparently you can come back from full blown AIDS. The room applauded her.

Best of all -- I asked Diane if she'd heard anything about the client that the little mean woman said had been arrested for arson and murder. "I haven't heard anything," Diane said. "Since she went into the program." According to Diane, the client had been hospitalized again, then moved directly into rehab. The client really was very sick. This move from hospital to rehab. happens. It makes a lot more sense than the client having been let out of jail. And Diane knew the client much better than the little mean woman did. Of course, I didn't repeat the rumor to Diane. I have the feeling it's nothing more than that.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Plan (Halloween Again)

We'll celebrate Halloween today, with candy, of course, and also a few little give aways. Our clients will be given very small treat bags decorated with smiling spiders, teddy-bear type ghosts, and the like. There are some dollar-store Halloween socks and pencils and erasers to put inside, either for themselves or their children. They'll also get copies of Poe's poem, "Annabel Lee." My plan is to tell them that there are least three things people can do with their fears. One is to use the fear to keep themselves and others safe from real danger. Another is to get rid of the irrational fears using the techniques that Heather will teach us. A third possibility is to transform the fear into something small and funny like the little ghost pictures or into something more significant like art. Jennifer will then talk about Poe, and I will read Annabel Lee, and try to provoke a discussion of it.

Annabel Lee talks about angels who are so jealous of the poet's perfect love that they murder his lover. It mentions demons under the sea. The hope is that I can talk to the women about having emotions so powerful that we need images of murdering angels and demons in order to express them. We'll try to write a group poem using some monster images to express feelings, and maybe a few women will write individual poems as well. The idea is to see our thoughts and emotions as something we can control and transform. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Day at YANA (Almost Halloween)

Today, Heather, our volunteer psychologist, offered to lead a group discussion on anxieties and how to manage them. Unfortunately, I had the bright idea of starting the discussion off by announcing to an already very chatty group that we would talk about anxieties because it was almost Halloween. I said it because I was trying to get their attention, and in that I was certainly successful. The women were all electrified -- but not in the sense of animated debate so much as in the sense of hair standing on end, eyes throwing sparks, tossing information about the Halloween gang killings back and forth as if they were trying to get rid of a live hand grenade. According to the women, the gangs planned to shoot 31 women to death for the month of Halloween. They said that the shootings had already begun and that 13 women were dead so far.

Tina, who I believe has lived in the area all her life, was astonished. Almost all the other women seemed to be in the know, echoing the numbers of dead and soon-to-be-dead and reminding each other that there would also be a lot of rapes. They said the women were shot all over the city, and that anyone could be killed. They advised Heather and me to drive straight home, and they advised each other of where to hide and what to scream if the hiding wasn't successful. Heather, who turns out to be an impressively patient young woman, sympathized briefly, and asked what else, besides the possibility of being shot, made them feel anxious. A woman whose name I haven't bothered to learn yet, preferring instead to think of her as "the little mean woman," treated the room to a discourse on her fear of being shot while sitting with her aunt in the front row of church. She justified this by reference to a robbery in a different church something like a year ago. As I've written before, not many of our women go to church -- or maintain a particularly good relationship with their families for that matter. But at least they all got to know that the little mean woman did both.

"Worry about your safety in the street and in church!" Heather said kindly. She gently prodded for other causes of anxiety. Kiki began a rapid fire explanation of someone who owed her 7 dollars and who had the nerve to accuse her of having an attitude when she needed the money back, and she really needed the money, and she wouldn't have asked if she didn't, and . . ." "Worry about money," Heather said with grave sympathy. "A lot of people worry about that." The other women filled in eagerly with advice. "You're not getting the money back," Tina swiftly informed her. There was prompt and enthusiastic agreement on this point. Kiki still wanted to watch out for the debtor after he got his check, but, again, she was warmly and swiftly advised to let the matter go. Grudgingly, I will admit that even the little mean woman was helpful on that point. And as for Kiki, there really was nothing petty in her concerns. She's pregnant, collecting free baby clothes from our donors, and genuinely worried about her own ability to give and withhold. She was afraid of not having enough. She was afraid of becoming the sort of person who wouldn't give anything to a person in real need.

Somebody else said something about people who died in Pakistan and praying for them. We don't have the kind of group that talks about pet peeves and minor annoyances. It's gang killing, rape, robbery, betrayal, poverty, and war with them. Heather and I sort of had manageable little phobias in mind. Finally, in reference to I don't know what, Kiki said something about claustrophobia. I loudly (and truthfully) announced to the room that I'm very claustrophobic. Nearly all the other women said they were too. "How about fear of heights?" Heather asked. Another problem for most of the room. It rapidly became clear that murder, rape, and the rest don't preclude all the other fears. Mentions of snakes, spiders, mice had most of the women shuddering.

Heather began a discussion on how people's bodies feel when they're anxious (racing heart, shallow breathing and the like), then asked what we do when we get to that point. "I used to just sniff dope," Jennifer told us. "But I don't do that no more." Other people talked about going to their "happy place." Heather talked about deep breathing. Some women had to leave. Another woman, Lilian, came out of the bathroom wearing a very attractive pantsuit she'd found in the donations. The rest of the group burst into a frenzy of praise. "Now I have something to wear to church!" Lilian said. "Last week I wore jeans." At this point the group was divided between continuing to praise the church clothes and reassuring her that it didn't matter what she wore as long as she went. Not too much else got down in the anxiety discussion.

The little mean woman managed to tell me about a neighborhood woman who set fire to an abandominum, planning to kill one person and accidentally murdering a man who was asleep down stairs. The woman she mentioned was a YANA client who hasn't been around for a while. She was troubled. She was living in an abandominium. She was involved in some fires, and Liz told us months ago that the police were looking for her. I said nothing to the little mean woman. It's possible that the rumor is true.

