In the cab on the way to Carnegie Hall last night, I felt my temperature rising as I checked the clock on my cell phone. As usual, I had not given myself enough time to find a taxi — a bad habit that I mostly indulge in with boyfriends and rarely with clients. I closed my eyes to block out the Valentine traffic jam on Second Avenue.
I opened my eyes at Park Avenue and 57th. Two girls in smart black suits got out of a limo in front of the Four Seasons Hotel — where I would be tonight if I were working. Maybe I could somehow escape from this Sinderella Spiral and become, like Jasmine, a sexually active spinster — a woman with a past, a future, and no serious boyfriend. A woman without nosy future in-laws who ask awkward questions. A woman with less to lose! All the pieces of my life can’t possibly fit together for much longer. Something’s got to give — but what?
When I got to my destination, Matt was waiting in the lobby, looking a little shy — and rather adorable in the tie I gave him for Christmas, the one with small yellow giraffes on a bright red background. He’s mine! I thought, with a sudden surge of confidence. His face lit up when I approached.
“Each time I see you,” he murmured affectionately, “it’s a kind of revelation to me.”
I melted against the arm of his jacket and my regrets faded. The pieces do fit, I thought. With Matt, I have a future. My body, still tingling with anxiety about its checkered past, now felt safe, desirable, mysteriously protected.
My doubts drifted out of me during the recital. Later, in his bed, I closed my eyes while he — quite happily — did all the work. I reveled in my laziness and encouraged him to take his time.
“I’m sorry,” I said carefully. “I, um, have an exercise class in five minutes — can’t talk.” You should never tell a john you’ve blacklisted him. He’ll want to have a long conversation with you, attempting to explain himself, pledging to reform — or trying to convince you that he’s innocent. Or he’ll try to find out who spread the word of his misdeeds, if he’s vengeful. So I’m accidentally unavailable when Jack calls. Unlike Eileen, who feels the need to confront her foes, I’m very clear about not wanting to have enemies in this business. “Can I call you back?” I suggested, as a stall.
“No, don’t call me at work,” he said nervously. “My son’s in the office. Okay, fine, call, but if he answers, just act like you have a wrong number. Call me before five — I want to see you,” he added abruptly. “I’ll come right over.”
My other phone started ringing, and I quickly hung up.
“It’s me!” Allie announced. “I just saw Jack!”
“But he just — When? Where? What’s going on? Where are you?”
“I just got home. We had lunch at La Côte Basque.” She giggled and added, “He gave me an envelope. You’ll be proud of me. I stood my ground! I told him we couldn’t have sex. He said I should keep the envelope anyway. There’s enough in here for … oh, wow. I think I made the right decision.”
“Well, he just called me.”
“He called you?” Allie sounded incredulous.
There was silence. So Allie met with him, took his money, and left him with an unrequited hard-on.
“And what did he want?” she asked. “Did he talk about me?”
“What do you think he wanted? Look, if you insist on playing head games with Jack, he’s going to look for satisfaction elsewhere. And no, he didn’t say anything about you. The man is not a eunuch. Even if he agrees to act like one when he’s having lunch with you.”
“Well, I’m not possessive! I don’t care who he sees.” There was a pause in which I said nothing. Doesn’t care who he sees? Nobody asked her! But I didn’t want to be the one to point this out. “And don’t forget the NYCOT meeting,” she reminded me. “You promised to come! See you tomorrow?”
That meeting. Ever since Allison got involved with “the sex workers’ community,” I’ve noticed a definite loosening of standards. I think I preferred it when she was a Recovering Hooker, trying to kick the habit.
“Allie, you’re playing a dangerous game,” I started to warn her. “You’re not being professional about this — ” But she had already hung up.
Amazing news from Karen about Franklin Street. The owners are staying put. Apparently, the wife suddenly panicked at the prospect of moving to the Upper East Side. She broke out in hives! Canceled the deal on their new condo. Had to forfeit a mortgage broker’s fee. Turns out this is the second time hubby has tried to pry his wife away from her cultural roots. And lost a mortgage broker’s fee.
“They’ve got all this money,” Karen sighed. “And the husband’s a partner at — .” She named some white-shoe-sounding law firm. “But she gets an hysterical illness whenever she has to go above 14th Street! And now that she has this child, well, she’s never going to let him tell her where to live.”
“Oh, dear,” I sighed back, trying not to sound too relieved.
Saved by a bourgeois bohemian’s worst hang-ups! I love Manhattan and its many varied neuroses. The neighborhood caste system is alive, and all’s right with the world. Or at least with the borough.
