The taxi sailed downtown along the East River, on its way to deliver me to my first whorehouse. Corinne had referred me to her colleague Evelyn for a week’s work. She said it was part of my initiation into the Life. The late-morning, late-August sun poured its benign light over the dirty water, and the oily rivulets seemed to dance as if fish were chasing each other just below the surface. A compact little tug scooted under the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, reminding me of lives lived in the open. Mick Jagger’s taunting alto blasted over the car radio. I was preening again in the large hand mirror I had brought with me and singing along, occasionally catching the young, long-haired driver’s eyes in the car mirror staring at my shiny black hot pants that twitched to the rock ’n’ roll beat.
In an hour’s time I would be sequestering myself with the first of an endless trail of strangers, all of whom would be sticking their strange penises into me, from eleven a.m. to seven p.m. for the next five days straight. And the truth is, rather than gritting my teeth, I was jumping with excitement, behaving more like a bobby-soxer on the way to her first hop than a prostitute booked for a week’s work. Appealing visions of iniquity danced in my head: satin sheets the color of wine, heavy drapes blotting out the street, and foreign men who looked vaguely like Marcello Mastroianni drawing on long cigarettes and appraising my delicate limbs through hanging corridors of smoke.
Imagine my disappointment when confronted with the most ordinary of garden apartments, a floor-through on an equally unremarkable side street somewhere in the no-man’s-land of the teens. In fact, the single detail that might suggest “bordello” was the beaded curtain dividing the bedroom from the rest of the lackluster apartment.
The madam, however, stood out against the backdrop of her beige-carpeted, brown-laminated living room.
“You’re chicken pussy,” she said, “am I right?”
“Excuse me, I’m what?”
“You know, fresh. Take off your clothes. I want to be sure, have to check you for needle marks, sores, that stuff. My clients don’t want junkies, and they don’t get junkies. Capiche?”
Evelyn had a nose and a chin that looked like they were going to get closer as the years went by, but those eyes were like shots from the soul, and her body was out of this world, slim and curvy like something out of a jerk-off magazine. She was wearing a tiny, fringed vest that just covered her breasts and silk hip huggers. Her straight brown hair hung down below her shoulders suspiciously like a hippie’s, I thought.
As I stripped before the madam, who scrutinized the inside of my arms and the cheeks of my behind, I continued to look around. Finally, I couldn’t hold back anymore.
“But I don’t get it.”
“I don’t know. I expected somehow something more, you know, sexy. This is strictly dentist-office decor.”
“Rented. Everything in the joint. Rented. By the month,” Evelyn said.
“Well, how’s a guy even supposed to get it up in an atmosphere like this?”
“Put your clothes back on and sit down. We’ve got a client coming any minute,” she said.
I did as I was told. “Sorry, it’s none of my business.”
“No, no. I’m not offended. OK, let’s put it this way. Janet—that is your name, right?”
“OK,” she said, sitting down next to me and poking her face into mine. “OK, Janet. Here’s the point: you got a lot to learn about men, girl, a lot. That’s obvious.” She leaned back, crossed her legs and stretched both arms out along the back of the rough brown plaid sofa.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because,” she said, pulling her arms down and putting her hands on her knees after uncrossing her legs until they hung wide open, “a stiff prick don’t need atmosphere. That’s the last thing a hard-on wants is atmosphere.”
After she spoke, Evelyn paused for what seemed like a long time and trained her eyes on me as if she were looking for signs of life on the moon.
“This is a whorehouse, honey. A whorehouse is no different than a men’s room, and we whores are the toilets. Capiche?”
“I see. Toilets. Uh-huh.”
“OK, I’m crude. But you might as well know what it is you’re getting into. Illusions don’t make life any easier. We’re douche bags, baby, that’s all. Still, it’s a quick buck, can’t take that away.”
“I guess I never thought of it quite like that,” I said.
“Nah, not too many girls in the Life do. The truth is tough to take.” She patted my knee, stood up, and stretched. “Ten to one you didn’t get into this on account of your high self-esteem.”
“The hell with self-esteem. OK, maybe I don’t have any, but I don’t want any either. I don’t estimate myself at all. Maybe I’m great; maybe I’m shit. What measure would I use? It always comes down to what other people think, other people’s opinions. I’m not interested,” I said, glad to vent one of my pet theories.
