Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day one at the prostitution court

I'm having lunch tomorrow with Helena, the first participant in Cook County's new prostitution court. We've met up once before. She gave me a tour of her very nice, very homey, three-story (!) South Side home and went out for sandwiches at a deli in Hyde Park.

The first time I saw Helena was in the courtroom two months ago, on May 19. It was my first visit to WINGS court, and she was sitting a few rows up from me, an older-side-of-middle-aged black woman looking put together in a shiny, lime-green pantsuit. She was beaming. Next to Helena was a man, a good-looking, strong man with a clean-shaven head and a top-to-bottom royal blue suit. She was holding his bald head like a treasure, not just patting it or stroking it but massaging it so vigorously that I couldn't help but stare. I was a little embarrassed for him, that big man getting his bald head rubbed in the courtroom.

I took her at first for a courts worker -- a newlywed maybe, just back from honeymoon leave. She looked a notch more together than the other (former) prostitutes in the room, who fell into one of two categories: vacant-eyed and party-ready. Done and not-so-done, I thought.

I didn't talk to Helena that first day. Instead I slid along the hard wooden bench toward a thick, tired-looking Hispanic woman and offered her a stick of gum. She accepted. She moaned a little as she chewed it, fast and hard and first, then slow and labored. Tiny spit bubbles gathered at the corner of her mouth, and she closed her eyes.

This woman would end up staying in jail that day. The judge would see what I'd seen and order her to "make a drop" (court language for "piss in a cup"). A man who'd come with her wrung his hands in the gallery as a court worker told him to stick around in case he needed to take home her belongings.

Helena I wouldn't meet until the next time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An introduction

The woman at the top of this blog is named Anita. Her pimp calls her Blackie.

I met Anita last October; I interviewed her in the back seat of a friend's car on a "ho stroll" in Garfield Park. She was the first of many sex workers I would meet over the next nine months, and continue to meet. My conversations with them shaped my master's thesis and are now shaping a grant-funded audio project that I'll be airing, I hope, somewhere later this year.

People ask why I became so interested in prostitutes. Sometimes I say it started in Peru, where I found myself on another late-night hunt for a source. That night felt thrilling and dangerous, and I loved every minute. If I'm being honest, the subject still feels thrilling and dangerous, and that's a big part of why I continue to pursue it.

But mainly, I'm utterly intrigued by these women's lives.

I'd be an idiot not to state the obvious right from the start - that these women have been abused and hated at levels that luckier people shouldn't pretend to understand. A woman named Linda comes to mind.

From the age of 5, Linda was regularly molested by family friends and an uncle - three people! - in her South Side apartment. Imagine for a second growing up in that apartment.

She started drinking vodka before bed when she was 7, prepping herself for the attacks. When she ran away from home, her parent sent her to live with her grandmother in Mississippi. Enter another uncle, and that's when things got really bad.

“For a long time I thought this was the way of life," Linda, now in her mid-40s, told me. "If I’m constantly going to have to give the pussy away, why not get paid for it?”

It was her way of life and still is. Last time I saw her, Linda was living with a roommate near Harrison and California, smoking crack and turning jobs and smoking crack.

These are not the things I find intriguing. I find these things scary and sad. What I'm intrigued by is how brave Linda has to be just to get through her day. She's been beaten up and raped way beyond what's fair, and somehow she goes on.

Anyway, I'll be using this blog to collect my thoughts and whatnot as I continue interviewing for the next several months. Feel free to follow along.