A Friendly Whore in San Francisco

Written by Jonathan Ames on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


I was cruising around here last night, soaking up the atmosphere. I felt like I was in America. Or old America. People are allowed to fall apart here out in the open. And if they want to pursue vice, then they can pursue it, though with some supervision, some threat of arrest, so there’s not total chaos—I did see one cop car last night. And it all makes me realize how antiseptic Manhattan has become. I almost feel like singing sadly for New York, like Simon & Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, you beautiful whores? Jonathan Ames turns his lonely eyes to you…woo…woo…woo”


So I had come out of my hotel last night around 12:30 and was walking up this street called Eddy. I had taken off my tie, which I had been wearing earlier, and I drew the collar of my coat around my neck so I’d look a little less muggable (a taxi driver told me you can get mugged in the Tenderloin) and at first I didn’t see anything. And then my eyes adjusted. Night vision so to speak. And I realized there were women in the shadows of doorways, and men in tight jeans in alleys. There was a staticky streetlight glow and a cool breeze. It’s like fall here in San Francisco. And the buildings, in this part of town, like most of the town, are only a few stories high, so you can see the sky and you don’t feel so tiny and diminished. And in the Tenderloin the buildings are kind of crumbly and need painting, so it gave me the feeling of being in an old city, a Western-frontier city, and it was nice to remember that America is not all spit and polish and phony-looking Plaza Hotel brass.


I made a left up a hilly street called Hyde. I was walking on the outside of the parked cars, in the middle of the street, so nobody could jump me, and on the other side of the street, coming the opposite way down the sidewalk, were two not-very-dolled-up prostitutes. They were wearing jeans and tight little coats. Nothing about them was gaudy in the way you’d expect, but their leisurely walk told you why they were out there. I made that special kind of eye contact with one of them. Her face was unusual, striking. High cheekbones, a fierce jaw, a wide, thin red mouth and kinky curly blonde hair. And her skin, in the light, was some weird kind of translucent, diluted white, like underneath it was some original coat of paint, color unknown. But it was there somehow, as if that top layer of white
hadn’t been painted on thick enough. So I held her eye and she sidled across the street toward me.


“What are you doing tonight?” she asked sweetly, gently. She was humble. Shy even. Now that we were up close she didn’t quite look at me straight. She was worried I wouldn’t want her. There were small thin scars on her face and on her belly, which was exposed—her jacket was open and she was wearing a tanktop—and light brown discolorations and green bruises. She had been on the street a long time. She was probably in her late 30s, and she didn’t necessarily look older than that, except she was old the way young people look old when they’re dying.


“I’m just walking around tonight. Looking,” I said.


“You have a room?” she asked.


“Yeah, at the Phoenix.”


“That’s a nice hotel. Nicer than the others around here… Why don’t we go back to your room and have a lovely time and in the morning go to Reno and get married.” She laughed. A nice laugh. A laugh at herself. But that’s probably why she’s still out there—the one-in-a-million chance that some man might yet save her.


“I don’t think I want to go back to my room, but thank you for offering,” I said, wanting to be polite. I started strolling. She walked alongside me. “Where you from?” I asked. “I hear a bit of an accent.”


“Australia,” she said. “I’m half Aborigine, half white. Where are you from?”


“New York.”


“What are you doing here in San Francisco? You’re a businessman?”


“No, I’m a writer. Also, I perform. I do storytelling. That’s what I came here for. I did some storytelling at a club tonight.”


“I tell stories,” she said. “Why don’t we go to your room and I’ll tell you dream stories and you tell me stories from New York. I’ve never been there.”


“Dream stories,” I said. “I like the way that sounds.”


“So what do you say? Why don’t we go back to your room? It doesn’t have to be a big sex thing. I’ll tell you my dream stories and I’ll give you a nice massage.” She said “massage” like a real Brit colonial, with an emphasis on the first syllable. And I looked at her. Her nose was wide and interesting-looking. I could really see the Aborigine in her. And her mixed blood explained her odd skin, skin I
had never really seen before. But I didn’t want to be alone with her in my room. To see her body would be to know too well the agony of what she’s been through.


“I don’t want to waste your time,” I said. “I really don’t think I want to go back to my room. But if you want to walk with me, I’d like the company and I’ll give you 20 dollars for that, if you don’t mind.” I had called her over with my eyes just wanting to talk to her for a moment—I like to talk to people when I’m out having adventures—but I felt bad to have led her on, to have given her some hope of making money, so I was glad to try to hire her as my guide, companion.


