The Invisible Girls
Homeless & Hooking: On the Streets With the Working Girls of Williamsburg
By Kathy Dobie
First appeared in The Village Voice, vol. 34 No. 11, March 14, 1989
Patty rests fitfully in a hallway, the plastic bag with her and her sister Michelle’s clothes nearby. “I hate it when she falls asleep,” Michelle says. “Everybody goes through our stuff.” Patty’s tired. Patty’s “sick.” “She can’t go out,” Michelle says. “I’m gonna have to do it all now. Help her through the night.”
On the strip, in front of the neon sign “FUNERAL HOME,” a Hasidic Jew in an 18-foot truck stops — “Do you remember me?” he asks her, Michelle doesn’t but gets into the truck. She returns 18 minutes and one blowjob later with 10 bucks for Patty’s dope.
THE WORKING GIRLS of Williamsburg are in their early twenties, addicted to dope or crack or both; almost all of them homeless. They are a new breed of prostitutes-not naïve runaways snatched from bus terminals by silver-tongued pimps. The girls of Williamsburg work in the neighborhood they grew up in, their families know what they do, the girls sell sex only to support their addiction.
“I spit that shit out, spit it out! Aghh, disgusting.” Michelle’s customer didn’t want to use a condom — like the other girls, Michelle insists, because of the taste, because of AIDS, unless she’s dope hungry. “Well… he’s probably clean, you know?” Michelle’s long hair is pulled back away from her face and tied in a ponytail. She wears Patty’s bulky sweater and her own down jacket. Her eyes are dark and somber.
“I’m gonna go check on her. I’m gonna have to hide the bag … get it out of there now.” I offer her a ride. We drive the two and a half blocks, Michelle muttering “fat jolly pig,” and park at the busy intersection of the Williamsburg drug trade where the fire escapes are strung with blinking Christmas lights, the bodegas stay open all night and cars with New Jersey and Pennsylvania license plates double-park under the darkly watchful eyes of young men.
The world of the working girls is six blocks wide and about as long — a scrap of the south side of Williamsburg. This corner is its center. One block away is the garbage bin Tracey crouches behind to shoot up, the deep doorway where T.J. smokes crack with her homeboys.
The streets empty out, slide into spookiness, are lined by black-windowed factories and warehouses. T.J., Michelle, Patty, and Rita work the deserted blocks of the strip. Rita’s boyfriend parks his car here. Her clothes are stashed in the trunk — “Rita’s wardrobe,” T.J. jokingly calls it.
The streets end at the piers where sometimes the girls bring their “dates,” where Rosemary was killed last summer near the Domino sugar factory — stabbed 27 times by a customer.
I met the girls through ADAPT (Association of Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment) and Yolanda Serrano, the director. They have been working with the girls for over a year now — teaching them about condom use, about bleaching their works, visiting them when they’re hospitalized with endocarditis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis (common AIDS infections in an IV drug user), getting them into drug treatment programs. Feeding them. Giving them clothes. All day long the girls scuttle in and out of the ADAPT office grabbing condoms, hunting for sodas in the refrigerator. Wearing skinny pants, sweatshirts, and low-heeled shoes.
Using the words they might’ve used in high school — a trick is a “date,” a return trick a “steady.” The older girls, the ones who were brought out by pimps, might say “a fuck and a suck,” but the young ones, this new breed, call it “half-and-half.”
There are about 35 girls working the south side. Most are Puerto Rican, some are black, some are white. They were raised by single mothers: women on welfare, women who worked in factories, who cleaned penthouses. They attended public school … for awhile. Most dropped out by their 15th birthday, most were addicted to dope by their late teens. Not one of them could remember a teacher who took interest, could remember a teacher at all. And the dreams they were given were scrawny and pale … the dreams society had for them as poor, brown-skinned girls. “There’s nothing I really, really want to do,” Michelle says when I ask. She thinks, “Word-processing, I guess. Computers. I don’t know… not nursing or modeling, nah.” And the drugs were always everywhere.
“I hate it. I want to get out so bad,” says Michelle. “But I don’t want to leave Patty, you know? I want the both of us to get out and make it somewhere.” When the girls think of making it,” it’s always a vague “somewhere” … else.
ALL NIGHT LONG the tractor trailers rumble up the avenue from the piers. Black-windowed cars swoop ’round and ’round. Macho cars. You can’t see me, baby, but I can see you. Tonton Macoute cars. Men looking for a quick blowjob. Dealers looking for money owed them. Sickos looking for the smallest girl of all. This month’s sicko drives a battered station wagon, waits for the girl to walk over to the window and then sprays her with insecticide.
To the north of the stroll is the Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint. Bushwick lies to the east and the East River to the west. Division Avenue marks the boundary line between Hasidic and Puerto Rican Williamsburg. Well-defended brownstones give way to abandoned buildings — businesses once, homes once, their glass now shattered. Kerchiefed women wheeling babies, trailing children give way to bareheaded women holding babies, trailing children. The elevated train, the housing projects, Woodhull public hospital, all the drugs and prostitution lie on the Hispanic, south side of Williamsburg. Easily accessible by car.
I park on the avenue in front of the church, well out of the way of the drug trafficking. There are two major strolls — the spooky one on the deserted strip, one block away, and this better-lit and trafficked one on the avenue.
