I live in a section of my hometown a few blocks from crack-ho central. Nearly every time I drive down Sixth Avenue I see a skinny girl—or three—withdrawn cheeks walking with no real destination. If I run my errands quickly, on my way home I might see those girls on the other side of the street. They have narrow perimeters. I imagine they retrace the same route every day like Arthur Murray dance steps. Some live in shoddy nearby apartments—former boarding houses that have seen better days. But so have the girls. I wonder if they take johns to their rooms, or maybe a crack house where the men can sate additional vices. Or perhaps they just do it in the dude’s car on the riverfront, in some alley, up on Gobbler’s Knob in Ritter Park.
In 2004 one of those prostitutes was killed. Wendy Morgan, a former honor roll student. She’d stolen drugs from a crack house, and the house operator, a Detroit thug-woman named Bunny, had her killed. Wendy and Bunny. Peter Pan, cartoon names that should have nothing to do with addiction, whoring, and murder. Even the men who pulled the trigger had nicknames: RoRo and GiGi.
The first time I was mistaken for a prostitute I was in my early twenties. I wasn’t loitering on a street corner. Wasn’t offering furtive glances to men driving by. Wasn’t provocatively dressed. This was the 1980s and I had my first post-college job in the oil industry in Houston. It was a corporate gig I hated and not just because of the oil. My environmentalist flame hadn’t yet ignited—but working in the fossil-fuel industry sparked the blaze. One would think I would have already been incensed by all the coal crimes going on back home in West Virginia.
I was wearing a shoulder-padded dress, modest heels, no fuck-me pumps. I sat in a hotel bar with Babs, a divorced woman seventeen years my senior who drove a Z28. Bab’s picked the bar where people her age unwound after work. She really wanted a man. There were few choices for bars or men in this newly developed commercial outpost on the 610 Loop.
I don’t know what I drank back then: 7 & 7, White Russians. The dim room was rimmed with Naugahyde banquettes shaped like baseball gloves. You could squeeze a lot of men into those mitts. But on this night it was just Babs and me surrounded by cigarette smoke and conventioneers. I think they were coin collectors. Finally a couple of men sidled over and sat at our table. The one angling toward me was in his fifties. He looked beat to hell and had a smoker’s hack. I didn’t know how to talk to men back then, how to talk to anyone, really. I had been a listener in high school and college. The one everyone dumped their shit on. I was like that alien empath on the original Star Trek who absorbed everyone’s pain. Just listening averted two suicides and a murder. The noose-weavers felt so much better, but I felt hammered flat.
In that Houston lounge I fumbled for words. Where are you from? What do you do? Not that I had any intention of starting something with this beat-up, old man. He didn’t seem to mind the banal chatter. Finally he stood, a relief, and said, “I have to use the bathroom.” Before he left he slid a cocktail napkin across the table to me. I assumed it was his phone number which I would discard, but after he left I found his hotel room key folded inside. He was probably already in the elevator heading up to gargle and pee. Pick his underwear up off the floor.
I’m sure I sputtered, but that didn’t stop me from finishing my drink before I left the key on the table and went home. Back then I didn’t know about party girls who worked conventions in hotel lounges.
The second time I was mistaken for a whore I was back in West Virginia in grad school. No more corporate work for me. I was thirty, older than most of my classmates. I was also a budding writer in a budding writers’ group that met at Hulio’s, a Mexican restaurant near campus. After one of our gatherings I stood on the sidewalk with another writer, Van, talking about our lit. crit. class. We didn’t know what the professor was teaching, but it wasn’t lit. crit. These were the acid-denim years, striped tennis shoes, cropped tops. Nothing overtly sexual. Still, as I hugged my books to my chest, a clean-cut man kept walking by Van and me. He tried to lean in to catch snippets of our conversation. Three times he slid by and finally I understood he was an undercover cop trying to determine if I was a working girl reeling in a young john. This was prime hooker turf at the time.
Even as a kid I knew the oldest profession was going on in my town. Massage parlors like Magic Fingers on Route 60 were routinely raided by police. My dad used to joke about the time he and his best pal, Bob, went to a strip club in the old Milner Hotel. Bob kept yelling at the stripper to put her clothes back on until she cried. The bouncer ousted them and took away Bob’s membership card. The idea of my father at a strip club was icky enough. Much worse than the Playboys he kept under his bed. The city tore down the Milner and closed most of the massage parlors, so in the early 1990s hooking mainly took place near campus—as far as I knew. I’d seen the action myself when I borrowed a friend’s studio apartment one spring break to finish my thesis. It overlooked 4 1/2 Alley—a notorious stretch where scraggily whores with too red lipstick and tight jeans strolled the bricks. They could have been, should have been, co-eds if they’d had the right breaks. Cars and trucks cruised up and down the alley all night long.