“Good, that’s a good trait for a ho to have,” Evelyn said, glancing at the electric clock on the wall. “OK, sixty-forty split. Blow job is fifty, straight is seventy-five, half ‘n’ half, a hundred. Up front. That covers it. Nothing fancy—my clients don’t go in for it. They’re meat ‘n’ potatoes, salt-of-the-earth, happily married, two kids, two cars, Long Island, New Jersey kind of guys. You’ll sail through this week. All my girls love it here.”
Evelyn’s little no-frills whorehouse was an ideal introduction to the Life. If I’d had to compete with other comely young things, as I later would, or if I’d been expected to cater to those kinky, hard-to-please types (those idle, jaded whoremongers, usually remission men, who haunt the fancier cathouses around town where they spend hours sizing you up before they finally pounce on you), then I’m sure I would have bolted. But as it was, I could ease into it. In fact, hooking at Evelyn’s with her benign, singularly unimaginative clientele was less of a challenge than my own private love life had been for a long time.
The first john of the day’s name was Frank. A mild, curly-haired Jewish fellow from the Five Towns, he sold appliances wholesale, lived happily, just as Evelyn had said, with his goyisha wife, Marion, and three kids somewhere out there on the flat moraine.
He shared this information proudly (as so often was the case with these men, he was exceedingly proud of his domestic life) within the first fifteen minutes in the living room, where we three sat while he drank his highball, after politely requesting a coaster from the hostess. I don’t know why he thought I needed to know all this about him, but meanwhile, I was afraid he might be stalling because he wasn’t attracted to me. Finally, when he sensed he must get to it—time is money after all—he smiled shyly at me and stood up, offering his hand. It was the first intimation I had that he liked me. Probably too eagerly, I took it and waltzed off with him through the beaded curtains into the simulated motel-chain bedroom.
I indiscriminately loved hard-ons. This made whoring a lot easier. I told myself freedom is loving the opposite sex—or, if you’re gay, your own sex, same difference—freedom is loving the whole thing because you love desire itself. Why is it women still aren’t free to love desire itself? I believed that I had dodged societal repression, that I was breaking out into a wild zone beyond male jurisdiction. In fact, my lust did act to save me. Only the palpable feel of a man, his very foreignness, could literally and otherwise penetrate my bad-dream state. Drugs and booze fixed it, too, but sex most of all.
This was perhaps why my first inclination was to make love to the stranger, allowing him to undress me, as I never would later on. He got more than his money’s worth that lunch hour, tousling my funny hair, which was growing out in all directions, and playing with my clitoris until I came. I was still just a lover then, a sweetheart of a girl, no more sophisticated than the local high school slut when it came to sex. I wanted to be loved; some part of me wanted Frank and every other man to take me home to meet his mother.
Evelyn was quick to set me straight. “You spent too long in there. I heard you moaning, too. What the hell is that all about?”
I blushed with shame.
“Janet, Janet, honey,” she said, pushing her face up against mine again, “you don’t make love to these clowns. That’s why they call it a ‘trick.’ Capiche?
“Listen, now, to what I’m going to say. It’s the best piece of information you’re ever going to get. Lay the chump down and squat on him. Push your tits up, hold ’em there all squished tight, show him your cleavage, and make him come. The sooner the better. Save your juice for the pimp or whoever. But come on, kid. Get with it. You’re a whore now. You’re a pro. Act like it. OK?”
To illustrate her point, Evelyn had grabbed her own large breasts and shoved them together while she talked. They were staring at me accusingly.
“Yeah, OK,” I said, still weak with shame, remembering how Frank had actually hugged me there in the pitch-dark, and I had hugged him back.
One thing I did get for my trouble was that he took my number. Frank was my first whorehouse trick and the first entry into what would become my own sizable book of clients, a valuable commodity that retiring whores sell to other whores, sometimes for thousands of dollars, just as a doctor sells his list of patients. Stealing a madam’s john is sure grounds for immediate dismissal, if you get caught. Corinne had warned me of this, and it was the first thing Evelyn had said to me over the phone. But every whore I ever knew gave out her number whenever she got the chance. And madams will look the other way, as long as they like you and as long as you don’t get greedy. Anyway, not every john will ask for your number. It helps if you happen to be his type. You wait to be sure you’ve hooked him, or otherwise he might even snitch.