Patient Heather was pleased with the initial discussion. She plans to hold further groups on how to implement some of the anxiety strategies. Pammy came in with her mother who is also named Pammy and with an elderly friend also named Pammy. The three women seemed fairly pleased with their names, and the eldest Pammy smiled in genuine amusement when asked if she was the great grandmother. The youngest Pammy (herself a grandmother) had been diagnosed with AIDS earlier this year because her t-cell count was so low. Apparently, it's back in the healthy range now, and her viral load is undetectable. She beamed as we exclaimed over her obvious health and well being. Lilian hugged me for a long time before she left and said that she thought of us often. Another woman, Sheri, came in just at closing, and I gave her a birthday card from Daniel (son in the pictures) and myself. I got a lot of hugs from her too. She said her birthday hadn't been very good and that she would "cherish" the card. Excitedly, she told she was making something for me and Daniel for Christmas. The women, especially Lilian and Tina, took it on themselves to clean the room and take out the trash, then filtered out for another day. As we left, Tina told us again how afraid of elevators she was. She said that the emergency phone in an elevator at a hospital didn't work, and when she got stuck she ripped it "down to the wires" trying to call somebody. People heard her screaming, though. She left for her sister's house before going back to a shelter. It was another day with pretty much the usual mix of women at YANA

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Little Girl?

In How Much Money Do Prostitutes Make Part II, I wrote about one 12 year old whom a client of ours found prostituting out on Wilkens Avenue. My point was that since the majority of prostituting women seem to begin at that age, it's unreasonable to imagine that they're able to hold out for the kind of money that they "should" be able to get. Even if she's on Wilkens Avenue, a 12 year old having sex with a middle aged man is just a rape victim. How well would you expect a child rape victim to negotiate with her rapist? How well can she do it six year later, after she's been degraded thousands of times and she's strung out on drugs in order to endure it? The free market analysis, in other words, is more than a bit flawed.

After I read jg's comment to Part II last night, I realized that a lot of people might be curious about what happened to that particular little girl, so here is what I know. The client, Linda, who was out prostituting with her own adult daughters, was appalled to find a child on the street openly doing the same thing. Linda confronted her, didn't know what to answer to the inevitable "Well, what are you doing here yourself?" reply, but refused to leave her side. Linda and the little girl spent most of the day together, with Linda warning her away from an unmarked police car, giving her bus money, taking her home, listening with grief stricken empathy to the child's story, feeding her with bag lunches she got from YANA, and telling her, over and over again, that there was such a place as YANA where people cared about a girl like her.

The little girl stoutly maintained that she wouldn't trust a place like YANA, and she wouldn't go to a place like that either. Then she went back home with Linda still at her side. They both met the mother on the street, and the girl told her mom that she hadn't made any money. The mother responded by hitting her in the face. The 12 year old asked for Linda's cell phone and then, to Linda's astonishment, called the police. Linda was frightened, but she didn't leave. The police showed up to find a pair of middle aged addicts screaming at each other and a little girl who identified herself as a prostitute. First thing they did (good old Southwest Baltimore!) was slap handcuffs on the child.

Then they called back the mother who was rapidly sidling away. She ignored them at first, but was persuaded to return when they shouted out a threat to shoot her. Linda, meanwhile, was vigorously explaining that it was the mother who should be locked up, but probably mom herself was much more helpful in that regard. She came back shouting profanities and threats at her daughter. The girl was released from her handcuffs, and she raised her shirt, showing the officers the marks on her belly and back from being whipped for not bringing home enough money. The mother was cuffed and taken away. The daughter was taken away as well, but the police committed a final amazing act on that remarkable day. They took the time to explain to the still-argumentative and grieving old prostitute that she didn't need to worry anymore. The little girl wasn't being arrested. She was being taken to social services where she would be protected, where she would never have to see her mother again.

One year of being prostituted, beaten, and betrayed by her own family balanced against one day of being listened to and cared about by a stranger. It was enough. The girl decided she deserved something better out of life, and she had spirit enough to go get it.

One day transformations are rare, but transformations over time are pretty much the norm. Given enough listening and support, women do decide that they can do better, and they do start to take that difficult journey away from not just one year, but 20 or 30 years of savage abuse. The story of prostituted women is the story of resilience.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tina and Liz

I didn't get to see Tina the next day because I left early to give a talk at Notre Dame. I did see Sister Catherine, though, and told her about Tina's belief that anyone who overdoses goes to hell. "Oh that old Catholic teaching," Catherine said. "I'll keep an eye out for her." Catherine spoke with the kind of determined growl you'd expect from an undaunted old nun who'd spent her life defending the poor. I hope Tina came back in that day. I was sure she'd be in good hands with Catherine.

I saw Liz for a while that morning. She was much her usual self, sad, victimized, worried about her future, eating grits, and finding some new clothes so she could begin her transformation into a loud mouthed, laughing, sexy -- albeit toothless -- woman again. Then she gave me two bucks. I'd given her a five for her three dollar copay on her zoloft prescription. She brought me change. Most of the time, Liz lives on the street. She has switched from heroin to vodka, but she is an addict all the same. She is also damaged in more ways than I can count. And she matter of factly brought me change I'd never asked for. If you've never worked with addicts, you may be wondering why I'm bothering to write this. If you have worked with people like Liz, all I can say is that it really happened. I swear it.

Tina Gets a New Dress (The Lord Provides)

Tina came in Wednesday sober and coherent, as she's been for the past few weeks, but obviously sad. Her cousin had died. He had been released from prison a few days earlier and had already been found dead of an overdose in an "abandominium." She had come to YANA to find a black dress for his funeral. In the strange way that things so often work at YANA, there was one black dress in our little donation closet. It was an absolutely gorgeous Liz Claiborne, and it fit her perfectly. Tina looked through our 7 or 8 pairs of shoes and found a very cute black pair that also fit her perfectly. Ditto for our one black blazer.

The other women all began to fuss over the sight of our usually woebegone little stick figure in rags transformed into a runway-way thin model with the great outfit. "Is someone going to take her picture?" Jennifer wanted to know. Heather, our volunteer psychologist, got her cell phone. Tina hurried to the bathroom to fix her hair, and another client said, "Let's do it professionally!" and set up a screen to serve as a backdrop for the shoot. Heather took a few pictures; the room admired Tina, and Tina, staring at the images on the phone, asked if she could get copies. She said that her mother would probably want to enlarge the pictures and hang them on her wall.

