Girls Like Us Excerpt

I came to New York City in August 1997 to work as a mission­ary for an agency that works with adult women in the commercial sex industry, a job I’ve obtained not based on my sparse résumé, which consists of being a waitress and a nanny, but rather on my rare admission that I’ve worked in the sex industry, too. Given that I have moved from Germany to the States for work, I don’t really expect to be living it up in tourist hot spots, but I don’t know that I’m really prepared for night after night of street outreach to some of New York’s most notorious tracks. The first night in Hunts Point, located in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx, I’m horrified by the quiet, deserted industrial land­scape. All I can think as I drive around is serial killer’s paradise. So many dead-end streets, Dumpsters, the absence of streetlights, no one around for miles to hear you scream. Over the next few years, the Disneyfication of Times Square pushes sex stores, strip clubs, and the street-based sex industry farther and farther into neighbor­hoods like this, areas where no tourists from Iowa want to visit and residents’ concerns about crime and safety are largely ignored.

It is in these dark, desolate areas that I do outreach, talking to women and girls on the street, although in the beginning, these con­versations are often fairly one-sided.

“Hey, how you doing?”

“Would you like some hot chocolate/coffee/candy/a toiletry pack?”

“So, my name’s Rachel. . . . I’m from an agency that works with women on the street.”

Often they ignore me, so casually and easily, as if I am simply an annoying fly that is buzzing near their ear. Sometimes they give me the once-over and weigh up quickly that this little girl with a funny accent isn’t po-lice and doesn’t have much to really offer. And once in a while, on a slow night, they begin to talk to me and I learn names, street names but still; whether they have children and where they got that cute jacket/shoes/earrings. It isn’t deep but it’s a start. The more I’m out there, though, the more they learn about my story. And soon they introduce me to others, particularly the younger girls. I learn not to bother them too much on a busy night, to be aware if we are being observed by their pimps, to not take up too much of their time if we are. For months, the only people I really meet are girls and women who are being sold on the streets.

Nights are for street outreach. Daytimes I go to detention cen­ters, shelters, and Rikers, where the girls and women who come in are scorned by staff and the other residents or inmates alike.

“Whatcha daddy gonna do for you now, huh?”

“Nasty ho.”

If the other girls and women didn’t know what the girl was in for, the guards or staff made sure to announce it. To have been on the street, to be in “the life,” as the girls called it, was to be on the lowest rung. It didn’t matter how old they were; they were shunned and mocked as dirty, nasty, hos, whores, hookers, dumb bitches. In this environment, it is jarring to go public for the first time about my own experiences: The looks, the snide comments—particularly from the adults, who are supposed to know better—make me flush with shame and cry at night. It isn’t surprising to me then that the girls go back to the familiar, where they are at least accepted, even if that means being sold and abused. Most of them really didn’t have anywhere else to go. The girls are surprised, and then relieved, when they realize I won’t judge them. In the beginning, simply not judg­ing them and my own story are about all I have to give, and while we develop some good relationships, I know that I have to be able to offer them more.

The first girl that I really work with one-on-one is Melissa, a strik­ingly beautiful seventeen-year-old who towers over me even in her sneakers. Melissa is an angry young woman who is often frustrated by my lack of knowledge about the welfare system, the housing system, the subway system, and anything else even remotely use­ful. I’m woefully naive in thinking that I just need to be supportive and caring and offer encouraging platitudes, which Melissa often throws back in my face as she struggles to leave her one-year-old daughter’s father, who has also been her pimp since she was four­teen. With Melissa, I negotiate the bureaucratic nightmares that are endemic to every public system and grow angry right along with her that caseworkers look bored with her plight and have no answers for her situation. It is on these long, tedious trips to the clinic, to the welfare office, to the housing offices that we begin to bond, albeit reluctantly on Melissa’s part. While she and I share a common understanding about the general workings of the life, she is frequently impatient, often downright scornful, of my lack of knowledge about street slang—“What’s the track?” “What’s a wife­-in-law?”—and the intricate rules of “the game.” “Why do you have to walk in the street and not on the sidewalk?” “Why can’t you look a man in his face?” Melissa becomes my teacher, and I begin to make the connections between the things that I’d experienced and the sto­ries she’s telling me. The area where girls worked on the street is called the track; the girls I tried to recruit to work for my “boy­friend” would’ve been my wives-in-law; the money I had to give my “boyfriend” was my quota; oh, and my boyfriend, yeah, he was actually a pimp. This was probably one of the hardest things for me to verbalize and it would take a while for me to really accept that reality.

