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Late night in New York City. So late it’s early. Pitch black with a fuzzy, artificial yellow glow around all the streetlights. Stores are shuttered.

The only places open are some bars, some late-night diners.

A few drunks tottle down the streets, call out into the darkness, try to hail cabs which screech to a halt on the corners.

D. is walking down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pale gray Patagonia fleece jacket, trying to find his way back to a friend’s new apartment. This new place is in a foreign part of the city (way up in the hundreds), and he just wants to get there so he can crash on the corner of a futon in a room that is way too small to even be called a bedroom.

After a night party-hopping at what he derisively describes as “the parties of the rich,” D., who works as a carpenter in New Jersey, only wants two things.

Food and sleep.

He’s simple that way.

A hooker starts following him down the sidewalk, waving slightly and chirping like some exotic bird. She wants his attention.There’s nothing scary about D., the man who would become my husband. When she tells him, “Ooh, baby, you are cute!” she isn’t lying.

Of all the men who might possibly pay her for her time, of all the guys walking the streets of Second Avenue at three a.m., D. seemed, I am sure, the choicest alternative. I mean, if the seller can choose the buyer, why not choose the one guy who obviously would never hurt you? The one with the shy, adorable, slightly crooked smile?

Most guys can look back on their youth and prove they were at least somewhat cute. But D. was Super Cute. There was just something about him—some fresh-scrubbed innocence, long eyelashes, perhaps, some aura that said he was responsible–that drew the ladies.

“Looking for a good time?” the prostitute pesters him, tottering on her cheap high heels, trying to keep pace.

D. just looks up and shyly smiles.

“I’ll give you a good time, honey. You and me, we could have a serious good time.”

“I’m not interested…in that,” he tells her. And then something—does she look upset, or is it something else, something more pitiful? He tells me later that she just looked run-down–makes him say, “But I would like to buy you some dinner. Or breakfast. Come on, you want to eat?”

The hooker brightens. She doesn’t say no. She must be the type of woman who doesn’t pass up a free meal, who might not remember to eat unless someone else is buying, or cooking.

They go to a diner. D. says later that his diner date was “sort of embarrassing” because she kept cursing loudly in the diner, using the most bald-faced and un-ladylike epithets, which–luckily–go largely unnoticed in the middle of the night in Manhattan (“So then I told that motherfucker, I told him, No fucking way you come in here and tell me you want my motherfucking bank statements…”).

But he did get her to eat a hamburger (he had to keep reminding her, “You have a hamburger. Are you going to finish your hamburger? How’s your hamburger?”), with the same relentless coaxing you’d give to a child who was too busy rambling on about some unintelligible misunderstanding on a playground to remember to chew and swallow.

Then D. and the hooker parted ways, though not after she said she’d gladly “Give [him] one for free,” and he refused (no, he really did refuse; he can be prudish or simply very modest) and finally found the friend’s apartment and rang the buzzer and went inside and dropped immediately into sleep.

D. barely remembers the story about buying the hooker a hamburger. But it sort of became legend among his friends.

“Where were you last night? Where’d you go after that last party?”

“I was buying a hooker a hamburger.”

It sounded so crazy, but it was true.

They recall that not only did he do that, but he also had a habit of buying hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya and handing them out, again in the wee hours, to the homeless.

There was one woman who stood out to him, surrounded by a sea of split plastic bags, wearing a terrible old coat, the kind that barely exist anymore (wool and polyester, man’s style, with large buttons, greasy lapels). She was thumbing through a ratty paperback, a book without a cover.

 

“Whatcha reading?” Doug asked, handing her some hot dogs and a drink.

“My favorite book in the whole world,” the homeless woman said dreamily, shocked back to reality by the steaming franks in front of her. “This book is very special.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

(I happen to know that D.’s favorite book at that time was “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He also loves a book I gave him entitled “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper).

“It’s about a beautiful young woman in New Zealand who’s adopted and then accidentally finds her birthparents.”

“I’m adopted,” D. says. This is absolutely true (and so am I). “I’ve always wanted to find my birthparents. Where’d you get this book?”

The book found its owner, it turns out. It found her and it spoke to her. It touched her with its sad beauty, the way it all works out in the end.

Because of the hot dogs, because of his kindness, because of the fact that he was adopted himself, the homeless woman hands him her most prized possession and begs him to take it.

“I can’t take your favorite book,” D. says.

She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.

“I can read that book anytime I want to,” the woman says, tapping the side of her head. “It’s all in here, now.”

So D. took the yellowed, tattered Harlequin romance and stuck it in his pocket and he went home and read it. A few years later, I read it, too. It made me cry. It was actually very good.

For years, we had this book, this falling apart, sort of smelly, crumbling book in our house. We couldn’t throw it away, could we? It was like a sign. Or simply just a gift.

It’s gone now, eventually tossed because it was literally disintegrating, but the book itself isn’t important anymore. It’s the story–it’s every story–that really counts.