Rita, scruffy and turquoise-eyed, is hiding from someone. A trick? The cops? Her boyfriend? She ducks into a doorway. Scuttles out and looking over her shoulder disappears around the corner. A few minutes later she returns, yells, “It’s crazy out here tonight!” Carries on, yelling to herself, all the way up to the strip where her boyfriend’s car, her “wardrobe,” is parked. Their home for almost a year now.
Sonny comes zipping by. Wearing little pink pants, a dungaree jacket, her hair pulled back. Crazy Sonny, the girls call her. An angel’s face and eyes like bullets. Dirty fingernails and a scar between her breasts where a “date” stabbed her with a screwdriver one night. She gives a short, angry wave. Yells, “It’s fucking dead out here tonight!” Keeps walking. Won’t stop for nothing. Shoots up, smokes crack.
Tries to keep her dope habit down to two bags by taking warm baths at her sister’s house where she stays.
Expansive one night. Tells me she’s very sentimental, cries a lot because she and her mother aren’t close. “I see other girls and their mothers — they’re like sisters.” Her older sister pretty much raised her. No father in sight. Sonny leans against a lamppost, talks to me through the passenger window. A cruising car slows. “I’m talking to a girl, you fucking faggots!” Sonny yells. Talks like a boy, moves like a boy, came home one night and the “date” who had just forced her to perform oral sex, a knife to her neck, was sitting on her brother’s couch. (He hadn’t been able to come so he had pulled out a knife and made her keep sucking.) A clean-cut blond guy walks by the car, heading home from the subway. “I would never go with him,” Sonny says loudly. “He looks like a fucking maniac!” Says she avoids the cars that circle more than twice because the men inside are probably hunting for weakest-looking girl, the smallest girl of all. Talks like a boy, moves like a boy. Leaves to buy her dope. Wants to have her cure for the morning, Wants to go home. Halfway up the avenue, she returns. “I want to show you something.” Pulls out a large tin locket, opens it with a penknife. Two heads crowned with dark hair. “Me and my older sister. She’s like a mother to me. I keep it in memoriam.”
There are moments on the south side when every girl disappears. When I sit on the avenue and watch the same cars circling anxiously, watch the same stray cat dashing back and forth across the avenue, intent as an arrow, noiseless, swift as panic.
Not one of the girls out here is busting ass to put away money for a Caribbean cruise. They work until there’s enough to get high off of. A $10 blowjob buys one bag of dope, two bottles of crack, a nickel of cocaine for those that are shooting both dope and coke. Half-and-half brings in 20 to 30 bucks.
The girls step out of the cars and head straight up to the drug intersection. These return to the avenue. They wait. The step into cars. They step out of cars. They head straight up to the intersection. “It’s like a circle,” Michelle says. “It’s like a rut.” Working around the clock of their addiction warding off dope-sickness like death. The girls who have no home are more likely to “break night” — working and hanging out until morning, Those who have no home do more drugs.
“DON’T WORRY, KATHY, I’ll come sit with you awhile,” Little Nicole reassures me. “I’ll keep you company.” I carry Coke (the soda), condoms, and Newports in the car. Little Nicole gets in, shows me her insulated jacket, the sweater underneath that, the shirt underneath that, and the shirt under that. Only her hands and face are cold, she tells me. She doesn’t want cigarettes, soda, she already has her condoms. She’s just keeping me company.
“I don’t know how I came out this way,” Nicole says. None of her four brothers and sisters turned out to be junkies. “My mother was an old-fashioned lady.” Not like mothers today, Nicole says. When they were kids, she was up every morning dressing them for school, there every afternoon when they came back home. When her husband left, went on welfare so she could be an old fashioned mother.
Mother loved her so much that when Nicole became a junkie she told Nicola she was going to tie her to the bed until she kicked. “If I have to clean your shit, I’ll clean your shit,” mama said. Loved her so much that when she died of breast cancer last summer, her last words to her. family were, “Take care of Little Nicole.” Some nights now, the nights when Nicole sleeps, she feels somebody touching her. She opens her eyes and her mother is standing there, looking at her. “I think she protects me,” Nicole says. It scares Nicole but she doesn’t want mama to go away.
Little Nicole has tested HIV positive. She’s on methadone now, scared of the needle. She comes out here to make money for crack, for rent (some nights sho stays with her girlfriend who charges $30 a week), and dope on those days she misses her meth appointment. She doesn’t care for sex much anymore. She says, “It’s not like it was before the drugs.” She has three children. They live with their paternal grandmothers. She says, “When I was young, I used to be real pretty.” She’s 22 years old.
Little Nicole “broke night” but instead of turning in to sleep this morning, she hung out in the hallway with Patty and some of the other girls. Waited for the ADAPT offices to open. Sometimes Nicole spends a few hours there, filling up baggies with condoms. Other girls clean the dishes or rearrange the shelves, “Sometimes when I’m working out here?” Nicole tries to explain. “I get bored…”
She has dark rings under her eyes. “Oh, I see a steady!” she says. “Will you be here for awhile? I’ll be right back.”
ANGEL STANDS ON THE CORNER. She’s 19, small and dark-skinned with injured looking eyes. She has abscesses on her pudgy hands, the crack makes her pick at her face. “It feels like things are coming out….” She picks and picks until she bleeds but there’s nothing there.
“The worst thing is being homeless, she says. “You’re exhausted and you don’t have a fucking bed to lie down on, you’re cold and you don’t have no place to get warm… that’s what really makes you depressed.” She stands away from the street, huddled into her coat and backed against the schoolyard fence. A most reluctant prostitute.
