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These interviews were conducted for the feature documentary, An Escort’s Journal, by Jeff Ragsdale.

Here’s the question everybody seems to want to ask: Why prostitutes? Are you some kind of depraved whoremonger? Your new book, Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession certainly indicates you have more than just a passing interest in prostitutes.

Why can’t I find prostitutes and prostitution fascinating without being a whoremonger? I’ll bet people writing about the Spanish Inquisition don’t get asked if they dress up like Torquemada and toast heretics on the grill. The truth is, I can actually pinpoint the first seed of the idea. Below is a transcript of a Gchat conversation I had about a year and a half ago with my agent at the time, Jon Sternfeld. Here’s an excerpt:

TSS: So I’ve invented a car wash where you rent a limo with your manfriend or ladyfriend and it’s in a big limo—plenty of room. and palliative oils. It’ll be cheap. Good tunes, too.

JS: A car-wash whorehouse?

TSS: A drive-thru love station with rain.

JS: Hey, that’s something—you should write something about whores.

Hester 2001

It was the year my favorite Beatle died, just a few months after the WTC terrorist attacks, early in my second decade at the nursery. Everyone needed diversion from the news. In the evenings I watched videos of Jane Austen novels, daytimes left my desk and went often to the nursery’s growing fields, the farthest ones out, started collecting snake skins, tortoise shells, looking for the rare mule deer antler.

It’s hard for outsiders to understand just how prevalent prostitution is in South Korean society. People from Europe or the United States will think of prostitutes in terms of stereotypes lifted from movies, and the occasional drive through a bad neighbourhood. These girls, we think, are a small minority working street corners for pimps.

In South Korea, however, prostitution is everywhere. Certainly there are places notorious for brothels, but they exist out in the open across every city in the country. It is technically illegal, but these American-introduced laws are largely unenforced, and “crackdowns” are just for show, to appease the international community.

You might be forgiven for overlooking prostitution as a tourist, unless you pass a U.S. military base or perhaps visit Seoul’s famous “Hooker Hill,” but once you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to miss. Perhaps the most common example is the “barber shop.” Of course, these places don’t even pretend to offer haircuts. They are simply apartments with rotating barber shop poles outside, and they can be found in even the most well-developed areas of the country.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been watching a lot of Sopranos lately. Every morning I tune in to the 8:00 A&E showing. I’ve not been awake ten minutes and I’m watching Paulie smash a guy in the back of the head with a shovel, Chris put five across his bitch’s eye, Tony fuck some broad in a roadside motel. Before I’ve finished a cup of coffee I’ve seen sex, violence, chauvinism, prostitution, embezzlement, collusion, theft and murder. It’s great.

Part of what makes David Chase’s show brilliant television is that the characters are dead on. There are thousands of Jersey knuckleheads out there just like the guys in The Sopranos who are willing to kill, maim and take what they want. And that’s just in Jersey. There are goons the world over willing to step on you to get what they’re after. And I’m not just talking gangsters and tough guys. Look across the George Washington Bridge, to Manhattan, to find even bigger hoodlums. No, not Johnny Sack and the New York crew—I’m talking about the financial district crew—the guys who conned the nation out of tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money. These thugs in their high rise offices at JP Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, just to name a few, are hard fucking core gangsters. These guys shat all over us and took what they wanted.

The point is, the world belongs to people with balls. Whether it’s through twisting arms or twisting laws, it doesn’t really matter. Some people have balls and take whatever they want. Then there’s the rest of us who play by the rules.

But there are rules, and then there are “rules.” Tony Soprano is at heart a pragmatist. What allows him to be one, however, is that people know he’s a big, bad motherfucker who will, in the end, take care of business by any means necessary. The unspoken threat that Tony will carve you up and dump your body in the harbor gives his negotiations that extra “oomph.”

Now, to diverge for a moment, I’d like to talk politics—specifically, the tea party movement. Guys, I like your anger. The problem is that you’re mad at the wrong people. The real enemy is not Obama, liberals or socialists—it’s not universal health care, illegal immigrants, homos or dope smokers. It’s the Wall Street plutocrats who rig the system and take all of our money—who wreck the economy and get people kicked out of their homes—who nearly plunged our entire nation—the world, possibly—into economic ruin. These rich pricks are the enemy.