Tina's mother tried to hang Tina when she was eight. Tina's brother stopped her, but to this day, when mom gets drunk, she tells Tina, "I should of kicked that chair out from under you when I had the chance!" She curses Tina and hits her when she lives with the family. Much of the time Tina survives on the street or in shelters. And, I can imagine that Tina's mother really would hang up the picture proudly. Our clients have very complicated family relationships.

And, certainly, all the women at YANA were delighted with Tina's good fortune in finding such good clothes. Again, I heard the word "blessing" and the explanation "This is how God works" far more than I would have cared to, and, once again, I managed to restrain myself from saying anything along the lines of "Halli-fucking-luah a 22-year-old is dead, but Tina has nice clothes!" For all that Tina really was pleased with both the outfit and the attention, she was still grieving deeply.

She got me aside a bit to talk again about her cousin's death, and for the first time in the nearly five years I've been at YANA, I heard what one of our women thinks about the afterlife. It was every bit as bad as I'd feared. Tina said that since her cousin had died of an overdose, he had committed suicide, which meant that he was in hell. She said that Jesus suffered and died for our sins, and instead of finishing that sentiment with anything about forgiveness or redemption, she said contrasted his goodness with her own evil and shook her head, grim-faced. Tina told me that she wanted to be with Jesus and the angels, but she didn't think she had much of a chance. After all, she explained, there was no excuse for the things she did.

I didn't know what to say to Tina. We don't tell people how to feel about religion at YANA, and we especially don't do it if their belief in the damnation of addicts who overdose might be what's saved their lives so far. Add to that the very real possibility that smashing through a fragile person's self definition might have more consequences than I know what to do with. . . and I decided to fob off the whole problem on someone else. I asked Tina if she would like to talk to Sister Catherine when she came back, and Tina eagerly said she would. I figured that Catherine's decades of comforting the downtrodden would serve her in good stead.

I also didn't know what to say to Tina about her grief for the loss of her cousin. She said she worried about going to the funeral. She said her last funeral was for her grandfather she'd only seen once in her life. She said she tried to pull him out of the coffin because she didn't want him to leave her. How do you comfort someone who feels her losses that deeply? My answer was to give her a couple of bucks for bus fare and to accept her hugs and thanks for having done "so much."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Prostitution and the Church

The church was beautiful, small with stained glass, polished wood, built to look like a ship with something precious inside, making its way through a community that looked like it was filled with storm-tossed debris and monsters of the deep. The occasion was tragic, a memorial service for a young woman murdered as she tried to leave prostitution. The dead woman, Cindy, had graduated from a YANA program designed for women on the brink of change. She had done community outreach, given away condoms, tried to do better, tried to turn her back on the darkness of her life and become one of those thousands of points of lights that politicians like to talk about. Instead, someone broke her neck when he threw her down the stairs. I'm not sure whether the murderer was supposed to be a boyfriend or another trick, but she was dead either way, and the little church that she liked to visit sometimes was filled with teary-eyed mourners.

It soon became clear that the minister was not one of them. As we sat there in increasing amazement, he pointed out that she had been a prostitute, then he lectured, with grim matter-of-factness, her children, her mother, and her friends on the hellfire and damnation that await sinners. It was blindingly obvious that he saw no reason to mention heaven or salvation or anything else of comfort in a sermon about someone like her. He said almost nothing else about Cindy or her life, though he did take the time to announce that a couple of her mother's other children were dead as well. Having discharged what was clearly an onerous little task, he moved on to a much more interesting topic: graffiti had been scrawled on some churches in California. In a service nominally devoted to the murder of one of his flock, this man's outrage and, apparently, genuine grief poured forth on the subject of petty vandalism. After we left, Sid told me that Cindy had sat timorously in the back when she attended that church. She'd been afraid to talk to people. Wonder why?

So, that was one experience our women have had with organized religion. We've had a few other negatives: belligerent, self-styled preachers who've called us to schedule a time to come and "save" our clients. Those types have never gotten through the door, which is too bad for them. They probably would have found a little cluster of women easily abashed, ready to admit their guilty natures, eager for salvation. Our clients could have offered them a rich opportunity to feel morally superior.

Yet, moral superiority is not the usual response we get from churches. During our time of wandering through a fiscal wilderness, the churches have been our salvation. They give us money. Ministers preach about YANA from the pulpit, and their congregations send us bags full of supplies. We have a church (I believe of the same denomination as poor Cindy's minister) that makes up elaborate and expensive Easter baskets for the women every year. There's another church that tried to give us space for YANA until they ran into insurance problems. A group of young adults from a Korean mega-church worked very hard with our women. We gave them space to put on dinners and offer gentle sermons to the clients Thursday evenings. They drove out to our neighborhood and picked the women up for Sunday church. They took them to picnics, visited them in the hospital, prayed with them, looked after them until we worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that they would be become enablers rather than helpers. The leader of that group was a young male engineer who became almost tearful with gratitude for the opportunity to serve God by serving the women of YANA. He was simply stunned by the thought that people could call themselves Christians and still turn their backs on the downtrodden.

And we've gotten the most help of all it from the organized Catholic Church. The Sisters of Mercy were one of Sid's first funders. They've regularly helped with small grants, and the nuns themselves volunteer at YANA. They are always well liked by the women, easy with them, and kind. Hezekiah House itself is owned by the Catholics, and they are the ones who took us in when we couldn't afford the rent. I'll probably never forget our first meeting with Brother Joe. We poured out stories of our women's suffering, and he responded immediately with plans for YANA days at Hezekiah. Midway through the meeting, we realized, with more than a little shock, that Joe wasn't clear on the fact that we planned to come with the women. He was so appalled by their circumstances that he was ready to have their little staff add YANA days to their schedule. For those of you who've been reading this blog, how would you like to squeeze an extra responsibility like that into your work week?

Still, for all the help we've gotten from the churches, I believe that the most important relationship between our women and the church is the women's love of God. At least if you measure religiosity in terms of gratitude to God, belief in having been blessed, and the absolute certainty that a literal God exists, then the prostituted women of YANA are -- by a long shot -- the most religious people I've ever met. Especially after they get a few weeks' sobriety under their belts; then they start praising him for everything. Ask them how they are today, and half the time the answer is "blessed." They thank God for a two-day janitorial job, for miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner, for a blanket in the winter. They remind each other of his importance. But they rarely go to church. And they never talk about heaven.

