Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sidewalk Love

Preface: I wrote this back in 1977. Yes, as long ago as that. It is set the previous year because a 1976 clean-up campaign in NYC is useful to the plot. New York in the mid-1970s was far different from today, especially Times Square and the area west of Broadway. Today, Times Square is Disney-fied, and the whole Theater District is full of trendy restaurants, pricy office space, and pricier living space. In the free-wheeling 70s, the area was much seedier. It was the center of the city’s sex trade, and the trade was not hidden away out of sight. In those days when STDs were believed curable (and most were), strip joints, peep shows, porn shops, and massage parlors abounded amid the legitimate theaters. 8th Avenue from 42nd to 52nd Streets was the Minnesota Strip (named for the Midwestern origins of many of its denizens), always lined by scores of streetwalkers asking passersby for dates. Inside the surrounding parlors and fleabag hotels were hundreds more working girls (and working boys). I was young enough in those days to find the people and the scene intriguing. Hence this tale about a worker and a customer. While my own 1970s were far from innocent, this particular tale ought not to be considered autobiographical.

Sidewalk Love

Is paid sex romantic? Variation on an old joke: it is if you do it right. How one does it right may best be explored with a mythic tale of a boy and his tart.
Do not confuse myth with fiction. There really was a Trojan War even though the details grew fabulous through the retelling. There quite possibly was an Aeneas though the truth of who and what he was is deeply obscured by the mist of time. Perhaps there was an Arthur, whoever and whatever he was, to inspire the legends of Camelot. Accordingly, let us borrow this last name for the hero of this mythic tale.
Mythic romance is an epic theme that requires a suitably pompous voice. We shall strive to achieve this. We shall forego dactylic hexameter however. That is as difficult to write as it is to read and the author is no Vergil or Homer. But he has heard the story of a moment spent by a modern Odysseus in the arms of his Calypso, so of those arms and the man I sing.
Arthur lived in a place called Roxbury, NJ. This was a far flung suburb of the mythical city of Gotham, sometimes called New York, a great metropolis of a mythical country known (with the degree of sardonic humor customary to that time and place) as the Land of Liberty. Our hero was in his early 20s, epigone of a well-heeled family that had made its modest fortune in a construction supply business. He now worked in that business although the precise nature of his job and authority was unclear, especially to the workers for whom the son of the boss is by long tradition risible.
In accordance with the custom of the land, Arthur had received 17 years of liberal education which prevented him from properly learning the family business or any other suitable livelihood, but at least taught him the philosophy to live without the independence the education itself obstructed. So, while he was inept at distinguishing spruce from fir in the family lumberyard, he could distinguish Euripides from Sophocles, and quote both aptly and accurately.
Let us look in on Arthur walking the Gotham pavement.
The bright sun affected his eyes so as to give the world a bluish hue, but it had failed to crack the bitter cold. The February wind could be felt beneath his winter coat, a red plaid hunter’s jacket ordinary in his hometown of a few thousand people but conspicuous in the city. Our hero’s hands pushed deep into his jacket pockets. His fingertips complained bitterly at the cold. Perversely, Arthur hoped the pain would continue. His hands displayed a certainty and urgency of response that somehow his mind had stopped showing.
Arthur, like many a young man, was given to uncompromising pronouncements on this or that subject. In politics, he favored third parties because they allowed him to “be involved” without the risk of electoral victory and subsequent disillusionment. But his pronouncements were intellectual play only, devoid of real emotional content. Had he actually been asked to join in a pledge of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” one suspects he would have coughed and excused himself to the kitchen. Again like many a young man, especially of the literary variety, he had acquired a taste for nihilism. He believed the material world to be indifferent and humans to be careless when not malevolent, but he no longer was able to work up any animus about this state of affairs. It seemed a waste of energy. In consequence, a creeping numbness had overtaken him. He generally thought this for the best.
Weekend walks through New York City relaxed our hero. He liked the city’s hard edges that so contrasted with the leafy fuzziness of his own town. Today, however, he walked with an ill-defined restlessness. He crossed Broadway and passed the Times building at 43rd where trucks unloaded a forest in the form of giant rolls of paper. He crossed 8th Avenue, nicknamed the Minnesota Strip, and walked north past the sidewalk princesses. He was merely window-shopping. Our hero had no objection to the ladies or their line of work. He in fact had succumbed on one occasion when he was 18 and a virgin. Having found the episode rather more mundane than expected, he refrained from further incursions into the demimonde. He had pursued more conventional arrangements with women although all of these to date had been in some regard unsatisfactory. Still, his hormones nudged him onto the Strip.
