This article comes after countless conversations with the writer Cassie Rodenberg. What are her insights and what are mine are hard to discern at this point.
Beauty, a twenty-one year old homeless prostitute who works the streets of Hunts Point, now sits in Rikers jail on four charges, the most serious stemming from a link to a robbery by her old pimp, Trigger. Trigger had grabbed an iPhone from a john who would not pay. He then fled town and Beauty found a new pimp, a homeless addict named Bishop.
Cassie and I went to visit Beauty in Rikers three week after her incarceration. It took three hours from when she was told she had a visitor until she was released into the room where we sat waiting for her. She scanned the room expectantly, squinting without her glasses, looking small in her oversized gray jumpsuit. She looked at us a bit dazed. As she approached, she started crying. She had expected to see Bishop, not us. “I thought I would see my daddy.”
She spoke longingly of Bishop. She worried that he might not wait for her while she sat in jail and that he might find a new girl. She asked us to contact him, to tell him she still loved him, to bring him with us the next visit. We promised her we would try. He was nowhere to be found.
Bishop was the tenth pimp in her life. Another had brought her from the streets of Oklahoma City to Hunts Point.
When we first me her she had been working the streets for six months. She was with Trigger, and hopeful about him. “I have been through nine niggas. Got my first black eye from one, another punched me in mouth, but this guy is good to me.” She would call and talk to Cassie endlessly, detailing her frustrations and hopes about him. She was upset he would leave her with his children while he disappeared, and with his endless flirtations.
Bishop and Trigger took almost all of Beauty’s earnings, except for the few dollars she would hide for herself. They beat Beauty. They were absent for long stretches, putting Beauty out on the streets alone without any protection.
That is not uncommon in Hunts Pont. The pimps provide very little to the women. They take all the money, they hardly ever give real protection, and they beat them. The pimps themselves are often homeless and addicted.
(Diana and John)
Diana and her “husband” John have a similar relationship. They are both crack addicts, both homeless. Diana is probably 21 or less, but acts younger. John is 47. They had met earlier in Hunts Point before drifting to South Carolina where she prostituted herself, using the money to buy drugs for the both of them.
They arrived back in Hunts Point a month ago, living on the desolate street where Diana prostitutes. They crashed in a sleeping bag they would stash during the day in a tree. An old bucket car seat provided a place for John to lounge during the day as she stood on the corner. The money Diana earned went to buying crack and food for the two of them.
Late one evening, close to 1:00 am, Diana was working the streets, more agitated than usual. John had run off with the money she had made earlier. He had also taken the sleeping bag. She was worried about him and worried about the cold. She was all alone, truly exposed to the taunts and demands of the few passing cars. John returned the next day. He had spent the money on drugs for himself.
Recently Diana made enough that they were able to rent a windowless bedroom from a local drug dealer. Diana, excited after catching two dates, invited us to their room. She had bought six bags of crack and needed a break before going out for more work. We spoke as they smoked the crack, each doing three hits. Diana sat quietly at the table, cleaning pipes, while John stood talking. Between hits he explained to us why it’s pointless for him to work. “She can get up to three hundred a day. I can’t do that, not with any job I know of.” I suggested that he could turn tricks as well. He looked at me in disgust, and then laughed. “I don’t do that.” After thirty minutes, frozen blank by the drugs, she sat up, put on her wig and clothes, and headed out to catch more dates. He stayed behind, listening to Phil Collins.
It’s not only the addicts who come to Hunts Point that are used by pimps. Many of the younger women there, some only 13 years old, are pimped by local men.
Roxy was one of the first prostitutes I interviewed. She was standing on Spofford Avenue outside a bodega, on a corner across from a church and a school. It’s part of a four-block stretch heavy with younger girls.
At the time she was new to the process, out on the streets for only six months, turned out by a pimp she had met. She was sweet and shy, a local girl looking to make money for school. “I am in school. I got tuition, food, housing, all that to pay for. This is just a way to get by.” She stunned me when in her quiet voice she recounted a story of having been kidnapped and raped a few weeks before. “Sure, it’s not easy. I’ve been kidnapped once and raped twice. I got into a car with a john. Another man was hiding in the backseat. They drove me to Yonkers, tied me up and raped me.” When I asked about her pimp, she said, “He doesn’t look out for me. Now I am friends with the other girls. We all look out for each other, because no one else will.”
