When a person gets in the public eye, he often finds himself with supporters, even fans, and with critics and sometimes virulent detractors.
Some of these are madcaps, who become infatuated with you – or obsessed and bent on condemning you. This is to be expected and it can be a positive good to have both critics and supporters.
Recently, some of my detractors, who, like all detractors, have taken it upon themselves to be moral judges, condemned the fact that I have done some street reporting. Particularly because I interviewed prostitutes.
Of course, one is exceedingly lucky to have these kinds of detractors, for it is through them that you can look inward and find out truths. If their criticisms are fair, you can benefit and improve – and if they are unfair, you can better understand the various ways that people purvey, either willingly or recklessly, untruth.
When they criticized my interviewing prostitutes – which I did on the ghetto-streets of rough and tumble Niagara Falls – the city with the highest crime rate in New York State [far higher than New York City], it caused me to go back and look at the stories again.
Contrary to their claim that I had no right to interview prostitutes or that it was somehow hypocritical or misogynistic, after I reread them, I thought that the articles should be republished – for the same reason I had when I first wrote them.
During its initial publication, in print and online in my newspaper, the Niagara Falls Reporter, this story achieved several hundred thousand views [online]. The print edition was about 25,000 copies.
Initially, I wanted to interview prostitutes, or streetwalkers, not because I wanted to condemn these women, but rather to get the people, including the police, who saw them walking the street, [and were annoyed] or thought them to be criminals, to better understand them. To see them as humans, not as criminals, and, as it turned out, as tormented individuals.
A woman who walks the streets selling her body to strangers is not there, as I discovered, because she loves her work. Some of my critics – bless their hearts – think it horrific of me to opine that arresting these women is wrong. That these women should be free to do this work if they think it is best [this is freedom] and, if they need help, maybe there are some who will have a kinder heart to help them, rather than merely advocate for their arrest and try to force them to stop being prostitutes.
They really need to stop being drug addicts. Out of 11 street walkers I interviewed [in three stories], all 11 were addicted to drugs. That was the compelling part for me; that drug addiction is what made them work in the horror-job they had.
So here is my street reporting. Street reporting is a little different than mere phone interviewing. You go out and actually see the people as they are at work, engaged in real-life activities, done in real-time. I’ve done a lot of street reporting on drugs, gambling, sex offenders, crime, and prostitution – nightmare scenarios that plague Niagara Falls and other urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Three Prostitutes Talk About Life on the Streets
By Frank Parlato
(The names of the interviewees and some incidentals were changed to protect the privacy of those who agreed to be interviewed.)
We have seen them on the street, walking, making their presence known. Trying to entice some man to come and stop and trade money for a brief encounter in a car or a room.
As I drove my car down Niagara Street, I started looking. As I approached 24th, then on to 16th, I turned. It was 1 a.m., on a cold November night.
I saw a woman outside a convenience store. She was white, of medium height, slender, not dressed in a provocative way. She could have been mistaken for a mother or single girl, except for the area and the lateness of the night.
She looked, as I pulled up.
You’re not the police right?
She hopped into the car, and I told her I would like to interview her and pay her for her time. Instead of what she normally does with a man, she would be paid for just talking.
As we drove, she said, normally, I just don’t get into a vehicle. I make a man pull it out or make him touch me to make sure they aren’t the police.
I could tell she was nervous. She was pretty. And soft-spoken. A gentle, lean brunette. She would be striking, if not for the signs of wear on her features. A tired, drawn, defeated look. She was 30, she said.
Admittedly, I asked blunt questions. Maybe they were too simple. I wanted to capture her views, to draw her out and at the same time not scare her.
Why are you on the street tonight?
Addiction, she said, in a soft, halting voice.
I started on heroin when I was 23. After two years of being clean, I was having a craving to start getting high again. I started smoking crack cocaine over a year ago.
How often do you smoke?
Usually, several times… a dozen times a day. It depends on how much I want to chase.
How much does it cost?
About $300 a day.
How do you pay for that?
Prostitution, she said, in a whisper. Sometimes, I have guys that know where I live. They come by. I like to have a phone, but right now I don’t, so I have no choice but go on the street.