Arthur ambled for several blocks while deliberating grimly on the worthlessness of humankind, the paucity of pulchritude necessary for survival on the Strip, and the gloomy fate of the Republic. He scarcely heard the iterations of, “Hi, you want go out?” It was an unusually pitched voice rather than the aforementioned hormones that caused him to glance left and catch the hazel eyes of an extraordinarily attractive young woman. Her face was unexpectedly innocent in its expression, her hair had the hint of red that for some reason appealed to him, and her frame seemed a happy compromise between the delicate and the athletic. She strongly reminded him of an old college favorite who had not in fact favored him. She stood as a repudiation of his thoughts except perhaps those about the gloomy fate of the Republic. This irritated him and he continued walking toward Central Park. He imagined the admiration of the other pedestrians for his strength of character. He also contemplated the role of cowardice in his retreat but he was able to push that thought away quickly.
Before long he reached the park and now was at a loss for a goal. He searched for a bench that was unbroken and distant from the impecunious and the peculiar. He found one and sat to watch the traffic. Crisp white clouds moved swiftly across the sky. The sharp taste of ozone was strangely invigorating. The chill of the gelid bench was uncomfortable through his pants.
The image of hazel eyes and strawberry blonde hair returned to him. “Don’t be a low life,” he chided himself aloud as a nervous man self-consciously looked his way. “Oh, I don’t care what people think,” he lied to himself more quietly, and to prove it he retraced his steps down 8th Avenue. After all, the route is in the general direction of the Path subway terminal, he rationalized. But to avoid looking deliberate about getting a second look at the girl, he crossed to the opposite side of the street.
The girl who had chosen the appellation “Brandi” leaned against the half-empty brick building on the corner of 48th. Her real name was Rebecca. The beginning and ending sounds of “Brandi” were close enough to her childhood nickname “Becky” for the street name to be comfortable.
She wished her feet would stop feeling the cold. She was quite successful at her job despite a caution not all of her competitors demonstrated. She made no apologies for being at least a little picky. Even guys in business suits sometimes were dangerous or crazy. One had mutilated a woman in a hotel across the street the previous week. So, you had to trust your instincts about potential customers when the vibes weren’t right. She had been arrested repeatedly, but since New York courts placed prostitution in a category with spitting in public, there never had been a penalty more severe than a couple of hours in jail and a $50 fine.
Brandi had few complaints with her status. It was an improvement over her early life. Rebecca grew up outside of Tallahassee, Florida, as one of 4 children in a poor family. Her father was a violent alcoholic gambler who wasted whatever her mother, a NATO bride from Luxembourg, earned. She had been shuffled among aunts who made no secret of the burden of her existence. At 15 she had enough, informed the appropriate aunt of her departure with sufficient impoliteness so as to raise no objection, and hitched a ride north.
Brandi went to work as soon as she reached the city. At first she rationalized that it was all she could do. Today at 23 she frankly admitted that she was too lazy to do anything else. Occasionally she would find a customer disgusting, but in general the work struck her as neither difficult nor unpleasant -- and it was very lucrative. She earned thousands in a three or four day work week, spent freely and enjoyed a comfortable apartment near Gramercy Park.
Today business was dead, though her girlfriend Janet had picked up a date a few minutes earlier. She thought she had a prospect earlier with a young guy who must have been an out-of-towner with that plaid jacket. Some men show every emotion on their faces. She could read his well enough when she asked, “Would you like to go out with me?” But like so many others he walked on past. The trouble with working in public, she reflected, is that it is in public. She knew that more men would accept if they were not in full view of others. Some girls handed out business cards but the police didn’t like it and they always fell into the wrong hands. Police were usually OK if you weren’t so brazen as virtually to dare them to bust you.
Brandi creased her lips in annoyance as a passing woman about her own age gripped her husband’s arm and glared at her from behind pink sunglasses. She smirked when the man apologetically shrugged her shoulders. Across the Avenue she espied a familiar plaid jacket. There really was no reason to walk down 8th Avenue twice except herself and the other girls. She smiled that he was on the other side of the street. Do men ever grow up? She waved. He discreetly waved back. The light changed to WALK and Brandi crossed the street to meet him.