But Frank went for me. When he finally came to see me at Sigrid’s, he behaved like an ardent suitor, showering our humble digs with presents: an electric grill, a steam iron, a water pick, and a state-of-the-art clock radio. For this reason, Sigrid tolerated him, although she was pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea. According to her code, it was OK to jerk off anonymous strangers, but turning tricks with men who knew your name was another matter.
One more aspect of Evelyn’s business that worked in my favor was the unhurried nature of it. Often, I grew restless, and eventually, I came to resent the empty hours I spent waiting for the next call or the next appointment. But it gave me a chance to ease into the job.
Evelyn liked to smoke reefer; I preferred to duck into the bathroom and snort lines off my big hand mirror. Finally, toward the end of my first week, I told her about it. She did a line with me but regretted it immediately. Speed made her too hyper, she said.
“I don’t see how you can do that stuff and then just sit here, without even booze to take the edge off,” she said.
Liquor during working hours was forbidden by Evelyn, as it was at most of the smaller houses; not so the big ones, where drinking at the bar with clients went with the job. But usually if a house featured only one whore, that one had to be self-contained, almost demure. The long afternoons did not in any way resemble a party there in the garden apartment; rather, each john’s visit was meant to be a restful interlude, and I was offered up as the equivalent of a soothing tonic.
The time I spent at Evelyn’s was tranquil and easy once I got the hang of turning fast, efficient tricks in the darkened bedroom. A shaft of southern light trained itself against the vacant living room wall, and I would sit there for long stretches watching motes of dust and threads of smoke swim slowly inside its circumference, dreaming my drug-induced dreams of Michael McClaren and me living blissfully in a thatched-roof hut in the Irish countryside. Sometimes I wandered outside into the erstwhile garden, now reduced to two dirt plots divided by a path of stepping-stones. The remnants of bushes and other living things, the thin, bare cords formerly of ivy that climbed the brick wall, made me long for I could not then have said what.
Evelyn taught me how to play backgammon, but we didn’t gamble. Money was too serious to her. Nevertheless, we played ferociously, both of us hating to lose. My madam began to warm to me. She dropped her bravado as if it were a clunky burden to be discarded all of a piece. We talked about ourselves, or at least Evelyn did. She was more forthcoming than I was, because I was ashamed of my background. I don’t know why I was so reticent about having been brought up on Park Avenue. Perhaps I sensed that the details of my childhood were too much of an anomaly, too far-fetched. I alluded to my past, of course. I had to acknowledge it in a general way, or else Evelyn would have known I was lying or trying to hide something. She would have known because even though I continually censored myself, eliminating ten-cent words before they could spring from my mouth, my private-school diction gave me away.
Evelyn owned a big two-story house in a cul-de-sac by the water near the tip of City Island. There were two kids it turned out: a girl sixteen and a boy seventeen, almost eighteen, both born out of wedlock by different fathers. The first time Evelyn got pregnant, she was a junior in high school living with a taciturn mother who prayed most of the time, some brothers and sisters, and an Italian drunk of a father who beat up everyone occasionally. It did not occur to Evelyn to get an abortion. For one thing, she loved passionately the father of the baby, a petty hood, an honest-to-God Sicilian.
The girl’s father was Irish, and easier to forget, she told me. I didn’t argue with Evelyn about their comparative merits, because I had never been with a Sicilian, and I had never experienced the unassailable fidelity she described. Even after all these years, it was obvious he had been the love of her life. He had been true. The other one, the Irishman, was cuter maybe but disloyal. He screwed around. She made him sound trivial by comparison.
Sadly, Eddie’s father did disappear, first to Rikers Island, then to Sing Sing, and finally to the city of Albany, where he now ran the numbers or worked at some other low-profile job. She wasn’t sure. But as proof of the grandness of this first love, it had produced Eddie, her gray-eyed Sicilian, Eddie Carnivale, because she gave him his father’s surname, the hell with the birth certificate.