Maybe most of their experiences were like Cindy's. Maybe the contempt her minister felt for her was the norm, and all the helping churches have been the exception. How can they risk the pain of being told by a messenger from God that they are contemptible in his sight? Maybe the women don't think they deserve to go to a place that good. Maybe, and I suspect this may be the case for at least a few of them, the experience of going even to a welcoming church would be too powerful for them. If they believe they have walked into God's house, and they feel impelled to think about what God wants them to do with their lives, how do they go on living the way they do? And how much help can they get from a traditional church if they want to live differently? Thinking about what I wrote in the second How Much Money do Prostitutes Make? section, how would they be able to take it in the message they are valuable. They are loved. They are important in the eyes of God? I believe a message like that would be intensely painful for some of the YANA women. And maybe the concept of heaven is too. Despite their sickness and despite the fact that almost all of them grieve over the loss of someone they've loved, they never mention heaven. I'm pretty sure they believe it exists. Maybe they just don't think it's for the likes of them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe (A Call for Halloween Suggestions)

Jennifer came in yesterday marveling over the mock funeral held for Edgar Allan Poe this past weekend. She wasn't sure whether his body was taken out of the crypt or a replica was used, but she was sure that there was something more than a little amazing about having a funeral for a man who had been dead for over a century. It was obvious, though, that she would have gone to it if the tickets hadn't cost $40.00. Jennifer likes to be in on almost anything that happens in the neighborhood.

And Poe is definitely part of this Baltimore neighborhood. When I did my little school marmish bit of telling Jennifer that an unknown person had been leaving roses and cognac at Poe's grave on his birthday every year, she immediately told me that the stranger had almost been caught one year. According to Jennifer, the people who had staked out Poe's grave went on a lunch break, and the mysterious fan left his gifts then. Jennifer went on to talk about Poe's house, a museum within walking distance of YANA. She told the room that the building was so small, you couldn't have gotten most modern furniture up the stairs. She said that Poe was a morphine addict, and smilingly recited a line or two of "Annabel Lee." Then she talked about "The Raven" and concluded -- in the same wondering tone she had used talking about the funeral -- "That wasn't even no raven he was writing about. It was a crow."

After that she told us that a woman in her neighborhood said she had known Poe when he lived nearby. Jennifer wasn't sure whether that was true or not, but the woman was very old, and she was white, and she had lived in the neighborhood all her life. Also, everyone looked out for her, and she when she walked her dogs in the morning nobody bothered her, and color didn't matter, and the corner boys. . . well, you get the point. Jennifer is a talker. But, also, because one of the great American writers of the 19th century had been brought into her life, she took an interest in him.

It occurred to me then that maybe we could do something with Poe for Halloween. We could read a short story or poem out loud then write our own or illustrate his. I could talk about Poe as having been addicted to both alcohol and the 19th century equivalent of heroin. I could say that he grew up in a foster home, that at one point he had lived nearby, and that he had often been poor. Most importantly, I could say that he had been deeply scarred by the deaths of people he loved, and that he had transformed his pain into art. Maybe we could talk for a minute or two about doing something with life's horrors rather than only being afraid of them.

The practical applications of this idea seem a little difficult, though. Most of his work seems too long and complicated, and, frankly, too grotesque for our ladies. I hadn't remembered "The Black Cat," but I thought the title sounded sort of Halloween-lite. Then I read about a man who gauged out his cat's eye, hanged his cat, had his family's home mysteriously burned down, then got a new cat which grew a gallows sign on its chest, and I didn't think it was quite the thing to get the YANA women happily chatting away about cruelty and guilt. I've seen little Tina gasp and shudder at the sight of a dead cat by the side of a road.

Maybe "Annabel Lee" would be a good idea. It's fairly short, and it's very pretty. It is Halloween appropriate because it talks about death, and evil angels, and underwater demons. Most of all it talks about a love lost, a love that reminds Poe of childhood innocence. Do any of you reading think it's a good idea? Do you have another suggestion? What kind of art could we do in response to it? We have two weeks to decide, and I'd love to see some suggestions. Let me know. thanks, vickie

Monday, October 12, 2009

How Much Money Do Prostitutes Make? Part II

O.K., some prostitutes may be poor, but at least, people argue, sometimes they get paid a lot of money. They have to be paid well for doing the things you can't get most women to do for free. You know, the freaky stuff. At least that has to cost real money. Limited supply, serious demand, risk in even asking other women for some things -- it makes sense that certain acts have to be expensive.

Well, let's see. There's having unprotected sex w/ a man who's pretty obviously sick. The risk of getting Hep. C or the AIDS virus ought to be worth some serious cash. Our women try to use condoms for intercourse, and they really try to avoid actual intercourse altogether, but unprotected sex definitely happens. Prostituted women seem to have a long list of serious physical ailments, but I don't see any of them getting rich from it, and I've never heard, not once, about the big bucks any of them scored by sleeping with a sick man.

Then there's rough sex. We had a client who agreed to take her pants down and let a man spank her for money. Once he got her over his lap, he pulled out the paddle and hit her full force while she screamed in panic. Sid took pictures the next day of the purple bruises that covered the woman's rear end. The price? A dollar a whack. Even the client's mother thought a dollar was a little low. Unfortunately, however, the price seemed to be mom's only objection.

Still, risky sex and sadistic sex are available outside of prostitution. How about sex that could put you in prison for life if you tried it with anyone other than a prostitute? How about sex with a really young girl -- 12 years old, for example. There's certainly demand for that. If a man gets convicted for having intercourse with a young child even once (and who wants to have sex just once?) his life is pretty much ruined. I would have thought that a man who can find a family willing to let him have sex with their little girl would pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity. I really am with the economists and everyone else on the net -- people who can get something as dangerous and taboo as that have to be willing to pay a fortune.

