Wednesday, February 11, 2015
RUNAWAY BABY - Part 2
Times Square in 1979 was not the Disney-dominated tourist trap that it is today. Elmo and Hello Kitty were not harassing out-of-towners for tips. No, there were even scarier characters walking the streets back then.
At that time, the seedy streets of Hell’s Kitchen were overflowing with teens selling their bodies which possessed lost souls. It was a dangerous den of pimps and Johns and… sadistic killers.
A 12-year-old prostitute named Veronica was thrown out of a Times Square Hotel by her pimp. Another girl of 15 was chopped to pieces by one of her tricks.
In January 1979, the same month I arrived in New York, a teen prostitute named Helen Sikes went missing from Times Square. Eventually her body was found with the legs missing. Her limbs were later discovered a block away.
In December of that year, two young women were found ablaze in a sleazy hotel on 42nd Street. Their heads and hands were missing. One woman was identified as 22-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi. Nothing was ever learned about the second woman, only that she was around 16 and weighed 110 pounds.
Richard Cottingham, a computer operator at Empire State Blue Cross Blue Shield in Manhattan, was convicted in 1981 and 1984 for these two murders and four additional killings that he had committed beginning in 1967. He also assaulted, tortured and mutilated countless other young prostitutes who had survived.
Cottingham targeted working girls because he said “they had to be punished.”
I can assure you, any woman working in the sex industry has already been punished enough in life. These are women who come from exceeding dysfunctional backgrounds of sexual, emotional and/or physical abuse. Parental neglect, rejection and abandonment also play key factors.
As I sat on my little bed in my mini-bedroom (a.k.a. closet) at the West 47th Street Covenant House group home, I felt thankful - thankful that I now had a roof over my head and hot food in my tummy.
With a sigh of relief, I thought, “I’m finally safe.”
But was I?
At the group home, there was a 12-year-old streetwalker named Lucy. She was going to testify against her pimp who, according to the Vice Squad and FBI, was a very big player in the New York crime scene during the Seventies.
That March, Lucy (along with Father Bruce Ritter) appeared on a 60 Minutes special report on teenage prostitution titled “Runaways, Throwaways.”
I sat and watched the episode with Lucy and the other girls in the group home. Lucy was interviewed while in shadow.
On a daily basis, there were strange black vehicles parked outside of the group home. Creepy men peered at our building through darkly tinted car windows. Sometimes, they very, very slowly drove up and down the block - peering all the way.
From behind prison walls, Lucy’s pimp had put out a hit on her.
We were all extremely frightened and asked the staff to relocate Lucy. They did and I never knew what became of her.
One night, I was sitting in the group home’s living room mending a shirt, when suddenly my mother walked in.
I went into panic mode, became hysterical and hid in a corner.
“Keep her away from me! Keep her away from me! You said I never had to see her again!” I screamed at one of the case workers.
They made my mother leave, but the man who accompanied her remained behind. He was a private detective Ma had hired to find me.
“Your mother loves you,” he said in low tones.
I shrieked, “I don’t know you! And you don’t know what my mother put me through! Go away!”
He left but my body continued to shake for the rest of the night. Once again, I was promised by staff I would never have to go back to Scotch Plains and live with my mother.
My mother started legal proceedings to have me committed to a state psychiatric facility. My assigned social worker arranged a meeting with her. I was told to be there. Reluctantly, I went but my mother never showed up and never called.
One of the Covenant House case workers was a 29-year-old married man named John (PS: that wasn‘t really his name). He seemed to take a special interest in me and often would call me into the office to have a heart-to-heart conversation.
I was a desperately lonely girl who desperately longed for attention and love.
One Saturday night, John was working the overnight shift. He gave me permission to stay up late to watch The Midnight Special. All the other girls were asleep.
I was sitting on the living room floor watching The Jacksons sing “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” when John whispered in my ear, “Do you know how fine you are?”
I felt my face flush.
“What me - fine?” I pondered.