Jennifer, my next tutor, is a moonfaced Latina who would call me at 6 a.m. after a beating. I’d meet her at the train station and let her sleep on my couch. After a night or two, Jennifer would find her way back to her pimp, although eventually she stayed with me three, four nights, then for almost two weeks as I searched desper­ately for a program out of state that would take her. From Jennifer I learn that leaving the life takes practice, that girls need to try mul­tiple times without having someone give up on them.

Tiffany, who weighed about eighty pounds, ran up a ridiculous phone bill at our office calling psychic hotlines. Her pimp had cut off half of her hair and it was so badly matted that I had to take her to the hair salon to have her head almost completely shaved. No program would take Tiffany: She didn’t have a drug problem, a prerequisite for most programs that cater to her age. One night she disappeared for a few hours and returned proudly announcing that she’d smoked crack and was now eligible for the drug program, but we had to hurry cos she wasn’t sure how long it would be in her system. From Tiffany I learn how few resources are available to meet the needs of these girls, and how few people understand what they’ve experienced.

I meet Aisha at Rikers. One day she rolls up a leg of her sweat­pants to show me the crude tattoo of her pimp’s name that he’d hand-carved into her inner thigh as he sat between her legs holding a gun to her head. From Aisha I learn about the systematic violence of pimps, and make the connections to my own experiences. Kim­mie, who is stabbed in the vagina by a group of men and left to die in the street, reminds me about the violence of johns.

Then there’s Katherine, my first successful intervention, which I can’t really take full credit for.  Katherine—soft-spoken, with delicate features—and I spend a couple of court-mandated days together and then talk on the phone a few times before she decides to return to her family in Houston. She goes back to school and eventually gets a Realtor’s license. Throughout it all she sends me cards and e-mails thanking me for our brief time together. I post her picture proudly over my desk. Katherine, I believe, comes into my life sim­ply to encourage me that support does make a difference.

Mostly, though, it is just tough, sad work. I listen and listen to story after story of fatherless girls; motherless daughters; parents lost to the streets; drugs; prison; domestic violence turned murder; sexual abuse by an uncle, a cousin, a neighbor, a teacher; running away; being put in foster care; meeting a man—that was central to every story—meeting a man who made promises, who made them feel safe. After a while, everywhere I look I see pain. Every teenage girl on the subway is a victim, or at least a potential victim. Every man, particularly middle-aged white men, the ones I most closely associated with johns, is a predator. I am both numb and oversensi­tive, overwhelmed by the need, the raw and desperate need of the girls I am listening to and trying to help. I’m overdosing on the trauma of others, while still barely healing from my own.

I cry for hours at home and have fitful nights of little sleep. My nightmares resurface as my own pain is repeated to me, magnified a thousand times. It feels insurmountable. How can you save every­one? How can you rescue them? How do you get over your pain? How do you ever feel normal?

I don’t have many answers, for myself or for the girls. So I listen and listen, doing my best to learn as much as I can, to make the con­nections, to be open and honest about my own experiences, to be sincere, to love them and not judge. And while that isn’t much to offer, it becomes the basis for some amazing relationships. I learn to be honest during that first year about what I can’t specifically relate to; while we share many common experiences, I can never claim to have lived someone else’s life. I wasn’t and never will be a thirteen-year-old black girl from Bed-Stuy who is sitting in a juvenile detention center. I have experienced different privileges and supports that sometimes leave me with a sense of survivor’s guilt. Yet still, despite the difference in cultures and even conti­nents, in ethnicities and slang, threatened with guns or threatened with knives, sold in a club or sold on the street, our experiences are consistently more similar than different. The themes are com­mon: the lack of family support; the need for love and attention; the early stages that felt almost good; the pain that kept us trapped; and the long, slow journey back to life, feeling all the while that we’d never quite be normal, that we’d never fit in—a message reiterated through family, through loved ones, through society’s view of us. Over and over it is clear for all of us that our backgrounds had pre­pared us for this. In one way or another, through abuse, neglect, abandonment, we’d been primed for predatory men, for an indus­try that would use us up and spit us out.

Every new encounter provides a new mirror for me to view my own experiences through, and there is a level of selfishness during this period as I hunger to understand more about the girls’ lives in order to understand mine. If I could figure out what had happened to them, perhaps I had a better chance of explaining it all to myself.