Thursday, September 17, 2009

Speaking of stereotypes. . .

I've described our women as being the victims of brutal childhood rape, poverty, and isolating stereotypes. This is how I see them, but it would be a mistake for me to portray them as nothing but child-like victims who loathe every minute of what they're "forced" to do. They are quirky and sometimes strong. They can take some strange routes to prostitution, and when they find what they consider "goodness," such as motherhood or God, they can lord their discovery mercilessly over anyone in their path. They often look nothing at all like frightened teenagers, and, like Diane with Edgar, they can get some pleasure out of the street life, or at least from their idea of what that life is supposed to be. Here are some moments from today.

Today was the last day for Ellen, a quiet woman who has only been coming for a couple months and whose story I don't know well. Ellen is probably in her sixties, extremely obese, with waist length hair, and the dazzling blue eyes so many of our white clients have. She looks a little like someone who should be living in a forest with the Keebler elves. Asked how old she was when she became addicted to crack, she broke into a grin that was half embarrassment, half elven merriment. "Fifty-five," Ellen answered.

Ellen had been smoking pot intermittently since she was 19, but apparently didn't start on crack until her sister, "Miss Crack-head of the world" moved in with her. Then her life went to hell in a handbasket -- not that it was all that great before. Back in the 80s, her husband was arrested and convicted of serial rape. He was given three consecutive life sentences, but it was Ellen who was the pariah among their friends and family because she had given the police the evidence they needed. She has said that sometimes she feels guilty because she didn't turn her husband in earlier and protect some of his victims, but then she says she remembers what the man did to her, and her voice trails off.

Did she have a background of child sexual abuse? Did she start prostituting as a little girl, before she even had the comfort of pot? How can anyone stand to put their face in a stranger's crotch, be sodomized by someone who has no reason to care how rough he gets, go off with man after man not knowing if this is the night to become a murder victim -- without at least a little dope? Did she wait to start prostitution until her crack addiction, in her 50s? The fact that several of her siblings have serious drug addictions and that they turned against her, rather than her husband, when she gave evidence of his brutality suggest that she came from a severely abusive family. For that matter, the fact that her sister's presence triggered her addiction suggests it too. But the fact that she reports long periods of no drug use and stability while raising her children (and while hubby was out raping the neighbors) shows control, doesn't it? And apparently she waited something like ten years between the husband's conviction and her crack spree, so it sounds like more than simply trading off one form of degradation for another.

Maybe if I'd gotten to know her better, I would have seen that her background fitted a predictable pattern. Maybe not. Maybe I would have seen a weird, meandering path, blazed partly by her parents long ago, and then continued with whims, odd chances, conscious bad choices of her own. I doubt much of it was meant as a highway to adventure, though. She drew a picture of her dreams once -- a picture of a little house on a hill with sunshine and a lake "for swimming and fishing." She told me that having an image like that in her mind was "a survival technique." She said that when people wondered "where she had gone" when she stared off into space, they didn't know she'd left them behind to go to that peaceful home.

Ellen, of course, did not fill the whole day. We had the ravening hordes in for their clothes and "personals." They're an issue to be addressed later at YANA and in the blog. We had a very sweet, young volunteer, one who's loved by the clients, who talked to me about how trendy "sex work" has become among college students who see it as feminism and power. I hope that, like so many fashions, it mostly talk, mostly temporary. I managed a few words about the need for hurt people to master a bad situation -- trying to glamorize and conquer it. Feel bad about sex, get raped, get humiliated even, and maybe you have a great need to get control over the whole thing by making somebody pay. I don't know whether that's the driving force behind the feminism/power business, though. Maybe it's just all those idiots singing songs about pimps and 'hos.

I was bothered by the idea of it, anyway, and bothered by the fact that our t.v/vcr with its outdated tapes has been hijacked to play a single movie every day, nobody paying full attention to it, but everybody looking over at it from time to time. The movie is "Coyote Ugly." It's full of very sexy women dancing on a bar, in a half-way strip. They look kind of feminist and powerful, to tell you the truth.

We also have another little outburst of nasty religion. Generally it's snide one upmanship as to who knows the bible the best or who really knows how to pray. The remarks are kept more or less neutral, delivered with a smile, but they get their point across. Today, however, we had a new client who went into an intense, full-out harangue, first trying to use her grandmother status to tell other people what to do, then trying for the same domination using the Jesus & prayer rationale. If she does that again, I expect I'll be writing my first post about throwing a client out.

We also had Liz, another woman pushing 50, who came in, crying as usual. I have become very fond of Liz, though I'd be hard put to tell you why. Perhaps it is partly because what she repeatedly says about herself is true: she is dying or very close to it. Telling all about Liz would take far too much space for this blog, but I will say that she fit her usual pattern today. She came in, weeping and announcing her latest hardship. What's difficult about Liz is that they really are hardships, very serious ones, often visible in the bruises and abrasions on her face. Today she said she had cirrhosis of the liver. Given her astounding level of drink, liver damage was pretty much a given. After she cried and got hugged and received, once again, far more than the theoretical quota of donations, she went to the bathroom to wash up and put on her new clothes. Liz emerged, as always, triumphant. Weeping little old lady gone, somewhat faded beauty-queen stripper returned.

Lots of "I love you's" from Liz, lots of talk about surviving and kicking ass, and looking sexy. Mentions of her newest "friend." This one wants to commit her to a psych ward until she goes in for her interferon treatments. We nod when she says the psych ward might be a good idea. "I might go psycho on someone!" she says, waving her hands threateningly and laughing her Liz laugh, filled with bravado. The cure for Liz's mind boggling array of problems is always the same, and it always works. Give her a hug and help her look pretty. The rewards of being a girl are like jet fuel for Liz. She comes in, gets refilled, and takes off soaring.


  1. This is fantastic! It reads like a novel, but I know it's all true. Please keep us updated on the lives of your clients.

  2. This is far from a stereotype, not the hot pants and vinyl go-go boots with fishnet stockings of decades ago nor the pretty young looking woman of Vegas clubs nor the bored housewives and college students as reported in newspapers recently. How sad to read of these women struggling to have the basics and just live.