That One Time I Picked Up a Prostitute, and What It Taught Me About Poverty

The following story isn't as titillating as the headline would lead you to believe, but be warned: fairly adult content is contained within. Don't read ahead if you don't want to be offended.

It's also long. So you're gonna need 10 minutes or so. Just FYI.

Several years ago, before I met my wife, I lived in Granite City, Illinois, just a few minutes across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis. I worked at a company located downtown, and one of the great things about living that close to the bustling metropolis was the public transit system. The Missouri-based and Illinois-based transit companies worked together to insure that commuters had multiple options when getting from one side of the river to the other and back again.

So I would drive to East St. Louis, park at one of the MetroLink park-and-ride stations there, take the MetroLink light rail two stops into Missouri, get off the light rail, and the building where I worked was right there after ascending to street level. It was almost magical. 

The mere mention of East St. Louis sends shivers down the spine of many . . . well, let's say white people . . . that I know, because we've all heard stories in the St. Louis area about the violence that has taken place in that area, and the local police's penchant for turning a blind eye to certain kinds of atrocities committed. The truth is that if you're doing business in East St. Louis during business hours, or stick to certain high-traffic areas, you have very little to worry about. The MetroLink parking lot in East St. Louis is monitored around the clock, so every rider knew their vehicles were safe.

I would purchase a Metro pass for $40 a month, which would allow me unlimited rides on both states' transit systems, so I rarely carried cash on me when commuting. This little point will come up later.

It was one of the first great spring days of the year. The sun was shining, and a nice, brisk morning greeted me as I walked out of my apartment. Not cool, but not too warm either. So for the first time in a while, the windows were down and the radio was pumping louder than usual as I drove away.

As I approached the outskirts of East St. Louis, I came to a 4-way stop. I approached the intersection where I noticed a small black woman standing on the concrete divider between those driving straight and those turning right. She made eye contact with me, and as I pulled to the stop sign, she leaned forward and spoke to me through the window.

Now, a bit about this woman. She was dressed in a fairly nondescript pair of jeans and a plain sweatshirt with no design or graphics on it. She was a slight figure -- she looked as if she weighed maybe 85 pounds soaking wet, and that's if you counted the clothing she wore. Her face looked weathered, as though she was still young and spry, but she looked about 10-15 years older than she actually was. But nothing about her looked questionable, dangerous, or otherwise shifty, so when she leaned down to speak to me, I turned the radio down.

"Excuse me," she said, "could you give me a ride to the 'Mac-Donald's'?" She spoke in a relaxed, kind tone, but she also sounded kind of tired. "I'm hungry and I want to get some breakfast."

"Sure," I said, unlocking the passenger side door. "Hop in."

Before you say "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" at your screen, I should explain that McDonald's was literally on my way to the MetroLink station, so I was already going that direction. I didn't think to question why she was asking for a ride to someplace that would have taken only 10 minutes to walk to from that point, but to me, it wasn't a big deal.

She got in, closed the door, and fastened her seat belt. I started to drive across the intersection when she reached her left hand over and placed it on my crotch. Almost as a instinctual reaction, I carefully grabbed her hand by the wrist and placed it back over on her own lap with a single word: "No."

The woman's demeanor changed a bit, and she tried to purr in my ear, "Ooohh, I bet it's so big. Please let me" . . . and then she gave me an offer for a very specific act . . . "for just 5 dollars."

Have you ever found yourself in a situation you've never been in, and you've never considered you might be in at some point in your life, yet when it happened, you had virtually no hesitation in how you reacted to it? That happened to me in this situation, but there were several things that went through my head prior to my response.

The primary force that guided my response wasn't my innate sense of right and wrong in terms of receiving sexual favors from a complete stranger, let alone paying for it. It was the training I'd received from my parents on how a woman should be treated.

Growing up with two older sisters in the house, my parents impressed upon me at an early age the importance of how a man should treat a woman. I also learned about the role of chivalry in the Middle Ages, and how those kinds of ideals could be implemented today. Certain things like always holding a car door open for your wife or girlfriend. Holding the door to an establishment open for a woman, no matter who she was or how far from the entrance she was when you could see she was approaching the door. And never, under any circumstances, do or say anything to deliberately embarrass or demean a woman, even in private. Don't be rude to women, basically. 

So with that training ingrained in my mind, when this woman asked me for . . . let's say a temporary employment opportunity . . . I thought the following things, in the following order.

1. Um . . . no.

2. You're really not attractive enough to be asking me for that. This is the frankly honest side of me. I hated that I thought like this, but if I'm going to be honest, I did.

3. Seriously, no.

4. This woman must have the worst manager in the world if she's offering to do that to me for only five dollars.

5. I'm so white, I just called this woman's pimp a "manager". Assuming she even has one. And if she does, he is WAY undercutting the competition.

6. I can't be late for work again. I'm so not kidding on this one. I had a problem with being late for work and had been written up a couple times for excessive tardiness. If I came in late again, I knew it would be a problem for me . . . regardless of the reason.