No one had ever called me pretty before. In fact, I grew up thinking I was quite hideous. None of the girls and young women on television looked like me. My classmates only confirmed my suspicions of my unattractiveness. They relentlessly taunted me because of my ugly hair, my ugly body, my ugly face…
Now John was telling me that I was actually good looking? Wow!
John proceeded to nuzzle my neck. I had never been to even a school dance, let alone experience a boy's nuzzling.
Then he kissed me - my first kiss ever. I felt myself float above the room, above the Jacksons, above 47th Street. I was in heaven.
I felt loved.
John continued to give me “special attention” during my stay at 47th Street. He taught me what necking meant.
Soon my two month limit was up at the group home, so Covenant House relocated me to an Alphabet City drug rehab on East 10th Street called Project Contact. Mind you, I had never so much as smoked a cigarette, let alone do any sort of drugs. But it was the only place that had a vacancy.
I moved out of the group home with two brown paper bags of belongings.
While at Project Contact, John asked me out for my 18th birthday. He took me to Beefsteak Charlie’s and ordered a pitcher of sangria. I never tasted alcohol and had never heard of sangria.
John explained, “It’s like punch. See? It’s got slices of fruit floating in it!”
He poured me a large glassful.
I guzzled the sangria like it was Kool-Aid and soon was drunk for the first time. I barely made it to the all-you-can-eat shrimp and salad bar.
At dinner, John gave me birthday presents - a sterling silver ring and two matching bracelets.
“He really cares for me,” I thought.
Afterward, John took me to his apartment. His wife and kids were away.
He proceeded to have sex with me. I just laid there like a log because I didn’t know what to do.
Then I felt excruciating pain sear throughout my body.
John said, “Michelle, you’re bleeding.”
I started to cry because I knew I had just lost something that I could never get back.
"You'll never forget me because I was your first," John proudly proclaimed.
I continued to meet with him for many months after that night.
Then I learned that John had given his “special attention” to many other girls at 47th Street. He was found out and Covenant House relocated him to an all-boys group home.
Most of the clients at Project Contact were from the streets and given the choice of rehab or jail. One very tall man had a long scar across his face and was missing an eye because of a bar fight. He turned out to be a nice guy and we became friends, often joking with each other to ease the tension of living in such a restrictive environment.
I thought living in Alphabet City was even worse than Hell’s Kitchen. At least there were people walking on the street in Times Square. In 1979, East 10th Street between Avenues B and C was fairly desolate. The Project Contact building was one of the few on the block that hadn’t been abandoned. We were surrounded by junkie squatters who would do anything to anyone to get their next fix.
One evening I was a half block away from Project Contact. It was a Friday and I had my week’s pay in my purse. I was jumped from behind by two young men. I was punched and pushed to the ground. They took my purse and ran. I was left sobbing and bleeding in the filthy rubble on the sidewalk. I crawled my way to Project Contact and the police were called. Of course, the junkie muggers were never caught.
Project Contact treated me like an addict, even though I wasn’t. The staff had a tendency to yell their instructions to the residents rather than speaking in a normal tone of voice. My mother had yelled at me almost every day of the 17 years and 9 months we lived together. To this day, I cannot handle being yelled at. I have quit many a job, simply because someone shouted at me.
If one person broke the rules at Project Contact, all the residents were punished. We were often put on lockdown, though I was allowed to leave so I could go my clerical job at the ILGWU on 7th Avenue.
Sometimes we had to “GI” the entire building. This meant scrubbing the place from stem to stern with a toothbrush. I was told to wash all the windows and handed a gallon of white vinegar and a stack of newspapers. It was a sloppy, smelly, back-breaking mess.
One day I decided I couldn’t cope with Project Contact anymore. I was tired of being yelled at. I was tired of the lockdowns. I was tired of GI-ing the building. I was tired of vinegar and newspaper. I was tired of constantly being punished when I hadn't done anything wrong. I was just plain old tired.
So I packed up my two brown paper bags and went back to Covenant House on 8th Avenue. I begged them to find me another placement. They moved me to a Franciscan convent in Southside Jamaica, Queens.
It was run by a few very kind nuns and housed about ten women. I had my own room and did my share of the chores.
