Thursday, February 2, 2012

Working for Slo-Mo



(Note: This poster is for a reading in Toronto during Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans Pride Week 2007.)

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“Executive Escorts Wanted.” Heh. The word “executive” didn’t fool me into believing that sex work was glamorous, or that it would lead to a high-status career – on the contrary. I dialed the number and asked for the man who had placed the ad because I needed money.

Was I always a Bad Girl? You tell me. I had not planned to sell sex for a living. In my twenties, I had assumed that an ability to type, file and serve the public could always get me an office job if nothing better was available. As a bride, I had assumed that if all else failed and my marriage ended, the legal system would force my husband to help provide for any children we might have, if not for me. As a graduate student, I had assumed that I could complete a thesis in a year or two, and then re-enter the job market with a versatile Master’s degree in English.

When I turned thirty, I was facing the collapse of everything I had counted on. Advances in office technology had dried up the jobs that had supported me through my first college degree, and I didn’t understand computers. As a divorced mother, I was told that I was entitled to child support, which my ex-husband refused to pay. His claim that he could not afford it seemed to satisfy the legal system. As a graduate student, I learned that I really had no rights. As my advisor continued to put off reading my latest chapter, I was repeatedly warned that I could be dropped from the program for failure to complete my thesis within the time allowed.

Bad Girls seem to be made, not born. I “came out” as a lesbian by going to the local gay bar, where I met my first bar dyke lover. While I was pressuring her to find a job and control her drinking, she rebelled by stealing the contents of my bank account. Then I learned that her sticky fingers were well known to most of the other dykes in town, who serenaded me with “You should have known better.”

I swallowed what was left of my pride and applied for welfare. I was told that I was not eligible as long as I still had any savings. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. As Janis Joplin sang it, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Slo-Mo (as I’ll call him), the pimp who asked me to meet him for an interview, had a colorful history of his own: he had sold dope of various kinds, including heroin (on which he was hooked), repossessed furniture and played pool for big prize money. He was running an escort agency as a sideline. He moved and spoke like an old 78 RPM record being played at 33 & 1/3 speed.

Sex was part of the interview, and it felt strangely businesslike. It was really an audition. Like other employers, my new boss explained the rules: safety on the job (regular use of condoms plus medical checkups), reliability, appropriate dress (tight skirts, not ragged jeans). We had a deal.

In some ways, going to work at Slo-Mo’s house at noon and leaving at five o-clock with several hundred dollars in cash was similar to jobs in which I had been expected to please male clients and supervisors who patted and patronized me because I was a “girl.” It was also like dating men who expected sex on the first date, either because I had a bad reputation or just because they wanted it – except that, in this case, they paid in cash. In advance.

Was I having wild adventures? I was nervous every time I went alone to a hotel or a private home to meet a new john, but really, I wasn’t taking any more of a risk than a woman who meets men on the ‘net. I knew very well that any woman can be perceived as “asking for” male violence.

My johns didn’t turn out to be monsters. Some actually seemed shy and grateful. The real Boogie Man in my life was “the system” (government, police, the courts, the mental-health system, even academia), and this is the hardest thing to explain to those who have not tried to walk in my five-inch pumps. All I can say to those who believe that all the major institutions of our society exist to serve the needs of citizens in general is: it just ain’t so.

Slo-Mo turned out to be very reliable in his way. At the end of a working day, he would come home, where I was usually alone in his house. (Most of his stable worked the night shift.) He would offer me a drink, and he seemed impressed that I never helped myself in his absence. Like a considerate husband in an arranged marriage, he would ask about my day, and I would tell him how many “calls” I had when I was not working on my thesis. Then he would ask for an agency fee for each call, or (more often), he would invite me into his bedroom to collect his “fee” in trade.

One day he told me and all his other “girls” that he had sold his business – which essentially consisted of us – to a woman he knew who never contacted us. Apparently she regarded us as outdated furniture from the old business, and chose not to include us in her plans for re-opening.

Years later, I heard that Slo-Mo had died of a heroin overdose. To call him a Good Man would be a stretch, but from what I saw, he wasn’t bad at all. He might have been the only man I’ve ever known who never lied to me.

Still later, I was invited to a birthday party in a local pool hall. I hesitated to pick up a long stick and aim it at those little balls on the table. I was so far from being a pool shark that I barely qualified as a sardine. Luckily, no one was playing for money. That night, it seemed, I couldn’t make a wrong move. I was more surprised than anyone in my audience.

A gay-male friend jokingly said, “Well, we all know about dykes and pool, don’t we?” Did we?

Oh, Slo-Mo. I bet you were there; it’s the only explanation I can think of. Like the junkie musician for whom Sarah McLachlan’s song was written, I hope you’re resting in the Arms of the Angels.
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(A longer version of this piece, “Getting Paid For It,” appeared in the “women’s work” theme issue of a local leftist newsmagazine, Briarpatch, in 2005.)

7 comments:

  1. Jean,

    I knew you'd worked as an "escort", but I didn't know the details. And while I'm not sure that this constitutes "wild", from the outside it might seem to be.

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your history.

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  2. Thank you, Jean. This is a terrific piece and I really appreciate you sharing it.

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  3. Sex work strikes me as a logical way to approach a cash flow problem.

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  4. Gah - I tried to respond, but Blogger wouldn't let me.
    Thanks for commenting, all.

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  5. Lisabet - oops, I suppose BORN to be wild doesn't exactly fit my post, or vice versa. I was thinking of "wild" in the sense of not domesticated, outside the social & legal norms. In that sense, this was one of the wilder chapters of my life.
    Thank you, Kristina.
    Kathleen, this is exactly the lure of sex biz, which solves a cash-flow problem in one day (or one hour) - unlike the sex-writing biz. On the other hand, age & sagging flesh aren't obstacles to writing.

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  6. What a beautiful post, Jean. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  7. That's a great post, Jean, beautifully written. Like Lisabet, I knew of your escort past, but only in a nebulous sort of way. Quite the life you've had. And now to be a happily married English prof!

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