Pumpkin time — home at last.
Tonight, as I was leaving for the NYCOT meeting, I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was going. With my keys dangling in the door, I dashed back inside and had to boot up my laptop just to retrieve the address; I’ve been careful not to print out any of Allison’s recent e-mail. I cringed as I reread her message:
The New York Council of Trollops (NYCOT) wants YOU. As sex workers, we have been penalized for daring to transcend patriarchal concepts of sexual virtue that have kept all human beings in a state of sex-negative paralysis for millennia. Be we prostitutes, be we strippers, pro-dommes, or phone-sex workers, we are all sexual and social healers. As we enter a new millennium, we honor the history of all whores, take responsibility for healing the sex-negativity in our lives and in the penal code, celebrate the contributions of sex workers everywhere … “
When I saw the location, I groaned; my outfit was all wrong. Wear a casual fur on Avenue C and you’ll be totally misinterpreted, maybe even assaulted — what was I thinking? Suddenly, my lunaraine mink sweater looked less jaunty, less casual, and more controversial.
As the cab pulled up in front of a run-down red-brick walk-up, I was glad I had changed into my quilted black jacket, the perfect transitional outfit for traveling below 14th and back. A coat for all zip codes. You can’t tell what it costs unless you look carefully — at the inside.
On the second floor, I was overwhelmed by an aroma of burning sage, and by Allison’s latest role model. Roxana Blair is New York’s most politically correct ex-hooker. When she isn’t organizing NYCOT meetings, she facilitates VagInal Empowerment Workshops, coyly referred to as Group VIEWs. Roxana also believes that intimate relationships interfere with our sexual empowerment by discouraging women from perfecting their masturbation skills. Whatever!
So far, I’ve resisted her efforts to recruit my, er, body for a weekend VIEWing. Roxana and I have reached what I would call a vaginal detente: you don’t show me yours, and I won’t show you mine. But I did agree to attend the NYCOT meeting for Allison’s sake, on the strict understanding that this was not, repeat not, one of Roxy’s vaginal encounter groups.
“Nancy’s here!” Roxana mooed to the room. “Welcome!” She was dressed in an oversize tie-dyed T-shirt, which rode up when she hugged me. At the sight of Roxana’s unkempt pubic hair, I froze. Have I been tricked into joining one of her G-spot search parties? And why doesn’t she wax?
“I haven’t seen you in months,” Roxana continued, completely ignoring my alarmed expression. “Not since our lunch at Zen Palate.” (That’s when Roxana tried to befriend me by ordering 20 different kinds of wheat gluten followed by tofu for dessert. She was under the mistaken impression that because I look Chinese, I must be a vegan Buddhist. I haven’t had the heart to tell her that, where I come from, Chinese people are Catholic or Anglican — and carnivorous.)
I glanced around the room and saw a skinny girl in her twenties with short spiky hair and a U-shaped nose ring. Her black bra was peeking out of a half-open leather vest, but she, unlike Roxana, was wearing pants. Her jeans had holes in the knees, but, mercifully, not at the crotch. An overweight woman with chin-length gray hair, wearing a long flowered dress and black sneakers, handed me a sign-in sheet.
“For the NYCOT mailing list,” she explained cheerfully.
“I don’t want to be on any mailing list!” I said, unable to control my shrillness. “Where’s Allison?” And where were all the other members?
Nobody else seemed to care — much less notice — that Roxana was chairing this meeting without her panties. Allison appeared, carrying some paper cups and a large pitcher of red liquid.
“Oh, Nancy’s here — good. Everybody help yourselves to cranberry juice!”
“This needs sugar,” the skinny girl with the nose ring complained.
“It’s made with Hain’s unsweetened concentrate, and it’s very good for the bladder,” Roxana told her. “This is a sugar-free dwelling, Gretchen.”
“Well, we’re going to discuss inclusiveness,” the girl replied. “If we want to do outreach to the entire sex industry, we have to acknowledge different kinds of cultural norms.”
Allison scribbled dutifully in her Kate Spade organizer and looked up. “What else is on the agenda?” she asked brightly.
“We have two new members,” Roxana announced. “Gretchen and Nancy.”
Members? When did I say I was becoming a member? I guess there are no free vegan lunches. Gretchen and I regarded each other from across the room with wary expression-free eyes.
“So, why don’t we all introduce ourselves,” Roxana continued. “Please tell the room who you are, what kind of sex work you do, and why you’re here.” As members began to introduce themselves, Roxana jotted notes on a huge yellow pad, nodding emphatically.
