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.

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