The tea partiers always like to talk about what patriots they are. I’m all for being patriotic. But, I’d like to remind those historically myopic rabble-rousers of exactly what a Patriot is. The tea partiers chose to name themselves after those people who, in 1773, boarded ships docked in Boston harbor and dumped their cargo of taxed tea into the water in protest. But the Boston Tea Party was just a small part of the Patriots hard-line stance against their oppressors. They regularly tarred and feathered Loyalists. Think about that: dumping hot tar all over somebody’s body and then, to add insult to injury, a few feathers. That’s some hardcore gangster shit. Not only that, Patriots burned down Loyalist homes to get their point across. Not surprisingly, it worked. They chased those British bums out of town.

Tea partiers: if you want to talk about patriotism, at least get your terminology right. Let’s step off of this flag-waving, dumb hillbilly, Fox News, anti-intellectual, Mexican/darkie-hating, drill baby drill, get-your-hands-off-my-guns, the founding fathers were infallible man gods, bullshit. Patriotism has somehow been subverted by a political vein that clings to a nostalgic, romantic fantasy of America as a good ol’ boy club for whom Ronald Regan is the eternal hero. It’s John Wayne in a western who dispatches of the bad guys, gives a laconic, feel-good, one-liner with a tip of his cap then saunters off into the sunset. Patriotism has been turned into a myth and hijacked by the far right.

How did our nation react after the bank bailouts? Aside from some cries of protest—some professorial finger wagging from the Administration—nothing. Despite pointed work by journalists such as Matt Taibbi, who laid out the entire hustle for us, who described, in detail, the horse-race financial schemes that led to this crisis, we as a nation have sat back on our heels and let it keep happening. Sure, some of the banks are beginning to pay back their debts, but no real work has been done to close the loopholes that led us into this malaise. The people who work for Goldman Sachs et. al are still getting millions of dollars in bonuses precisely for coming up with new financial schemes. This is what investment banking has become. These guys don’t fund emerging markets and industries. They create bubbles that burst in their favor, flood the system with toxic junk and then profit by betting against the fact that their own unsustainable policies are going to fail. Even if we change the laws, I’m confident they will come up with new ways to hoodwink the public at large. These guys are good.

But while they may be really smart, I’m willing to bet they’re not that tough. That is, if a shovel was to connect with the back of their head, or a 9mm to somehow find its way into their mouth…

Tea partiers, if you really want to be Patriots, here’s your chance. Stop burning Obama effigies, bemoaning how we’re becoming commies and praying to God for faggots to die. Pick up your pitchforks, your torches and those guns you oft demand to keep but rarely have cause to use and go after these investment bankers. Consider this the new Glorious Cause.  Push these guys around, slap them, kidnap their wives…whatever it takes. These firms like to talk about how they’re too big to fail. Well, so was Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum.

Perhaps a strong populist movement will send a message to the top. Since many are already looking ahead to the mid-term elections, even the presidential election, it’s got me thinking who I’ll be casting my ballot for. I’d vote for Tony Soprano in a heartbeat before I put another politically correct liberal or politically retarded conservative in office. Give me some good ol’ guido pragmatism. Would Tony lecture the banks about how they should be ashamed of themselves, and that maybe they shouldn’t be paying out such big bonuses? Of course not. Would he let Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snub him at the Copenhagen Climate Conference? Fahgettaboudit. I’m not sure exactly what he’d do, but the one thing Tony Soprano does not do is not get results. He doesn’t do “shame on you.” He does “If that’s how it’s gonna be I’ll cut your balls off, you fucking cockroach.”

That sounds like a real Patriot to me. The plutocrats of today are the new aristocracy. They are the same kind of people that we strong-armed back to Britain over 225 years ago and began a nation in defiance of. America, it’s time to run the bums out of town again. But to do so we need to have balls.   We need to remember what the tough sons of bitches who helped win our freedom knew; what every Jersey wiseguy with a gun in his track pant’s elastic waistline and a bat in his hand knows: there are rules and then there are “rules”. Capiche?

I’m also thinking, if it can work for the good ol’ Stars & Stripes, then it’s good enough for me. Writers, after all, aren’t exactly known for being the ballsiest lot—not in real life, anyway. If pressed to a fight I’d probably run away and use the confrontation as the basis of a misanthropic vignette.

Part of what’s frustrating about being a writer is that you submit your work for review to total strangers far away. I’ve often thought, “If only I could meet these people…put a personal face to my work…not have it just be the manuscript of some abstract person…maybe it would make a difference…”

But now I’m thinking I show up at their office with a different strategy—like the hardbound edge of my rejected manuscript to the back of the head. Maybe then they’ll reconsider. If not, it will make for a really deep, dark story full of irony, pain and regret. Either way: bada bing.

Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1

That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district.  Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.