 

 

 

 

 

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Elizabeth Collins ELIZABETH COLLINS is a writer and writing/literature teacher, whose blog (http://prettyfreaky.blogspot.com) attracts an international following to its mix of memoir, personal and political essays, and quirky observations. Collins, a graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program in English/Writing, won the Columbia University Nonfiction Prize in 2001, as well as other writing awards. Her essays and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Collins currently writes YA novels--and her latest, also entitled Pretty Freaky, is about a foreign adoptee's quest to help her adopted American boyfriend find his birthmother. She is also at work on a memoir about teaching.

18 responses to “Hookers, Homeless Women, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs…and my Husband”

  1. This was tremendous! Haunting and tender at the same time.

  2. You’re kind to say that! Thanks for reading. On to read your piece now…

    Best,

    EC

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Great to see you on here, EC.

    I always thought this sort of thing would make for the beginning of a good rom-com…hooker says, “Wanna have a good time?” Man says, “Are you a cop?” Hooker deflates, says yes. Man says, “Good, let’s go have a burger!”

    I look forward to meeting D.

  4. Greg,

    I am embarrassed by how long I had to sit here, racking my brain, trying to think of what a “rom-com” was.

    Thanks for reading!

    EC

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Elizabeth,

    This is a truly
    lovely
    story.

    D.
    is fine,
    right down to the
    bone.

    How
    fruitful
    is your
    companionship.

  6. I love you, Irene. I love you and your pretty poems.

  7. D.R. Haney says:

    I once had drinks in NYC with a pair of street hookers, including one who called herself Cash Blue, but they paid for their own. They didn’t proposition me. I just kind of talked to them about their lives, and they were very forthcoming, raving about how good their pimp was to them. I gently tried to suggest that they were possibly deluded on that account, but they weren’t having it.

    Oh, and “Rivethead”! I’ve read that. Ben Hamper was interviewed in “Roger and Me,” which is how I became aware of him. He used to write a column, I think, that was also named “Rivethead” — possibly for “Mother Jones,” which Michael Moore used to edit.

    • Hey Duke,

      Yes, Ben Hamper was a Michael Moore protege/acquaintance from the old Michigan days when Moore edited a small paper. The first nonfiction class I ever took used his memoir as one of the readings. I don’t know that he has written anything else (book-length) since. I saw him in a film–was it Sicko?–and he seemed wracked with anxiety. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t been writing? Or maybe he has; maybe I’m just not seeing it.

      I have actually been corresponding with a nun who is telling me that human trafficking (sex trade, yes, but also indentured servitude for all sorts of workers) is rampant, even here in Philadelphia. I have that on my brain, lately.

      Thanks for reading.

      Best to you,

      Liz

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    “She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.”

    What a strange place to find that belief, from a woman on the street in an ocean of plastic bags.

    He sounds like the kind of man worth knowing; there aren’t many who would buy a hooker a hamburger in the middle of the night. I’m pleased to say I’ve been to Gray’s Papaya (a common thing in New York, sure, but not so much in Australia), and so I could mentally log the scene.

    • Thanks, Simon. Yes, that quote was strange, wasn’t it? There is something to be said about our holding on to things with such tight, needy grips–but also knowing when it’s okay to let them go, or when we meet someone who might also appreciate those things, or even need them more.

      I was watching some really scary TV show about hoarders, and what struck me was that all of those people–living among massive piles of accumulated junk–knew they didn’t actually need any of those things (not “need” as in, “if I can only have one thing to take with me, I’ll take this”), but they were so paranoid that someday it might come in handy, so…

      But a bag lady, I would say, probably needs what is in her bags, just for survival. (I am thinking more of “The Road,” perhaps–the rusty shopping cart of survivalism.)

      So, anyway–Gray’s Papaya. Odd places. I must have passed a thousand Gray’s Papaya storefronts before I ever had anything they sold. Dirt cheap. Not a bad deal at all. A NY institution that I think hails from the Caribbean, but I am just guessing.

      How’s it going? Winter in Australia?

      Best wishes,

      Liz

      • Simon Smithson says:

        And strange how often we’re not receptive until the right time.

        This is a particularly gruesome story about the depths to which hoarding can take people:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyer_brothers

        It certainly is winter in Australia. It’s great weather for writing – gray and dull and with rain drizzling past every day or so.

        Best wishes to you too, Liz!

  9. Oh, Simon, that link was completely horrifying! A must-read.

    The woman who lived next door to me when I was a child had a house filled with newspapers…she used to go sit in her car, parked in the driveway, to read. I thought that was very strange, but obviously there must have been no place to sit down in the house!

    How/why does this happen? Ugh.

    Anyway, it has been hot as hell here (if I wanted to live in Arizona…did you go there on your travels?…I would; I can’t deal with the insane, desert heat), but today is nice and gray and cool. I envy your winter drizzle.

    Write on,

    Liz

  10. Matt says:

    Read this yesterday right when it went up but haven’t had a chance to comment until now.

