Originally 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.
—They gonna give her the baby with killing that guy and all, chopping him up?
—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.
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.