In Praise of Literary Conferences

or:  What Showing Up As Part of a Literary Community Looks Like

578008_10151342764616334_1187474638_n

AWP: Boston, March 2013 (brrr!)
That time I shared a gorgeous townhouse in Boston with some of my MFA cohort and wore bunny ears so I’d be easy to find, and because…well, fuck, seriously? Bunny ears!

  • The VIDA prom.
  • Truck loads of indie publishers, but every time I stopped by Soft Skull (publishers of the most recent anthology) to say hi, no one was there.
  • Everything from the very practical: “Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book;”
  • to the personally useful: “The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction;”
  • to community building: “Being a Good Literary Citizen” (with the fabulous Rob Spillman) and social justice: “Teaching Creative Writing to Teens Outside of the Classroom;”
  • to the bars and dinners and schmooze-fests where my bunny ears were eclipsed by someone in full gladiator regalia I hope assume had a book about to launch.
  • and then,  worth the cost of admission: “my two Stevphens” Stephen Elliott and Steve Almond on cobbling together a living and a life while writing work that matters.

AWP is in a different city each year. Huge, overwhelming and a little like trying to see all of Disneyworld in a day and it’s possible my bunny ears will make an appearance in DC come February 2017.

Brooklyn Book Festival : Brooklyn, September 2014, free!!
Roz Chast (if you are over 40 and have parents, I encourage you to read this) and Robert Mankoff (the only person who understands ALL of the New Yorker cartoons). Darcey Steinke whose Suicide Blonde changed my writing life (and I fell off my chair when I realized she followed me on Twitter which meant I got to accost her and say hi and pretend we were old friends while I sat in front of boypoet Michael Klein [hosannas all around to Lesley University’s poet Steven Cramer for introducing me to that voice and those words] chatting him up and soaking it all in).

Bindercon Symposium : NYC, October 2014 – the debut conference!
One of the unintentional results of Mitt Romney’s mouthful about “binders full of women”? Bindercon – a professional symposium for women and gender-nonconforming writers that has since gone bicoastal and digital. I spent two days surrounded by them and made more new writer friends I’d never have met otherwise!  I was at one of the first planning meetings, but the final product they produced was something so much bigger than I could have imagined. Thanks Mitt (and major props and thanks to Leigh and Lux).

Slice Literary Conference : Brooklyn, September 2014
I love Dani Shapiro. I love that going to see Dani on a panel I found Darin Strauss and his memoir, Half a Life, both brilliant and devastating.

Poets & Writers Live : NYC, June 2014
The day started off with poet Rich Villar. It ended with poet Frank Bidart. And of course all those authors and agents in conversation between the hours of 9am and 7pm. I don’t think of myself as a poetry reader. Apparently, however, I am a sucker for poets because there are poets all over this post.

The Aspen New York Book Series presents ‘The Art of the Memoir’: NYC, November 2015
Since I was already in love with Dani Shapiro and had recently fallen in love with Darrin Strauss, and was following them both on Twitter, I heard about this, and got to hear them in conversation, up close and personal, with Vivian Gornick who (and I apologize profusely, Vivian, if by chance you ever read this) is such an icon in the writing community, I assumed she was dead. She is not. She is very much alive and a fucking pistol and not only would I be happy to look like her at 81, I’d be happy to look that good period. Don’t believe me? Watch the whole thing here (and realize that even educated people pronounce “to” as “tuh” and we should just let it go).

Woodstock Writer’s Festival: Woodstock, April 2016
Staying at a sweet inn on a babbling brook recommended by a man I’d  crushed on for years and never met. And where I finally met that man and we babbled through a three-hour dinner. I made one more new friend,  discovered Jamie Brickhouse, came home having spent $200 more on books, and hit fabulous panels on writing on (and in) recovery, spirituality, and met (and frightened) my grammar-geek icon, Mary Norris. I left more than slightly in love with John Elder Robison and excited because I had one his books on my to-read shelf waiting for me at home.

HippoCamp: Lancaster, PA, August 2016 (tk)
Which, despite its name is not a fat camp.

WORD Christchurch: New Zealand, August 2016 (tk)
Again, despite the name, to the best of my knowledge Christ will not be making an appearance.

Here’s a truncated list of writer’s conferences,
and book festivals in New York, and
yet another resource you can narrow down by area,
and another.

And some of them are free. Now what’s your excuse?

Scribbling all Summer

woodstock-logo

April, it was Woodstock, where I fell in love with John Elder Robinson and frightened Comma Queen Mary Norris with my rabid adoration of her grammatical perfection.


tumblr_o86h0jMSor1qb89fso1_1280July in Portland, Oregon, workshopping new work on our family legacy of truth, lies, facts, and fiction with Michelle Tea.


