Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Phone Girl

Sex work isn’t only blow-jobs; not all the work is physical. I worked in the sex industry and I never fucked anyone except by proxy-- as the pimp.

I can’t tell you where the building was. I can tell you that it was in a tony neighborhood in mid-town. The woman I worked for had six apartments in different buildings in different parts of town. Not all the houses are swank, some are just terrible closets full of sad desperate people one step away from madness and death. This was not one of those places. This place, this house, was where the financial district crowd came for lunch, at dinner time, or after hours when the neighborhood was deafly quiet.

These guys wore suits by designers that I wouldn’t know the name of but I knew they were very expensive. You can tell by the way a man wears a suit that it costs more money than most shmucks every see in one place. These men had Rolex watches. I knew this because after they would leave the girls would say, “Did you see the Rolex?” I never saw their watches; I never got that close to them.
“Are you white, black, or Hispanic?” I asked this every call, every two to five minutes, for twelve hours a day.
“How did you hear about us? How is…”fill in the name they give.

This business is by word of mouth mostly. Sometimes the owner of the house will advertise in magazines. Not the typical sex magazines like Screw. This owner will have a discreet ad for relaxing down-time in a chic atmosphere with beautiful, engaging, intelligent women. It’s an ad. That isn’t to say that some of the girls weren’t beautiful, they were, but engaging and intelligent was stretching it. We did have one girl (the only white girl besides the oldest hooker in New York who at 50 looked fantastic and supposedly was the blow-job queen, hence the corny sobriquet “Lips”) who was intelligent. She was a foreign language major studying for her master’s degree in some related field. I don’t remember well. We aren’t supposed to have real lives; real lives are for the normal people. I heard one girl say that she was engaged. When another girl asked her if her fiancé knew what she did for a living she said, “Yeah, I’m a translator at the United Nations.” Everyone heard it and everyone laughed so hard there was coughing all around. It is about fantasy—for the men, and for us.

We ask a lot of questions, obviously because what we do is illegal and we don’t want to get caught. Me in particular. The house supplies an attorney. The hookers, the girls, if we get busted (if the house is rousted by cops) will go to jail for several hours or up to overnight if things go wrong. They will get out on a ticket to appear in court for a misdemeanor. I on the other hand would not do so well. Being a phone girl is a felony.

When I first told my son about the job he was confused. He asked me if the women were all there in the apartment waiting for the “clients” then where was the pimp. He asked me again, flat out, after I explained again how it all worked, “Okay, so who’s the pimp?”
I thought about it for a minute and then I said, “I guess that would be me.”

You see, answering the phone and asking questions is one thing, but when I got to the part about go to such and such street, there will be a phone booth on the corner, call me from there and I will give you this address, then I was no longer merely answering the phone. I was procuring. I was arranging dates for these girls. In legal eyes I was the pimp.

Men and women get into this business because of the money yes. But there are reasons beyond finance. For some of us it is about the freedom to work without papers, identification, or taxes. We are who we say we are and that’s it. It was 1993, and I was having a nervous breakdown. I was forty-one and just finishing my undergraduate degree. My son was finishing high school and my boyfriend of five years took all the money and left. He had been paying the bills for the last eight months so I could finish my degree. He left for a younger woman, a waitress who had tattoo artist aspirations. I had forty dollars in the bank, a two pack a day cigarette habit, a voracious teenager and a hungry cat. Thank god it was summer and my son was going to stay with friends upstate for a while; that left only me and the cat. I sold some of my favorite clothes, the really cool stuff, on the corner of St. Marks and First Ave., making new friends among the crack heads, but I earned enough for cat food, cigarettes, and toilet paper.

It was hard to find a job right away. I took out another student loan (emergency status of some kind) but that was going to take six weeks to process. I was crying too much to appear sane, at least that’s how I felt, and I was terrified to go on interviews. I had terrible skills, I couldn’t be in an office, and I wasn’t a regular person; that was my whole problem. I tried to be regular but I couldn’t really pull it off, somehow my oddness showed through, despite my fake confident smile.

At about the time I was truly scared for my sanity a friend told me about a job answering phones. I didn’t have to dress up, it wasn’t typical office hours, I could work two or three days a week and make a lot of money. I needed to finish school. I had put off college too long already and I wanted to better myself. This job could be the answer: part time, low maintenance, pay bills, wrap up college. It sounded like a great plan. Yes, of course, too good.
“What’s the catch?”

He filled me in and I said yes. I knew I could handle it. Twelve hours, two-fifty for the shift, five bucks for every call that shows up. The lowest figure would equal out to around twenty dollars an hour if we got no clients at all. But the high end was high, possibly as high as a grand on a good night. Sometimes there were even better nights, it all depended. It was all paid in cash, job title: phone girl.

