Saturday, November 6
Yesterday, when I arrived at SFO, I turned on my cell phone and checked my voice mail in New York. Saving my business calls for later, I listened right away to Randy's message: "I'm going out of town for a week and I'd sure like to see you before I leave ..." I replayed his voice, remembering our last encounter, the way he undid my blouse -- one excruciating button at a time, silently daring me to move as I got wetter and closer. I was sitting completely still, begging him to continue ... Exquisite daydreaming came to an abrupt end as I entered the hotel lobby.
In my houndstooth cardigan and flat Ferragamo ankle boots, I thought I was dressed for the occasion but now, taking in the other conference attendees, I wasn't so sure. A heavyset girl with jet-black hair sauntered by in a revealing tank top, and I looked closer at her tattoos. Could those be drawings of female genitalia decorating her upper arms?
Then I saw Roxana, looking rather haggard without her TV wig. She wore a bright pink "Sex Working the Millennium" button next to her NYCOT name tag. "Oh, you're here!" she mooed at me, liberating my overnight bag with a generous tug. "Allison was afraid you wouldn't come."
"I'm afraid I did," I said, eyeing a petite green-haired girl in a T-shirt that said SAFE SEX WHORE in large red letters. Her prettiness was marred somewhat by a face full of piercings, huge clumpy boots and a T-shirt.
As Roxana led me to the conference area, we glided past doors covered with enigmatic announcements. "Male Sex Workers: Othered By Our Own Community" in brown magic marker on white paper. On another door, partially closed: "Electronic Activism at 3:00 ... Brothel Burn-Out: OSHA Discussion at 6:00." "Planning Committee: Global Collective Members Only!" said one forbidding sign. We found Allie standing next to a door that promised "Diversity In Our Movement," her hair tied back under a black cap. Her name tag was attached to the front of the cap: "Allison, NYCOT Coordinator" and she wasn't wearing any makeup. Coordinator? Where were the other NYCOT members?
Next to Allison, a gray-haired man with a youthful face was handing out flyers. His name tag -- "Hugh Loebner, NYCOT Supporter" -- was upside-down on his striped Oxford-cloth shirt, and he wore a bolo tie around the collar.
"Nancy! I want you to meet Hugh -- he's an out-of-the-closet john! From New York!" Allie burbled.
Roxana pulled her aside. "What are you doing? If you're going to represent NYCOT at the workshops, you have to attend them! And why is Hugh wearing one of our name tags? I never said he could attach himself to NYCOT." Her New Age benevolence was being seriously tested.
"The Latin Americans won't let Hugh attend the diversity workshop. It's for sex workers only," Allison explained. "We're protesting his exclusion. Male sexuality is part of the erotic mosaic, Roxy."
Hugh greeted me and began to declaim: "'Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you/Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you ...' Walt Whitman. 'To a Common Prostitute.' Apparently," he told me, "the sentiment is not reciprocated."
A harsh Australian voice behind my head interrupted him. "D'you know what the last bit of that sexist poem says? 'And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come./Till then I salute you with a significant look -- ' Bloody bastard! It's the customer's oppressive gaze that Whitman was talking about -- not the human rights of sex workers!" The buxom, blousy Australian brushed her unkempt blonde hair behind her ears, then turned to Allison.
"Physical perfection's oppressive to sex workers! In Melbourne, we've got brothels where prostitutes are fined for not matching their toenails to their fingernail varnish. But I don't suppose you privileged Northern call girls would care about our labor issues ..."
"Molly, meet Nancy -- she's one of our coordinators," Roxana said, giving me a warning squeeze.
"Oh! You're from New York, are you?" Molly assessed me and scribbled something on her brown clipboard. This, I realized, was the girl who had called Allie a Northern oppressor.
"I've heard so much about you," I said, eyeing her name tag: Global Sex Workers Collective.
"And what's your role in NYCOT?" she asked.
Roxana jumped in. "Nancy's in charge of our mailing list, and she's our treasurer. Actually, she's the real brains behind our organization. Nancy thought it was crucial for us to have a presence at SWIM -- despite what you might think, Molly."
"Ah, the gray eminence, are you? I was telling Roxy here, in a city like New York, with a sizable Central American population, it's unacceptable to have no Spanish-speaking NYCOT members. What do you intend to do about this?" she asked in a menacing tone.