One day, while walking to the convent from the subway, I was followed by a shirtless man with drug-crazed eyes and a crowbar in his hand. He was screaming incoherently as he followed me. I didn’t see any other people and was terrified.
“This guy wants to kill me,” I thought.
I was a block away from the convent but felt like I wasn’t going to make it there. I saw a phone booth, went in, closed the glass door and called the convent.
In a very shaky voice, I told one of the nuns, “This man is following me. He has a crowbar and I think he wants to kill me. I’m in the phone booth on the corner.”
She said, “Stay on the phone, someone will go and get you.”
The man was standing outside of the booth, tapping the crowbar on the ground as he bellowed obscenities.
I didn’t hang up and in a few moments I saw a female phalanx walking up the street. I waited until they got very close to the phone booth, then opened the door and began to walk with them toward the convent. The drug-crazed man was shouting louder and pushed me from behind. I didn’t fall down, but rather, continued to walk with the other women. None of us said anything. It was clear that doing so would only exacerbate this man’s rage. He followed us until we got to the front door. Someone from inside opened it and we all ran in. The man howled a string of expletives before eventually making his exit.
I was working at SYMS clothing store when I moved into the convent. It had been my latest in a string of piddly, dead end, minimum wage jobs.
I saw an ad in The Village Voice for a position in a medical office on East 43rd Street called Contemporary Psychological Services. When I went to the interview, I was told they needed a front desk person, I would have to buy a nurse’s uniform and the salary was $250 a week. That was an enormous amount compared to the meager $2.95 an hour I was making at SYMS.
Then I found out the catch: I would not only have to perform front desk duties, but also be a sex surrogate. Contemporary Psychological Services offered sex surrogates to men with sexual dysfunction.
Since I had sex with John, the Covenant House case worker, I already felt used and dirty. My self-esteem was completely nonexistent by this time, so I took the job. I find it sad and ironic that a barely 18-year-old girl, with very little sexual experience, would be hired as a sex surrogate.
I told the Franciscan nuns that I was working in a medical office. I left the convent every morning wearing my nurse’s uniform, so they believed me.
Contemporary Psychological Services was run by two men. Their main goal was not to help sexually dysfunctional men, but rather make money - lots and lots of money. They advertised in the NYC newspapers and had a large clientele.
An older woman named Gita told what to do with the men. She was a “therapist,” although I never saw her credentials hanging on her office wall, if she had any credentials at all.
Gita’s first question to me was, “How’s your fellatio?”
I didn’t know what the word meant.
Perplexed, I asked, "Fella who?"
The vast majority of the men I saw did not seem to have sexual dysfunction at all. All they wanted was a prostitute.
I consider this job as my entry into the sex industry. I hated every minute of it.
Whenever I think of that awful place I can still smell its stench - a putrid blend of baby oil, latex and men.
I worked the front desk with a fortyish woman named Dorothy who was not one of the surrogates. She asked me to move in with her. Dorothy lived on East 15th Street in a very nice building and needed help paying the rent.
I agreed, but though I paid half of the rent and all the other bills, I did not have a bedroom. I slept on a futon in her living room.
I had been living with Dorothy for two weeks when she told me I would have to move because her mother was coming for a visit.
She recommended I check into the nearby Hotel 17, which I found to be a disgusting, filthy, roach-infested, dilapidated hellhole. I stayed there one night and kept on all the lights.
One of the other sex surrogates told me to relocate to her building. She lived across the River.
So again, I moved. But this time it was to my very first place. After being in New York for 8 months, finally, at the age of 18, I was no longer homeless. It was a furnished efficiency, but it counted as an official apartment and I was paying the rent on my own.
Though I wasn’t proud of the way I was making a living, at least I was independent. As miserable as I was on my own, anything, anything was better than being abused by my mother.
During my first 8 months away from Ma, I had been attacked, raped and mugged. I had gone through 6 jobs, moved 7 times, lost my virginity to an older man and became a sex surrogate.
Yet through it all, I had survived. It is the one good trait I inherited from my mother. Ma always knew how to survive.
Today I still stand firm in the knowledge that no matter what happens to me in this life, I will survive.