    What a wonderful story, and so well told. D. seems like the kind of perosn we need more of these days, someone who is patient and empathetic instead of of hostile and apathetic. Somewhat reminds of that scene from Taxi Driver where Robert DeNiro buys teenage Jodie Foster lunch, but without DeNiro’s ever-increasing mental instability.

    I had similar encounters while walking around during the late night/early morning periods in New Orleans. None of the hookers I who propositioned me were ever the kind I would feel comfortable sitting down to get a burger with; more the type who give $10 blowjobs to get cheap smack and who you could catch a disease off of just by touching. Sometimes I would give them food if I had any, but never cash, since I always knew where it would end up.

    Again, well done.

  11. Yeah, there’s the drug issue (worrying that any money goes to drugs), and the disease one. But also, I think, the cultural one…it’s not easy to have a prolonged conversation with someone who’s from so different a background or current ground.

    Thanks for reading, Matt!

    Best,

    EC

  12. Aurelie says:

    Great piece, Elizabeth! For me the story is about random acts of kindness, and also the way any people, including homeless people, can maintain a sense of dignity by making gifts, not just receiving them.

    How’s the YA novel coming along? I love that title – “Pretty Freaky”.

    • Thanks so much, Aurelie.

      Well, “Pretty Freaky” the novel (for which the blog is named; it’s not anything perverted) is done, though apparently, I need to change up the end a bit. I put it aside for the moment to get down my new novel, which–uncharacteristically, for me–I planned out in its entirety before starting to write.

      I hope to pull a Kerouac (or something like it) and just barrel through with that one really fast…unlike the four slow years of writing “Pretty Freaky” on holiday breaks.

      I think I need to find a small press for “Pretty Freaky,” and I have a first novel that I thought was brilliant, but maybe it’s a first novel, and maybe first novels live in drawers (though I hope not). My agent didn’t even want to *try* to sell that one. Hmm.

      Then I want to get this memoir that’s in my head down on paper.

      Lots to do.

      But summer is nearly over (yay! kids back in school, but I’m not!), so I am rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation of actually getting some serious work done.

      Thanks for reading.

      Best wishes,

      EC

      • Aurelie says:

        Hi Elizabeth,

        I’ve heard teenagers use the expression “Pretty Freaky” so I didn’t think it was anything perverted – just an expression teenagers use, which is a great way to let people know this is a YA novel.

        I can’t decide which one is better: planning out novels before you start or letting things develop as you write. I first tried to write a historical novel in 2007 where I had written the outline of each chapter beforehand, and that was very dry. I gave up on it and wrote the novel I ended up completing, and a lot of that novel was shaped as I wrote. That forced me to go back many times to straighten subplots. I can’t imagine how people did this before computers and word processing! Having the end in mind when you start will probably save you a lot of time.

        One issue I can see with agents and YA novels is that agents aren’t part of the target group, no matter what their tastes are. That’s a big difference with agents for the “grown-up” market. Hopefully they have enough experience to guess what teens will respond to, but even in my interactions with 18- to 22-year-olds, I’m surprised by how much people change in college and even in the years that follow. It’s sometimes hard for me to remember how I was and what I liked when I was in, say, junior high. All this to say, I wouldn’t give up on your first novel just now. The fact that your agent doesn’t think it will sell doesn’t mean teens won’t like it.

        I like the idea of trying a small press. Out of curiosity, do you have any stats on how many Americans are adopted? Especially children and teenagers? What are other YA novels with that theme? You could make a great PR/marketing plan and send copies of the book to the National Adoption Center. Since you’re adopted, you have a fantastic platform. You should consider making your own marketing plan before your agent submits the book to publishers, to increase interest.

        Story time: Lisa Genova’s “Still Alice”, a novel (not YA) about a Harvard prof developing Alzheimer’s, received poor reviews by people who felt the dialogue was wooden and the book would only interest people facing Alzheimer’s with their family. Turned out there were many folks in that category, and the book became a New York Times best-seller. “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes, a novel about the Vietnam war written by a war vet, was rejected by all agents and publishers until a small not-for-profit press gave the book a chance. Then B&N staff raved about the novel and realized it had important things to add to the already sizable literature on the Vietnam war. This drew the attention of someone at the Atlantic Monthly Press, and now the book is a best-seller.

        All this to say: don’t get discouraged. It’s very impressive already that you were able to write several books by now. Many people who say they want to be novelists don’t find the time to write a single one in their lifetime.

  13. Thanks, Aurelie. I appreciate your advice and kind words.

    I am realizing more and more that it is up to me, as the writer, to place my own work, to believe in my own work, even to promote my own work once it comes out. It is a strange concept, and goes against the way things are supposed to work…but in this climate, what else is there?

    The one good thing to say it that the power is within the hands of the writer, if the writer chooses to accept that power (sounds like the start of Mission: Impossible…ugh).

    Best to you!

    EC

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