A friend of mine is something of an expert on the history of prostitution. Over the years, he has amassed quite a large collection of books on the subject, particularly the role that brothels played in the expansion of the American West. Whenever we are traveling around Arizona exploring old ghost towns, he’s a ready source of entertaining stories and clever bits of trivia (like the origins of the word “poon-tang,” for example). However, at least as far as I can tell, his knowledge of prostitutes is purely academic.
I first became aware of the world’s oldest profession while growing up in a small Indiana farm town. As a kid, my only exposure to anything even remotely resembling a prostitute came from watching T.V. westerns, such as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke or those friendly gals from The Cheyenne Social Club (a film starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones. Yeah, that’s right—the same woman who would one day become the matriarchal caregiver to the Partridge Family). In those old shows, it’s hard to imagine that such flamboyantly dressed dancehall girls would ever be intimate with a dirty, stinking cowboy. But then again, no one ever said entertainment was supposed to mirror reality.
My encounter with a real prostitute happened when I was about eleven years old. At the time, there was a boy living next door named Brian whose family epitomized the 1970’s drug culture. Brian was two years younger than me and the only boy I knew who smoked; he could also blow really cool smoke rings and roll his own cigarettes. He was a chubby kid who spent his summer days running around the neighborhood shirtless and shoeless. Brian and his mother had been renting the big blue house across the alley for about two years, and during that time, their household had expanded to include his mom’s brother, Roger, and several of Roger’s friends. It was Roger who had taught Brian to smoke, along with several other vices he would acquire over the course of his brief young life. Roger moved in shortly after Brian’s dad was sent away to prison to serve a five year sentence for selling hard drugs.
It turned out that Roger’s stay was precipitated by his recent dishonorable discharge from the army. No one, including Brian, ever bothered to ask why Roger had gotten out of the army a year and a half early. All we knew was that one day he showed up at Brian’s mother’s door with a G.I. haircut and a nasty attitude. Brian’s mom gave Roger Brian’s room, which meant that Brian was now forced to sleep on the downstairs sofa. So while Brian’s mother worked two jobs to support the household, Roger and his buddies sat at home drinking beer and smoking pot.
Being young, Brian and I took these events in stride. But one day while we were playing catch in the front yard, we noticed an unfamiliar car pulling into the driveway. Out of the car stepped a young woman we had never seen before. She was very pretty, with a petite body and a hint of Asian features about her eyes and cheekbones. It was clear from where we stood that she wore no bra under her tight-fitting t-shirt, although she didn’t seem to notice us looking at her. In fact, she seemed to stare right through us and the two other guys who were helping Roger work on his car in the garage. Roger walked over to the girl and whispered something to her. Then they went up the steps and into the house. “Why don’t you go to NAPA and get head gasket for the El Camino,” shouted Roger to one of his friends through the screen door. “We’ll finish the brakes this afternoon.”
A little while later, Brian wanted to go up to his room to get a different baseball mitt, but one of Roger’s friends stopped us at the bottom of the stairs. “Roger’s going to be busy up there for a while,” he said. Like most boys our age, we understood the mechanics of the sex act if not the motivation, yet a situation like this was entirely new. We went outside and stood underneath Brian’s second story bedroom window. We said nothing, but soon we heard the unmistakable sounds of moaning and the squeaking of bedsprings. Brian and I stared at each other for a moment. Then, like primitive aborigines who are fearful of what they do not understand, we picked up some stones and hurled them at the side of the house. Roger came to the window and yelled at us to stop, and soon one of his buddies chased us away.
A short time later, the girl emerged from the house. Her eyes looked distant and sad, yet she managed to give us a quick smile as she got into her car and drove away. I often wondered what would compel a girl like her to give herself over to the likes of Roger and his ilk. Perhaps she was unable to reconcile her mixed parentage in a town made up almost exclusively of W.A.S.P.S. (After all, the Grand Dragon of our state’s chapter of the K.K.K. lived in the neighboring county.) No doubt she was driven by desperation. Was it the same feeling of desperation that ultimately led Brian to take his own life a few years later?
It was not until my senior year of high school that I would once again encounter a professional Working Girl in a situation that I call, “The Jamaican Shoe-Swap Proposal.” But perhaps that’s a story for another day.