Photos courtesy of Chris Arnade
Beauty’s found seated atop a post or other makeshift higher ground cushion, on a street jutting a crooked angle from a main drag of parked and mobile semis. On happier days, her legs, clad in neon orange or green leggings, swing in circles. Spotting a friend, she tucks her smartphone into her bra with a soprano-pitched “hey, girl,” a palms-on-thighs leap down and spring up for a hug. These days have been happier — she’s left her boyfriend, her pimp.
Like many young women new to Hunts Point, Beauty, a 22-year-old sex worker, relied on her pimp to provide protection, guidance, and, ultimately, companionship, which twisted into a full-fledged relationship of sorts. In the arrangement, Beauty worked the streets, paid her “boyfriend” part of her earnings, watched his children when he disappeared for hours, sometimes days, dealt with his cell phone usage rules and outing guideline whims.
For Beauty, freedom has become increasingly important — freedom in when she walks the streets and how she spends her time, to go shopping and spend money how she chooses, to silence her phone instead of answering it on the first ring, nervous rabbit-like. She rides the metamorphosis from dependence to independence with ill-suppressed glee, the high of acting on her own.
On the South Bronx peninsula, the crevice dividing novice and adult prostitutes deals largely with the having of a pimp. Whisper-thin teen girls settle on street corners, life-size leaves collecting near storm drains. They talk to one another or speechlessly hold cell phones to their ear, eyes careening from one car to the next, magnetized poles to sidewalk pedestrians. These girls are fresh, missing the picked skin markings and clouded irises of their older counterparts. The young to late adolescents wait for aural direction amidst passing families clutching toddlers and roving groups of young men, acting automatons of street cool. When cued via phone, they enter a passing sedan, sometimes containing a pimp, sometimes a client.
Hands waving, words trip and collide when Beauty updates on her last days: a 48-hour stint in Riker’s veering near her twenty-second birthday, the thrill in release hours before her birthday began. This brief imprisonment, though, is much better than being confined to a one-bedroom abode watching five kids not her own.
Since leaving her boyfriend-pimp, she’s been dating her loosely-termed “husband,” now for a month. She’s poised to move into his talked-about apartment, a place she’s never seen, about which she’s only heard rumors. This guy has things going for him — crisp style; no gaggle of kids to look after; his own income apart from the neighborhood; housing. She makes her own rules, though she’s not quite yet on her own, straddling the pimp-no pimp fissure.
Older women at the Point scoff at the notion of pimps, though many a seasoned sex worker started her career with a similar keeper. Pimps are company, often treating young girls slightly better than the dysfunctional family unit from which they’ve fled. Later, though, once the sultry charm of instant adulthood the business offers wears off, splitting income with a man who can’t accompany her in a stranger’s backseat offers a woman little luster.
Tiring of the dangers and the fools gold-promised lifestyle, Beauty fans dreams of leaving Hunts Point, but only vaguely, something she might do someday on good days, something she really might do on unhappier days.
On worse days, the normally chatty girl folds into a post or pallets on an adjacent street, head bent, eyes heavy-lidded, strung out, a creased packet of “Scooby Snax” K2 in hand. Now, unhappier days happen less, but K2 happens more. Her boyfriend-pimp started her on the bodega-housed “potpourri” to help her relax, and as a reward for doing well, a common measure pimps use in molding and controlling their girls.
Now on her own, she sports the liberty to buy the sweet-scented wind-down smoke at her leisure and puffs it regularly, her speech and eyes slower, her mind moving to a place beyond Hunts Point, something more, something free, something that, alone in her skin, becomes more and less real.
I write on culture, poverty, and addiction in New York City, recovering from stints as a chemist and interactive TV producer. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg; find me on the web; or contact via email.
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