Horizontal Lives

True Tales of the Infamous Courtesan: Persephone N. Hades and her Horizontal Life underground. How she got there, her mis-adventures and her struggle to re-surface.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

"Beware the slippery slope."--Part One

Question from a curious but not entirely un-judgmental journalist who found out ‘about me’ from a loose-lipped friend of mine:

"So how did this happen to you? I heard you went to the Really Famous Drama School. Were you studying for a part and just got hooked into it?"

"Yes." I assure her. "That’s why they call us ‘hookers.’"

Here’s the long answer:I’d completed five years of undergrad and four years of graduate school, as many years as it takes to become a doctor or a lawyer. And like those budding professionals, I too was buried deep in a dungeon of student loans and credit card debt stemming from my studies. The only difference was, I was an actress.

I’d spent the past year on the road touring with a Shakespeare company making $500.00 per week (minus 10% for my agent and 40% to Uncle Sam) and living again off the good will of American Express.

It was June of 1989 when I sat on the floor of my Hell’s Kitchen apartment in NYC and realized I was stupidly, unrecoverably broke.

And then I met Linda.

The ad in the Village Voice read:“GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! Earn $1000.00 a week! Escorts Wanted. No sex involved.”

I had called the ad a week before, after a particularly distressing barrage of calls from mean-spirited collection agencies, but hung up after the female voice on the other end of the line began to ask me my vital statistics. “34C”, was as far as I got. I knew. I was in denial. But I knew. Somewhere inside I knew there was sex involved.

What would be so bad about that? I’ve had sex before. But sex with strangers? The act of making love meant too much too me. In regards to Sex, I was the Princess and the Pea. I felt everything and afterwards, I forgot nothing. It was like the aftershocks of an Earthquake. Days, weeks, months later, I could close my eyes, easily conjuring the event, memories stirring a pulsing in my belly so strongly it would make me groan out loud.

(Which I did quite often, usually on city buses and trains. Yes, that was me.)

And to be a Prostitute? That word conjured nightmares forced into my subconscious by movies, by books, by a culture that hated ‘sluts’. I saw my future self, diseased and dying, lying in a gutter with a needle poking out of my arm, beaten regularly by an enormous man who now owned my life. (Admittedly, I’ve always been a bit dramatic, but that is the terrifying scene I pictured.)

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, bare but for the litter of red payment-past-due bills, of my Hell’s Kitchen apartment I was soon to be evicted from, I could think of no other alternative. My hand shook as I dialed the number. The same female voice from the week before. I told her I was calling about the ad. This time when she asked, I heard my quavering voice answer: 5’4”. 115lbs. Hair, black. 34C-24-34. Age: 26. Could I come in for an interview this afternoon? She wanted to know. I wrote the address in black marker on the back of an overdue bill. Tears hit the words smearing the ink, and I was forced to call back again to re-clarify the location.

Dumping out the glass mason jar of change, all the money I had left until my next unemployment check came in, I counted out the sum I would need for the subway to the interview. Ninety-six cents in pennies, nickels and dimes. Not enough for a token. I would have to walk.

And by the way, what do you wear on an interview to be a hooker? The only appropriate choice my closet yielded, was a black skirt with pink elephants around the hemline, (don't ask me why.) and a tight black top, (my Salvation Army best), and a pair of platform shoes. The shoes would have to ride in my backpack. I would wear tennis shoes since I had to walk all the way uptown and across the park.

Robotically, I dressed. I washed the tear streaks off my cheeks, re-applying a thick layer of make-up, powdering it twice, hoping the airless July heat wouldn’t sweat it off. My hair finally tamed by fifty or more bobby pins, I slipped my arms into my backpack straps and stepped out into the stifling stench of compressed heat and garbage that is called a New York City summer.

As I walked, I held my breath against the putrid air, only inhaling when necessary. I watched my feet, willing the pounding of my hummingbird heart to keep a slower pace like the rhythm of my white shoes on the dirty sidewalk, now taking me forward to a frightening future.

Turning the corner off speedy cab-crazed 1st Avenue onto the quieter residential block of 63rd Street, I found the address. Just an evergreen-colored awning over two glass doors to the entrance of a ten story, no doorman, elevator building--a building that looked like all the others in New York. I don’t know what I was expecting, something seedy perhaps, but the non-descript-ness of the building surprised me.