“I’m Belinda,” said the gray-haired woman. “I’ve been a dominatrix for 20 years. All my friends know I’m a pro-domme, I have an ad in Corporal, and I’m a proud bisexual volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, a member of the Lambda Independent Democrats, and a founder of the Lower East Side Coalition. And I’ll be speaking at this year’s Leather Leadership Conference in D.C. I joined NYCOT because I want to make the world a better place for the next generation of sex workers.”
How does she find time to work?
“Also,” Belinda continued, “I’m having a dispute with the billing department of Screw about an ad I was running. The patriarchal males who control the adult publications are threatened by pro-dommes because we’re strong independent women who don’t give blow jobs. Now I noticed that Nancy, here, says she doesn’t want to be on the mailing list. I’d like to know why — ”
“That’s wonderful!” Roxana interrupted. “Can we limit the introductions to introducing ourselves and wait until Nancy has her turn before we start the actual discussion?”
I was not exactly looking forward to explaining myself to the downtown dominatrix who doesn’t give blow jobs. (Or take care of her hair.) Fortunately, Allison gave me some breathing time.
“I’ve been a sex worker for eight challenging and fulfilling years,” she began. It was bizarre to hear her lapsing into NYCOTspeak — “sex worker”? She beamed at Belinda, who beamed back. “I just want to say that lately I have been aware of the goddess within every sex worker. For example, my friend Nancy, whether she wants to be on the mailing list or not, has been –”
“I think we should limit ourselves to ourselves,” Roxana interrupted again. “Wait until Nancy has spoken.” Her gentle New Age manners were beginning to wear off.
The girl with the nose ring took the floor. “I’m Gretchen. Today I run a needle exchange program in Hunts Point and I have a masters in public health, but I worked on the street for eight years.” When everyone sat up, she began to vent. “The hookers’ movement is always talking about changing the laws, but what are you doing for IV-using street workers?” she asked. “Nothing! You’re all just talking to yourselves! You can’t go to Hunts Point and expect to reach women on the street by telling them how fulfilling your life is,” she told Allie. “You’re out of touch with reality. I was out there at the age of 15 — whoring! And what were you? A fucking cheerleader?”
Allie went rigid — and looked rather startled. Like the proverbial creature caught in the headlights.
“If there’s a goddess, why would she allow cops to lean on teenage girls for blow jobs? Without condoms!” Gretchen added.
Roxana cleared her throat but didn’t scold Gretchen for veering off-topic. Or for impugning Allison’s high school career. So much for limiting our introductions to ourselves! Do I detect a double standard? Unbridled, Gretchen began to berate Roxana’s elitist attachment to sugar-free beverages.
“You can’t have a policy like that at group meetings,” Gretchen told her. “You’re excluding people like me. You can’t do outreach in Hunts Point with sugar-free beverages!”
Roxana and Belinda seemed to enjoy Gretchen’s tongue-lashing.
“I want you to know that I feel privileged to be having this dialogue with you,” Roxana mooed. “I wasn’t aware of the classist assumptions I was making.”
Belinda, the dominatrix, chimed in. “Heroin should be legalized,” she said, in a rather submissive tone.
Heroin. So that’s it. I was wondering how anyone with such a pronounced sweet tooth could be so skinny.
“Um — where is Hunts Point?” Allison humbly inquired.
“The Bronx,” Gretchen said with a knowing sneer.
I managed to introduce myself as “Um, Nancy, I’m a working girl.” That was all I wanted to say.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Roxana said to me. “We want you to think about joining this committee.”
“This is the steering committee. We really feel the lack of your perspective around here.”
My perspective? Does that mean I should have worn my mink sweater after all?
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Later, as we searched Houston Street for a cab, I tried to give Allie moral support. “How can you be expected to know the geography of the Bronx? You have no reason to go there!” I carped. “Gretchen didn’t have to be so snotty about it.”
Ignoring my remarks, Allison gave me a curious look. “Why don’t you talk to her about your past?” she asked. “Didn’t you start working when you were 15?”
“That’s none of Gretchen’s business.” (Besides, I was still, technically, 14 when I started hooking.)
“But you share a common experience as sex workers!”
“Gretchen and I have nothing in common. I never had to give a blow job to a cop, and I never worked on the street. And I’m beginning to wish I’d never told you anything about my life, because you obviously don’t understand it. Don’t you dare start talking to Gretchen about me! Do you hear?”
Allison blinked, hurt by my outburst, but not for long.
“You should reach out to her,” she said firmly. “I see a lot of potential for a mutually healing dialogue!”