“Oh, but he’s trouble, big trouble,” Evelyn said, her fierce brown eyes lighting up whenever she mentioned her son. Her daughter, Ava, had just started to rebel. Up until sometime this year, she’d been tractable, an adult in miniature, shopping for food and sometimes even, unbidden, sweeping the kitchen floor. Eddie, on the other hand . . . “Oh, never mind,” she said. “He’s a JD, that kid, a little wise guy, a con man, just like his father, no good at all. But a charm boy, I swear, and not because I’m his mother, the boy could sweet-talk an old lady out of her Social Security check before she even makes it to the bank. He doesn’t have to steal; all he has to do is ask for it. I never knew anyone, even his father, like it.” She sat up straight while she spoke, bristling with pride.
“You’ll see for yourself,” she said at one point late in the week. “I want you to come out some Sunday and have dinner with us. You take the number one train, the local, to the last stop and then the bus to the last stop. It’s a drag, but I’ll get Eddie to drive you home. Nothing fancy, capiche? Oh, but a gorgeous sunset over the city, bright red on account of the smog. And it’s pretty where I live. So you’ll come. I want you to meet Eddie, and Ava, of course. Maybe a week from Sunday. OK?”
“Yes, sure, I’d love to,” I lied. I hated traveling anywhere except by cab, but I couldn’t think of a reason to say no.
By the time Friday rolled around, Evelyn had booked me again for the following week, the last week in August. Even though most of her clients went for the novelty of different whores, at least rotating whores, business at that time of year was as slow as it got; besides, I was new talent, so Evelyn figured I could carry two weeks. And she trusted me not to run off with her clients if any of them happened to get attached. Well, it wasn’t trust exactly. Instead, she didn’t entirely believe that I was in the Life, that I was committed to building a book of my own. But I was, and I gave out my number a half a dozen times at least while I was there.
I became good, too, at hustling the men in and out fast. The bedroom decor helped, it was so impersonal, so brown and laminated like the living room. Impossible to forget where you were in that atmosphere. But I loved it, free as it was of personality, the demands of domestic life, the awful reminders of a happier past, the worn-out, broken-down, sad and familiar things we surround ourselves with and then grow to hate, until the prospect of going home looms like the horror of last night’s ugly dream suddenly recalled. Evelyn’s whorehouse bedroom, by contrast, reminded me of life on the American road, of toilet seats wrapped in paper to prove how sanitary they are, of little individual bars of soap, enough so you could open a new one every time. This bedroom freed me from the burden of self, from the petty responsibilities of daily living. With the solemn reverence ritual inspires, tricks dropped their used condoms in the special metal wastepaper basket reserved for that purpose. I washed the men off again just as reverently before they put on their suits and knotted their ties in front of the cheap mirror attached to the low dresser.
And on it went, except for the hours when no one called and no one came, hours spent waiting on the sofa with Evelyn, waiting and waiting for the insurance salesmen, the Seventh Avenue wholesalers, the cheerfully settled family men with small retail stores in the neighborhood. I waited for the prosaic, but to me foreign, worlds they brought in with them, for the money, and, not least of all, for the chance to practice my profession, to seduce them.
I learned how to spike the simple acts we performed together with low-key drama, with a sultry voice and an artful stroke. I learned how effective it was to lower myself on him slowly, to strike a pose in the dim light. Sometimes I brushed my hand lightly across a hard penis, making it seem almost accidental. I knew then the trick would be sucking in his breath and holding it, afraid I might disown the action if he asked for more. I might say, ‘enough of that,’ or some other preemptory thing. It felt so good, all the more because it was out of his control and because I was not aroused. Perverse as it was, the trick often liked being the only one who enjoyed it. Maybe he felt relieved not having to please the woman, not having to worry about her orgasm for once. Underneath that, there was something both humiliating and at the same time exciting about it, succumbing to the all-powerful, remote mother of his infant dreams.
Even as I began to enjoy the power I had over these tricks in the bedroom, I did not like at all the feeling of helplessness I experienced waiting for them in the living room. Evelyn seemed to take it in stride; not me. More than anything, I had always hated waiting for men. But in the hooking profession in those days, only streetwalkers could escape it. Meanwhile, this is what had drawn me to the saloons, where I could come and go, where I could hunt men instead of the other way around. Now, even though I had chosen to outright reject the society I was born into, I found myself once more obliged to wait for the attention of men. I could barely stand the frustration. If it weren’t for the fact that I was also waiting for pretty good money, I might have hit the street.
From Blue Money. Used with permission of The Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2017 by Janet Capron.