She explained with a sad note in her voice that she gave her three children up for adoption. She hasn’t seen them in years.
They deserve somewhere safe, she said, and almost cried.
How much do you expect to make tonight?
Just a couple hundred. I am not really in the mood to do too much. You get tired chasing.
When is the last time you used?
Half an hour ago.
How much does crack cost?
Nowadays you’re not getting anything nice, unless you at least have $10 and $20 is barely satisfying. $20 is one small blast.
When do you start craving again?
It last for about 5, 10 minutes then you come down and you’re chasing again.
Are you craving crack now?
A little bit, but I’m a little more nervous too. This is different.
When you are out on the streets, aren’t you nervous too?
I get scared all the time.
Then you do not like your work?
Absolutely not! There is a couple gentlemen, of course. You meet some decent people out here. Sometimes I am sad that I couldn’t have met some of these guys before I was using. If I am not comfortable with someone, if it is a cleanliness thing, I won’t do it. I used to carry a bag with me, with sanitizers and baby wipes and everything. I can’t afford it. The habit took over so much.
I’ve been robbed. I’ve been raped. You deal with the dates. You deal with the hustlers. You deal with the men that try to take over. There is always somebody trying to take control over what you do. They see me get into a vehicle. As soon as I come home, they try to get me to spend with them or whoever they have with them. I know about 40 crack dealers, just on the east side.
How many men do you see in a night?
It ranges from a couple to, wow … maybe a couple dozen. When I do that, I instantly want to get high, just to take away the way I feel.
Most times, I come out because I’m hungry. Or something I need or want and after I perform I don’t like the way I’m feeling, so I get high so it just keeps repeating itself over and over. I want to get out, but I guess not bad enough. I’m at the bottom, not as low as I ever have been. I was homeless for two years living in condemned houses. I have a home now.
She told me she had been out three hours that night and had two customers. One she charged $30, the other $20. With him she had unprotected sex, she said.
Did you ever get a disease from this work?
I believe maybe I have, but I didn’t go get checked. Normally I don’t have sex. It is just oral.
Where do you get crack?
I normally go to a phone and have them deliver.
Could you get a regular job?
That habit would not allow me. It consumes you. It consumes your mind, your body, everything. It’s all that matters at that moment.
How do you make money in the daytime?
Most of the time I have my door cracked and most of my guys know that if I have my door cracked, I am available.
She asked me to drop her off at her apartment. I paid her $30 for the interview. She said I was welcome to talk to her again, but the people inside her apartment tonight would be scared that I was a police detective. If I came back, she would come outside.
As I drove off, I noticed that young black men were on various corners, positioned rigidly in one spot or another. When I looked at them, however, they avoided my gaze.
There was a woman all alone standing in place, on a deserted Niagara Street.
She had a pretty face, a thin face, and clear complexion, but she was not thin. She hopped right in the car.
Dark-haired, white, she answered questions directly. She had a friendly, pert voice.
I’ve been out tonight a couple hours. I made around $80 from three customers. Most times I just do oral. Sometimes people want sex and I get a little more for that, $40 and up. Sometimes it lasts five minutes, sometimes half an hour. Usually I do oral in their cars. I use rubbers when I have sex, and I won’t do sex in the car.
Most of my customers are older, white guys, 40, up to 80. The youngest, 19 or 20. One time I told a guy I’d do him for 30, and he gave me a 100 bill. One night I made a thousand dollars. I’ve been arrested three times. The most time I was in jail was three months.
Do you like your work?
Not really, honestly. You never know who you are going to end up with. There are some nice guys. They are very few and far between. Between the cops and the assholes, it’s very stressful. A lot of guys get nasty. Some guys get physical. Some guys try to rob you. One night I was walking outside and I was pregnant and this black guy popped out and put a knife to my throat. One time I was in the middle of giving some guy head and he got pissed and started punching me in the head. I’ve been ripped off on several occasions.
How did you start?
My father used to hook me up with a couple guys when I was 17. I was scared of my father. He abused me sexually. After my father passed away, I told my mother. She said we don’t talk about those kinds of things.