Aug.-12-14-_-Lancaster-PAhippocamp2016.hippocampusmagazine.com_August means three days in Lancaster, Pennsylvania surrounded by nonfiction writers, the brilliance of Mary Karr, the sharp wit and fab scarves of Jamie Brickhouse, and before I leave, some Dutch Haven Shoo-fly Pie. (There is still time to sign up, and enough pie for everyone.)


word-banner960And later in August, halfway around the world, twenty-two hours on a plane and across the dateline with BFF rockstar editor/knitter/feminist pundit Debbie Stoller to New Zealand for the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. I’ll be on a panel of sex worker writers, in case you happen to be in the area.

Lesson Number One

dark-and-dingy-roomsPreviously published: BUST Magazine Spring/Summer 1996 (as Scarlett Fever)

He pushes me inside a yellow cab and stuffs himself in beside me. I hear the first gunshots exploding like Chinese firecrackers in February as the door slams closed.

“Drive”, he says to the cabbie. “Relax, CeeCee. It’s over.” He dropped a bloated pink hairless hand onto my thigh. “Consulate Hotel. West 49th Street,” he says speaking to the driver, and looking at me, the question in his eyes.

I don’t say anything. How bad can it be? He’s not mean. I need a car. I need his money to get it.

“I need three n’ a quarter, Lloyd.”

“OK, Cee, three hundred and twenty-five dollars it is then.” He smiles at me, rubbing his pink hand up and down my thigh vigourously, anticipating. I catch Abu Ben Taxi Driver looking at us in the rearview mirror. Listening in. Deciding what I am. What Lloyd is. The vodka from my last drink rises back up my throat and tastes awful.

Next week I can drive into the city in the car I bought with the money from my first trick. How bad can it be?

The hotel room, the lights are out, the blinds open. The room lit only by a full moon and the street lights below. Lloyd lies naked on the bed, a great white beached whale. His skin iridescent in the moonlight, broken only by an archipelago of eczema that dots his massive body, the source of the medicinal aura that floats around him at all times. I stand at the bathroom door, my clothes at my feet, and try to imagine the feel of his skin, the texture of the rash. I leave my body. My heart and soul float across the room settling sadly into the wing chair in the corner. A voyeuristic sadistic pleasure keeps me watching as the scene unfolds. I watch myself, in awe of what I’m capable of.

I see myself in the moonlight, breasts full and plump, ass round and creamy, hips rolling seductively as I walk over to the bed. My face a blank mask of concentration and focus as I look down at him. Thinking about what? The car? The money? The task at hand?

Lloyd lies on the bed, legs spread wide, stomach rising up above everything, a four hundred and fifty-pound island of flesh lit blue-white by garish street lights, waiting for me.

He reaches out entwining his chubby fingers in my dark curly pubic hair and shoves his thumb inside of me (an audible gasp bubbles out of my mouth, escaping into the night). His thumb probes deeper, twirling around.

“Suck my cock,” his voice no longer whiny, no longer begging. He pulls his thumb out of me, pushes me towards the end of the bed, and shiny with my juice he sticks it in his mouth and suckles.

Proportion takes on a profound meaning when a man’s cock is surrounded by so many hundreds of pounds of flesh. Finding it alone a labor worthy of Hercules. Tucked inside the many folds of his massive thighs, deep inside the crevices below his bellys, I watch myself root through his flesh like a pig after truffles. Holding a belly up with my elbow, a thigh away with my hand. Finding my prey, my pound of flesh, short and hard, no bigger than his thumb or a pale breakfast sausage, I bend and take him into my mouth. Covering it with my own saliva, stroking him slowly, making him harder, squeezing and pulling, rubbing my breasts while cranes over his belly to watch, squeezing my nipples, getting us both ready. He lays there, unable to move, a giant turtle on his back, a great sea mammal washed ashore and abandoned, at my mercy. My juices are flowing. I touch myself, separate the damp hairs, the outer labia, the inner labia, open myself up and rise up, rise up, Venus rising from the foam. I close my eyes and mount him as best I can.

“Suck this,” knocking his hand away from his mouth and sticking my fingers,my whole hand, slick with my own juices, in his mouth. I ride him, leaning forward as he grabs my tits, pulling painfully at my nipples. I grip his round arms and ride him, forgetting about his rash, his size, his lack of size. I ride and pump and thrust and grind. I moan and curse and Oh baby, and yes, yes, yes as he comes inside me. I ride some more, pulling on my own nipples now, rubbing my clit up against the overflow from his big firm belly, bringing myself to climax. I stroke his immense round gut as I feel him shrinking, I contract inside and try to hold him there a bit longer. Shrinking. Shrinking. He slips out.

And I think about where I will go in the cute blue Pinto I will buy with his money.


The money, the real reason I’m here, I tell myself. Yet, even today,when I describe it, my juices flow and the tingles grow in that secret place deep inside me. His flesh repulses me, the act of selling myself does not. Having someone desire me so much he will pay me, pay what I ask, opens me up inside.

To be in charge.

To be in control.

To be paid.


He’s coming out of the bathroom, already having washed my scent off and stuffed himself back into his oversized brown polyester slacks when I realize no money’s changed hands yet. No crisp bills waiting quietly on the nightstand like in the movies.