Except that they aren't. People who've studied the issue claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is from 11 to 13 years old. I don't know how those studies were conducted, but I do know that a large majority of our clients who actively prostitute come from backgrounds of severe sexual abuse. Sometimes their families rape them. Sometimes their families sell them. Sometimes they seem to drift into horrible situations. I doubt that many of the women who have taken their daughters out prostituting with them waited until the girls were 18 first.

We had a client who met a 12-year-old out prostituting on Wilkens Avenue. The girl said she "had been doing this" since she was 11. She was out by herself with no money, no protection, nothing to eat on a cold December day. She would be beaten by her mother if she came home with less than $20.00 (the cost of two hits of heroin). I'm guessing that mom and boyfriend shot up more than once a day and, of course, had other expenses too. Not that they weren't willing to help the child earn more money -- in fact sometimes the girl woke up to find her mother ushering another trick into her room -- but the girl wasn't able to support the family by herself. How could she? You have to be able to name your price to get it. She was a little girl sent out of her home by her mother, standing on the side of the road waiting for the next rapist. What kind of value could she put on herself? How much fight could she muster when the middle aged man who picked her up told her what he thought she was worth?

And if she continued prostituting, if by the time she was 18 or 20 she had been sexually degraded thousands of times at her family's insistence, what kind of change would you expect her to make? Does she suddenly go out, saying to herself, "Now I'm worth something! Now I can really put a value on my services!" I've been at YANA four years now. I've heard a lot of women say that they were blessed, that they were fortunate, that they came from wonderful homes. I've never heard any of them say they were worth much money. That's what's wrong with assuming that because the women are worth a lot of money they'll know how to get it. They've been taught since they were little girls that they aren't worth anything.


My husband, who got his doctorate in geophysics from the University of Chicago, thinks I should be a little clearer about whether the economists mentioned in the previous post were actual Chicago researchers or whether they were merely published by the school. My husband is a very good husband, loving, and supportive, and a lot of fun to be with. He's also the one who set up this blog. So, for hubby's sake, let me be clear. All I know is that Edlund and Korn's Theory of Prostitution was published by Chicago. I don't know that the economists themselves are actually affiliated with the school -- although, as my husband morosely conceded, given that it's Chicago we're talking about, they very well could be.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Much Money Do Prostitutes Make? Part I

Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn seem to know. They're a pair of economists who've written "A Theory of Prostitution," which was published a few years back in the University of Chicago's Journal of Political Economy. The theory was that prostitutes make "so much" because they are required to forgo the economic opportunity of becoming wives. As support for the "so much" money prostitutes make, Edlund and Korn cite to some newspaper articles claiming that prostituted women "can make as much as" various large amounts, and they cite to a study purporting to show that street prostitutes in Las Vegas make a few thousand dollars a year more than unskilled laborers. This study was based on asking women how much they were paid -- and then assuming that they wouldn't hesitate to tell a stranger just how little they would take to have sex.

It doesn't seem like much support for a very long paper -- filled with impressive-looking charts and equations and reaching some rather grandiose conclusions as to why all women aren't out hooking -- but I'm guessing that the authors didn't think they really needed any support. Doesn't everyone already know that prostitutes make the big bucks? "Why do prostitutes make so much money?" is a question that's all over the internet, and not many people dispute the premise. Here's what I know about actively prostituting women in Baltimore:

A lot of the time our women can't scrape together enough money for a pack of cigarettes. They buy singles. They bum them. They split a cigarette with a friend. Sometimes they pry butts out of the cracks in the sidewalks.

They line up to get the little hotel soaps and mini bottles of shampoo our donors give us. If they can get a pair of nice socks, they're thrilled. Getting a sanitary napkin or a new pair of underpants is even better.

The older women go without blood pressure medication because they can't afford the few-dollar co-pay. They don't get enough to eat. A slice of pizza can be a pretty big treat.

Often, they've never gone on a vacation. Nobody has ever taught them to drive. They beg for something to give their grandchildren for Christmas.

They are homeless. Whether they're in a shelter, or under a bridge, or at the mercy of somebody who's given them a temporary room, they almost never have a place of their own.

And yet they're selling sex. And not just any sex, but, sometimes at least, the freaky stuff that's hard to get anywhere else. You'd think that would be worth a lot of money. I'll bet our friends Edlund and Korn could prove that they make a lot of money with their opportunity cost graphs. I have my own theory -- not likely to be published by U. of Chicago -- as to why anyone selling something that desirable might not be getting rich. I'll tell you about in Part II.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do Women Become Prostitutes? Part II

Concerned staff from an alternative school have asked Sid and me to speak to the faculty next week. Their school is an area with heavy prostitution, and they have two questions: 1) How can they help students whose parents may be prostituting? and 2) How can they help distressed and tearful prostituted women they've seen hurrying in and out of cars near the school? These are absolutely wonderful questions to ask -- and they're horrible questions to have to answer. Today I tried asking the YANA clients what to do. The results were something less than textbook clear.

The women suggested counseling and gaining the trust of local prostitutes. They said that it was important to be listened to and not lectured. All very good, but there were no suggestions as to how to gain that trust or how to start the listening process with a frightened woman who is literally running in the other direction. One woman said something more interesting. She told us that when she was out on the corner prostituting, she didn't consider herself a prostitute. She thought she was "dating." The other women nodded. They talk a lot more freely about prostituting when they're talking in the past tense. They can be pretty open about it then.

What they aren't open about -- at all -- is the subject of anybody's mother prostituting. After someone referred to prostituting women bringing their "dates," i.e. tricks home, a new client named LaTeisha said the following, unprompted, within the space of about five minutes. "Some women bring a lot of dates all up in the house. My mother never did that. I came from a good home! My mother was a drinker!" And then, tearfully, "My mother saved my children, but she never saved me." O.K., I don't want to read too much into what the women say, but has anyone you've ever known told you that their mother didn't bring her tricks home with them? If they just announced something like that wouldn't you think the mother was prostituting?

