In October 2010, I met a man in a lobby named Joe and spent nearly twenty-four hours in the Los Angeles County Jail on a prostitution charge.
In the holding cell, a beautiful Hispanic eighteen-year-old girl asked me, “Are you a prostitute?” Her brown eyes were pools of dark chocolate. She reminded me of girls I stripped with back in San Francisco when I was a bald, lesbian feminist, ready to take down the patriarchy with my pierced septum, blubbery thighs, and my self-righteous anger.
“Do I look like a prostitute?” I sat on a metal bench, squished between two women, knee to knee. A black girl who’d been hooking since she was twelve was asleep with her head on my lap.
“There are five black women, a Hispanic woman, and you. You’re a prostitute,” she said. She turned around and hopped up on a ledge and looked out the tiny window, then back to me.
“Why are you a prostitute?” she asked. Her voice was just above a whisper. I chewed my lip.
“That’s a good question,” I said. If she were Andrea Dworkin, she’d accuse me of being a brainwashed drone of the patriarchy, succumbing to violence against women. But I’d never thought of myself as a prostitute. I’d never been a streetwalker or a call girl; never worked for an agency or pimp.
There was a loud buzz. The door was released. A muscular Hispanic butch with one very long braid walked in and hugged the gorgeous Hispanic lesbian. When they kissed, the cell heated up but made my throat itch, and the rest of the women coughed. The lovers had gotten in a bar fight and were covered in pepper spray. The black girls who were busted for pandering and prostitution told me to apply for O.R. This meant since I’d never been arrested before I could possibly be released without bail. They settled in and knew the ropes and followed procedure. One made a call for me to ask about my release.
Hours later, we were escorted upstairs. Told to stand against a wall. The light was dead and yellow. We were handed scratchy blankets, which were more like tarps. The jailers snatched my black tights and stuck them in a Ziploc bag, to prevent me from strangling myself with them. I coughed into to my hands.
I was buzzed into a cell where there was a woman asleep in the bunk below on a green cold exercise mat, with her clear stripper shoes on the floor below her.
The worst were the sounds inside: yelling, buzzing, coughing, and lights clicking on and off. I climbed on my top bunk where there were scribbles on the ceiling from polished nails. Words carved into the wall: “I love you, Mom.”
The only light was through a mail slot that looked out into the center of a room that had a payphone. Over a loud- speaker, names were called for court, but not mine. I rang the buzzer. My breaths were shallow. “Guess you’re staying till Monday, too,” my cellmate said.
“Stop ringing the bell or I’ll leave you in there,” a jailer barked through the speaker. Hours passed. Breakfast was dropped through the mail slot. I ate a sausage patty, then fell asleep under my jacket that smelled like sweat and vanilla. After a few minutes of silence, the skinny black tattooed prostitute stirred in the bunk below me.
She said “Fuck, fuck.” The layers of hell slowly sunk in: I was going to miss my flight to New York. My cats weren’t going to be fed. My car was going to be towed. My rent was going to be late and I was in a cage.
Photo by Alison Dyer.