The Ladies of 16th Street
A summer job with the Washington Post. Haul bundles of newspapers. Do deliveries around the beltway. Mainly southern Maryland. Short days. Odd hours. Great pay. Boring work.
Eleven-thirty at night, deep inside a fluorescent-lit, underground loading bay. Along one wall, trucks wait, facing out. A biting odor of diesel fumes combines with the sweeter smell of printers ink. Scattered piles of fine paper hair, chopped slivers that have fallen from the edges of newsprint, gather in heaps, lining the base of a busy loading dock like unoccupied rat nests.
Yells and thumps punctuate the constant idling of truck engines. Drivers, of various hues and ages, wait patiently, anticipating their flying bundles of fresh news to arrive. The bales will be aimed toward and shot into the back of their empty rigs, one landing on the floor about every two seconds.
A hand rests on a hip; one on the silent chute extending from the cinderblock wall. A man peers inside. A loud buzzer sounds. A red light above the chute begins to flash. A short distance away, a fork lift operator skillfully wheels his machine around in a tight circle, narrowly avoiding sending the back tires over the edge of the dock. Farther down, a driver whistles sharply, and then a truck horn sounds twice. Two men stand and laugh together, but the sounds are all but lost.
Work gloves on. You know to stand by when the red light blinks.
Get ready to dig in and grab two plastic wrapping bands. Lift the bundle and turn; then pitch.
High stacks. Stack tight. Let the missed bales go. Kick them aside; take it in stride. Add to the final row. Keep your rhythm going, son. It will all be over soon. Whatever you do, don’t panic, son. It will all be over soon.
The stifling heat of the ten-minute work-out intensifies the aroma of ink, sweat and diesel.
I hold no grudge against hookers, nor do I condone their lifestyle. They are God’s children too, after all. I can say with no particular pride I have known them for what seems like forever. But admitting that I lost my virginity during a short fit of passion, while a bored lady of the evening read a few lines from her paperback book, makes me less ashamed now than it did then. Also, fourteen months spent abroad were not squandered on movie theaters, nor did I visit any local museums, either. So I am fine with hookers.
However, reading in the paper the day before starting work for the Post that three prostitutes had stabbed, killed and then robbed a local cabbie upset my world view just a little.
Here are your keys, mister, and a list of downtown deliveries. Begin after lunch. They pay you in cash. Keep track of my money. Then report to the loading dock before midnight. You should be done by three in the morning, tops.
By eleven-thirty I had collected almost three hundred dollars which I stuffed in my left pants pocket. I patted the thick bulge of another’s money as I steered the box truck into the opening of the cavernous bay.
A half-hour later, sweating and breathing hard, I pulled out onto the street again and turned left. Ahead of me lay a deserted roadway, lit up by a long procession of amber streetlights. At the first intersection I stopped at a red light and looked around.
Hard to read the street sign. Is this where I am supposed to turn, or is it the next one down?
My question went unresolved because my passenger door suddenly swung open. I turn to see a painted lady climbing up into the bench seat, with another one following close behind her. Both mini-skirted women slid over next to me as third hurriedly joined them, and then she shut the door.
Everything began to blur as seconds slowed to a crawl.
One beside me began to unzip my fly.
The middle one reached around to run her long nails through my hair.
“You like that, honey? Uh huh. I bet you do. What you like us to do to you tonight, baby?”
The third one leaned forward, animated and flashing her teeth.
The close one slid a hand down inside the front of my jeans.
I felt my ribs tense up. Here comes the knife.
Before the count of ten, I turned to stick a fist in her face.
“Get out my damn truck!”
“Oh, baby. You a mean one.” She feigned a look of fear as she leaned even closer.
“Now, sister, or I will break the nose God gave you.”
That brought on a baleful look which clearly said I had acted out of line, but in a flash the three vanished.
The light overhead changed to green and I exhaled.
I laid down across the seat then and reached for the open door. In the glow of a streetlight I saw my open wallet on the floorboard. Its contents lay scattered. I pulled the door shut and locked it before picking it up. Then I sat upright to pat my left pocket. Only then did I bother to zip up.
Even hookers want respect, some might argue, and maybe they genuinely do. But even though I made it through the night feeling no guilt or any shame, my ribs felt just fine. And so did that big wad of cash stuck in my left pants pocket.