They say, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Perhaps those with emotional baggage become psychiatrists, clergy, or social workers. I wanted to help people, poor people, suffering people. Maybe it was a Jesus complex. Or perhaps in the vernacular of today, I had narcissistic personality disorder. NPD they call it. Gotta love these acronyms. Every generation seems to find more and more of them, along with previously untagged neuroses. Odd, isn’t it, that our society feels compelled to label people, to put them in neat little boxes that denote their worth or lack thereof. Either way, I certainly had my own luggage and to turn a lyric from a Beatles song, “Girl, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time.” So I became a social worker, a card-carrying I-only-want-to-help-people kind of career move. But some of those I met became olives or twists in my martini-like cocktail of getting high on saving humankind from my office on Second Avenue in the city.
One of my clients was a hooker, a prostitute, a lady of the night, a harlot, or as my mother would have labeled her, a whore. My mother had a love/hate relationship with words and spat them out with guttural sounds of vulgarity when referring to an individual who offended her sense of propriety. I thought of her for a split second while I interviewed Marlo, a prostitute, who had come to my office seeking Welfare benefits.
Marlo was 24 years old, but gaunt and looked much older. She was dressed in a leather skirt, high, really high-heeled boots, and something that barely passed as a top. She had long fingernails that curled downward at the tips in a witchy kind of way, and her blue nail polish was chipped. That last part offended my own dubious sense of propriety. If a woman wears nail polish, she should never let it get chipped and certainly not shown to the public, even if she is a prostitute. I knew this was her profession since, as caseworkers, we had to ask people mundane questions like how they had been supporting themselves before seeking Welfare and why they have no other resources. It was all so much bunk and we, for the most part, were a pretty shallow lot.
A person had to be desperate to come into this office for help. It was a demeaning process, even from my vantage point working there. Take a number; get in line; feel the hostility; watch the security guy watching you, and smell the odor of poverty in the waiting room. Questions asked of applicants left them with little sense of worth. And for what? Just a pittance of government money barely enough to touch the surface of need, was what they would get. They call these “entitlement programs.” It seemed sadly ironic.
In asking these mandated questions of Marlo, as well as a few that were not scripted, I learned that she had been on the streets “makin’ a livin’” like this since she was fourteen. A guy she referred to in punctuated sound as “My Man” took the money she made from every date, but gave her a place to stay, along with some beatings. He never gave her enough money for food, she said, and there was no stocked kitchen where they stayed, so she went dumpster diving. “Right behind yo’ office!” she said, lopping her head back and laughing. She had a high-pitched laugh that made me laugh too. And then she got serious. Some of what Marlo had told me may have been for shock value. Most of it was probably true.
She swiveled in the chair, turned her face toward me and said she used “H,” that she had Hepatitis C, “and “maybe that AIDS shit.” She wanted Medical Assistance. “I ain’t been feelin’ good.” But she was still working the streets. With infectious diseases. Something within me was angry because exponentially, I couldn’t even do the math of people who could have been and would be impacted by her career choice. Wait. Her choice or the choice of those who used her services? Had she actually decided to do this, or had it become her only option? Life happens to people. Who am I to judge. Those who make labels for a living couldn’t even begin to find a label for Marlo. Cause or effect? She had old eyes. I cut through the rest of the interview and told her she was approved. She left without ceremony.
Several months later, one of the workers in my office had come back from lunch. He was late, he said, because there were a bunch of cops in the alley behind our office. They had found a dead hooker in the dumpster. “Yeah,” he went on, “they knew who she was. The cops knew her.” He was so casual about it. I slowly pulled my chair away from my computer, swiveled around and just stared out the window overlooking at Second Avenue. NBD, right? No, not to me. It’s a BFD, kids. A BFD.
About the Author: Cher Duncombe
Someone once told me, “Used-to-be’s don’t count.” I have pondered this often and find that they do count. We are the sum of our life experiences.
I used to be an English and Speech teacher. There will always be a part of me that wants to teach. I used to be an Investigator, first for the government and later in my own private investigations business.
I will always probe beneath the surface of issues and people, looking for the gem-like quality hidden in the text of words and personae. Today I am a writer and all of the used-to-be’s are part of the continuum of this journey. br> View My Profile