Arthur occasionally experienced dissociation, the sense of being an observer of the scene in which he was acting. The most dramatic case was when he had fallen out of a tree as a child. To this day his recollection of the event is from above the scene at an altitude of some 50 feet. He clearly envisages himself on the ground below. He tended not to mention these episodes in case they indicated some psychosis. One such episode began the moment the young woman addressed him in an odd mixed accent best described as Southern-fried Manhattan.
“Hi. Mah name is Brandi.”
It was only when climbing the second flight of stairs in the Mayfair Hotel that he recovered enough self-possession to ask himself, “What am I doing now?”
“Did you say something, sweetie?”
“Nothing important.”
Seemingly committed barring an unseemly fuss (our hero could be cowardly about such things), he decided to make the best of it. This proved quite easy. Brandi was talkative, had an extremely pleasant disposition, and was determinedly normal. His limited experience had not yet shaken the stereotype for hookers of streetwise hardness and arms with needle tracks. Ludicrously, it was the girl who lived next door to him out in the suburbs who fit that description better. Besides, Brandi was the most attractive woman he ever had been invited to touch. As the winter gear dropped the prospect looked less and less like a bad idea.
Arthur found himself appreciating the simple honesty of the transaction as compared with the unspoken contractual provisions of conventional dating. Without unrefinedly indulging in unnecessary detail, let us say that the next hour was spent in pleasant conversation in both the literal and euphemistic sense. He traveled home relaxed and with an intent to revisit his new acquaintance.
In the next few months, such afternoon hours were a recurrent and refreshing feature of his life. He fretted a bit over dollars but in truth she was less expensive than some of his other dates. He soon lost any lingering disquiet. Surprisingly to Arthur, after 8 years in the business Brandi still displayed sensitivity about it. Let us listen in on one occasion when our hero picked the wrong way to be playful.
“Brandi, why do I like you?” he teased.
Not playful at all. “Why, am I that hard to like?”
“Well, uh …”
“Yeah, I know. ‘Get yourself a NICE girl. All I want is your money. Right?”
“Well, uh … “
“I AM nice, and I don’t take advantage of anyone. I’d never do that to a guy. Like I’d never marry him, you know? I don’t take anything a guy doesn’t willingly give me. Does my being a hooker bug you or something?”
“Well, uh …”
“Nobody cares anymore except prudes and closet fags.” Although not squeamish at all about servicing mixed couples or engaging in other gender bending activities, Brandi sometimes voiced extraordinarily rude remarks regarding male homosexuals – perhaps a trade bias.
Arthur backed off the subject. He was secretly amused that she did not refute the “only after your money,” but was wise enough not to mention it. Any doubts he might have had that their relationship was strictly business, at least on her part, were dispelled when, during the warm afterglow of lovemaking, he suggested another type of date.
“Brandi, there are a couple of shows over on Broadway. Would you like to see one with me? Maybe get dinner?”
“Do you really want to?” she asked noncommittally.
“I asked if you would like to.”
“How much were you thinking of spending on this evening?”
“I don’t know. Broadway is getting expensive. Altogether, a couple hundred, I guess.”
“I would rather have the money. I’ll make it worth your while.”
She did, too. Arthur did not propose expensive activities afterwards. Yes, our hero was growing fond of Brandi, and found himself flattering her simply because he enjoyed doing it. Witness:
“Do I look OK?” she asked, primping herself in the mirror at the end of a session.
“Stop it! That’s no help at all. You always exaggerate.”
“No. You’re beautiful.”
“I’m cute, sweetie, but I’m not beautiful.”
Arthur disagreed. He didn’t recognize this as a danger sign.
Summer arrived. The Democrats planned to convene in New York to throw parties and to nominate a Georgia peanut farmer for president. Financially insolvent New York City hoped to impress the present and future distributors of taxpayer dollars. As a possibly misguided part of this effort, the city initiated a campaign to “clean up” 8th Avenue prior to the convention. Laws against prostitution previously had been difficult to enforce, since (except in sting operations) neither witness was inclined to testify, but the Assembly passed a new anti-loitering law which could be used instead and eliminated the need to prove solicitation. The police, of course, were expected to enforce this selectively.