Last summer, around the same time they found Rosemary’s body bloated and stinking on the pier, Angel was picked up by a redheaded Pole who brought her to his home in Greenpoint. Two other men were waiting there. Angel tried to leave. The redhead pulled out a machete, one of the others pulled out a knife. Bitch, they called her, fucking bitch. You’re gonna make us come.
Stripped naked, machete and knife and three grown men notwithstanding, Angel tried to flee. Got as far as the hallway, grabbed the bannister and held on tight. Screamed her head off to the closed doors in the apartment building. That girl must’ve held on pretty hard because one man couldn’t take her off. It took two.
After four hours of drinking, joking and taking turns with Angel, the redhead, “the boss, the leader of the bullshit that was happening,” fell asleep. “So the other two just felt sorry for me and let me go. They had already come like three times, so they were tired, too.”
Once outside, Angel wrote down the address, the license plate number and took a train back “home.” She called the cops, told them the corner where they could find her every night. They never came.
That was how Angel’s mother found out she was tricking. The same night her daughter was being raped, she had an awful dream that she didn’t understand. When Angel told her what had happened, her mother said, “Well, every time you got hit, girl, I must’ve got it… because I was feeling pain.”
After an hour or so with no date, Angel begins to walk down the avenue. When she passes the church, she hurriedly crosses herself.
About 15, 20 minutes later, Nicole gets out of a car and comes back over to my window. “I’m gonna go get high, okay? You gonna be here for awhile? Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And she walks up the street.
When she was 14, Nicole moved out of her mother’s house and dropped out of school. Her mother had a fit and Nicole told her, “I love you mommy but I want to be with Louie.”
It was hard to say why Louie was so beautiful — the first time she saw him he was loading a rifle, the second time, he took her ice-skating — but no mother’s love could compare to the sweet, hot attention of a man. Little Nicole traded in an apartment full of siblings for his intent and singular love. Moved in with Louie and his grandmother.
But it was the second boyfriend who turned her on to sniffing dope. Nicole was pregnant when she found Hector shooting up in an abandoned building. “His arm was tied and everything. I screamed when I saw him. Could you believe it? — he didn’t come out until he was finished. I figured if he just seen me, he’d put it away but he didn’t.” She learned something about dope that day, she cried a lot, she started to want to know what was so good about it. She shot up and later told Hector it was his fault.
Now Nicole’s trying really, really hard to love Tony. Her mother always said to find a good man with a job who will take care of her. Now her mothers-in-law tell her the same thing. Tony has a job and he wants to take her away from all this. Tony’s 32. And Nicole is trying really, really hard.
Some nights Angel stands with her back against the schoolyard fence for hours without a date. Some of the girls say it’s because of the picked-apart face, some say it’s the shade of her skin. Men, they say, prefer the lighter-skinned girls.
Tonight Angel only needs a few dollars. “’Cause there’s nothing to eat upstairs,” she explains, Angel stays at Billy’s place in the projects. A lot of the girls sleep over his place for a night here, a night there. Billy’s old and a drunk, He charges $10 a night, a blowjob, and food.
Angel’s tired. Last night two black guys brought her to a motel in Queens. They were high on cocaine and Angel couldn’t make either one of them come. They made her keep sucking until one of them finally did. But I guess one wasn’t good enough because they took her money back and left her out there at 3 a.m. “I don’t consider it rape because they didn’t fuck me,” Angel says. “But they used me, you know?”
Angel grew up a few blocks from here. When she was young, her father took off. For awhile he visited her on weekends. “Then when I was 11 he stopped coming to get me…we sort of like drifted apart.” But Angel knows where to find him. Not exactly-but she knows the city in New Jersey.
Her mother worked two jobs — hotel management and cleaning a penthouse. In the morning, Angel and her brother and sisters used to get ready for school and then as soon as mom left, jump back in bed. They learned how to sniff glue together, they dropped acid.
Then Angel met a man she loved and dropped the rest of the way out of school. Moved in with him and his grandmother. She was 14. When he went to work each day, Angel cleaned the house and cooked dinner. “I started figuring myself like a woman, like a housewife,” she says. Was happy then.
Her second old man turned her on to sniffing dope, then skin-popping. He taught her how to shoplift to support their habit. She found out he was mainlining when he overdosed in front of her. “It felt fucked up,” she says. “So, I did it… to get back at him. And all I did was destroy myself.” He stole her dope whenever he could, he left her sick and withdrawing when she was pregnant. She tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists.
But Angel lived and so did the baby boy inside her. The courts took him away, gave him to his grandparents. She named him Ruben Guillermo but calls him Rambo. “Because he went through a lot when he was a baby, blood transfusions and shit, he fought for his life.”
Angel’s on methadone and hopes she will be able to visit her child on weekends. “I wanna take him but he’s really close to his grandmother and I don’t want to break them apart. I’m just gonna hurt him.”
She’d like to go back to school. Computers, she guesses. Or cooking. She’d like to get an AIDS test — do I know where she could go?
“I’m hungry.” Angel gets out of the car, rumpled with sleepiness. She has to make a couple of bucks. Only for food tonight. “I’m smoking the crack. But it’s just because I want to get high.” She says methadone doesn’t satisfy that craving. A lot of the girls get on meth and then start to smoke crack or shoot up cocaine. If they’re shooting up coke, their chances of contracting AIDS are even higher because the coke high is short and they shoot up more often. Angel’s afraid of the needle now, so she smokes. “I have nothing to do. I’m lonely, you know. I really don’t have nobody or nothing to keep me occupied.”