"Nancy's very tired, she needs to get settled," Roxy said, before I could answer. Hugh and Allison followed us to the elevator.
"You're laying it on way too thick," I whispered to Roxy. "What if that tyrannical bitch starts quizzing me about the mailing list? The less said, the better!" I'm beginning to understand why Roxana didn't last long as a hooker -- she has zero talent for subterfuge. Guess this is what separates the activists from the pros.
At the door of the hotel room, Roxana told Hugh: "We can't let anyone see a john entering our room. Molly might think you're influencing NYCOT strategy." Allison -- genuinely hurt on his behalf -- advised Hugh to wait for her in the lobby bar.
"You can bunk down with us!" she told me. "We'll get an extra bed."
I took in the disarray -- piles of political buttons on a bedside table, Roxana's laptop standing on its side amid half-empty bottles of cranberry juice. Allison's side of the room was slightly neater.
"I already have a roommate," I said firmly.
Roxana frowned. "Do we know her?" She didn't want unfamiliar bodies getting in the way of her grand plan.
"Our friend Jasmine is arriving any minute now," I said, and Allison's face fell. "She booked a room for two at the conference rate. With a fake ID." (Jasmine wouldn't risk having our real names on the roster and she's the only girl I know who has it together enough to horde credit cards and passports under multiple IDs.) "She's bringing an extra blow-dryer," I added. Allison perked up.
"I can't keep wearing this cap and I don't have time to go to the hairdresser," Allie told Roxana. "But don't let Jasmine wear a coordinator's badge! We'll just make her a member." My, I thought, Allie is turning into quite the shrewd political operative.
Roxana handed me a name tag that advertised my coordinator status in slightly larger letters than Allison's: "Now here's the strategy," she began, pouring everyone a glass of warm cranberry juice. "You'll attend three or four workshops per day. Make friends with the Latin Americans, the Germans and the Asians and talk to the Global Collective whenever you can. Especially Molly. She won't let us attend the Global Collective planning sessions because we don't have any streetwalkers in NYCOT. She keeps saying that we only represent call girls. You have to convince her otherwise!"
"What's this Global Collective?" I asked.
"They control the funding," Roxana said bitterly. "They get money from the Australian Health Department and they're in charge of the conference. They don't like Americans."
"But they're holding the conference here?"
"Because it's officially sponsored by the sociology department at San Francisco State University," Roxana explained. "But Molly spends all her time insulting the sociology professors and accusing them of ignoring the needs of the South."
"The South? Like -- Mississippi?" Now, I was totally puzzled.
"The Aussies are part of the Southern Hemisphere," Roxana said, with a discouraged sigh. "Along with the Latin Americans. They hate the U.S. first; then they hate the Europeans. But they like Canadians."
"But Canadians are farther north!" Allison complained. "This is so unfair!"
"Never mind that. Try to make friends with the Brazilians," Roxana continued, "You must speak up as a sex worker of color ... You know about April? She made a pact with Lucia from Brazil. You won't see April, though. She's hiding in Lucia's room."
"How the hell did April get here?" I asked. "And why is Lucia in league with her?"
"Allison thought a radically supportive environment would raise April's consciousness." Roxana tried not to look peeved. "Then April turned on us -- "
"Lucia used to pick up truck drivers," Allison began.
"Oh, that's what Lucia claims but who knows?" Roxana interrupted. "Anyway, April made friends with Lucia right away. Supposedly, her father's a truck driver. She told Lucia that NYCOT discriminates against rural prostitutes, and Lucia told Molly -- "
"Rural prostitutes?" I asked. "In New York City?"
"April grew up in a farming community in Georgia," Allison said.
"And she carries this identity with her wherever she goes," Roxana continued.
"Well, April picks up on jargon real fast," I observed.
"You're the only person they'll believe. You have to warn them about April," Allison urged me. "It's too bad Anabel's not here to defend herself because April's accusing her -- "
My cell phone trilled, cutting into our strategy session.
"I'm in the room!" Jasmine announced. "I got us two queen beds, a fridge and -- dig this -- the bellboy told me there were five emergency blow-dryers at the front desk! Some chick from Brazil glommed them all and she's renting them to the other hookers! At exorbitant rates! What's going on here? I've seen more underarm hair in the last 15 minutes than you'd see at a NOW rally in July. Where the hell are you? Barry wants to talk to you!"