Tina, a tall, ballet-thin, smiling, woman, with cropped dark hair, holding a hotel-stolen glass ashtray in one hand and a lit Marlborough in the other, showed me into the small unlit one-bedroom apartment. She offered me tea but I declined--not saying, but thinking there might be AIDS in one of the china cups. Call me paranoid but this was so out of my element, I didn’t know what to expect.

Sitting on the white-turned-gray L-shaped leather sectional sofa, I filled out a normal job application-the kind you might apply to Wal-Mart with--while Tina hurried into the bedroom-cum-office to answer the phone.

Through the open door of the office, I could see two desks facing each other, set up with phone lines, boxes of index cards, and a credit card machine hung on the wall. Finished with the application, I placed it and my driver’s license (as instructed by Tina) on the glass coffee table and scanned the living room. No TV. Lots of pollution-for-a-girl’s-soul magazines like Cosmo and Elle in a neat stack. And on th e wall, a bulletin board, every free inch of cork, covered with index cards screaming commands and barking rules:

“You must throw away your food after eating and before leaving. Anyone who leaves garbage will BE FINED!!”

“You may not go on a call without supplies. No exceptions. Anyone who is found without supplies will BE FINED!!!”

“No loud talking while waiting for calls!!! I mean it!!”

“You must remember to give a business card to each client at the end of each call. I will check on this. No business card--you WILL be FINED!!!”

“Stockings. NO Pantyhose! EVER!!”

“If you go to a credit card call without your slips, YOU will pay for the call!!”

“If you are on the schedule for a shift and are not ready or can’t be found, you will be FIRED and I will personally BLACKLIST you from the business!”

Then there was a kinder list. I knew it was kinder because it had a ‘smiley-face’ on it. On an index card stating the month of July, was a list of girls names. After each name were points with a letter after it-either R or E. On the top of the list was the name ‘Julie: R111 E1111…’ and so on for each girl’s name.

Tina came out to find me looking at it. She explained the girls get points for each Repeat client they get and a point for each time they Extend their stay with a client past the initial allotted hour. The girl with the most points at the end of each month received an extra fifty dollars in her check. Thus the ‘R’ (repeat) and the ‘E’ (extension).

I didn’t say so, but I was confused. I was actually dizzy trying to put this information someplace in my brain that I could draw a reference from. I had none. It was so new, and so not what I expected. I didn’t expect the structure—the absolute business quality of it all. Paid by checks? Like a real job? I was imagining tucking bills in my bra, in my soon-to-be-tattered stockings (not pantyhose.)

And all the rules. Just like working at the Ritz-Carlton but stricter. And getting FINED. How can anyone have the heart to ‘fine’ a girl that has just had to have sex for money?

Tina asked if I had any questions. I had ka-billions of them but none of them would make there way to my mouth so I just said ‘no’. She shook my hand, told me I was hired, to come back at 7 tonight to meet Linda, the owner, and start work.

My heart went up to my throat, which I nearly vomited like an errant hairball.

Tonight? So soon? I needed time to think about it. I needed time to learn what to do; how to make love. Surely men didn’t pay so much money for regular sex. There must be something special you do that is better than normal girls to make them want to pay so much. I needed to read up on it.

Tonight!?

I said I would be back at 7.

Outside, I turned onto loud, honking, grimy 1st Avenue, almost jogging, weaving in and around the hordes of people clogging the narrow sidewalks made narrower by the Hefty garbage bag mountains. There was so much to do before then. I had to wash my hair. I had to shave my legs. I had to shave my bikini area! This would take some time.

With the same rhythm my feet pounded the cement, and blood pulsed at my temples, questions, thoughts, fears, drummed at the same pace in my head. Would I go back? I wasn’t sure. I almost had to. In two weeks I would be without a place to live. I just needed enough money to hold on to the apartment. I needed enough to keep my dream of being an actress. What dream!? I was an actress. I was seriously trained. I did act professionally. I was an actress. I just needed money enough to stay that way.

How strange to go to school for nine years and come out with the ability touch spirits and hearts but yet have the inability to do anything practical on this planet that will earn you a living, a way to pay back your loans and still live like a human being doing what you do best.