The following semester I rented a monthly parking space a few blocks from school, and one evening as I walked to class Cowboy fell in step beside me. I’d seen him around town. He was probably sixty and wore a red cowboy hat wrapped in cellophane. Brown cowboy boots and a shirt with pearl snaps. He would have fit in in Texas if not for the phony hat. Cowboy was trying to save me. Talked about Jesus and salvation in sentences that only half made sense. Finally he handed me his card, a battered thing that called him Reverend Something-or-other. It didn’t list the name of a church. No phone number or address. I wasn’t buying, so finally he jammed his hands in his pockets and said: “How about a date?”
I may have been thirty, but I was still green. I didn’t know this was ho code. My naiveté saved me, as did my aversion to men after a horrible first marriage.
“I just got a divorce,” I told Cowboy. “I’m not ready to date.”
I wish I could have lifted his hat to see what he was thinking when I said that. He just nodded and turned the corner while I continued walking straight. I don’t know how long it took me to figure out what he’d propositioned.
Maybe I understood by the following summer when I was heading to my truck after work. I was a graphic artist at the local newspaper. They operated out of a building on Fifth Avenue in the heart of downtown. The wage was pitiful. Certainly not enough to support a drug habit if I’d had one. I did not. It was mid-afternoon and I stood on a corner waiting for the traffic light to change. A big seventies’ car drove by too slowly. The middle-aged driver rolled down his window, banged his arm against his door, thump-thump-thump, and kept going. I didn’t know what he was up to, so when the WALK signal illuminated I crossed the street. Soon enough he came by again, banging his arm against the door. By then I understood he wanted to buy me. I ran to my truck, cranked it up, and peeled the hell away. I started to rethink my wardrobe, but really, there was nothing tawdry about it.
Soon afterwards I moved to Iowa for even more grad school and forgot about whores. I certainly never saw one on a street corner in Iowa City, though I bet they were hooking somehow, someway, in all that corn.
When I returned to West Virginia I started teaching at Marshall University. I remarried, and when Don and I moved into our house near the flesh-peddling market, it made my insides roll. So many young girls supporting crack habits with sex. Men supported their addictions by breaking-and-entering, robbing banks and pharmacies, stealing change from car ashtrays. Our garage had been broken into three times. Cops regularly busted the whores and published their pictures in the newspaper. A gallery of shame. They ranged from teenagers to middle-aged. The young ones looked sheepish. The old ones looked as if they no longer gave a shit. Occasionally the cops busted the johns and threatened to print their names and faces in the paper, on billboards. There was always uproar about that. What if his children see him? His boss? No one fought for the whores. What if her children see her? Her parents? But the whores’ parents were probably well aware. They were also probably raising their whore child’s children, a growing trend. I’m pretty sure Wendy Morgan had children.
The whore’s plight came even closer the Saturday morning my husband and I went to the riverbank to hand out food. Anyone was welcome to give: churches, med. students, civic organizations, individuals like Don and me. We were all just trying to do something about the growing epidemic of poverty and homelessness, addiction and the subsequent crime that plagues our city, our state. We’d learned to bring soft food: muffins, Nutri-Grain bars, bananas, since many of the patrons suffered tooth decay. We found a vacant spot along the row of tables and squeezed in. Patrons funneled in from alleys, the City Mission, subsidized housing, the riverbank. Most were on foot. Some in wheelchairs. They’d open their bags and we’d toss in our offerings like trick-or-treat. Don and I had only been a few times, but I already recognized regulars. Mothers with children. Whole families whose food stamps didn’t stretch far enough. The little girl who’d been burned in a fire. The two dudes who just wanted snacks for the afternoon ballgame. The runaway gay teens who panhandled Huntington streets during the day and slept who-knows-where at night. I also recognized the crack hos, not that I knew them specifically. I could tell the signs: underweight, scabbed, twitchy. That particular Saturday morning I spotted one of my former students in the line with a man.
I remembered her well. She was bright and had to work long hours to afford tuition. When she’d turned eighteen her step-father had booted her out. I also recalled the despicable language she’d used when analyzing an essay in our anthology written by a black man. She casually dropped the word nigger into our class discussion as if she were saying the word plum or desk. I tried not to let that sway the way I graded her work. Toward the end of the semester she came to class with a black eye and bruised neck. I approached her and she admitted that her boyfriend had beaten her. I immediately walked her to counseling services. Her eye healed, she left the guy, and I had hope for this girl.