“Lloyd, uh…are you leaving…?” My clothes were on the bathroom floor. He stood at the doorway to the bathroom, a wall of flesh between me and my clothes. The fluorescent bathroom light creating a gargantuan silhouette, his huge polyester behind the only thing reflected in the mirror.

“Yeah. Look, I gotta go see what kind of damage was done in the club tonight. Keep the room, babe. I paid for the whole night.” He struggled into the brown and grey plaid sportcoat, patted me on the head, checking his pockets as he did and heading towards the door.

“I don’t wanna stay here all night. We talked about the money Lloyd… What about the money?” Not wanting him to let him escape. I grabbed up my clothes. Pulling them on without washing him off of me. Liquid Lloyd runs down my leg.

“Look CeeCee, I don’t have the money with me…”

“What do you mean, you don’t have the money? You paid for the cab, the room…?”

I came here to get paid, to turn a trick.

“That’s about all I had on me. I have just enough to get home from here. Everything else is in the safe at the club. Do you need cab fare or are you OK?”

Cab fare you mammoth pig? I need three hundred and twenty-five dollars. I need your head on a platter. I need my fucking money.

“OK? OK? I’m not OK. What about my money. You said you’d pay me three…,” It’s not a trick if I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid it’s just a nightmare, ” hundred and …”

“Hey,” he interrupted. His inflated Macys’ Thanksgiving Day parade ballon hand on my naked shoulder, “do you think I’m trying to cheat you?” Yes, that’s exactly what I think. “What did you want me to do, tell the guys on the stairs to wait, don’t shoot up the place till I get money outta the safe to give to my girl?”

“But I thought you had money with you…”

STUPID, STUPID STUPID. STUPID BITCH

” No, CeeCee,” he spoke softly, like you do to a child, “You stop by the club tomorrow night and we’ll straighten everything out. OK?”

I’m such a stupid bitch.

I nod silently and sit there, even quieter, watching in the mirror as he kisses me goodbye. Silent as I watched the door close after his fat shit brown polyester ass. Silently I sit as my heart and soul walks over and rejoins me, a little thinner now, a little paler. Silent as I finish dressing and head down to the subway and back home. I can panhandle whatever I need for the Long Island RailRoad.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe I was too scared or too stupid to ask for the money afterwards. Maybe there was just a chubby girl having sex with a huge fat man, expecting him to keep his word. Maybe it wasn’t sensual at all. Maybe it was a dirty little room in a cheap hotel with no full moon, only the street lights and the eczema.

Stupid bitch.

Lesson Number One – get the money up front.

Dating for Dollars

Sexy sitting couple in car

Previously published: Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks (Soft Skull Press, 2013); Best American Erotica, 1995 (Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1995 as Scarlett Fever)

Originally published: BUST Magazine, Summer/ Fall 1994 (as Scarlett Fever)

I paused at the doorway to the dining room of Laurent—it was not quite Lutece, but it was in the same neighborhood, the same price range, and just as French and fancy. I let the room get a good view. My deep purple spandex dress fit like a wet suit in the few places it bothered to cover. One arm bare and supple, the back cut low and the sides cut high. My nipples, straining against the tight material, managed to rise to the occasion of all the attention. The maitre’d smiled and motioned, across a sea of perfectly coiffed silver heads, for us to follow. The gentle murmur of polite conversation slowed as all heads turned in concert. I heard the whisper of pearls across black velvet, the subtle intake of breath, and the click-click of my three-inch heels as polite conversation stopped to watch me stroll across the room. The maitre’d, seemed to be getting a real kick out of the attention I was getting. He took his time parading us to the center of the dining room, then turning to direct us back to a semi-private corner banquette. I felt the watery eyes of flaccid ruddy-cheeked men gaze surreptitiously, while the eyes of wives shot hot arrows of disgust.

I loved this.

I didn’t belong here. My dress was too tight, my hair too short and too red, and my class too low. My date was my ticket in. It was as if the stripper who popped out of the cake at the bachelor party showed up at the wedding on the arm of the bride’s father. No one could ask me to leave. The men knew what I was. The women suspected. So I took pleasure in just being there, in that tiny bit of power I held for that moment. The power not to be thrown out of a place that ordinarily wouldn’t even have let me in.

My date for the evening seemed only slightly uncomfortable in his conservative suit and foolish grin. Maybe the simple gold wedding band he wore was too tight. Or maybe he wasn’t prepared for the reaction my appearance in a place like this would create. Whatever it was, it was his problem, not mine. He’d paid me my fee for the evening, two hundred dollars—just shy of a months rent—to compensate for the money I was losing by being out to dinner with him, and not working at the Mardi Gras.

I slipped next to him on the brocade cushions of the banquette, our thighs touched and I felt the heat rise as his face colored slightly. His uneasiness excited me. The more uncomfortable he was, the more comfortable I became. We shared several martinis before dinner and he began to relax, asking the questions they all do eventually.

“So, do you like your work?” Oh sure. When I was little I always imagined I’d grow up, be naked and spend my time drinking cheap champagne with assholes.

“Do you get turned on with everyone watching?” If I was turned on do you think I would be charging you?