Maybe I would just do it for a week. If the ad was true, and it actually was $1000.00 a week, well, I was living right now on two hundred a week so the $1000 would last a really, really long time. It could save me until the next acting job. Anyway, maybe there wasn’t actually sex involved. They said there wasn’t in the ad. It was me, after all, who surmised there was.

From 63rd and 1st to 50th and 11th where I lived took me almost an hour. I took the five flights of stairs to my apartment two at a time. My skirt came off in the entryway. My shirt fell to the hallway floor. My shoes dropped at the threshold to the bathroom. My bra and panties hit the ground near the toilet. I plunged myself into the shower. It was two o’clock now. If I had to walk back, I would have to leave by six, so I had four hours to prepare for what I was sure was going to be the most terrifying experience of my life to date. (That was pretty high on the list, considering the past.)

With one foot firmly planted in the tub and the other foot high on the tile of the shower wall, the disposable Daisy razor and my rushed, petrified hand raged a fierce, gruesome battle over the lanscape of my legs rendering me nicked and bleeding in a few choice places. No matter. My panties and my stockings would cover the wounds. (Thank god I owned a pair of stockings having sworn off pantyhose decades ago after too many uncomfortable days struggling with the crotch of the horrid things at my knees.)

After the shower, my hair, mischievously thinking it would be funny, joined in the rebellion and caused me to hot curl and repeat five times. In a final act of victory on my part, having it in the shape I needed it, I glued it to my head, spraying it like a doomed roach with an entire can of hairspray.

Deciding I always looked best when I was on stage rather than in ‘real’ life, I chose to use my theatrical make-up, caking on layer after layer of base, blush, high-lights, low-lights, lipstick, eye shadow, eye liner, eyebrow pencil and an entire tube of ‘blackest- black’ mascara. My hair, at this time, was dyed blue-black and now curled like a Dolly Parton wig. My skin was as white as white could get before it looked blue. My cheeks and lips were red. My eyes were Cleopatra.

I was gorgeous, as long as I was on stage in a 3000 seat theatre with theatrical lighting, and the audience was at least 100 yards away.

Clothes.

Clothes?

Yikes.What do prostitutes wear these days?

The only thing I could think to wear was what I wore to the interview. But now it was sweaty and smelled of New York soot and cab exhaust. I remembered a trick a girl taught me back when we were in high school. Stuffing the dry-clean only skirt and top under the bath tap, I washed it and rung it out. I then air dried it with my blow dryer and then heated a pot of water and used the bottom of the hot pot to iron it. It worked fairly well, leaving only a few shiny places on the material where it had scalded a bit.

What to bring? What ‘supplies’ were the memos talking about that you would get ‘FINED’ if you didn’t have? Nothing came to mind. Condoms didn’t occur because a) sex wasn’t supposed to be involved and b) I didn’t have any. Think. Think. What do you need for a romantic hour with a man?

Candles!

I ran to my kitchen cabinet. I had two candles set in glass that had Hebrew words on them—the kind used to sit ‘Shiva’ when someone dies. Mourning candles. But candles none-the-less.

I rummaged around, hoping for more inspiration. I spied it in the carton that held my books. “How to Make Love to a Man”. That, I was sure I would need.

Thanks to my disobedient hair, time was running out. It was 5:30. I had to go. I didn’t want to be late for my first day/night on the job. If I am anything, it is punctual. I learned that too at acting school.

The first day of class at the RFDS, they told us we could never, ever be late or absent for any reason whatsoever. Death would be the only excuse accepted. Classmates raised logical debates against this obviously unreasonable statute, but they were firm. By the third week of school, the rule was tested by a boy in my class who was promptly expelled and never heard from again.S

ince that time, I learned it was actually in the realm of human possibility to be on time for everything, no matter what. I showed up for class having had no sleep after working nights and going to school days several weeks in a row. I performed as Emilia in Othello with a fever of 103, after which I went home and collapsed but got up at six the next morning in time for movement class. They, too, were true to their word. The only time I was allowed to be absent was to attend the funeral of my grandfather who had died.

I placed the mourning candles, the book and my platform shoes into my pink vinyl backpack and took one last glance at myself in the mirror. I stood there memorizing the way I looked at this moment, knowing that later tonight, IF I went, when I got home and looked again, (IF I got home, and IF I was alive,)

I would no longer be the same person.

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