22/01/2014

Doing it for money

Uncle Tom / By Uncle Tom

When I read about women who leave their villages and families to go become prostitutes in big towns or even in other countries, I think of Jeannie.

Jeannie stood out among the other street girls where I lived back then, in South Central Los Angeles. There was something bright and fiery and determined about her. As a messenger boy I passed her spot often, and then we chatted. That was all. I earned so little that I could not afford her even if I had wanted to pay.

Jeannie would only do it for money, no matter how much I offered her marriage and all my pay checks for the rest of my life. She would laugh and run her fingers through my hair and shake her head and tell me that I needed a nice girl – not her. I would answer that she was clever and honest and friendly, what was not nice about that? But she would just shake her head again and mumble something about not going back to Minnesota and have babies and do laundry day-in day-out. It took me six months to ask her if she had perhaps had a bad time as a kid and that is when I saw the hard, almost metal-like core of her in her eyes. “Rather,” she said and then wouldn’t talk to me about it again, except to say “Stop trying to save me.”

Jeannie did leave the streets soon after that awkward conversation. I still saw her a few times when entering and leaving the more uptown escort office, where she now collected her pay checks – much larger than mine. After that, I didn’t see her at all anymore. Ten years later, I thought I saw her in a picture taken at a conference in a ski resort in Switzerland, dancing with some diplomat, all smiles and little black dress and pearls.

A ring on her finger

And then I met her again, suddenly, five years ago. She was launching a health foundation for women and children in city slums. She was live on the news, still looking great, and the caption said ‘Jeannette Johnson’. Thirty-five years later and we were both here, in LA. I hurried to that hotel and got in thanks to my ZAM press card. She was sitting with other journalists, laughing in her infectious way, and playing with her rings just like she used to. I noticed she had a ring on her left hand with a very large diamond.

She recognised me, came to me and hugged me. She talked passionately to me about women’s shelters and free health clinics and bursaries so that girls could even get to be electro-technical engineers if they bloody well wanted to. I knew she was talking about herself in a way.

After a while I felt brave enough to point at her ring finger and asked her if she had now finally left the trade. No, she said, with that mischievous grin of hers, and she pointed at the big posters that adorned the press room, that portrayed the generous donor of the new foundation. He was some old billionaire guy named Henry something-or-other. “Still doing what I always did,” she said and winked.