“Does your family know?” Sure. Sure they do. They brag over holiday dinners. They’re thinking of including photos in the next family newsletter.

“Have you ever done it with a woman?” C’mon, buddy. Have you?

I could think whatever I wanted, but I told him what he wanted to hear—that I loved what I did, I got horny when I danced, that I got me wet just thinking about him watching me, that I fantasized about being with a man and another woman—and tiny beads of sweat began to appear around his hairline. There was a moment of relief for him as the waiter came for our order. I leaned over to whisper in his ear, one hand resting between his legs, letting my breast and one fabulous hard nipple rub against his arm.

“I don’t know what I want. I think you should make all my decisions tonight.” I left my arm, hand, and breast on him while he ordered, feeling his erection growing.

“Thank you,” I whispered as the waiter retreated, “I knew you could take good care of me, Daddy.” His name was José. Or Jack. Or Jabberwocky. It’s crazy how many men get hard when you call them Daddy, so I stuck with that. It was hotter for him, and less for me to remember. I let my hand brush across his cock as I leaned back and fished the olive from my martini. He smiled and slipped his hand between my legs as I sucked the vodka off the olive. I crossed my legs, trapping his hand, “Not here, Daddy…after dinner it’s all yours.”

We had a sumptuous dinner, watched by proper mature ladies whose glares he tried to avoid, and envious men whose eyes I caught intentionally and smiled directly into while my hand tortured Daddy Jabberwocky’s erection beneath the linen tablecloth. The women were self-righteous and upset, their balding overstuffed husbands—thinking of the deflated breasts and dry pussies across the table from them—groaned in desperation. My date was straining for the release of orgasm. Everyone was right where I wanted them to be and I was in my glory. I had my little bit of power.

“Check,” he called, unable to stand the teasing another minute.

“And coffee, please,” I added.

He pulled out his gold American Express card. It’s what I’d been waiting for all night, the pièce de résistance.

“Would you pour me the last of the Cristal? It’s a sin to let good champagne go to waste.” Actually, it’s a sin to let any champagne go to waste. He reached over for the bottle and gave me a clear view of the gold card. It’s just a matter of memorizing a short series of numbers: fifteen numbers divided into three segments. A child could do this. I took one sip of the champagne and excused myself to the ladies room.

I slipped into a phone booth instead. Charlie answered on the first ring; he’d been waiting for my call.

“Am Ex. Gold. Member since 1981.” I thought for a second, pictured the card in my mind and reeled off the name and numbers on the card. I don’t think I’d known his last name before that. I’d barely bothered remembering his first. “I gotta go, Charlie. I don’t want to lose my momentum.”

“You comin’ home?”

“Later, he’s still got some cash I think should be mine.”

“Tomorrow, then?”

“Tomorrow.” Click.

The dried-up women and unhappy husbands watched again as I walked the length of the dining room back to the secluded corner where my Romeo of the moment was waiting. He was thinking about a hotel, I could see it on his face. The wedding ring he wore made it obvious he couldn’t take me home with him.

I always looked for the wedding ring. This was one of those situations where the existence of a wife actually made my life much easier.

He didn’t even suggest my place, saving me the trouble of coming up with a reason we couldn’t go there. Sometimes I used the excuse of my imaginary kid. The one I trotted out whenever it was convenient. The one I home-schooled, because I didn’t know the names or locations of any real schools. His, or her, father was dead, killed in action, in prison, had abandoned me, or raped me, or was dying of terminal something. A good lie has a bit of the truth at the center. I’d been pregnant, and involved with men who were now dead, or in prison, or who had abandoned or raped me, so I never felt like I was lying all that much when I talked about my kid. But this one wasn’t interested in my home life.

“Let’s get a little blow and a drink before we settle in for the night. What d’ya think? Coke makes me really crazy.” I let my body brush full against his. He was lost, he was helpless, he was mine. I hustled him into a cab and we headed thirty blocks downtown and two flights up to a dim and dirty cavernous space where I knew everybody. Through a dark room with an old pool table and a couple of warped sticks into a darker room where the bar was. The liquor was cut-rate, the glasses were plastic, and the music was blaring.
Now he was the outsider, the one who didn’t belong. These were my people—unfortunately that meant that everyone there wanted his money as badly as I did. But I had a leg up. Literally. Next to him on a threadbare corner couch, with one leg sprawled across his lap and snaking down between his legs, pressing against the ever-present erection. My hand slipped inside his jacket and played with his nipple while Max the Mumbler wandered over with pockets filled with cocaine. My Jabberwocky flashed his bankroll, and paid for an eight-ball.