As soon as LaTeisha said she came from a good home, another woman chimed in to say that she came from a good home too. LaTeisha went on to tell us that young people don't know how to date anymore, that they just hook up to have sex. LaTeisha might have a point there, but then she said that the parents teach the girls not to come home "with nothing but a wet ass" after sex; they should have money too. I don't think LaTeisha is speaking for the larger society there. I don't think she knew that most mothers don't act that way. LaTeisha's recommendation for teaching young people not to prostitute? Men should know how to walk with a lady. They should walk on the outside of the sidewalk near the street.

The other women in the group had little to add. I asked if a girl whose mother was prostituting was herself at high risk for prostitution. Only one person responded, and she said, with great determination, that people can rise above their environments. I can't think of anytime I've known a YANA woman to say that she prostituted because her mother did, or that she led her own child into prostitution. And yet, we see, over and over again, that prostitution in our neck of the woods is inter-generational.

Sid and I went to a national conference on domestic trafficking last year and heard the same thing from people in other parts of the country. One detective led a nationally known unit that has been keeping statistics on prostituted women. Not only did almost all of them report a sexual assault background, but over 95% of their mothers reported the same background. Another woman stood in front of the room and told us that "Incest is the boot camp of prostitution." In the first year of YANA's existence, the counselors documented hundreds of stories of childhood sexual abuse. We've had many mother-daughter pairs come to us, often with the daughter having found YANA first and taking the first step away from prostitution.

Still, the mother-daughter thing isn't talked about. The reasons for prostituting are almost always given as "I just wanted to run wild." or "I'd do anything for drugs." Even when the drug use began after the prostitution, the drug is given as the cause. What should counselors do when the students have prostituting mothers? The answer is confusion, silence, and insistence that their own mothers were good. On the one hand, that lack of awareness doesn't bode well for staying out of prostitution. LaTeisha, who is clean, admitted that while she isn't on the street anymore, she will turn a trick in an emergency. "If I don't have food, I will get in a car to feed my children," she said. Right. LaTeisha hasn't had custody of her children for years. Prostitution may be self sacrifice, but it isn't noble, and it sure isn't done for the sake of the kids.

On the other hand -- and this is very important -- women struggling with prostitution still make progress in their lives. They still find ways to grow, to enjoy themselves, and to appreciate each other. LaTeisha is dating a man with no job and no money at all. She isn't crazy about this fact. ("That mf better get a job" is how she put it.) But she really lights up when she talks about him. They enjoy each other. They talk. He takes her around his family. She says she's enjoying what she should have had when she was young. Most of our women were put on a very hard road when they were children, and they keep stumbling forward without thinking too much about why they're there. A lot of them get amazingly far without taking much of a look backwards.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


"A woman who's on her period can't hold a rose. If she tries, the petals will all fall off." The forty-something YANA client who told me that was dead-serious. So was the woman who explained that her daughter's ghost never visited her because the girl understood that her mother was "afraid of dead people." Her daughter restricted her appearances to other family members out of consideration for her mother's nerves. As far as I could tell, everyone else in the room seemed to believe that this was an immanently reasonable decision on the part of the ghost.

YANA women tend to be pretty literal. A rose is beautiful. A period is nasty. So, never the two shall meet. Or something like that. And people you love don't just live in your mind as abstract ideas. They're real people. So, if the mother never walks in the girl's old bedroom and sees her sitting on the bed ready to talk, the way her uncle has, it must be that the daughter is a good daughter, respecting her mother's wishes.

Their language, too, shows a surprising level of respect. Almost all YANA women are Christians, and I can't think of a single time I have ever heard any of them take the Lord's name in vain. Generally, they try not to swear at all in YANA, but when they do, they say bitch or the "f" word. Even little Tina has been known to announce that she "don't play that shit" when she thinks she's been insulted. No blaspheme, though. They don't mess around with God. They don't wear skull and cross bones motifs, get devil or hell fire tattoos, or dress, even remotely, Goth. And they certainly don't like Halloween.

I have been wanting to do more in the way of decorations and crafts, but I knew we'd be pretty limited with Halloween. There'd been some thought of getting a Halloween movie for our VCR, but no one was thinking Jason or Kruger. Even so, something that suggested any level of physical danger seemed like it might not work for our ladies, and the things I would consider fun -- like making scary masks or drawing pictures of goblins and skeletons -- well, I had the feeling they would be a problem too. Superstition, after all, is limiting, and superstitious people have limited lives in large ways and small. Then someone mentioned today the rapes that would be coming up soon with Halloween.

Rape is not something I associated with Halloween. Oh yes, several women explained. It's big challenge time with the gangs, big initiation time. Around Halloween, our local Bloods and Crips like to make a competition out of how many people they can rape or kill. Sid confirmed the explanation. That's what the gangs do.

Think of living your whole life in a neighborhood like that. Think of being one of the prime candidates for the raping or killing. Imagine that you're out at night quite often, and that at least once in your life, possibly many times, you've slept in abandoned houses or under bridges wondering whether someone would come out of the darkness to attack you. Then think that images of witches and demons have turned into rallying symbols for the attackers. Revulsion and terror start to sound like very good reactions to me. Amusement and abstraction -- not so much. I've begun to rethink my little syllogism. Maybe it's not that people who are superstitious end up with limited lives. Maybe it's that people with severely limited lives had better end up superstitious if they want to survive. They might miss out on holding roses at certain times of the month, but they also might find a place to hide when the wrong person or the wrong holiday draws near. And if they find comfort in their dead children's continuing acts of respect, good for them. That sounds like another good way to survive.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Instant Grits

They're probably the best snack food to keep on hand: not attractive enough to be stolen, heavily fortified, an easy meal, and sugar-free. It's the sugar free aspect that's most important. Quite a few of our clients have Type II diabetes, although most of the women who have it are thin, not fat. I believe the medical explanation for all our skinny adult-onset diabetics is that people who are genetically disposed towards diabetes are likely to develop the disease if their bodies are subjected to long term stress. Obesity is a stresser, but not the only one. Long term alcoholism and drug use are other types. Our underweight women tend to have the most serious substance abuse problems, and the result is a lot of skinny diabetics. Perhaps there are some doctors or other medically knowledgeable people reading this blog who can tell me whether I'm right or not. All I know for a certainty is that we have some very small women who recite mind boggling numbers when they tell me what their blood sugar has been and who can go through some pretty dramatic mood swings after they eat.