UNLIKE MANHATTAN, BROOKLYN is three quarters sky. Stone cold blue even late at night. Floating clouds on high, unrolling thick white smoke from the brick stacks of the factories. In the bottom quarter of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are the sad-assed houses, the boarded-up storefronts, the empty lots dusted lightly with glass and twinkling-urban snowfall. Minuscule against that vast Brooklyn sky are the figures of the girls standing on this corner, against that windowless brick wall. Once upon a time, cardboard signs were tacked up on the telephone poles on the strip: “Come Home, Mary.” No one knows who Mary is. Here once? Gone where? Rosemary lay on the piers for more than a week before they found her.
Some nights when the girls have suddenly disappeared and the wind worries the trash, these empty streets whisper an insistent prophecy of early and unmarked death. The boarded-up buildings speak of a people abandoned. Many of these girls will die of AIDS. How many? Which ones? Yolanda Serrano, ADAPT’s director, calls the working girls of Williamsburg “the invisible girls.” Can an invisible person disappear? Does it matter? Michelle says, “They love it. One less statistic, one less person on the welfare rolls. Oh, they love it.”
CARMEN GOT OUT of the neighborhood. Traveled by hearse. She’s laid out at Ortiz’s Funeral Home underneath the BQE. Three of the girls, Angel, Tracey, and Kitty, and two ADAPT workers, Pat and another Carmen, go to pay their respects.
She lies in a big, shiny coffin, surrounded by wary flowers and pale light. Her head on a satin pillow. Her 29-year old heart stopped dead from a hit of crack.
Her sisters and brothers sit in the second row of folding chairs, Carmen’s son, about three feet tall, dressed in a little suit, stands uncertainly near the coffin. Black eyes skitter from face to face, looking anxious to please somehow.
Last week, one of the girls asked Carmen’s brothers for a photograph to collect money from the neighborhood for her funeral and then the girl disappeared. The brothers are looking for her. But any one of the girls could have told them that Serena’s a “low-life bitch.”
Angel looks scared when she approaches the coffin. Tracey wobbles toward it, a Pepsi in one hand, eating potato chips. The sisters throw each other looks of horrified disgust. Tracey wobbles away and hunches on a chair. Her wig sitting like a dead bird on her head. Woebegone.
Outside, Angel says, “She looked beautiful. Like she was just asleep or something.” Pat mumbles, “She looked dead.”
Tracey is shuddering. “I couldn’t take it,” she shakes her head. “That woman sold me a lot of crack.”
Later that afternoon, Tracey is dope-sick. She’s curled on the passenger seat, eyes squeezed shut and ringed by tears. “Go ahead, keep asking questions. I’m all right,” she says. Tracey is from an older school of prostitutes — pimped on the streets of Chicago when she came north from Louisiana looking for work. College-educated but there was no work in Louisiana for college-educated black girls. She wanted to make big money but she wasn’t supposed to want that, right? Her first night out Tracey pulled in 600 bucks.
Tracey and her pimp began to think Big — more lucrative markets, brisker trade — and they traveled east to the city of dreams. New York, New York. They both became junkies and when the money dwindled, the pimp returned to Chicago leaving Tracey and her dope habit behind.
Tracey tries to keep up the old Eleventh Avenue style — wears a miniskirt and the skirt is red, but she wears it with white knee socks and sneakers. The skirt is raggedy, the stockings runned. Wears a wig but it has a bald spot. Tracey’s “sick” a lot.
“There’s Michelle,” I say. Tracey yanks down the window, yells for her. It’s cold and Michelle is all zipped up, her breath blowing out smoke. “I need you to get me straight,” Tracey tells her. “Huh. You and my sister.” “Bitch, I did for you before,” Tracey says weakly. Michelle tweaks her nose. “You sick, baby? I have to get Patty straight.” “You get me straight. We’ll get Patty straight.” Michelle says she’ll see what she can do, but she better get down to the avenue now.
After the window’s closed, Tracey curls to her side. Rocks. Her bowels have turned to water but she’s afraid to leave because she might miss Michelle. The heat blasts over her and she lies under my coat, shuddering. “I’m sorry, Kathy,” she says and closing her eyes for the duration, rolls completely inside of the pain. Whispers “Oh, God, why me?”
I see Michelle heading back and we drive fast down the block. Tracey yanks open the window. “Here, baby.” Michelle gives her $10. Tracey kisses her cheek. “Thank you, mami,” she says.
THE STREETLIGHT SHINES on Tracey’s face in profile. She looks young, beautiful, and high-spirited telling a story from a time when she was young, beautiful and high-spirited. Nicole sleeps in the back seat. Once in awhile she rouses herself and laughs her little laugh. Like a chortling baby. Dozes off again. Tracey’s story winds to a close and it’s 4 a.m. and I have to go home. Nicole stretches, lights a cigarette, shivers before she hits the cold. Goin’ back to work. Most reluctantly. I have to be up by six and I worry aloud if I will even hear the alarm clock. “Do you want a wake-up call, Kathy?” Tracey asks sweetly.
It is still dark when Tracey’s voice comes yelling over the tape machine. “Kathy! Kathy! Wake up!” Frost and the rumble of trailer trucks in the air behind her voice. I pick up the phone. “Do you believe it? I only got one date since I last saw you,” she says. Six a.m., it’s 12 degrees outside. With the wind-chill factor — 14 below zero.