Nightcrawlers and coke whores can follow the scent of cash in the air like hyenas on the smell of a rotting carcass. Drifting closer, they slowly surrounded us, drawn by the sweet perfume of a sucker’s money. We were the center of this particular universe as long as we had cocaine and money. He loved it. He’d never known people like this. The red light of the club gave it all a surreal and dangerous quality, but he felt safe with me. We shared our coke with his new friends: Johnny Blue Eyes, Mouse’s old man and a jewel thief wanted in five states; Franco, a Richard Gere look-a-like who would have sex with anyone for $100 and would eventually marry Patti; Wella, recently released from an eight-year bid she did for dismembering a Japanese trick (She’d stuffed him in Hefty bags and stored him in the closet, dragging one bag out each day until a leaky bag left a bloody trail from the curb to her closet.); Smilin’ Dennis who was anywhere Raymond was; Raymond, who designed g-string outfits for the girls and was anywhere girls and booze were; Jack the Jew, a card counter banned in all the Vegas casinos and the Atlantic City casinos as well; and Jimmy Bug Eyes who had an after-hours and was hooked up with the mob in some way I was never able to make sense of, but he was and he made sure you knew it. The more coke we had, the more friends we had. José, or Jack, or Jabberwocky, the longer the night went on the less sure I was that his name even began with a “J” so I just stuck with Daddy or Baby when I needed to use his name, but whatever his name was, he loved it. They talked to him as if he was one of them. He began to imagine that he was not just a daytime citizen anymore, that he was something more, something darker.

I was beginning to lose control. There were too many fingers trying to stick themselves in my pie. I steered him to one of the blackjack tables in the corner.

“I wanna play too,” I pouted. He peeled off a $100 for me and settled in to play cards.
“Oh, Vincent’s here,” I whispered in his ear, “his coke is so much better than Max’s…please, can I, Daddy? You’ll see. You’ll see how good it is.” Daddy gave me money, I got an eight-ball, of which I let him have half a gram and kept the remaining three grams for myself. I sat in for two hands of Blackjack, both of which I promptly lost.
“Too rich for my blood.” I pushed away from the table stretching my body out against the thin plum fabric of my dress. I let my hand drop into his lap and caress his cock, which—thanks to all the booze and cocaine—had shriveled down to its original birth weight. That’s the thing about men and cocaine. It tells them they can go all night, when the truth is they can’t go at all, really. I was just fine with that situation. I spent another twenty minutes feeding him more coke and more cocktails and letting my breasts rub across the back of his head while rubbing his shoulders from behind. He was losing like crazy. And everyone was happy. The house had some of his money, I had more of his money and most his coke, and he thought he had me.

“I’m gonna shoot pool with the Mouse out front. Come get me as soon as you’re ready. O.K. Daddy?” He turned and looked at the Mouse, her breasts barely covered by the black strapless number she was wearing. Her breasts had a gravitational pull all their own, and her long hair slid over them like dark water, washing them, caressing them. She slipped her arm around me and he looked as if he was ready to pass out. It’s the reaction we got when we were together, we were an irresistible one-two punch. If I couldn’t hurt them, she could. If she couldn’t hurt them, I could and there were damn few that could resist the combination of her dark voluptuousness and my pale outrageousness.

“Yeah, here take this.” He handed me his vial of coke. “I just want to get a little even here. Turn your friend on, too.”

“Oh, I was planning on turning her on. You ready for me to turn you on, Mouse?”

“Ready, J,” she purred. We turned. We kissed. Long and soft and warm.

“Don’t keep us waiting too long.” We walked away, my arm around the sharp curve of her waist, her hand on my big round ass. We walked away from the card table, and past the bar Johnny Blue Eyes was leaning on, watching us, and not saying anything. He never said much. I don’t think he liked me, but he didn’t seem to mind the fact that Mouse did.

Mouse and I entered a barely lit room where the pool table was occupied by a couple of baby pimps. We couldn’t’ve played in those dresses even if the table had been empty. The minute either one of us leaned over to shoot, our respective breasts would roll out of our respective dresses and display themselves on the worn green felt. But the thought of actually shooting pool had never crossed either of our minds.

We strolled right on out the door, down two flights of stairs, and into a yellow Checker cab headed east into the morning light. Me and the Mouse sat cross-town in another after-hours club drinking cheap vodka, sharing the coke and laughing over “Daddy’s” probable reaction when he discovered that we, as well as the coke and his money, were gone.

The game was fixed.

The whole evening was fixed.

He would always be just a daytime citizen. And this was my world, where no matter what the sun was doing, it was night o’clock. They would not let him back into the club the next night or any night unless he was with someone like me. Or Mouse. His wedding band was my guarantee he wouldn’t go the police and risk having the wife find out.

Other people’s wedding bands were my insurance policy.

He would go home and tell outrageous stories about his wild night with a bad girl to his buddies over backyard barbecue, exaggerating what actually happened and leaving out any embarrassing details. And when I got home some time that afternoon, what ever time I finally made it home, there would be a new American Express card, exactly like his, waiting on my pillow.

