Anything of Value

"We believed that trading sex meant never asking for help"

by Lorelei Lee
Art by Jarett Sitter
September 1st, 2020

I worried that the gravel outside the train station would scuff the shine on my too-small, thrifted platform heels. It was such a find—thrift store shoes not yet scuffed. The man had told me on the phone that his name was John. He would pick me up and we would drive to a hotel. I would stay with him overnight and the next day he would drive me back to the train station. 

A month earlier, I’d had a job at a big chain coffee shop. The coffee shop was in a historic neighborhood where the street signs had been transformed by graphic designers into replicas of their former selves and the Victorian houses had washer-dryers and a sandwich cost an hour’s wage. Most of us who worked at the shop lived a forty-five-minute train ride away. We had a three-minute grace period to punch in at the start of our shift. Any later and we’d get a write-up. Three write-ups meant probation. Four and you were fired.

Later, I would learn that all the men wanted to call themselves John. Did they think they were funny? Was it the only name they could think of? Later, I would be curious about these things, but in 2002, I was not. I was not curious about the men at all. My feet hurt. My rent was due. I had not asked this John what his car looked like or how I’d recognize him. I just stood on the curb in my slip-dress and hefted my heavy purse and waited for someone to call my made-up name. 

“Lulu?” he said.

His car was grey. He was a thin white man with black hair and a suntan. I got in.

All of us who worked at the coffee shop had a lot of emergencies. Our electricity got shut off, our apartments caught fire, our friends got stabbed or ODed, we had miscarriages or fevers we’d let go too long and we had to spend the night in the public hospital waiting room where you could heal yourself faster than you could get in to see a doctor. The coffee shop gave benefits if you worked over 32 hours, so no one was ever given more than 30 except Jimmy, who had cancer. The rest of us left the ER at 5am for our 6am shift, scheduled the community college course we were trying to take around the 30 hours we were allowed to work, hung up on our parents if we had parents, skipped class, showed up late to our other jobs, were late to everything except the coffee shop.

John drove us north on the highway. He said he was a musician, that he used to play backup keys for the Grateful Dead. He pointed in a general direction out the car window. 

“Over there, we dropped acid. We played baseball against Jefferson Airplane until we started peaking and couldn’t find the bases anymore.”

He had promised me two hundred dollars. At the coffee shop that would have been nearly a week’s pay. I had not yet done the math that I would be working the same number of hours for it. It was the end of the month. Two days was faster than five days. 

The third time I missed the three-minute grace period, Jefferey, the day manager, followed me into the break room. I rushed to punch my time card, to drop my bags, to tie my apron on, to get my ass out onto the floor with him in my ear saying, “You’re on probation,” as if I didn’t know. As if I hadn’t spent two years building my whole life around those three minutes. 

That morning, on my break, I went out and grabbed the free weekly papers from the sidewalk boxes. I sat at the count-out station and called the numbers listed in tiny ads with no copy except “women ages 18-28, make $$$ fast, no experience necessary.”

“My dog died last year,” John said on the drive. “He was a damn good dog. Why do they make dogs’ lives so fucking short?” His voice was uneven, and it occurred to me that he might cry. I watched the trees pass. They seemed to go faster or slower depending on how I turned my head. We’d been driving for half an hour, and it was all trees for miles.

John swerved into a pullout and stopped the car.

Today, I have guides. I have pamphlets on how to screen clients. Always trust your gut. I have pamphlets on how to plan in case of your own arrest. Have a support person, memorize their number. I have pamphlets on what to expect from a lawyer, on how to talk to cops. Act calm. Say, “Am I free to leave?” I have guides on what to do when you get kicked off of yet another online platform, where to apply for food stamps, how to deal with Child Protective Services. Act calm. I have guides on how to lobby your congressperson and how to talk to the media. Trust your gut. I have guides on avoiding burnout, on the necessity of building a network of sex worker friends. Have a safe call. Have community. Today, I help write these guides. I help disseminate them. There are so many ways we can have each other’s backs.

I looked up and down the road. Sun filtered through the redwoods and eucalyptus. A car passed, then it was gone. John got out and ran to the trunk. He grabbed something and came around to the passenger door. 

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” 

I could have stayed in the car, but then what.

“Quick,” he said. “Let’s go! Get going!” 

I got out.

Years of minimum wage work had taught me that getting my money meant doing what I was told. Doing what I was told by managers and customers, over and over again, hour after hour, day after day. The difference between me and rich people, it seemed, was that they could do what they wanted. Could—like Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book we’d passed around the coffee shop—wear our lives like clothes and then go on the radio and talk about it. My gut, if I had considered trusting it, would have said rent is due. I did not get full names. I did not have a safe call. I did not circle the car before getting in. I did not get the money up front. 

It must have been fall because the leaves were brown and covered the ground. Wear shoes that you can run in. I shifted my long purse strap. Avoid shoulder bags that can be pulled or tightened around your throat. He led me into the trees. 

“Let’s go!” 

We walked, crunching leaves, until I could no longer see the road.

I did not have a network of sex worker friends. I had friends who traded sex and who knew as little as I did. No one had told us: Negotiate from a distance. Don’t wear big earrings that can get pulled out. Wear mentholated chapstick in your nose to cover other smells. Instead they’d told us: Never get in cars with strangers. Sex means disease. Whores get killed. We believed we had to choose. We believed that trading sex meant never asking for help. 

Deep in the woods, John stopped. He began to unbutton his shirt. His hands shook, and he looked back toward the road, checking if we’d been followed. He kicked out of his shoes and took his pants off. He handed me the camera he’d taken from his car trunk.

“Take my picture,” he said. 

He ran, weaving through the trees, barefoot and wildly off kilter, his hands between his legs to protect the weakest part of his body. I framed him in the lens and shot.

Harm reduction advice in this piece is both collective and individual community wisdom and comes to the author from Juliet November’s We Got This, L. Synn Stern’s Tricks of the Trade, and others whom it may be unsafe to name here.

This series was generously supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. 

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