Tuesday, October 1, 2013

That Evening I Spent with a Hooker

By Andrew E. Kaufman, bestselling author of psychological thrillers

Before becoming an author, I spent several years working as a broadcast journalist. I loved television news. It was exciting, fast paced, and packed with second-by-second, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants energy—something I’ve thrived on since childhood (read: adrenaline junkie).

Besides experiencing the joy of being at the center of all the energy and feeling the pulse of the city pounding in my head, I got to see a side of life few ever do on a daily basis.

The underside.

Photo courtesy: Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department
Which for some reason has always fascinated me. This is likely why, after finally leaving the news business, I went on to write thrillers (once an addict, always an addict, you know?) On some
unconscious level, I probably took a lot of what I saw during those years with me, using it to add depth and dynamics to my characters and stories.

And no joke: I saw it all.

From homicide scenes, to filthy meth labs, to blazing fires, to dead bodies sprawled across freeways. You name it, we chased it, and after that, served it up at eleven.

Oh, yeah…the part about the hooker.

In all my years as a journalist, there’s a defining incident that I don’t think will ever leave me.

One evening, we were out on an undercover story about prostitution. This was at the very start of my career, so some of the details are a bit sketchy. I can’t even recall what the actual story hook was (sorry, wasn’t trying to be punny, there), but I think our goal was to find a prostitute so she could help us attract Johns. Of course, with an eleven o’clock deadline, we only had a few hours to accomplish this.

Long story short, we found our girl, and a young one at that, maybe eighteen, maybe younger, wearing tattered shorts and a t-shirt that didn’t look clean. Frizzy hair with hardly any makeup. She leaned in through the window, smiled at us, and then surprisingly, obliged to help us out. Soon after that, she was in our car, and away we went.

As often happens in the News Biz, our John angle ended up falling flat, but what I remember most wasn’t that—it was what she said to us pre-interview, agreeing to do it with one caveat:

“You have to block out my face, because my mother watches the news.”

As soon as those words left her mouth, mine dropped open.

I know this is probably going to sound terribly na├»ve, but I hadn’t envisioned her as having a mom that she still maintained contact with, let alone being worried about her finding out she was a prostitute. I suppose that on some level I was aware it could have been possible, but in that instant she became so much more layered and dimensional to me, no longer just a nameless street hooker living out a life of destitute. She was a real human with real feelings, just like the rest of us.

And I wondered what happened to this woman. What drove her into this sort of life? And going even farther back, what life events set her up for this. Was it about the drugs? Maybe something from her childhood?

Unfortunately, I never found those answers. She got nervous about her pimp, cut the interview short, and within minutes, was back to walking the streets.

Everything after that became a blur of hurried commotion. It was getting late and close to deadline, so we pieced what little we had into a story, then fed it back to station live in order to make the eleven o’clock show.

But I’ll never forgot that evening I spent with a hooker.

16 comments:

  1. Andrew--touching vignette. Thanks for sharing. It makes me recall one of the rules I learned early in life: Let every action be one you wouldn't mind your mother or father knowing about. I haven't always succeeded, unfortunately, but it's still a good guideline.

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    1. Thanks Richard. Then maybe add: "and one that might make her proud," :)

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  2. Interesting story, Drew! Thanks for sharing it. You always entertain and enlighten us, no matter what you decide to write about!

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  3. Compelling post! Your experiences have clearly had a positive effect on your fiction.

    Maybe because I'm a mother, I think about that issue every time I see a homeless person, or a drug addict, or a teenager who looks like they haven't been home in a while. My first thought is always: They have a mother somewhere who is probably worried sick or crushed by their lifestyle.

    Then I think: Or maybe not. Maybe their mother is dead or she's an addict herself... and simply doesn't care. Then I tell my brain to stop thinking about it...because I can't be everybody's mother. But some days I try.

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    1. I think having that maternal instinct probably intensifies experiences like this. For me, in that moment, I think caught a partial glimpse of it...or maybe something like it.

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  4. So many faces, so many lives. Just when I think I want to give up and categorize someone, a piece of me sits back and says, "Well, at least try to see how they got to this place."

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    1. I love those moments when I get knocked down to earth. I love being grounded...hate when I'm not.

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  5. Sometimes it takes a little bit of a shock to bring us back to the realization that we’re all human and all started out the same way—as helpless infants only needing to be feed, and maybe at a deep soul level wanting to be loved.

    Excellent comments, Andrew. I'm sure every bit of your experiences find the way into your writing, maybe in subtle ways or full-blown. Life is interesting.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I've become convinced that every character and story I write is a product of my world...or at least, my interpretation of it. The bad experiences provide depth and grit to them, the good ones, depth and joy. In the end, hopefully, they all balance out.

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  6. All each of us can do is take from a combination or our experience, our imagination, and our research. You've been blessed to find yourself in the middle of a great character!

    Recently, I read a fabulous blog post about a woman who found herself face-to-face with a beligerant and vocal woman at a Starbuck's drive-through. Before she could engage in the retoric, she suddenly felt another "presence" overwhelm her. Empathy. When she looked at that woman again, she saw herself a few years previous… kids creating issues, husband creating issues, life in general creating issues… and made the decision to pay for the woman's order, whatever it was. She also gave instructions to the Starbuck's employee to tell the woman to have a better day. The woman refused payment, but apologized profusely to the Starbuck's clerk and made sure her benefactor knew her day had was better already.

    Sorry to ramble, but prostitutes with mothers or harried Starbuck's customers with an attitude… we all would do well to take a step back.

    xoxo for this fabulous post!

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    1. Such words of wisdom, Peg! I must keep that in mind next time I encounter someone who is troubled or harried. Thanks for the inspiration! Have you ever thought of writing for Chicken Soup for the Soul? Something to consider, if they're still publishing... I believe Drew already has published a story with them! :-)

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  7. This reminds us that "everybody has a story." I doubt that young woman went through school thinking, 'when I grow up, I wanna be a hooker.' Peg's Starbucks experience, too--we don't know what brought the person to that moment we cross paths with them. Giving them a little slack might actually change the course of that someone's life.

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  8. I teach college students. They're at such transition points and I guess I have that "father" instinct, because I want them to succeed. I see a lot of hurt, second-hand. But Andrew, your story reminds of one that a student told me a few years ago. We were going over her essay, and trying to find its heart, as well as its logical center. She told me about an experience she had in a South American country. She was sitting on a bench and a little girl, maybe six, if that much, approach her and asked if she wanted to buy some fruit. My student said, no thanks. The little girl asked if she would buy something else. (The girl's mother was nearby. I forget if the girl ran back to her mother between conversations.) My student, thinking the little girl was going to offer some tourist thing, said maybe. The little girl said, "I'm five dollars."

    Yeah, there are those moments, those stories - the ones that change how we see the world. The kinds we kind to write, to make the transitions easier, more intelligible.

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