Killing Time

the_doll_on_the_shelf_by_kammythezombieslayer-d5qwz57Originally published as “Lele” in Hos, Hookers, Callgirls and Rentboys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex (SoftSkull, July 2009)

 

 

I got time to kill. I’m not scheduled to work anywhere tonight and I don’t know what to do with myself. There’s no reason to be home—it’s filthy and me being here sure isn’t gonna make it any cleaner. It’s night, but not night enough to go to bed, at least not alone. I got no weed, no wine, no dope and no blow, but I got money, boy-oh-boy. I got money and a nervous itch so bad I can’t sit still. Can’t sit and watch television. That’s what people do, right, sit and watch TV at night, all curled up together all cute and cuddly on the couch? When was the last time I sat and watched television? It’s on all the time, but I can’t remember watching something, except the porno Junior brings home with the girls sucking off the horses. It’s my nightlight, it keeps me company, keeps me from losing my mind, from feeling alone, feeling empty. It’s white noise–something to quiet the voices. I cost me fifteen bucks. Worth every penny.

I’ve got time to kill and I don’t know what to do with myself. I could go to Patti’s but she’s working or she’s out with the Fat Man or somewhere else, but she’s nowhere for me. If it was later I could hit the after-hours. I could call someone, if I there was someone to call, who wanted to hear from me, who could say, it’s okay, let’s go do this or that. I could go to the liquor store and buy a gallon of wine and settle in for the night, go see what I could cop, but I don’t like copping alone in Alphabet City – too close to home, too far to walk, too lonely, too many abandoned buildings, so copping means going uptown. I could take a cab up to Hell’s Kitchen and cop there, come home, settle in with that gallon of Rose and a bundle. I could call Panama and have him deliver a bundle, ten lovely little bags of top grade white heroin, but that means I’m stuck with Panama all night, him feeding me from his stash and dragging me around places, me puking every 20 minutes. I hate it when he takes me to the movies after snorting all that dope. I hafta buy a tub of popcorn I never get to eat just so’s I have the bucket to puke into. Popcorn all over the floor, under my feet, under my seat. Everybody turning around, staring at me and shushing me, then moving away cause of the sounds and stink of all the puke. I could do that. Or I could hit Canal Street and Diamond Lil’s, someone down there’ll be holding, and the drinks are fast and free.

Diamond Lil’s wins, less complicated. I can’t handle complicated, I just need to get out of the house, out of my skin, out of myself, fast. I need to stop the screaming in my head.
Ten minutes and four cigarettes later I’m walking down Canal Street in my white cowboy boots, the ones with the red suede stars, the ones Fat Paul doesn’t want me wearing on stage, the ones I wear anyway cause I wear them all the time. Canal Street stinks of rotting fish as I’m pushing in the door to Diamond Lil’s. Lil’s stinks of stale beer, cheap whiskey, smoke and cunt. Unidentifiable disco crackles out of cheap speakers, reverberates off empty chairs, tables, the bare stage, dirty mirrors, wobbling unused barstools, the red pleather seats torn, then patched with silver duct tape. The linoleum checkerboard floor is filthy and sticky. Bottles of top shelf booze collect dust behind the bar– it’s a beer and a shot joint at best, men come here for cunt, not cocktails. The fluorescent lighting gives everything a hard edge. Three of the tubes have colored cellophane sleeves, an attempt at atmosphere, but really it has enough atmosphere of its own. Two of the cellophane sleeves are torn and hanging off and not all the lights work, leaving patches of dark, damp and sticky up against patches of too bright, cold, why don’t we take this into the shadows, baby, baby. I’d rather be here than home any day.

The joint is empty, well, almost. There are five of us here. Fat Debbie, New York City’s lone fat junkie, is behind the bar in a sweatshirt and jeans, working the old-fashioned cash register – which at any given time holds only enough money to satisfy the cops when they bust the joint, the rest is in one of Fat Debbie’s pockets – one pocket for Lil’s, one for tips, one for her stash (she’s holding, I know she is, she’s always holding), and one pocket for what she’s skimming off the top. There’s no register tape, no records of what comes in or goes out – just distribution of wealth at the basic street level.

Viva’s sitting on stage, leg’s spread wide, a drink in one hand, cash and a cigarette in the other. The dozen or so round tables cluttering up the joint are empty, with the exception of the two middle-aged Japanese suits sitting right up next to the stage. One of the suits is buried up to his ears in Viva’s snatch. His head bobs furiously up and down and up and down as he burrows deeper and deeper, his face slick with cunt juice. Every two minutes or so Viva taps him on the head and he hands her a twenty from a stack of bills he’s holding, never looking up, never breaking his lick, lick, lick, rhythm–he’s trying to fucking crawl right into her. The other Jap suit is right there with him, watching the whole thing, eyes glazed over, right cheek resting on Viva’s left thigh to get a good view. Viva sees me, smiles takes a drag of her cigarette and waves me over, “jayJAY!”, a stack of twenties folded lengthwise in her cigarette hand. He’s been at her snatch for a while by the look of the stack she’s holding already. The Jap doesn’t bother to come up for air to see who she’s talking to.

I drop my shit on a table near the stage, my bag and my purple bomber jacket. Debbie’s got a vodka & Seven waiting on the bar for me before my bag hit the chair. Just enough Seven-up for color, that’s the way I like it. I suck it down at the bar, light a cigarette, and wait for her to make another, precisely the same way. Looking at me over her shoulder as she reaches for the vodka, Debbie says “You on your way to the Chinks?”