Armed with a new law and eager to protect the morals of conventioneers, the city sent its 30,000 strong police force into action. (The Republicans convened in Miami that year where they were left dangerously at the mercy of loiterers, but that is outside the realm of our tale.) The impact in Gotham was immediate and total.
Brandi was furious. Arthur didn’t care much. She had given him her phone number prior to the crackdown, so he simply could call ahead and arrange dates. In principle Arthur opposed the law as yet another busybody intrusion by lawmakers, but he didn’t get emotional about it. Our hero still was not getting very emotional about anything. Or so it seemed.
A hint that all was not as it seemed was present in his admiration of Euripides. The ancient playwright, after all, is the ultimate gut twister. No soap opera can match his pathos. His characters often are fanatics. They indulge themselves in some emotion or other and bring themselves to disaster. Witness Medea, Hippolytus, or Pentheus. Like a later playwright’s creation, all would have been better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That our hero liked this kind of thing indicated that romantic excesses brewed in him beneath his placid surface after all. They might yet bubble over.
During the summer, Arthur’s visits to New York decreased in frequency. In the whole month of August he was sufficiently motivated to make the journey only once. It was the height of the building season and so his days were busy at the family supply business. His leisure time was filled with innocent diversions except for once when he and his buddies drank to excess. On the day after he was reminded why he had let so much time pass since the last occasion he had joined them in this activity.
He hadn’t given up Brandi by any means, but sometimes New York seemed a long way to go.
On the first day of September our hero stopped at the local delicatessen. Standing outside the store was a cadre of teens in their last week before the reopening of high school. When Arthur walked past them to his car and bent to enter it, his wallet slipped from his pocket. Nary a one of the teens spoke or raised a finger – not even the middle one. Instead, when Arthur backed away from the curb one of their number stepped off the curb and stood on the wallet as he drove away. Contained in the wallet was a card saying Small Engine Repair on one side and sporting Brandi’s number on the other.
          Having arrived home, Arthur discovered his loss and panicked. He drove back to the bologna emporium but the politicians of tomorrow had vanished. Arthur thought first of the money and his credit cards. Then he thought of his license. Then he thought of Brandi. What was that number? Why couldn’t he quite remember the order of digits? Was it 794-6496, 674-9476, or 674-7496? Or maybe a digit was not transposed but was wrong. Maybe he remembered two of them incorrectly. That put the possible combinations in the thousands. He tried the few sequences that seemed to him most likely to be right. All were wrong numbers.
          It might seem strange that our hero did not know where our heroine lived, but it is not strange at all. Arthur, after all, was a good customer but still a customer. Brandi liked to keep her home and business separate. Consequently, they always had met in modest hotels that charged by the hour for their liaisons. Arthur allowed momentary free rein to a sense of romantic loss. It was surprisingly powerful. It lasted until the solution occurred to him of simply looking her up during business hours. Enforcement of the loitering law had faltered after the Democrats left town though sporadic animation by the police still had an effect. Nevertheless, Brandi had mentioned to him her intent to take the risk in order to recover some of her lost income. He reprimanded himself for having enjoyed the loss overmuch.
A few days later our hero launched his reconnaissance mission into New York. The time and place were right but Brandi was not in sight. Neither were her competitors. The police must have done a sweep. He decided to try later. After a hike downtown and an extended browse through Barnes and Noble on 18th he returned to 48th. Brandi was not there but a thirtyish brunette was. She looked as though she hadn’t slept for days.
“Hi. You want to go out?” she asked.
“No. I’m looking for Brandi. Blondish. Works this block.”
“Why ya lookin’?”
“A friend.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah, I know her. She don’t work here no more. Cops were hasslin’ her. Can’t I do somethin’?”
“No. Know where I can find her?”
“How should I know? Try Lex. Or one of the parlors. Why, ain’t I good enough?”
Refraining from an impolitic response, our hero mumbled a thanks and walked eastward. En route to Lexington Avenue, one of the other solicitation hot spots, Arthur grasped the serious prospect of never finding her at all. What if she had taken an indoor job? From this moment on his illicit mistress grew in his estimation and seized his heart. True to his fears she was not on Lexington. He asked one of the street’s workers if she had heard of her.