Diabetes is not the only illness common in our group. The long term injuries can be impressive too. Today, I watched one woman help her friend take off her jacket. The woman being helped stood with her arm out in front of her at a crazy angle like a curving tree limb. She had an unreal smile plastered on her face, and she told me that she had cried from the pain this morning. She'd had surgery on her arm almost a year ago and seemed to have accepted intense episodic pain as a normal part of her life. When she mentioned the surgery, Liz looked over and commented that she'd had two surgeries on her arm. Another woman standing nearby had chronic pain in her leg from having dropped something on it when she was doing some pick-up construction work. We have a fair number of limping women. The people who built Hezekiah House wisely included an elevator. Not having to climb even one flight of stairs is a relief to many of our clients.

Most of our clients make very little of their ailments, accepting their accumulating disabilities as an unremarkable aspect of middle age, rarely bothering with a cane or walker. With some women, though, paying attention to the physical injuries is unavoidable. Yesterday, a tall, heavy set woman came in for the first time and loudly treated the room to her biography (sexually molested by eight different people as a child, beaten by her mother when she told about it, slashed her wrists when she was thirteen, beaten in the head with a pole). "I've died five times," the woman solemnly intoned. Personally, I'd have liked to believe that this mentally ill woman had imagined it all, but there were the broad scars on the inside of her arm. There was her face, askew in three places as if the skin had to be refashioned over the crumpled skull. Who knows? Maybe she did flat line five times. Maybe every word of her litany was the God's honest truth. Certainly, she was a walking testament to her injuries.

We've had a few women with endocarditis. My understanding of this disease comes from them. Apparently, dirty needles aren't just needles previously used by people who are sick; they're also needles that just physically have dirt on them. Push that dirt into your vein when you're shooting drugs, and you can end up with bacteria or fungus infecting your heart. I think that if something else doesn't get you first, you eventually die from it. Certainly we've had young women go into the hospital then nursing home for weeks at a time with their endocarditis problems. Little Tina isn't the only one to speak matter of factly about her body not being able to get enough oxygen.

The list of health problems caused by the various forms of abuse is certainly much longer than diabetes, broken bones, and endocarditis. We had a women with fissures that opened up across her body like the cracks in the ground at the beginning of an earthquake. Quite a few women walk around with one leg substantially larger than the other. In addition to AIDS and hepatitis C, missing teeth, swellings the size of baseballs, infected pick marks, and soaring blood pressure in young women are a pretty routine part of life for the prostituted women of Baltimore.

A nurse practitioner and HIV specialist from Health Care for the Homeless come to YANA every Thursday morning, to give testing and treatment. They are nothing short of valiant as they row against the tide. We try to give out blankets and coats during the winter. I remember giving Tina a blanket last fall and hoping that she survived the cold, living on the floor of a garage. And now I've figured out that instant grits would be a good idea. There are times when I think that these little stop-gap measures are nothing short of pathetic in the face of the massive disorders our women face. Our women, however, do not agree. They're delighted to line up like they did today to get flu shots from Health Care for the Homeless. They know how vulnerable they are and how much they need the small measures. Liz beamed at me when she got the grits. They anxiously search our little supply of donated clothes for something warm to wear and revel in a good coat. They want to live. They want to get better. The woman who died five times thanked God for her blessings and thanked us, repeatedly, for the few small things we gave her.

Note: Anyone who could help me in understanding the medical issues is urged to write in with corrections, additional information, or any other comments. People who would like to donate coats, blankets, and other warm things for the coming winter can do so by clicking on the YANA website on the right hand column.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why do Women Become Prostitutes? Part I.

I suppose that most of you have heard Mackenzie Phillips' claim that she had a ten year sexual relationship with her father, beginning when she was 19. Her father, a musician with the Mamas and Papas, can't deny it because he's dead. Mackenzie Phillips has a long history of serious drug addiction and doesn't present particularly well. And the claim itself -- well, by now, we're used to hearing the stories of young children who've been made the victims of incest or preyed upon by daycare providers. We know how we're supposed to react to them. Mackenzie's claim, that as an adult she had an affair with her own father, is something else. People don't seem to know how to react to her. As far as I can tell, she's become a very, very public object of embarrassment. You can't help but look at the red haired, slightly ravaged looking woman, tossing her head, smiling ingratiatingly, and talking, talking, talking about how she spent her 20s sleeping with dad. At the same time, you don't want to look at a person like that any longer than you have to. She's probably sick, after all, and, given the incest, maybe a victim, but in a lot of ways she's just plain repulsive for having participated in her own degradation.

It's her family I find most interesting. Both her dad's ex wives have denounced her, even Michelle, with whom she was supposed to have had a close relationship. Neither of them mentioned the father's role in addicting Mackenzie to drugs before she reached her teens. Her youngest sister has unleashed a series of snide remarks, supposedly meant to be neutral, acknowledging Mackenzie's need to "come clean." Little Sister also sounded angry that Mackenzie had left her alone with the father who could have done the same things to her -- if he had done them to Mackenzie -- which probably he didn't. It was Mackenzie's other sister, Cheyenne came to Mackenzie's rescue, proclaiming her belief in Mackenzie and her love of her sister. Cheyenne's support consisted of the following: 1) a statement that she believed the affair happened, 2) repeated emphasis on the consensual nature of the affair, 3) a description of what an idyllic time she had with their father the few times he visited, 4) a lengthier discussion of how hard Mackenzie's revelation had been on Cheyenne's family, and, finally, 5) forgiveness for Mackenzie for having told her story. At no point did Cheyenne or anyone else express any interest in Mackenzie's claim that the "affair" began when her father raped her, that their sex frequently took place when Mackenzie was too stoned to know what was happening, or that her father had allowed one of his friends to rape her when she was a child. For this display of sympathy, Mackenzie gratefully and enthusiastically professed her love of Cheyenne.