I could’ve called the Chink, made a left on Canal Street into Chinatown instead of a right into Lil’s. Paulie the Chink was all tied up with the Tong. In New York’s Chinatown Paulie was top Tong dog, he was THE Chink to know. I loved the idea of being his round-eye girlfriend, and he loved round-eyed girls, but being out with The Chink means strictly underground Chinatown – and Chinatown is already all shadows and secrets; with Paulie it’s Chinese gambling clubs and Chinese gangsters. No one speaks to me, no one speaks English, women hate me, and men act as if I’m invisible. So, where’s the payoff if I’m still no one? I don’t even get to keep the full-length minks he brings over to fuck me on. No, it was fun for a while, but he was just filler, and Paulie the Chink is currently off the list.

I settle in at my table, lean back and prop my feet up on the stage. Still, the snatch puppy doesn’t break stride. Men like that are invisible money machines–we’re just faceless, nameless snatch to them, and you’d think that’d be hurtful or bothersome. Maybe, but tonight it’s like we have the place to ourselves–me, Viva and Debbie–and that’s okay. We shoot the shit – the suit goes on with what he’s doing.

—Susie’s teaching me that thing she does, putting condoms on with her mouth; she says the tricks never even know.
—The Fundsalow brothers, they got some nice earrings, like the ones you got last time, cheap. You were fuckin’ the older one, Barrio?
—Till he wound up in Cabrini all stabbed up over something, yeah, I liked him though. Gimme another drink, okay? Speaking of stabbed up, I heard Wella was gonna try and get her baby back.
—You think?
—They gonna give her the baby with killing that guy and all, chopping him up?
—You think?
—Who’s got a blow, Debbie, you got?
—Gia came by, wanted to work the stage here, but she’s still waiting for the bottom surgery, you can’t have dick shit that going on in a bottomless joint.
—Gia’s still got a dick? Shit, you know she looks better than half the real girls out there.
—I was at the Silver Dollar last night, it was empty, since that shooting, Margo and what’s his name, there’s no money there. Hey, you heard? Genie’s going home, saved up, gonna go back home, somewhere west of the Hudson, America.
—Good for her, this shit makes you old. Gimme another taste.
—She is old, she been here forever.
—Speaking of, anyone seen Lele around?

Lele was the one that broke my heart. She was a cliché, she was all clichés. A sparkling kewpie doll face, with apple cheeks, big round blue eyes, rosebud mouth, all framed with short dark blonde curls sitting on top of soft white shoulders and breasts that implants envied. Large, full and erect, they were home grown and hadn’t even heard of gravity yet, they took your breath away. The rest of Lele was just as flawless, her perfectly round, milky white bottom, her long gently curving legs, her giggle. Lele’s giggle was absolutely musical. It tinkled and twinkled and she giggled all the time on stage and off. On stage, all eyes followed her. She never really learned to dance or to hustle, she never needed to. She was perfection and standing on stage, naked except for clear plastic sling backs and a gold g-string, Lele was a god-damned phenomenon.

Most of us were already broken when we showed up. Patched up here or there, held together with duct tape and sheer willpower. We came with scars invisible to the outside world, scars we saw clearly reflected in each others eyes. You become part of the machine and hang on till the ride is over – you knew when you signed on that this ride couldn’t last forever, but none of us were counting on getting old anyway. You throw the dice, you take your chances. The better ones crash and burn, going out big and leaving something for the rest of us to talk about.

“Did you hear, Bonnie blew Vincent’s head off last night? She was still sittin’ on the bed holding the gun and staring at him when the cops showed up.”

“Beatrice’s husband was in yesterday, ran right up on stage and cut her belly open! It was bad, blood all over the stage and shit. Rita was working bar, she just turned around, mopped up whatever’d dripped on the bottles and went back to what she was doing.”

“They found Crystal and Angie, sliced up like a bloody roast beef, Angie’s kids screaming in the other room – Crystal was trying to leave her pimp ya know.”

And then some of us hung on year after year, the business wearing us down like water on stone, turning us into human caverns, carving deep crevices in our faces and our arms, until we were nothing but vast empty chasms, and one day we simply implode.

But Lele wasn’t one of us. She wasn’t like the rest of us. She was fresh, clean. You could see that the day she showed up –a pure white Lotus blossom dropped by an errant wind into an abandoned city lot choked with the litter that was Times Square: dog shit, broken bottles, neon, used condoms, freaks, vermin, predators. But she was pure white light, a perfect porcelain doll, and we let the machine crush her. Like a jack hammer on a soft boiled egg, it ripped her open and destroyed her while we stood by and watched. She was fifteen when she showed up. She was still just fifteen when she disappeared.

I was behind the bar the first time she got a big tip. Running back and forth on stage, showing the dancers, the barmaids, waving the bill at everyone. And giggling, always giggling. A hundred dollar bill, she’d never actually touched one before. It came from a middle-aged couple sitting in the shadows against the wall. No one’d noticed them come in. No one’d seen them before. Couples aren’t encouraged, they’re unpredictable. Once you threw another woman into the mix, you lost control of the situation – and it was all about control.

