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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.