“With Gretchen? She’s not interested in making friends with me. Or you, for that matter. Don’t kid yourself,” I snapped.
“NYCOT is committed to healing the divisions between sex workers. We Are All Bad Girls,” Allie intoned. “Roxana says we have to expect — embrace — our growing pains … The process of empowerment involves change, and change involves — ” A vacant cab interrupted Allie’s train of thought, and we got in.
As we headed up 1st Avenue, Allison continued to chatter. “Change — sometimes even for the sake of change — can reveal our hidden strengths as agents of social change … ” At 59th Street, she ran out of steam and changed the subject. “I’m going to be interviewed next week. Did I tell you? The producer called today. Roxana has to go out of town that night, and she says I’m ready to represent NYCOT publicly — ”
“You can’t go on TV! Have you lost your mind? Everybody in your building will recognize you! And nobody will ever work with you again! Do you think Liane would let you work for her if she saw you on — ”
“Noooo, silly, I’m going to be on the radio – it’s a call-in show!” Allison reassured me. “Besides, Roxana takes all the TV calls. She says I’m not ready for TV.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Roxana’s grabby sense of turf should keep Allison off TV for quite some time.
“What was that Roxana was saying about ‘my perspective’?” I asked. “I hope you haven’t been telling her about my past.”
“We don’t have a woman of color on the steering committee. NYCOT is facing the challenge of diversity. We need a committee that looks like New York.”
“Let’s see: You’ve got a dominatrix who’s a partisan Democrat. A heroin-addicted streetwalker with an attitude. And a blonde who’s always late with the rent,” I said. “If that isn’t a committee that looks like New York, I don’t know what is.”
Allie frowned and opened a small compact. She dabbed her nose. “Jack showed up again — I wasn’t expecting him! I was seeing someone, and my doorman buzzed. He said, ‘A gentleman wants to bring a plant upstairs.’ So I told him I would pick it up later. Then Jack started calling me” — she lowered her voice so the cabdriver wouldn’t hear — “while I was trying to get this guy off! And the phone wouldn’t stop ringing because Jack knew I was in the apartment. He left a bunch of messages, begging me to pick up the phone. Why do men say ‘pick up the phone’ when they know they’re already in voice mail? It’s crazy! My customer was really nervous. He took forever to come — all those interruptions!”
Recalling the interruptions, she looked flustered.
“He’s acting like a lovesick teenager!” I said. “An adult sends flowers — or brings them when he’s invited.”
“You’re right,” she said, with an odd smile. “He is.”
“And it’s not amusing when” — I dropped my voice, too — “a client does that. It’s a stalker thing. Completely unacceptable.”
“Well, I do have a doorman to protect me from stuff like that.”
“Great. Jack’s making a spectacle of himself in front of your doorman. And screwing up your existing business! You’re going to be sorry you took that money.”
“I know what I’m doing,” she proclaimed.
“That thing Gretchen said. Were you a cheerleader?”
In a stiff voice, she said, “That’s completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with any of this. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Sorry! I didn’t know it was such a sensitive subject.”
She feels perfectly okay about barging into my past and bringing up my teen hooker years, yet she’s hung up about … being a cheerleader? I guess she’s embarrassed. Being a former cheerleader won’t help her — or might even hurt her chances — in a popularity contest that puts so much store in a girl’s street cred. She may have changed, but she hasn’t exactly grown. In fact, she’s still a cheerleader; Allie hopes I’ll reveal my history to Gretchen because it will make her look better for having brought me to the meeting. Trying to use me to increase her own credibility as a hooker! You’ve gotta watch these cheerleaders — they’re an exploitive breed. Even when they think they’re being avant-garde, they’re really trying to be popular.
Anyway, home sweet home — where I’m greeted by my boyfriend’s amorous voice mail. He’s working late at the office, he misses me, he’ll be finished at … just about now. But I’m not in the mood for an impromptu sleepover! Being stuck in Roxana’s living room for two hours, surrounded by the reek of incense and badly dressed girls, has completely turned me off to all forms of lovemaking, paid or unpaid. And besides, I’m saving myself. For an early-morning date at the Carlyle with Jasmine. Do I call him back? Pretend I’m not around to get the message? What is the etiquette when a working girl becomes engaged?
Lately, I’m paranoid about having him in my apartment. I worry about Matt finding things while I’m fast asleep. Like those over-the-top black crotchless panties I wear for Milton. With the red frilly opening. Yikes.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
From the forthcoming book “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl” by Tracy Quan. Copyright (©) 2001 by Tracy Quan. To be published in August by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.