LAURIE GOT OUT of the neighborhood. Traveled by ambulance. She’s laid up at Woodhull hospital with endocarditis and anemia. Sick for two months, she just shot up more dope to kill the pain. So many people started bugging her to go to the hospital that Laurie holed up in the shooting gallery. An abandoned building with sheet metal on the windows. About 20 people live in there.
None of the girls would boast about their stays in the gallery but a lot of them have had to. When Laurie was there she shared a room and a kerosene heater with Iris and Joanne. Wanda lived there for awhile, so did Sally. And after they towed away the abandoned car she slept in, Dina moved in.
“My habit was like crazy,” Laurie says. “That’s why I wouldn’t come to the hospital. I was afraid of being sick.” There’s a man still living inside the gallery who has resisted the hospital so long, the sores on his legs are now being eaten by maggots.
Outside the hospital, Broadway is lined with fast food joints and stores like Cheap Jack’s, Fat Albert’s, and Bargain Basement. Vendors crowd the sidewalk selling everything from flowers to foam rubber hammers. Every few minutes, the elevated train passes overhead, shaking the rails, roaring, and like a grimy wind, a swarm of locusts, blocks out the sun.
At the hospital entrance, steam ducts pour smoke in the air. Inside, the floors are covered with litter and dried urine. Cold drafts run through the hallways. “Merry Christmas To All You Sick Motherfuckers,” says the writing on the bathroom wall, “And A Happy New Year.” In the waiting room, a woman asks me for a cigarette. I bring it to her because she doesn’t want to stand up. “I took my cast off,” she explains. “And my leg is cold.” She took it off. Patients smoke in their rooms, refuse medication, sign themselves out while they’re still ill. Last week a woman with pneumonia walked herself out of the hospital, bought dope nearby and, returning, used Laurie’s bathroom to shoot up in. Patients medicate and unmedicate themselves. Such is their distrust of doctors, such is the urgency of their lives-with demands more compelling than illness.
Laurie, a/k/a Mirta Martinez, is on the sixth floor in a room with three beds. Coughing her lungs out. Giving the doctors and nurses hell. A brown-eyed, broken-toothed woman. A 26-year-old who’s been extracting food, shelter, drug money, and companionship from the streets since she was 14.
“What’s this?” she demands of the nurses, holding up a pill. She ain’t gonna take it ’til she knows what it is. She wants her cough medicine but the nurse tells her it’s too soon–”Your medicine has timing.” “Yeah, well, my cough doesn’t have timing.” By the third week Laurie’s feeling much better, good enough to tell a nurse who accuses her of wanting codeine only because she’s a junkie, “Come here! Let me show you how much a junkie I am. Let me put you through that wall.”
The biggest battle was over the IV that the doctors wanted to insert in her neck because, they explained patiently, the veins in her arms were clogged. She needed antibiotics, she needed blood. “You ain’t putting no needle in my neck,” Laurie said, lower lip trembling. “I ain’t never put no needle in there….” Only time I saw Laurie begin to cry.
When one doctor said he’d call a team of doctors, tie her down, and put that needle in her neck, Laurie went berserk. Packed her bags, called ADAPT, signed herself out. The doctors were a little bewildered by a junkie’s discrimination but they found a vein. And kept finding one for five weeks. “They feel they can treat you any way they want ’cause you’re a drug addict,” Laurie says. “That’s why I give them so much trouble. I don’t care — they get their paychecks regardless of what I do….”
Laurie figures she’s in a nightmare. Her legs are swollen because she’s allergic to the antibiotics, She’s had no hot water for three days now. No light in her bathroom for three weeks. The sign by her bed reads “Take All Precautions.” She can’t sleep. She’s afraid of choking to death on her own phlegm.
Laurie figures she’s been given a sign, a warning. “When I first got here, I kept saying I can’t wait to get better so I can get high. But now they’re talking about death — you know, the closed box — at 26, I don’t want to die.”
“Now they’ve got some nut tied up in here. I can’t win for losing, Kathy.” Twenty-seventh day, Tracey is visiting and a 29-year-old black woman is tied to the second bed. She tosses against the bindings, groans, rolls uncomprehending eyes. “There It is—” Laurie announces to Tracey. They watch her claw at her bindings. “Crack did that to her, Tracey.” Laurie’s voice is hushed, almost reverential. She turns to Tracey, “You still smoking?” “Yeah, but you know me, Laurie. I only put crumbs in there. If I die, I ain’t gonna die of crack. It’ll be heroin.”
By the next day, Laurie has found out It’s name. “Karen! Karen!” she calls out periodically, her voice raised a notch to sweetness. “You alright, Karen?” She found out her name from Karen’s sisters.
I bring Laurie Newports and she distributes them to the people who gave her cigarettes yesterday. I bring Laurie lollipops and she gives three to Karen’s three fat sisters. “Kathy could you do me a favor and get some McDonald’s for my friend Linda? She has money.” Linda is the skinny young black woman, dope-addicted and pneumonic, in the third bed.
BACK ON THE SOUTH SIDE everything is happening and nothing is happening at all. Same old, same old but it hammers at your heart and keeps you running just the same. Someone robbed the Postman last night. The Postman is one of Michelle’s and Patty’s “steadies.” One of their favorites. They call him Santa Claus.
The Postman is just that — a postman. He’s got a wife, he’s got grown kids, he’s got a house upstate. And he’s got a crack habit … big-time. “When he comes down, he brings at least seven, eight hundred dollars,” Michelle explains. “He’ll give us 60, 70 dollars to buy our dope and we buy like seven bundles of crack. He pays for a hotel room for the whole night. And he knows he’s giving me and Patty a break ’cause we don’t have to work for the whole night.”