I had lost track of her since that night, but recently I found her at “Hero Corner” down the hill, where the young girls work under the gaze of their pimps. She was different than before. She was on drugs, nervous, worn, and tired. I tried to have a conversation, but she ran away, scared. I got a withering look from her pimp.
The pimps control the corner, slinging drugs and women. They come and go from the deli, sucking grape soda while endlessly fingering their cell phones. They dress only slight flashier than most, perhaps a belt buckle with more faux gems or sneakers with more game. The women walk a loop, coming back to talk to the pimp as they buy cigarettes or drinks. This process repeats itself endlessly.
The pimps are violent. A young girl, maybe 16, who I have seen walking the streets recently had both her arms broken by her “husband.” She was planning to get back out after they healed, working and dating the same pimp. The local girls, when telling me about her, started laughing, “I know its not funny, but both arms. Damn!”
Why is there this relationship between pimps and prostitutes? Why do the women put up with such abuse?
The classic economic model is of little value. The pimps don’t advertise for them, the pimps don’t provide protection. The pimps’ only visible role is to allow the girls to use a busy corner. That corner does not have a large premium associated with it or a larger rent. The women charge about the same for a date as at other corners.
Michael, who has been in Hunts Point over twenty years, who had a pimp when he was younger says, “These kids are not pimps. They are boyfriends playing pimps, as an excuse to beat their women. Pimps provide a house to crash in, clothes, and get you dates. These guys don’t do any of that.”
Is it emotional?
Most of the women have never had a positive male role model in their life. When talking to the women I am embarrassed to ask about their fathers, I know the answer, and they know I know the answer: If he was even in their life, rather than in jail or absent, then there is a very good chance that he has beaten them or sexually abused them. The same is true of older brothers, or uncles, who they see involved in a world of drugs or gangs, and then jail. Beauty’s older cousin is a pimp. As Cassie Rodenberg has said to me, “The women don’t expect to be abused, but it’s also not unexpected.”
(Jen and her “husband” Pachino)
It’s an endless cycle driven by the women’s desire for caring, for hope, for someone in their life who just might provide for them, both emotionally and physically. They are often just kids dreaming of a romance they were denied as teenagers. They even interchange the language. Beauty is dating her pimp, Diana is married to hers. Jumping into a car with a john is “catching a date.”
The pimps themselves are frustrated, angry, and feel powerless. The average income in Hunts Point is 17K for a family. Unemployment is close to 50%. They don’t see much hope or many opportunities growing up. They are beaten down by rules stacked against them, by poverty, by the police. They take it out on the women and the kids, the one group they can muscle.
Why is it a cycle of men abusing women? What part is cultural and what part is biological? Why do fathers rape daughters? Why do those same daughters fall into a relationship with a pimp that continues the abuse?
Are women just steeped in hope and men in the desire for power? Or is it not that simple?
All humans battle a fear of death and loneliness. The prostitutes of Hunts Point know death all too well. Loneliness, however, haunts them constantly. They have been alone almost all their lives. They have never known someone they can trust. Raped by their fathers or brothers, put into foster homes and sometimes forced into prostitution by their mothers, forced to run away before they are adults. They have, like Diana, had to sleep alone on an empty street covered only by cardboard.
Loneliness strips bare their fears: Fears of violence, fears of never living a life other than on the streets.
Vanessa worked alone in Hunts Point for 12 years. She would talk to herself as she searched in the dark for a place to sleep. “It made me feel less alone, made the guys out there in the dark think twice before jumping me. Maybe I was with someone. I wasn’t, but it made them think I was, and sometimes I even thought I was.”
The prostitutes want to have someone who can help stave off the pangs of loneliness: Someone to believe and understand them, someone to bring them that little extra to their life. To find that they are forced to play the long odds, because the even ones have never been available.
Beauty has now been in jail for over three months. She has stopped expecting Bishop to come. Last time we visited she told us of her new “husband,” another inmate in her dorm by the name of Angela, a girl who knows and worked Hunts point. “She is my Shorty, my AG. She takes care of me. She works in the kitchen, she can get me extra. Yesterday was Chicken Thursday. We had a fat meal. Two extra bags of rice and chicken. Sunday is Muffin Sunday.” She stood up slightly from her chair, shaking off the warning glances from the corrections officer, and did a little shimmy, singing, “Muffin Sunday, Muffin Sunday, my shorty going to get me some extra muffins.”
Click for the full photo series on addiction in Hunts Point: FACES OF ADDICTION