Do you use crack?
I am addicted, but I can go without.
What did you do with the money you made tonight?
I gave my mom some, then I partied a little. One of these days, I want to get a real job. I applied at Tim Hortons, Dairy Queen. I didn’t get called. If I got a job, I wouldn’t come out. I would still see my regulars. I have five or six. I don’t have a phone, so I have to call them. They pay me $20 to $50.
What’s your average take on weekends?
Usually, at least, $300.
How much do you spend on crack cocaine?
About half. Around $50 bucks, up to $200. I make quite a bit. I also buy diapers and food for my mom’s house. A box of diapers is 25 bucks.
She told me she knew about 15 dealers. She bought mainly from two.
One used to go and buy me clothes and stuff. He pretty much figured, if I had new clothes and I was out here dressed real nice, I would make more money to bring to him.
Have you had policemen as customers?
Yes, I have. I had two. One is a regular. He pays $40. I don’t know if I should trust you or not, she said, laughing, nervously. I just figure if I am going to get arrested, I am going to get arrested anyway. That’s the only reason I am already in your car.
But, you’re in good humor.
Who the hell wants to pick up a miserable bitch? If they want a miserable bitch, they go home to their wives. When it’s decent out here and I don’t run across an asshole, it’s not bad. But a lot of them want to call you names, push up on you, try to get a little rough. Sometimes you think somebody is going to be alright and they end up surprising you.
JANE? AGAIN AND?HER?FRIENDS
After I dropped Robyn off on the street corner, I decided to go back to Jane’s apartment.
I went to the door and knocked. And as I did, from the shadows suddenly appeared a black man, about six feet tall, sturdily built, with a hoodie. He said his name was Joe.
I later learned he made money to support his crack addiction by brokering deals between buyers and the young sellers of crack, putting the strong arm on those he could and sometimes offering protection. Jane had told him about our interview.
It was a squalid, dingy two-room apartment, without heat save a small electric heater and without a stove. There were two other women in the room.
I came into the bedroom and we talked. They sat on the bed and I sat on an old wooden chair in the nearly barren house.
Soon enough a knock came at the door. A young black guy entered and he was hustled by Joe into the kitchen. A moment later Joe came back and gave everyone what they wanted.
They put it on their glass stem pipes and smoked it fast. The second-hand smoke was nauseating as it filled the small room.
For a moment, they were happy and calm.
Jane said she would go back on the street to make some money. Joe turned on a small television set and watched a pornographic film. One of the women, May, wanted a beer and went to get it.
The other woman, Donna, had much beer already and, combined with the crack, she was talking in a slurred manner. Donna admitted she had been a prostitute and would work if the opportunity came up. But did not walk the streets anymore.
After smoking, Jane became reflective. She pointed to a small frameless photograph above her window sill. It was of her and her children.
Then she wept.
A little later she said, prostitution messed up my original sex life. I don’t want no man to touch me. The last time I let a man caress my body was … I don’t know when. I don’t feel I’m worthy of a man’s love.
Donna was drunk and high. She said she was molested when she was young, but that it didn’t have anything to do with her being a ‘hard partier.’
She said, I’ve been married and divorced and had two jobs. And now here I am.
Jane now admitted that she was three months pregnant. And that she had hepatitis C.
I don’t want to [have the baby] but I don’t believe in abortions. I was hoping it would take care of itself. With my health condition usually they don’t make it. I never thought I would be pregnant and still be here doing this.
Donna interrupted, I will never forgive the person that first gave [crack] to me.
Jane continued as if she had not heard Donna. Jane said, … and yet I still continue. Someone comes to the house and gets me started. They give me some [free] crack, just to get me started. Then I go out to make some more.
Before the night ended, I wanted to interview one more prostitute, so I left Donna and Joe. Jane came out and took a ride with me to the convenience store.
I gave her $20 to buy food. She went in, spent $5, and came out with baloney and a loaf of bread. I went inside the store and observed they had crack pipes on sale, by request.