Then I saw her in line on the riverfront looking malnourished, stringy hair, twitchy. When she neared I said, “I had you in English 101.” She looked sheepish around me, around the man she was with. “Are you still in school?” I should have known better than to ask. The man beside her didn’t like the question.
“No,” she said, eyes on the grass. I jammed every last Nutri-Grain bar into her bag. As she walked away I tried not to think about who the man was, what he meant to her, what she meant to him.
Last December I had the blues. I get them sometimes for no reason. I am neither homeless nor addicted. I do not sell my body for drugs. I have a support system and safety net, people who have not given up on me. My life is pretty damn cushy. Depression comes anyway. Over the years I’ve learned strategies to pull me out of the self-absorption, the tar pit of gloom. Doing something for others helps, so one winter afternoon I went to Big Lots and bought ten round tins of butter cookies, ten boxes of chocolates. At home, I wrapped them in Christmas paper. No nametags. No bows. I stacked them in a Hefty bag, which I hauled to my car.
I had no real plan except that I wanted to give these meager offerings to people who looked like they could use a gift. People whose wants would never be listed on the secret-angel tree at Walmart. I idled in a row of traffic by the bus shelter on Sixth Avenue and spotted a potential recipient. People down on their luck often used the shelter for, well, shelter. A man slumped inside on the bench. I would have to pull to the curb, get out, and walk to him. But the light turned green and I chickened out. I was still skittish around men, often with good reason. I drove down Sixth Avenue looking for crack hos, but it was a dreary day, not many in sight. Then I spotted an older prostitute, in her fifties maybe, but with addicts, age is hard to judge. She also looked high, swaying a bit too much, walking too slowly. I didn’t have the courage yet again.
Finally I saw an old woman pushing a walker, a bike basket strapped to the front. It looked as if she were wearing every piece of clothing she owned. She was a soft choice. I pulled over, grabbed a tin of shortbread cookies, and hoped her teeth were sound enough to handle them. I made my way to her, said “Merry Christmas,” before dropping the gift in her basket.
“Oh honey,” she said. “Bless your heart.” She held her arms wide. “Can I give you a hug?” I love hugs. She embraced me and muttered a prayer so fast I only heard snippets. Something about God blessing me from the tip of my head to the soles of my feet. Afterwards, she said, “I have something for you.” She reached in her basket and pulled out a stack of what looked like business cards bound with a rubber band. They were as beat up as Cowboy’s card. She riffled the bundle until she found the one she wanted. It had flowers printed on it, as well as the prayer she had just recited over me.
Her prayer gave me courage. The next woman I saw was sitting on her Sixth Avenue stoop checking her cell phone. She looked tough. Could have been a student. Could have been a Wendy. Maybe even a Bunny. I parked, walked briskly to her, and handed her a box of candy. “Merry Christmas.” She may or may not have said thanks, but that wasn’t the point. I was back in my car within seconds.
I drove home with eighteen more presents to deliver. When Don returned from work I told him what I’d done, what I still needed to do. He was game. This time we got in his car, me in the passenger seat with the gifts at my feet. It would be easier. When we approached the bus shelter I spotted the crack ho I’d seen earlier, the one who looked high.
“Pull over,” I said. Don did, and I rolled down my window and held a gift out for her. She raced over. The crack ho behind her laughed and said, “What about me?” I tossed her a present, too. It felt weird doling them out this way, having to decide who was gift-worthy. I have neither the money nor status for noblesse oblige, but that wasn’t the point of all this either.
It was swift work after that, and with Don beside me I knew where I wanted to deliver our last gifts: the alley behind the City Mission where men loitered until supper. They often hunkered in a roofless enclosure by the garbage cans with their bikes and bedrolls. Active drunks couldn’t get a Mission bed, but there were spots down on the riverbank. In the alley, two men walked toward us, and I rolled down my window and held out the final packages. “Praise Jesus,” said the black man, eyes up to heaven. It really looked as if he needed that gift. I spun a fairy tale about him showing up for his children’s Christmas with an offering. Daddy brought us a present!
At sunset Don drove me home down Sixth Avenue, but I didn’t see any more crack hos. So I gathered together my younger self who had been mistaken for a prostitute down in Texas, then the one Cowboy had sidled up to years later, and finally the woman that man thumped his arm at as he drove by. I was not a whore. Wendy hadn’t always been one either. None of these women had. It’s not a secret ambition you whisper to your high school guidance counselor.
When we pulled into our garage I wouldn’t say I felt happy. In fact I felt both better and worse, but at least that Christmas we had all gotten gifts.
About the author:
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, received the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel won the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.