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.