“No. I’d know her if she was here in the daytime. Try at night or real early, like 3 or 4. I don’t know what else to tell you. Maybe one of the parlors.”
Not prepared to investigate scientifically every one of the city’s brothels, our hero felt his hopes dashed. In his mind Brandi became Apollo’s Daphne, Cupid’s Pysche. Exquisite loss! Arthur was charmed by the violence of the emotion and he cut the reins he briefly had relaxed the night he lost his wallet. He would search for her, of course, but it would be in vain. Visions came to him of Candide and Cunegonde, Tom Jones and Sofia, Pepe le Pew and the cat. He indulged in the bittersweet taste of resolution in the face of doom; a taste that makes us feel noble. His life acquired a 19th century romantic sense it had been denied previously.
By a remarkable coincidence, WOR-TV ran Walk on the Wild Side that night. In the movie the hero tries to find Hallie, a lost lover who is working in a New Orleans brothel; so, he hitches a ride from Texas in a truck with Jane Fonda and... well, there is no need to recount the entire plot. Suffice it to say that our hero hopelessly identified with it and sank ever deeper into the swamp of his emotions. It troubled him briefly that Brandi didn’t make a convincing Hallie but then in the movie neither did Capucine.
Every weekend for a month our hero forayed into the city without result. Another full month then passed before our hero returned again. The fires of longing had abated slightly but to his satisfaction flickered still. He had arrived in town not to continue his quest, however, but to seek out the Lionel Casson translation of The Selected Satires of Lucian. Lucian was lighthearted, cynical, and enjoyable. Arthur still loved the classics but had lost some of his taste for his former favorite playwright. The asperity of Euripides’ final acts bothered him of late. Yet, he was in town and making an effort to find his love was a dramatic necessity in his own personal theater. So, after leaving the bookstore he went on with the show. He took the A train to 42nd and walked up 8th Avenue.
Arthur was lost in thought and paid little attention to the sights on the Strip. His eyes focused on his feet as he rushed to make up for the lost time the detour on 8th was costing him.
“Well hi there stranger!”
Arthur looked up into hazel eyes. Our hero could think of nothing adequate to say. He settled for, “Brandi, do you know how hard you are to find?”
“I imagine. I was in California. Backpacking in the Sierras. I needed a break, Arthur.”
California.” Only by luck did he not repeat “Arthur.”
“Why? Did you miss me?” she asked,
“Yeah, a little.”
Our hero rejoiced in rediscovery. But during his recent agonies he had acquired a more realistic eye. He realized Brandi was right: she was cute rather than beautiful. The familiar pleasures of the next hour were warm and comfortable, but in her presence his emotions lacked the edge they had in her absence. The business transaction somehow felt less refreshingly honest than it had before; instead it was close to banal. In the most intimate of circumstances our hero stifled a yawn. He looked forward to getting home so he could finish the 3rd volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Before they departed, Arthur re-obtained Brandi’s phone number and placed copies in different pockets. He also handed her a card with his own number.
“Now that I think of it, I’m surprised you never asked for this,” he said, referring to his phone number.
“I never ask for it. I don’t want to talk to anyone’s wife.”
“I’ve always told you I’m single,” he said.
“They’re all ‘single,’ Arthur.”
“Well, this one actually is.”
Brandi smiled and shrugged. They kissed goodbye. Arthur ran to catch the Path train to Hoboken.
The train pulled into Hoboken with 1 minute and 46 seconds to spare for the 4:30 Dover connection. Arthur hustled up the stairs, picked out the right train among the row of tracks, and clambered aboard with only moments to spare.  As the train lurched forward, Arthur found an empty seat near a window. Erie-Lackawanna still operated the ancient electric carriages that Arthur had ridden since his boyhood. An autumn chill was in the air but the car was unheated. He watched as the familiar yards slipped past and gave way to heavy industry. A spotty carpet of brown leaves rustled across the asphalt in the petroleum storage yards. Our hero closed his eyes and listened to the steel wheels on steel rails. He marveled how it was better to have loved and lost than to have loved and found.
EAST ORANGE!” the conductor bellowed.
“How long does it take to get to Millburn?” asked a nervous woman passenger.
“Not long,” the conductor answered cryptically. In the conductor’s mind, as he clipped her ticket, Old 97 hurtled toward its fateful bend.

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