Disguised as pens in a glass tube, or just a glass stem with a small paper flower in it. It was obvious these had one purpose. I paid $5 for one pen. When I tried to use the pen, it immediately fell out and broke. Now it was just a stem pipe, suitable for smoking crack cocaine.
After I left Jane, I drove to Pine Avenue. There I saw a young white woman walking fast.
I stopped the car. She looked. I rolled down the window. She was a redhead. Kind of short. Medium build. I told her I was not a cop. She smiled.
Soon enough, she told her story. She would be the third streetwalker I would interview this night. She had been working as a prostitute for 13 years. She was 29.
Her language was coarser than the other two.
It ain’t all bad. The money is alright. It is stressful. Because just having to suck dick all the God damned time and fuck guys all the damn time … oh, is it OK if I talk like that?
Talk anyway you like.
Then having to do what they want, and do this, and be there on demand and… oh, God…. It’s all I know. Niagara Falls has been my downfall. I hate Niagara Falls.
Do you use crack?, I asked.
Every day. But, she added quickly, I do buy clothes. I do buy food… I had six months clean. But then I was in drug court. That was a long time for me.
There were once a hell of a lot more [prostitutes]. A few of them quit. A few of them are in jail. A lot of them got killed. Dorothy, she got shot. Michelle, she OD’d. Brandy, she OD’d. Loretta, she got killed.
How much do you charge?
Maybe $30 for a blow job and $50 for sex. It ain’t bad. A call girl would be over a $100. Or you get a nasty chick that is $5. But I give a fuck about myself and my appearance. I’m sure I don’t smell nasty. I’m sure I smell damn good right now. And I don’t like wearing my clothes three days in a row. It makes me feel like shit about myself. I like looking good and smelling good. You got to look attractive. Some guys don’t give a damn. Some guys will pick up anything.
I asked her the question I asked the other two women: Do you like your work?
It is harder sometimes to get money than other times. It stresses me out. It can be cold as hell outside and I’m walking for hours and hours, and it makes me feel like, damn do I look that bad? Because nobody will pick me up that morning. Sometimes I have a guy that will pick me up and say I have $5. I say wait a minute. It is too cold and too hard to be running around for just $5.
Once I was on 20th, I get into this truck and this guy takes me all the way to the Reservation, into the woods, and his turn-on was the fear on a female’s face. I’m going to fuck you in the ass. I was scared. I didn’t want him to kill me. He kept grabbing my skin extremely hard and kept saying that for like two hours, grabbing me, and then he drove me back and gave me $30. Thank God I got back and thank God I’m not dead.
But I met this one guy and all he wanted was a blow job. Every time he took a hit of crack, he gave me $50. Every time he took the light off the stem, he stopped and said, I’ll give you $50 more. I made $450.
What percentage of your money do you spend on crack?
Maybe 50 percent. Sometimes I spend $100 on clothes because I like wearing brand new stuff. After I buy an outfit or two, I’ll go out and buy some crack, and I’ll feel good because I spent it on something other than crack.
You seem almost happy.
I keep a smile on my face so people don’t know how to hurt me or make me cry. Nobody knows how to hurt me or make me cry or my weaknesses. I don’t tell nobody anything.
Do you have friends?, I asked.
There are no friends out here.
If I gave you money for this interview, what are you going to do with it?
I’m going to buy some dope, she said, then laughed.
Are there a lot of places you go to get it?
I don’t have to go to any place. I call them. They come to me.
They deliver just like a pizza, I said.
Yeah, but it don’t take that long. Pizza takes forever.
We concluded our interview. As she went out of the car, she said, would you like my number?
Sure, I said.
I paid her $30. She gave me her number, then walked away and immediately got on her cell phone.
I will admit that, at first, I did not know how to analyze the scenes and the people I had just met. Upon reflection, I am not sure I have any other comment to make except this: I heard their voices and felt their presence.
Was there joy, glamour, adventure?
A little bit, perhaps. But there was fear and self-loathing and despair and little hope or so it seemed. It seemed to me that, if there were a hell devised to torture souls, this would be a playing field for such a torment.
But, who’s to say that it was not enough to have seen it and felt their spark of joy and their mass of misery?
This was Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2.