He spends the money, the girls do the buying. Because he’s an old white guy and they don’t want Santa Claus to get hurt. Patty gives him an occasional blowjob. Here and there. “He’s really more a friend than a date.” He wants to get the sisters an apartment and Michelle doesn’t think he expects anything for it. “But I think he wants to get a big apartment-for all of us. Him too. ‘Cause he wants to get out of the house.”
Well, last night, while Michelle was in the building buying and the Postman was waiting in the car outside, a neighborhood guy stuck a gun in the Postman’s face and took his $10. This afternoon, the mugger apologized. “Look, Michelle, I’m really really sorry but I was sick.” “You didn’t have to go about it that way,” Michelle told him. “All you had to do was ask. You should’ve asked.” She walked away from him. She’s not speaking to Luis now. “They’ll do anything for money,” Michelle says.
Patty and Michelle were raised with their younger brother in the DeKalb Avenue housing projects near the border of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy. Patty learned about sniffing dope from a high school boyfriend. Michelle, the oldest, learned about it from her. “It’s been going on awhile, Kath, a long time,” Michelle says.
Patty found her way to the south side first. Before she found the stroll, she used to wander down Broadway and all those guys hanging out on street corners making rude suggestions, all those boys shouting rough compliments from their cars, all that tail-wagging, ass-sniffing, teeth-baring attention? Well, Patty went along for the ride. It was easy. Instead of dinner and roses, it was dope (though she almost threw up during her first paying blowjob). First she “partied” with them, then she turned it into a straight money deal. On her knees in hallways and alleys. She had her good nights on Broadway but it was steady business on the south side.
Meanwhile Michelle had lost track of her sister. Her boyfriend had brought her to New Jersey where first he, then she quit the dope cold. Every night, every night, he held her while she wept and shook. In the morning he went to work and Michelle slept like a newly washed baby.
Winter was hard on the south side. Patty found a place to stay with one of her “dates.” A 53-year-old man — “He has a lot of emotional problems but he’s a beautiful person in every other way.” Beautiful because he gave her a place to stay, beautiful because on some of those deep-freeze days, he bought her dope she wouldn’t have to go out to work. But when she did go out, he started tracking her. She felt spied on. Then, he wanted her “home” at night.
“Perfect in every other way except for that …oh! I almost forgot to put the most important thing — he was violent.” It didn’t start right away. First he only spied on her when she was working, he’d beg her to come home, he’d burst into screaming. His tantrums and his whimpering disgusted Patty. Then one day he smacked her. “I was in shock. I was bleeding through the nose, through the lips. Right then and there, I should’ve left but I didn’t. I started to cry and he went out and bought me a bag. And that’s how it started forming …but it got worse and worse.”
One afternoon, Michelle’s boyfriend came home with the news that there was dope in the New Jersey hinterlands. “He’s like a dog. He sniffed the shit out. And it just went downhill. All downhill again.” Then her boyfriend was in jail for possession, Michelle was back at her mother’s house, cashiering in a Mexican fast-food joint, enrolled in a methadone program. An older man who owned a bakery bought her clothes, dinner, crack. “He’s crazy about me,” Michelle says. “He wants to get me out of here, wants to take me to Puerto Rico, and blah-blah-blah, all that shit. The man’s 50-something years old! Men are weird. They think you love them.” When she got in the methadone program, the man suggested gently that they celebrate. He’d get a motel room. He told Michelle not to feel obligated.
“I guess I did it to keep things cool, so I could keep getting off on him, and I could keep friends, keep it going, you know what I mean?” Michelle says and sighs. “I said, oh, fuck it, ‘what’s the big deal, you know?” About this time, Michelle decided to go look for her sister Patty.
Patty still can’t believe she stayed when he began to beat her. “I really felt like I was under some kind of witchcraft in his house because I’m no fool, you know. I went through that with my first boyfriend when I was 13 years old —being abused — and I said ‘never again.'” Then Michelle found her and Patty “started getting guts and getting bold.” Michelle went with her to the old man’s house and she packed up Patty’s things.
THAT WAS OCTOBER. Patty had been out here for a year by then. When Michelle found Patty on the strip, they screamed and hugged and cried. Patty started dragging her all around and showing her off to the other girls. “And everybody’s like ‘Oh, shit!” Michelle says, “I guess they couldn’t believe there was a sister that cared enough to go looking for another sister,”
Then Patty sat Michelle down, and went to work. Every time she came back with money, she asked Michelle, “What do you want? What do you want?” Brought coke and crack, “Anything you want, Michelle, anything you want.” Patty and the other girls took turns working. “Everybody kept me company,” Michelle says, “It was like they didn’t want to leave me alone. It was great.”
So Michelle started coming every weekend. “We’d hang out and we caught up on talking. And we’d get high and it just started like that.” Returned to the housing projects and her cashiering job during the week. Then she started leaving work and instead of going home to watch TV at her mother’s house, Michelle would say, “Fuck. I’m gonna go look for Patty.”
She was feeling low the day she decided to try it. She had quit the fast-food place because she hated it and she had been promised a higher paying office job but the offer never came through. “Patty, I’m tired of you fucking spending all this money on me,” Michelle told her, “I can’t take it.” Patty didn’t want her sister to do it, but then again … When cars stopped for Michelle, Patty checked out the drivers first. She waited for Michelle to come back each time — “How’d it go? What did he say?” Michelle grins, “I felt like I had my mother there.”