Perhaps she was right to be grateful. Nobody at all came to Ellen's defense when she turned over evidence against her husband the rapist. We had a client whose uncle went to prison for the years he spent raping her while she was in elementary school. When he came out, the family welcomed him back with open arms. Decades later, when the woman's father died, a YANA staffer took her to his funeral. Nobody in the family would let her ride with them. When our women are battered, even by a stranger, they want to protect the man who attacked them, the way their mothers protected the men who attacked them as children. Very few of our women have ever denounced a family member who beat them or raped them, and of the ones who have, I can't think of any who got even as much support as Mackenzie got from Cheyenne.

Why do women become prostitutes? I don't have the answer, at least not all of it, but Mackenzie Phillips' family gave us all a nice, on-air demonstration of the culture that produced many of our clients. All the attention, all the concern is focused on maintaining the family just as it is. There just isn't any room left to worry about what's happening to the victim. The result sometimes seems to be a woman willing to participate in her own degradation. Long ago, I began to think of the women at YANA as the obedient daughters. Well into adulthood, they keep doing what they've been taught long ago.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Faces of YANA

I think getting to know the overlooked people is good for almost anyone. Both my sons have volunteered at YANA, and both are compassionate, thoughtful men. My younger son, Daniel, was there this past summer. There are now three pictures of him with the women he met at YANA on this blog and another picture of three women posing together.

All of the women posed (enthusiastically) for pictures that they knew might be on the internet promoting YANA and its work. Most of our clients are proud of their affiliation with YANA. Still, pseudonyms are used in the posts, and nothing learned through counseling or my legal work with clients is ever used.


Tina is another of our tiny, dying clients. She has a stick figure body and a face that makes me think of a child's little drawing: mouth, nose, and eyes all sketched with a few straight lines, a fringe of short bangs on her forehead. It's a sweet, slightly quizzical look without much force behind it. Often, as she feels the effects of her methadone -- considerably enhanced by high dose xanex bought on the street -- she moves like a little stick figure losing its animation, swaying and bobbing, eyes shut and mouth open, taking minutes to raise or lower the Styrofoam cup filled with lukewarm coffee. Even her hands are like something a child would draw, although, in this case, we're talking about a bored or slightly malevolent child. She has some fingernails that stop short of the end of her fingers and then grow straight up, so that they're perpendicular to where they're supposed to be. They can get quite long, and thick, and rather yellow. These witchy growths on her otherwise unmarked body are caused by a virus.

Tina, who is in her late 30s, spent much of last winter sleeping in her boyfriend's mother's garage. She has AIDS, which she says was acquired through being regularly injected with heroin at the age of 14 by her aunt. She has many of the diseases and the fungal infections that typically go with it. Her t-cell count (often 800 or more in a healthy person, dipping below 200 for someone with AIDS) tends to remain below 40. She is, appropriately, on none of the AIDS medications. She couldn't maintain the regime, and the drugs do more harm than good if they're started and stopped, mixed with everything else she buys on the street. She says that her doctor is frustrated with her, and it's obvious that she doesn't blame him. Tina's blood pressure is also extraordinarily low, and she speaks matter of factly about her body's lack of oxygen. When she goes to the E.R. she's like a t.v. character going to Cheers -- everybody knows her name.

And everybody seems to like Tina, or feel sorry for her, or tolerate her anyway. She is so much like a little disabled child that it's hard to remember she's a woman, but she is. She has a boyfriend. She has a two-year-old child she adores (don't worry, too much, anyway, the dad's family has custody). She can get very angry when she thinks she's been insulted, and she will apologize at length weeks after an incident if she sees a person she thinks she spoke to rudely. She is aware enough of what her life is to feel despair. Suicide is a recurring consideration.

It was both reassuring and depressing to listen to her yesterday talk about her past. Boys in the Hood was on our little V.C.R., and Tina, looking over at it, remarked that if the characters got revenge they'd go to prison. Then she continued in her soft, slightly gravelly, no-preliminaries monotone to tell about her own revenge history. "In my family," she said,"When anything happens to anybody, mom, sister, brother, grandma, doesn't matter, the first thing we think about is revenge." I can believe that. Not too many months ago, her mother hit her in the face. Tina didn't react because her little daughter and niece were in the room. Tina's mother called her a "pussy" for not hitting back. Normally, the women would fight.

Tina told me that when she was in a half way house when she heard that someone had hurt a close friend. The first thing she did was call a cab, then go on trash can duty so she could get outside. The cab came, and she ran for it, but somebody at the halfway house stopped the cab from taking off. Didn't matter to Tina. Nobody had hands on her yet, and she went flying down the street in a bright green sweatsuit, ducked in an alley, unzipped it, and reappeared in the red sweatsuit she'd hidden underneath, flagged down another cab and kept moving. "You'd of thought I did murder someone," she said. "The way they kept showing my picture on the T.V. They said I'd escaped from prison, but it was a halfway house." I asked if she got revenge while she was out, and Tina made one of her mild adjustments of expression, tending towards surprise. Of course she had gotten revenge. And later, when she and the offending woman were both in the same jail, she got it again.

And she didn't get caught anytime soon, either. Police came to her home, and helicopters circled the skies above it. She ran to the roof of her stepfather's club, white trash bag in her hand. Tina hid in the snow, beneath the white bag, unseen. I'm (inappropriately?) delighted by this image of her determination, her foresight in grabbing the trash bag, her winning something for once. Perhaps with some of the same feelings I'm having, Tina went on to talk about her little sister who, as a teenager, tried to jump out of a moving police car. She named the two police who had her at the time, one of them, Officer Smith, is a man I've heard quite a bit about. Officer Smith and partner took the little sister into a walled alley for a discussion of her escape attempt. While Officer Smith was cracking her ribs, Tina's little sister managed to blacken his eye and give him a bloody nose. Tina modified her expression again towards slight amusement. "I heard the other police made fun of him for that 'cause she didn't weigh but a hundred pounds."

Tina quietly chatted a bit more. She said she didn't mind prison except for the first few days she spent in drug withdrawal. Otherwise it was fine. "I skate all over there," she said with a tiny smile. "It's because I was locked up so much when I was a minor. I became institutionalized." A fair enough assessment, I suppose. She'd probably be better off in prison now, but there's life inside that little doll-like figure and surprising sweetness too. I hope she'll keep coming back.