“You’ll pay me just to walk with you?” she asked.


“Yes,” I said.


“Are all gentleman from New York like you? I heard men from New York will say fuck you if you ask them the time.”


“No. There are no gentlemen like me in New York,” I boasted. “I am completely and hopelessly unique.” And I laughed and so did she.


So we walked and I felt safe with her. We passed a number of small packs of homeless addicts and drunkards, all of whom looked pretty feeble, but they might have tried something on me just because of their sheer greater numbers. Because I was with her, a fellow street person, though, there was little chance anybody would try to hurt me.


I got a bit of her life story. Not much. But a glimpse. She came here in 1985 and right away started working the streets. Her husband was her pimp. They were married seven years.


“He didn’t mind you being out here?”


“No. He saw it as a business and so did I. When I first came out here it was good. All the girls were in furs and heels. You could meet a businessman and he would give you a 150 dollar tip. Now it’s all changed. There’s not as much money, so the girls aren’t the same. No more furs. And AIDS scared people away too… Now it’s hard to get by. A lot of the girls are on drugs. That makes it real tough to keep your head above water.”


“Are you on drugs?”


“I smoke my weed, but I’m not on drugs… Well, to be honest, I’m on methadone. Three years.”


“What happened to your husband?”


“He went to jail. He’s still in there.”


“Why?”


“Some kind of fraud… But I don’t miss him, really. He didn’t beat me, but I wasn’t in love with him. I loved him, but I wasn’t in love.”


We kept walking. The whole neighborhood was filled with SRO hotels with locked gates for entrances. We passed other whores. There was this one old blonde whore, she was maybe 40, but she looked 50, and her face, tanned and leathery, was mad, stricken. She was wearing a loud flower-print dress and white heels.


“Do you want to stop being out here?” I asked my friend.


“I’d like to. My sister is always writing me, telling me to come back. But I guess I’m one of those people who has to be on their last leg and limb before they’ll go home.”


And thinking about her saying that, it’s hard to imagine that she won’t die here, that she’ll ever make it back to Australia.


“I’ve never met an Aborigine before,” I said.


“I’m not a full Aborigine. I’m not really even half. My father was half… There are a lot of people like me in Australia. A lot of people with black blood. That’s why my hair is kinky… And my face is kind of like a boy’s ’cause it’s bony, which I get from my father. Sometimes people mock me, say I’m a queen. Other people say it makes me pretty. I don’t know how I feel about it. If I look like a pretty boy it could be a compliment. A lot of the queens out here are beautiful. More beautiful than the real girls.”


“There are queens around here? I’ve written a lot about queens.”


“They have the next street. That’s their corridor. You want to go there?”


“All right,” I said.


We went to the queens’ street and it was good to see them again, especially since in cleaned-up New York they’re nowhere to be found. We passed two large, buxom black queens, and their flowery scent was strong. Queens often lay it on thick. 

“You can really smell their perfume,” I said, when they were out of earshot.


“Oh, yeah,” said my friend, laughing. “That’s true.”


Then we came upon a drag bar called Motherlode. “That’s where they all hang out,” she said. “If you go in there you might find something more to write about queens.”


I decided to go into the place, but my friend didn’t feel comfortable coming with me; she didn’t want the queens to think she was trying to compete with them in their bar. So it was time for me to pay her, and I gave her the 20 and the few extra singles I had. “Be careful in there,” she said. Then she thanked me and kissed me on the cheek goodbye and walked away, and that was it.


I went inside the bar and sat in the shadows. It was a narrow place, and near the entrance was a small elevated stage with a big mirror behind it. A few queens were up on the stage and I watched them dance by themselves. They faced the mirror and while they danced they adjusted their hair, their breasts, their lipstick. I always like to watch queens. It’s like theater.


After half an hour, I left the bar and headed for my hotel. A few blocks from the queens’ street, I saw three young blondes with long, thin legs. Two of them were peroxide blondes, one of them was natural. They were all quite beautiful. Quite young. Not one of them more than 20. Where had they come from? They were on heels like stilts. Their dresses were short. They teetered and clicked down the road. They were all leg and white-blonde hair. I passed by them. Stared at them. They were like slivers of light, wavering. I kept going.


I scanned the streets for my friend, and didn’t spot her. But if I were to be out in the Tenderloin tonight, which I won’t be, I’m sure I’d see her again.

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