Michelle and Patty and the Postman are all getting high in his car when the cops pull up. With his pointy chin and frazzled gray hair, the Postman looks like Old Man Winter, not Santa Claus at all. He and Patty are smoking. Michelle spent the weekend with the Postman and missed her methadone appointments, so she’s skin-popping the dope Patty has bought for her.
The cops pull up and everyone falls out of the car. Same two women cops who are always on the sisters’ backs, “I could arrest you right now… I know I’d find at least one set of works on you,” the dark-haired one tells them. The blond comes over to me. “Still here? Why Williamsburg? Why not go to Eleventh Avenue – they’re cleaner over there.” The cops tell the girls to go home. If they see them on the streets tonight, they’ll arrest them. The girls start diving into the car, dragging out their clothes, (Michelle throws a crack bottle underneath the car), protesting loudly that they’re gonna be interviewed now. They throw all their clothes in my back seat.“What? You got thrown out again?” says the dark-haired one. “You sure you want them in your car?” says the blond.
“You see the way they harassed us, Kathy? We was just sitting there.” We drop Patty off on the other side of the avenue, the 94th Precinct, Michelle and I are going to have our interview.
“Okay, Michelle,” Patty says before leaving. “This is what I’m leaving with you — Mommy’s jacket, jeans, your sweater and our bag … okay, Michelle? Because I mean you borrow things from people and you don’t return them and you can’t do that.” “Patty! Return them nothing —we haven’t been back to that stupid house!” Patty gets out of the car with Bubbles’s sweater, a piece of crack, her Super Golden Crisps and a plastic container to use as a bowl. “You have my milk?” she asks Michelle. “Oh, shit!” Michelle says. She left it in the Postman’s car. “Ohhh, Ill strangle you, Michelle.”
IT’S THE SATURDAY AFTER THE SNOW. Puerto Rico, a Polish man with jet black hair, a drinking problem, and no home, has frozen to death near the pilings underneath the Williamsburg Bridge. T.J., her long legs in pink leg warmers, her feet in tiny black shoes, shivering and smiling, picks her way over the slush and snow. Like a flamingo. “I gotta get me some boots,” she says when she gets in the car. “My cousin was gonna shoplift me some. And Carol told me her boyfriend got a Mastercharge and I could go get me some boots and I pay him out here.”
Patty gets in the backseat. “Check it out!” TJ. laughs and points to Rita rummaging in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car. “Rita’s wardrobe.” Patty says, “She’s changing her clothes for work.” “And that bitch don’t even wash her ass.” “Ohhh, Kathy, that car smells!” Patty says. “Like dirty underwear.” They cackle like two cartoon witches. It’s the common strain of cruelty found in any schoolyard. It’s the fist rammed right through the shuddering body of your own fear. Whomp. And it’s quiet.
Patty’s not like the other girls out here, she says. She doesn’t go around in dirty clothes like Rita, doesn’t have a picked apart face like Angel, doesn’t have abscesses oozing on her legs like Kitty.
Only once did Patty have something funny on her face. It was a sore on her lower lip and she almost died of embarrassment, sucking in her whole mouth every time a man pulled up in the car. “Never in my life have I had that. And you know what I really think it was? I fell asleep at someone’s house and I think a roach crawled on my face! God, I think that’s what it was. I swear to God.”
Maybe she’s “not as nice” as she was a year ago, maybe she’s gotten a little hard but it’s the fault of “these creepy shitty people out here.” She still doesn’t know how she made it through last winter alone, without Michelle. Patty has suffered a lot of disappointments out here. First there was Sylvia. A sharp dresser, Patty says, with the kind of big-chested, tight-waisted body that drives men wild. “Doesn’t belong out here, that’s for sure.” Patty thought. One day a neighborhood guy said he’d never go out with Sylvia because he had seen sores all over her tongue and lips. “I found that really weird,” Patty says. ” ‘Cause I thought she was like me — a nice respectable girl, really pretty, dressed real nice. She didn’t seem to be the type of girl that would let something like that get away….”
And then there was Sherrie – “very pretty, very pretty.” But an asshole. She lives in the shooting gallery and gets all the other assholes in there high when they’re sick. Sherrie overdosed once and “these bastards that she gets high just said, ‘Man, throw that bitch’s body in the back.’” As Sherrie was tumbling from this world, she heard them. Someone finally scooped up some dirty water from the gallery floor and threw it on her face. Sherrie came out of the gallery covered in filth, in tears. “Damn, Patty,” she said. But Patty didn’t feel sorry for her. Not a bit. “When I went out,” Patty says angrily. “You think they put dirty water on me? They didn’t dare.”
Even T.J., the girl she admired most, the one with bravado and beauty, has been a disappointment. “She’s changed. I look at her – she’s getting more skinny all the time. And I’m wondering why.”
If she’s very good and very, very pretty Patty might save herself from disease and deterioration, from the scorn of men, and their abuse, from abscesses and death by AIDS. “I can never see myself getting that way” she says. “I was brought up with certain values … that will never change.”
PATTY AND ANOTHER GIRL are backed against a brick building. Not working because when they work they’re out near the sidewalk. A flame shoots up and dies away. I pull up a little on the street, roll down the window and yell, “Who’s that?” Patty barks. She squints (a lot of the girls out here are near-sighted. None of them have glasses). “It’s Kathy!” She shouts and comes careening toward the car.