They watched her dance and bounce and giggle and sent the money up. A crisp new hundred dollar bill. Lele didn’t care about the cash per se, not about what it could buy but what it represented. Years before Sally Field, it was Lele who squealed, “They like me, they really like me.”

I tried to warn her. Mouse tried to explain. Even Ugly Gina took her head out of the glue bag and gave it a shot. Lele couldn’t believe anybody meant her any harm, she just wanted to be loved, by someone. And none of us tried that hard, really, to school her. Flesh ain’t a stupid girls game, and there’s no room for innocence. Or maybe we just didn’t believe in it anymore. Couldn’t believe that someone could be so clean and still wind up here. Didn’t want to see what we looked like standing next to all that trust and sweetness. We’d warn you once, if you didn’t listen it was on you. It’s not my job to save your ass, I’m too busy saving my own, thank you very much. Keeping my head above water, scamming for the next fix, the next trick, the next whatever. Hell, no one looked after me when I showed up. I named after a pimp. No one told me it would take me 10 years to leave. No one told me I was gonna become a dope fiend in the process. No one told me not to trust. No one told me how to take care of myself. No one helped when I was hurt. Or scared. Or broke. So we just shook our collective heads, took a drink and thought, “Bitch’ll never last.”

Lele went back and sat in the shadows, the man and woman closed ranks around her, and she drank their champagne as they stroked her, petted her soft skin, toyed with her curls. She sucked in their attentions and they fed off her. They folded in on her in the dark and digested her. And for Lele, I guess it felt like family. For her the trinity was mother father child, the fantasy of home, love and safety. For them it was another other dynamic entirely, one where being a child is not about being cared for, but about being the weakest, where children are a means to an end, where they are faceless, interchangeable and disposable.

Fast forward, not very far, Lele wasn’t around very long. I’d managed to avoid dancing and just work the floor. When I timed it right, after sniffing a couple of bags of dope and taking just a pinch more than I could handle, I managed to throw up on his shoes. That’d get me off the stage for the night. Didn’t get me the night off, you had to be dead to get the whole night off, and even then they docked you. The floor manager sent me into the bathroom to get Lele on stage for the next set. She was late and it was her or me, and I had no interest in dancing that night when I could stay high and work my hustle on the floor.

Inside the bathroom, Lele sat in a corner crying on the cold tiled floor. Those magnificent legs straight out in front of her, shoeless.

“Whassamatter Leel?”

She pointed a perfectly manicured fifteen-year-old milk white finger to her delicate feet and continued crying. In between the toes of both feet were open sores. Abscesses. Open, crusty and oozing pus. I don’t know when she learned the junkie trick of shooting dope between your toes. I don’t know whether it was to keep her habit a secret, or she’d just learned not to mar the merchandise.

She couldn’t get her shoes on, the pain was too much. We tried powdering her shoes, so her feet could just slide in. She cried more. She couldn’t dance barefoot and risk customers seeing the sores. Like some bizarre version of Prince Charming, it was my job to figure out how to get Cinderella into her shoes. There was a new batch of cheap cocaine circulating, cheap because someone was cutting it with Lidocaine, an anesthetic. As it happened, I just happened to have had a healthy supply on hand. The Mouse held her tight from behind, rocking her like a baby, while I spread the Lidocaine/cocaine concoction on the raw pink flesh between her toes. She screamed and thrashed, legs recoiling. I waited and Mouse held her tight. Then Lele relaxed a little as the Lido started to work and her feet began to numb. We fed her the rest, holding it up to her delicate nose as she got up and slipped tenderly into her dancing shoes. A few more lines and her mind was no longer on her toes or her pain, the pain she had tried so hard to hide, the pain she had tried to stop. Me and Mouse did a few lines ourselves for good measure – shitty coke is still better than no coke at all – and went out to work the floor and get our hustle on while Lele danced under the lights. Business as usual.

Then Lele just stopped showing up. Disappeared. The machine never really got to take it’s toll on her looks. I don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to hear it from the cops or read it in the paper. I know she’s dead—we all know, the streets know, but no one will say it. Like a porcelain doll, crushed and shattered by a vicious child. A toy, no longer found amusing, left in a heap. I picture her tossed across a filthy bed someplace, staring blankly up at the stains on the ceiling in some transient hotel, sunlight hungry to get through grimy windows, yearning to dance across her perfect body one more time, her throat slashed, her body broken, bruised, penetrated and abused in ways you don’t like to think about. What’s left of her perfect lotus blossom body, now just the trash freaks leave behind when they’re done.
Not the first, or the last, but Lele was the one that broke my heart.

Time for Fat Debbie to close up, time to hit after-hours. Time for Georgie Brooklyn’s or the Firehouse or Valentinos or 366 or the 220 Club or a dozen other joints. The pussyhounds left at some point. I never noticed them get up from between Viva’s legs.

Invisible men. Faceless cunt. The cosmic yin yang of the cooch bars.