7. I don't have any money on me.

I turned to this woman, and with all sincerity, replied with what I felt would do the least amount of damage to her ego. 

"I don't have any money."

Immediately, the woman's disposition changed from sexual temptress (not a very good one, but whatever) to desperate and in need. 

"Oh, please, I'm so hungry! I haven't eaten anything for 2 days, and I'm hungry."

My heart crumbled in my chest. All this woman wanted was some food.

+  +  +

Living in poverty must be horrendously difficult. All my life, I've been privileged enough to live in a home with working heat, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, carpeted floors, and reliable transportation. My parents both worked for at least a few years when I was growing up so that my sisters and I could attend a private school, and we finished our high school years in public school. My father chose to work odd hours so that he could earn higher wages for his family, and we didn't really want for much of anything. We lived in a fairly new subdivision, and had great neighbors. 

And we never went hungry. Even though sometimes, when we were really young, it's possible my parents did so that my sisters and I didn't.

I can't imagine living on what I might call the "other side" of money, but it wasn't very long before I had this encounter with this woman that I had gotten a taste of it. Before I bought the car I was driving that morning, I lived without a car and used public transportation everywhere. I couldn't afford one, basically. I worked a decent job and could have saved up for one, but I didn't handle my finances as wisely as I should have, and there were times that I found myself short on cash and in need. 

One time, I was stranded without a ride and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get a lift home, about 15 miles away from where I lived. That instance, though, was one of the few I had to weather, and riding public transportation was less convenient than having my own car. But the extra time it took to schedule out when I could leave and come back based solely on the bus and MetroLink schedules was pretty light worry when compared with what some people that lived even just a few blocks away had to deal with. 

I lived literally down the street from families who were living paycheck to paycheck, and on the tightest of terms. One misspending event, and they might not have enough to pay their electric bill, or their rent, or their car loan, or possibly even put food on the table. And that was Granite City. The municipalities outside of there -- Venice, Brooklyn, East St. Louis -- were poorer communities, and I imagine many families had it far worse off than I and the people who lived closest to me.

I've heard stories of people who were forced to shred any sense of dignity in order to provide for their kids, put 2 gallons of gas in their tanks, buy clothes, or even enjoy a meal. But until this day, I'd never had to deal with it so closely as the woman sitting in my passenger seat.

When she told me that she was hungry, every negative thought I could have possibly had about her dissolved because of the situation she was in. So what if her dignity was out the window? Pride doesn't matter when you're hungry and strung out. If anything, her willingness to degrade herself by offering to perform a sexual act on a complete stranger highlighted not only the bleakness of her plight, but also the willingness of people to turn their backs on those who are truly in need. Asking for money was panhandling, and many people in that area saw panhandlers nearly every day, myself included. So she was banking on the odds that some random guy might be more likely to give her 5 dollars in exchange for a sex act than he would be to give her 5 dollars out of the kindness of his heart.

That's what her experience with poverty had taught her. And that's also what I learned in that moment.

About 10 seconds after this initial exchange, as I was driving towards McDonalds, I suddenly remembered that I had about 3 dollars in change in the center console (I kept quarters in there in case I had to pay for parking at a meter in downtown St. Louis). I reached into the console and grabbed all the change I had, and handed it to her. "Here," I said, "take this. It's all I've got on me, and maybe it's enough to get yourself some food." Then I finished our ride to McDonald's, pulled into the parking lot, and let her out.

From the time I gave her the money, the look of despair never once left her face, even as she was getting out of my car.

Before you say, "Well, she was trying to scam you," I'm inclined to think that's not the case. Not the way she acted once I gave her the money. 

A day or two after I had been thinking about the encounter, I was faced with the stark reality that even if I'd had over $100 in cash on me at the time, no matter what I had done for this woman, it might not have been enough to help her in the long run. Her life wouldn't have suddenly turned around just because somebody gave her some money with no additional way to sustain herself. But hopefully, she saw the good in people. Maybe, she was able to look beyond my "I don't have any money" comment and realize that I still gave her some money (which I didn't have to do) because she had a need. I'd like to think that would have been enough for her to find a little hope in the kindness of others. Maybe she got some help from a local food pantry, shelter, or whatever other organization in her area could provide her with necessities. Maybe she was homeless, and was just looking for an excuse to not be outside for a while, and struck up a conversation with someone inside McDonald's who turned out to be a person that could offer her more help than I could in that moment. 

We didn't get into the specifics of her situation during that short car ride, but if we had, I would have felt compelled to find a way to help her so that she wouldn't have to resort to the type of measures she was willing to go to in order to feed herself, and possibly her family. That day, I would have given her all the money I'd had if I'd known it would have helped her out of that kind of life.

A total stranger, who wasn't really a prostitute, became one in an effort to break down the wall from her world into mine. What I experienced that day taught me about poverty in one of the most unorthodox ways possible. I'll never forget that lesson.

There Is No Box.