Wearing a peacock blue coat, a long skirt, leather boots and silver earrings. “You look great … like you’re going shopping at Bloomingdale’s.” Patty laughs. “Yeah, and me out here doing this.” Her voice, from the crack, from the cold, is rough as plowed cement.
But Patty feels good. She slept for two days while Michelle took care of business. “But I almost froze to death last night.” She was with Michelle and a “friend” in his car. Michelle and he went into his place to “party” and when Patty woke up, she was cold to the bone. She got out of the car and looked down a row of houses, looked up at a column of windows, and realized she had no idea where they were.
“Where’s Angel?” I ask Patty. “I’m sure she’s in some hallway picking her face.” And Patty’s laugh is a bark, joyless and mean.
One late afternoon a man with a dog tells me to get out. “You’re hanging out with some sleazy people there, miss,” he says. “I saw you with those three little hookers in your car.” When he finally decides I am a reporter (“Yeah, that’s what they all say”), he says, “I live around here. I’m looking to protect my fucking neighborhood. I hope you don’t put a positive light on them. We want to get rid of them anyway we can. They’re scum, they’re subhuman-and you can quote me on that!”
“How long have you been living here?” I asked him.
TONIGHT, MY SECOND TO LAST NIGHT on the south side, and I see Wanda, bluer than black, standing at the ass end of the avenue, down near the piers. She’s not supposed to be here. Seems she ripped off one of the crack dealers and there’s a contract out on her. When she walked into the ADAPT offices last Tuesday, Wanda was given a subway token, shown something on the subway map, and hustled out. She calls out. Her black leather cap is fitted over a navy blue scarf that hangs along the side of her face. I don’t recognize her at first. I’d never seen her without dark glasses on, never seen her eyes. Her face is softer and sadder than I had remembered. Her eyes are beyond repair.
“I had to leave my mother’s house tonight, and she was cooking me dinner, all ’cause I was dopesick.” She stares out the window, her voice scraping bottom, tasting her own bile. “All to come out here and suck some motherfucker’s dick. Just to get a bag of dope.” She looks straight ahead, I watch the rearview mirror.
“What are you doing back here, Wanda?” I ask, “Isn’t there some kind of contract out on you?” “Yeah.” She laughs and it’s like spitting air. “For $80.” We sink into a huge silence. The telephone wires swing their shadows back and forth on the street.
ADAPT had sent her to the homeless women’s shelter in East New York. “These old motherfuckers are all around the place. I got fucking propositioned just trying to get to the door. Three dollars to suck their dicks … and they know these girls are so down and out, they’ll do it for that.”
The security guards made her empty her pocket book, she was informed about the curfew, she saw the locked metal doors… and then, inside, Wanda saw all the women walking around clutching the plastic bags that held their belongings. She turned and left.
She never had a childhood, Wanda says, because she always had to help her mother with the younger kids. She became a junkie at 14 and missed her adolescence. Missed her young adulthood too — Wanda’s 34 years old now. “I’ve been in this hell for 20 years. I just want to have a normal, decent life once.”
Afternoon. Patty jerks down the avenue, whirls around, changes her mind, whirls back. A crack party’s going on in her head and the joints are jumping, “I have different walks,” Patty once explained, “When I feel good about myself I walk with my back held straight, my head up high,” I drive around the block and when I return Patty’s examining herself in the sideview mirror of a van. Picking at the pimple that sits right under her skin like a bruise. Playing with her eyes. Patty broke night. Spent it on the street, in cars bent over men, in the hallway of the building where Carmen died. And now the sun’s light oozes out over the trash-bound snow. Her laugh couldn’t be as cruel. I pull over and yell, and when Patty whips around, a small stream of drool drops from her smile.
WHEN MICHELLE WAS ON METH and living at her mother’s house, she and mom used to lay out on the bed, painting their nails, talking shit, watching TV. On weekends they’d go shopping. Her mother would call her, Michelle says, “and we’d jump in the car and spin all around.” Michelle misses a lot of stupid little things like that. And Patty says, “You know what I miss the most? Waking up in the morning and getting dressed and putting your makeup on without having to shoot up first.”
We’re sitting at the drug corner with its Merry Christmas lights. Michelle and me. She tells me she saw them try to shoot Wanda last week, Right on Bedford. They missed and killed a dog instead. The dog was well-liked in the neighborhood and everyone was upset. She tells me she saw another guy thrown to the ground, beaten with baseball bats, and all the time, screaming, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” And then one guy took out a long knife and while the boy rolled right and left, the guy with the knife “just kept slicing and slicing,”
Michelle had run to Patty, crying. “That’s why she tells you I’m not cut out for this life, Kathy. I hate it. I hate it. It’s like I built this world and now I can’t get out.”
A man is gesturing at us through the front windshield. Waving red candles. Five dollars, five dollars. He looks woolly and matted down. Michelle is shaking her head back and forth. No, no. The man sets two glass candleholders on the hood of the car and fits the candles inside. Five dollars, five dollars.
“Achh, let me get out of here,” Michelle says. “I gotta find Patty. Get our things before she falls asleep. Gotta find somewhere to hide them.” Sensible Michelle, clear-voiced and somber-eyed. She makes sure my doors are locked and then steps out. “Bye.” Waves the man away from the car. “Nah! Thanks. I don’t have a home to put them in!” And then she walks away, her ponytail swinging. Through the buyers, the sellers, the knife-wielding boys, the matted down old men. Figures twisted and pounded into the fierce shapes of survival. Turns the corner and disappears.
*Some names in this story have been changed