This was one interview I didn’t worry about. I sat in the kitchen at a long rectangular glass table. On it was a cup with pens and pencils, two large yellow legal pads, folders, ashtrays, cigarette packs, match boxes, and the script that I would need to use until I got used to it, but I was told never to get used to it. I was told to stick to the script, that way it was harder to get busted; you never forget a detail of the questions and you lessen the chances of fucking up and having the cops show up. There were two cordless phones that rang almost constantly. Two phones, two different lines. The washing machine and dryer hummed day and night. Girls came through to put in or take out sheets and towels. They reached into the cabinets to get mouthwash, or glasses, or another box of condoms for one of the rooms. I answered Amber’s (the house owner) questions in between her doing the phones. It rang so often I was there a long time before we settled on days and shifts, because of who recommended me I got the job no problem. I was feeling slightly crazed, what with the girls rushing in and out talking and banging the cabinet doors or slamming the washer lid, the constant ringing of the phones, the crush of papers and ashtrays on the table, and a large Gap tote bag at my feet filled to the handles with money.

The owner, Amber, was rail thin, European, and stylish. Uptown stylish, Kennedy-Onassis stylish. Who knew? And with a name like Amber. I find out later no one here uses a real name, even among ourselves. Some of the more popular names are Tiffany, Amber, Crystal, Desiree, Tammy, Dawn, and Cherie. Names I heard in all the poor rural neighborhoods I had ever lived in-- hooker names. I used my real name never knowing they thought it was a phony; I didn’t know enough to use a different one until I had been there three weeks, and by then who cared?
“Our girls hug and kiss and you can have as many releases as you want during your time.”

It’s a whole new world. I didn’t know that hugging and kissing, that kind of intimate contact, was unusual. It was a big selling point at our house that the women would do this. Releases, as many as a guy could manage, was also news. I thought it was one hit and you’re out; in this place if you were there for the hour, you were there for the hour. The other big selling point was that the guy got to take a shower with the girl before the session. It was a turn-on and kind to the girls; at least they could be guaranteed a non-offensive date. Also get them naked right away and nothing can be smuggled in like a weapon or a badge.

The hour was mostly how it ran. One-sixty for the hour, ninety for the half. Most of the men took the hour. Out of that the girls got 40%. Not much when you consider the work they did, but the house was upscale, safe, and busy. No one complained, actually they were all pretty close, like a family. Most of them had been working together for years. They went to the beach together, or picnics, things like that. Not too often though because the house would have to be closed and that hardly ever happened. Regular holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving were days off and they often spent them together. Most of the girls were from Brazil and had no family nearby. It was really weird to me. I was the only one who was on the outside. It is fairly traditional for the phone girl to be sort of “off limits”. Unless you have been working in a house for years (I knew one “girl” who was at least sixty and worked with the same “owner” for twenty years) you don’t get familiar with anyone lest you be accused of favoritism while booking sessions. The jealousy in these places is rampant and some of the paybacks are truly a bitch, so a phone girl has to be really careful.

This house was in-call only. The girls stay in the house and the johns come to us. Out-call, like any of the other types of sex work, varies quite a bit. Most of the escort services are extremely upscale. This is where many of the high class hookers who are white work. There isn’t as much racial division as people think. Women (and men) of all colors (and ages—yes) work and make excellent to decent money as escorts. It really depends on the johns of course. Out-call can cost more because sometimes there is elaborate security, not only for the worker (and not as often really) but also for the owner. In one out-call only place I worked (there is a lot of freelance work available and some phone girls will work more than one place for more than one employer) there was a camera at street level. When you rang the first bell the camera came on and one could see who was at the street door. After you were buzzed in you went up an elevator to the second floor where you were buzzed in at another door after camera screening. This was for the girls when they came in and for the phone girls and drivers. The johns never came here. The security was tight, the clients were very high level, and the girls here got driven to their gigs and picked up after unless other arrangements had been made.

Interestingly, I come by this work honestly. It’s in the blood, or the family at any rate. My great aunt was once a rival of Polly Adler’s. While Ms. Adler became famous my aunt tended her very, very, high profile clients in secure secrecy, right up until she got out of the game. I know that she maintained relationships with some of them because when she died there were sympathy cards from some really interesting people. I don’t think my father knew that I was working in this field but my mother did and she laughed saying that it was not surprising.

Not all the men who came to the house were high rollers and not all high rollers go to extreme upscale houses. Like in all things people vary in taste and style; sometimes you shop at Target for housewares and sometimes (if you can afford it) you go to Williams& Sonoma. There are Asian houses, Hispanic, every ethnicity under the sun, and these exclusive houses are for those in the same ethnic group. There are houses that have parties, everyone hangs out in a large living room and get together in two’s or three’s. Most houses only cater to men, but there are some have female clients that want female hookers. This usually carries a high price, it’s a specialty that isn’t often asked for and some of the girls at a “straight” house won’t do it.

I have answered phones at lots of types of places. I worked as a phone girl at a dungeon. At the dungeon I was referred to as the house manager. Same difference. I made the dates and would take the heat if the house was raided.
The dungeon was not as scary as the whore house though. In a dungeon, at least the one I worked in, there is only fantasy sex. That is not to say that men didn’t have orgasms, they did, and often at the “hands” of the mistress. But dungeon sex is not about the old in-out, in-out.

Most of the clients were professional, and they were often very open about what they did—if you believed them. Nothing (and no one) was what it seemed.

These people who own the houses know that this is business. They are sharp; they are shrewd. They are not very sympathetic, but they are philosophical. In the days after the World Trade Center collapsed one of the women who owned several elite houses was complaining about business.

“Ah, business is not so good. Buildings go down, all my clients go up in the sky.”
As she said this she threw her hands violently toward the ceiling.